Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sub-Saharan Migration

While in Rabat, I met a young Senegalese teen that was selling hand made wooden items on the street near the medina. Having bought a small mask the day before from him, I came back to see if there was another item that I would be interested in buying.

I talked with this young man for nearly 30 minutes and learned alot about how he came to be in Mocorro. He said that he was from Senegal, and that he was in Morocco with his brother. Not only had they come to Morocco alone, but they came without much money. Their original plan was to try to go to Europe via Spain, but that it was hard to do so, especially without money.

The following day, I went to go see him again, having emailed him the night before. He said that he and his brother had a serious talk that night and decided that it would be best to go back to Senegal for the time being, and to try to come back to Morocco some time in the future once they secured more money.

Art in Rabat

I am back in Rabat for the second half of Arabic lessons. I had the opportunity to visit  an artist's row next the park which had a rap concert going on.  In speaking with the artists, they informed me that this area was designed only for visual artists. This give artists an opportunity to showcase, sell their paintings and interact with the community. What amazed me was the quality of artwork. As an art teacher, I was also surprised that the paintings had real faces. In the art history books, they will say, Islamic art does not have people in it. I saw realistic to folk art portraits of people. In speaking with the artists, they brought to my attention that painting faces of people had nothing to do with religion. They didn't feel that they were doing anything wrong that would denounce their faith. Most of these artists had no formal training. Their love of art is what inspired them.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Impact of tourism

Tourism is an important source of income and employment in Morocco, but it comes with a number of challenges. For example:

  • Water is a scarce resource in Morocco, and tourists use a lot of it when they stay in hotels and swim in pools--and especially when they go golfing. A single 18-hole golf course requires 3500 m/day of water, which is 3.5 times as much as the average Moroccan consumes in a whole year. While traveling, we've seen several fancy golf courses in locations not far removed from houses without running water.
  • There's been a big increase recently in use of 4 x 4 vehicles for recreation and travel in the desert. These vehicles break the fragile crust which normally reduces soil erosion in sandy areas. During dry periods, scientists have measured a 4000 % increase in airborne particulates in areas where 4 x 4s regularly operate in the desert. Near Merzouga, we raced across sand dunes and black rock desert in 4 x 4s. It was a great way to come into contact with people living or working in remote locations, and some people are using this kind of transportation to support new "nomad schools". (I'm very interested in learning more about those schools.) But destabilized dunes often destroy important sources of water. Travel by camel doesn't have the same impact. We rode camels one day too, and I can't say I like that form of transportation any more than I like automobiles; in both situations, I am a terrible back-seat driver without much interest in taking the "wheel". But camels don't damage the desert in the same way that 4 x 4s do.
  • Morocco has done a better job than many countries with development of local tourist operations (hotels, guide agencies, transportation). But a lot of tourist dollars still "escape" the Moroccan economy because they are pumped into chain hotels owned by multinational corporations.
  • A Moroccan NGO recently released a study calling for better protection of coastal, mountain and desert areas that are attractive to tourists, with simultaneous consideration of the aspirations of local people. This study is consistent with UNESCO's definition of "sustainability"", which addresses environmental, cultural, economic and political issues framed by high standards for social justice.


In Safi, we saw a giant phosphate industrial facility beside the sea. It wasn't lovely, but it interested me because my students have been monitoring phosphate levels since 2003 for the King County Small Lakes Program in Washington state. Agricultural use in fertilizers is the main source of phosphate water pollution, but phosphates are also used in a long list of other products including some pesticides and detergents, lithium ion batteries, food additives (e.g. in Coca Cola), and certain kinds of bombs. It's called pollution because phosphates nourish blooms of cyanobacteria, which can make a body of water unfit for other life. Some blooms even produce neurotoxins, which can kill livestock (or people, if they drink the water). I've had the opportunity to work with Moroccan teachers and students this summer on water quality monitoring projects in both urban and rural areas (in Rabat, and south of Asilah), and we found cyanobacteria blooms in coastal coves, livestock ponds, and wells. The warm summer months encourage the most extensive blooms.

My students share and compare the results of their water quality research with partner schools in several countries, and they follow up with remediation and educational outreach work. They prepare brochures and teach workshops, especially focusing on alternatives to using phosphate fertilizers and best practices if you do use those products. But Moroccan students are much more aware of the challenges when it comes to limiting phosphate use in agriculture.

