October 13th, 2014  |  By Round Earth Media

Our NextGen captures the pain and resilience of Morocco’s “children of the moon”

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 10.26.04 AM


Our NextGen photographer Rachel Woolf captured the pain and resilience of Morocco’s “children of the moon” for the Baltimore Sun’s visual journalism blog the Dark Room. Click here to see the rest! For 800 children in Morocco, damaged or burnt skin is genetic, irreparable, and needs to be replaced. Mohamed-El Kotbi, 17, and Driss Hamouti, 21, live with this tragic condition. Due to a disease called Xeroderma Pigmentosum – which medical professionals generally shorthand to XP – they are prone to blistering and burning of their skin and eyes upon the slightest sun exposure.


September 25th, 2014  |  By Round Earth Media

Love and Witchcraft in Morocco

Love and Witchcraft in Morocco


This story originally appeared in The Riveter magazine. Click HERE to read it there.


article and photos by Ailsa Sachdev

top illustration by Lora Hlavsa

The first time Salma consulted a shawafa, or witch, she went with friends on a lark, solely for entertainment. When the shawafa predicted that she would never get married, an outrageous thought for a Moroccan woman in her twenties, Salma brushed it off.

“At that time, when we left the shawafa, we laughed and we didn’t trust her,” said Salma, who didn’t believe in witchcraft or magic.

Twenty years later, the 42-year-old Salma has never married, and she has visited more than 100 shawafas in an effort to lift what she believes is a curse preventing her from getting married.

In a country where 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Salma is one of many Moroccans who cannot afford counseling or mental health therapy. Instead, they turn to the mystical, seeking advice from shawafas who say they can tell the future, even though the practice of witchcraft is illegal and considered anti-Islamic in Morocco. This is because the Quran says that nobody can tell the future, except for God.

Some women ask shawafas for luck and wealth for their families. Others want to exorcise a spirit or contact a dead loved one. Most women, however, go to find love, to retain love or to forget the person they love.

In 2012, Colleen Daley, an American studying intercultural communications at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Chefchaouen, a historical Moroccan city, in search of a shawafa.

At the time, she was working for Moroccan Exchange, an organization that brings American students studying in Spain to Morocco. She was taking a group of students from the Syracuse University Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion to observe different health services, both traditional and medicinal, in Morocco.

She wandered along the cobbled streets past the sky-blue walls of the medina, or old city, asking people in her broken Arabic where she could find a shawafa.

“I heard so much about shawafas before, as evil women who do black magic, who girls will go to get a man to fall in love with,” Daley said.

But when she finally found a shawafa, Daley was surprised by how ordinary the woman looked.

“Less than a full mouth of teeth, white cloth tied on her head, pajamas stained with food from cooking, and a light cloth hastily thrown over her head at the sound of male visitors,” Daley wrote in her blog.

Daley did not want her future told, even though it was a mere 20 dirhams, or two dollars. She just sat there, quietly listening as her translator recounted the shawafa’s story about using her gift to heal people and to earn money for her daughters, ever since the death of her husband.

The shawafa “had a real light about her and a real happiness, a kind of aura,” Daley said in an interview with her. “And I’m Christian; I believe in God. I really felt the presence of God in that room at that time.”

Moroccan women turn to shawafas in times of need. Bouchra Saaidi, 32, wanted to forget her cheating ex-boyfriend. She told me her story when we met at a bar in Rabat.

In 2007, Saaidi’s cousin took her to a shawafa after Saaidi admitted to having suicidal thoughts. The shawafa predicted Saaidi’s future by studying the motion of melting lead in water. Eventually, she decided to help Saaidi forget her boyfriend. Saaidi paid the shawafa 600 dirhams, or 70 dollars, hoping that all her worries would go away. The shawafa instructed her to buy trinkets and wear a dress that would allow smoke to flow up the skirt, a practice that, shawafas say, opens up sexual energy. Then the shawafa asked her to tap her ex-boyfriend’s shoulder at noon on Friday. Saaidi was told this action would complete the spell and afterward, she would have no more feelings for her ex-boyfriend.

