Updated: Jul 11
By Ellen Hernandez
Laundry dries outdoors in Tamguist, far up in the High Atlas Mountains Photo: E. Hernandez/HAF
June 2022—Several hours from Marrakech, nearly to the top of Toubkal Mountain, in the tiny village of Tamguist, a group of 28 women were waiting for the HAF Family Literacy team to arrive on a sunny Monday morning. The road that leads there winds like a stream through the hills and valleys of the High Atlas Mountains, cherry trees showing off their bright red fruit as our vehicle reached upward and upward. Along with volunteers from CorpsAfrica, the women sat around a crowded room, pots of tea and Amazigh baked goods served as a mid-morning treat before we each made our way along the rocky path up to the one-room school for the third in a four-day IMAGINE empowerment workshop.
Amid the shelves of puzzles, crayons, and children’s books, the walls lined with posters of letters and numbers, the eager women sat on little classroom chairs and listened to the trainer begin the day’s lesson with a call to deep breathing and meditation set to gentle music. The trainer is also the literacy program manager, Amina El Hajjami, who asked them questions about relationships. Some of the women were shy, and some laughed and teased each other, nudging their friends and urging them to participate. I could hear their children playing just outside and the birds singing by the open window. From time to time, one participant would leave to check on a crying child, and I wondered how these women could concentrate. One look at their strong hands, though, made it clear that they are not to be underestimated.
The village school serves as a room for a women’s empowerment workshop. Photo: E. Hernandez/HAF
After a few hours, a lunch of tajine was served and we got a bit of rest before concluding the day’s activities accompanied by a restless nearby donkey. The children knocked and came in search of their mothers from time to time. I took one onto my lap, and we practiced counting numbers in whispers, touching each bead of the tiny prayer bracelet on his wrist. Three teen girls entered and asked to join because they heard that what was happening in the room was important and would be good for them. These moments make me glad that the program will include literacy for young girls as well as the women and also for the pre-school children, too.
We stayed the night there to be ready for an early start to the final day of the workshop. I left the window open at night for the cool mountain breeze and to listen for the familiar sound of the call to prayer, the children still running and playing, and the sandals of the men on the gravel path leading to the mosque. The woman who hosted us in her home served rice and vegetables to me and my teammates. She joined us, and we ate together and talked about poetry and tall buildings and tall mountains and green olive trees until we were too tired to go on, each of us curling up on a spot on the traditional Moroccan couches that lined the room.
When a woman’s head and body are covered, you focus on the features of her face. By the second day there, I had come to know the faces of these women, and to find great beauty, strength, and sweetness in them, already regretting when the moment of departure would come. During a break, one of the women had shown us her handiwork, gloriously decorated traditional dresses on silky fabrics of rich blues, greens, and reds. She wore a full face covering, but the pleasure in her eyes at our praise of her talent could not be hidden, and though her language of Tachelhit was beyond even my rudimentary Arabic, I felt we understood each other.
While the women finished their final lessons, discussing spirituality and the value of work, I entertained the children for a time by placing on the floor a puzzle of the alphabet, over which they huddled, the little ones working together to put the letters in their rightful spots, clearing it and starting over, again and again, until it was time for the certificates of completion to be awarded, after which we stood in a circle holding hands and made dua (prayers) for their achievements and their dreams. We then danced to the rhythms of the bendir drums the women played, while singing and ululating in joy and gratitude.
As the sun began to hang low over the mountain peaks, it was time to make our way back down the long road while we still had sunlight. Each woman in turn embraced me and kissed my cheeks, thanking me and wishing me well. I left with the feeling that I need not be concerned about their ability to meet their goals, work together in a cooperative, and have a successful business because I witnessed how they were already working collaboratively. It might be a long road ahead of them, but their futures are as bright as the light in their eyes.
The path to the school in Tamguist. Photo: E. Hernandez/HAF
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the High Atlas Foundation and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.