Monday, September 26, 2011

Cleaning Up Morocco ~ Village by Village

Today's guest contributor on The View from Fez is freelance journalist, Derek Workman. He gets to grips with an environmental issue in a small village in the Atlas Mountains. Rubbish disposal is a problem that many parts of Morocco are grappling with. Derek's story shows that with hard work and motivation, progress can be made.

“He who has health has hope, and he who has hope has everything.” Anon.

The roads that lead to Imlil
Unlike Rome, all roads don’t lead to Imlil. In fact, once you get there, all you can do is come back. To the passing eye it might look like just any other slightly ramshackle Moroccan village – which just goes to show how wrong the passing eye can be.

Imlil is 66 kilometres south of Marrakech in the Atlas Mountains. Perched on a peak above the village, with the stunning Jbel Toubkal as a backdrop, the Kasbah du Toubkal looks like yet another chi-chi hotel. It’s gorgeous, of that there’s no doubt, but the five percent it adds to the bill of everyone who stays there has created a fund to enhance the lives of every single person in the Imlil valley and for kilometres beyond – the Association Bassins d’Imlil.

Ask Hajj Maurice, who has been involved with the Association since day one, what he thinks the most important projects the Association has been involved in are and he will reply, almost without pause for breath, the rubbish collection service and the ambulances.

Getting my hands dirty

Omar Auuzal picks me up in his wagon at the bridge in Imlil for our day out collecting rubbish in the neighbouring villages. Mohamed Bokare, the second collector in the team, hangs onto his platform at the rear of the truck as we set off for our first stop, Tamatert.

We park at the side of the road and scramble down a rocky path into the village, armed with a couple of large blue nylon sacks. The tiny alleyways are steep and uneven, and the routine is to walk to the bottom of the village, turn around and clamber back up, picking up the rubbish as you go. This makes perfect sense; why start at the top and have to lug a heavy bag all the way back up the hill again to the truck? And it’s not just the ‘streets’ we clean, but also the tiny cultivated terraces at the sides; everything collected and dropped into nylon bags.

For a couple of hours we traipse the village collecting the rubbish; worn-out trainers, odd socks, tattered plastic bags, weathered cardboard boxes; even the donkey dung heap gets picked over for wind-blown waste. There’s nothing much different to the basic detritus of anywhere in the world, but the age of double- and triple-wrapped everything hasn’t arrived here yet, and despite the simplicity of the collection process, there’s probably less litter here than you’d see in plenty of European villages. It’s slow and laborious, but it works.

For the next part of the route we’ll be tackling a new destination on Omar and Mohamed’s collection run, and one infinitely more nerve-wracking for me.

"to call it a 'road'....
Only a few weeks earlier a new road had been completed up to Arghen, a village on the opposite side of the valley to Tamatert, which until then had no access other than centuries-old mule tracks. To call it a ‘road’ is euphemistic at best; it’s simply a one-vehicle-width track, bulldozed in a series of tight zigzags. This is definitely a road where you don’t want to meet someone coming the other way.

In first gear Omar hauls the truck up the mountainside, following the tracks of other vehicles that have compacted the rough stone into something vaguely resembling a surface. Some of the bends are so tight that even our short wagon has to make three-point turns, which Omar manages with a lot more confidence than I feel. When we arrive at Arghen, he executes a nerve-wracking series of turns to face downhill. The road is little more than a metre wider than the wagon is long, with a terrifying tumble down the mountainside as reward for the slightest misjudgement. As he shuffles the vehicle around and the rear wheels begin to spin and dig holes in the loose surface. I cover my nervousness with the pretence of taking photos.

Is this the wildest rubbish collection on the planet?
We park on a cut-away above the village and meet Hassan Aitjetame, a member of the Arghen Village Association (known as Tagmatte, The Family), and who is responsible for rubbish collection. I watch the clouds come rolling down from Jbel Toubkal, bringing the rain with them. It’s cold and wet, and I’ve forgotten to bring a jacket; this is going to be an uncomfortable experience. Fortunately, the rains drift on down the valley, leaving only a light surface mud for us to slip around in, and soggy waste for us to pick up.

Hour after hour of rubbish collection
The routine is the same as in Tamatert, walking the village street by street, collecting discarded rubbish as we go along, but Arghen is much steeper than Tamatert, and at some points we are scrambling over scree that moves unsettlingly below my feet. Omar, Mohamed and Hassan, and the couple of young boys who have joined in the fun, walk this sort of ground on a daily basis so are used to it, and politely overlook my staggering. It occurs to me that refuse collectors from European countries who belly-ache about the difficulties of having to tow a wheelie-bin two metres to an automated lift on the back of their wagon should be forced to spend a week with Omar and Mohamed.

When we get back to the truck with our load, a crowd has gathered. It’s almost a party atmosphere, and Omar is congratulated on his tenacity in getting the truck up to the village for the first time. He smiles, as if the skidding and sliding had been nothing.

And yet another five point turn!
As we begin our descent the rains return, leaving great splashes on the windscreen to obscure the view and wetting the rough stones of the road. At each tight turn, Mohamed jumps off his stand at the back and shepherds Omar as he makes his cautious three - and sometimes five - point turns. I don’t comment, but a sideways glance at Omar tells me that he’s only marginally less nervous than I am. With an almost audible sigh of relief, more on my part than Omar’s because I only have to do it this once whereas he will be making the trip weekly, we arrive back at the main road and scuttle off to the smouldering incineration area on the edge of Imlil.

Rubbish dumped, I thank them both, and leave. Ten minutes later, while I’m sat under the awning of a café taking a glass of mint tea, I see them driving up the main street, and wave.

* * * 

This is an extract from Reasonable Plans, the story of the Kasbah du Toubkal and the work it does with the Association Bassins d’Imlil and the villages of the Imlil Valley.

Derek Workman is an English journalist living in Valencia City, Spain – although he admits to a love of Morocco and would love to up stumps and move here. To read more of his stories about Spain visit and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

The View from Fez welcomes guest contributions. Your story and photographs (jpeg) should be emailed to

No comments: