She chooses to walk for 45 minutes rather than spend 4 dirhams on a taxi.
She lives in a triangular sliver of a room. No beds, just blankets. A TV to keep the girls company while she is at work. A bamboo roof that leaks in winter.
She knows the prices of food; she knows that a bowl of white flour costs a dirham and a quarter, precisely. She knows because she needs to.
It is the details of poverty that make it real to me. The contrast between what she eats, and what I can choose to eat. The gulf between our earning capacities. It is the details that I want to know, so I pry, I am nosy, I persistently inquire. Really, you made how much? 50 dirhams a day? And you worked 12 hours a day? 50 dirhams is a little under 6 dollars, it’s 4.5 euros. For this she stood for 12 hours in the cafe, over a hot griddle, patting out the greasy dough for fried breads, one after the other, one hundred per day.
When I do hear the details, I have to let each one sink in, with all the emotions that come with it. I am awed, I have so much respect for this woman, she is tough as nails, she has endurance. I honor her for this. Then I am sad, pained at this, at hearing how little her labor earns, and at the part I play in this imbalanced picture. But most of all I am humbled by her wonderful smile, her gratitude for life’s smallest blessings, her constant mention of God, in praise and thanks, her celebrating of her children. I think she knows that life transcends what we merely see, touch, eat and surround ourselves with. Even as she lives with so little, she floats above it with grace and a smiling face.
I let the details drip, drip, drip into my consciousness. I let each of them change me, just a little, propel me towards something. What is the solution. Do I give 1 dirham, do I give 10? Do I solicit more on her behalf? All this I can do, and have done. I cannot bear to think that her girls could go to bed hungry, or not get the proper nutrition, or have the cold seep up from the floor through the blankets at night. I know that in some countries poor people get fat because the cheap food is the fattiest. But here they can’t even afford enough of the cheap food to make them fat. Potatoes, white flour, sugar and oil are still precious commodities, often purchased a dirham at a time, enough for a meal.
Finally things have coalesced into a new picture, a new phase. Fatiha and Naima, 2 of the ladies who I love dearly and have blogged about here, have started up a small baking enterprise. They are baking to supply the small cafe at our workplace, the Center for Language & Culture.
It’s been an exciting and creative process for them, and very rewarding for me to watch unfold. Both women have spent extensive time baking mesemman (Moroccan fried flat-bread, a staple in most cafes). However, neither of them had baked, or even tasted, much else. So we set about learning how to bake a few things. They had already learned fruit tarts last year in cooking classes. I showed them how to make chocolate chip cookies, and finally after tweaking the recipe over the course of a couple of weeks, they now have a great, easy go-to method for delicious, beautiful cookies. In Morocco we don’t have brown sugar, which makes the cookies moist and chewy, so we’ve had to approximate the taste and texture. I’m getting into the details here, the bakers out there can stick with me, the rest of you just scroll down if you wish. Our dear friend and wonderful cook Khadija gave the ladies her recipe for awesome chocolate cake, and we figured out that it works really well as a cupcake. The chocolate cupcake is one of the best-sellers, the ladies make a batch of 30, or a double batch of 60, every day. Then a dear friend of mine, who is French, showed us an easy recipe for crepes. Those too are a daily must (20 a day). We stumbled on a recipe for easy chocolate pudding to fill the crepes with (ok, I’ll admit, it has cornstarch, the dreaded “thickener” that we are meant to avoid in search of “real” ingredients. Let me tell you, the stuff tastes great, and we do not have such discerning palates around here).
Next we wanted something savory to balance out the sweet stuff, so we tried small quiches. Those too were a big hit, but we have a problem with the crust. We are baking them in the same pans we use for the fruit tarts, which are the kind with the pop-up bottom. When we pour the egg/milk mixture into the crusts and bake them, the egg mixture seeps out through the crust onto the oven pan. I think it might be our crust. Any suggestions?
The ladies have also learned how to make a pretty tasty pizza from scratch. Before this project, it’s safe to say that neither of them had tasted the majority of these foods. Now they have this amazing new skill, and the confidence that goes with it. The first week or so I was in the kitchen with them a lot. But now that they have their core recipes down, they run their own show. They are doing an excellent job of planning, working together, communicating, decision-making, and most of all baking from morning til night. The baked goods are then available to the students and teachers at the center, mostly during their break times.
What’s new for me here is working without a blueprint. Seeing potential in a situation that is not all spelled out. I have to say I was very nervous to even start the whole thing. What if I just got their hopes up, and then it didn’t work? What if we lost money and got demoralized by it? What if we couldn’t master the recipes? What if we couldn’t actually make enough money for them to live off of? And honestly, some of the people I shared my idea with had the same doubts. I lost some sleep just being nervous, or I’d drive somewhere and forget where I was driving, cause my mind was busy sifting through all the details.
I’m glad I didn’t listen to the doubts. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but already the project looks very promising. First of all, the food is great. In fact I want a strawberry tart right now. Secondly, sales are going well, there is rarely anything that is not sold. Some of the items are tricky because they need to sell the same day (crepes, tarts, quiches). Even so things rarely go to waste. We are starting to have regular customers. Even though I told the ladies to view this first month as just a training period and not worry about the money just yet, it already looks like the project is financially viable, alhamdulillah. And thirdly the ladies are totally enjoying being their own boss, for the first time ever. One of them mentioned to me something like “Now the color has come back to our cheeks”, in reference to the fact that they feel FREE in their work. It’s nice too because they are together, they keep each other good company, they can bring in their children if necessary. When one of them brings her baby in, they take turns carrying him on their backs (the original Attachment Parenting, fo’ real). And it’s all getting easier and more relaxed. We already have plans for expansion, but I’ll leave that for another post.
These customers look happy: