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Bricolage, Blessing or Curse?

“Bricolage” is a French word that means putting something together out of available scraps, rather than, for example, inserting Part A into Slot D according to the directions on the ready-to-assemble kit; or drawing up a plan, obtaining the best tools and materials for the task, and executing the plan with attention to quality and detail. Bricolage is probably the best metaphor for the way the average Moroccan lives his daily life.

Examples of bricolage go from the most simple, such as using laundry detergent to wash floors and dishes rather than buying a specialized soap for each task, or making folded cones out of old newspapers to hold the roasted nuts sold at neighborhood stands; to the more complex, such as installing a light switch in an awkward location because that’s as far as the wire will reach, or sharing shirts and pants with one’s brother so each can have a wardrobe instead of a single garment, or the system of “grand taxis” which allow Moroccans to travel to places buses won’t go, so long as they’re willing to squeeze six people into a space meant for four, and wait until enough people gather who are going to the same place. The ultimate example of bricolage is the Moroccan shantytown built from rocks and scraps of metal; or on a less desperate level, the sort of neighborhood where homes are built as the owners can afford them, a floor or two at a time, with empty lots in between waiting for their neighbors to pull together enough money to begin their own project.

Bricolage is the opposite of professionalism, which has standards and procedures for everything. I used to like Moroccan bricolage, considering it an art form, a sign of an irrepressible free spirit and the Moroccan genius for improvisation. In the West where everything works as it should, we are in danger of losing our spirit of self-reliance, and becoming paralyzed should things ever actually break down. Moroccans, however, deal with broken-down systems on a daily basis, so their sense of improvisation is finely tuned. I considered this a competitive advantage.

When I expressed these feelings to a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, he objected that bricolage is in fact an obstacle to development. He is an adept at web design who believes in doing things the right way. He pointed out that bricolage is a response to a lack of resources; and he seemed to feel that adapting things to tasks for which they aren’t really suited is an unhealthy mentality. He pointed out that in the West, when we improvise—as in the famous case of the first PC, cobbled together in a garage in Silicon Valley—we do so within a system where everything works and the material resources are readily available. Bricolage, however, is a desperate response to a system in disrepair. My friend sees it as a sign of Moroccans’ misfortune, not as something to celebrate. Perhaps it is even a factor in perpetuating the breakdown, by accepting it as normal and multiplying it into the future. More professionalism is needed in Morocco, my friend would argue. The solution is to reform the broken-down system and do things the right way in the first place. However, this requires a material investment that is not being made; and bricolage is an engrained habit that will be hard to break.

If we define bricolage as a lack of appropriate resources, we can see it as the curse of the Moroccan economy and of society as a whole. An educated woman who works as a civil servant recently gave me an example. It’s well known that Morocco produces many college graduates who are unable to find jobs at the professional level. As she put it, thanks to a flawed educational system that isn’t in sync with the needs of the market, a lot of these graduates are unqualified for the jobs they seek. “They don’t even know how to write a simple letter.” As a result, they are forced to look for work as waiters, cab drivers, carpenters or house painters, where there is already plenty of competition and they aren’t qualified either. “Such jobs tend to require either manual skill or brute force, and they don’t have it.” So what do they do? She gave the example of a young man who goes into business as a subcontractor, rounding up work crews for construction projects. Each morning he goes to the place where day laborers wait looking for work, and transports them to the site. He pays them and takes his percentage, all of it under the table, without taxes or benefits of any kind. This is bricolage in the domain of employment. It’s true that a college graduate has found work, and is giving work to others, but it isn’t a sign of health in the Moroccan economy. To the contrary, he isn’t working in the field he trained for, he isn’t contributing his taxes to the national budget, and there is no security in what he’s doing of the sort that would allow him to plan for his future or start a family. The moment he gets sick and is unable to work, he will find himself without income, unable to support himself.

