A forced lightening of our carbon footprints has been one of the benefits of relocating my family of eight to a rural village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. My neighbours are nearly all self-sustaining farmers with limited supplemental incomes. What is available to buy and acquire locally for food, housewares, clothes and so on is hauled up here for people with very low incomes. My family’s daily food choices, which were hacked down considerably when we moved to Morocco from the US several years ago, have been further whittled down to about a dozen various seasonal vegetables to choose from, shelf-stable processed cheese, four kinds of dry bean, homemade breads, chicken or goat for meat and milk. Luxury items that are sometimes locally available include jam, spaghetti, rice, additive-laden yogurts, poor-quality cookies and chips – a meager selection of those processed foods city folks are commonly trying to avoid these days.
While food has been one of the biggest preoccupations of our adjustment to “simple living”, there are other challenges, such as not having electricity to run our space heaters on some of the coldest nights of the year. Since our water pump is electric we sometimes also run out of water. We can’t locally buy shoes that won’t be quickly ripped apart by the rocky hillsides – actually, most of the products available here are poor quality and need replacing sooner rather than later. I am familiar with the concept of ‘planned obsolescence‘ back home where electronics, fashions and other goods are designed specifically to need replacing well before they are worn out, but in Morocco I was surprised to find everyday goods made of such poor quality that they break very quickly, especially household items made of thin plastics.
When my mom came to visit Morocco for the first time last year I was eager to spend several days with her in Marrakech – land of supermarkets and malls – but I was also nervous about how material obsessed my whole family was with the pending visit to the city. We made lists of the foods we wanted to eat and all the things we needed or wanted to buy while in the city, including better quality homewares found in some supermarches. While I think it’s natural to want to do some shopping and have some fun, I was also worried that we would be making up for a year’s worth of waste reduction and light-living in just ten days.
The thing is our carbon footprint has been so greatly reduced by living, well, away from temptation and excess. If and when my family ever comes down the mountain for good, I don’t know how I am going to keep from sinking right back into gross over-consumption habits. Walking the walk is hard to do on streets overflowing with tempting offers. Not only do I enjoy eating out (something impossible to do here where there are no restaurants), but I am a working mum and some of those excessively packaged ‘convenience’ foods are a necessity. Here in the hills, with all the labour needed to process direct-from-the-ground foods, my family was struggling to get regular hot meals before we hired someone to cook for us. This solution may not be viable if we were living in a city though, where convenience foods have already exploited low paid labour and are more convenient than paying a fair wage to a cook.
I expected to learn plenty of things about life anew when we moved to a village in the countryside, but I fear that many of these lessons will not stick with me once I come down the mountain for good. Wastefulness is truly a middle and upper-class problem. We are the ones who gobble up the supplies, even when there is no true demand.
Reflections on our lighter living
You have never seen a city girl conserve electricity until she has only a few kilowatts left on her prepay electricity card that could not be refilled until the next day or so. When our electricity has nearly run out, the entire family – even the children – unplug appliances, hang out in one lit room together, turn down the fridge and do anything we can to make that precious electricity last just a little bit longer. Once that card is refilled, forget about it. It’s back to everyone doing their tasks alone under one burning light bulb each, PS3 games ‘saved’ indefinitely with the screen and game box on, heaters more readily turned on and so on.
I wish I could say that my family is more conservative with water, that, like the Prophet (SAW) we each only use a mudd of it to make wudhu, but we are not. It seems that as long as these things are within easy reach, our nature is to thoughtlessly grab at them. I am sure that my neighbours who still haul their water from wells and streams use far less water than my supposedly khalifa-conscious family.
While my husband uses public transport to come in and out of the valley every couple of weeks, this is still far less diesel use than when I had a car and used to think nothing of getting into it to pop across town for one specific item or a particular kind of eatery I was craving. Casablanca was the first city I have lived in for a long time and not owned a car. It was inconvenient to not be able to drag all the kids along to whatever outings I needed or wanted to do, but again my carbon footprint was forced to be lighter than the one I may have stepped if I had owned a car. My family talks about buying a car (or two) if we go back to suburbia and I can only hope I would be more frugal with my use of it.
In my Hijrah Diary series for SISTERS Magazine I wrote a bit about the horrors of dealing with my family’s trash out here on the mountain. Not only is it an icky and toxic mess to drag the rubbish a distance from the house and burn it, but it is also extremely embarrassing how much trash my family produces compared to my neighbours. We are still using far more convenience foods than most semi-sustainable farmers and our bin reflects this with its packaging from milk containers, grains, margarine and yogurt tubs, treat wrappers and so on. Of course, much of this has to do with the fact that we are not farmers and don’t get our foods directly from the source, but that has been the big part of my awakening out here – recognising how far removed I am from natural cycles.
This here is going to be some real talk. Our own human waste has been considered extensively since we moved into this ram-packed earth house with its ‘squat toilet.’ Not only did some family members have to learn how to use this style of toilet, but as a curious homeschooling family ought we also gave much thought and some research to where this waste was going when our landlord expressed concerns about us overfilling ‘the pit’ with our more-excessive-than-any-neighbours’ water usage. We learned about how some folks both here and all around the world don’t have indoor plumbing and use traditional farming technique of recycling their own human waste right along with that of their cows and other livestock. In short, I have learned that disposing of human waste via water is an environmentally messy business and that once again convenience and the ability to afford such luxury as flushing away our waste is something the ‘haves’ are doing that is ruining things for everyone. As disturbing as it may be to any porcelain-toilet owners’ sensibilities, pooping among the cows is actually a much better way to do it. And if one doesn’t own cows, they could use a compost toilet like the sister on page 52 does. I don’t yet, but I have aspirations…
While I worry about many of my bad anti-eco habits resurfacing once I return to the lands of plenty, one thing I am optimistic about is creating a grey water system for my family, even if just continuing to collect dish water runoff and hopefully setting up at least one compost toilet in our home. It’s a privilege and luxury to have so many choices and I pray that if my choices broaden again I will have the strength to be able to choose in a more deen-conscious way, insha Allah.
Brooke Benoit is the World editor for SISTERS Magazine and a self-proclaimed eco-jihadi, among her other various hobbies.
This article appears in the May 2014 ‘Green’ issue of SISTERS magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women.