In my last post I wrote about the critical role that water plays in village life. Of course water is just as important in urban areas, however access to clean drinking water is not as straightforward as drilling a borehole. Many african cities simply do not have sufficient infrastructure to provide clean water. (I don't mean to single out just african cities, Flint Michigan comes to mind as a poignant example of how pervasive the problem is).
One solution is bottled water. But along with bottled water comes plastic. The same overburdened infrastructures are in no position to effectively manage the surfeit of plastic garbage. When I traveled in Ghana I saw plastic waste everywhere: in the millet fields, caught in the acacia trees, blowing through the marketplace (where single use plastic bags are rampant), choking the drainage ditches, and eventually making their way to the canal that runs through central Accra and drains into the ocean.
In addition to single use plastic bags, plastic water "sachets" are a major culprit. These are plastic bags that hold about half a liter of drinking water. They sell for pennies on every street corner and they are transported more efficiently than bottles. You simply bite off the corner of the bag and drink the water. Then you are left holding an empty plastic bag with nowhere to recycle it. So guess where it goes.
To me this is a perfect metaphor for how technological innovations often come wrapped in their own toxic dilemma. I believe every human has a right to clean water. I understand that in many instances the best way to provide this water is to transport it in plastic. And yet walking through Accra or Kumasi where litter is ubiquitous and the air smells of burning plastic, one has to wonder if our human thirst has been quenched, or simply exploited.
Fresh water is a major focus of daily life in the village. Access to clean drinking water is directly related to reduction in poverty. World-wide over 2 billion people are affected by water scarcity. In 2010 the United Nations recognized a human right to drinking water. This is an important step because there is often a conflict between human need versus commercial or agricultural water consumption.
The village I stayed in was fortunate in that they have several pumps, or boreholes, that provide fresh water throughout the year. There were two pumps in my location and they were almost always in use. In sub-saharan Africa the work of acquiring and transporting water falls largely to women and girls.
An experience I highly recommend is to try hauling your own water for a couple of days. To get the full effect you should fill a couple buckets from a hose and then carry them around the block. Try limiting yourself to those two buckets for everything. I managed to get my consumption down to 5 gallons per day, which is what the UN considers minimal. That included drinking, cooking, cleaning, and one bucket bath per day. 5 gallons weighs about 40 pounds which is about as much as you would want to carry in one trip.
By comparison, the average American consumes 80 gallons per day. That's a big difference. If you had to carry 80 gallons it would weigh 640 pounds. You would not be hauling that by hand. If you flush a toilet 3 times in a day, you have already exceeded the 5 gallon limit. If you take a shower for more than two minutes you have exceeded the 5 gallon limit. You can start to understand the stark differences in water consumption and why simple transportation of water is such a big deal in an african village.
It is also important to remember that clean water is a finite resource on our planet, and a resource that is particularly threatened by climate change. We don't think about it too much in Ithaca, but when you live in an area with no precipitation for 9 - 10 months of the year, it is always in your mind.
In the U.S. we laud "farm to table" as a sort of elite social movement, but in african villages it is a way of life. The village I stayed in, Pelugru, is up in the northern part of Ghana and is fairly remote. They only get three months of rain during the year, so all their crops and food have to be adapted to that climate. Of course that's precisely what people in that area have been doing for hundreds of years, so they are pretty good at it. Most meals consist of a starch and a meat soup or stew. During the rainy season there are also vegetables like okra, tomatoes and peppers. Starches include plantains, cassava, millet and taro roots (believed to be one of the very earliest cultivated crops), all of which grow locally and store well (for the 9 months of dry season). And the meat comes from pretty much anything that moves: chickens, guinea fowl, goats, sheep, pigs, cows and donkeys. These are all animals that can fend for themselves and graze on what's available, so of course all their meat is organic, "free range" and "grass fed." In the U.S. we pay a premium for that, but in africa that is just what is sustainable.
In addition people make their own cooking oil, from ground nuts and palm nuts. They also make their own alcohol: pito is fermented millet and there is also palm wine further south. Villagers even make their own charcoal by burying smoldering wood under dirt.
