Cultivating Seeds of Hope
Lecturer Brahim El Guabli, who teaches elementary, intermediate, and advanced Arabic in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, taught Arabic, Berber, French, and English at several levels in Morocco and abroad before joining Swarthmore's faculty last year. As president of Education and Solidarity in the High Atlas, he remains closely involved in the planning, advising, evaluation, and strategic aspects of the Morocco Literacy Project. Guabli, a past participant of the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program in recognition of his literacy efforts in Morocco, is eager to involve students in his work there. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After being away from my homeland for a year, my wife, Shaina, and I traveled to Morocco for a month in June to visit family and to reconnect with friends. Only the joy of visiting the many villages in the High Atlas Mountains — which always combines the ingredients for a pilgrimage of self-realization with community commitment and civic engagement — could surpass the pleasure of spending time with friends and family. These visits also open our eyes to the opportunities for making change.
The mere idea of revisiting the magnificent remote villages hidden in the High Atlas Mountains inspired and motivated Shaina and me. It was a devout return to the source — to a place where we planted some seeds of hope — to witness the results of our passage a few years ago. And when we saw the diligent women and men working so hard and with such selflessness to implement — in the best way they could — the goals of the Morocco Literacy Project, we were awestruck.
The kindergarten teachers, who are working so hard to implement the goals that Brahim El Guabli and his colleagues have established, gather outside a school with their trainers and the project managers.
The Morocco Literacy Project is an initiative I started four years ago, as president of Education and Solidarity in the High Atlas (AESHA, which is a female name meaning "alive" in Arabic), in partnership with Raphaelle Palomba, my friend and a member of the French Retired Educators Association. (The name "High Atlas" refers to the mountains themselves but also to the many villages that are hidden in the mountains. The project operates in the Ouarzazate region.) Our idea was very simple — to do what we could as civil activists and educators to design a project that would help decrease school dropouts rates, promote girls' education, and provide a propitious learning environment that takes into account the needs and problems of rural students whose lives are very hard. In fact, the problems of the region are such that the government has identified the villages in this area as a priority zone of the National Human Development Initiative (Moroccans call it INDH).
The Morocco Literacy Project operates in the High Atlas area of Ouarzazate, a very famous tourist and cinematographic governorate in southeastern Morocco. The Atlas Mountains stretch from Morocco through Tunisia. In Morocco, the Atlas is divided into three ranges: Small Atlas, Middle Atlas and High Atlas. The High Atlas range separates northern Morocco from the Sahara Desert and is mainly populated by Berbers (Imazighen). Our project is located in this area. It is the fruit of a tripartite partnership between AESHA, GREF (Groupement des Retrait és Educateurs sans Frontière), and the Moroccan Ministry of National Education, represented by the Delegation du Ministere de l'Education Nationale in Ouarzazate. The three institutional partners work from a clear agreed-upon agenda to decrease the dropout rates, encourage the education of girls, and provide a more accommodating environment for students in rural areas. A steering committee, representing the three institutional partners, plus two representatives from the group of trainees, supervises the project and evaluates its success following a rigorous evaluation grid established from the beginning of the project.
Teachers-in-training participate in an educational psychology workshop. Regarded as the cornerstones in the implementation of the Literacy Project's goals, the teachers receive a stipend for the training sessions they attend.
Teachers, being the cornerstone in the implementation of the project's goals, receive a stipend for the training sessions they attend. They are also highly encouraged to share their success stories with others as examples of change making. Having worked as a teacher for 10 years in different villages in the High Atlas, I am deeply aware of the challenges that Moroccan teachers face in some of the most isolated places on this planet. I also understand how these young men and women are doing their best, to see these seeds grow and flourish in a very challenging environment. Their impetus is their deep conviction that education is the only way to achieve the social and economic development to which the country aspires. A lot of teachers work in very difficult conditions: they have no electricity, no drinkable water, and no telephone service. Another enormous challenge is that many educators work in villages with inaccessible roads and sometimes have no housing in their schools.
I remember a lot of my colleagues using bamboo mats to divide their classrooms, using half of the classroom for teaching and the other half for living. I also remember places where teachers' lives stopped until Thursday when the engine of the only pickup in the village could purr. It was a very beautiful noise. It reminded us of the outside world. I also remember that a lot of young teachers were not adequately equipped to teach in rural areas. Most of them did not speak Berber, the daily language of communication, and many of them had negative attitudes towards the "rurals."
