After his recent visit to the High Atlas Mountains, British Ambassador to Morocco, Mr Thomas Reilly, wrote about the importance of education in the region, something the team at Kasbah Tamadot have been championing locally for many years. We would personally like to thank Thomas Reilly for allowing us to share his article and photography with us and we have great pleasure in sharing this story:
We spent the weekend up in the Atlas behind Marrakesh. The mountains raising their scarred heads above the town like ancient beasts jutting their bony chins up into the sky, competing with one another to scratch the cloudless heavens.
We drove up the road until it ground to a halt. The end of the valley was the end of the road. The last part of the ascent from Imlil up to Kasbah Toubkal was accomplished for our daughters and our luggage, at least, on mules, emphasising the isolation of the communities that exist at the end of the Altas valleys.
The woods teemed with people and the trees swayed in the gentle mountain breeze. We had been warned to be careful of the walnut harvesters, but had not expected them to be a threat to our physical health. Walnuts rained down from the tops of the trees, where, almost invisible amongst the upper-most fronds, men with long sticks stood on impossibly thin branches and bashed the trees to relinquish their crop. The mules picked their way gently, patiently upwards, past the picnickers on their way back down, apparently unaware of the steepness of the slop. We struggled on in their wake.
The tops of the mountains were by now girdled gently in ominous grey clouds. And sure enough, before too long, unfamiliar raindrops fell from the gathering gloom. Soon the spatter of raindrops became a dense torrent and the scorched and arid earth gratefully absorbed the sky’s generous offering. We set out for a walk. Again, the patient mule accompanied us up the wearying slope. As we walked, the muleteer rode, clad in a dark green cape which so-covered him that only his feet stuck out – the mule, sure-footed, needed no steering. The narrow mule path gave way to a newly-bashed road, a lifeline that brought water and electricity to the villages (now complete with the ubiquitous souvenir shops) along its route. The clouds, having surrendered their precious cargo, withdrew and we could see the summits of the mountains which ring Toubkal, now freshly garlanded with the first sprinkling of the winter’s snow.
The path led down through the dried river bed where piles of rocks heaped in barriers told of the destructive flood of 1995 and the determination never to repeat that horror. And on up the other side through a village where chickens ran across the paths and new houses rose from the ground on all sides. The mountain slopes, glowering fiercely at the villages, ran straight down to their outermost houses.
Up through the steep narrow streets we walked. My daughter now on the mule, ducking her head under arches that dripped on us as we passed, leaning forward as the mule stumbled on the slippery steps. Finally we reached the top and stared back down into the valley from which we had started our walk. The lush green vegetation of the valley floor in stark contrast to the arid hillsides that marched above it, hillsides whose flanks were marked out in a wondrous rainbow of pink, orange, grey and red. On every shoulder of every hill, houses and villages stood – sprouting like magical mushrooms from the ground, each one adorned by its satellite dish and each village apparently served by a precious, newly created dirt track which ground its way over the uneven mountain side. Down every gully dropped gracious feathery-white waterfalls and the sound of rushing water was everywhere.
As we walked down the hill back towards the valley bottom, a group of women and girls came clambering up the uneven path towards us. We were nearly at 2,000 metres and the path was demanding, but they were singing and clapping their hands. Our guide explained that the women had been visiting a friend in the next village (a hard slog up and down the rough, unmade path) who had just returned from Hajj. As we slid down the path, more and more women came sauntering up it. We passed other, older, women who had paused for breath in the shade of the trees. The only way between the villages was up and down that treacherous track by mule or by foot. That hard, hard walk up and down the merciless mountainside must surely have served as a major disincentive to see a friend.
And then we were back under the cover of the walnut trees, ducking and dodging the falling nuts, over the bridge and back to the Kasbah just in time to watch the sun set over the valley. I was left with an impression of a wildly desolate, isolated and achingly beautiful place, one away from which I tore myself with many a backward glance of regret. But it is barely accessible. The end of a valley. A remote place, where communities need each other to survive, but where the mountains make transport difficult, where foot and mule remain the most-used transport and where the car is only just beginning to penetrate.
On our way to Kasbah Toubkal, we had stopped in at the equally impressive and beautiful Kasbah Tamadot whose views and silence were wonderfully calming. And it was at Tamadot that I had the conversation that set me thinking about this blog.
One of the Berber employees, a man from one of the nearby villages, who served us tea told me in faultless FosHa Arabic that he had left school at the age of 12. His words “School was boring and pointless. I could not wait to leave. I regretted that decision every day of my life until Tamadot gave me a chance for redemption. Tamadot gave me a job and sent me back to school. Thanks to Tamadot, I learnt French and English and received training. Now I have an income. I have a daughter now. I will not allow her to repeat my mistake. I will make sure she goes to school every day.”
Both Kasbahs are doing remarkable things. Tamadot works with the Eve Branson Foundation to give life skills to young people who currently have none, offering the opportunity of employment. Kasbah Toubkal works through the Education for All programme to give young women the opportunities of education which I have taken for granted all my life. EFA builds dormitories next to schools, so that young women from the very ends of valleys such as that up which my daughter and I walked do not have to face daily treks of 17kms in each direction; so that they have a safe place from which to attend the schools; and to which they can retreat in the gaps between lessons. This initiative is giving young girls a chance for a better future and in the process helping the economic development of isolated communities.
Education underpins everything – a country’s economic and social development; its progress; its potential. It gives the young hope, optimism; a future. Without it the opposite is true. Places like the two Kasbahs I was privileged to visit over the weekend, deserve our support in their endeavours, working closely with local communities to offer today’s youth a better tomorrow.