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Monday, December 16, 2013

Day 8 – Sahara Desert Visits

Sunrise on the Sahara

I found that the desert pulled something out of me, and the sunrise would make its message clearer.  A biblical quote came forth: “Be still and know that I am God” now made sense. Actually, the stillness was deafening. I even felt a little dizzy. Maybe my ears were still plugged up from the change in altitude we experienced yesterday as we climbed the mountains. But I felt I was on a different plane from usual. I couldn't hear or smell anything, and all I could see and feel was sand. It was like a void and then I realized that to fill this void, humanity has created the arts. People sing and play music, they dance, they paint, they draw, the sculpture to break the silence. And isn't this what God did? The universe was a void and God filled it with Creation. 

A couple of the women from our group joined me on the dune.  As the sun rose, a rooster in the nomad camp crowed and a donkey brayed. They, too, gave homage to the new day. It is a time to celebrate!! 

In the distance we could see a small figure crossing the dunes and coming toward us. We had all been quiet until it approached. It was a small girl in traditional clothing. As she neared us, she knelt down without a word. Then, she gingerly pulled something out of her bag. It was a colorful, homemade camel—for sale. She continued her silence and then waited. Soon a younger girl joined her in the same manner.

The desert brings out many things. Most of them are unexpected. Most of them are glorious. Some of them are unbelievable.

Nomad Camp
Hadijah cards camel hair in her nomad tent

After breakfast we walked east for 20-30 minutes to the nomad camp and met Hadijah, 46. She has become an “OAT Nomad” because she stays near our camp and doesn't move as nomads do. Actually, OAT pays her to serve as one of our visits, and she's glad to do it. She doesn't like moving and she doesn't miss it a bit. A big part of the problem is that she doesn't have the money to rent a truck to move.  That means she would have to walk and that is extremely tiring and difficult in the sand. When nomads raise sheep and goats, they need to move about because the animals need grazing land. Farming nomads, however, don't need to move.
Hadijah served us hot mint tea
Another reason she stays here is that her husband died from something, she doesn't know what. He was healthy one day and then suddenly got sick. He was somewhere between 40 and 50 years old.  She has eight children, and like the woman from the poor family, she wants the best for them and hopes they have a better life than she does. Two live with her and work in the Sahara; two are nomads and tend sheep; the others are married and living far away.

Her parents and grandparents were nomads and that's the only life she's known. It is difficult to trace her heritage any further back than that. She was very matter of fact in her approach to life and didn't see the need to be philosophical or romantic about the nomadic life.

water and olive oil supplies outside Hadijah's tent
bags of camel dung for fuel
Her daily life is fairly simple. She gets up between 5 and 6 a.m. and prepares tea and breakfast for her children. Then she goes to the river nearby to collect wood for the fire and water from the well. (There are plenty of “nomad wells” because the government provides them. The are on two the six meters deep, so they are quite accessible. Tomorrow we would see some nomads taking some water from one of these wells. They pull up a bucket of water with a rope and then use the water for drinking and washing clothes.) She bakes the day's bread and prepares lunch. When she has free time she cards camel hair or embroiders. In the afternoon she doesn't work. Go goes to bed early. (The sun sets about 7 p.m. at this time of year.)

She was carding some camel hair as she talked with us and pulling it out to make thread. She rents a loom to weave it. It takes one year to make one strip, which is about 12 feet long. Camels are sheared every two years and sheep and goats every year.

Once a month she goes to the market to buy goods like tea and sugar. (Mercedes trucks come to pick up the nomads for these shopping trips. Before they used donkeys, camels, and mules. Nomads typically take sheep and goats—or their butter—to market to make money.) Hadijah has three camels and six goats.

She has a copper ring on her finger not for any particular reason or symbol but because she likes it. She wears henna on the tips of her fingers for the same reason. She wears kohl under her eyes to protect them from the sun.  (According to Wikipedia, kohl is an ancient eye cosmetic, traditionally made by grinding galena (lead sulfide) and other ingredients. It is widely used in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of West Africa to darken the eyelids and as mascara for the eyelashes. It is worn mostly by women, but also by some men and children.)

Her tent is made out of camel and goat hair.  We sat on rugs under the camel hair tent and it was warm and comfortable. It runs north and south and has flaps on the east and west sides of the tent so that either can be opened or closed depending on the weather. She opens the flaps to let the sun in and closes them when the wind is bad. This morning the eastern flap was open.

inside Hadijah's tent
In her answer to the question about what makes her happy, she said there was nothing to be happy about. Yemni explained that the nomads spend most of their time coping with life and living for their children. They don't think about their own lives, but rather they have hope that their children will have better lives than they do. Hadijah had a bright and smiling face. Perhaps this is because she assumes a paradoxical outlook on life that involves acceptance and resignation. She doesn't seem to take life too seriously. Although she doesn't know anything about entertainment as we city people understand, says Yemni, she does like to watch the dancing that goes on at a wedding in the village.

Hadijah's neighbors
She has some interaction with other tent families that are nearby. They all know each other and they help each other out when they need it, like borrowing sugar for cooking. She is a Muslim and like most old people, she prays five times a day at home because she doesn't have access to a mosque.

