Thrifty Morocco: The Land Where Nothing Goes to Waste

Our grandparents came from very different backgrounds. Audrey’s grew up and lived in comfort; Brian’s grew up and lived without advantages. Both sides of our family, though, came of age during the Great Depression, which molded their world views and ensured a solid work ethic and thriftiness that steered them daily for the rest of their lives. They would have been good Moroccans.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, Moroccans abhor waste and elevate penuriousness to a level of accolade seen rarely. Those who have little guard it sparingly; those who have much do the same. (The exception in both cases, of course, comes in matters of hospitality when all pecuniary restraint disappears in the spirit of “marhaba,” or “welcome” to guests treated better than family.) Charlotte, who spends our money freely but parts with a Dirham of her own most reluctantly, has established an honorable reputation among her Moroccan friends as a skinflint. They used to compliment how easily she has acclimated to life in Morocco by saying she is a red-headed and blue-eyed Moroccan. After getting to know her Dirham-pinching habits, though, they started giving her the ultimate compliment by saying, “We thought she was Moroccan; now we know she is Berber” (referring to the nomadic people of northwestern Africa who make up the historical foundation of Moroccan culture, and are known for bartering to the last Dirham and getting the last bit of possible use from anything they or someone else may possess).

Last November, while leading a delegation of our faculty at a MAIS (Mediterranean Association of Independent Schools) conference in Valencia, Spain, Brian learned something from the Moroccans on the trip. Arriving post-conference at the Valencia airport for the trip back home, the Moroccans in the delegation immediately started hunting for the office in the airport where they could reclaim the taxes they paid on their shopping purchases while in Spain. While Brian – whose main concern was ensuring that no one missed the flight home – stood in line, checked in, and waited for the missing folks to do the same, they spent the better part of an hour searching through the airport and finding the fabled office, turning in their receipts, and getting reimbursed a few euros for their effort.

Such thriftiness naturally extends into the realm of business as well, though it may require some measure of flexibility. Some friends of our bought a house last year with some open community space next to their property. One day we saw that an oasis of mature palm trees had been planted in the open space, as well as around their property. They told us that they bought them for a small fraction of the normally hefty price for palm trees from someone they knew who had planted a forest of palm trees on unused public land years ago. After all, no one else was using the land, so why not plant a palm tree nursery there. It was a good plan, until the government came along and told him he had a few days to get rid of all the trees or they would bulldoze them, so he was getting what he could for them.

Morocco could boast as its national motto: “The Land Where Nothing Goes to Waste.” For decades the waste management trend of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” has gained ground in the U.S. Meanwhile, Morocco has no recycling program of note because it accomplishes the first two stages – reduce and reuse – so well. The prevailing tendencies favor using available resources minimally – thus not much need actually to reduce, because Moroccans do not pursue extravagance except in celebrations like marriage, graduations, and hosting people in their homes; and what people do use gets reused over and over and over, even after discarded by a first owner…or a second…or a third as long as someone can find some use for it in some way. This thriftiness both saves money and saves resources in a culture that wonders why someone would squander either one.

Remember that Morocco is the land of argon oil, ground and pressed from the kernels of the nut that grows on argon trees. In southwest Morocco, goats still climb the argon trees to eat the nuts the way they have done for as long as anyone can remember. While today argon oil producers employ commercial production methods, once upon a time long ago some industriously thrifty Moroccan thought, “Hey, I bet instead of trying to crack argon nuts by hand it would be easier to sift through goat poop to find argon kernels that I can press into oil.” Driving on the A7 highway from Casablanca past Marrakech and along the edge of the High Atlas Mountains down to Agadir, one still passes tree-climbing goats and people following behind hefting sacks of their herds’ droppings. Not even goat poop goes to waste.

On GWA’s campus, what is waste for many gets picked through in search of things that someone could still use or that someone could sell. When a cheap lounge chair from our balcony broke last year, Brian put it out by the garbage barrels. It disappeared before the end of the day. And each Spring, as the school year draws to a close, the apartments’ parking lot becomes a Garage Sale filled with tables of items changing hands from people no longer needing them to people who can make use of them.

Last Spring, GWA’s Class of 2017 unleashed a senior prank that included releasing a bunch of chickens into classrooms and hallways of the Upper School. Beyond the shock value of surprising teachers and students with the arrival of unexpected poultry, every one of the chickens went home that day with someone from the cleaning, kitchen, or other staff to become the guest of honor on a dinner table.

Heading into the souks one passes people with their assorted used wares laid out for people to buy: used clothing, shoes, small appliances, large appliances, furniture, bicycles, lighting, and more. You want it? Someone somewhere is selling it used and cheap. It is not unusual to see someone riding a scooter or driving a donkey cart with a hundred or so empty five liter plastic water jugs tied together in a bundle on the way to repurposing.

The Hay Hasani neighborhood’s Souks Ouald Mmeni, what we call the furniture souks, are filled with adornments – furniture, mirrors, paintings, wall mouldings, archways, windows, huge doors from churches and mansions and more – taken from old buildings that get picked through as well. An item may sit for years before someone buys it. No problem; there is plenty of time, but not plenty of whatever it is that someone may want someday.

So it is on a large scale as well. When we arrived in July 2016, a massive public works project had just begun to upgrade Boulevard Abdelhadi Boutaleb (renamed recently for a former Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S., but formerly named ingeniously Route d’Azzemour because it was the road down to Azzemour a little more than an hour to the south). Nearby GWA, at the roundabout that marks the start of the southwest ring road called Rocade Sud-Ouest (i.e., “Southwest Ring Road”) stood a high bluff of loose material placed there when the route for the southwest ring road was built a few years ago. Over the last 19 months that mountain has fallen almost to street level as dump trucks have relocated load after load for use as fill in the new road construction project. Driving around, one often sees similar deposit areas where what gets removed from one demolished or excavated site sits around until someone can use it in some building or road construction project somewhere else.

During the last couple weeks, we have witnessed this process happening right across the street from GWA’s gates and guard house. An abandoned building has sat there, giving a bit of old Casablanca character to the intersection at our school entrance. But developers have plans for the neighborhood, and the building and the simple potholed, quasi-paved cross street apparently does not factor into those plans. Slowly over the last couple weeks we have seen the building bulldozed in sections. The fascinating and very Moroccan thing about it, though, is that as more of the building comes down, people scavenge the site. While driving in and out our school gates we see people on the site carrying pipes for plumbing, wiring, slightly bent or dented sheets of corrugated metal, even long and heavy I-beams. And the crumbled concrete walls get trucked away to some site where they will sit waiting to be used someday as another project’s fill.

Rather than employing America’s “reduce, reuse, and recycle” tactics, Morocco does just fine with “use only what you need, then use it again and again and again.”

On your mark…get set…here we go!

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