World School Morocco: Living The Berber Life
A chunk of Moroccan flat bread lands on the table in front of me. Another chunk thunks down in front of each of my kids.
Fayza, Mohamed’s wife, is ripping and throwing pieces of bread like she’s dealing a heavy hand of poker. I can’t work out if she’s angry, or the bread-thunking is a normal part of a Berber meal.
We are sitting around a white plastic table in the kitchen of the Berber Cultural Center, an innovative social enterprise about 90 minutes outside of Marrakesh. It’s the first WorkAway experience of our year-long World School adventure, and I’m bit worried about the next two weeks, given how the kids were acting in the taxi.
However, instead of continuing to bicker and complain, Miss M and Sonny focus on Lina, the four-year-old daughter of our WorkAway host Mohamed, the mastermind behind the Berber Cultural Center.
It’s a Friday and therefor a school day for Lina. But the local kindergarten only operates for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Hence Lina’s presence at lunch, a tagine and bread affair.
In our email exchange, Mohamed had said there wouldn’t be much for us to do because it was low season and there weren’t many guests booked.
We arrive anyway, me in the hope of helping out with the project, which was set up to share the Berber culture and boost the local economy. The center is near the village of Immintanoute, where Mohamed’s two eldest kids go to school.
Even though the kids and I are supposed to be volunteers, Mohamed is determined to give us the full cultural experience, inviting us to join his family at a fair on our first night and a picnic on the weekend.
The days pass and we begin to understand the rhythm of Berber life. We share a simple breakfast with the family, a large late lunch and a simple (and very late for us) dinner. The camel-coloured Atlas Mountains and desiccated shrub-studded hills a constant backdrop. Our days are punctuated by the regular calls to prayer from the nearby mosque.
We learn how to bake bread and make a tagine. Guests arrive and we act as defacto hosts. Uncle Brahim takes us to the weekly market for breakfast.
Brahim and his wife Fatimah only speak a few words of English. Mohamed’s wife speaks enough English to conduct a cooking class. Mohamed’s daughter speaks enough English to play with other kids, and his son Anir speaks enough English to have a simple conversation. Mohamed, on the other hand, has near native-English ability. He’s a warm and friendly guy, who loves to chat.
We talk about Berber culture, the similarities between Vietnam and Morocco, family life and the logistics running a tourism-based business. Finally I see a way I can help. I offer to assist Mohammed with the center’s online presence. He is thrilled.
The only drawback is the lack of wifi at the Berber Cultural Center. To get any work done, we have to drive into Imintanout to a male-dominated cafe which has wifi. Painfully slow wifi. Mohamed and I make sluggish progress on our AirBnB listing for the center, interrupted constantly by my kids who found the cafe boring.
Our Berber life is interrupted by more guests – yay! This means more cooking classes and a trip to the local well with Donkey, the sweet old grey donkey owned by one of Mohamed’s uncles.
We meet a lovely Japanese-American grandmother called Monica, a trio of selfie-loving English girls and a group of older Americans. Everyone loves the center, with its riot of exotic and textures, stunning views and the welcome extended by the family.
My kids fill their days by play. Sonny starts making elaborate “train stations” with pegs. Miss M creates complicated scenarios with the dozens of toys she’s collected on our travels. I do all our laundry by hand one afternoon when the family is out. There is so little moisture in the air that our clothes are dry within the hour.
I’m thrilled my kids are learning to play alone, and to eat exotic food without complaining. We are all tired, though, and a cough is passed around our two families. As well as waking in the night for milk, Sonny begins waking up earlier and earlier in the morning, and having longer and longer naps. It’s a very big trip for a two-year-old.
Mohamed and Fayza both have dental emergencies during our stay, requiring teeth to be pulled. Lina comes down with a fever. I drop my phone off the roof, the place where the 3G signal is strongest.
I come last in a mint tea-making competition and have to sing a song for the guests. I murder I Still Call Australia Home and vow to sit out the next competition, no matter what it is.
One day Mohamed tells us there’s a dance festival nearby. We can go and see it after dinner. It’s nearly 11pm by the time we set off down a dirt track. There are no street lights and no moon. It’s very very dark.
“The outside. It’s gone,” exclaims Sunny from his carrier on my back. There is a group of about 20 people with us and it crosses my mind that we could be amiably walking into some kind of slave-trading trap.
But there’s far too much kindness for me to really feel worried. Some people have torches to help find their way in dark. I realise there’s a man walking next to me lighting the way so I don’t trip and fall. I feel very honoured.
Sonny falls asleep on my back before we arrive in the next village. Miss M only manages to stay awake for two or three dances, then sinks down into the lap of one of the Berber Cultural Center guests.
The dancing is amazing. A whirlwind of drumming, stamping, shrugging guys in colourful dresses.
Our Berber life only lasted a couple of weeks but the memories will last a lifetime. By the end, I was thunking down chunks of Moroccan bread like a local.
10 months ago