As the shawafa instructed, Saaidi tapped her ex-boyfriend’s shoulder and ran away before he had the time to react. She then washed herself with water provided by the shawafa. The shawafa also used Kobol, a substance used to attract people and render them in awe of you, to bless Saaidi and to make her the woman everyone looks at when she enters a room. Saaidi then walked the main avenues of Rabat and found a new man that very day.

“One man helps you forget another,” Saaidi said. “That’s the truth of life, for me anyway.”

Though Saaidi believes in shawafas and their abilities, she also admitted that the effects could be purely psychological.

“When you go to a shawafa and she says you’re going to meet a guy in three days, it stays in your head and you keep thinking, ‘Oh I’m going to meet a guy in three days,’” Saaidi said. “It ends up affecting the reality.”

However, placebo effects, like the vitamin pill Airborne, also occur in western medicine and therapy, which makes it almost impossible to deem one better or more effective than the other. How important is the means if the ends are just as, if not more, successful?

In addition, this process can have an impact on a woman’s judgment in a society where there is a lot of pressure to get married. Women who are unable to find a husband resort to spiritual consultation to solve their problems or simply act as an emotional outlet.

 How important are the means if the ends are just as, if not more, successful?

Some people go to shawafas who practice witchcraft “because they do not have money to solve their problems” through therapy, said Ali Chaabani, professor of sociology at University of Mohammed V-Aghdal in Rabat.

A single 50-minute therapy session in Rabat is approximately 300 Dirhams, or 35 dollars, which is cheaper than a lot of options in the US. However, when Saaidi went to the shawafa, it cost about 600 Dirhams or 70 dollars, to talk, have her future told, engage in a spell to forget her ex-boyfriend and eventually find a new man. If you add up the several sessions it can take to solve your problem, it actually costs less, in the long term, to go to a shawafa and fix the problem in one go. For a lot of Moroccan women, it’s a no-brainer: You visit a shawafa, pay less and have your problem solved by supernatural forces in two sessions.

Salma, whose real name is being withheld because she fears social stigma, believes that her lover’s mother, who did not want Salma to marry her son, has put a curse on Salma to prevent her from getting married. Even though shawafas have been unable to help her, Salma continues going to them.

You visit a shawafa, pay less and have your problem solved by supernatural forces in two sessions.

“If I go sad, she tells me some very nice words and I go back and I am a little happy,” Salma said. “It’s like if I go to a psychotherapy session.”

Some women in Rabat visit a marriage well that is hidden in the Oudayas Castle near the beach. Idrissi Saleh, the marriage well keeper, said the water from the well mixed with rose water changes a woman’s luck and helps in the search for a husband. Then, a woman can light a candle for the Djinn, spirits in Muslim legends, which prevent her from getting married. The women leave old underwear behind as a symbolic change in sexual fortune.

The marriage well also has a shrine dedicated to a dead saint, Sidi Abouri. Women use the saint’s tomb as an intermediary through which to ask God to change their luck, despite religious taboos.

Acts like these, including the abandoned underwear, are common occurrences in shrines dealing with fertility issues in Morocco, despite the fact that explicitly leaving something behind as sexual as underwear is often looked  down upon by Morocco’s conservative society. However, since shrines are already a controversial space, these women desperately engage in this act in hopes that it will make their problems go away.

“Even though the saint is dead, it’s like he’s sleeping,” said the keeper’s son, Mohammed. “He solves all problems.”

Religion, however, is controversial for shawafas and shawafa-goers alike. Sunni Islam, the predominant sect of Islam practiced by 99.9% of Muslims in Morocco, a Muslim-majority country, forbids intermediaries between God and people – like shawafas and saints. Moreover, the Quran states that nobody but the prophet Mohammed can view the future, said Dr. Khalid Saqi, associate director of the Islamic School Dar Al Hadith Al Hassina.

“Nobody in the heavens and on earth can tell you about the unseen things except God,” Saqi said.

Under Islamic law, it is illegal to practice witchcraft in Morocco and shawafas can be heavily fined by the government under the charges of sorcery. Still, shawafas are ubiquitous in Moroccan society. Many Moroccans visit them in secret to solve personal issues. This is because some Moroccans are only Muslim by culture and don’t follow the religious laws, Chaabani said.

