Driss Aouijil - Founder & Program Director
Driss is the youngest of nine children born in the Berber village of Ksar Taous, near Boudnib, Morocco. Orphaned at the age of 13, he began working as a camel guide, drummer, and digging wells in the sand dunes of Merzouga to help support his siblings. Learning Spanish, English, and French from tourists, in addition to his native Berber and Arabic languages, he went on to study English at University in Fes. Driss is a Moroccan history buff and has over 10 years of experience leading tours in Morocco and working with people from all over the world.
Despite facing numerous challenges in your childhood, you studied English at University in Fes. Did you ever imagine yourself standing where you are today?
I originally wanted to be a teacher, but there is very little work in Morocco unless you want to join the military. So, I started working in the tourism industry and had the idea to start a program to bring volunteers to Morocco. I eventually met a Peace Corps Volunteer who helped make the dream of Sahara Service Organization a reality.
You started your career in the travel industry at a very young age, before later founding Sahara Service Organization. How did the idea for the organization evolve overtime?
I was working in tourism and would see how my region, the region around Boudnib, is the one place in Morocco that tourists do not visit and know nothing about. It is a beautiful region, but very poor. The schools are in bad condition and children have nothing positive to do in the summers and holidays. Instead of just bringing tourists to the area, we had the idea to bring volunteers to improve the schools and organize activities for local children to address some of these problems and aid in the development of the community.
In the early days, how did you ensure SSO was developing in a sustainable way?
We are always thinking about doing something new and improving the organization. We want to help the local community so that Boudnib and the villages in which we work will improve and develop sustainably as well as the organization.
What is the most defining characteristic of SSO?
We have a diverse staff at SSO that works well together and has a very positive reputation in the community. We are all committed to positively impacting communities in need and providing volunteers with the best experience possible in Morocco. We spend a lot of time discussing and planning ideas, projects, and activities before volunteers arrive. Each person contributes their opinion and when we plan a program we make it happen.
Why do you think Morocco needs international volunteer support?
Morocco needs international volunteer support because parts of Morocco, like Boudnib, are very poor and in need of development. Villages like Boudnib have been ignored for a long time because of their desert location, far from the main city centers. Additionally, Morocco is a very open-minded country and part of development is exchange between countries. Morocco is often grouped with the Middle East, and with the many problems occurring in that part of the world, most people do not even know where it is located geographically. Morocco is a diverse and unique country.
How did the communities you place volunteers in react to volunteers the first time? How have their interactions with volunteers changed over time?
The volunteers were something strange, but good, for the communities, because they came in order to help the community and the Moroccans were excited to meet with people from other places. With time the locals got used to interacting with volunteers and seeing them walking to the village every morning to work and started to invite them to their houses. The children are very happy with the volunteers and want to make good relationships with them.
What is the most important thing volunteers should know about Morocco before arrival?
Morocco is a beautiful, safe country. It is a Muslim country, but it is much more open than other Muslim countries. Moroccans are welcoming to all people.
You have quite a range of languages under your belt, from your native Berber and Arabic to Spanish, English, and French. How valuable do you think language fluency is to cross-cultural communication and understanding?
I think that language is very important in order to learn about other cultures and to talk with people from other cultures, countries, and continents. Language makes the world small and makes it easy to be close to and accept and respect others.
How does SSO promote language learning and cultural exchange?
SSO volunteers live with host families, so they have the opportunity to see and experience how real Moroccan families live, interact, cook, clean, and speak. The Moroccan host families also learn some English and how Americans live and interact with one another.
For our volunteer projects we take participants to the small villages surrounding Boudnib so that they have the opportunity to experience the real Morocco. There is much more to Morocco than Rabat and the big cities in the North. Volunteers see how real people live their lives, from carrying water from open water sources to their homes to hearing their life stories. SSO program participants work with children in the small villages and experience cultural and language exchange between volunteers and children, as each learns how to communicate and work with the other.
What accomplishment, in regards to the development of SSO, are you most proud of?
We are very proud of our first SSO group in that we made our a dream a reality and it was a great success. The kids and people in Ksar Taous were very happy with the work and programs that we did and are requesting more volunteers. Our organization said we were going to do this program and we did it successfully.