Poor Family, Old Kasbah, Bread-making (8/31/2011)

Over the course of about a week, I was able to spend time with a kind family that lives in the next village over. The first time I visited the home, I met the father, El Hssaine Bouhmade, and one of the seven children, who both showed me around their old kasbah. The kasbah, an old fortified Moroccan home, is a few hundred years old, standing four stories high, made of earth, stone, and straw. Windy, narrow, and barely lit stone staircases lead to each of the levels. The wooden-beamed ceilings stand seven feet tall, and if someone is on the floor above you, bits of earth fall through the ceiling.



There are two rooms on each floor, some of which are separated by five-foot wooden doors. The family keeps old clothes and toys behind the closed doors, almost like storage rooms. When the building was a functioning kasbah, vendors used the rooms to sell and trade clothes, food, and other goods in the village. The roof of the kasbah resembles a guarded castle with four turrets. Long ago, the chief of the village lived in the kasbah, and four guards kept their posts in the turrets of the kasbah. (They were the protectors of the village and the chief.)


El Hssaine’s father was once the “chef du village,” the village leader or chief. He was a well-respected man, causing his family to be respected as well. After he died, his family fell on hard times, and his son has had difficulty making ends meet for his 10 children ever since. (Three of the children were born to his first wife, who died move than 20 years ago. He remarried shortly after in order to have a mother for his three children. His wife, Malika, has had seven children since they were first married.)

El Hssaine, 47, is a subsistence farmer on his family’s land, while Malika, 43, works inside the home. Two of their daughters, Rachida, 14, and Fadma, 18, chose to leave the family home and work as housekeepers in Marrakech. With their wages, they are able to meet the minimal needs of the family. All of the children’s clothes are second-hand, given to them by other villagers or by tourists stopping through. Malika, with sad and tired eyes, described how hard it is on her to not be able to meet all of her family’s needs, and it is especially difficult watching her daughters leave to work and support the family.



Despite their tough financial situation, the family has a strong love for each other, and it especially shows through the parents. It was evident when we took pictures of the father and the two littlest daughters, Aicha, 8, and Fatima, 5. At times the father would hold the daughters’ hands as they skipped beside him, and at one point he scooped them both into his arms as they laughed and smiled.


Like the other mothers here, Malika works from inside the home, waking up every morning at 5:30 to start her work for the day. One morning, she invited us to watch as she made her daily amount of bread in her clay oven. We arrived at 7:30 a.m., finding that Malika had already been quite busy and El Hssaine had already left for the garden. All but one child was still in the house, little Fatima, who was still sleeping on the floor of the salon, the family’s living and dining room. The salon is the only room in their house with mats on the floor and 2-feet tall sponge-like padding for the cushions. Normally, the cushions are completed covered in decorative tapestry; however, these cushions had a single, worn orange tapestry resting on top. We rested on the “couch” while waiting for Malika to finish the bread preparations.

As we waited, Fatima hid under the heavy, carpet-like blue blanket that she and the other children share at night. Every so often, she would poke her large brown eyes and her disheveled, straw-like hair out from under the blanket. She played that game for another half an hour until Malika came in to put her pants on. Once Fatima was dressed, Malika finished the preparations for the bread.

We followed Malika into what seemed like a secret passageway, up a dark, windy, stone and earth staircase to the roof of a segment of their house. She led us to a clay oven, which stood about two feet tall. A small, roofed shelter covered the area around the domed clay oven to protect the oven and the person baking the bread from the hot sun.

Malika offered us small stools to sit on while we watched, as she sat on a rock covered by a plastic sack. At her side, Malika had a shallow but wide plastic tub where she kept the bread dough, which contained a mixture of white and wheat flour, salt, olive oil, and water.  To start, she made a fire in the right half of the oven using wood. The fire heats the pebbles that fill the left half of the oven. While waiting for the stones to become hot, Malika scraped out a portion of dough, enough to fill her two hands. On a large round stone, Malika placed an old, worn tablecloth, and then sprinkled a little flour on the cloth.

With a thump, she tossed the dough onto the stone and began to flatten it like pizza crust. First, she patted the dough down three times with her right hand, then flipped up the dough using the tablecloth and her left hand (so the dough wouldn’t stick to the cloth). She repeated the process until the dough was stretched to the size of an extra large pizza crust. Flipping the dough onto a round wooden board, she put the dough onto the hot pebbles.

