Human geography field trip to Morocco 2016

Students in Imlil

Students and guide in Imlil

This year our BA Geography students jetted out to Morocco to explore human geography in the field. With teaching support from staffmembers Dr Becky Elmhirst, Dr Jason Lim, Dr Mandy Curtis and Dr Nick McGlynn, and deep local knowledge from expert guide Ibrahim, these 20 students spent five days in the famous tourist hub of Marrakech, and two days high in the Atlas Mountains in the valley of Imlil. Each day our students undertook different exercises in data collection and analysis, from detailed autoethnographic reflections to the Rapid Rural Appraisal techniques used in international development. Unlike last year the weather was hot and sunny – which just goes to show how unpredictable mountain climates can be. In this blog post I’ll be taking you through what our students got up to (in their working hours at least!).

Day 1 (Marrakech): Urban Social Geographies

Becky and Jason help students to understand the Place du 16 Novembre

Dr Becky Elmhirst and Dr Jason Lim help students to understand the Place du 16 Novembre

We left the university at 4.30am to arrive in Marrakech at around 10.30am – so by noon we were ready to survey the field. No rest for geographers! Beginning with observations at the modern-looking Place du 16 Novembre, we then moved on through the city to the quiet Cyber Parc, to the souks of the Medina before we finally ended at the famous Jemaa El Fnaa. Students began to question what kinds of spaces we associate with modernity, and how Orientalist geographies and the concept of ‘The West’ could be critiqued. The word ‘authentic’ was temporarily banned as we considered how geographic imaginaries influence what we take to be ‘authentic’ or ‘fake’.

Day 2 (Marrakech): Social and Economic Landscapes and Nightscapes

Nightscapes of the Jemaa El Fnaa

Nightscapes of the Jemaa El Fnaa

On the second day we returned to the Medina, where students undertook structured observations of key areas around the Jemaa El Fnaa. This time they were looking for signs of economic activity, globalisation and the nature of the built environment. We then returned to the area at night to see how ‘temporality’ can be vital in understanding social and cultural geographies. The square becomes even more active at night, with storytellers, performers and food vendors all clamouring for your attention. Consumption and the night-time economy were our focus here. And unlike Brighton, this was a nightscape without alcohol! Our students reflected on their own sensory experiences – how smell, taste, touch and sound can be as important in our conceptions of space as sight is.

Day 3 (Marrakech): The Challenge of Sustainable Development in Urban/Peri-Urban Environments

Exploring one of Marrakech's municipal tips

Exploring one of Marrakech’s municipal tips

While the previous sites in Marrakech were very much on the ‘tourist trail’, our sites on the third day were very much not! We began with a journey around peri-urban Marrakech. Visiting palm tree plantations and peering into lush, gated golf courses, we considered the challenges and politics of water use and conservation in an arid but rapidly developing environment. We also made a stop at a large rubbish tip to think about waste management in Marrakech, observing informal recycling practices as people took recyclable items from the tip to be resold elsewhere. Later, our students returned to the Medina to undertake group scoping exercises of urban environmental issues – they later presented and discussed these to the whole class.

Day 4 (Imlil): Landscapes of Vulnerability and Resilience in the High Atlas (part 1)

Women's Argan Oil Cooperative

Women’s Argan Oil Cooperative

Finally it was time to travel to the mountains! Though not far from Marrakech as the crow flies, we made stops on the journey to Imlil to explore some sites of interest regarding the development of Morocco. We visited a women’s cooperative which produced Argan oil; a small reservoir located on the site of a flooded town; and an ecological museum which introduced us to the environment of the Atlas Mountains. Once in Imlil our students began to think about Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) techniques in preparation for the following day – RRA has been widely used in international development. Thanks to our guide Ibrahim we had access to incredible local knowledge while in Imlil – his hometown! As our ‘key informant’ Ibrahim proved absolutely invaluable, highlighting the importance of including local stakeholders in development work. He was also invaluable in our entertainment, treating us to a musical performance with his friends at the end of the night!

Day 5 (Imlil): Landscapes of Vulnerability and Resilience in the High Atlas (part 2)

Finishing our transect walk of Imlil

Finishing our transect walk of Imlil

On our second day in Imili, our students were ready to put the previous day’s learning into practice. To begin our transect walk of Imlil Village and its surroundings we had to start at the top of the valley, and to get there required getting up some steep mountainsides. We took the most reliable form of transport – mules! Our train of sturdy pack animals carried us up the rocky slopes and narrow paths, so that we could get a good view of our surroundings and in particular the flows of water from the upper mountains down into the valley. 20 years ago flash floods devastated this area and killed many local people. Ibrahim showed us the ongoing impacts of this flooding, and how locals are still working to reclaim some of the land. Descending halfway by mule and then on foot, we considered the impacts of tourism on the area – as a source of diversified income in an area dominated by subsistence agriculture – and how local people and formal and informal governance work to build resilience in this difficult landscape. Students once again presented on their findings, this time from their transect walk. Finally, after a tiring day we made our way back to Marrakech to prepare for the final 2 days of the field trip. Our students were tasked with developing, implementing and presenting findings from their own research projects from scratch. Splitting into four groups of five people, they worked through the evening to develop achievable research questions and methods of data collection, drawing on the knowledge they had gathered on the previous 5 days.

Days 6 and 7 (Marrakech): Student Group Projects

Dr Jason Lim helps student develop their group presentations.

Dr Jason Lim helps students to develop their group presentations.

Our students had 2 days to collect and analyse data for their projects, and would present their findings at the end of our last day in Morocco. The teaching staff were always on hand to give advice about theory and methodology, while Ibrahim was also available to give advice based on his own expert knowledge. This year the projects undertaken were:

  • Postcolonialism, modernity and women’s fashion choices in areas of Gueliz
  • Gender roles in the Marrakech tourism industry
  • The influences of French post/colonialism on the built environment of Marrakech
  • How everyday uses of park spaces in Marrakech are related to urban hygiene

Working together, our BA geographers managed to collect some fascinating data – we were particularly impressed by the number of high-quality interviews undertaken! And while the students were undertaking data collection the teaching staff managed to explore a little of Marrakech in their own way, finding out about artist and activist projects around migration and identity – these point to the complex politics and issues being tackled in Marrakech which remain relatively invisible to us as ‘outsider’ UK researchers, unfolding in ways which our short and limited field trip could never hope to track!

Maroc Artist Meeting poster - note one of the events on the bottom left!

Maroc Artist Meeting poster – note one of the events on the bottom left!

Participatory migration workshop

Participatory migration workshop

This was an exciting and fascinating trip. It is rare that we get the opportunity to explore and learn about completely new environments, and even rarer to have detailed and grounded local knowledge shared with you – for this we are all extremely grateful to Ibrahim. It’s also worth noting that our students worked very hard indeed on this field trip, sometimes continuing well into the night! Ibrahim mentioned to the teaching staff that out of the many university field trips he has met over the years, he has noticed that University of Brighton students are always by far the hardest workers. This definitely sums up the opinion of the teaching staff too – well done everyone!

– Dr Nick McGlynn

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