Morocco is the world leader in phosphate production, with more than half of the world's known reserves. The national industrial group known as OCP (see controls thirty percent of global phosphate exports. And it's not just the money that matters. Historically, colonial control of the phosphate industry was a big issue in the independence movement and in the war over the Western Sahara. At the time of independence, many European "analysts" warned that Moroccans couldn't manage the phosphate industry for themselves, and there is earned pride in proving these predictions wrong. (For more on the role of phosphates in Moroccan history, see Morocco: From Empire to Independence, by C. R. Pennell, pp. 138, 148-49, 153, 157, 163, 170-73, 179.)

But phosphate fertilizers are expensive, and the price is going up. This is good for the Moroccan GNP, but not so good for small Moroccan farmers who must compete with capital-intensive agriculture. The government, through OCP and through various ministries, has put into place some support systems for small farmers--and one form of support is reduced-cost access to phosphate fertilizers. Meanwhile, especially during the recent drought years, many associations have reported livestock deaths due to cyanobacteria blooms.

The price is going up because experts say that world reserves will only last for a few more decades. You've heard of "Peak Oil", and the conflicts (actual and expected) around growing competition for a declining resource. James Elser, Arizona State University professor, speaks in terms of "Peak Phosphorus", and he says we're there. The difference is that a number of countries are big oil producers, but Morocco dominates the world phosphates market. This means money in the short term, but it points to the need for diversification of the economy.

It also begs a question about national security, since Morocco has something that other countries want. It's such a big deal that the United States Department of Energy has appointed a specialist, in its Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, to address the phosphate supply issue. She says that she is not at liberty to discuss her work, due to "geopolitical sensitivities". (See, "Phosphate:
Morocco's White Gold".)

Because of the expected shortage, some scientists are experimenting with ways to isolate phosphates from human urine. What goes around comes around: Phosphorus was originally discovered by an 18th century alchemist searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Dr. Elser recounts that he pursued this goal "by collecting urine from beer-drinking German soldiers and then heating it up and evaporating it away until he got only the phosphorus left". The rock-like substance glowed in the dark.

Phosphates are essential for life as we know it. Without phosphates, there wouldn't be any DNA, RNA or ATP molecules. But we're releasing it into the biosphere now at a rate that's four times what Dr. Elser thinks is manageable in terms of its impact on water resources. It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the phosphate reserves in Morocco, which formed in sedimentary rock under an ancient sea. Remember the marine fossils we saw in the desert workshop? Some of them were fragments of stromatolites, defined by NASA as "laminated organo-sedimentary structures formed by the trapping and binding and/or precipitation of minerals by micro-organisms". Most important of those micro-organisms? Cyanobacteria. And it's not surprising that an organism which is nourished by phosphates would also be associated with its release. Indeed, there's a relationship (not yet well understood) between stromatolite-building organisms and phosphate mineralization. (See Stromatolites, by M. R. Walter.)

But there isn't any more stromatolite formation going on in Morocco, and there isn't an endless supply of phosphates. Phosphate use comes with environmental risks, though phosphate fertilizer has short-term benefits for farmers who can afford it. And the phosphate industry is an intelligence matter in countries that want more of it.

With a Moroccan partner teacher, it'll be interesting to develop a cross-curricular unit about phosphates. The story ties together learning goals in biology, chemistry, geography, history and current events.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Water stories

In my classroom, I use cultural stories about water to establish the importance of learning about water issues. I've developed integrated science/social studies units on water for different parts of the world, most recently the Tigris-Euphrates region in greater Mesopotamia (including parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iran) and the Yellow River watershed in China. I want to do the same for Morocco, so I'm collecting water stories. For example:

