Nestled between the rolling dunes of the Moroccan Sahara desert, in a valley that once housed a river, about a 10-minute drive from the famous desert center of Merzouga, is the village of Khamlia. The one-lane town appears almost like a mirage with a singular mosque and minaret carved out of the sand. Look a little closer and you will see that Khamlia is home to 450 residents, all from the Oujeaa family.
Khamlia is the leader in sustainable tourism in Erg Chebbi and remains one of my favorite ethical travel experiences. I was supposed to stay two nights and ended up there for two weeks. There was always another desert adventure waiting for the next day, so I couldn’t walk away. My host family took me to a huge date market and climbed the highest dune in the Sahara. But it was really the simple moments of everyday life that enchanted me, like playing cards, preparing vegetables for couscous and learning to weave while a local woman created hearts on a loom at the speed of the wind. ‘flash.
All funds raised by Authentic Community Tourism Experiences that showcase the unique Gnaoua way of life support the Khamlia Association. Founded in 2004 by Mohamed Oujeaa, the association aims to preserve cultural heritage while raising funds to provide vocational training for village women and after-school education programs for children. By visiting the Khamlia Association, tourists can lend a hand to support the development of the community while discovering the majestic desert and learning Gnaoua music, cuisine and rituals.
Mohamed’s goal was to advance public education in the village. The association works for the long-term development of the community, and programs include a free after-school education program for school children in the village that helps them continue their education with homework help and other educational initiatives.
The association also runs a voluntary vocational training program at the Women’s Empowerment Center. Women learn the process of creating traditional Moroccan rugs handwoven on ancient looms, sew Berber-style dresses with vibrant ornaments, and create other decorative items. They receive a fair wage for their work, which is sold to tourists.
Travelers stay in a traditional and colorful bivouac tented camp or with a host family in a homestay, and have the chance to live like a local during their stay. An array of authentic activities are offered, including Berber whiskey (a sweet mint tea) making class, beautiful henna drawing class in the desert flower pattern, and tagine cooking class, couscous and harira soup.
The ancestors of the Oujeaa were enslaved and forced to walk from Central Africa with their hands and feet chained. They masked their suffering during the journey by singing ancestral Gnaoua hymns to the rhythm of the clanking of their chains. In 1934 the family was finally emancipated and by 1950 had settled in what was then the riverside area of Khamlia.
When the family settled in Khamlia, it was a lush area with a flowing river, which is rare in the Moroccan Sahara desert. Agriculture was the main source of income as crops flourished along the river bed. Unfortunately, a drought started in Khamlia in 1995, making the land unsuitable for growing produce. The terrain remains dry and it is nearly impossible to identify where the river bed once was. The drastic change in the environment has forced the community to develop alternative means of generating income.
Today, their descendants carry on their Gnaoua traditions through community-led tourism initiatives. One of the youngest members of the family, Abdoul Oujeaa, is a member of the musical group Khamlia Les Pigeons du Sable with 20 family members and bandmates. They perform for travelers to share and preserve the Gnaoua musical traditions that saved the lives of their ancestors. Abdoul enjoys playing the djembe, an African hand-played goblet drum.
Through each musical performance, the group perpetuates the ritual music of its predecessors. Trance-like music consists primarily of percussion paired with powerful lyrics that speak of perseverance, religion, and freedom. “We play Gnaoua music and give workshops on traditional rhythms,” says Abdoul.
Every summer in Khamlia, the community gathers to celebrate Sadaka. Tourists and local guests are welcome to participate. During the three days of the festival, traditional Gnaoua music is played continuously by Les Pigeons du Sable. The fatiha prayer is sung and holy water is distributed; all participants must drink three sips to obtain the sacred blessing of Allah’s baraka. Folklore claims that the ancient rhythms played at the Sadaka festival invoke baraka, which can cure the sick. The women of Khamlia join in the dancing while the men play music until late in the evening.
Abdoul remembers that when he was a child, because of the drought, many members of his family had to leave Khamlia to earn a living. “A lot of people were coming out of the village to find work – mainly in construction in the big cities. But now, thanks to tourism, they can work in Khamlia,” he says.
You won’t find more welcoming people — and with them, an authentic and transformative experience — anywhere in the region.
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