Tunisian water engineer Amine Draoui left the city behind for a life in sync with nature
‘If you couldn’t find me at home, there was one place you could: in the mountains, playing,’ recalls Amine Draoui, founder of Mornag Eco Farm, of his childhood. Rising over the tops of trees that extend across the farm and into the distance is the twin peaked mountain Jabal Boukornine, no more than eight kilometres away. It was there, in his parents’ house at the mountain’s base just outside of Tunis, that Draoui grew up.
Although he moved away, Draoui always felt drawn to the countryside. Perhaps the rocky slopes of the mountains were on his mind when, after studying engineering and then abandoning two unfinished degrees in architecture and electronics, he shifted his focus to something a little closer to home: geology. Later, between working towards a doctorate in water management from the University of Montpellier in France and teaching alternative tourism at the Sylvo Pastoral Institute of Tabarka, he undertook a training course as a forest guide.
This set off what would culminate in a complete retreat into nature. His studies done, he became a volunteer on WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) host farms across Europe, learning how to make cheese, bread and jam – and once, briefly, herding goats in the Pyrenees. In 2010 he came full circle, returning to Tunisia to set up Mornag, a pedagogical farm that uses permaculture techniques, on a deserted plot of land in a rural area of the same name around 20km south of the capital.
Now, Draoui’s life is perfectly synchronised with nature’s rhythm. ‘I start my day with the sun,’ he says. ‘I’m bound by it and can’t sleep longer because when it rises all the animals demand their breakfast.’ Breaking routine simply isn’t up for discussion. From a nearby fenced enclosure, Draoui’s donkey Fico brays suddenly, as if in agreement. ‘It’s annoying to try to sleep when your donkey is calling you for food,’ he jokes. ‘You’d be lucky if you had an animal that tells you in the morning, “Have your day off, I don’t need to be fed today, it’s cool.”’
I start my day with the sun
Rising with Draoui every day just after dawn to feed the animals – chickens, ducks, rabbits and Fico – are his guests, volunteers (Mornag is a registered WWOOF member – the first in Tunisia) and assistants, who come to work at the farm for a year or two at a time, usually to gain experience for similar projects they’re developing. Draoui’s most recent mentee was the owner of an eco-farm in the nearby mountains, where he raises goats to produce cheese and hosts travellers for a fee.
The group’s routine changes with the weather; these days, they’re harvesting olives, which are just beginning to turn dark and weigh down the tree boughs as they ripen. Break time is just after lunch, when Draoui can often be found in Boukornine National Park, walking among the orchids and Persian cyclamens, or in his room, writing about the agricultural processes he’s learned about from working on the farm. He’s currently in the middle of a treatise on growing wild gardens in Tunisia.
A permaculture farm modelled on natural ecosystems, Mornag is entirely self-sufficient. The farm’s vegetation and crops grow naturally in the area, requiring little to no water. The seven buildings strewn across the property – including an igloo-shaped guesthouse, a volunteer house, a workshop and a communal kitchen – are made of locally sourced materials. ‘When we started, we decided not to necessarily focus on traditional Tunisian techniques,’ says Draoui. ‘Some of our buildings have designs from France, from Iran. How we build depends on the materials we have.’ These include adobe, superadobe, straw bales, stone and wood. A tower, which Draoui and the others ‘climb to watch the stars’, was built using 5,000 stones found in nearby landfills. And his own home, with its cordwood walls packed with sawdust for insulation, looks as though it’s emerged straight from the ground.
Though tied to his daily routine, Draoui feels unrestricted here. On the farm, he says, he’s become self-sufficient too – free of the limits imposed by city life, from being at the mercy of market prices to having to pay for water. Water at Mornag is plentiful, obtained by drawing from its well, harvesting collected rainwater and recycling waste water. He admits that it required some adjustment when he first arrived: ‘The only thing missing was people, maybe because you’re far from others and not very connected in the beginning. There’s just animals, trees.’ But now, ‘You don’t feel any stress or pressure. You don’t have to go shopping or stand in queues.’
Draoui is keen to share the knowledge he’s gained. Four or five times a year, he and his team organise workshops for local students and his guests, with topics depending on the season. In the winter, the class learn how to press olives for olive oil. As spring approaches, they distill flowers. Summer is for bread and couscous, autumn for jam. In between, there are courses on gardening and sustainable construction. ‘Our dream is to produce a new generation of people who are aware of their land, and that their capital is their land – the land of Tunisia.’
The former university instructor applies his experience to the workshops, but he’s developed a teaching philosophy that’s different from that of academia. ‘Those programmes are too hierarchical,’ he says. ‘It’s very manual, it’s not theory. It’s not a top down concept where the teacher is giving information. You can’t teach someone know-how that way. Even how to hammer a nail is something you can never learn by watching someone do it – you have to do it.’
It’s a testament to the changes Draoui is aiming to bring to Tunisia’s agricultural practices. ‘I moved here during the revolution, but I had my own revolution going on here, on this farm,’ he says.
This article appears in the issue61 Buy Now