I don't want to romanticize village life, it is not an easy existence, particularly during the dry season. But it is interesting to me that over centuries people have developed an agriculture that is well suited for their climate and sustainable. It is equally interesting to me that in the U.S. we are only just discovering the benefits of such a lifestyle.
This summer I went on a trip to Ghana to visit my son who is in the Peace Corps (teaching math!). I myself was a math teacher in the Peace Corps, many years ago in Central Africa, so this trip provided plenty of opportunity for reflection and remembering.
Ghana is located in West Africa. In a way it is the "center" of the world, the longitude is close to zero (meaning it is on the great meridien) and the latitude is about 5° north. Ghana is anglophone, but it surrounded by French speaking countries: Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Togo. Of course English is only one of many languages spoken in Ghana. There are 11 main languages with about 80 dialects total. Most people you meet speak multiple languages.
The Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana dates back more than a thousand years and was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa. In modern times, Ghana was one of the first of the colonized african countries to gain independence, back in 1957. A majority of Ghanaians identify as Christian, but there is also a large Muslim population. Every town I passed through had at least one mosque.
The climate in Ghana is tropical in the south, where there are two rainy seasons per year. However in the northern part of the country (where I spent most of my time) there is only one rainy season and then it is dry for 9 months of the year, more like savannah. In December through February a dry dusty wind known as the harmattan blows from the sahara desert.
The capital of Ghana is Accra, located on the coast. That is where my journey begins.
In Rabat we had a presentation on Language and Cultural Identity by Dr. Anass Lenon. This is a topic that fascinates me and it plays out in a very unique and interesting way in Morocco.
There are two national languages in Morocco: standard Arabic and Amazigh. or Berber. These are the languages you will see on highway signs, for instance. The Berbers were there first, more than 10,000 years ago. Digest that time span, that's a hundred centuries ago. They have a unique alphabet, it looks old. In modern Morocco about 30-40% of the population still speak Amazigh.
Arabic came with the Arab expansion around 1000 AD. It is of course the language associated with Islam - the Koran is written in Arabic. Students learn classical Arabic in school, along with French and other languages. Arabic is used for official communication by the king and government in general, and of course it is used in mosques. Two thirds of the population speak Arabic.
And then of course there is French. The language of the colonizers (1912 - 1956), French is a sort of prestige language, associated with a good education and formality. Most universities in Morocco use French as their lingua franca.
What is fascinating is that none of these languages: Amazigh, Arabic or French, is the common language spoken on the streets. This is the domain of Darijah, a spoken language that has no natural script. Darijah is a combination of all three: Amazigh, Arabic and French. It is not intelligible to speakers of pure Arabic or French.
Thus a typical Moroccan speaks at least 3 languages, and I'm not even counting Spanish or English, which are also prevalent. Think about what that does for your identity and breadth of cultural affiliation. The truth is that this sort of linguistic glut is common in post colonial Africa, where national boundaries were imposed over linguistic divisions. South Africa has eleven national languages, for example. I think it is part of why Moroccans are so hospitable: their common language is intrinsically a mixture of cultures spanning thousands of years.
For many IHS students the home stays with Moroccan peers was the most significant part of this trip. There is nothing like living under the same roof as someone and sharing meals to break down cultural barriers and stereotypes. This was really the primary motivation for our trip so it was gratifying to see the alacrity with which students connected.
When we first arrived in Moulay we were greeted by a band and a crowd of Moroccans. Each student was handed a flower as they descended from the van. This is by far the best way to arrive anywhere.
After a brief ceremony we proceeded to a group lunch. The Ithaca and Moulay students sat down in mixed groups and at once began conversing. The meal was a traditional Moroccan couscous, which meant that everyone was eating out of a common platter. It felt as if we were among old friends.
From here we went to a presentation by ACCESS students in nearby Meknes (ACCESS is a program for learning English that specifically targets low income students). After this we returned to Moulay and students split off in pairs to meet their families.
