Article published in German in Neues Deutschland  Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

Spanish/Swedish relief organisation supports inhabitants in the Moroccan, Sahara

Behind the mighty Atlas Mountains in the Sahara live the poorest of the poor of Morocco. Relief organisation Vilostrada Foundation made it their business to support the nomadic population.

Written by: Luise Wagner, Zagora
Translated: Alexander Vogt
Photos: Joakim Ahlén

In Tarifa, at the outmost tip of Andalusia, Africa is close by. Only 14 kilometer distance across the strait of Gibraltar to the onshore of Morocco. Kite surfers, who glide across the waves of the Atlantic at one of Europes favourite surf spots can be carried across to the other continent within half an hour where offshore winds catch them by surprise.

We are traveling together in a VW-Bus, which is packed to the roof with boxes, ferrying across to Tangier by express ferry. 125 shoe boxes will be carted for more than 1500 kilometer to the south, far behind the mighty Atlas Mountains of the Sahara. To the poorest of the poor in Morocco. In this deserted region live the nomad people, who are enduring the freezing cold nights in their tents made of camel hair and patched up pieces of cloths. Those boxes arrive from Andalucia, where relief organisation Vilostrada Foundation packed them, donated by children of the local school during a donation drive for the nomad kids in the town of Frigiliana.

Nomads make out a living in one of the most life challenging and unfriendly areas of the world – the largest desert on earth. While during the summer, temperatures scorch the sand at over 50 degrees C, during winter times the thermometer drops to a zero degree level. Many of the children run around barefooted and the winter nights this year seem to become even colder than usual.

We arrive at Hamada du Draa, close to the Algerian border, where the last desert road N9 has to surrender in to the sand dunes. From here on out we travel by camel. Yussuf wears two pair of pants in top of each other due to the cold and straps his djeballa, the cloak mantle of the Berber, tighter around his neck. The 42 year old camel driver is of tall build and very gaunt. A runner type, as all Nomad people are, who trails a daily 20 km through rocky bed loads and dunes with his caravan.

Today, though he has to walk even more, as his favourite camel Yurt, which stands for moon in the Berber language, has taken off without notice. It´s mating season and the stallion is looking for the females. He has been nervous all day long and had scented mares in a breeze coming from hundreds of kilometers afar.

For Vilostrada Foundation, Spains closeness to Morocco means neighbourly help. Founder of the organisation, Victoria Ahlen, has moved to southern Spain from Sweden four years ago. Now she commutes between Africa and Spain back and forth every two months. The lifestyle of the nomads has in the meantime grown on her: “I get cabin fever staying in closed rooms. I feel more of a human being covered by the stars of the desert and surrounded by the nomad people,“ she says.

During all of the year, she hold tagine workshops for her international friends at her country house in Andalucia and collect donations. Carpets made of camel fur, adornments and clay pots were sold to British and Scandinavian vacation house owner. This time around, the tour through the desert will take longer and we are invited to many nomad tents. There is a good reason to celebrate.

Tanmirt Solar panel nomad sahara Vilostrada Foundation Victoria Ahlén

For over a week now, thanks to Vilostrada Foundation, a special well is active in the desert. A solar driven pump collects valuable water for the camels, goats and people out of 100 meter depth of Sahara sand. Before that, children had to collect one bucket of water after the other by hand. A workload, which can take up to two days as water had to be pulled up in buckets by hand for over 600 thirsty camels.

“It will take some of the burden of doing the chores off of the kids, giving them time to learn something,“ says Victoria, who now plans to set up a mobile school close to the Nomad camps. Otherwise, the children will still have to walk from morning to night finding new meadows for their goats in the desert.

Nomads belong to the least educated people in this country. About 82 percent can neither read nor write. Although the Moroccan king has decided to build schools in the desert towns. Yet those residential schools don’t fit the mobile lives of the nomads. The children are being taken from their families and literally unlearn how to survive in the desert.

tanmirt sahara caravan brahim elaabdouli photo: Joakim Ahlén Vilostrada Foundation

Once, these proud stock farmer as privileged, today, the nomads are pitied and smiled at. The shepherds tribes suffer under the ongoing climate change in the desert. Sahara is conquering more and more of the savana land to the north, spreading her sand all over. Where once grass and brushes grew at the hillsides of the Atlas mountains, only brown rocky debris is left. Trails to the higher up meadows has become a straining tasks, as for goats, sheep and Nomads alike, those are hardly to reach during a day trip. Many families pack up their tents forever and move to the fast growing desert towns such as Zagora and M´hamid.

“Amazig“ is what the Berber call themselves – “free people“. Free, because they were able to settle down where ever it fit them. Nomad do not pay taxes and do not have to register. They sell their life stock whenever they need money. Two camels can feed a family for a whole year. A full grown camel can fetch up to 5,000 Euro. Yet not all families can keep camels – as feeding places are getting sparse.

