Many visitors to Morocco want to learn more about the Berber people, the first known inhabitants of Africa’s Northwest. Over thousands of years, the Berbers, or Imazighen – meaning ‘free people’, have preserved many ancient customs, observed through folklore music, dance, food and traditional crafts.
The Berber or ‘Amazigh’ language, generally spoken and seldom written, has three principal dialects: Tamazight, Tachelhit and Tarifit. In 2011, King Mohammed VI announced that Berber would be recognised as an official language of Morocco.
Proud of their heritage, Berber families gather to take part in celebratory events that can last until dawn, set to the mesmerising beat of the traditional Bendir drum and rhythmic hand-clapping.
Marrakech, in particular, has a population with a strong Berber identity. Many Berbers in this part of Morocco settled in the nearby Atlas Mountains where subsistence farming and commercial trading was a way of life. Here, Tashelhit is spoken.
Today, families in these communities often live in remote and impoverished rural villages where drought prevails during the scorching summer months and winters can be harsh and isolating. An ability to adapt to their rural surrounds is remarkable. Dependent on the resources of the land, both men and women carry out their daily duties in close harmony with nature. Passing skills and knowledge down through generations, the Berber people have a strong, resourceful and unfaltering work ethic.
It is in this region where the Eve Branson Foundation established its first project in one of the oldest villages of the area, Tansghart. Eve Branson crossed the river with some wool and knitting needles and started to teach the local girls how to knit. Ten years on, the Foundation’s work remains very much about working hand in hand with Berber communities to celebrate the richness of their culture and provide the resources, training and tools necessary to encourage young people to learn income-generating skills.
For some, growing up in the High Atlas Mountains can feel cut-off from modernity, with transportation to schools and the larger market towns often limited. Many boys will walk four or more hours every day to get to lessons and young girls frequently drop out of school by the age of 12 years old.
The Eve Branson Foundation sets up inclusive artisan centres in rural villages where young people can attend programmes which recognise and respect their heritage, preserving traditions such as rug-weaving on a loom or textile crafts, combining Berber motifs with a contemporary Moroccan design. The centres also provide a place to gather and socialise on a regular basis.
While an estimated 50% of Moroccans speak Berber, teachers, students and professionals face difficulties in using the language in workplaces, universities and schools. There are around three hundred local sub-dialects among the scattered Berber populations and many people speak a blend of Berber and Moroccan Arabic dialect, Darija. French is also the unofficial second language and Spanish is sometimes used in Northern Morocco. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many school children can struggle to keep up in lessons with so many dialects present.
Developing projects in close connection with local Berber associations helps to protect the cultural values of these unique people and celebrate their precious heritage and we are proud to be a part of these incredible communities.