Tales of Benshasha

1 Conversation

Having spent many years working with and around aid organisations,
NGOs and other such worthy bodies and having spent most of that time
criticising them for the way in which they live in the most luxurious
hotels and tackle problems from the outside, often missing the real
point entirely, it seemed hypocritical to do the same thing myself. It
is all very easy to pontificate on the problems of living on less than
a dollar-a-day from the comfort of the Sheraton Hotel bar as you down
G&Ts throughout happy hour, but it is quite another thing to
actually do it.

So, in order to try and get some sort of 'meaningful insight' into
their problems, there was only one solution: go and live there, but
more important, go and live there as they live.

Thus, this tale of woe began as a serious study of the problems of
rural Moroccan 'bidonvilles' but ended up as a story about a place and
the people living there. This was the result of total frustration, on
my part, and a feeling of complete hopelessness.

As I had nothing better to do in April 2000 and as Fatima—my wife—originated from Benshahsa, just such place as I wanted to study, the
choice of 'how' and 'where' was simple.

One might argue that this could affect my view of life there and that
I would be less objective. Perhaps, but I think not. It did enable me
to be accepted in the community as part of the clan (a dubious honour)
and as such I was probably able to see things that, as a total
stranger, I would have been excluded from other than as an outside

I also accept the likely criticism that my position was not 100%
genuine in that even if I had no money, and lived as the locals did, I
was not quite the same as them. I had both a passport and a
qualification, which enabled me to walk away from the situation at any
time I chose. It was therefore impossible for me to completely
understand the feelings of frustration, hopelessness and despair that
many of them feel and about which they can actually do nothing.

However, Fatima had managed to 'escape' at an early age. She had
absolutely no formal education but still managed to forge a reasonable
life for herself as well as maintaining a fair proportion of her
family at the same time. Having her interpretation on things proved
invaluable and I would have understood little or nothing without her.
In addition, she enabled me to see into the female side of life in the
village, without which one has no real understanding of life there at

There is however, one overwhelming conclusion as a result of the
experience and confirms something that I have pondered about for many
years and it is this. If you have nothing and have to live on less
than a dollar-a-day, it is a damn sight better doing it in the
countryside than in the city. And I can confirm this having done both.
In the countryside it is perfectly possible to have some sort of
'quality of life'. In the city it is not, you are simply 'down-and
out'. In the countryside it is possible to maintain some sort of
personal dignity and pride. In the city it is not, and holding on to
any sort of value becomes next to impossible.

Chapter 1: A Dollar-a-Day

About thirty years ago I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on
which way you look at it) to work in Nigeria. Two things were said of
Nigerians by hardened expatriates, which were typically harsh but also
had a ring of truth to them. The first was that the Nigerians
originated on the Mediterranean coast and ate their way South. The
second was about their attitude to everything: 'If you can't eat it
and you can't f— it, break it'. Eight months of living in Benshasha,
led me to think that some of the Nigerian's ancestors must have
stopped in Morocco, on their way South, and have remained there ever
since without the least vestige of natural evolution having taken

Living in this gem of Moroccan rural life for eight months has been,
above all, a somewhat sad experience, not least of all because of the
realisation that there are people in the world who not only do not
want to learn or improve their lives but seem to actively resist any
attempts to do so. At the beginning of my visit I was full of sympathy
and concern that nobody (officially) seemed to care or be prepared to
do anything at all. Eight months later I held a somewhat revised view.

After a few months away from it and then a return visit, I was to see
the place in a completely different light altogether. For a start, the
sheer squalor was painfully obvious, together with the total
ineptitude of everyone. Not only is nothing ever done properly, there
isn't the slightest attempt to do anything, let alone do it well. All
of the insanity of the life there came brutally back to reality.

One wants to scream: 'Why doesn't anything ever work in this bloody
place? Why has nobody, ever, got a match or a lighter? Why, every
evening, when it gets dark, does everyone go around bleating for a
candle and have to send a 70-year-old woman half a kilometre, in
total darkness, to get one? Why, when anyone wants to have a s—, is
there no water? Why, why, why?'