The following day was full of activities. First there were presentations at the high school by students from both schools. This included songs, drama and informational presentations about our schools.
Afterwards we had a tree planting ceremony. Ithaca students planted 6 trees in the town square as a remembrance of this visit.
Next we all the visited the Roman ruins at Volubilis. This is the former site of Moulay Idriss - 2000 years ago.
On the third day we said our good-byes. It was a brief visit and I hope that in future trips we will be able to stay longer. But even three days was enough time to form close relationships that transcended cultural boundaries. For me it was an opportunity to finally meet and stay with the person who made all this possible: Mohamed Touhami. He and I had collaborated online on several projects, but this was the first time we met face to face. I stayed with Mohamed and his family and we had an opportunity to cement a friendship that will hopefully lead to many more collaborations in the future.
The "Blue City" was a new attraction for me on this trip. It is located in the North of Morocco near the Rif mountains. The city was founded in the 1400's and was briefly held by the Spanish in the early 1900's. The distinctive walls in the medina are painted many shades of blue, although no one seems to agree upon the reason. The effect is quite pleasing and I think a better question is, Why doesn't everyone do this? The winding streets of the medina are packed with shops selling an array of crafts, clothing and other items. This is where our students first cut their bargaining teeth.
We stayed in an amazing hotel here (Riad Hicham) which I would recommend to anyone who is visiting. The hotel is like a smaller version of the medina with twisting hallways and hidden passageways. Below is a video of me trying to find my way from my room to the dining area. I never did master this, but I did learn the location of a secret passage that leads to the backstreets of the medina.
As Americans we have a pretty abbreviated sense of history. By all measures we are a very young country and this can be a two-edged sword. On one hand America is a modern country unfettered by ties to the past, but it can also be said that we lack a depth of culture and the historical perspective that older countries have.
Morocco is at the other end of the spectrum. We can trace Moroccan history back for thousands of years, and the remnants of these earlier cultures are still very visible. Two of my favorite sites on this trip were the ruins at Volubilis and Chellah. In Chellah you can actually see two sets of ruins: the first are from the Arab dynasty of the 13th century, but right beside these are Roman ruins from the 2nd century. A thousand years ago Arabs stood at this site and looked out at Roman ruins that were a thousand years old. The span of time is inconceivable to me.
It bends my mind to walk among buildings that are thousands of years old, looking out over a landscape that is essentially unchanged. Did the people who stood in the places where I now stand have similar thoughts and emotions? If we are all so closely linked to these common ancestors then surely the divisions and obstacles of our modern world are figments of our own creation.
Personally I am an atheist, although I am not necessarily anti-religion, but I want to acknowledge that my ruminations on religion are about as valid as someone who is colorblind commenting on art. And I'm certainly not an expert on Islam, but I do have some reflections on my limited experiences in Morocco.
Wherever you are in Morocco you are probably within sight of a mosque. The tall minarets punctuate the landscape, and the call to prayer, or azan, is the first sound of dawn. Islam permeates the daily life of a muslim and is inseparable from Moroccan culture. If I had to delineate the most apparent manifestations of this culture I would site humility, compassion and piety. In addition to the mosques, Muslims pray out in the open, or in a small room of their home. The simple act of getting down on all fours and touching one's head to the ground has a salutary effect that is as much physical as spiritual. Try it, and see if it doesn't pull you out of an egocentric orbit.
The Five Pillars of Islam are:
This video was created by the Moroccan students who hosted our Ithaca students and was shared prior to the trip.
I first went to Morocco in 2012. The experience was transformative for me in many ways. This was the first time I had ever been in a predominantly Muslim country and it was my first exposure to Morocco's rich culture. I was immersed in a flood of new sounds, sights and scents. I was treated with overwhelming hospitality and I ate a lot of great food. When I returned to the U.S. I was determined to find a way to share the experience with some of our students. Five years later I returned with two colleagues and 23 students. This blog is a collection of some of my experiences and reflections during that trip.