Defining moments on the road to Morocco

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Dan Eynon looks back on a journey that opened up the world to a select group of students from Paignton Community College

I work at Paignton Community College, on a huge and ugly split site. It is an over-subscribed and underfunded school, in an area that still clings to the eleven plus. It is also a school striving to work away from a poor reputation - and filled with the most respectful, talented and good humoured staff and students imaginable.

Ours is a school of few advantages in an area as dominated by a single race as any in the country. I wanted to do something which would both highlight the potential of the people in the school and offer students a chance to experience something beyond their own domestic culture.

So I began a project which attempted to take some of our students outside Europe for the first time, under the banner of 'anti-racist education'. I was hugely optimistic that such positive and current intentions would receive funding.

For two years, we ran T-shirt campaigns, wrote letters and applied to funding bodies. Our community is supported by a declining telecommunications multinational. Little else remains as a source of income for local people or for the school.

Almost daily, we were declined by private companies and rejected by funding bodies. In the end we raised only pound;400 and it became disheartening. Financial pressure mounted. Student numbers declined to a hard core of the fully committed. After so much effort, failure was unthinkable.

Naively, I decided that rather than let the project fold, I would personally underwrite it. Lotteries, educational trusts and Youth Award Schemes proved fruitless. We even learned that to hold a raffle in such a cause is illegal.

But we made it. Eight of us, including four students, visited Morocco in April. The staff and students' benefit from the experience was incredible, and we will never think the same way again. Now we aim to share the experience with the remainder of the school, who are already desperately keen to know more.

These two years have represented hundreds of hours of work on top of a full teaching load.

It was high stress, and probably unsustainable, but achieved the highest level of satisfaction. It was always difficult to arrive at a suitable way of describing the aims and objectives of our trip to Morocco. For me, it came down to three defining moments.

The first occurred on our very first morning. On the outskirts of Marrakesh we stepped over the trampled remains of a dead cat and past the little stall of the man who gutted and beheaded sardines. Then we were presented with a panoramic view of a mass of human waste, grazed upon by goats and mules. In the middle of it were the homes of 200 families. These people were scraping a living from the filth, miraculously turning parts of it into materials to reuse and recycle, and somehow earning enough to feed themselves.

For Dan Saunders, 17, the one member of our group who had never previously been outside the United Kingdom, the assault on the senses was overwhelming. "You have to reprint your geography books," he told me.

"Why?" I asked. "They show you places like this."

"I know," he replied, "but you get absolutely no idea that it can be like this."

Dan disappeared to bed for the rest of the afternoon. He was trying to come to terms with the world in which he suddenly found himself. But he remained resolute that he could never regret being there - that he should never be sheltered from reality.

The second defining moment occurred as we walked down the slope of a Berber village in a valley in the High Atlas mountains.

This was a landscape purified by clear air and fresh water. Berber homes clung to the hillsides. The sounds of goats carried through the trees, our view for once obscured by thick mountain fog.

Amy Spalding, 16, was our lone female student. It had been an act of bravery on her part to come along at all. Now she was fully enthused by the whole experience.

"It just isn't what I was expecting," she told me.

"What were you expecting?" "I didn't expect to have to think so much."

The third came the same evening. We had taken shelter from a storm in the simple luxury of the Kasbah du Toubkal, a Berber hospitality centre at the foot of Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa.

Will Haines, 17, had been learning Arabic before we left England. So he had struck up a relationship with our hosts, who joined us for a card game called 'pig'. Players rotate cards in a large group. The first to acquire a full set has to hold his nose. The others in the game then have to grab their own noses, and the last to do so is 'out'.

For an hour, in a combination of French, English, Arabic and Berber, we were one large group making utter fools of ourselves sharing uncontrollable and unreserved laughter.

A school from South Devon and a small section of the Berber community of Imlil experienced the rare privilege of being able to mutually enjoy one another's company. Nobody wanted it to end.

In these three cases, and in a thousand more instances in the ten days we were away, we achieved all that we set out to do.

This was not a geography trip. Equally, we were not on an aid mission. We were there for our own education - in the hope that we could share what we had learned with the people at home.

But we wanted to do so in a manner that was most likely to make us welcome, which might bring some benefits to our hosts in a way which would do no harm.

To achieve this, we employed the services of Discover Ltd, who specialise in the field and who own the Kasbah du Toubkal in Imlil. They operate by enabling groups to go beyond the tourist zones in partnership with local communities and individuals.

Local people are employed and empowered, and profits are reinvested. This takes many forms - renting picnic space in a roadside cafe and leaving behind us as much food as we ate - or helping the village association of Imlil to buy an ambulance and restock its school.

Travelling in this way, we enjoyed the company of warm good-humoured people, whether in the mayhem of Marrakesh, in the tranquillity of the Atlas Mountains, or in the harsh reality of life for the desert villagers in the south.

The group returned home enriched in so many ways. Not only had they experienced a new and very different culture, but they had learned - even in a very short time - to appreciate its qualities.

They may have held certain reservations about some aspects of what they had seen. But there were no doubts as to the endeavour and dignity of the people they had met.

Every day they had been challenged and provoked, and every day they needed to develop a little bit more in order to cope.

They returned with the desire to learn language, understand more, travel again - and treat their hosts with the same respect.

Above all, they realised the importance of the experience, and now have the desire to share it with the rest of their community.

It would be criminal to deny such trips to our students. Nobody knows how we'll manage it, but we are already planning the next one.

Dan Enyon is a geography teacher at Paignton Community College and a member of the management committee of Devon Development Education.

Contact Dan Eynon at kellydan@eurobell.co.uk Discover Ltd, Timbers, Oxted Road, Godstone, Surrey RH9 8AD. Tel: 01883 744 392. Email: info@discover.ltd.uk Web: www.discover.ltd.uk For more on the Kasbah du Toubkal: www.kasbahdutoubkal.com

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