Every few minutes, she used metal stick to shift the dough in a circular motion so that the dough would cook evenly. After about seven minutes, she flipped the dough to cook the other side. She proceeded to rotate the forming bread, scraping out pebbles that were stuck in the dough. Finally, with a swift motion, she rolled the dough out of the oven like a wheel and set it off to the side. The bread, “aghrom” in Tachelhit, was golden brown with small grooves from the pebbles. It was warm and fresh, crispy on the outside and flakey on the inside, and it tasted like plain pizza crust.

Within the next hour, Malika had finished five “loaves” of bread, about a day or two day’s worth of bread for the family, and two of her neighbor friends joined in on the bread-making party. Bread-making is a social activity for women in the village. The work they can do together makes the job a little easier and less lonely, especially because each of the women have the same work to do in the home: take care of the children, cook, clean, entertain guests, and wash clothing. Some women must also retrieve water for their families and/or fetch loads of feed for their animals, if their children aren’t old enough to do that for them. Often times, you see women hunched over, carrying 30-pound loads of grasses and alfalfa. The men say that women’s backs are stronger and that is why they want them to carry the heavy loads.


Fatima: Single Mother, Social Outcast (8/17/2011)

A pair of henna-covered hands works swiftly and almost effortlessly. Her movements come as habit, like a science. At first, the woman digs into her white plastic box, which resembles a tackle box, and pulls out a handful of bags of multicolored, pinhead-sized beads. Rustling through the plastic bags, she finds five shiny beads with perfectly coordinated shades of amethyst and dark lime green. With an inch-long piece of sterling, looped at one end, in her right hand, she scoops up the beads one-by-one. She repeats the process until she has six pieces of coordinated sterling.

Tool in hand, she makes a small loop on the other ends so the beads won’t budge. Then, she places three of the sterling pieces onto a question mark-shaped sliver of sterling, tightening the loops as she goes. Within 10 minutes, she has finished a pair of earrings, which she sells for 50 dirhams. Earring-making is just one of the few ways she supports herself and her 8-year-old daughter.

Fatima Ouahassou, 32, moved to the village seven years ago, just months after her daughter Ikram was born. A family in the village offered for her to live in a two-room home, rent free; thus she moved to the village because it was all she could afford, considering she had no income and no family to help her. Prior to the birth of her daughter, Fatima’s boyfriend ran off, leaving her pregnant and alone. Nearly everyone disowned her because having a child out of wedlock is shameful in the Muslim community. But regardless, she kept her child, though she had offers from people who wanted to buy Ikram from her.

In tears, Fatima recounted her story for me…

Moving to the village was one of the hardest things she has done, mainly because of the rumors floating around about her. Fatima said that nearly everyone in this village refers to her as a “whore” or “prostitute” because Ikram doesn’t have a father. She said Ikram suffers as well.

Most of the young girls either make fun of Ikram, or the girls’ parents won’t allow Ikram to play with their daughters. At school and around the village, Ikram said she is subject to ridicule and gossip about her mother, which often makes her cry. Sometimes she tells her mother, other times she doesn’t, because when she does, she and her mother cry together. She hates seeing her mother cry.

By this point, Fatima said that she has explained the situation to her daughter and she said Ikram understands. However, Fatima said she is sending Ikram to live with her grandmother in Ouarzazate in September in order that receive a better education than the education offered in the village. But Ikram said that she is leaving because of constant mockery by other children. Other way, both Ikram and Fatima believe that Ikram will have a better life in the city because many children are in the same situation in the city. Also in the city, Fatima said, people are in each other’s business, and most even keep to themselves.

Caring for a child on her own is not the only major trial Fatima has had to overcome. When she was a child, her father did not want her in the home, so he sent Fatima to live with her grandmother. When her grandmother died, she left 16-year-old Fatima on her own. And she has worked to support herself ever since.  Later, after Ikram was born, Fatima discovered a growth on the right side of her jaw, which turned out to be a dental abscess. In 2007, with the help of Angela (a nun from Ouarzazate) and Claire (her sponsor from the United Kingdom), Fatima had extensive surgery to take out the abscess that could have taken her life.

