All They Want is Water...
This year The School Superintendents Association’s (“AASA”) international delegation went to Morocco. I had the privilege of joining 21 school leaders from across the United States on this journey to North Africa. The purpose of this delegation was to visit schools, observe cultures, and be immersed in the country’s history in a world that is so very different from our own. While I was not sure what to expect as I started my journey, I concluded my journey having been changed forever. I am honored to share my insights with NJASA’s On Target.
Our delegation experienced amazing cultural and historical sights on our 12-day tour of Morocco. While I had only imagined what these places would look like prior to our visit, I found that reality was far more spectacular than my imagination could ever visualize. We were mesmerized by the vastness of the Sahara Desert; the arid and deserted countryside that went on forever; fabulous cuisine served in iconic Moroccan tagines; camels, camels, camels, everywhere!; snake charmers; belly dancers; incredibly crowded souks in the cities of Marrakesh and Fes; the mournful call to prayer echoing throughout the mosques; a leather factory where beautiful goods were manufactured; a kind, generous, and welcoming people who were always gracious to us; the beautiful blue Moroccan sky which never had even one small cloud; a rug manufactory where women spent countless hours creating art through hand sewn rugs; a cooking class where some of us (not me!) learned how to make the delicacies of Morocco and others of us (me!) enjoyed the savory feast; a pottery factory where we saw the exquisite Moroccan mosaic tiles being made; drinking mint tea in a hot Bedouin tent in the middle of the Sahara Desert; touring a nomad’s hut in the middle of the Sahara Desert which, strangely enough, had an address of “Sahara Desert” posted on the front door; as well as the energizing African music.
Without a doubt, however, visiting the Moroccan schools touched my soul more than I could ever have imagined. The schools that we visited showed with great clarity the importance that parents and teachers place on education in Morocco even though there are no resources to support it. Students were seated elbow-to-elbow in cramped classrooms with no instructional materials yet they seemed happy to be there and thrilled to see us. Our first school visit was to the Ecole Lhadchat, a tribal school outside the city of Marrakesh, which consisted of two stucco rooms. There are 110 primary-aged students at this school, which operates on a daily split session with half the students in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. Our delegation was completely overwhelmed by the reception that we received at Ecole Lhadchat and we were informed that the school had prepared for our visit for days. A large tent had been raised outside of the school so that the parents and townspeople could meet us. Handshakes from the townspeople and plentiful hugs from the children started our tour. When we met the principal prior to our classroom visitation, his first concern was our comfort as he immediately informed us that there are no bathrooms. Students relieve themselves in ditches behind the school. He explained that there is no water at the school. No running water for the bathroom, to wash hands, to clean utensils, or to drink. Water must be carried in from distant places in jugs. As I heard this, I remained incredulous about how a school could function with no water! The principal stated that there was no money to either dig a well, which would cost about $3,000, or run water pipes, which he said would cost about $10,000. That telling statement set the stage for what we would see next.
Inside the crowded classrooms at Ecole Lhadchat, we met students who were eager to see these strangers that we were. We looked differently than they did. We did not speak either Arabic or French, so communication was largely by smiles, handshakes, hugs, and songs. Without missing a beat, we taught the students the song, “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” and soon the students were trying to sing with us. In turn, students taught us a song in Arabic and, while our pronunciation amused them, there was a strong bond of two cultures breaking through the inability to communicate with open hearts and goodwill. As I studied the classroom, my heart silently broke. These students who walk several miles each way to school in the middle of the Sahara Desert Region had no books, no paper, no pens, and the only “technology” we saw was an old broken blackboard hung on a far wall. The desks were clearly salvaged decades ago from distant countries. Two or three students sat huddled together at each desk with no understanding about their lack of materials or what a typical classroom should look like. We brought these students small gifts such as paper, pencils, pens, balls, coloring books, and story books and I truly have never seen a child get so excited over anything as these students did.
