Annual Moussem festival in Ait M’hamed: a celebration of tradition and biocultural diversity

By Pommelien da Silva Cosme, Communications and Field Officer, Global Diversity Foundation

During the last week of April, we left our desks for a few days to participate in the annual Moussem festival in Ait M’hamed, a lively village located in the High Atlas mountains. Together with our partner Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association (MBLA), we used the opportunity of this gathering to host a festival stand and organise a biocultural diversity fair aimed at disseminating the work of GDF-MBLA’s High Atlas Cultural Landscapes (HACL) programme as well as creating spaces for discussion regarding biological and cultural interactions.

Before arriving at the festival, we made a small detour to visit community researcher Hammou who has been very busy during the past two months supporting the construction of our brand new community nursery. He was very pleased to share the good news that the land is finally ready for planting and we look forward to seeing the nursery flourish as spring turns into summer. The new site will support cultivation and enrichment planting of locally-selected endemic, useful and threatened tree crops and plants, such as Oregano (Origanum compactum Benth.) and Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.), thus boosting wild populations and reducing harvesting pressure on these species.

A visit to the new nursery in Aït M’hamed on our way to the festival.

After a tour of the nursery and the blooming greenhouse, we continued our journey to the centre of Aït M’hamed where the festival would take place. Greeted by colourful trucks filled with horses, men, women and children, we quickly realised we were in for a unique experience! Every year, the Moussem festival in Aït M’hamed gathers people from surrounding towns and villages to enjoy musical festivities and to celebrate local traditions such as the Fantasia, which is a very popular horsemanship spectacle (see photo at top).

“The Moussem festival in Aït M’hamed is part of an ancient tradition during which the local saint Sidi Hmad ou Aamer was celebrated,” community researcher Touda says. “Moussem literally means ‘season’; it is therefore also known as the annual celebration of the arrival of spring.”

Ahidous musical performance.

During the four-day festival, we invited local community members to participate in different workshops to exchange and gather knowledge on local crops and traditional practices. We organised a dialogue to identify neglected crops to gain understanding of the factors that have led to the abandonment of certain important species. Through interactive discussions, the 22 participants, most of whom are members of cooperatives and associations of the commune, identified 17 neglected crop species, such as the carob tree and several cereal varieties. Among the main reasons for abandonment were overgrazing, water scarcity and droughts. Since many of the neglected species provide food, animal fodder and construction materials for local households, participants highlighted the need to reintroduce some of these abandoned species, particularly those with high commercial value such as caper plants.

In between our activities, our team was able to enjoy some of the festival celebrations such as the Fantasia spectacle during which groups of horse riders in traditional clothes showed off their deft horsemanship. While we watched horsemen speeding along and firing their traditional rifles into the sky, we enjoyed a musical show called Ahidous. We were delighted to see this traditional collective performance of Amazigh men and women singing and dancing side by side come to life.

During the first two days of the festival we saw many new faces but also some familiar ones. Local artisans Zahra and Aguojil – who previously shared their knowledge and craftsmanship with us during our Cultural Practices of Conservation workshop in November – were happy to reconnect with us at their own festival stands where they were selling their handcrafted products.

Local artisan Aguojil and Field Researcher Abdeddaim with a collection of handcrafted wooden bowls and teacups.

For more about the lovely people we met and other activities carried out during the Moussem festival, read part 2 of this story.

GDF-MBLA team members ready to engage with interested visitors at the festival stand.