Two solid wooden gates smoothly closed out the bustle of Marrakech behind our black SUV. A man tiredly waved to us from his guardhouse, tucked away in a pool of shade between a row of palm trees and a five-meter-high brick wall. I was eager to begin meeting my contacts, when I was greeted by a pack of 14 barking dogs, all of which were curious to examine the strangers that had just arrived. The chauffeur, Hassan, gave me a knowing smile, opening the trunk where our bags had been placed. I could sense he was also relieved to see I was comfortable around our new friends.
Before I could even make it to my luggage in the trunk, the man from the guardhouse had already picked it up for me. Hassan gestured me to follow him up to our room. Used to carrying my own bags, I felt somewhat conflicted, but followed the man into a large building. Still, there was no sign of Hansjörg, our Swiss host for this evening, as was arranged by my main contact in Essaouira.
Hansjörg Huber, retired insurance salesman, is the president and founder of Les Enfants Dar Bouidar (LEDB), a charity aiming to build an entire village for Berber orphans just outside of Marrakech. According to UNICEF, approximately 6,480 infants were abandoned by their parents in 2008, with other figures suggesting those numbers have grown over the last four years (AFP). I later learned that a large number of these infants are left behind, because law and religion in Morocco prohibit extramarital sex, and single mothers often find themselves left on their own as a consequence. LEDB is just one of many initiatives aiming to improve child welfare in Morocco, and I now found myself at the heart of this operation: A large mansion inhabited by one man on the outskirts of Marrakech.
Inside the building a fountain sprung from the center of an elaborately tiled floor. Intricate plaster carvings tangled their way up the high ceilings of the central hall, and large oil paintings adorned the pastel-colored walls. Almost immediately I noticed the neatly stacked brochures for the Dar Bouidar orphan’s charity lined along the stairwells, depicting a smiling child learning to read on the cover. Amongst them, handcrafted wooden boxes prepared as fund raising gifts to potential contributors. Their contents: two bottles of Argan Oil, produced and bottled by Sidi-Yassine, a company owned by Swiss entrepreneur, Ulysses Müller and his Berber wife in the coastal region of Essaouira. I had arranged to meet with Ulysses the next morning, as he was passing through Marrakech on his way home, where I would be staying for the next two weeks. He would be my main point of contact for this project, and in the meantime, he had suggested we stay with his friend, Hansjörg. I took it upon myself to make this an opportunity to bring an additional contact into my reportage on argan oil.
“See it as grandpa’s last round” Hansjörg joked at the dinner table that evening, detailing his visions for LEDB. He had finally surprised us jumping out from a doorway in his bathing suit, catching us on our way up to the guest room. Even after our brief encounter, I wasn’t quite sure if we had just met our host, or if the energetic retiree in speedos, who introduced himself as “Giorgio” was just another part of the entourage. Nevertheless, we threw on our pool-attire as he had suggested and made our way back down to the lawn. I was relieved to confirm that the man we had met in the stairway was indeed our host, and that playing the guessing game with the few other guests who were spending the night was over.
“What we are always looking for, are energetic people with passion: People willing to give their talents to develop this project,” he noted, handing me a bottle of argan oil to try on my salad. Hansjörg’s main philosophy for LEDB is making sure that all donated funds arrive where they are supposed to: Directly towards building the village or benefitting discarded children.
“Too many charities spend a fortune on marketing and administration,” he continued. “This is exactly what we are trying to avoid.” Currently, he is recruiting people who share his passion for this project, seeking out highly skilled professionals to offer their services or products to support the growth of LEDB. That is why any money spent on marketing either comes from his personal savings, or from the sales of products such as the 4000 bottles of Argan oil he received at a highly subsidized price from his sponsor. His team is a growing collection of influential entrepreneurs, doctors and professors including support from Jean Ziegler, former member of the advisory committee for the UN human rights council.
“Some might criticize my lifestyle…”, he told me later in reference to his fully staffed and luxurious property, “…but I earned this with hard work. Now it is time to give back, and the story of these children is what moves me. Everybody has something they can give, whether it is a donation or other talents”.