The townspeople had made huge tagines of meats, vegetables, and couscous for us, and I could not help but sadly wonder how they ever obtained the money or resources to create such a feast. They could not have been more welcoming and thrilled to see us. At one point, as the desert winds started to blow sand around us, I saw jugs of precious water miraculously appear from an old truck and the townspeople poured their precious water on the sand so it would not blow on us. My heart broke for the second time that day as I saw a gracious and generous people freely give up their scarce water for our comfort. To say that Ecole Lhadchat left an indelible impression on us is a vast understatement. The school touched our hearts and remains indelibly imprinted on our minds.
The second school we visited was the Kchait Primary School on the outskirts of Ait-Ben-Haddou and we traveled across the High Atlas Mountains, the highest point in Morocco, to get there. Similar to the Ecole Lhadchat, this is a small and isolated school. We were once again informed that there were no bathroom facilities for our group as soon as we arrived because they, also, had no water. The Kchait Primary School focused on the Berber community and the Berber language was their primary language of instruction along with Arabic and French. The school was similarly situated as Ecole Lhadchat with multi-aged groupings of elbow-to-elbow students in each of three classrooms with minimal, if any, materials. Family volunteers come to the school daily to bring lunch to the students so they do not have to make the extremely long round trip to and from the school for lunch. These students appear happy at their school, as well, eager to learn, and incredibly curious about their visitors! Visiting these two schools taught us all a huge lesson about gratitude and appreciation.
The third and final school we visited was the Rabat American School on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in the huge and glittering city of Casablanca. If you have a fantasized notion of what Casablanca is like, you need to treasure it because Casablanca is simply a huge city. While there is a Rick’s Café in Casablanca, it is about 20 years old and was created because tourists kept asking, “Where is Rick’s Café?” Comparison of the Rabat American School to the Ecole Lhadchat and Kchait Primary School is simply impossible because this is a school where 450 Pre-K – 12th grade students from 44 different countries, including the United States, attend. This is the school where children of the diplomats, business icons, and other notables are enrolled. All of the 11th and 12th graders in the Rabat American School participate in the International Baccalaureate program with more than 80% earning the IB diploma. The mission of this school is to prepare the students for a college education and the tuition is $26,000 per year. Considering that the cost of living in Morocco is far less than it is in the United States, this is an extravagant sum of money. In this school, water and bathrooms are plentiful and, stepping into a classroom, I could easily believe I was in a typical U.S. high school. I talked to some American students and I received typical American student responses. They were not impressed by our contingent.
The Moroccan culture and history are mesmerizing. Our delegation had the once in a lifetime experience of going on a sunset camel ride in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Words cannot adequately express the peace and serenity that I experienced on that camel ride. There was no cell service. There were no directional signs showing where we were and, for the first time in my life, I actually had no idea where I was other than simply the Sahara Desert. Riding these tall majestic animals was one of the most calming experiences of my life. There is no graceful way to get on a camel and there is no saddle or other means to secure the rider atop these single-hump dromedaries. At first, I held on for dear life, but soon became accustomed to the lumbering and lopsided way that a camel walks in the desert and my camel and I bonded. After riding for about an hour across dunes of reddish Sahara Desert sand, we got off of our camels and quietly watched the sunset. You could almost touch the sun and there was no sound except the serenity of our world. Riding the camels back to our originating point in the twilight was equally peaceful and, as I slid off my camel and saw the stars in the empty Moroccan sky, I knew I had just had an experience that would forever remain with me.
As I reflect back on this incredible delegation to Morocco, my thoughts focus on the students that we met, their principals who were so concerned about our comfort when they themselves had no comforts of life, and the lack of instructional materials coupled with the pride of the parents and students in their schools. I left the Ecole Lhadchat and Kchait Primary School with the conviction that I will never take our system of education for granted. I learned that the joy of learning can be experienced in many different ways, that the excitement of meeting people from different cultures transcends our language barriers, and that experiencing life in a country where the culture is completely different than what we experience in the United States makes us appreciate the diversity of our world in many different way. Thank you, students, parents, and citizens of Morocco! I will never forget you!