Our Rural Adventure

Thursday, March 21, 2019

I started the day already exhausted but very excited. I had been looking forward to this day for two reasons. The first was that it would be an opportunity to experience Moroccan home cooking with Rachid’s mother. And then our plan was to journey out into the countryside to visit a rural school. Both of these activities were expressly added to the itinerary for my benefit, thanks to Rachid’s determination to give me a meaningful experience in Morocco.

So, first thing in the morning Rachid picked me up, and we drove to Mnar Castle along the coast for very windy photo shoot. I’ll admit that photo shoots had lost their charm for me, as did the cold breeze off the bay after just a few minutes! But, honestly, the view was incredible, and I am so thankful to Rachid for making sure I could see so many beautiful sites around Tangier.

Beginning Barter Class in the market

We drove along the bay with it’s surf, seabirds, and fishermen, then stopped at an open-air market. Our task was to shop for Rachid’s mother who was making our lunch. Rachid’s sneaky agenda included getting me out into the market to fend for myself, bartering in Darija and hand gestures, while picking out the best produce. I was pretty terrible at it, to be honest. However, I managed to buy scallions, berries, squash, and some other beautiful fruits and vegetables.

Later at Rachid’s apartment, cooking was already in progress. I got to watch for a bit, but then it was clear I was to be a guest and not a cook. His mother cooks every afternoon and her adult children show up for lunch over the space of two or three hours. She happily chops vegetables and roasts tajines while watching her favorite shows on the television that sits on the kitchen table. I got to watch a few examples of Moroccan television with commentary from Rachid.

Their apartment was lovely, with beautiful views from both sides and warmly furnished to accommodate a large extended family when they visit. Although they started out living in the medina when their father was a poor craftsman, it was evident that Rachid and his siblings were creating a very comfortable life for their parents and the next generation.

We ate a beautiful salad, tasty meat tajine, and fresh fruit. Amazing mint tea followed, of course. After lunch they gave me gifts- textiles and a teapot. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their hospitality. I was a bit frustrated, though, because I knew it was coming and Rachid had evaded my pleas to take me shopping for his mother. I only had the flower arrangement I had received at the poetry event to give to her. Before we had to leave, his sister Kenza arrived and we had a lovely conversation, despite our language barrier. Both women literally embraced me with warmth and friendship. My impression of these Moroccan women is one of strength, vibrant intelligence, and warmth. I was sad to leave them.

Sheep on the road to Dar Chouie

But this was the big day, the day we would finally see what rural education looked like in Morocco. So, we set out on our rural adventure, heading out into open country, where every bend in the road revealed an awesome vista. Although this is Rachid’s homeland, he had never traveled this way before, and it was a longer trek than he had imagined. We stopped often for directions and assurance that we were on the right road, something Moroccans do often. We talked to school boys, shepherds, and teachers at tiny schools along the way. It was a perfect overview of a rural area in northern Morocco.

We finally arrived in the town of Dar Chouie, and stopped at a school. It turned out to be the wrong one, but the director of the school met us at the gate and made Rachid promise to come back after we visited the middle school down the road.

Finally, we arrived at Lycée Colegiale at Dar Chouie. The director and his staff were very welcoming. We had tea in the director’s small supply closet of an office (quite different from the directors’ offices in urban schools). Then we visited the classroom of an English teacher, Mohamed. This dynamic young teacher had just returned from Texas where he had learned about the use of PLCs (professional learning communities) for language teachers. He was passionate about language learning and bringing his knowledge to rural students. Learning English is a huge advantage for Moroccan students, and it can help ensure a brighter future for them, too.