Regardless of her situation and the setbacks of her past, Fatima tries to continue life as normally as she can. She managed to work out a deal with a shop owner from Ouarzazate, who allows her to sell clothing to women in the Tighza region (her village and the three surrounding villages). Fatima receives a portion of the clothing sales, making about 100 dirhams per week.  She also makes a little extra money by helping Carolyn around the kasbah and by making small tapestries. The remainder of her income comes from Claire, who sends her 300 dirhams per month to help with Ikram’s expenses.

Despite everything in her life, Fatima will always greet you with a gentile and joyful smile, the kind of smile that will warm your heart and brighten your day.

The Precious Source (7/21/2011)

Trekking through the dirt and stone roads of the village, we spent our first few full days exploring and getting acquainted with life here, which is quite different than what I’m used to. Ahmed was our “tour guide,” taking us through back pathways, through fields and by small creeks.

At one point we passed two children in dust-covered pants and sandals (in the video and photo below) fetching water at a source with their mule. The children carried one dozen bottles of different sizes, ranging from 1.5 liters to five liters. It is normal for the women and children to get water up to five times each day. Although there are two water towers in the villages, not everyone has running water in their homes; therefore, they are forced to get their water for the day at one of the sources, or sometimes even travel a few miles to the river for water. Unlike the children below, not everyone is as fortunate to have a mule or donkey to help. In my time here, I’ve never seen a man get water.
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Water is such a precious resource here, one in which they have to work to find and use. This water is used for cooking, cleaning, washing dishes and clothes, flushing waste, bathing, and most importantly drinking. And because nearly everyone here does not have refrigeration, they must finds other means of keeping the water cold. If you notice in the video, the child is holding a bottle with cloth wrapped around it. This cloth is covered in water as well, and that’s their “refrigerator.”IMG_0583


For one family I met (I’ll talk about them more in the next post), the four daughters living in the house all get water together. One day, after we had spent some time with one of the daughters Nezra, 13, and the son Ibrehime, 10, we followed Nezra one mile to the main river in the valley. Here, she was joined by her other female siblings in order to gather as much water as possible for their family.

But unless I’m traveling outside of the kasbah, I easily forget that others must work for their water, when it’s just given to me here. Although I have to pay for my bottled drinking water because my stomach isn’t used to the unpurified water that’s in the tap, it still doesn’t compare to having to fetch it myself.

Sur le Pont d’Avignon (7/15/2011)


Upon exiting the TGV in Avignon, I saw Serge (host dad) from a distance. With a big smile on his face, he waved and then greeted me with a strong hug, which is a bit odd for French people considering they “bises” instead of hug. (But I definitely prefer hugs.) Nicole (host mom) greeted me in the same way when I arrived at her house 20 minutes later. I was so excited to see them and spend time with them, considering I hadn’t seen them in more than a year. IMG_0531During my time in Avignon, the annual Festival d’Avignon was just getting started. This festival lasts for three weeks each July, and during this time, thousands of performances occur, including street performers, and “spectacles” (shows) in one of the 70 theaters in and around the walls of the city. The shows in theaters begin at 11:00 a.m. and continue until 2:00 a.m, and these cost money. But performs also align the main streets and squares of the city, near the Palais des Papes and Rue de la République. You’ll find carnival acts, jugglers, painters, singers, and musicians, and even performers who read plays.


During the festival, I was able to see two shows, a wonderful rendition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Imagine-toi” a mime show. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was quite difficult to understand because it was in French and the actors spoke quickly. But the great part about the show was that only two people performed all the characters, and with different, intricate costumes for each character. (The actors were Kim’s host sister and her host sister’s boyfriend.)

And the mime show… I expected something similar to what you’re probably imaging right now, I’m sure. Black costume, white gloves, white face paint, and a black beret. Well, I was totally wrong. There was no make-up, no black beret, and no creepiness. The mime, who was staying in Nicole’s apartment downstairs, won the Moliere award in 2007. The show was incredible. He did his own sounds effects for each scene, and he involved the audience on multiple occasions. If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and the game they play called “Sound Effects,” that was what the show was like, except that he created his own. In fact, he did so much physical activity, that he was dripping in sweat by the end of the one-hour performance. The show made Serge, Nicole, and me laugh out loud many times, which means it had to be funny.

