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Storytelling as advocacy for the blind of Chefchaouen

Saida (left) telling the story of the blind artisans of Chefchaouen to our interpreter Noureddine (right)

We were in the middle of our usual routine of taking group shots while visiting with officials, diplomats and civic leaders – this time with the mayor of the beautiful city of Chefchaouen, Morocco. In the middle of our photo shoot, a short and animated women with thick glasses entered the office, bumping the door into some of us from behind and interrupting our official and diplomatic poses. No apologies, no introduction, she simply lined herself with the rest of us and smiled with a glowing presence.

The mayor had been explaining to us earlier how his municipal government had been collaborating with local civil society organizations (nonprofits), in particular, the Organisation Alaouite la Promotion des Aveugles Chefchaouen (or the Alawite Organization for the Protection of the Blind in Chefchaouen Morocco). They were are a model organization participating at many levels.

Saida, the women who so casually joined us in pose for the group photo was the vice president of the local regional office of the Alawite Organization. The name Saida (as we were told) translates to the word “happiness” or “happy” in Moroccan Arabic. It was a fitting name. She exuded an energy not often wintnessed in most people, especially in the very laid-back culture of Chefchaouen.

After our reception at the municipal hall she walked us through the old Medina, through rows of merchants selling colorful textiles including scarves, rugs, blankets and more. As someone with big flat feet and sandals, I couldn’t help but notice the curve of every cobblestone bend each of my steps as we walked upward towards the office and artisan studio for the blind.

We arrived at what appeared to be a typical textile shop in the old Medina. There we were greeted by a young boy, perhaps in his early teens and two blind men who immediately sensed our presence. Saida introduced us to the lead artisans but was quick to lead us up the stairs to the weaving studio.

The staircase curved towards the top and after a few steps there were displayed a number of framed images–each with a story that summed up the integrity of the organization. Saida took this opportunity to share them with us.

Blind artisan teaching a non-blind man how to weave

There is a christian biblical saying about the “blind leading the blind” where perhaps both may lead themselves to doom. But in the case for the Alawite Organization, the blind leading the blind, leads to building a community for not only themselves but for the greater community in general.

Saida stops us at a photograph and presents us a photo of two men weaving. She explained (through our interpreter Noureddine) that this was a photo of the lead artisan teaching a non-blind man how to weave. For them, mastering the art of weaving was not a means to keep them simply employed or busy, but an opportunity to lead others, to be creative, empower the community in which they live and improve the environment.

At the same time many American hippies and others began exploring Morocco for its mysticism, exoticism and other reasons in the 1960′s, blind artisans were well known in the country for their high quality weaving and their products sold competitively in popular markets in Fez.

With the introduction of the plastic weave produced en mass and the lack of training for the generations that followed, much of the blind could neither compete with the newer products nor adopt the necessary skills to sustain themselves. Much of life was left to begging on the streets for the blind.

In 2003, the Organisation Alaouite la Promotion des Aveugles Morocco took initiatives to open a regional office in Chefchaouen. They first started by acquiring an old dilapidated building and volunteers to help rebuild the space with donations of 500 DH (dirham, about $60) from board members. They were able to recruit six blind people who were trained not only in weaving but also in spreading the word about the new office and studio. From there they reached 21 more participants, then 34 and continues to grow today.

Funds raised by the selling of their products helped them introduce more social programs for the blind and their families. Social picnics are organized to build community and provide a break from the repetitive work of weaving. Medical caravans are organized to provide health assistance and awareness to families of the blind. Children are also incorporated in training but are also involved in social activities that raise awareness about the environment.

Saida had mentioned that many of the blind are able to traverse through the roads of the Medina and know their way around by memorizing each of the cobblestones along the path. Because it makes it more difficult for them to walk through the streets when it is polluted and laden with trash, they also make efforts to provide environmental education programs that include the broader community in general.

Other initiatives for blind children include distribution drives of school materials and integrated clubs to build self esteem to combat the feelings of social rejection.

Today, the Organisation Alaouite la Promotion des Aveugles Chefchaouen continues to produce high quality products including scarves, blankets, rugs, tapestries, clothing (both contemporary and traditional) and so much more. They have received numerous awards and recognition and have participated in a number of international festivals celebrating the efforts of the blind as well as traditional artisans.

•••

After Saida, shared her stories and guided us through the weaving studio, she led us back downstairs to see more of the products. We talked to the blind artisans, joked around by dressing up in the traditional costumes they created and in the end, made our own contributions by purchasing some of their products.

I picked up a beautiful and unique hand bag made out of colorful textiles and recycled materials for my 11 year old back at home. Saida approached me after she saw me carrying it around and told me that the bag was made by a young teenage girl that had recently lost her sight. The Alawite Organization became a center for her to express her talent as a designer and seamstress and overcome the despair of loosing one’s eye sight…

I know that when I arrive back to the States and present the bag to my little one, it will not be presented in wrapping or a bow, but of the inspiring story of the young girl who created it, the organization that helped empower her and the community of the blind that not only led each other but so many others in the small peaceful city of Chefchaouen.

Check out all my photos of Morocco on Facebook!

The Professional Fellows Program for Egypt and Morocco is funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, and implemented by Heartland International, a nonprofit in Chicago, and its partner organizations, El Sadat Association in Cairo, Egypt and IDMAJ in Casablanca, Morocco.
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Category: Nonprofit Communications (aka Navelgazing)

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