Dar Si Hmad for Development, Education and Culture is an independent nonprofit organization founded in 2010 promoting local culture and sustainable initiatives through education and the integration of scientific ingenuity in Southwest Morocco. We operate North Africa's largest fog harvesting project, providing villages with access to potable water. Our Water School and Girls' E-Learning Programs build capacity in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. Through our Ethnographic Field School, researchers and students engage with local communities in Agadir, Sidi Ifni, and the rural Aït Baamrane region for meaningful cross-cultural exchange.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Calling for Change, Texting for Transformation: Amazigh Women and ICT Literacy

Dar Si Hmad’s flagship project harvests fog from the Anti-Atlas Mountains in southwest Morocco and pipes it to Amazigh (Berber, the indigenous people) villages in Aït Baamrane. Rural women in these villages have, for generations, held power as water guardians. Fetching water can be a burden – during dry months, women may start walking before 4am to get to wells before the water table is too low. But controlling the household water supply is also a source of power.

In five villages, Berber households now have taps in their homes supplying reliable access to potable water. Women and children no longer need to walk to collect more. But thanks to the community consultations that Dar Si Hmad conducted before the fog project was implemented, women remain in charge of the water system.

Berber women in Dar Si Hmad's partner villages have
received literacy and ICT training to help support the fog project
Creatively, Dar Si Hmad has implemented a participatory management system focused on mobile phones. Women can send simple SMS messages (texts) to a central ‘fog phone’. If water is not running, appears cloudy, or there is a maintenance problem, women will be responsible for reporting.

Implementing the mobile reporting system required investing in ICT and literacy training. Leslie Dodson began collaborating with Dar Si Hmad in 2012 when their development projects served as case studies for her PhD dissertation at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s ATLAS Institute. Leslie’s work helped Dar Si Hmad place the ICT program in a wider context.

Conventional wisdom assumes that women with mobile phones can text. This is not necessarily the case. Though many women in the Bled (Moroccan country) do have mobile phones, the vast majority of them are not literate. They rely heavily on voice services – but calls are much more expensive than texts. Too, many women are not numerate. Functions that rely on counting and number sequences are confusing. And finally, mobiles do not obscure gender issues. Cultural restrictions on communication between men and women extent to social media and phones.

Dar Si Hmad’s ICT training used what women in the villages already had: simple, often broken and secondhand, phones with relatively broad coverage and available power. The program sought to expand the use of mobile phones for communication while paying attention to the challenges of moving from oral communication to texting in a non-text based society. The program also needed to avoid a formal educational approach, given the realities of shame and fear that schooling sadly brings to many illiterate women.

Among the program’s many barriers were language. Most Amazigh households speak Tachelhit, one of numerous Berber dialects. Some also use Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect that includes French and Spanish words but has no standard written form. Morocco’s two official written and spoken languages are Modern Standard Arabic (quite different than Darija!) and French. But there are three alphabets: the Arabic script, which is written right to left; the Latin script, written left to right; and Tifinagh script, which is less common and glyph-based. And there are two numbering systems: Arabic (1, 2, 3, 4…) and Arabic-Indic (١,٢,٣,٤…).

With this mix of languages, it is unsurprising that rural women face challenges with mobile literacy. Their use of phones is quite basic. Because calls are so much more costly than texts, illiterate women pay a ‘tech tax’. Communication is more expensive for them than for those who can text. Phones’ full features are not available to them and they miss out on a variety of services.

But these women have high visual literacy. Pattern recognition and memorization help the women with keypad sequences and contact identification. Using this, Dar Si Hmad put together a program of informal education to expand Berber women’s ICT capabilities. Women are highly motivated to learn the Latin alphabet; phones put that alphabet at women’s fingertips. Literacy training alongside mobile reporting on the home water system has created an avenue for women to learn in culturally appropriate contexts.

Mariam Bahmane, a Dar Si Hmad volunteer who supported the ICT trainings, reports:
“We visited fifty-one families and sat with every single woman either in their houses or the school village or under an Argan tree for eight days. Since the large majority of the women in these villages are low literate and monolingual, we had all of our trainings in Berber and ran pre-training classes on Latin alphabets and numbers. We then proceeded with our ICT and plumbing trainings. We trained the women in how to use a phone, send a text message to report on different water problems to Dar Si Hmad and fix the common indoor plumbing problems. It was magical to see the skilful and cracked hands of these women adjust their glasses (for the few women who owned a pair), hold a phone with one hand and a paper or a wrench in another.
“These women did not need much to defy the obstacles that existed between them and learning.”

The fogwater information network was carefully designed to accommodate mixed literacy levels, genders, and devices. Common messages about the water system are sent with symbols rather than detailed sentences.
Dar Si Hmad's "fog phone" is set to receive updates about the
water system from Berber women in rural villages. Common
issues are simplified to make the program accessible to women
with low literacy and numeracy so they can continue to hold
their privileged ancestral role as water guardians.

Women’s increased literacy and numeracy has proven useful for far more than monitoring the fog system. Enhanced ICT skills enhance opportunities and grow confidence. Dar Si Hmad continues to invest in capacity-building trainings with the women. The organization will use lessons learned from the first ICT trainings to implement similar programming with future partner villages as the fog harvesting program expands.

This post is part of Dar Si Hmad’s 2015 #16Days Campaign to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

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