“A large percentage of the community is illiterate, so they don’t know what Islam says about witchcraft,” Chaabani said.

In fact, 32.9% of Moroccans are illiterate and therefore, religion is taught through word of mouth in some communities.

Despite the illegality of her craft, a 22-year-old shawafa named Miriam said that she didn’t receive trouble from the police and that she even sometimes helps male officers with their personal problems. However, shawafas’ male clients are less frequent and often come to them for assistance with issues like employment and wealth.

Miriam has no choice but to follow her craft because she believes somebody cast a spell on her when she was nine years old. Since then, Djinns have possessed her and forced her to become a practicing shawafa.

Another shawafa named Fatima also suddenly became haunted by Djinns, except she absorbed the spirits by washing her dead aunt’s clothes. I heard about her through a friend of a friend, so I decided to pay her a visit.

In Tiflet, a small town in northwestern Morocco, Fatima fiddles with the beads between her fingertips as she tells the customer her future in a secluded room located in the corner of her house. She wears bright pink pajamas concealed by a flimsy old cloth to connect with the Djinn that haunts her. Everything around her, from the tablecloth to the Islamic tapestry behind her, is green.

There is a teal lace-like fabric hanging over the entrance that you have to lift above your head to get past. Inside, the walls are white like alabaster, but almost everything else has a leafy hue. There are pine green candles and a repugnant henna concoction spread out across a table covered by a harlequin green cover, couches covered in a dim emerald cloth, green glass rose water bottles, a deep olive Islamic tapestry and other green Koranic posters.

According to Fatima, green is the favorite color of the specific Djinns that connect with her. Though witchcraft is prohibited, Fatima says she enjoys helping people. Nevertheless, Fatima and Miriam asked that their real names not be revealed because of social and legal implications of being a shawafa in Morocco.

Later, I was reading through the translator’s notes of my conversation with Fatima. I’d asked her about skeptics, of course, in which she has answered confidently: “I want them to live as I am living and live this daily suffering that I live so they understand I practice that work without my control.”

Ailsa Sachdev spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a non-profit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Amal Guenine contributed reporting.

Lora Hlavsa is The Riveter’s resident graphic artist. She’s a graduate of Macalester College, where she majored in geography and art, and currently lives in Minneapolis. You can follow her on Twitter@loramariehlavsa and on Instagram @coloraco

July 21st, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Next Gens Hannah Rehak and William Matsuda on underage marriages in Morocco

This article appeared in the GlobalPost. Read it HERE.
Hannah Rehak July 21, 2014 06:22
The Moroccan legal code forbids girls under age 18 to marry, but exceptions are granted most of the time.

RABAT, Morocco — Salima Dakani has a bruised right hand, two children, and nowhere to sleep tonight.

She is only 19, but she bears the weight of a woman who says she has spent years tortured by a man addicted to drugs and violence, a man chosen for her by parents who believed marriage was the best option for their daughter, an alternative to a life of poverty.

The daughter of Rachida Diani, who helps her mom around the house in Rabat, Morocco. She is bubbly, but shy. Unlike her brothers, she rarely leaves the house to play outside. (William Matsuda/GlobalPost)

The daughter of Rachida Diani, who helps her mom around the house in Rabat, Morocco. She is bubbly, but shy. Unlike her brothers, she rarely leaves the house to play outside. (William Matsuda/GlobalPost)


July 21st, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Underage Moroccan girls married off with judges’ consent

This article was published by the Global Post. Read it HERE.

Hannah RehakJuly 21, 2014 06:22

The Moroccan legal code forbids girls under age 18 to marry, but exceptions are granted most of the time.

The daughter of Rachida Diani, who helps her mom around the house in Rabat, Morocco. She is bubbly, but shy. Unlike her brothers, she rarely leaves the house to play outside. (William Matsuda/GlobalPost)

The daughter of Rachida Diani, who helps her mom around the house in Rabat, Morocco. She is bubbly, but shy. Unlike her brothers, she rarely leaves the house to play outside. (William Matsuda/GlobalPost)

RABAT, Morocco — Salima Dakani has a bruised right hand, two children, and nowhere to sleep tonight.

