There is a certain feeling I get when I board a plane. Like most travelers, I find my seat, stow my luggage and sit and wait. But one of the things I revel in, even subconsciously for mere minutes, is that sense of the unknown, a feeling of nervousness and excitement. You may know where you are going, but there is no way for you to tell exactly what you will encounter when you reach your destination, or how your experiences will shape you.
I felt this when I completed my GSE in May of 2008 (4 flights to get to Mizoram, India = 4 times the nervousness), and again when I traveled with a group of eight other Laurier students to Morocco for the month of May this summer. This Moroccan trip I had also graduated from a general team member to be a team leadership intern, which meant more responsibility over logistics, our itinerary and my teammates’ general wellbeing.
Our travels across Morocco took us from the urban tourist spaces of Casablanca and Marrakech to the villages of the High Atlas mountains to our destination, the small desert city of Tata where we spent over two weeks. Tata is a city which lies approximately 75 km from the Algerian border on the cusp of the Sahara.
Going to Tata I was somewhat petrified. Let’s just say that I am not a huge fan of arachnids of any sort, and Morocco boasts many species of tarantula, camel spider and my least favourite, scorpions, all of which call the desert home. To rationalize my fears I asked one of the men who was traveling with us from the mountains about the presence of scorpions in Morocco, and he replied, verbatim, “Oh yes, many scorpions in Tata. Many people die each year from scorpions in Tata.”
As I reflect on those weeks now I realize that there is a certain group within the community that made my experience particularly memorable, and that group is the women I met in Tata.
During our work in the schools we were visited by a class of 25 female high school students who came to meet our team and see the progress we were making in the elementary school classrooms. At first we didn’t think very much of it, or really understand why a group of high school students would be coming to see us sand walls and paint them, but what we grew to understand was that these young women felt encouraged by the fact that young adults from North America had come to their city and were using their hands to do something for their community.
Furthermore, as my team was comprised of mostly young women themselves around the same age, there was a certain sense of solidarity and a level playing field: no one was too good to work with their hands and this kind of activity was not limited to men. Suddenly our work took on a whole new meaning than just the physical importance of a school room; it gave these students a sense of empowerment and equality.
During our second week in the desert the women from my team were lucky enough to be invited to an all female wedding celebration for three women who would be marrying three brothers within the week. It was easy to complain about the heat. It was 42 degrees Celsius at midday and we were in a small room drinking tea and dancing in long linen skirts and black hijabs, traditional of Tatanese women, all of which we had not yet adjusted to.
But what came upon me in the heat while listening to the drum music, as I watched the women adorn each other in necklaces as tokens of good dancing, was an overwhelming sense of community . . . and that word often seen as trite: joy. I was overcome with this great feeling of freedom and belonging, which came to me so unexpectedly. This was a traditional part of the marriage ceremony, which lasted days, and we were able to be a part of it. What I saw and felt was a great solidarity between the women.
A teammate pointed out to me that in Morocco community is found in those sharing a gender, no matter their age, whereas in North America community is often divided between age brackets, adults and children. I am not one to decide if one kind of society is better than the other, but what I do know is that in that room, in the sweltering heat, there was a great sense of kinship and identity, and this was something I felt a part of.
These experiences were made possible because of a grassroots organization we worked with, called Amis des Écoles. Its founder is a woman from Casablanca who is nothing short of amazing. She is a single mother who created this organization from the ground up. Her organization has provided clothing, school supplies and bicycles to children in need, in many rural parts of the country, and is working on providing backpacks to thousands of children in the mountainous and desert areas we visited before the new school year begins this September.
Beyond all this good will, this woman invited us into her home – nine unshowered, jet lagged, Canadian strangers – gave us a place to sleep, food to eat and essentially made us an extended part of her family. Besides all of her achievements and her kindness, her championing of a child’s right to education, she is an extremely strong and intelligent woman, someone I have come to look up to.
The community I met in Tata, and those individuals I met throughout Morocco, were immediately able to stem my fears of being stung by desert creatures. More importantly, they were also able to make me feel at home in a place very different than what I know.
Having been back in Canada for three months now, the events that stick out in my mind as being the most meaningful and important were those in which I was able to connect with the women of Morocco on some level, whether as a passing acquaintance one afternoon, as a member of the community, or as an adopted, albeit temporary member of the extended family. I will remember with the most fondness the women that I met, whose generosity and kindness transcended language barriers and cultural differences, creating significant friendships with us. I will also remember the continued exploration of the commonalities of peoples across cultures.
When I returned from my trip I was repeatedly asked, “What did you do?” From this trip and my other travels I have found myself answering instead, “Whom did you meet?”