seven women, one man & some enthusiastic mules – a voyage of discovery in Morocco

By Sallie Grayson. Filed in project background, volunteer stories  |  
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Donna Okell is the founder of Fairer Business – a consultancy that assists companies with their Corporate Social responsibility –

Donna Okell

helping many small to medium sized businesses in their goals to run more sustainable and responsible companies.

Donna works with us on  employee volunteer programmes.

In early October she led a group of people, who wanted to learn more about volunteering, to meet with our partners in Morocco.

here are a couple of pieces she wrote before and after her trip.

 

Before Donna left

“For many years I have worked in the luxury sector – as a private banker for Coutts & Co, and as a director of a luxury tour operator. During my professional career it has become increasingly evident of my clients’ potential, and indeed desire to influence positive change; changes that benefit people, communities, the economy, and the environment.

Both as individuals and professionals, we all have opportunities to creative positive change and make the world a better place to live, both now and in the future. Thanks to the availability of information on the Internet and through social media we are able to make well-informed decisions about the products and services we use. And an ever-increasing number of us are choosing to buy from companies who clearly demonstrate their social responsibility; companies that are creating a purpose beyond profit.

As a Social Responsibility professional I work with businesses to help them engage their employees with the community and seek to make a positive difference. Those communities may be local, national, global – or all of the above. This engagement usually takes the form of employee volunteering. There are a number of benefits derived from employee volunteering, not least improved cultural awareness, skills sharing, team building, leadership development, and of course community engagement.

On a personal level, many friends and clients have returned from a luxury holiday in a beautiful destination to tell me that they had enjoyed a wonderful experience, but often felt uncomfortable at the stark contrast between the wealth of tourists and by the challenges faced by local communities.

It was this feedback and the desire to make a difference that inspired me to organise ‘A Taste of Volunteering’ experiences. For some people, making the decision to volunteer for a longer period of time of a month or more may be quite daunting. However, a week-long ‘Taste of Volunteering’ experience offers an opportunity to understand much more about the local community, its people, the challenges they face, and how a difference can be made.

This year in October, our trip takes us to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco where we will experience genuinely

The Kasbah

local Berber hospitality and learn more about the local Berber community. We will engage closely with two excellent local charities that are making a difference: 

Students from     Education for All

 

Education for All and the Association de Bassin d’Imlil. We will stay in the award-winning Kasbah du Toubkal which is in the most stunning location and has outstanding views. We are hosting a group of eight people comprising a wide range of skills and experiences. Some have wanted to volunteer for many years but have been unsure about how to proceed, and others are joining the programme to see how they may involve their employees in future. The trip has been organised by Fairer Business and the award-winning responsible volunteering organisation peopleandplaces.

Whether as individuals or businesses, we have a duty to act responsibly and sustainably. This is just one small way of making a positive difference and exploring how we can build on those foundations in the future.

When we return from our ‘Taste of Volunteering’ trip I shall write another piece for Positive Luxury to let you know about our experience.”

What Donna wrote on her return

“We have now returned from our trip and, as promised, I am writing to share some of the highlights of our inspirational journey.

Our group of eight people – comprising seven women and one man – were keen to understand life in the Atlas Mountains and explore the range of volunteering opportunities available.

The man in our contingent is a corporate lawyer who had already established a robust social responsibility commitment for his law firm. For this trip, he wanted to learn about the challenges faced in this remote part of the Atlas Mountains and consider how his organisation could engage with and support the communities.

So, with seven women, one man, and a few enthusiastic mules to support us, we embarked on what has been a most incredible journey.

Following our arrival at Marrakech airport we were met by our friendly local guide, Mustafa. He settled us into our minibus and proceeded to drive us away from the bright lights of the bustling city, up a very steep, winding rocky road into the Atlas Mountains. It was dark, we were tired, and had no idea what life was like outside the bus as we couldn’t see a thing. Occasionally we would be offered a glimpse of a sheer drop over the side of the mountain, and thought it best not to look.

