Rif mountain children For a first-time visitor to the beautiful Rif Mountains of northern Morocco, life appears idyllic, tranquil and laid-back. But the signs of entrenched, intractable poverty soon become apparent the more time one spends in these rugged, wild lands, and the struggles of its people ever more obvious. And as is inevitably the case in regions of great poverty, the children of the Rif must be tough, adaptable and quick-witted in order to survive.
Education is not a given for these kids. While free state education does exist, it is limited and often inaccessible to Rif children, either due to physical distance and lack of transport, or due to them simply being needed elsewhere. Although many families recognise the potential for education to improve socio-economic conditions for individuals and their families, this too is not a given, and much-needed value can be far more easily extracted by putting a child to work in the cannabis fields, or cooking tagine for tourists, or washing cars at the side of the winding mountain roads with water piped straight from the Falls of Akchour themselves.
Indeed, at Akchour, the beautiful and popular waterfalls not far from Chefchaouen (one of the Rif’s principal towns), boys can be seen engaged in all manners of industry. As we ascend to the private dirt road made by the locals to service the vast cannabis fields that lie just over the hill from the main tourist trail (and which flourish quietly while the vast majority of these tourists remain ignorant of their very existence), we are offered hashish by one small boy of no more than nine years, while another squats metres away scrubbing a huge tureen almost as large as himself, in a shallow, calm section of the falls. Two more, somewhat older at perhaps 14 or 15, are busily engaged preparing tagine for a family from the south of Morocco, who is seated at a nearby table. All appear street-smart, confident and entirely at ease in their prematurely-adult roles.
Thus, children here learn fast, and experience a way of life that is a strange limbo between the inevitability of permanent grinding poverty and the slim chance of striking gold – the gold in this case obviously being the aromatic herbal products of the Rif – in the form of a big sale, and escaping poverty once and for all. For many, life will be a constant cycle of small windfalls followed by months of next-to-no income, while waiting for the next small windfall. Consistent, sufficient income is a distant dream for most of these kids, and will remain a dream for many even throughout adulthood.
However, one thing these boys do have that the privileged, sheltered offspring of Western societies increasingly lack is freedom to simply exist, and to exist simply. Freedom to scratch one’s living from the soil or from the tourists in whatever way one sees fit, provided that it doesn’t step on toes that shouldn’t be stepped on, and that it ensures that the right people are afforded with the right amount in kickbacks.
For girls, it’s a different story. Although Morocco is extremely relaxed by Islamic standards, girls are nonetheless far more restricted in their daily activities, and decidedly less free. This is not true across the board, and many young girls here are clearly given the freedom to play and run with the boys, but there remains an incontrovertible double standard, which is ostensibly to protect the safety and virtue of the girls but in some cases is in fact the exact opposite.
I am told of a lively industry whereby underage girls (and occasionally boys) are pimped out by their own families to any taker for as little as 50 dirhams (equivalent to just over $5) per night. I am further told that the only stipulation is that the children are returned undamaged – but in the event that damage does occur, it can usually be settled by payment of an equivalent fee to the potential loss of earnings to the family.
This dark side to Rif life is disturbing and deeply concerning, but is not unexpected in a region so poverty-stricken and so heavily visited by tourists, traders and hashish traffickers. However, there are some indications that the situation is improving, and as Morocco continues its slapdash march toward modernity, life for the boys and girls of the Rif will no doubt undergo some improvements.
Later, we stop to have our car washed by one of the many groups of small boys standing at the side of the road back to Tetouan. We greet the boys, and I strike up a conversation with one boy in my broken French. His name is Mohammed, and he is one of the lucky ones: although he has to work hard throughout the holidays, school starts back up next week and he will be attending. As we talk, his father walks up to us and places his arm proudly around his son’s shoulders; they wave us goodbye as we depart.