Magazine article Geographical

Taking the High Road: Hazel Southam Joins a Berber Family on Their Annual Migration across Morocco's High Atlas Mountains and Discovers How Widespread Environmental Degradation Has Left Them Struggling to Maintain Their Flocks and Traditional Nomadic Lifestyles

Magazine article Geographical

Taking the High Road: Hazel Southam Joins a Berber Family on Their Annual Migration across Morocco's High Atlas Mountains and Discovers How Widespread Environmental Degradation Has Left Them Struggling to Maintain Their Flocks and Traditional Nomadic Lifestyles

Article excerpt

Mohamed Elyakoubi is cooking kebabs over an open fire. During the afternoon, one of his sheep was killed for dinner and this is the result.

He alternates inch-cubed pieces of meat with slices of onion. And for the night's greatest treat, he cooks the intestines directly in the flames, dices them, wraps them in pieces of the sheep's stomach and cooks them again.

It's mouthwateringly delicious, but it's also a rare treat for Mohamed and his family, nomadic herders in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains. Despite being surrounded by 200 goats and 30 sheep. meat is seldom on the menu. Tea, bread, oil and couscous make up their basic diet.

So, this isn't so much a late-night snack under the stars, but more of a religious ceremony. As each kebab is cooked, Mohamed rises and walks around the assembled company, handing out two pieces of meat and a small piece of bread to each person.

'Bismillah; he intones, head lowered. 'In the name of God.' It's like nothing so much as Holy Communion, and I find myself responding with 'Amen'. This is a meal for which we are truly thankful.

TOURIST TRAIL

For Mohamed, this is a particularly significant meal. He wouldn't be having it if we weren't there. He and his family are among the few surviving nomads who make a bi-annual migration each May and September through the High Atlas with their livestock.

It's an ancient way of life that dates back some 4,000 years. Generations of Berber nomads have camped in this exact spot, but Mohamed will be the last in his family to do so. Climate change and environmental degradation have taken a devastating toll on the landscape, his flock and his way of life.

So, three years ago, he made a decision: he would take tourists with him on the migration to help sustain the family. How much this adds to his income varies, but he guesses that it's around 10-20 per cent. 'If there are good years and there are lots of tourists, we can keep going,' he says. 'But with no grass, tourism is not enough. And the environment is changing.'

Certainly, as we set off from the dry riverbed at Ait Youl, at 2,000 metres, the environment looks unpromising for a herder with a sizeable flock of goats and sheep, three donkeys and 11 camels to feed. The mountains rise steeply around us and there's little vegetation save ouchfoud, a tussocky plant that manages to grow all across the mountains. And there's no water.

It's easy to look at Mohamed and his animals and picture a scene that hasn't changed much in 4,000 years, but it has, and dramatically. Although the route that the families follow hasn't altered at all in that time, what they encounter along the way most definitely has.

And it has done so within a lifetime. Mohamed is 32 years old and has lived through the transformation. 'In the past. there were lots of trees and grass here,' he says. 'It was good. Everyone was happy. But now, as you can see, there's nothing.

'We were happy then,' he continues. 'There were lots of people. There was no competition between them. Everyone could eat; everyone could graze his animals. You could leave your friends with your family and know they would be taken care of while you worked. Everything was good at that time. We were happy to go altogether.'

DECLINING NUMBERS

As recently as 1988, some 410 families and their livestock made the 60-kilometre. six-day migration over the High Atlas from Air Youl to the plateau that lies before the village of Air Ouham. Today, just 34 years later, only 15 families remain, and six of them are partly funding the journey by taking tourists with them.

And because the environment is now so degraded, providing scarce grazing for the animals, the competition between those 15 remaining families is actually much greater than it was when the route was bustling with camel trains and nomads. We get an insight into this every day. Another family is hosting a small group of German tourists--they camp near us at Air Youl and on several subsequent nights. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.