The feedback from the loudspeaker echoed with a sharp crack, and then began the call to prayer. Beautifully and loudly, the almost melodic merging of syllables and sounds rang across Marrakech, Morocco and awoke me from my sleep. As the sun rose and people knelt in prayer, I left my hostel and began my journey into the western Sahara.
Although I was born in Liberia in West Africa, this was my first time back to the continent in 18 years. I was studying abroad in Madrid, Spain and decided to take a weekend trip to Morocco. When I imagined what I might encounter, my American sensibilities took hold, and I could only call to mind exotic animals and people from a faraway land.
The Africa many Westerners imagine is one of poverty, children with flies swarming around their eyelids and villages making human sacrifices — a stagnant, stale and reductive identity of a varied and huge continent. These images exist in some places. That is true, and I have seen it, but that isn’t all of Africa.
By the time my journey ended, I had seen the heart of Morocco. It was rooted in a simplicity and humility that radiated to the corners of the country — not the stereotypes I had imagined.
When I passed through the city of Marrakech, I encountered liveliness, not sadness — market stands littered the medina with people trying to draw me in with their anacondas, herbs and henna stations.
When I trekked through the mountains, I met local men who knew eight languages and the history of their entire villages — where I naively didn’t expect to meet people who were so educated.
And when I walked in the desert, the sand dunes like pillows beneath my feet, I noticed the silence and an enduring sense of warmth. I had never believed in spiritual retreats before, but feeling the weight of my minisculity in the Sahara made me a believer.
The crackling of the fire was the only sound for miles, and the lights from the stars shined on all of us. Mohammed, the camp site’s owner, began to talk about his simple life in the desert and the companionship he shared with his donkey. The blue fabric from his head wrap fell at his feet as he smoked a rolled cigarette and continued to tell us about his life for hours, as the night and the desert embraced us.
When I left the desert the next morning, everything stayed with me except my footprints, which washed away with the waves of sand that blew over them.
There are the things I now know about the desert and Africa that I didn’t know before — the mystical, the magical and the dream-like. As I climbed the steep mountains, gazed at the narrow roads and befriended playful children — those abundant, devastating images from UNICEF commercials had disappeared.
Honestly, I thought I would see people I could pity in Morocco. But what I saw contrasted sharply from the images I had pictured of dirt roads and people wearing rags. There was no lack of civilization. Instead, I found joyful, kind, loyal people and a lovely, simple way of life.
The value of a good life in the United States can be measured in what we individually possess, but a woman in Marrakech told me that the value of a good life in Morocco is having something to eat, something to wear and people to love. There is so much value in the Moroccan way of life — so much good and beauty and love — that exists beyond the stereotypes we associate with the Africa we imagine.
Richelle Kota can be reached at email@example.com.