A Window to Morocco, a new series and glimpse into life in Morocco
Having Only a Grade School Education Doesn’t Stop Kenza Jbilou from Using her Business and Artisan Skills to Bring Moroccan Style to the Fashion World
Kenza Jbilou [pronounced Ji-Bi-Lo] is the essence of warmth and a powerhouse who exudes a strength that inspires those around her. If you find yourself in her native Morocco and are lucky enough to meet her, she will give you a heartfelt welcome hug, mix you her famous sheeba herbal tea, and proudly give you a tour of her workshop. You can be sure you will also leave with an exquisitely crafted handmade gift as a remembrance of your visit.
Kenza was born in Guelmina, a small village in eastern Morocco and grew up in the town of Errachidia on the border of the Sahara Desert. Although her formal education ended in the fifth grade, she learned sewing and embroidery skills from her mother in their home. Kenza became highly skilled in artisan crafts and it has been the way she has made her income in her life from a young age. Instilled with a strong work ethic by her mother, the hard working and intellectually curious Kenza was not content to only be educated in one area and also gained office skills while working for a Renault car dealership and EFAT private school in Errachidia.
When she was only 13 years old, a desperate Kenza attempted to hurt herself after enduring two months of marriage to a man 20 years her senior. Kenza returned to her family and did marry again at the age of 18 and started a family. She and her husband soon realized that his starting salary as police officer was not enough to cover their expenses. Like many families in the United States, they became a dual income couple after Kenza sought a job to contribute to the family. Her income has been an important and stabilizing factor in the family’s well being. She and her husband have three sons (Yousam 26, Merwan 23, Safwan 18) and a daughter (Khowla age 12).
Concerns about her family are Kenza’s biggest obstacles. High unemployment is an urgent issue in Morocco and Kenza’s sons have had a difficult time finding consistent employment. According to tradingeconomics.com, the unemployment rate in Morocco increased to 9.10 percent in the third quarter of 2013 from 8.80 percent in the second quarter of 2013. *The unemployment rate for youths, 15 to 24, rose from 17.1 per cent to 18.4 per cent, but due to under-reporting it is thought to be a much higher percentage.
While Kenza is anxious about her sons’ prospects, she is not worried about her daughter Khowla because she is still young and she is training her to cherish her freedom and be able to stand up for herself. Khowla is also assured a place in the cooperative alongside her mom.
Kenza came to the cooperative through Mushmina co-founder Heather, a family friend since 2003. She became involved with Mushmina in the spring of 2010. Her initial role was doing the finishing work and hand stitching for Mushmina scarves and wallets. Heather quickly realized that Kenza had a gift for creating beautiful handmade accessories and a head for business. She entrusted Kenza with more responsibility and each year as the work grew Kenza recruited her friends and neighbors to work alongside her. She recently was elected the president of the newly formed women’s cooperative of Oued Zem, which includes managing the work, the payments, and production schedule. She currently oversees nine women and has expansion plans for the cooperative.
She would like to increase the space to a second floor for the women’s workshop and expand the cooperative to offer English classes. She also plans to sell to many new customers both in Morocco and abroad. Most importantly her dream is to just be comfortable ‘mertaha’ (Arabic) and to learn to drive. We have no doubt that with Kenza’s exceptional skills and ambition she will achieve beyond her aspirations.
*Ali, S. (2013, August 8). Morocco Jobless Rate Tops One Million. magharebia.com/en_GB.
By Co-Authors Yvonne King and Heather O’Neill