Elke on the train

going to Fez

I have dreamt of going to Morocco ever since I was a teenager in Germany, when it was still one of the destinations on the Interail train-pass. Marrakech was one of those names for me that carry mystery and calling. What better time to go than during this trip on Sabbatical.

Even today, where travel is easy and things we value, like safe drinking water, are readily available everywhere I’ve been, the sensual impact of a Moroccan town is big. Colours, smells, sounds and the mazes of old buildings and markets are at times overwhelming, but mostly awe-inspiring to me: I am definitely in a different culture!

Souk in Marrakech


Berber rug patterns

The Arabic world is rich with ornament: from jewelry to buildings, in metal, plaster, thread, wood and leather. Patterns and symbols carrying meaning and story are passed on from generation to generation. Craftsmen and women spend their lives working on fine details, often using methods unchanged over generations.


And yet: the modern global flavour is strongly influencing local tastes: everywhere, but perhaps more in urban areas, we saw a blend of worlds: traditional gowns, tight jeans, Moroccan leather slippers and western style knee-high boots. Cellphones are everywhere.

old and new in the souks


The old world of the Medinas is full of the richness of tile work and plasters. Visiting the Ryad Moqri in Fez, which is now housing a school for the traditional crafts, I learned a little about the technique of the fine plasterwork. The pattern is transferred from a cast using a powder-coating. Then the plaster is cut to the depth desired by the artisan. The result is a relief with strong shadows.


colourful relief plaster

Plaster Model

burnishing the lime finish


Old buildings require repair and I saw plenty of restoration underway. Newly plastered facades grace beautifully restored interiors. Modern materials replace older tools here too: a plastic burnishing tool.





New Lime Plaster finish

The sense for decor doesn’t stop in old town: high end condominiums also show attention to detail and seem to carry the traditions forward adding modern style.


Modern apartment buildings


Train Station Marrakech

light fixture at train station








Tadelakt plasters are a lime finish that we have just recently been learning about in Canada; Morocco is where this technique originates. We saw beautiful examples both indoors and out. They set the mood of a place and give elegance and beauty featuring cut out patterns and bright colours.


Tadelakt fountain



Tadelakt finish at the hammam

The waterproof surface isn’t used just for wet environments: here restaurant walls, hotel foyers and courtyard walls are finished with shiny blue, red and yellow. You can even take some home in the form of small containers bright turquoise, blue, pink or purple.

Tadelakt for sale

Small Tadelakt containers








As a designer and builder of earthen homes I appreciate the work of finishes as much as the construction of the building.

On a trip south into the desert we saw towns and villages of earthen architecture; some dating back hundreds of years and kept in use or restored, others crumbling and in disrepair. There are themes in the architectural form: corner towers, stepped rooflines, courtyards and large colourful gates.

Houses are built tight together three or four stories high. Narrow streets and walkways are bridged here and there by arches of stone. The old buildings are built of mud bricks or rammed earth on stone foundations, tapered on the corners. They are covered with earthen plaster that is rich with straw fibre. Cut patterns create sharp shadow lines . The colour is the colour of the earth around, ranging from red to orange and yellow tones.

bridging over walkways

The desert climate allows for clay roofs as well. Layers of bamboo and clay over wooden beams form terraces that blend completely into the landscape.

Mud Roofs






It’s not all good though; earthen buildings need to be maintained annually and slowly fall apart if not cared for. They do age gracefully and damage can be fixed- even by re-using the original materials. It takes time, interest and energy to make that happen and out in this desert new buildings are often built with cement blocks like everywhere else. In comparison  they appear sharper, their colours less attractive and clearly artificial. And if you’ve ever felt the difference inside when it’s 40 degrees outside you’ll stay with the mud.

I was often reminded of villages in Northern Sudan that I saw a few years ago: the private sphere of the courtyard behind walls of earth, bright coloured gates and large clay water urns on the roadside. A gesture of hospitality – even at the gas station.


Hospitality: roadside water urn

Changing worlds doesn’t get easier over time as you may think- culture shock still happens to me when I return back to Canada. First the world seemed so much quieter and so gray here, not to mention cold. My dreams kept taking place in Africa and even now after a week still do.
So let’s go back and revisit Baobab Shamba where we spent our last month.

view from the road with the new kitchen in front

When we returned from Arusha the kitchen walls had been built and the roof frame was started. Everyone was eager to move forward with next steps. The rains had turned the land green again and it seemed like everything was growing.
Our list of things to do was never shrinking: support the garden, work on gray water system, build shower at the house, build sinks for both shower areas, plaster, wall tiling, build stove, and so on.


Early January brought a handful of new volunteers to the farm. Some came with high skill: Eckhard Beuchel, a builder friend of mine from Germany, followed my invitation to build a stove for the kitchen. The idea was to create a stove that allows for different fuels (hoping for fuel briquettes made from agricultural waste in the future), or at least get more from a given amount of firewood.
We came up with a stove that heats three pots with one fire and an oven that can be preheated by the cooking fire as well. Have a look:

While he was working on the stove I built the third and largest concrete sink and counter:
Well I didn’t do it without the help of Sean on the arches and the guys onsite who mixed the concrete on a Sunday morning.
All through the week the site was buzzing with activity. CM tells a good story of it all from his perspective on his blog.
Tile mosaics transformed the shower space, two other concrete sinks for laundry were cast in place, trees planted and another building started: Terri and Caito are now building a home for themselves.

Terri and Caito’s house
The compost bins

Sean built a solid set of compost bins and we held a demonstration class for the folks on the farm.  This is what our permaculture intro has come to: compost, trees, and greywater. If any two of these still work and live when I return I’ll be thrilled.
Really we are introducing ideas and inviting change of behaviour and that just doesn’t happen overnight. Small steps- pole pole
Finally here’s a series of images taken over time from the road entrance to the farm:

in the beginning : the Guava tree
the office was first
then the eating banda
next came Ubuyu 1 the house


and now the kitchen out front.

Soon the trees will grow up all around, the brick making will be done and the smell of food cooking will drift towards visitors who approach the buildings. Karibuni – Welcome!