The hidden hunger in Morocco

While official statistics suggest it’s not a major issue in the North African country, hunger is real on the ground and concealed by a lack of reliable data and social stigma.

Hunger has a strong presence in the Moroccan imagination, as much as it exists in reality. Throughout history, the people of Morocco have suffered from cyclical droughts, marginalisation and exclusion, and the systemic theft of their wealth and harvests by the Makhzen, the political regime led by the monarchy.

The agricultural sector in the country employs 40% of the labour force and contributes 15% of the GDP, making Morocco’s economy and the economic situation of its people vulnerable to shifts in the global market as well as climate change.

In addition to the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, the country suffered from severe drought in 2019 and 2020. The capacity of the dams that supply its vast irrigation system in the south and east dropped to 37% nationally by October 2020, while the deficit of surface water reached a record high of 94%, according to Abdelhamid Aslikh, who heads the Agadir region’s water reserves agency. This had a great impact on grain production in the country. Cereal production in 2020 was 39% lower than in 2019 and wheat imports increased by 46.3%.

Undated: Pedestrians in a street in the Moroccan capital of Casablanca.

The most recent drought had a strong impact on the rural areas and agricultural sector, which have been suffering for decades because of increased droughts and the inequality enshrined by the rule of the Mahkzen. This impact is most clear in the widespread hunger in Morocco. 

According to the United Nations Hunger Map and the Global Hunger Index, hunger is not a major concern in the country. The index rated Morocco 44 out of 107 countries assessed in 2020, with a “low” hunger rating, and the UN similarly assessed that a small percentage of the population suffers from malnutrition. 

But activists in Morocco who see the reality on the ground have little faith in these official numbers. They attribute what they call a substantial underestimation to the government’s lack of will to accurately report on the situation, made possible by the control of the monarchical system. Additionally, activists remark that the immense social stigma attached to hunger in the country means that many people will not admit their situation.

The numbers are especially hard to believe given that the national rate of multidimensional poverty among children is 39.7%; in rural areas, it is as high as 68.7%. Multidimensional poverty considers factors such as access to education, healthcare, water, hygiene, housing, and food and nutrition.

Stunted growth

Mohammed, a young child in the village of Oulad Sghir in the province of Settat, a few hours from Casablanca, is a human face of this multidimensional poverty. The boy who runs around the fields, chasing a dog and a flock of sheep, is about to turn seven, but his appearance suggests he is three or four years old.

Mohammed does not go to school despite all the education programmes of the state. His struggling father, who works the whole day herding sheep and cows for a wealthy family, never had the chance to think about his son’s education. He has been toiling for years without a proper salary. He could only manage some basic accommodation for his family as the promise of $150 (about R2 265) a month in remuneration was never fulfilled. 

Mohammed helps his father when grazing sheep and his mother as she milks the cows. He does not have time to play with other children and has instead made friends out of some broken dolls that he found abandoned in the backyard of the house.

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His food is limited to two meals a day, with bread and tea as the primary ingredients. Bread has tremendous symbolism in Moroccan popular culture and constitutes an essential element in most popular dishes. In fact, Moroccans refer to their work or employment as “the tip of the bread” or just “the bread”. Others express pride at the fact that they grew up on “bread and tea”. Bread is considered so sacred that leftovers are not mixed or thrown away with other remnants of a meal. In Morocco, some people kiss bread if it falls on the ground and consider it one of the most important blessings from God.

However, this reverence for bread hides a long history of malnutrition and the inherent fear of millions of marginalised people of hunger or the loss of their livelihoods.

Mohammed’s mother says his body has not grown for the past three years and it is possible he suffers from a disease. She has been advised to take him to a priest, but she is hesitant, hoping that her son may perhaps be cured by divine will.

Undated: Despite the harshness of his life in Oulad Sghir village in the province of Settat, Mohammed finds time to play.

