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Harvest In the Mountains

Sep 4

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9/4/2010 1:05 PM  RssIcon

Harvest In the Mountains by Duncan Gromko

I spent two years in a small village in the High Atlas Mountains. Agoudim is a  remote village in the historically underdeveloped province of Khenifra. The twin peaks of Jbel Ayache and Jbel Masker isolate the village from the outside world and the mountainous terrain makes any business endeavor other than herding and subsistence farming an impossibility. While most tourists experience the crowded square of Marrakech, the windswept beaches of Essaouira or the hot desert sands of Merzouga, many Moroccans pass a hard-scrabble life, high in the mountains. There is no “typical” Morocco, but the village that I came to know is one part of the mosaic that makes up this diverse country.
I came to Agoudim in May, which is when harvest season is beginning. Wheat is the primary crop in the region and it takes a long time to harvest. One reason that it takes so long is that many of the fields are absurdly far away from the village. My town is in a valley, with small fields surrounding it. These fields are irrigated with water piped in from the river and fertilized with manure from people’s barn animals. As the valley continues up the riverbed, it narrows, eliminating any space for fields. After three miles, the valley widens, which is where the majority of the farming land is. These fields are neither irrigated nor fertilized, so their yield is much lower. The farming space is nestled up against the mountain and often on top of the foothills. The wide part of the valley stretches for about five miles and much of it is covered in wheat fields. My family’s fields are at the far end of the valley, meaning there is about eight miles between the house and the field. The rocky, mountainous nature of the land means that there is little fertile land available, pushing people far from their houses. This expanse of fields has its own name – Tidua - and there are even different names for different sections of the land.
The first day I helped out with harvest, we woke up at 4:45 and rode two mules to our field. My host mom had to stay home to take care of the cow, so we hired two women to help with harvest – my dad is 73 and doesn’t work very fast and I could hardly be counted on to harvest all the wheat. One of the women was married – a tamtut. The other woman was unmarried – turbat, which is the word for girl. A female is considered a girl until she marries. The word for her, her basic identity, is dependent on her marital status, which is not the case for men.
The four of us got to the field and started harvesting. A sickle is used to cut the wheat near the ground and tie it into small bundles. Summer is sunny and standing in the middle of a field quickly got uncomfortably hot. Bending over to cut the wheat quickly made my back ache. However, the women sang, which made it more pleasant. Berbers have a song for every occasion and their songs in the field expressed the difficulty of their work and lives. When they tired of singing, they told me to sing an American song, so I sang ”99 Bottles of Beer,” which was a great private joke for me. The best part about harvesting was the breaks: my host dad prepared sugary tea and we ate bread with homemade cow butter.
At the end of the day we loaded a giant bag full of wheat and hoisted it onto the mule. It’s as big of a bag as one could imagine a mule possibly carrying. The bag is loaded perpendicular to the mule’s spine and extends maybe 4 feet on either side of the animal. It might be four feet high and it sags down on either side of the mule. The women rode back on the second mule, leaving me and my host dad to walk the loaded mule back. Said cannot keep up with the mule, so it was just the mule and me for eight miles – a difficult walk at the end of a long day. Fortunately, the mule knew the road home better than I did.
Whenever you hire someone to do work for you, it’s customary to invite him or her over for a meal in your house. I like the custom because it means that work is not just an exchange of work for money. Women in my village hadn’t been coming to my host family’s house since I moved in, probably because they uncomfortable with me. So it was nice for me that these women felt relaxed enough to eat dinner in front of me; eating is often gender-segregated in rural Moroccan communities for non-family members.
We finished harvesting the wheat on the second day. On the one hand, two days with my back bent over reaching for wheat and the hot sun beating down on me is longer than I’d ever want to spend harvesting again. On the other hand, it’s a very meager harvest. All of the wheat didn’t fit in one bag, so we had to leave the wheat behind to bring home the next day, which meant a lot more walking.
Walking back with the mule, I ended up walking with my host uncle, Moha, and his mule. His bag of wheat was not loaded or tied on well. Precariously balanced a top the mule, it almost fell off several times; he would get to the bag just in time to stop it from falling. He wasn’t paying careful attention to the mule. Instead, he was excited to be talking to me. He had lots of questions about America: the weather, the food, the prices, the girls, and the work. In addition to all these questions, he was trying to convince me to come to his house immediately upon return to the village; all I wanted to do was find a pillow for my head. His mule got 20 meters ahead of us and he hardly seemed to notice. The bag started to tip off the mule, one end nearly dragging on the ground, with wheat spilling everywhere. The weight of most of the wheat on one side pulled the rest of the bag off the mule. The animal freaked out and tried to run, dragging the giant bag behind it. My uncle didn’t help things by screaming and panicking. He finally got control of the mule and motioned for me to come help him with the bag. I left my mule standing in the middle of the road and ran to help him. When I got there, we fruitlessly tried to lift the bag back up on the mule – it was far too heavy for two people. The mule got spooked again and ran away back down the path towards my mule. That scared my mule, which started running at full speed back towards the fields. I took off after it.
These bags of wheat are huge and easily unbalanced. Jarred from the running and kicking of the mule, the bag fell off, which only scared the mule more. It frantically jumped and kicked, trying to rid itself of the weight tied securely around its stomach. However, it tripped when the bag got tangled in its feet and fell to the ground, rolling as it fell. The gigantic bag of wheat fell on top of the mule. I got to the mule and vainly tried to pick up the bag myself. I was terrified because this seemed like a good way for the mule to break its leg. By this point, a third man had arrived and was helping the other guy; neither had seen what had happened to my mule. I yelled at them and the three of us managed to untie the bag and get it off the mule. After some other people showed up, we got both bags back on the mule, although it was tough because the mules were very skittish at that point. The rest of the way home my mule sort of limped and we walked slowly.
I was talking with my host family about the event a few days later, laughing about how crazy it all was. They said something how I shouldn’t feel bad for not paying attention to the mule. Moha had told them that I had been the one who neglected my mule. He tried to pass the blame on to me. When I told my host family the truth, they laughed and called my uncle bu-hilan – owner of lies. This name stuck and it became his nickname. This became one of my host mom’s favorite stories and she took every opportunity to tell people about our liar uncle and the wheat falling on the mule.
The biggest impression that the harvest made on me was the absurdity of the amount of work that went into procuring such a small amount of wheat. Months ago, Said and my host cousin Yazid had walked out to the fields and plowed them. Then we labored days under the sun and walked back and forth between these distant fields three times. Furthermore, the lack of irrigation and fertilizer at these fields meant that the yield from the fields was low. It drove home to me the poverty that Agoudim was living in and the lengths that they went to in order to eat and survive.
Berber village in High Atlas Mountains 
Berber village in high atlas mountains

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