Montana State University

Spring 2015

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Mountains and Minds

A higher calling May 12, 2015 by Michael Becker • Published 05/12/15


Being that they were both avid climbers, it was only natural that newlyweds and Montana State University graduates Cloe and Kristoffer Erickson would choose to spend their honeymoon in 2003 seeking rock faces and challenging ascents.

Morocco was the perfect fit.

Cloe had earned her master’s degree in architecture from MSU just three years earlier and had been working in firms around Bozeman. But the Bigfork native also harbored a passion for languages—Arabic in particular, which she studied at MSU. The trip gave her plenty of chances to practice. Plus, both of them had family ties to the North African country: Cloe’s parents met there, and Kris’ grandfather was stationed there in the Air Force, bringing Kris’ father along with him.

“Morocco has always been this mythical place that I knew I would have to at least visit,” she said.

It didn’t hurt that the rock climbing was reputed to be excellent.

Morocco is vertically punctuated by the Atlas Mountains, which divide the country’s Mediterranean region to the north from the Sahara to the south. The range has long been a popular destination for European climbers.

On a tip from a friend and seeking less crowded terrain, the Ericksons headed down a long and bumpy road to Zawiya Ahansal, a collection of four villages in the High Atlas Mountains located along an old caravan route from Marrakesh to Timbuktu.

What they found was a place with no electricity, few modern amenities, little contact with the outside world and plenty of poverty.

“It was a really difficult trip for us,” Cloe said. “Culturally, it was shocking. My language skills then were minimal as far as conversing in Arabic. Nobody was really traveling to Zawiya Ahansal.”

It was no romantic getaway either, she said. The Ericksons became quite ill on the trip, ran out of money and eventually had to sell their tent to catch a ride out of the region.

Despite the troubles, though, Zawiya Ahansal had its hooks in the two of them. Kristoffer, a professional climber for The North Face, found great challenges in the region’s rugged plateaus and limestone gorges.

“The mountains here are remarkably spectacular,” Cloe said. “Each valley you walk into is a little piece of heaven on earth.”

Cloe found her interest piqued by the local ighermin, several towering fortified granaries built out of rammed earth hundreds of years ago. Often collectively owned by many families and used to store food year-round and for protection during fighting, the ighermin (the plural of igherm) were crumbling. Long gone was the local know-how to fix them.

“It was such a complete shock to see such a quantity of significant architecture in such a remote location,” she said.

The state of those ancient structures stuck with Cloe as she and Kris returned to Zawiya Ahansal year after year. Even though the buildings were crumbling, they were still important to the community and its identity and its future.

And so after a few years getting to know the villagers and gaining a measure of trust, in 2007 Cloe hit upon a big idea: What if the ighermin could be saved?

Bill Rea took his first group of architecture students to Morocco in 2004.

“The whole Muslim world was under sort of a less-than-favorable light, and I realized we’d never taken students to any Muslim countries with the School of Architecture,” the former MSU professor said.

So when his former student, Cloe Erickson, contacted MSU in 2008 looking to give students the chance to help restore the 350-year-old igherm in Upper Amezray, Rea jumped on board.

Between the summer of that year and the spring of 2009, the pair hammered out plans for coursework, a schedule and all the logistics.

“Most of the heavy lifting was done by Cloe,” Rea said. “It was a big success.”

It was so successful that architecture students have returned to work with Erickson each year since.

The students’ involvement in Zawiya Ahansal evolved with each year, Rea said. For the first trip in 2009, they expected to be doing construction work—an expectation that quickly faded.

The Upper Amezray igherm was co-owned by 28 families and was in the worst condition of any of the historic structures in the region. A whole corner needed to be rebuilt, a tower needed reconstruction, and the foundation needed work.

“From the combination of the environment and altitude and the shape of our students, it was clear very quickly that we’d not be doing the construction,” Rea said.

So instead of hauling rocks and dirt, the students began the detailed process of creating “as-built” drawings. Many buildings, especially old ones, lack the architectural drawings needed so that renovation and restoration plans can move forward.

“There’s the adventure aspect of crawling through this amazing kind of ‘Romancing the Stone’ building,” he said, “drawing on plastic tables under a tree in the field.”

Erickson reasoned that would leave more work for local laborers, which would help them take a sense of ownership in the restoration. Indeed, Rea said that once the Upper Amezray igherm was complete, there was a noticeable change in the civic pride and self-esteem
of the village.

“They had this beautiful, essentially brand new igherm in their midst, and I really feel like it made a difference in their community pride,” he said.

He noticed a change in his students, too.

“I used to say they come back so changed they look different,” he said. “The takeaway for the student is undeniable. It’s not just seeing a developing country; it’s seeing these people, these Muslims we hear about every day and how wonderful and amazing they are.”

In 2009, the same year Rea took his first group of students to Zawiya Ahansal, Erickson formalized her efforts in Morocco by founding her nonprofit, the Atlas Cultural Foundation.

“I realized the work was not going to be just one project,” Erickson said. “It was work that I enjoyed and wanted to continue. … We needed to have an organized structure.”

Initially, the foundation’s mission was to do preservation projects across Morocco and potentially all of North Africa, but she said it took so long to develop solid, honest relationships with locals and gain needed approvals from the Moroccan government that the board suggested a change in focus.

ACF would make Zawiya Ahansal its mission: cultural preservation, public health and community education.

Erickson said the future of the nonprofit will depend largely on what the locals ask it to do. Its work is driven by what the villagers request.

“We are very committed to all of our initiatives and are not in a rush to grow or expand,” she said. “We realize that even if we never add another project and only continue what we are doing now that we will make a huge impact in the region.”

ACF’s revamped mission would come to affect how MSU’s students interacted with Zawiya Ahansal too.

