by Guest Blogger, Brett Nirider
In October 2022, Brett and Juanita Nirider led a team to serve in Morocco. This is the second of two posts from their experience.
After five days of teaching in Sidi Ifni, we are traveling up into the rugged terrain of the surrounding countryside. Our fearless and skilled leader Jeff, covered in the prayers of many, drives us all carefully along narrow bumpy twisty curvy roads. We are immersed in land of Biblical character, as if we coul d expect to see Jesus and his followers gathering together on one of the nearby hillsides.
It is harsh land. There is very little water, and where the water is, a surprise of green blesses us. The donkeys, dogs, sheep and goats somehow find sustenance amongst the rocks, sand, and thorny plants.
The primary livelihood of this area is the gathering of the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. It produces fruit but once per year, so the opportunities for financial success are quite limited. Added to that has been the death of much of the cacti over the past few years. When we traveled here three years ago to see and celebrate the new beginnings of the center in Sebouya, the plants were prolific, green and as lush as a cactus can be. Since then, however, something has happened to their crop, and most of the plants are withered, shrinking into strange shapes that resemble people in odd positions or strange animals posing weirdly. It’s a surreal sight.
I did a little research and found that the prickly pear is not indigenous to this area but was introduced as a potential food and income source. It proved to be well adapted to the area and soon took off too well. Other areas of the country did not want the intrusive prickly pear invading their agricultural spaces. The government set upon a plan to limit the spread by introducing a small insect from South America that feeds on the cactus. The meddling of man can sometimes produce more trouble, and this proved to be the case here in southern Morocco. The insect continues to work its way through the region, which is also suffering from a prolonged drought. We have also learned that the government of Morocco is very interested in obtaining these lands for the development of potential mineral resources. Where that leaves the people who somehow find a way to survive in this barrenness upon barrenness of land remains uncertain. While they are here, though, we know that we have been called to help.
This is the center that was started only three years ago, when we were last here, the one with the motto of “Do Something.” They work in a very small space for classes and another that measures less than 200 square feet for therapy, and they serve 47 children weekly. It seems they are doing a lot of something.
Because the spaces are too small for teaching, they have moved us into another building for the day. It looks to be a type of community center with a large open area, two smaller rooms, and a room that doubles as a storage space for rolled up rugs and at times perhaps a kitchen. There is stone everywhere, and the larger room where we are to be teaching and working with our students is loud. The sound reverberates. We wince with the cacophony of people coming and going. People are there to see Dr. Ellen and Lori here as well, so there is coming and going, crying, seeking. Even the murmurs of people in need echo across the space. This simply won’t work for the noise-sensitive children with autism we know will be arriving.
We gather our students together in the space of the rolled-up rugs. The workers there eagerly spread a few of those rugs out for us on the floor. The dust in the air shimmers in the warm golden light coming through a grated opening in the roof. Our interpreter Souliman sneezes and struggles to breathe. Allergic to dust, he continues on because the needs of the children that day are more important than his discomfort. We all struggle with the dust a little, but the space is quieter, much quieter.
Our first little girl of the day takes a shine to Molly. She’s a mover, a climber, a delightful seeker of squeezing, bouncing, climbing, joyously exploring the space. The jumble of rolled up rugs is just part of the fun. Molly invites the student who is most familiar with the girl to enter into the play, and she moves from one to the other, developing trust, the kind of trust that leads to relationships and not isolation. Her father joins the fun, and the delighted little girl uses her daddy as a tree to climb, a rock to stand upon, a horse to ride. It’s beautiful to watch.
Next comes Yousef, a twelve-year old boy brought in by his older sister. He is tight and twisted to one side, his gaze seemingly permanently stuck to the right. I bring him onto my lap, encouraging his left hip to relax so that he can sit without pain. Soon he is moving a little more freely, and the tight muscles of his neck give way to a softness that seems more comfortable for him.
The grated opening in the roof of the space is covered by thick pieces of cardboard held in place by rocks. There is a gust of wind, and another. The wind finds an unsecured edge of the cardboard and lifts it, then slams in into the grate. The noise is disruptive at first, but as I work with Yousef, I’m reminded of Jesus, when his conversation with the religious leaders is interrupted by the sound of a ceiling being opened so that friends of a man who couldn’t walk could lower him from the roof. There was no way for them to get him in to see Jesus through the door because of the large crowd of people there. The sound of banging from an opening in the roof became strangely familiar and comforting as Yousef and I worked.
Joyce helps him to bring his eyes to the middle, his gaze no longer stuck. His breathing changes, deeper, longer, as his ribs move with the rhythm of each breath. He is relaxed and nods “yes” when asked if his body feels better. We finish with him sitting with my legs under his body, his feet quietly resting on the floor, no longer pushing, his hands open and relaxed.
The next day we travel to another village, Tioughza, this one known for its honey. This center has only been open for 20 days! After working with the students in Sidi Ifni we know this group to be earnest and hard-working. We find our space and get to work, as do our super docs. Aurora, Jeff’s wife, and Scott, Ellen’s husband support the medical team and honestly anything that we need as well. They keep the days running smoothly. Jeff orchestrates, working with the local and regional leaders. Nora, who started all of this, seems very pleased.
We see more children and teach as we do so. Molly, Joyce, and Juanita continue their work of love and skill. The students are so very grateful. We help them learn how to use some new equipment they’ve just received. They are tired, the room is hot and stuffy, and it is time to be done. There are promises from the government to build a new and larger center for them in the next year. They have started from scratch just 20 days ago.
We gather together one last time outside the building on a rough patch of dirt that slopes downhill. They have set up desks from the center that now serve as tables, and we sit down on plastic chairs. Delicious sweetbreads are spread before us. A donkey meanders the street just above us, chased away by children trying to play in the same space. In this most humble of places, words of gratitude flow over us. We receive certificates for our service. We feel blessed over and over again. We part with hugs and some tears. We must also say farewell to our interpreters. Souliman gives to me his Moroccan wallet, with which he has traveled much of the world, and tells me that it has meant a great deal to him, but he wants me to carry it now.
For the past several days we have enjoyed dinners at a beachside restaurant in Sidi Ifni. As we finish the last day, we find ourselves there one more time. By this time, we know the menu by heart. The food is secondary. What matters is the fellowship of good work done with love and grace. Most of us take off our shoes and walk briefly into the Atlantic. The tide is returning, and surprises us and brings laughter. The emotions of the days here wash over me like the waves. My tears have mingled with the dry dirt of this place and now the ocean restores me with joy.
Meet Pastor Tim
Tim Bayer has served as Our Savior's Lead Pastor since September 2019. He also serves as an Adjunct Instructor at Concordia University - Irvine, a National Leadership Facilitator and Resource, and a Community Mental Health First Aid Instructor. Tim studied sociology, psychology, and theology prior to earning his M.Div at Concordia Seminary - St. Louis. He has also is a candidate for an Ed.D (ABD) in Transformational Leadership. He is married to Beth and they have three young children. Together, they enjoy exploring the outdoors, experiencing culture, and pizza and movie nights.