The school in this High Atlas village — with barren landscape and decaying buildings — is participating in the Morocco Literacy Project. It is one of many rural communities that the government has identified as a priority zone of the National Human Development Initiative.
Teachers in the rural areas of Morocco fall into three categories: proactive, neutral, and negative teachers. The proactive teachers decide to leave their ivory tower and "join" the community, participate in everyday life in a conscious experience participante approach in an effort to make change. The neutral teachers leave their houses to go teach and come back to watch television if they have one, but remain mostly distant from the rest of the village community. The negative teachers do nothing but curse their bad luck on being assigned to work in these hard conditions. For these reasons and many others, our project aims to value teachers' experiences in a place where teachers usually have no say about anything except executing the curriculum. This approach is important because it is only through valuing their experiences that we can build productivity and stimulate their potential to effect change. We do not change communities from the outside; the real change comes from inside and it takes proactive people to initiate it. Teachers have the power to establish the foundations of this change.
This is the first integral project to address three important issues in rural education in the High Atlas region of Morocco: training kindergarten teachers and librarians (45 teachers have been trained in three years), opening school libraries (36 libraries have been opened to date), and creating kindergartens where there have been none (36 have been equipped and furnished so far). However, the ills of education in the High Atlas surpass what one project, no matter how successful it is, can address. We continue to harbor a strong hope that other people will join us to resolve the multiple issues of education in this educationally afflicted region.
Librarians-in-training leaf through some of the easy-reader books that will fill shelves in 36 new village school libraries, opening thanks to the Morocco Literacy Project.
The High Atlas is a snowy area where heating is non-existent in schools. Electricity is a source of pride for the very few schools that have it. Children sometimes have to walk for miles to reach their schools. They need real cafeterias where they can eat descent, healthy meals during the school day. Some schools have not been restored for years, and they look like they have survived a long, devastating war. Finally, one of the biggest problems is the lack of bathrooms in a lot of schools, and where bathrooms were built, they are not functional, either because there is no running water or because of construction problems. This is a particularly salient challenge for young women who are menstruating because they have no access to private, hygienic facilities at school, which forces them to stay home during this period of the month and miss classes. Those students who manage to surmount all of these obstacles and finish primary school are, usually, faced with the painful decision to drop out of school. Their parents cannot afford to pay for boarding school if they do not get the meager scholarship that the local communes offer. These are some of the issues that we hope to deal with in the near future, but as we say in Berber "tghzzif tet igzzoul offous" ("the eye sees longer than the hand can reach").
The project goals would not have been accomplished without the efficient and effective involvement of local communities and their leaders. Raphaelle and I were aware of the importance of actively involving community leaders in the Morocco Literacy Project and decision-making process — from project design to implementation. And it has worked! Not only did we establish libraries and kindergartens within these communities, but we also managed to open minds to change that can emanate from the community. During our June visit, I could not believe that, after four years, people were still enthusiastically implementing the goals of this project despite their daily life chores in these mountains, which Brick Oussaid says, "God has forgotten" in his novel Mountains Forgotten by God.
Schools, hidden in the High Atlas Mountains, do not have playgrounds so the children take to the fields during recess. Working bathrooms and cafeterias are also needed.
Meeting students from the kindergartens, chatting with some of the teachers who implemented techniques learned in the training programs, and assessing the visible change that has taken place in the villages were insuperable moments of bliss. Nothing could equal seeing Abdallah Ait Hssain, a teacher and librarian, brandishing the new books he made using techniques learned in training sessions. Nothing could outweigh kindergarten teacher Saida Maslouhy's sincere thanks to the project team for exposing the thick wall of problems that have cloaked the situation of kindergarten teachers in Morocco. For me, nothing equals the sensation of seeing Moroccan children in isolated, mountainous villages playing with toys that I never had the chance to use growing up in a small Ouarzazate village.
Thanks to the selfless investment that Hassan Charai, a teacher and program coordinator, and Ahmed Choukri, a librarian in charge of training other librarians, made in the project even after I departed the country, the Morocco Literacy Project has managed to offer help directly or indirectly to 3,700 students and 45 teachers. I fully expect that it will continue to extend its help to many more in the future.