So if you think I’m persevering and showing my most resilient self whilst being here, imagine having lived in the Desert for 42 years, waiting to be able to return to your homeland. Every day here, I am reminded afresh of the perseverance and resilience of these incredibly warm and wonderful people. And every day I want to work harder to help the Saharawis achieve their dream of heading home.
So, it’s time to gush. I’ve been candid and a little tongue-in-cheek in my observations of cultural differences up until now. To be expected, I guess, as I adjust to the extremely different way of life. And laughter is a brilliant coping mechanism. But now it’s time to explain all the ways I am overwhelmed by these people who have welcomed me into their homes and their hearts.
But first, a little update on my own perseverance and resilience. For anyone who knows me, it’s no surprise to hear that my stubbornness has made me determined to live as everyone else does here. To drink the same water as everyone else; to not be demanding about having more fruit and vegetables; and to basically fit in as much as possible with the way of life here without fuss. I always hate to feel like a burden. Similarly, my all-or-nothing mentality has meant my fiercely environmental principles have refused to buy additonal bottled water even though we’ve been running low on water lately.
But all of the above meant that I spent my Saturday night doing this:
So, instead of just being a bit more demanding each day from the outset of my time here, I became a huge drama queen for a couple of days as a result of a couple of weeks of difficult digestion problems and a day of throwing up on my own feet whilst hovering above a public squat toilet (apologies for the gorey details. As one friend has said, I now have a benchmark for exceedingly awful in the future: at least it’s not as bad as puking on your own feet on a public squat toilet… And I still taught the second half of my English class afterwards as I am that ludicrous!).
I eventually got to the hospital and I think the first doctor I saw did in fact think I was the rich white drama queen I so dreaded being perceived as. He pinched my skin a few times, told me I was fine and wasn’t too dehydrated and gave me an injection and some tablets (it took him three attempts to find a vein and I was yelping like a puppy at his desk: oh the shame!).
But I then proceeded to faint and was hauled onto a trolley by three medical professionals. As I came to, unable to feel any of my limbs and quite unaware of my own name, I stared blissfully at the ceiling as a doctor barked questions at me in Spanish. Two drips later I was feeling much better and was taken home in an ambulance. The care I received was excellent and immediate. Several government workers rang to enquire after my health and one popped round to check up on me. From not wanting to make any fuss at all, I really had hit the extreme opposite.
And I learned a valuable lesson, mainly one hammered home to me by lovely friends from Olive Branch Arts who looked after me all day before the hospital trip: I am different here. My body is different. I can’t pretend I’m not. And to do the work I want to do here, I have to look after myself. I have to ask for more. And I have to drink bottled water! Thankfully, there’s a brilliant man in one of the other camps who is building houses out of recycled bottles so I can know my plastic waste is being put to brilliant use (do read the article in the link: fascinating).
So, enough about me and more about these superb people. I cannot get over the love they have shown me. From being regularly called daughter by my Saharawi mum (who has nine of her own children already), having bridesmaid duties just three weeks into my stay, being kissed and hugged at the end of class by all my students, being tearful when two of my Saharawi sisters left for a month and being cared for so lovingly after my health scare, I am reminded of the famous Saharawi hospitality that I have known since my first trip to the Occupied Territories back in 2012 when my commitment to the Saharawi cause began.
42 years waiting to go home. 42 years hoping the international community will act. 42 years peacefully protesting, asking for nothing more than the right to a referendum on the future of their homeland, currently (and illegally) occupied by Morocco, that they have been promised by the UN since 1991.
My Saharawi mum was 7 when she came here. She has had nine children and now has one grandchild. How does she maintain her faith that she will return home? How does she continue her activism on a weekly basis? How does she continue to encourage her children to study and to become activists themselves?
The empowered and energetic youth here are astounding. Their determination that they can encourage other young people to continue with peaceful protest; to continue to think of ways to improve life here; and to keep raising the profile of their cause elsewhere. That is perseverance. That is resilience.
Families have been ripped in two. Some members will live in the Occupied Territories whilst others live here. Some people won’t have seen grandparents, aunts or uncles or cousins for more than 40 years. And though conditions here are harsh and they live without so much and rely on World Food Programme rations with few options for work, plenty of people tell me that living here is easier than living in houses in the Occupied Territories. For here they are free. Here they are safe from the violent persecution their families are facing every day in the Occupied Territories. (If you’re interested to know more about these occurrences, check out Adala UK who document these human rights violations).
And every day they know that Morocco has stolen more of the resources they could use to support all their people. Every day they know that there is less and less left for them to support their own development and more and more financial incentive for Morocco to stay. (Amongst many other things, Morocco is depleting water reserves in Western Sahara by growing tomatoes for import to Europe; extracting phosphates for fertilizers used across the world; fishing their waters; searching for oil and gas; and setting up solar farms to power the phosphate extraction. Check out WSRW for more information on it all).
As I drifted off to sleep last night, lying out under the stars, I thought about the house I pass every day on my walk to work that is my daily reminder of the perseverance and reslience of these people. For this man has grown a garden in his little courtyard. He will not be defeated by the harsh desert conditions. He will find a way. He will continue to dream of the oases of his homeland. He will create beauty, hope and growth wherever he is. That for me, sums up my experience with the Saharawis.