In summer of 2016, I was given the honour of receiving a GDST Travel Scholarship. With this generous donation, I went to Morroco for five weeks, arriving on 27th of June. Upon arrival, I immediately knew that I would learn and experience such a plethora of life changing experiences during my trip.
Before setting off, I first tried to think about what I wanted to get from my trip, other than a wonderful time away from the stress of exams, UCAS and some much-needed Vitamin D. I eventually came to two conclusions; I wanted to help alleviate the experience of those living in poverty or other forms of hardship but also to experience a culture that was simultaneously different to mine yet increasingly similar.
So, with these aims in mind I made sure get myself involved in all the opportunities that were available to me. This began on the very first day I arrived, in which I helped feed the homeless at ‘Iftar’ time. This initiative was set up by locals during Ramadan to ensure that everyone had food with which to break their fast.
My main role as a volunteer was to set up the tables of food, including bread, cheese, tea, ‘harirah’ soup and some local sweets. This was not only a wonderful chance for me to actively help somebody but it was my first experience of Ramadan away from my family. The clean up afterwards also helped us international volunteers to bond with the local volunteers, many of whom I am still in contact with.
This quickly became a highlight of my evenings during Ramadan as I became more acquainted not only with the local volunteers but also with the people I was feeding.
One man that I met there will forever stick in my memory. He was very elderly and had clearly been aged not only by time but by the difficulties of a life full of struggles. Regardless of this however, every time I saw him he gave me the warmest toothless smile that radiated across a room full of people.
From the hand gestures and pointing, he told me about his life before he was on the street. From the remaining piece of his ‘old’ life, a small ID badge from Marrakesh University, I learned that he was previously a professor teaching the next generation of Morrocans and by some cruel twist of fate he lost everything.
His story hit me hard because it highlighted the reality of homelessness and how it can affect anyone at any point in their life through no fault of their own. However, it taught me that regardless of the struggle you are experiencing you can remain positive; with him even offering me his sole possession, a small glass cup.
I quickly learnt that Morroco is very much a society that is divided on economic and geographical lines, especially in Marrakech. Marrakech is divided into two, the old town and the new town. The old town was where the working-class locals lived and worked in the markets and stalls and this is where I stayed.
The old town and its neighbourhoods had a run-down charm to them because they were authentic and unadulterated reflections of true Moroccan working class life. The new town however felt contrived and somewhat artificial with streets that looked more at home in central London than in North Africa.
I put this down to the tourists demanding the home comforts of McDonalds and Zara even when walking in the desert but also middle class Moroccans wishing to emulate their European neighbours. The only contact these two worlds made was the tourist shopping in Jama Al Fina or the poor begging outside of Monsoon.
However, I also learnt that many people in Morroco are deeply charitable. I learnt this while working in the various children’s services across the city. They ranged from a high-tech children’s centre that was commissioned by the king to help children with special needs, to an after school club for street children.
My favourite though was the babies’ orphanage because our sole role here was to play with the babies and ensure that they got the required amount of human contact every day. Bliss!
Other than playing with the children at all these different places we also did work such as painting murals in classrooms and walls of some local schools. It highlighted to me how easily a coat of paint could transform an area and how a pleasant environment enthused the children so much they were even more excited to go to school. Unlike most British school children, all of the children I met were so happy to have been given the chance to learn and truly appreciated every single lesson.
In between all the work with the children, I managed to explore Marrakesh and even travel further out. By the time my trip was drawing to a close, I could find my way around Marrakech independently, which for a girl that gets lost in central London is quite an achievement! I also mastered the art of haggling, using a combination of shock and pseudo knowledge.
Other sights I visited included the Majorelle YSL Gardens, Koutoubia mosque, Jama Al Fina, Ouzoud waterfalls, the Atlas Mountains, Eureka village and Casablanca. I even spent the night under the stars in the Sahara. Even so, I still had so many things that I didn’t have time to see. Morroco is simply so rich in culture, history, and beauty that even if I had stayed for six months I doubt I could say I’d seen it all. It's honestly the home for anyone looking for adventure.
From my time in Morroco I experienced and learnt so much that it's difficult to put into words. I saw first-hand the effects that economic and social structures can have on a society. This was one of the things that inspired me to go on and study Sociology at university so that I may understand these social structures to hopefully help create a more equal society.
I also gained a beautiful knowledge of a culture based on kindness, hospitality, and acceptance. I would like to thank the GDST for graciously giving me the opportunity to learn such important skills and experiences and to start my gap year in the best way possible.