She is only 19, but she bears the weight of a woman who says she has spent years tortured by a man addicted to drugs and violence, a man chosen for her by parents who believed marriage was the best option for their daughter, an alternative to a life of poverty.

Dakani was married in 2010, at the age of 15. Now, after a four-year marriage to a man she says kept her locked inside for weeks at a time, beating and electrocuting her until she couldn’t move, Dakani has secretly left home with the hope of finding someone who can help her file for divorce.

She is just one of many young girls married under the legal age of consent in Morocco, about twice as many as 10 years ago, according to statements by the Moroccan minister of justice. In 2004, changes to the country’s Family Code, the Moudawana, pushed for egalitarian reforms to outdated laws and set the minimum age of marriage at 18 years. But according to Fatima Maghnoui, President of L’Union de l’Action Feminine (UAF), an organization committed to helping young women find shelter, work, and healthcare in Rabat, the changes still fall short.

“The spirit of the Moudawana is the equal treatment of men and women, but there are parts of the text that contradict that philosophy,” Maghnoui said.

She is referring to Article 20 of the Moudawana that states a girl may be married under the age of 18 with the consent of her legal tutor, often her father, and the authorization of a family affairs judge. The girl herself must also consent to be married.

Salima Dakani, age 19.

(William Matsuda/GlobalPost)

Though judges are only supposed to give their authorization as an exception in a “well-substantiated decision,” proposals to marry underage girls are accepted 89 percent of the time, according to a report submitted by the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM) to the United Nations.

Sixteen percent of Moroccan women in their early twenties were married under the age of 18, compared to only 2 percent in neighboring Algeria, according to 2010 UNICEF data.

Maghanoui says what’s behind these marriages is the patriarchal mentality of Moroccan judges.

“It is a sort of authority limited to the judge, who makes his decision on behalf of the young girl,” she said. “But…when a young girl comes in, maybe she’s only 14, but she looks heavier, bigger, so the judge gives her his authorization.”

Stephanie Willman Bordat, an expert in Moroccan law and co-founder of Mobilizing for Rights Associates (MRA), a non-profit women’s rights organization, agrees that Article 20 relies heavily on judges’ subjective appraisal.

“The law doesn’t give any guidance of what an exceptional reason would be,” she said, “so there are lots of different reasons why judges are authorizing underage marriages. If she is pregnant, or if she is dating, or seeing some boy, or having sex with him, they are saving family honor and avoiding scandal.”

According to women’s rights advocates, in many cases, judges also grant permission with the idea of saving a girl from poverty.

“When parents come in they explain they have four children, for example, and they want to get rid of their daughter,” said Maghanoui. “They want to get her married, even if she is underage. Imagine a girl who does nothing, who has no professional future, who lives the routine of daily life. What else can she be? Sometimes it’s her who wants to get married, because she doesn’t do anything.”

Still, there are Moroccan judges who resist the pressure from girls and their families.

“I had a private conversation with the judge. He asked regular questions about my age, my health, my family, et cetera,” says Selwa Adil, 20, who was once engaged to a man nine years her senior. “But the marriage registration was turned down and the judge told us to come back the year after.”

Instead of waiting until she came of age, Adil’s family decided to employ a traditional marriage ceremony in Morocco — the reading of the Fatiha, a binding verse in the Quran. These marriages, though they are unrecognized by the state, are often the solution when a judge refuses to approve the underage marriage. Adil’s marriage was brief, as problems arose and she promptly moved back into her family home just 12 days after the wedding.

Such conflicts are common. Though she didn’t particularly want to get married, Ghizlane Asmane says it was her idea to quit school at the age of 11 and, until her engagement at the age of 16, she says she did nothing but stay in the house and cook. However, once she had moved into her husband’s family home, which is typical for underage brides, Asmane found she did not have the freedom she’d hoped for.

“I had conflicts with both the groom and his family,” said Asmane. “With the family it was mostly about the household. I got scolded by my husband’s family for things like cooking and cleaning.”