Our first surprise arose when the bus stopped in the village of Imlil, about 1800 metres above sea level.

We had been advised that we would need to climb a fairly steep, rocky path for the last 15 minutes or so of our journey to our hotel, the Kasbah du Toubkal. Indeed, the path was steep and rocky, but armed with our newly acquired head torches, we made our ascent to the Kasbah. As we opened the beautiful wooden door, we were greeted with what we all described as an oasis – it was a real ‘wow’ moment. The Kasbah’s description in the guide Authentic Ecolodges perfectly illustrates its uniqueness: “Kasbah is the perfect synthesis of eco-conservancy and mid-level luxury … A modern-day citadel blessed with a healthy dose of eco-consciousness; Kasbah provides a level of comfort, graciousness, and hospitality unrivalled in the area and uncommon in the rest of the world.”

Our host, and co-owner of the Kasbah, Mike McHugo, greeted us and we were welcomed with a wonderfully refreshing Moroccan mint tea and delightful Berber hospitality.

Mike McHugo accompanied us for most of our week and gave us a unique insight into life in the Atlas Mountains. We explored the region mostly on foot, and were blessed with blue skies and fine weather for most of the week – always a bonus. Having trekked for four hours up to a level of 2400 metres above sea level, our eyes were very quickly and astonishingly opened to the way of life of the Berber communities. In stark contrast to the way we live in the western world, life in the Atlas Mountains is generally an existence with very little luxury. Houses are made in the traditional Berber way using mud and wood. Local people live for the most part on what they produce – life is about agriculture and animals.

On our first day of trekking our efforts were rewarded in true style. Having reached the mountain summit, we were amazed to find our guide Mustafa laying out for us on the grassy knoll some beautiful Berber rugs, and cushions. He instructed us to remove our shoes, lie down, and allow the troubles of the world to disappear. This we did immediately and without further questions! What happened next was the surprise of the week. A delightful aroma of lamb tagine filled the air and we realised that a local chef was preparing a Moroccan feast for our lunch on two small camping stoves, nestled under the trees. The genuine hospitality we received during our experience was exceptional.

Following our delicious lunch we continued our trek with our mule. We described the first village we encountered as having a ‘medieval’ appearance. A woman was walking up the narrow mule path on which we were trekking and she had about 20kg of cattle feed strapped to her back. She was stooped at almost a 90 degree angle. We all vowed never again to complain about our own workloads.

There are still many obstacles for women and girls in the Atlas Mountains. During our visit to Dar Asni, we learned about the superb work of the charity Education for All which is making a real difference to the lives of a number of girls in this area. Without the support of this great cause, the girls would not be educated beyond primary school. Education for All offers the girls the opportunity to have life choices they would not otherwise have.

Despite its stunning scenery, and it really is exceptionally beautiful, another serious challenge in this fragile environment is the amount of litter discarded on the mountains and in the rivers. We were privileged to have the company of Aniko Boehler of Mountain Propre, an environmental and educational organisation which is working tirelessly with local communities to improve their environment and tackle the issue of waste. Aniko explained the waste problem in the locality and how individuals and organisations can support Mountain Propre in their work. Some of our group subsequently spent time during our trip helping to clear up some of the rubbish in the mountains.

This Taste of Volunteering trip had been planned in collaboration with my company Fairer Business and the award-winning volunteer placement organisation peopleandplaces. The aim of the trip was to help travellers better understand this fragile area of North Africa; its culture, its environment, and its challenges, and to explore ways in which individuals or businesses may help in future if they wish.

Kasbah du Toubkal is a very special place from which to explore this region of the Atlas Mountains. We felt very lucky to spend so much time with its founder, Mike McHugo, and with Aniko Boehler. I think we learned so much more about the area than we expected, and met some wonderfully hospitable people.”

these articles first appeared at in Positive Luxury

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