Zawiya Ahansal was founded in the 13th century by Sidi Said Ahansal, a traveling North African Islamic scholar. Local legend states that Sidi Said Ahansal’s mentor told him to stop his travels and establish a religious school where his cat jumped off of his donkey. Located deep in the Central High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Zawiya Ahansal now refers to a rural commune under the province of Azilal and is centered on four established villages, Amezray, Aguddim, Taghia and Tighanimin, a weekly market (Monday) and government offices. It also encompasses the high pastures and grazing lands of the Ait Abdi and Ait Atta tribes, two of Morocco’s largest and most powerful semi-nomadic and nomadic tribes. The current population of Zawiya Ahansal is between 10,000 and 15,000 people and includes permanent residents, transhumants, and seasonal nomads. This land is uniquely layered with a tapestry of tribal rights, pastoral lands and stunning natural beauty. The local languages are Tamazight, Moroccan Arabic (darija), Classical Arabic, and French.
Historically, Zawiya Ahansal was a prosperous region in terms of both monetary wealth and knowledge. Located along the Ahansal River, it was blessed with fresh water, plentiful grazing lands, and a harsh landscape easily defended against rival tribes. Its strategic geographic location on a prominent caravan route across the Atlas Mountains to the plains of Marrakesh supported the establishment of religious schools and even libraries in this small and remote region. Its following continued to grow and an abundance of annual pilgrims visited the region during the Islamic month of shawaal bearing gifts (clothing, food, etc.) for Saint Sidi Said Ahansal and his descendents. It maintained this prosperity and the independence that grew from it for centuries; the highly decorated ighirmin, collective granaries and saints houses that were built during this time are modern skeletons of this prosperity. But in 1933, it was one of the last strongholds of Morocco to fall to the French Protectorate; this event greatly impacted the region’s social structure and economic status.
As a result of the French Protectorate and the successive constitutional monarchy creation, the country’s gradually increasing infrastructure (paved ways), and a shift in religious beliefs Zawiya Ahansal has seen a decrease in pilgrims (and their gifts) and travelers on the trodden routes over the Atlas Mountains. It is now considered the second poorest region in all of Morocco.
Development aid of any measurable level in Zawiya Ahansal is less than a decade old and exists on a much smaller scale than what is found in its neighboring regions and the rest of Morocco. This is due to a number of reasons including but not limited to: remoteness, difficult living conditions, harsh weather and historical lack of basic infrastructure such as roads, health care, and electricity. The American Peace Corps does not work in the region despite having worked in a neighboring valley less than 80 kilometers away for nearly 10 years.
A number of European and Moroccan associations (also known as NGO’s or non-profit organizations) have attempted working in the region, yet only succeeded in one-time attempts at assistance such as donating clothes and school supplies, pulling teeth, or handing out medicines. Three foreign NGO’s have had sustained results in the region; Association Khadija (France), Les Amis de Amezray (France), and the Atlas Cultural Foundation (ACF) (United States).