I’ve developed a bit of a fascination with nomads of late. Not an obsession, just a fascination. I’ve come across a people who either are or have been nomadic until recently: the Sami in northern Scandinavia, the Himba in Namibia, the Maasai and Karamojong in East Africa and, now, various groups in Morocco.
I’m fairly nomadic myself. I haven’t had a real home since my days as an environmental student in Tasmania, and that was back in 2010. I’m not rootless, just homeless – and it’s very much been a voluntary, and conscious, choice.
That’s not necessarily the case with a lot of the people I encounter. More often than not, their nomadic or semi-nomadic existence is the result of circumstances, often beyond their control (or at least seemingly so). There is no surplus of anything but time here – life is hard, the land harsh. Any yet, there is no lack of generosity. Quite on the contrary, any encounter with an outsider calls for the sharing of tea (made from fresh mint or some other herb, with lots of sugar) and precious bread and olive oil. This is not as trivial as it may seem, bearing in mind that the bread is very likely to be the only food available until late in the evening, or perhaps has to last for a whole week.
Recently, while staying at Irocha in central/southern Morocco (located about an hour from Ouarzazate along the road to Marrakech) I came across four men herding their goats along up in the mountains, donkeys carrying their belongings. One of them spoke a few words of French, but my host Ahmed is a Berber himself and could speak to them easily enough (over cups of tea and chunks of bread dipped in olive oil, of course). They explained that while they do have a village they follow their animals, sleeping out in the open, between six and ten months of the year in search of grass and water. No maps, no gps, no particular plan – that’s not an easy life.
Back in February I as on my way to photograph the sun set over the Todra valley, rushing through a beautiful landscape when I saw a shepherd in the distance. I took a few photographs of him against a backdrop of mountains, then decided to head him off – he looked intent to cross the road a bit ahead of where I was parked. My host in Todra, Mohammed, struck up a conversation with him as Ali and I shared no common language beyond my few words of Arabic and his even fewer words of French. I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon there, the sunset forgotten, and when we went our separate ways I promised to get him some prints of the photos I had taken of him.
Two months later I returned to Todra, two A4 prints in my bag. Locating Ali wasn’t particularly easy, but with Mohammed’s help and information from a few other shepherds it only took a few hours of searching. Ali as clearly surprised to see me again, but very happy that I had come back – and to receive the photographs. It was already getting dark, but Ali invited me to come and meet his family the next day.
When I showed up near the house owned by his father I barely recognized Ali, who had dressed up in an old, worn but immaculately clean suit. Mohammed couldn’t join me, so we made do without too much verbal communication (although his wife, clearly thinking I was just a bit thick, tried repeating the same words several times, just louder, more than once). We had mint tea (Ali’s wife’s suspicions about my sanity were clearly confirmed when I indicated that I wanted tea without sugar), bread and half a dozen eggs. I normally eat vegan, but explaining that without words seemed a bit beyond me.
And then, the most incredible surprise. Ali, who had dropped out of school after only two years (his teacher beat him, he explained to Mohammed), had made himself a mandolin. From an old petrol canister. Without any education, living in rural southern Morocco, there weren’t many options open to him. So he became a shepherd. Without any help, he taught himself to play the mandolin to make the time pass, eventually buying a real instrument.
After listening to Ali play and sing and spending a bit more time with his two young children (aged one and four), Ali indicated (by pointing to himself, the mountain and making a “baaaaah” sound) that it was time to return to his sheep. After some confusion I managed to communicate that I would like to go with him, and he agreed. We didn’t speak much. We spent the next hour or two sitting on a rock each, watching his sheep as the sun moved inexorably towards the horizon. Eventually it was time to go. I promised that I would print the photos of his children and get them to Mohammed, and that I would visit him again if I ever came back to Todra.
And that was that. In these days of Facebook, WhatsApp and business cards I generally find it quite difficult to let go when I meet someone I genuinely like. But it can be quite a relief when there is no choice. I have Ali’s number, but we couldn’t have even a ten second conversation over the phone. If we meet again, we meet again. If not, I will remember this for what it was: a genuine, a very real, encounter with another human being. He was touched that I cared and was interested in him and his life, and I that he let me in the way he did.
This is also why I don’t like to rush jobs, or trips. I want to be able to take my time, to get to know people. To get to know places. It’s partly to do with the relationships that I form – so much easier if I’m not in a hurry – but also about quality of life, and about balance. I don’t want to feel rushed. If it clouds over, if the old man doesn’t want to be photographed, if the lion rolls over… then I miss my shot. It’s not the end of the world. Feeling stressed, not enjoying the experiences I’m fortunate enough to have – that would be far worse.