By Jordana Merran
October 30, 2015
California native Barb Mackraz traveled to Morocco in 2013 eager to take in the country’s gorgeous arts, architecture and mosaics, pinning Marrakech and Fez at the top of her itinerary. But thanks to a local guide named Muha, who led her and her travel companion from these bustling tourist destinations to the Atlas Mountains, it was a small, thatched-roof building that ultimately stole her heart.
The one-room schoolhouse, nestled in a Gnawan community along Morocco’s eastern border, “was so tidy on the inside, it was really beautiful,” said Ms. Mackraz in an interview. Muha mentioned then that all the school supplies were provided by a group of French tourists who come year after year. “At that moment I was thinking maybe there’s something I can do here.”
A few months later, Mackraz was back in Morocco, visiting schoolhouses across the country. It was in Erfoud—a small oasis town in the Sahara Desert, in eastern Morocco—that she discovered her new mission: building a library to supplement a local school’s after-school English program.
The program “does get a little bit of support from the US state department to help teachers,” said Mackraz, “but the students… come from underprivileged families. Most are children of former nomads. And they study English every day after school for a couple hours. I was so inspired by how hard-working they are and what they’re accomplishing.”
“When Barb first came to town and proposed to help us build a library, I was excited about it and found it a great chance for me to help create something useful for students of my community,” said Abdelghani Bakhri, an English teacher at the Erfoud school. “It brought me back to my high school years when I used to ask my teachers to buy me readers from other cities because of the lack of English resources in my town.”
On that visit, Mackraz met with the students and Mr. Bakhri to change that, starting by compiling a list of books they’d like to read.
“Each student told me the name of a book, like Sherlock Holmes or Charles Dickens or Harry Potter—they were really knowledgeable about literature, which is a testament to the teacher—that they were interested in. Over the course of the next year I stayed in constant contact with them and put together a collection of really wonderful books, from Dr. Seuss to To Kill a Mockingbird. A lot of great nonfiction, too, and National Geographic books, games, puzzles… Anyone could come into this library and find something of interest. It’s very comprehensive.”
She sent the books to the school over the summer, and in September 2014 returned to help draw plans with the students on how to lay out the library.
“The teachers found a great location in a courtyard. Most of the work—the plastering and the painting and the cleaning—was done by students. And they painted it purple because that’s my favorite color, so that was pretty thrilling.”
“The reaction to the creation of a library was like a dream come true,” said Mr. Bakhri. “Everyone is excited about it—the staff of the school, the students and their parents, and most importantly teachers of English, [who struggled to generated student interest without] access to an English library.”
According to Mr. Bakhri, some of the most popular books in the collection are To Kill a Mockingbird, Heart of Darkness, Harry Potter, The Catcher in the Rye, Things Fall Apart, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Old Man and the Sea, and Of Mice and Men.
Right now, the library holds about 700 books, and Ms. Mackraz hopes to reach 1,000. Though many of the students that she first engaged with are now out of school, the program is now accommodating a new crop of students who have just started learning English, so many new books will be targeted to beginner readers.
Mr. Bakhri emphasized that the library helps students “develop positive learning and reading skills at an early age.”
“It will help them to promote and develop the habit of reading for pleasure and will also foster other skills, mainly writing, since good reading leads to good writing.”
Ms. Mackraz plans to send her next shipment of books in November, and, with the help of the Rotary Club of Woodside and Portola Valley (California), a second library is underway in Taroudant.
To learn more about these projects visit www.moroccolibraries.org.