Tunisia: Being of Service in Zammour

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Visit Zammour Tunisia: A History of Passion

By Gini van Wijnen

Imagine you’re going to a festival in a foreign country, and become part of an intricate system of family relations in a desert village.zammour1

Imagine feeling the heat on your skin and listening to the quiet in the corners of the village. Imagine watching the olive tree leaves while processing the life lessons this new environment is teaching you.

This happened to me when last November, I visited the south of Tunisia. I learned about the powerful force of community when I saw my friend change a light bulb in the old neighbor’s bathroom late at night.

I learned that history repeats itself when I spoke to young villagers looking for job opportunities out of town.

I also learned that history repeats itself when I saw the unstoppable passion of a farmer. And I learned that there is always something to do to invest in these positive cycles of history.

The Village of Zammour, Tunisia

The village of Zammour is situated in the mountainous rural area of the south of Tunisia. The Sahara is about 100 km away, although the border of the Sahara is as diffuse as its sand storms.

When you arrive in Zammour, a 6 hour bus drive south from the busy capital of Tunis and its Mediterranean surroundings, it’s like entering a different world.

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A beige canvas as far as the eye can see, a quiet that’s only interrupted by the local livestock and occasional vehicle passing by, and a night sky so full of stars that it stopped me in my tracks every single night. In summer, the sun is mercilessly powerful – one can do little else than surrender and sleep during the hottest hours.

In winter, night temperatures can drop to around zero degrees Celsius. This is the environment the Zammouri family has lived in for an irretraceable amount of generations.

My first encounter with the family  – no one actually knows if it was named after the village or the other way around – was in November 2023, at the start of the Zammour festival. I met a couple of Zammouri cousins, whom I assumed to be particularly close considering the way they shared their money, food, and experiences.

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Same Family

They explained that most of the villagers are members of that same family. So when I returned to Zammour after the festival tumult had quieted down, I told my roommate Aymen Naouel-Zammouri that I may have to start drawing a family tree. He just laughed. I was only beginning my discovery of the local environment.

And it didn’t take long for me to learn that the way these cousins shared life applied to most of the people who lived in Zammour, and friendship and family relations collide in one bundle of community life.

Small town life growing smaller

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Throughout my stay in Zammour and during trips to the nearest town Beni Khedache, simple experiences taught me about the local culture.

Practically always, there was a Zammouri family member involved – Aymen’s aunt next door cooked us delicious meals, her daughter invited me for tea and taught me how to bake traditional bread, and her husband was part of the ‘pétanque team’ at the local café.

The barber in the nearest town and the owner of a local guesthouse were cousins, and if we were looking to find transportation we’d meet with a brother or an uncle.

Walking around the neighborhood of Zammour or Beni Khedache allowed Aymen to point out all the places where Zammourians lived and worked.

Another story arose when he also mentioned the many foreign countries where Zammourians live.

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Apparently, it is not self-evident that Beni Khedache and Zammour continue to be populated by lots of Zammourians – or populated at all.

Zammour Always Quiet

Zammour was always a quiet village, but when you walk around these days you will find an abandoned primary school and barely any children.

There are several houses under construction, but they are owned by Tunisians living abroad who only come to visit in the summer. Among the few people who managed to find a job in Zammour are the handful of part-time baristas.

During the low season, they spend many of their working hours sitting in the café by themselves. Most of the Zammourians appreciate this type of quiet life, talking to the same neighbors every day and hanging out at the same café every night.

But if nothing changes, they’re just as likely to grow old outside of Zammour as all their emigrated family members.

Not because they want to, but because their environment forces them out. Temperatures during the festival in November were around 30 degrees Celsius, making stories about the heat and drought in recent months easily believable.

Every day, running water was cut off after about 13:00 – you can imagine how that heightens consciousness on a festival.

But what I was not yet conscious of, is that the effects of climate change had been palpable for a much longer time in Zammour.

