Food Aid Sustains Quake-Hit Villages in Morocco, for Now

After years of drought, water finally came to one parched region of the Atlas Mountains in northern Morocco last month, freed from the ground by the earthquake that killed thousands and devastated whole villages.

In the days following the disaster, it bubbled up through cracks in the earth and flowed down arid stream beds to long-desiccated fields.

In the mountain village of Douar Tighitcht, the appearance of the water was seen as something of a miracle. Villagers hurried to their fields, plowing the damp earth and planting crops — peppers, eggplants, potatoes and carrots — that they hoped would help improve the dire food situation in the quake-hit region.

Mohamed Tamim, a college professor based in the capital city of Rabat who is a native of the village, had mixed feelings about the water rising in Tighitcht’s reservoir, mindful that the hard earth and sudden flow could result in unwanted flooding.

“Everybody is plowing to take advantage of this God-sent water,” he said. “It’s good but at the same time it’s scary.”

The earthquake that struck Morocco on Sept. 8 killed about 3,000 people and left thousands homeless and in need of help in regions that have long been subject to the vagaries of fickle seasons.

Tents in a community nestled in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco after a recent earthquake.
Kebira Aznag said she has been too scared to stay indoors since the earthquake.

In response, people from faraway cities have emptied supermarket shelves to bring food to isolated villages. Chefs from around the world have traveled to remote areas to feed those who lost everything. And local women have organized cooking shifts using whatever equipment they could recover from their destroyed kitchens.

That has helped supplement the government aid that gets through. But the people who inhabit the remote mountain regions are still mindful of their precarious situation.

Kebira Aznag, a 50-year-old mother of six who has been camping outside her rickety two-story house in Tighitcht, too scared to stay inside since the earthquake, said people from distant cities had brought her family bread, sardines, milk and water, among other provisions. It was enough to survive on until some sense of normality returned, she said.

“Without help, we would have died,” Ms. Aznag said. She did not feel it was safe to cook with gas under the tent where she had been living with her family, she said, and it took some time before she dared venture into the house to use her kitchen again.

On a recent afternoon, she was feeding a small group of people, including Mr. Tamim, the college professor and her distant cousin. She had cobbled together a lunch of tagine — a stew with meat, potatoes, carrots and zucchini.

Living outside, Ms. Aznag said she was scared of the dogs she hears barking at night, and had to work up the energy needed to walk up to another village to get food for the 30 chickens, six sheep and three goats that constitute her family’s livelihood.

She said the land her family owns had been dry for years, and that production from the olive and almond trees they tried to cultivate had dwindled to nearly nothing. Instead, they had invested in the livestock now penned up near her house.

A woman camping outside of her home after the deadly earthquake in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
People from around Morocco have united to get food to the victims of the earthquake.

Mr. Tamim was in the village when the earthquake struck, and was now doing sociological research on its aftermath. Food was so important for the victims of the disaster, beyond the need for survival, he said.

“It’s therapeutic for people to eat,” Mr. Tamim, 70, said as he ate his tagine at a small table inside Ms. Aznag’s home, wearing his bike helmet for protection in case parts of the house collapsed on him. “It keeps their minds off what they’re going through.”

In a town less than two hours’ drive away, Oulad Berhil, the smell of couscous wafted through the air on a hot morning. Cooks and volunteers from Morocco and across the world — Peru, Spain, Poland, the United States and Australia — were hard at work preparing thousands of meals to dispatch to villages where people had no way of reaching a market or were without working kitchens.

“I felt it was important to contribute,” said Taki Kabbaj, 42, a native of Marrakesh who trained at the elite Paul Bocuse culinary school in France and now works as a chef at the upscale restaurant Cabestan in Casablanca. “We sent money to organizations but I really wanted to help with my hands,” said Mr. Kabbaj, who spent the first days after the quake cooking up large vats of meat and vegetable stews. “It was important for me to use my expertise.”

The cooking operation, set up in a processing plant for olives in Oulad Berhil and another location in the town of Asni, is run by the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, which was created by the Spanish-American chef José Andrés in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. It brought together about 20 relief workers from abroad and dozens from around Morocco to cook thousands of meals. On a recent Friday, 12,000 meals were cooked in Oulad Berhil and 30,000 in Asni, the organization said.

Volunteers for the World Central Kitchen preparing meals in Oulad Berhil.
Mohamed Tamim, second from left, and his friends from Douar Tighitcht, a village in Morocco, eating a meal of couscous that was delivered by the World Central Kitchen.

The first volunteer chefs dispatched by World Central Kitchen arrived in Marrakesh, about 50 miles northeast of the epicenter, the day after the disaster. They worked with local restaurants to distribute sandwiches to people camping outside in the city center. They then scouted for a base higher up in the mountains where they could park their rented refrigerated trucks, and set up a cooking station using large pots brought in from Spain. Working with a network of local drivers, and even renting private helicopters or using mules, they have been delivering food to the most remote parts of the Atlas Mountains.

At the kitchen in Oulad Berhil, two Moroccan chefs from Agadir helped the other volunteer chefs make couscous, a staple of Moroccan cuisine that is almost always served on Fridays, often eaten during family gatherings and at events like funerals.

“They have their tricks and we have our own,” said Olivier de Belleroche, a chef from Madrid who also worked with World Central Kitchen in Ukraine this year, as he gave directions to team members cooking the meal. “You give a lot but you get a lot more back.”

The Moroccans helped the other chefs adapt the food for local tastes, adding bouillon and locally produced saffron (their “little secret,” they said) to the stew, before packing everything in containers for delivery. One smaller truck carried kitchen kits with pots, small stoves and other gear up a steep, narrow and sinuous road, recently cleared of rubble by the people of Tizirt, a village higher up, with their own hands.

A volunteer for the World Central Kitchen packing up meals for earthquake survivors.
Villagers lining up for food distribution by the World Central Kitchen in Douar Taqordmi, Morocco.

The idea is to equip villages with the basics before pulling out, aiming to give people enough hope and strength to continue rebuilding.

“It’s tough here. In some areas, we were the first people they saw,” said Jason Collis, the chief relief officer at the World Central Kitchen, who traveled from California. He said the group would stay in Morocco until it was no longer needed.

Even if their immediate food needs are met, the people of the Atlas Mountains still face long-term challenges.

Prolonged droughts have dried up water sources, exacerbating food scarcity in the region, said Najib Akesbi, a Moroccan economist who specializes in agriculture and food security.

“These regions in the past engaged in subsistence agriculture,” he said. “There was a time when these areas could live in self-sufficiency, but agriculture no longer provides a living for farmers.” He added that some water sources had run dry 30 years before the earthquake.

Soufiane Ait Ben Ahmed, 44, a volunteer with the Youth of the Atlas, a Moroccan nonprofit, who also helped take all kinds of aid to villagers, said people were running out of the aid they received in the first days after the disaster.

“Now people are just realizing how people have been living for years,” he said. “As if the earthquake happened to show the reality. You can’t look away anymore.”

Cleaning up after a meal. An official from the World Central Kitchen said the group would remain in Morocco until it was no longer needed.

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