15 mothers killed in Essaouira trying to grab food for their children . . . so were we wrong to holiday there?

Sa’id, the beautiful young man who stood at the gate to our Essaouira holiday apartment block slept between 2 and 3 hours a night. He didn’t have insomnia, he worked the rest of the time to support himself and his mother. He was at the gate at 6am when I went for a walk to the port and still there when we set out for dinner at 7pm.

In the mornings I made sweet tea for Sa’id and his friend Ahmed the gardener and froze bottles of lemonade overnight so they could drink and keep cool in the 30 degree heat throughout the day. I occasionally made food for them – toasted chocolate brioche and fried cheese and tomato wraps.

I never saw Sa’id or Ahmed eat anything other than the food I gave them. I’m not telling you this to make myself look good, I’m telling you because I lay by a swimming pool for hours every day while these Moroccan men worked in the excessive heat, too poor to bring drinks and food to work with them and that makes me feel a little bit shit.

One night we had dinner in the Medina and as we left the restaurant we saw Sa’id standing outside a snack bar. In my crap French I told him it was good that he was having some fun and time off from working. He moved away from the snack bar to show me a badge inside his jacket that said ‘Securite”. He was working through the night as a security guard.

The next morning he was back on duty at the gate and this is when I found out that he only sleeps for a couple of hours at night so he can support his mum.

I keep thinking about those women killed in the crush for food aid and wondering if Sa’id’s mum was there, if she’s ok, if she saw people killed or if she was even killed herself.

I love Morocco. This was our first time in Essaouira, but we’ve been to Marrakesh four times now. I first took my daughter Zoë when she was two and we had to be rescued from a crowd where she could have been crushed to death too.

It was the last night of our holidays and we had set out to the square with a bag full of toy cars for Zoë to hand out to the children. She approached the first little boy, put her hand inside her bag and handed him a car. He took it and ran, scared it would be grabbed from him and then as Zoë held out the next car to the next child she was mobbed by children who seemed to come from nowhere. A man grabbed her and lifted her into the air as the scrum descended on the bag of cars.

It would prove to be be an experience she would never forget and although she was scared to death it made her realise just how little other children have and how lucky she was. And yes, it was a very privileged and middle class way to get the point across.

I know countries like Morocco need tourism to survive but eating delicious tagines in restaurants where the staff and their families are starving will never feel right.

This holiday, on one of my early morning walks I saw an old lady walking up the steps from the beach. She looked like she had been sleeping on the sand and I wondered just what help was available to vulnerable people there. This website goes some way to explain the culture of the people – Essaouira info – and parts of it make for very uncomfortable reading. It says men are held in higher regard than women, 63% of the population think domestic violence is ok and illegitimate children are not recognised, have no citizenship and are left to survive on the streets. It also says that you may see children using kittens as footballs or throwing stones at dogs for fun but we saw nothing so gruesome. Everyone we met was gentle and welcoming with no hustling in the souks, just smiles.

This is one example of how lovely the Essaouirans are. We had wandered into the furthest reaches of the medina and I saw a couple of men in dusty work clothes eating lunch in a tiny, dark room off the street. I entered, feeling the excitement of having found something genuine. A young man was tending a gas burner and smiled as I asked what was cooking. He lifted the lids off a tiny pot of meat stew and a pan of beans. I was desperate to ask if we could eat but sometimes I know when to control myself and think beyond an interesting story. Sometimes.

The boy looked relieved when I declined his offer to try it. I said “maybe another time, feed the workers.”

“Please, all drink tea with us anytime.” He said. And meant it.

I’d love to go back to Essaouira but it’s going to take a bit of soul searching before I know if it’s the right thing to do.