Lessons I've Learned From the Berber Women of Morocco

In honor of International Women's Day and in light of these challenging times, I am reposting something I wrote a few years back about the Berber women of Morocco that I have had the opportunity to work with and among. These women have touched me deeply with their approach to life and hardship. My hope is that some of these characteristics can help you find solace and strength through difficult times.

The Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa. They live in scattered communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauretania. The ones I have come to know and refer to here are a group of approximately 50 women who reside in a tiny village in the Anti-Atlas mountains 5 hours drive from Marrakech. Life here is difficult. The mountains are rocky and arid and practically nothing grows. Most men leave for the big cities to find work leaving the women behind for 11 months out of the year. With little vegetation for farming, the Berbers of the Anti-Atlas depend on goats for milk, meat and wool. And Argan.

Illiteracy rates remain very high. Among girls, only 26% in rural Morocco continue their education beyond the third grade. The girls marry young, between the ages of 16 and 19 on average. With little access to hospitals and maternal healthcare, the infant and maternal mortality rate is high in the mountains. Despite the considerable hardship, I am always left with the impression that these women live in joy. Without wishing to minimize the difficulty of life as a woman in rural Morocco or to glamorize extreme poverty, I have attempted to describe what I have seen and experienced over the course of my visits with them over the years. The following sums up the lessons I've taken away, albeit in a very simplistic form.

1. Slow everything.

Most everything is made by hand, other than the few things available for purchase or trade, and there are few shortcuts. Wheat is ground by hand to make flour. Wool is spun to make thread. Clothes are sewn by hand. They exist without the constant distraction of email or pressures to meet deadlines or dread over daily news. There are extreme challenges and real problems, but, I would argue, less angst. Life takes on a rhythm of its own. 

2. Find pleasure in work. The work is physically demanding. Women rise at dawn to gather and carry immense loads of wood to burn for cooking and hay to feed the livestock. They fetch water to boil and grind wheat to make bread while also caring for children and elderly family members. If they can, they will earn money by cracking argan nuts and weaving rugs. As a result, women are physically strong and healthy. The work seems to be made easier in the company of other women. I have frequently watched as they gather to crack nuts, laughing loudly, singing and telling stories. 

3. Create abundance out of scarcity. They have few material possessions other than what they make from what they have at hand. From this, magnificent rugs are woven, beautiful scarves embroidered and homes embellished with bright colors and intricate symbols. They spend time expressing themselves creatively. 

4. Live in harmony with nature, understanding the power of nature to heal and nurture. The Berber women live closely connected to the changing seasons, and the rising and setting of the sun and the moon. They rely on the land and traditional plant knowledge for sustenance and medicinal remedies. 

5. Honor rituals and traditions Traditions are passed down over time, including the extraction of argan oil. These traditions connect them to past and future generations. 

6. The importance of community The Berber women of the village live in close proximity to each other and are a close knit community, working together, helping to raise each others' children and to care for each other. Isolation in the village would be virtually impossible. 

7. Inshallah Like most Moroccans, the Berbers are Sunni Muslim. Among other things, their spirituality offers them a certain alignment to a higher power. The phrase "Inshallah", translated to God willing, is commonly used as a way to express their belief in destiny and acceptance of what comes their way. 

8. Celebrate! Each time I have visited, the women of the village have made of point of celebrating with music and dancing well into the night. From what I can gather, these celebrations happen frequently - to mark a wedding, the harvest or the arrival of spring.

It would be impossible for most of us to replicate the life I've described here, but I try to keep the Berber women in mind as I go about my daily life and recall them as I encounter stress. At the very least, their hard work puts my relatively small problems into perspective. Beyond that, I am reminded to forge deeper connections to community, family, the earth and to honor hard work, creativity, ritual and song.

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