After an enriching three weeks in Rabat, it was time to say our bittersweet goodbyes to our generous host families and the supportive staff at AmidEast. The final week of the program was set to take place in the remote village of Zaouiat Ahansal in the High Atlas Mountains. We took two days to reach Zaouiat,the first was spent travelling the well-paved highway to Beni Mellal where we stayed overnight. Early the next morning, we began our trek into the mountains. The winding and twisting road to Zaouiat brought us higher and deeper into the High Atlas mountains. We passed herds of goats, rows of cardboard boxes that Dr. Amster informed us were bee farms, and even small groups of grazing camels that belonged to the traveling nomads of the region. The closer to Zaiouat we travelled, the sharper the mountains became until we saw a few with snow capped tops! Nearing the final half hour of our journey, Dr. Amster turned around and spoke to the bus, “If you look to your right, you can see Zaiouat!” Nestled in a valley between the fantastic mountains, a cluster of sand coloured flat-roofed buildings could be seen in the distance. I was a excited to enter into a Berber, or Amazigh, community. Having recently visited the Research Institute of Amazigh culture in Rabat, I was looking forward to hearing the indigenous language of Morocco and experiencing the particularities of Amazigh culture.
Upon arrival, we received a warm welcome from the Sheik of the village and Cloe Erickson, the President of the American NGO Atlas Cultural Foundation. Our suitcases were loaded from the bus into a couple of range rovers and driven up the dusty road towards the Sheik’s guest house. With the unmercifully beating down on us, we began the short 10-minute trek on foot, our eyes greedily taking in the beauty of our new surroundings. There is a stream that runs through the heart of the village, lush green trees and vegetation flanking its edges. We passed donkeys draped with colourful carpets, carrying children or adults, and usually carrying supplies. Although we had only just arrived, I noticed that we hadn’t passed or seen anyone that seemed to be around our age, let alone teenagers. I wondered if the young adults were forced to leave Zaiouat to find work in the nearby towns and cities, not unlike the work drought that many young adults experience in my home province of New Brunswick.
After we had settled in and had lunch, Cloe gave us a presentation introducing Zaiouat Ahansal and the work of the Atlas Cultural Foundation. The mission of the Atlas Cultural Foundation is to collaborate with rural Moroccans to improve their quality of life in the fields of cultural preservation, community education, and public health. The public health programs of ACF include health awareness days, refuse programs, a community garden projects and the creation of laundry wash stations by the river to limit pollution. We conducted a series of interviews in Zaiouat and the nearby villages with community leaders, from the president of the women’s literacy program in Taghia, to the Sheik himself. Prior to our arrival in Zaiouat, we drafted a series of questions about public health in the region that were answered throughout the week. For example, one of the questions we asked was: Are you confident in the care of the doctor? The answer to this question varied depending on the person being interviewed and their personal beliefs regarding traditional medicine and biomedicine, but what surprised me most was the status of the doctor in Zaiouat. Officially, a doctor was assigned to the village three years ago. According to the locals, he has not been there once in the past three years. Their local clinic is run by nurses and midwives, and if there is an issue that requires a doctor, they must go to the nearest town which is a couple of hours away by bus. How is it possible that a doctor is assigned to treat the needs of a particular community, and not only fails to show up, but does not face any consequences for his absence? If there is one reoccurring theme from what we learned throughout the program, it’s that in Morocco, there is the law, and then there is what actually happens.