The Well

“What makes the desert beautiful," said the little prince, "is that somewhere it hides a well."
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery



At first, all you can see in the distance is the dust kicked up from the dry rocky ground as a few small figures make their way across this remote area of desert between Merzouga and Zagora. Volcanic black hills and unforgiving thick chunks of rock lie interspersed with the occasional hardy Acacia tree.





It is a donkey that emerges first, jolting forward clumsily a few paces with a sharp slap on the rear from his owner, a small Berber woman; trailing a few feet behind, a little boy.

In the desert, silence is king, and the smallest movements or sounds are amplified against the dry stillness. Time seems to slow down here, so much remains untouched; the earth still in the process of sculpting the rock into landscape over centuries.


They are heading towards a small well that sits in the centre of an open plain, well used by the local goats and birds alike in the adjacent water trough.

It is unclear how long she has travelled to get here but the donkey's stubborn reluctance to move onwards may be some clue. He is carrying a variety of brightly coloured empty water containers, perhaps a week's supply, I wonder - later we discover that they make this long journey twice a day.






The donkey is persuaded with one final slap to travel the last few paces to the water trough, where he bends down cautiously and drinks.














The woman never pauses or alters the rhythm of her morning ritual here at the well, her mission is underway and she unloads the containers and a bag of laundry and places them beside the well. She tips water into a rusty drum that is left nearby, and begins a never ending task of briskly and thoroughly scrubbing and wringing the clothes.





The little boy is about four years old, his head is engulfed in a woollen hat a few sizes too big for him. He stands on tiptoe to reach the water bucket swinging above him and drinks enthusiastically. His large dark eyes look curiously at us as we approach the well, despite the fact we are carrying only toys, we do not want to intrude.





The woman must have been aware of us for a while walking in her direction; she does not pay us much attention. Her head and face are covered with a scarf, the fine gold threads of which glint in the morning sun. I only see her eyes pass over us once - just to confirm that we are not a threat; simply tourists.







The child is more curious and seems unsure how to react when we hand him the toys, he takes them slowly and smiles hesitantly, perplexed by why these strangers should be here.


He looks silently at the box containing a toy garage and cars, as if he is unsure based on the picture what it might be, he runs his small fingers over the image and looks up at me again.










The woman continues her arduous routine, pulling the stubborn donkey to a nearby bush and tying him expertly by one of his hind legs to the trunk. True to his character, the donkey heaves his entire weight against the rope, exerting his bid for freedom to a maximum and then remains, defiant, in that position whilst nibbling some nearby thorns.



She returns briskly to the well and begins to fill the water containers: a variety of old cooking oil bottles and plastic barrels. Dale walks towards her and offers to assist, she does not reply or move, but simply allows him to do so; his kindness warms her slightly and she smiles through her eyes.  I am sure that this small gesture would have eased her burden somewhat but at the same time it was clear she had the will and strength to do it unaided.





After fetching back the donkey, no easy task since he knew what was coming - pulling him from the neck only entrenched his heels further into the ground and slapping him from behind had become the most expedient method - she utters some harsh words at him, the only time we heard her speak; they return to the well where she loads the water bottles across his back, balanced two by two. It must have been a heavy load - one that he was used to bearing.






She tied all the ropes together in a remarkably swift and precise manner, and he was rigged for travel. They began the long walk home.


That evening, she would return to complete the whole process once again; child and donkey in tow. We were not sure whereabouts she lived, nothing was visible across this open stretch of desert for miles, but on our journey further west the following day, we spied several Bedouin tents in the jagged mountain ledges.


The well had been built by a Spanish charity called “Amigos X Africa”, their logo was visible on the side of the well. Their mission is to provide people with more than just a handout: “to contribute towards the development of people in Africa, and not their dependence.” I felt that this was truly reflected in this particular project. I remember with admiration the woman’s determination and focus in completing her daily task, and the equal strength of the donkey - a wonderful animal, leading a life of perpetual servitude.










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