I asked her what she thought of the OAT visitors and she answered that she wondered why they come to the Sahara. In fact, she thinks we're crazy to come to a place that is hard to live in, especially one that only offers heat and sand storms. I guess a lot of the locals can't see the beauty of the place as we do. They take it for granted—just as so many of us take our homes for granted. When we live in them, they just aren't that special or unique as when we visit other places.

After our visit with Hadijah, there were some vendors anxious to sell us some goods.  Hadijah showed Kari how to wear a head piece.  Then she posed with her for this precious photo below.

 We were hard pressed to find much life among the sand dunes, but we did find a bug at the nomad camp. Later in the day we saw sparrows flitting and swooping among the dunes. I'm sure that if we had stayed longer, we would have found more signs of life.


Desert Farm
young date palms planted near irrigation ditch
You wouldn't think there would be any farming going on in the Sahara Desert, but there is. About twenty or thirty years ago, one successful hotel owner decided to build a farm to help grow crops for his hotel restaurant. He started with date palms and used drip irrigation, a technique developed by Israelis. He also uses flood irrigation, as evidenced by the foot-high mud walls that section off his various crops. These sections are about 20 to 30 feet squares and they include such things as eggplants, carrots, parsnips, garlic, cabbage, fava beans, apricots, red chili peppers, cumin, almonds, lemons, pommagranites, henna (for hair dye and make-up), alfalfa and barley for the sheep. He also grows bamboo and sells it to people for their roofs and fences.

The henna, alfalfa, and date palms make money but the vegetables are for the hotel. The soil is good here and crops are raised organically and fertilized with dung. The farm is now 7 acres but it is expanding. He has experimented with cotton, but that was a failure.

irrigation trenches
One of the first things we saw as we approached the farm was a solar-powered water pump, the tool that is so essential for growing crops in the desert. The pump also works on diesel and electricity. The farmer has two pumps: one inside his place and the other outside it so that other people may use it. It seemed an anomaly that there would be water here in this dry desert land, but when grass and trees grow in an area, that means there is water.

The Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture encourages drip irrigation by reimbursing farmers' expenses for the equipment. They buy what they need and provide receipts and 100% is repaid. This is part of the government's
a solar-powered well made available to nomads
overall program to support agriculture. Already it has irrigated 1.4 million hectares, but it plans to irrigate 8 million hectares of good land. The government recognizes the dangers of global warming, especially in a country that only gets three or four months of rain. However, it focuses on capturing as much water as it can through various methods. The southern part of the country, divided by the High Atlas Mountains, is especially problematic since it is arid, while the north side of the mountains is green. 
a pretty lush, pretty diverse desert farm that provides local food at its best

Berber Cemetery
After 100 years or so, the mud houses of the Sahara begin to “melt” beyond any restoration. Then people abandon them and move on to build other houses and neighborhoods. Near one abandoned settlement, we visited a Berber Cemetery. As non-Muslims, we were not allowed to walk among the stones because that is considered a desecration. Yemani explained Muslim burial customs at this cemetery because we could get close to it.

The body, which has been washed, perfumed then wrapped in white cloth, is buried in the ground without a coffin. There is a stone marker at the head and the feet of the body. Men's stones are parallel to each other lengthwise, while women's stones are placed with the foot on the width end with the length of the stone at the head. So that the body may face Mecca, the Muslim holy city, the body is placed on its side and not on its back.

Bodies are buried within 24 hours after the death. Before it is buried, the body is taken to the mosque for good-bye prayers. Women are not allowed to visit the grave site until three days after burial, and only men are allowed to bury bodies.

Until the 1970s, people placed two bowls at the grave site where they put water in one bowl and grain in the other for the birds. Now they put flowers on the graves, which is a French influence. People typically visit the dead on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. None of the markers has a name on it. This is a typical countryside practice while people in cities DO put names and sometimes birth and death dates on the grave stones. There they must also pay for a plot. Some urban graves also are in marble.

Evening Meal and Sky Phenomenon
Before our evening meal, Yemni led us in a discussion about the Islamic religion. He told the story about how the Prophet Mohammed founded the new religion and how it spread. Then, just as we did last night, we had some appetizers of almonds, peanuts, and biscuits with tea or wine before we settled down to soup, bread, and a tagine of lamb, potatoes, carrots, and onions.

In the middle of the evening activity, someone noticed a special sky manifestation. The almost full moon had a halo around it. Jupiter and another bright star were near the ring, while Venus shone brightly in the west. No one had ever seen such a phenomenon, nor did they know what it was. I am sure that it was a sign of some kind, only I've not come up with a story about it. 

I did not get a photo of the moon halo, but found one like it photographed at Pearl River, LA just after the passage of a cold front. The halo is attributed to refraction in high altitude ice crystal.  Source:  Georgia State Univ Department of of Physics and Astronomy 

 About 8:30 we all went to bed in the pitch-black night with our hot water bottles in hand (to help keep us warm under the covers).  Although we have a light in our tent, we are without electricity and Internet power. This is our version of “roughing it” out in the desert. 


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