Our desert expert Brahim Elaabdouli is Berber and translates our conversations into the nomad language Tamazight. When he is not guiding tourists through the desert as an Eco-Guide, Brahim takes care of the Vilostrada projects. “In 100 years time, nomads as we know them today won’t exist anymore. This ancient culture is perishing,“ says Brahim. This culture derives from a time, when national states and political borders played no role in the desert. Nowadays, the randomly drawn border through the dunes is watched by the military using satellites. Brahim will protect the nomads from modern trends and at the same time prepare them for them.

The century old pastoral way of living provides many pieces of wisdom for Victoria Ahlen: “What these people still are proficient in, we have long been stripped off of. To be able to talk to another peacefully, brew tea on a wooden stove or orientate oneself by the stars.“ The word stress does not exist in the nomad language. Here, the sun and the moon dictates the rhythm of the day.

As king of the jungle camp Yussuf could have been a millionaire multi times over by now. He can do about anything: knot ties, which miraculously untie themselves again, whisper secret orders to animals, find hidden wells and bake bread on hot desert sand. And he can walk – if needed, without sleeping and eating – for three days and nights straight. He eats and drinks as little as his camels during this time.

Life in the desert is based on the principle of “being“, which stands above the “owning“. A form of society, which has withdrawn herself from everything materialistic, because every possession for the nomads is also a ballast. Twice a year they have to pack their belongings on to camels backs, when their clan moves from their summer to their winter camps. Their household therefore, exists of only the necessities: tents, pots, water canisters and blankets. Nomads are master of improvising – every object is used multiple times and then recycled. Fabric tents are patched together from old T-shirts and plastic bottles. What is not needed right now is thrown onto the roof and serves a different purpose at a later time.

Brahim teaches us the right angle for the width of the desert during our trekking tour. An important trade in the desert, which can provide enough time to escape when danger lurks ahead. In fact, none of the weary old men leading their clans wears any glasses. We, as the digital nomads, do instead. Whoever catches sight of a camel on the horizon gets five points, for a goat or donkey ten and three for a car, which speeds along the old rally route Paris – Dakar.

As soon as the sun sets, a few branches of an acacia tree are lit and tea is cooked in front of the tents. “Berber whiskey“, Brahim calls the green tea, which is brewed with the leaves of absinth. The fire, which warms all, is called “Berber-TV“. Into that, we stare and celebrate a good year’s ending. Since the well runs, life returns to the desert and also the hope that life will become easier instead of harder. Along the water hole, wild birds build their nests, wild donkeys, jackals and even wolves from the mountains come down to drink. A small oasis emerges.

Next year, another experiment will get underway in the desert. All around the well, Moringa trees are planted. A tropical tree species less demanding and with products more eutrophic. From its leaves and fruits, nomad families can eat and export the surplus. Moringa is know as superfood in the western world and is sold in many organic shops. Since the solar driven well does not need energy, the desert can more or less re-cultivate herself – so the plan.

Under a star lit night sky a delicate crescent immersed into the horizon, Yussuf comes back with his favourite camel. Inschallah (Praise the Lord), Yurt had white fur, therefore he was able to find the fugitive fast in the twilight. Yurt is needed desperately; there are more shoe boxes to be handed out to the scattered nomad families.

The restless of the Sahara

Berber tribes are only be found in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Nomads have been living in the Sahara for many centuries and are tracking along with their goats, sheep and camels from one well to the next. Climate change, modernisation as well as tighter border control endanger the lifestyle of the nomad people. Up to now, the Amazigh – free people – were allowed to roam about freely.

The Berber tribes of the Sahara are widespread in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Amazigh Berber live in the High and Middle Atlas mountain and belong to the most important tribes of the indigenous Moroccan population. They belong to a minority as to the arabic Berber, who make up 91 percent of the population. About 230,000 Sahrauis of the western Sahara are almost nomadic and fight for an independent state. Morocco has set up a 25,00 kilometer long ceasefire line with border posts. Many nomads are housed in refugee camps. The zone is more and more turning into a military force.

Over the course of the last ten years, 63 percent of the Moroccan nomads gave up their lifestyle. In 2004, about 68,000 people inhabitat the desert, in 2014 only about 4,000 of them were left. Desert towns such as Zagora and M´hamid are growing daily and all over the place new concrete houses are erected for settling Nomad families.

The majority of the nomad speak a Berber language such as Tamazight, which has been acknowledged as an official language besides Arabic. Some schools even teach Berber. 82 percent of the nomads though are illiterate.

The Andalusian based Vilostrada Foundation will set up mobile schools using smart devices, which can track along with the nomads and adjust to the changing lifestyles. Using audio files, old saga and legends are to be taught to the children, which later on shall be questioned about by teachers and special apps. A consortium of international education experts are working on test models, which will start this year.