Winner of the 2016 Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Award supported by LaScam
“Culture is not just a legacy inherited, it is also a vision that is accepted.” Mouloud Mammeri (Kabyle writer, anthropologist and linguist)
The Berbers or Amazigh people (i.e. free people) are the oldest inhabitants of North Africa. For thousands of years they have been living on a vast expanse of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to Siwa Oasis in Egypt. They have their own language and cultural traditions, but their identity is under threat. They do not aspire to nationhood; some are nomadic, some are sedentary; there are Muslims, Christians and Jews. But leaders in North Africa suspect them of being heretics, and have oppressed them, breaking up communities, assimilating them and sometimes persecuting them. Every day their life is a bid to safeguard their identity.
Most Berbers are in Morocco, so I went there, to the village of Tinfgam in the High Atlas, nearly 2000 meters [6,500 feet] above sea level, a trip that ended on foot, walking for three hours on a dirt road. Houses are made from stone and clay, or are caves in the mountainside or on steep slopes. The villagers are both strong and calm. But these communities are ignored by the government and deliberately kept on the fringe. There is no dispensary, no school, no infrastructure whatsoever for education or healthcare services, and there is no electricity. But the Berbers are independent in spirit, and with their know-how and extensive knowledge of the environment, they are self-sufficient, farming the land and raising goats. Their lifestyle is closely linked to the land where they live and each day follows the order set by nature. There may be no material security, but the atmosphere in the village is warm, like a big family. Women play a central role as most men have to travel further afield to find work in other areas. As a result, the women are the living memory of the Amazigh people, of their traditions and culture.
I also went to the village of Timetda, in Tinghir province, where I sensed the same philosophy of life. The two villages are quite similar in the way they are run and their guiding principles. Timetda is easier to reach, near a road; some of the homes have electricity, but here too the villagers feel that the local authorities are simply ignoring them and have ostracized them. Like the community in Tinfgam, the people of Timetda feel deep-rooted bonds with their traditions, and they are proud and determined to assert their identity with their own language and culture. This is clearly an act of defiance, resisting efforts to have them assimilated and their identity cast into oblivion.
The hope and future of these people depend entirely on them handing on their values and culture as practiced and safeguarded over thousands of years to future generations. And their land is of critical importance: it must be defended from the constant peril that has been threatening it for centuries. Theirs is a generous land, a land that nurtures the people living there in a spirit of harmony. My work reporting on the Berber people living on their own land can be seen in the context of resistance, with a traditional culture standing firm.