Lycée Colegiale in Dar Chouie

His students were beginners in English, so my interactions with them were simple. However, they were curious and engaged, especially the girls. Girls in rural Morocco are hard to keep in school. It has nothing to do with their aptitude, but entirely to do with social structures. Rural families tend to be conservative, and they are uncomfortable with their daughters traveling long distances to school. They prefer to keep them at home. Girls tend to go to small primary schools close to home. However, junior high and high school, in particular, have lower female attendance, due to the travel time. So, to address this, they are starting up boarding schools for rural girls. Families are more comfortable sending the girls to stay at the school rather than have them travel back and forth. Still, giving rural Moroccan girls a reason to stay in school is part of the problem. How does it improve their outlook in life? It seems that knowledge of English and connectivity to the rest of the world may be the key to independence and breaking out of poverty for many of these girls.

After our visit at Lycée Colegiale, Mohamed and his adorable four-year old daughter MJ accompanied us to the Dar Chouie elementary school, where the director had asked us to return. Our accidental stop on the way actually led to my favorite school visit of all. Brahim, the director, enthusiastically greeted us and ushered us into his pleasant little office as soon as we arrived. He had prepared coffee for us and was so excited to host an American. Despite having two very fluent English interpreters with us, Brahim decided to stick to English himself, with great determination. I was inspired by his enthusiasm and completely won over by his charm.

With Brahim and Mohamed

Brahim showed us his lovely little school. It was mostly new and freshly painted and beautified. The complex not only housed the primary classrooms, but it also served as a dormitory for the older girls that attended the junior high. It was well-equipped, with a computer lab and a space that Brahim referred to as a broadcast room. This room was set up for large meetings with all new furniture, and there was a sound system. He fired up the microphones and speakers and proceeded to do a spontaneous interview of me right then and there! The interview was broadcast over the whole school, right in the middle of the classes. I would have been horrified, but this man’s contagious smile and pride in his school made it a joyful event. He then took me to a classroom, where the wonderful young teacher of fourth-graders graciously allowed us interrupt her lesson. Her bright and cheerful classroom full of attentive youngsters was beautiful to behold. One of her students volunteered to teach me a lesson in Arabic. As usual, I was pathetic, but I did manage to write, “How are you?” on the chalkboard, with the encouragement of the whole class.

We prepared to leave reluctantly. But, first we needed to visit the restrooms. Rachid headed for the regular one, but Brahim insisted that I use his own bathroom in his home. And this, my friends, is where my traveler horror story begins. Inside his apartment in the middle of the complex, I met his lovely wife and two young sons. They showed me to the bathroom and all went well until I went to flush the toilet. The top of the tank was off of it, and, when I flushed it, it began spraying everywhere. So, being a resourceful woman, I reached in to fix it, since I’ve fixed a few toilets in my time. However, Moroccan toilets are not the same as American toilets, and I only made it worse. A small spray became a fountain! I finally had to give in and go out and confess that I was flooding their bathroom. Brahim apologized to me and tried to usher me out, but his wife saw me and burst into laughter. She stopped him and took a towel to me, wiping off my glasses and hugging me. We both were laughing uncontrollably, which is definitely a universal language. I thanked her for her kindness and apologized for the mess, as I finally let Brahim escort me to the car.

Sunset at Asilah

On the road once more, Rachid took a more direct route home, on the advice of Mohamed. This route took us near the city of Asilah, a beautiful town along the Atlantic known for its clean streets, skilled craftsmen, and beautiful murals. We stopped to walk through the medina and take in the sights at sunset. Then, we sat down at a cafe for tea and nuts. Rachid gave me a lesson in Arabic, teaching me to write the alphabet on a napkin. I was probably one of his worst students, but he is a great teacher, and he persisted.

Learning Arabic – First Lesson

As we walked back to the car in the sea breeze, I got to teach Rachid a lesson. He wanted to understand what the word “chilly” actually meant, and we discussed its connotations like the two English teachers we are.

We finished the evening with a stop for a late dinner at McDonalds. I wanted to be able to tell my students about the difference between American and Moroccan fast food. Apparently, McDonalds is pretty fancy in Morocco. It was clean and beautifully furnished, with a lovely outdoor seating area overlooking the Bay of Tangier. It was by far my favorite McDonalds.

McDonalds with Rachid