Mohammed may indeed suffer from malnutrition or one of the diseases prevalent in these areas, but the residents know very little about the nearest hospital, except that it is far away. The farthest they go to is the weekly market, a few kilometers away. 

But it is not just children like Mohammed who bear the brunt of multidimensional poverty. Women also bear the brunt of rural life and crushing marginalisation, which drive many to migrate to the cities to seek any available work, under any circumstances, to guarantee a better life for their children. This choice is met with scepticism from the older generations, but many young women no longer care about this conservative attitude. 

Nevertheless, Mohammed’s mother does not dare travel to the city because she has heard horror stories of the suffering of the poor in factories and shanties. She is determined that her son should not fall prey to child domestic labour or become a victim of human trafficking. She would rather live in the semi-arid region affected by drought and a lack of proper rural development programmes than become one of the residents of the poor neighbourhoods crushed under the wheel of the “economic emergence plan” in the city.

Hungry in the city

No city symbolises Morocco’s economic “glory” as Casablanca does. It is the main economic centre, its industrial hub, and the kingdom’s gateway to the world. With its large port and airport, Casablanca contributes a third of the country’s national GDP. Yet enormous social inequalities plague its population of 3.7 million, with many people still groaning under the weight of hunger, which has deepened with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The city centre itself is a picture of prosperity and development with its high-rise condos, corporate headquarters, hotels and outlets of global brands. At every corner, people wait for various modes of transportation and private vehicles abound. This is the “useful centre” of Morocco as opposed to the regions the former French colonial authorities branded the “useless Morocco”. Anyone wandering around in this part of the city would not believe that they are in a developing country on the “track of development”.

However, beyond these wealthy streets and their denizens, a drastically different picture emerges – one that is completely at odds with the propaganda of the regime and its co-opted media. 

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Among the invisible section of the city’s workers are the “mikhala”, the scavengers or rubbish pickers who make their living from collecting garbage and leftovers such as food scraps, empty beer bottles, or broken appliances. Their nights are spent running after garbage trucks to collect anything that they can sell to recycling factories.

The mikhala are often confined to the slums and marginal areas. They congregate at the end of the day in cemeteries and deserted places for a drink or anything that can make them warm. They spend the rest of the night drinking whatever they can buy with their limited means.

A public health worker told Madaar that the emergency services at the hospital receive many such people with critical health conditions every day. Many of them fall sick after eating rotten food or consuming toxic alcohol. Sometimes, pregnant women come for the purpose of delivery and end up abandoning the infant or trying to get rid of it. Many of them have HIV, syphilis and hepatitis, or contagious diseases.

Exploited labour

Most mikhala live in karyanat, which are shanty towns or shack settlements built mainly by poor peasants who came from different regions of the country only to be exploited in industrial complexes, ports and various services, which are part of what the official media calls the “economic emergence plan”.

The industrial programmes in the city need cheap and unskilled labourers. They have neither employment contracts nor basic rights. The workers toil for long hours on unsustainable wages, and they are usually forced to build tiny shacks to accommodate their families. Usually, these shacks don’t meet the minimum elementary standards of habitation and lack water, electricity and sewage drains.

With the transformation of Casablanca into the largest economic city in Morocco, the number of such workers rose to hundreds of thousands and slums turned into shack settlements, which the authorities have surrounded with fences to conceal the scale of the tragedy. 

14 July 2021: Geese graze next to a polluted stream in the stricken neighbourhood of Karyan Touma in Casablanca.

At the same time, the real estate mafia has its eyes on the land on which these shack settlements are located. Attempts are afoot to pass bills and rulings that will expel these residents. Those who are lucky might get minimal compensation. Many others will not. In place of the settlements will rise malls, hotels and luxury real estate projects.

It is noteworthy that the 14 young men who perpetrated the terrorist attacks on 16 May 2003 in Casablanca came from the heart of these slums, from the aforementioned strips of misery. The karyan or neighbourhood they came from is called Karyan Touma. They were raised in misery and nurtured with fundamentalist ideas long before they decided to target two tourist restaurants and other areas with explosives. The smell of hunger and long-standing marginalisation spread from this terrorist act.

