Mule Women. Credit: Fernando Del Berro
Frederick Phillips once said, “It is often hard to distinguish between the hard knocks in life and those of opportunity.” Well, that is certainly true for Moroccan mule women crossing the border of Melilla, Morocco and Ceuta, Spain (a Spanish enclave in North Africa) to sell cosmetics and care products for sometimes as little as three Euros per trip.
According to the New York Times, about 300 million Euros worth of goods (approx. $412 million USD) arrive in Melilla’s port each year, headed for Morocco and beyond. Mule women carry it all on their own backs or roll them uphill for about a quarter-mile so Moroccan traders can avoid import taxes. This is because any package hand-carried to Morocco is considered luggage and thus duty-free.
I watched one woman, entirely bent over from strain at a 90-degree angle—the woman with no smile. A gaudy red djellaba, adorned with yellow stones, draped over her wide hips. Layered on her back was an overstuffed playboy bunny bed sheet, and I wondered if she realized its connotation. It looked the size of smart car and weighed easily over 200 pounds. Her intent eyes — one a hazel orange and one a beady green — peered straight ahead, through the majestic blue bars and beyond the pandemonium to Ceuta on the other side. When she neared the entrance, the ground beneath her leather baboosh seemed to shift forward as the guards shooed her backward. She searched for the end of a seemingly ceaseless line of other anxious women. There were hundreds just like her.
And there were hundreds more coming. Titivated with splotches of color, the horizon was a speckled canvas. Each blot tricked my eye with the slightest movement. They were women making their way down the distant hills of Mount Gourougou and to the rusting gate where I stood at the border of Melilla, Morocco and Ceuta, Spain. They were miles away, on foot and were carrying ballooned sheets similar to the one with the playboy bunny. Coiled barbed wire obstructed my view and I shifted my attention to the motorbike that kicked mud on my leg. Ripples danced in the puddle behind it, and the erratic beams of light peeking through the clouds were deflected off the wet ground. It was early, just 8:00 AM.
Most of those arriving at the border were rushing to work; for most, trading cosmetics and care products such as baby diapers and q-tips was the objective. Dozens more women, defeated by exhaustion, waited among the border gate with their bundles. A featureless silhouette lengthening alongside my shadow eventually emerged into my right side peripheral view. A brash girl of no more than fifteen years old scurried by me. Then four elderly women pass…and another twenty. They scampered until the police halted them. The women waited impatiently as their identifications were verified. Revving their engines, irritated drivers lied on their horns and created an awful, thunderous melody. Muck from exhaust pipes permeated the air. As they proceeded through the gates, neither drivers nor rushing women paid attention to the “STOP” signs— perhaps because they were written in English, or perhaps because they had families to feed. In Ceuta awaited a whole other world. In Ceuta awaited their revenue. One man paused to help situate the sack on the elderly woman’s back—the woman with no smile. “Shukran,” she said—thank you in Arabic—and they continued.
That woman made no more than 15 to 20 Euros that week, about $20-$27 USD. That is what most mule women make. But the difference in terms of income between Spain and Morocco is 17 to 20 times, and thus it’s more than she would have made in her own country.
But men are increasingly taking their places, according to a report. Built stronger than the elderly women, the men push by them, causing injuries and preventing the mule women from affording to feed their families.