There really is no simple answer. None of these things, and the myriad
of others, depend on there being something they don't have. None of
this is something that the authorities or some well-intentioned NGO
could cure with a goodly dollop of cash. This is just sheer, utter
incompetence in the ability to live. There is just no organisation,
there are no rules, and there is no logic to their existence. It is as
though every dawn is the start of a new life and everything in it has
to be evolved from scratch.

A year previously I had been sceptical of the local authority's
attitude towards settlements like Benshasha. 'Surely something could
be done for such places?' Alas—probably—'NO'.

On first sight Benshasha is depressing enough in itself. Picturesque
it is not. Along the old road from Casablanca to Rabat, which runs
about a couple of kilometres inland, and some 15 km North of
Mohamediah, you come across what looks, to all intents and purposes,
like one of Triplex's less well kept scrap-yards. This is in fact Ben
Yakhcliffe, but is known to all and sundry as 'Benshasha' after one of
the original settlers.

The 'scrap-yard' proves to be the village. Boundary walls are built
out of flattened out oil drums or paint tins, all stitched together
with wire. The 'houses' are constructed of anything they can lay their
hands on and all the roofs are sheets of corrugated iron in the
terminal stages of rusting and flapping sheets of plastic, all held
down with stones, balks of timber and any other rubbish which comes to
hand. The entire place is surrounded by piles of garbage in which
grubby children play alongside chickens, goats, sheep and donkeys that
forage for anything remotely edible in the trash.

There is a 35 kVA electrical line running past—but there is no
sub-station. There is also a mains water line running parallel to the
road - but there are no water connections. Well, not quite 'none'.
There is a concrete stand with a public tap but this has never had the
final connection made to it because, it would appear, the authorities
know that it will get broken as soon as it is installed. Between the
mosque and the road, there is a well, the top of which had, at some
time in the past been constructed of concrete with a hand pump. The
pump is broken, the cover has long been removed, and the rusting
remains provide a lethal hazard to anyone foolish enough to stand on
it to draw water

There are but two signs of 'civilisation'. At the top of the hill is a
school, consisting of three or four classrooms constructed of pre-cast
concrete panels and a small white painted mosque built of block but
this also is covered with a tin sheet roof held down with stones. Both
of these buildings sport small solar panels.

The only signs of modern life are that about 20% of the houses sprout
television aerials - not satellite dishes but bent and broken bits of
wire - and the only people with television sets are those with 12v car
batteries and the wherewithal to take them to Mohamediah and get them
charged. 12v batteries will not power colour television sets,
satellite receivers or video cassette players.

Benshasha is 'home' to some five or six hundred people and probably
twice as many howlers (sheep). There is no 'work' locally. All of the
surrounding land is farmed by a handful of people, who acquired it
from the French when they left or lease the land from the government.
Some of them live within the settlement but about the only work this
provides is employment for a few people to guard the crops from being
stolen by people or eaten by sheep and donkeys. Virtually all the land
is put down to growing 'farine' although there is the odd vineyard and
one enclosure where courgettes, tomatoes and a few other vegetables
are grown.

About the only work of any sort is fishing - but this is limited to a
few people who possess fishing rods - and the collection of mussels
and squid from the shore. The fishing is both hopelessly inefficient
and futile, as there is no sense of preservation. What there was has
largely been taken and what there is left is taken before it has time
to grow and mature. It is not hard to see that within a very few years
there will be nothing left at all.

This may be a very negative view. In one way it is, and the sheer
hopelessness of both the village and the villagers can be very

However there is one extraordinary thing about Benshasha. Money is
seldom the main topic of conversation, not the lack of it nor the need
for it. You seldom hear anyone complaining that the authorities should
do more for them. You never hear them complaining that they should be
paid more. If anyone has any work at all, they appear grateful for the
pittance that they get.

They are, in an odd way, extraordinarily generous and, within the
families, everything earned is shared. Also, most of them actually
seem to be quite happy in an odd way. There is certainly a lot of
laughter, particularly amongst the women, and they actually have by
far the hardest life of them all.

Tales of Benshasha


05.06.08 Front Page

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