Here, I share with you some of the stories of life in the remote Atlas Mountains of Morocco during lockdown, told in the words of two teenage Moroccan girls. Both are the only girls in their family to continue their studies.
The COVID-19 outbreak has profoundly affected the lives of us all. For me, it has meant that I had to abandon my plans to return to Morocco for the rest of the year, and instead I found a job working in PR from my bedroom in my parents’ house.
After finishing my master’s degree in September 2019, I left the UK to volunteer for an NGO that runs boarding houses for girls from remote villages in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, giving them the chance to continue their secondary education.
The houses are built close to the only high school in the region and offer food, board, and an internet connection, all for free. They are part of a larger network of boarding houses for rural students, called dar taliba, which can be found throughout Morocco.
Very few girls from rural communities in Morocco get the opportunity to continue their education beyond primary school. Some of the girls live up to 70km from school, and with few families owning transportation, a daily commute up and down a rocky mountain path that traverses rivers and ravines is simply impossible. I know this because I often traveled with the girls to visit their families on the weekends.
At 5 a.m. on Monday morning, we would make the journey back to the boarding house, walking kilometers in the pitch black, down a precarious mountain track, and then hitching rides with men heading to the nearest town for work on lorries and trucks. As a result, in rural areas such as the Atlas Mountains, up to 83% of women are illiterate.
I keep in touch with the girls who became my English students, friends, and support network for the three months they shared their daily lives with me. We talk about our days in lockdown, and recently, I found myself expressing to my friend Leila the frustration I felt working in a temporary job I had no passion for. She told me:
“Ella, close your mouth and work! People here want just a small job to save money, but they never found it. You have a big chance. So thank God and be patient in your job at home.”
In that moment, I felt a great sense of shame. It is easy for us to complain about life in lockdown here in the UK. I have not seen my boyfriend, who lives over 200 miles away in Glasgow, for 9 weeks. My plans to start a Ph.D. in September are looking dubious, and I am working in a job that I am not in love with. But at the end of the day, I have never had to worry about having enough food to eat, being able to access medical care, or having to abandon my studies and get married at the age of 16.
Here, I share with you some of the stories of life in the remote Atlas Mountains of Morocco during lockdown, told in the words of two teenage Moroccan girls, Hassna and Fatima Zahra. Both of them are the only girls in their family to continue their studies. Many of their sisters are married with children of their own. The girls’ mothers stay at home, like the majority of women in this mountainous region. In fact, many of their mothers are monolingual Tamazight (Berber) speakers and attended only a couple of years of their village primary school. I distinctly remember visiting the house of one girl, where she showed me how she had been teaching her mother to count to 10.
‘The virus has terrorized Moroccans, especially the poor’
Many of the families in the High Atlas live hand-to-mouth. Work is hard to come by, and most rely on casual agricultural labor or selling their produce in the weekly souq (market). The lockdown has come at a particularly difficult time for Moroccans, as it coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, a time when families and neighbors often get together to break the fast.
Many family breadwinners are without work, and without money to buy basic food and necessities. Whilst in the weeks approaching the lockdown, here in the UK we stockpiled food, preventing others from getting what they needed, the families of the High Atlas have approached the challenges associated with lockdown in a different way.
Hassna: “Getting hold of food and essential supplies is very difficult during the lockdown. Usually, people from here get a ride in trucks with a lot of people, but since the trucks are very crowded, this is now forbidden. In some villages, not a single person has a car to take them to the town to buy supplies.”
Fatima Zahra: “Whilst we are all locked in our homes, it is the poor who are suffering the most. Without work, people have nothing to eat, or even anything to break the fast with, and they are suffering greatly.
Officials said that they would help those who cannot work by giving them a monthly sum of money, but I haven’t seen any of that help here. They only help the rich and have forgotten about the poor like us. My father works as a minibus driver and takes care of goats, but now he can no longer work, so he only takes care of our animals.
However, we all try to help our neighbors. Nobody has a lot, but everyone should have enough to feed himself and his children.”
‘Sometimes I say that I must drop out of school’
Like in the UK, Morocco made the decision to close all of its schools as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. While for students living in big cities like Rabat or Casablanca, this means returning home to complete lessons remotely online, the closure of schools means that the girls living in dar taliba have had to return to their villages, where they do not have internet connection, let alone a computer.
Obtaining a place at dar taliba is often a lifeline for these girls, who without this opportunity, may find themselves married from as young as 15. This was a harsh reality I had to face up to when meeting the friends and cousins of the girls in their villages. Some of these girls, often younger than me, had not had the opportunity to study and were already married with children of their own.
Material poverty is of course the most urgent issue during the lockdown for many families living in the High Atlas. However, the effects of educational poverty are also being felt, as the lack of internet connection, technology, and even basic resources like the national school textbooks only widens the gulf between these girls and their urban colleagues.
Hassna: “With the virus, school life has changed a lot. Sometimes when we are in front of the teacher, we don’t understand the lessons. Now we are in front of a phone, it’s hard to communicate the ideas we want because, frankly, there is a big difference between the real world and the virtual world.
Right now, I am not able to keep up with my studies. I dream of going to university but I fear that I might not be able to continue studying after the virus. My entire school life, I have lived in a dar taliba full of girls, and we all help and support each other. Now, I am far from them and from their help.
At home, housework often has to come before my studies, especially during Ramadan. There’s also the problem of the Internet, which is often not available and must be constantly topped up. My family don’t have enough money to keep doing that.”
Fatima Zahra: “Studying at home with the virus is impossible. I’ve hardly managed to study at home and have lost interest in studying due to the lack of a good internet connection. Sometimes I say that I must drop out of school.”
‘What are you doing?’
When I ask the girls what they are doing, their response is often “iska gawrkh,” “I’m just sitting.” Often, the first in their village to go to school, these girls have been breaking down centuries of gender barriers and pioneering the way for others in their region. Now, they sit at home in their one- or two-room houses, helping with housework and hoping for an internet top-up. Some also have the prospect of marriage looming over them if their studies do not soon resume.
While it is all too easy for us to complain about feeling bored during lockdown, or, in my case, about a job we do not love, we can take something from these girls who remain positive despite the most difficult of circumstances.
Fatima Zahra told me:
“One day, I want to be able to depend on myself. My dream is to start an association to help other women in my village. I know if I work hard enough, I can succeed.”