  • At Volubilis, we saw a Roman mosaic representing the legend of Diana and Actaeon. This is one of my favorite stories, because my grandmother (suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and unable to remember my real name) liked to call me Diana. Spellbound Actaeon spied on the goddess while she was bathing in water from Pegae, the spring associated with Pegasus. Outraged, Diana turned Actaeon into a voiceless stag; he couldn't even call for help when his own hunting dogs attacked him.
  • Nearby, another mosaic shows Hylas at Pegae. Hylas was an argonaut with Hercules, but his travels ended at the sacred spring. Naiads, in love with his good looks, pulled him under the water and he was never seen again. In some versions of the story, he had the chance to escape but chose to stay with the water nymphs.
  • In Volubilis we also saw Roman aquaducts, fountains and rainwater collection systems.
  • In the oasis at Tinghir, we walked with an Amazigh guide through communal farmland irrigated by water that also passes through dramatic Toudra Gorge. We came to a place where a small irrigation canal flows under a footbridge, and our guide told us about a tradition that has only recently lost its meaning: When a young woman was anxious to find a husband, she would strip off her clothes and hide them in the date palms nearby, and then float five times under the bridge. If her clothes were found, a marriage arrangement was sure to follow.
  • The "marriage bridge" was very near to an irrigation canal which was temporarily blocked with mud and gravel, diverting the water to a small patch of maize. Once the crop was watered, so we were told, the canal would be unblocked and the water would flow to other fields. The resource is shared by the families that farm in the oasis, and the crops are also shared as needed.
  • On the site of Chellah in Rabat, ancient Roman city and later (during the 13th through 15th centuries) a royal necropolis, there is an old hamam--a communal bathhouse--similar in structure to hamams still in use. Most of the women in our group have gone to a hamam in one city or another during our sojourn in Morocco. You steam and clean yourself, apply henna to your skin, and then scrub hard until the old layers are removed.
  • The cleaning of carpets may also be accomplished in a public place. At "the source" in Chefcahouen, a cascade of water coming from between two mountains above the city, women scrub carpets in a natural pool where children also swim.
  • In the medina in Fes, we learned that zigzag patterns in Amazigh carpets always signify water.
  • At Ksar Ait ben Haddou, we learned about salinization of the local water supply. UNESCO now brings water 15 kilometers from the mountains to resident families in the kasbah.
  • In the desert, we learned about the ancient route from Morocco to Timbuktu in Mali. The name of the city is a compound word: "Tim" refers to a particular source of water, a well that still exists. "Buktu" refers to the woman who carries the water.
  • Also in the desert, in a remote tent camp, an ancient Amazigh woman told us that when she was a girl there was more rainfall and more permanent sources of water; the climate has changed, she reported.
  • Where there is now desert, once there was a great sea. We saw many marine fossils preserved in sedimentary rock, including Orthoceras (relative to the squid), goniatites and ammonites (nautilus species), trilobites, and stromatolites.
I will write another blog about stromatolites and the connection with the Moroccan phosphate industry.

Runaway Tram Adventure

I enjoy walking through the city of Rabat, and I have had some long distance walks. However, because of time restraints, many times it was necessary just to use a tram. I have had interesting incidents occur either right before I was about to use the tram, or when I was on the tram. Below are just a few of those incidents.

  1. I was waiting for the tram near the African Studies Center in Rabat, when after waiting for some 25 minutes finally found out that there was an accident that prevented the tram from continuing for a little while.
  2. I was in the Agdel section of Rabat and was heading towards the tram that I needed in order to return for an afternoon lecture at the African Studies Center when suddenly in the middle of the tramway a group of protestors promoting rights for disabled and blind people prevented the tram from moving. They were there for about 20 minutes.
  3. I was on a tram and was planning to use an unused tram ticket from the day before. However, I was essentially thrown off the tram by a ticket collector because apparently you can only use a ticket the same day of purchase. Nobody told me this, though I use unused tickets from previous days before this situation anyways. I was almost charged 50 DH for a 7DH ticket.
  4. I was on the tram, but the door shut right before I was exiting. I waived goodbye to the people I was traveling and had to get off the next stop.

Medina vs. Mega Mall

Malls are never fun as they seem. Void of any characters, they are concrete structures with cookie-cutter stores and pretentious sale persons. If you have seen one mall, you have seen them all!!! Same shoe stores, same clothing shops, same food court, and the same consumers trying to fill their emotional void with materialistic and superficial things.

During my last weekend in Rabat, Moroccan friends of mine took me to the only western style mall in Rabat called “Mega Mall.” (Yes, that is the real name of the mall) He told me that there is a bigger version of it in Casablanca. As I walked through each floor of this mall, past the bowling alley, past the ice skating rink, and the food court, I was disgusted with what I saw. I travel so that I can get away from places like this.

I prefer to stroll along the streets in the Medina with the unique shops and one of a kind food stands that does not appeal to the masses. I enjoy mingling with the locals who are not dressed up in the latest western fashion styles. When I told my opinion of this to my Moroccan friends who were with me, they responded, “Isn’t that what everyone is aiming for around the world? To live like Americans.” The images that are shown on movies, TV shows, and music videos, the perception of America and it’s economic system are like a mirage. Of course this is just my personal opinion, but the current situation back in the United States proves my point.