Not all underage marriages are unhappy and unsuccessful. Rachida Diani, 27, was married when she was 14. When she looks back on her marriage, Diani comments on the difficulty of moving into a new home at such a young age, but focuses mostly on the happiness her three children have brought her. For Diani, getting married was the start to her life. Still, when asked if she has an opinion on the prevalence of underage marriages, she is quick in her response.

“No girl should be allowed to marry before the age of 18,” she said.

For Bordat, of MRA, it is simply a human rights issue.

“I think when you are looking at the dangers of underage marriages, you have to look at the totality,” she said. “Underage marriages raise the risk of the underage marriage brides not being able to take advantage of and enjoy a host of their other rights.”

One of those rights involves education, according to advocates.

“The place of young girls is in school and not in a conjugal household,” said Maghnaoui. “To eradicate poverty, we need to put structures in place: schools and information centers; and we need to integrate women in other ways once they have left school.”

The Moroccan government is working on awareness raising campaigns and is considering making 16 the minimum age limit for judge-authorized marriages, according to judge Abdelhadi Elbattahe of the Ministry of Justice. But it’s not easy to overcome cultural traditions that approve of underage marriage, he adds.

“This phenomenon isn’t linked to the law in particular, it is linked to mentality and prevalent social concepts,” says Elbattahe.

In the meantime, women’s advocacy groups are working to provide services for young women, like Salima Dakani. Though Maghnaoui and her coworkers at UAF hope to eventually help Dakani file for divorce, they face an even more pressing concern: finding a safe place for her to stay.


Hannah Rehak and William Matsuda spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Malak Mihraje contributed reporting.

June 30th, 2014  |  By Round Earth Media

The underreported story of a deadly disease from our Next Gen reporter in Morocco

Mohamed removes his straw hat and is more active during overcast skies or in shady areas due to his xeroderma pigmentosum. Photo by Rachel Woolf.

Xeroderma Pigmentosum, XP, is a rare disease carried in 1 out of every 80   Moroccan’s DNA. It is only passed from parent to child when both parents carry  the recessive trait. Thus, in Morocco’s poor communities, where there is little opportunity for marriage outside the family, people are at higher risk to have, or at least pass on, the disease.

The disease is characterized by blistering and burning of the skin and eyes, along with various cancers. The National Cancer Institute reports a 10,000-fold increased risk of skin cancer for someone with XP and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that non-melanoma skin cancer develops at a median age of nine. They are what Moroccans call Children of the Moon.


Today there are 800 Children of the Moon in Morocco. Due to poverty and poor access to health care, most of these children, teenagers and young adults will die before they reach 30.

Round Earth Media’s Francine Krieger reported the story of Morocco’s Children of the Moon for the Global Health Hub, read it HERE.


June 26th, 2014  |  By Round Earth Media

Morocco’s Children of the Moon Suffer in the Dark of Poor Health Care


This article was published by Global Health Hub on June 25, 2014.

MOROCCO – Mounir Yakdone died at 7 years old in pursuit of an education. His parents warned that the walk to school would continue to kill him, but the one-eyed boy painted with skin tumors felt he had nothing to lose.

Nozha Chkoundi and Mohammed Yakdone had taken their son Mounir to a public hospital in Casablanca when he was 3 years old. They were concerned about the freckles that multiplied on his skin with each passing day.

But being seen at the busy hospital was nearly impossible. They stood in line for hours, with the hot Moroccan sun radiating the heat of their impatience and the skin of their freckled boy. When finally seen by a doctor, Mounir was diagnosed with a fatal skin disease called Xeroderma Pigmentosum, which medical professionals generally shorthand to XP.

XP is a genetic disorder that cannot be detected until after birth, and until an infant’s skin reacts to sun exposure.

So when Nozha and Mohamed were letting Mounir spend three joyous years in the sunshine; shirtless at the beach, and unprotected while playing soccer in the sun, they didn’t know that he had XP and was quickly, certainly acquiring skin cancer.


