Saturday, August 6, 2011
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.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
- 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.
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 www.ocpgroup.ma) 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 www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_46/b4203080895976.htm, "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
- 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 enjoy walking through the city of
- I was waiting for the tram near the
African Studies Centerin , 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. Rabat
- I was in the Agdel section of
Rabatand was heading towards the tram that I needed in order to return for an afternoon lecture at the 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. African Studies Center
- 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.
- 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.
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
I prefer to stroll along the streets in the
Throughout my travels to many countries and hundreds of cities, it is rare that I find a town that I want to settle down at. I have been to many cities in
The atmosphere in this town is unique and cannot be explained. Even the dogs and cats here look relaxed, in a Zen state of mind. It might be the coast, or the ocean breeze, or the people, or the blue sky, or the big giant donuts that they sell along the streets in the medina, or all of the above. What ever it is that makes this town unique, I am definitely coming back!!!
Monday, August 1, 2011
The earliest written evidence of the use of henna in bridal adornment goes back to 2100 BCE, when it was associated with an Ugaritic legend about Baal and the fierce goddess Anath. It was grown and used in Spain from the ninth century to 1567, when it was banned by the Inquisition. But it is still widely used--by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Sikhs and Roma--across the region from India to Morocco, and in places where people from that region have migrated. My Roma grandfather wrote a beautiful short story about his grandmother's wedding day in Wales, describing the henna designs on her hands. Henna has been used for joyful occasions other than weddings, including battle victories, births, circumcision ceremonies and birthdays.
True henna comes from the plant known scientifically as Lawsonia inermis. The active ingredient is an organic compound called lawsone that, when it bonds to proteins in the skin, is responsible for the coloring effect. Lawsone is found in fresh henna leaves, especially in the petioles, and it is released by smashing the leaves with a mildly acidic liquid. The mash may be powdered and then mixed with lemon juice or strong tea six to twelve hours before use. Without this resting period, the lawsone might not be released and the coloring might not successful. The stain may be improved by adding essential oils (e.g. tea tree, eucalyptus or lavendar) with high levels of monoterpene alcohols. The paste must be made from fresh leaves and left on the skin for at least a few hours and preferably longer; to keep the paste from falling off during this time, a sugar-lemon mixture (or just sugar) may be used. Sometimes the designs are also loosely wrapped during this period. Old henna turns brown, but some dishonest artists use a green dye to make the mix look fresher--an understandable deception in a hot climate, perhaps, since henna spoils quickly if it isn't kept in a cool place and away from exposure to sunlight. But once henna is applied to the skin, steaming or warming may darken the stain. Alkalines hasten the darkening process. Soaps and chlorinated water may spoil the stain.
Improperly stored henna may be contaminated by Salmonella or other microbes. Premixed henna powders may contain adulterants, including silver nitrate, chromium, pyrogallol, carmine and/or orange dye, that are hazardous to your health; certain henna products for use in body art are thus banned by the US Food and Drug Administration(though it is approved for use in hair products). So-called "black henna" is not really henna at all, and caution is advised: It often causes an extreme allergic reaction, with blistering and permanent scarring. The blistering might not appear until three to twelve days after application. Sometimes "black henna" is mixed with gasoline, kerosene, benzene or other chemicals associated with risk of adult leukemia.
But properly grown and mixed henna seldom causes an allergic reaction or other health problems. Morocco is among the major growers and exporters in the world, along with India, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Iran and the Sudan. During years with the requisite timing and amount of rainfall, plants may yield two or even three crops a year. Fine henna artists in Morocco, almost exclusively women, can earn good money with their skilled work. Henna is also used to dye wool and leather, for its color and also for its antifungal properties. In ancient times the henna plant was also used to make perfume, and there is a new commercial demand for this product.
I teach a class that integrates science with global studies, with a focus on sustainability issues. I look forward to teaching about the history, production and chemistry of henna, closing with a (legal) henna party.