Appalling conditions

In a shack in Casablanca, the so-called White City, we set up an appointment with activists of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights and moved to a douar, an unstructured residential community, in Aïn Sebaâ in the northern part of Casablanca.

The purpose was to examine the condition of some people after the authorities demolished several shacks in Karyan Touma. Several families in the neighbourhood had refused to allow their homes to be demolished, owing to their lack of confidence in the promises made by the local authorities that they would get “decent” homes through the social housing programme, and insisted on getting official documents to prove it.

As soon as we reached Karyan Touma, we ran into vast areas full of rubble from the houses that had been demolished. Dotting the landscape were the shacks of dozens of families who had objected to the demolition. Around the douar, gray concrete towers loomed. “It’s like Gaza,” said one of the residents who greeted us, mocking the scene.

Wastewater flowed openly through the area, its acrid smell impossible to ignore. Nearby was a huge garbage container. On the sidelines, but not outside the compound, the carcass of a dead donkey lay in a large pit near the residents’ homes. “The area is infested with rats which enter our homes all the time,” said a young man who greeted us.

14 July 2021: Karyan Touma lacks the most basic public services and much of it has been reduced to rubble by the authorities.

We spoke to Abdul Ali, who lives in the same neighbourhood and works as a security guard. He is married and has a daughter. One of his brothers also works as a security guard and has six children, while another brother has four children and works as a valet. They all live in the same compound with their two widowed sisters. 

For Abdul Ali, the pandemic was one long struggle with hunger. “During the days of the pandemic, the situation was tragic. One person would step outside to make ends meet for the children, while others would stay at the ‘parking’, a place where people wait until a contractor offers them work for a meager wage,” he said. “Almost everyone lost their job. During the quarantine, we used to eat what charity groups and associations provided us, and everyone was steeped in debt. Some of them spent the last Eid al-Adha without a sacrifice.”

Eid al-Adha is of great importance to Muslims, and in Moroccan society it is considered a disgrace if a family cannot afford a sacrifice.

In many cases, families, especially mothers, play “hide-and-seek” with hunger. A woman narrated the ways in which she tried to break the monotony of the bread and tea diet with what was available. A meal in her household was sometimes a mix of two types of vegetables and spices in lieu of the famous tagine, or cheap flour mixed into couscous. She did not have the minimum components of these famous dishes. “What matters most is to keep the children quiet,” the woman said.

Trading in misery

The severity of hunger is an opportunity for politicians, say human rights activists. The most prominent example is the designated prime minister, Aziz Akhannouch. The richest man in Morocco and the 12th richest man in Africa, Akhannouch was also the minister of agriculture, fisheries, rural development, water and forests and hence responsible for handling the droughts that wreaked havoc on the country. 

His charitable foundation did distribute food items, which were soon followed by cards inviting people to join his National Rally of Independents party. The charitable foundation is a classic archetype of institutions that trade in people’s hunger and misery for electoral benefit, say activists. These practices are common among parties known as the Makhzani, those loyal to the king and his closest allies.

It seems to have worked for Akhannouch, whose party emerged as the single largest in the recent elections. 

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Hunger in Morocco manifests in the absence of food sovereignty. Hunger stalks the dreams of the poor and deprived in Morocco – both in remote rural areas and the heart of the metropolis. The pangs of hunger are manipulated by those in power: the hungry are mobilised as voters and used to create a fake legitimacy for the regime. 

Hunger is the key weapon in repression, too, if the poor fail to behave. In 1981, people took to the streets of Casablanca and other cities in what became known as the “bread uprising”. They were demanding better living conditions. The monarch of the time, Hassan II, made an infamous statement: “Make your dog starve to follow you.”

Hunger in the World is a collaborative series produced by ARGMedios, Brasil de Fato, BreakThrough News, Madaar, New Frame, NewsClick and Peoples Dispatch.

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