May 27th, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Soultana: ‘The Voice of Women’ Raps in Morocco


This article was published by PRI’s The World on February 20, 2013.

Credit: Shalea Harris Soultana (Youssra Oakuf), 27, was the first recognized female rapper in Morocco and is still one of the only women on stage. Soultana rose to international fame first as a member of the band, Tigresse Flow. Then, again, as a solo- artist in 2011 with her first single "Sawt Nssa", or "The Voice of Women," a rap against street harassment of Moroccan women. "The guy he can't, he can't, feel what I feel when I'm walking on the street. He can't feel that."

Credit: Shalea Harris
Soultana (Youssra Oakuf), 27, was the first recognized female rapper in Morocco and is still one of the only women on stage. Soultana rose to international fame first as a member of the band, Tigresse Flow. Then, again, as a solo- artist in 2011 with her first single “Sawt Nssa”, or “The Voice of Women,” a rap against street harassment of Moroccan women. “The guy he can’t, he can’t, feel what I feel when I’m walking on the street. He can’t feel that.”

Soultana and her band won Morocco’s biggest amateur music competition a few years back and promptly became the most recognized female rap group in Africa.

Soultana’s hit single “The Voice of Women” is her anthem.


May 27th, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Deficit pushes Morocco to cut subsidies


This article was published by Al Jazeera on May 02, 2014.


Rabat - Ahmed Dabachi’s heavy blue coat is stained with soot as he lugs a 25-pound butane canister from inside his dark shop to a customer in Rabat.

This is the fuel that many Moroccans depend on for cooking and also often for heating. The government heavily subsidizes the cost for Dabachi and also for his customers. He sells canisters for 42 dirhams or $5.04, but they actually trade for $14.50 on the commodities market.

Dabachi is wary of any but the slightest price increases, knowing they would be bad for him but even worse for families who rely on his products.

“If the prices go up, I’m not going to buy it. How are my customers going to?” he said.

Three years ago, Morocco managed to avoid the revolutions that brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. One way the Moroccan government bought social peace was by spending 20 percent of its budget to subsidise the cost of bread, fuel and electricity. But that spending has since spiralled out of control – Morocco’s deficit ballooned to 7.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012. Now, in a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country will have to bring its deficit down to three percent by 2017, largely by cutting subsidies.


May 27th, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Tips To Sort Out The Truth In ‘Cause Marketing’


This article was published by Zester Daily on May 12, 2014.


Liisa VonEnde, a dental hygienist from Vermont, pauses in the checkout line at Whole Foods Market and considers the last-minute temptations: local chocolate, exotic licorice, obscure brands of gum. Finally she tosses a 2 Degrees cherry almond energy bar into her cart. Why that one? This particular bar helped feed a hungry child. These days, “cause marketing” — an idea that for many began with Paul Newman’s salad dressing — has spread to everything from shoes to eyeglasses, with small specialty companies combining flashy graphics with philanthropy to sell their products.

California-based 2 Degrees Food provides one meal for every bar sold. In Morocco, meanwhile, women have organized into small cooperatives to sell argan oil, hoping the tie-in will boost sales for their vendors. Both cases sound like a win-win-win, satisfying the disadvantaged, a company’s bottom line, and consumer cravings. With so many food companies adopting the do-gooder model, however, consumers need to think about whether their well-meaning purchases are delivering as promised.


April 17th, 2014  |  By Serenity Bolt

Thanks to all who attended the premier of “Willing to Break”

JP Keenan & Sutton Raphael at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival after the premier of "Willing to Break"

JP Keenan & Sutton Raphael at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival after the premier of “Willing to Break”

It was a sell-out theater for this and a slate of other short docs at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival.  From the audience:  “What a fantastic film, kudos to the filmmakers.”  More from these young filmmakers soon and a huge shout out to their Moroccan journalism partner, Loubna Fouzar, and Prof. Khadija Zizi of the Institut Supérieur de l’Information et de la Communication in Rabat, Morocco.

It is through partnerships like this one with SIT Study Abroad that Round Earth is able to produce important news and information for top tier media around the world while mentoring next gen journalists.  More in our online magazine, Reporting Morocco.


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