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The abandonment of the Olive Mill

One afternoon after the festival, Aymen took me to an old olive oil mill. When I went down into the underground caves of the mill, I felt like it had been abandoned yesterday. All the equipment was still there: the huge machinery made from stones and trees, the ropes to turn the stones pressing the olives, the baskets to put the olives in.

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The coat that was used by workers – accidentally ‘treated’ and thus preserved by its exposure to olive oil – still hung in the corner. The technical ingenuity demonstrated in the mill was jaw-dropping. In winter, workers would spend the whole day in the caves and even sleep there with the camels. The last time that happened was about 20 years ago. Why? Because there were no more olives to press.

Aymen told me that his entire family worked in agriculture when he was a child. His grandfather, who lived to be 104 years old, would drink cups of plain olive oil for breakfast. In addition to 300 kgs of figs, they‘d produce 1000 liters of olive oil every year. 

Aymen spoke about memories of himself and his brother making a competition of riding the horses to the land where they would work all day. This life changed at the beginning of the 21st century when extreme drought arose.

There was no water infrastructure yet; they had been living and working without it up to that point. The harvest failed dramatically. Many Zammourians had to find a job elsewhere. The mill went out of use.

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Today’s Farming in Zammour

These days, olive production has restarted in the area, but in much smaller quantities than before. Agriculture is still Aymen’s greatest passion. He has started new projects on one of the Zammouri family’s lands and collaborates with local organizations.

They center around replanting and preserving original seeds that almost disappeared during the dry spells, and that are relatively sustainable in the face of climate change, and using them to develop and respread sustainable agriculture.

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I got to taste the fruits of their labor when I came with Aymen to water the fig trees. It’s amazing how well the sprouting trees can do with so little (rain)water. But it’s also vulnerable.

Every year it gets hotter and drier, and it’s no small job to deliver the water to the land. Moreover, farmers’ efforts are limited by economic circumstances.

While Tunisians in the city are already struggling to find a job that pays the bills, funding opportunities are even more scarce in these rural areas.

To earn a minimal income, Aymen does tour guide jobs alongside his agricultural projects. He sees lots of opportunities for expanding tourism in the area.

I think he’s right – just visiting the olive oil mill is a unique experience for anyone with an interest in history and (agri)culture, not to mention the many cultural and geographical treasures in the rest of the area like the Ksars, Chneni, and ‘Star Wars’ Tataouine.

The Tunisian hospitality would only contribute to a thriving tourism business. A prospect like that gives hope to people like Aymen. An avenue to continue to live the life that he has felt at home in since the day he was born.

Our opportunity to Support Farming in Zammour

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Evidently, the future of agriculture in Zammour is on a tightrope: it could fall into disaster or create opportunity.

The good news is, if we want these projects to have a chance, there is something we can do other than recycle our garbage and travel slowly.

We can support farmers like Aymen by investing in them when we visit Tunisia.

Our investments as tourists can help keep the agricultural tradition alive and sustainable. Then, Zammour does not have to become a ghost village, and families do not have to become scattered all over the world.

Then, Zammour can continue to share its beauty with visitors. If you pack your bag today, tomorrow there will be a Zammouri family member welcoming you with open arms and some of the most amazing couscous dishes you’ve ever tasted.

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Want to find out more about Zammour and opportunities to visit the environment? Go to https://destinationdahar.com/ or follow @destinationdahar and @visitzammour on Instagram.

To find out more about the annual Zammour Trekking festival, go to www.zamourtrekking.com or follow @zammourtrekking on Instagram.

If you’re interested in working or volunteering in Zammour, contact Zied on Workaway.

Gini van Wijnen is a cultural psychologist from the Netherlands, who considers travel to be part of her professional development. She’s always on the lookout for eye-opening experiences to fuel her inspiration and uses writing as an outlet. After another period of traveling, she has recently come back to her home base in Utrecht (The Netherlands). 

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