To help you imagine it a bit, the mime stepped in gum, chewed it violently (smacking his lips), stretched it out, and then proceeded to play the bass with it. I’m sure you’re wondering how he could make it funny. Well, just trust me, he did.

And finally, the best part of the few days in Avignon, besides seeing familiar faces and sites, was going to the Mediterranean Sea with Florian, Christelle, and Natalie. The beach was filled with sunbathers and children building castles, and all the while, ice cream vendors carried their carts up and down the beach repeatedly shouting, “A la glace, à la glace, chou chou, boissons.”


And the perfect end to a great day à la plage, stopping along the highway to take pictures in a sunflower field, which cover southern France. (In order to get to the field, we had to run through a field of wheat and climb through a giant ditch, no big deal.) We survived, and Kim has great pictures to show for it.

Ma Vie (3/31/2010)

I realize that I have not written for a few days, and I sincerely apologize. The adjustment has been a tad bit rough on my body. I’m constantly tired, and I think I’m sick. I can’t seem to kick the exhaustion either. Even though I’m tired, and slightly homesick already, everything is going well. There is so much I need to tell you. So I’ll begin with my family here.

My mère d’accueil (host mom) is an older woman, probably in her 60s. She works as a nurse at the clinic once per week, which happened to be yesterday. The day changes each week. She has two daughters, who are 33 and 32, and they don’t live in the house. Both daughters have two little enfants (children). Monday, before our little luncheon at the university with our host families, I was reading my Bible in the sun on the terrace (which was wonderful, I recommend it), when her older daughter arrived with her 3-year-old son William. He is quite adorable, with little ears that stick out and golden-blond hair. And the best part, he probably speaks better French than I do, which is humbling.

My host mom also has a boyfriend, Serge, who is about her age. I think the best way to describe him is “a stereotypical older French man.” With that image, you’re probably thinking he’s thin, smokes, has a deep chortle/voice, loves to joke, is hard to understand, and wears a hat. We’ll you’d be correct. Well, except I’ve never seen him wear a hat. It’s funny because Sammi (another OU student staying in the same house) and I cannot understand him, even though we try incredibly hard. Sammi thinks it’s because he mumbles (loudly), and I think she’s right. He doesn’t really move his mouth when he talks, yet somehow he has a loud voice. Although we can’t really understand him, he’s very patient and listens closely when we attempt our French. I enjoy being around him. Il m’amuse.

There are quite a few differences between this home and the one in the U.S. First, in France, all of the houses are small. Although it’s small, our chambres (bedrooms) are large. (In another post, I’ll give you a complete tour of the house with pictures.) It also seems like all the appliances in the house are smaller.

They conserve water here, unlike all of us wasteful Americans. To shower, you must turn on the water for 30 seconds and rinse. Then, you turn off the water and soap up your entire body, including your hair. Then, you turn the water back on and rinse. And that’s your shower. Me, I cheat a bit. And by cheating, I mean turning on the water about 4 times. The first thing I will do whenever I get to a hotel is take a complete shower, as in not turning off the water, even though now I’ll feel guilty for using so much water. Showering here has made me realize that water is a luxury that Americans use way too much of. The French are correct when they stereotype us as wasteful. Also, they turn off all lights, all the time. And much of the time we use nature lighting here. Let’s just say that 8:00 p.m. dinners are a tad dark.

To flush the toilet, we have to pull up the button, then when the water flushes the toilet contents away, we push down on the button to stop the water. It’s a little odd.

Also, everyone eats little breakfasts, lunch around 12 and then dinner around 8. I don’t know how people make it that long without eating. I’m starving by dinner. I’m also eating tons of bread, which doesn’t keep me full very long at all, and it makes me thirsty. (There are no water fountains, I keep refilling a water bottle in the sinks I can find.) I think the diet here is also taking a toll of my body. The food is excellent, but it includes a lot of bread and cheese. I never thought it was possible to crave vegetables, but I actually started to today.

Those are the main differences for now. If I think of any more, I’ll let you know. Just so I don’t bog you down with a ton of writing, I’ll split up my stories into days. I’ll be telling you first about my shopping experiences and then about the university and my classes. Stay tuned!

P.S. It’s getting harder and harder to write in English. I’m actually thinking in French and having to translate it into English. C’est bizarre.