Architecture professor Chris Livingston, who took over the Morocco program after Rea left MSU, said that apart from the continued ighermin restorations, much of his students’ spare time in Morocco now is spent helping locals develop their ideas.

His band of traveling designers do design by request. For example, in the summer of 2014, MSU students designed an addition to a local community center to provide a new meeting room and living space for a caretaker. It is being built now.

In Morocco, everything is up for discussion, and locals must be convinced of a project’s value to the community. The constant discussions, the many, many cups of tea… it’s something to which students who are used to the relatively quick answers and processes of American architecture must adapt. Even then, the best-laid plans are often laid aside out of necessity and are re-formed to include the labor and materials available on site.

“The students learn an incredible amount of patience, to be better listeners, to be highly adaptable,” he said.

Fifth-year architecture student Jamie Smith of Casper, Wyo., has gone to Morocco for the past three years.

Smith, now 23, signed up because it was one of the few opportunities available early in architecture school to do hands-on work. But she found the real value of the trips was in bringing the human element to her work. 

“For me I think it was bringing architecture down to a human scale,” said Smith, who will graduate in May with her master’s degree. “I think in the classroom setting, we’re creating these sort of fictitious buildings for a culture that’s so like us that we don’t really stop and think about the people. Looking at the architecture in this culture, you really have to understand the people before you do the building.”

Nancy Cornwell, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, emphasized the personal as well as professional transformational impact on students when they travel abroad.

“Architecture is the mechanism by which our students get to go to Morocco, but this experience ends up enriching their lives all around,” she said. “Anytime students have the opportunity to explore other cultures in a meaningful way, we all benefit from their growth as global citizens. People, problems and possibilities go from hypothetical to real, and students come to understand the positive impact they can make on the world.”

It’s not just architecture students who have been involved in Erickson’s efforts in Zawiya Ahansal.

MSU majors from education, nursing and health and human development have contributed to education projects on sanitation, hygiene, nutrition and modern gardening, as well as maternal and infant health.

In 2014, students from MSU’s Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems program made their inaugural voyage to study the food system, learn from local farmers, work on community gardens and conduct educational workshops.

This year will also mark the fourth trip with MSU French language students.

Ada Giusti, MSU professor of French, has traveled with students to African destinations for years, doing a variety of projects, including translation work.

Around 2011, that was the sort of work that the Atlas Cultural Foundation needed. The nonprofit’s website was in English and needed to also be in French, which is commonly spoken in Morocco.

When political unrest kept her students from heading to Mali a couple months later to do computer training in French, Giusti called Erickson. Coincidentally, villagers in Zawiya Ahansal had received five laptops that were still in their boxes because no one knew how to use them.

The timing was perfect, Giusti said, and the four-student group headed to Morocco in March 2012, expecting to train five or six people.

“But the word went out and not only them but also local teachers, government officials, the imam—all wanted training,” Giusti said. “We ended up training an extra 15 people.”

The one-time trip to Morocco became a repeat event and spawned a course back in Bozeman on Morocco’s culture. When the students returned to Morocco in 2013—nine of them that time—they were asked to expand their work to teaching French in the local afterschool program.

“We weren’t told how many we’d be teaching” with the student-prepared lessons, Giusti said. “We ended up teaching 40 hours a week, more than 100 children.”

Now, Giusti said, “the villagers have asked us to bring MSU students twice a year.” Giusti and her fellow French professor Pascale Hickman bring groups of up to 12 students to the village in March and May.

It’s a lot of work, but Giusti and Hickman believe the outreach is worth it because it shows their French students far more than classroom learning can provide.

“Our students go into the community and have real experience and learn the complexity of the culture you cannot get through books, TV or film,” Giusti said. “They also become ambassadors for breaking the stereotype of what American culture is like. It’s a really deep exchange.”


While the Ericksons commuted to Morocco for several years from Livingston, in 2014 they pulled up roots and moved permanently to Zawiya Ahansal.

“It was a significant life decision to make Morocco our only home base,” Cloe said. “But it was very liberating and freeing.”

Living in the High Atlas Mountains isn’t without its challenges. The family misses conveniences like clean tap water, regular electricity, good Internet access and others. But Erickson said moving to Morocco has allowed the whole family to spend more time together. Plus the Erickson’s young daughter, Noor Amina, 6, loves her home and exploring the village with her school friends.

“We live amongst mountains that provide abundant fresh water and clean air,” Kris Erickson said. “Living in a small village, the values of family are emphasized, which I appreciate.

“Whether I’m guiding clients on steep rocky walls, carving turns down the snowy peaks in the backyard or working with our various university and high school service learning programs, I love inspiring those that visit our region to experience a different way of life in a unique location.”

Kris Erickson, himself an MSU photography graduate, praised his wife for her dazzling work with the villages.

“She is the most respected foreigner that has ever visited the region and continues to be a huge part of the community,” he said. “With the daily interaction we have with the local population, you quickly realize that Cloe’s motivation for being there has unlocked many doors for anyone that’s with her. I never imagined she would be able to accomplish the number of projects she has or the level of respect she has gained in the community.”

Being in Zawiya Ahansal full time also lets Erickson keep those ties to the community strong and her programs running year-round.

“I believe that hands-on work and experience was missing from my education and that it’s an integral part of how humans learn,” she said. “I want to teach the next generation about how we work and what we believe in, with the hope that it will inspire some of them to do similar work at home or abroad.”

Foreigners working in foreign lands can often find themselves in tenuous situations, Cloe Erickson said, balancing a desire to help with being seen as meddling outsiders. It’s a line Erickson has walked expertly now for years, and one she seems glad to be walking.

“The locals here have opened their arms and doors and treat us as if we have been here since the 13th century,” she said. “I feel grateful that this place and culture has become a part of our lives.

“We are better people because of it.” ■