What sort of economy treats bricolage as a normal thing? It can be argued that such an economy is based on exploitation. Rather than investing its resources in the material well-being of its workers, the Moroccan economy prefers to take advantage of a population desperate for work and struggling to survive from day to day. A friend of mine gave the example of a shop that sells trifles like nuts and candy, where a man might work for as little as 500 dirhams a month, or two dollars a day. Such workers spend their entire lives in the shop, sleeping there at night, opening it in the morning, cooking their meals there, and never leaving even to drink a coffee in a popular cafe. If they are frugal enough, even with that meager income they can send money back to their families in the countryside, or save enough over the years to open a shop of their own. But the shop owner is taking advantage of them in the same way that employers in Europe and the U.S. take advantage of immigrant labor, paying a wage that others are unwilling to accept, and driving down wages for everyone in the process. Another example is a computer repair technician I knew in Tangier, who earned about $250 a month despite having a specialized skill. The money he earned wasn’t enough to pay his monthly expenses, and he was always borrowing from his boss or falling behind on his rent. Worse, after two years on the job he was still being paid under the table, so he had no benefits and no job security. I advised him to talk to his boss and try to negotiate a better deal, but he refused, saying, “He’ll simply tell me there are plenty of others like me, waiting at the door for a chance to take my place.”

So bricolage in Morocco isn’t the same as improvisation in a developed nation. It isn’t exotic, romantic, or an art form. It may be the sign of an inventive spirit, but more essentially it’s a response to a dysfunctional and even exploitative system. I now accept that my friend is right, and bricolage is an obstacle to Morocco’s development. Rather than eternally struggling to make the best of what is available, Moroccans should learn to demand the best resources for the task. This will require investment across all levels of society, and a transformation in the way Moroccans think, so they no longer accept a life built from scraps as normal.


Comment from Zakaria RMIDI
Time: July 28, 2009, 17:49

your article is very interesting thanks a lot for searching, writing and sharing it. I agree with you to some extent; “bricolage” sometimes can be an art form and persons who practice it have some artistic spirit. But, that’s not always the case; that is if we except “bricolage” which is mainly associated with art (painting, music, craft, jewellery…). In other forms, “bricolage” is a response to a lack of resources; for instance, when a bus driver take more than 100 person in a bus, you’ll ask him that that’s not right, he’ll tell you (I’m trying to manage the situation). Sometimes, a pickpockets can regards himself as someone who practice “bricolage”. Generally, whatever the case is “bricolage” can never be an obstacle to development, since it is accepted and it can be written in the identity card as an occupation in Arabic (ALMOYAWAMAH????????/).and many people have (MOYAWIM/ ?????) in their identity card. Furthermore, I can say that “ The National Initiative for Human development” is a huge project which is, in fact, based on some informal kinds of “bricolage”; that is, personal projects based on personal ideas which can be started with small amount of money.

Comment from eatbees
Time: July 29, 2009, 13:35

Zakaria, in my article I present the case that while bricolage in its many forms surely permits many Moroccans with limited resources to survive, it can never be a substitute for systemwide reform or the sort of investment that is necessary for real development. That’s because the monopolization of resources by a few remains untouched. So to the extent that bricolage is presented as a solution of its own, or a way of saying “we don’t have a problem” then it may actually be an obstacle for development. What do you think of this idea?

Comment from Zakaria RMIDI
Time: July 31, 2009, 07:19

I think the fact that there no universal definition of bricolage makes the problematic of development in relation with bricolage hard to be answered. Bricolage in France is not the same in Morocco and bricolage in casablanca is not the same in Marrakech. But, generally, in Morocco there are many examples of succesful businessmen who started their career as some who practice bricolage; in this case bricolage is not an obstacle. Anyway, in my opinion we should not generalize; to see whether bricolage is an obstacle or a motive, we should take into acount the profile of people who practice it, why, when and where they practice it and.

Thanks one more time

Comment from Tom Barden
Time: March 7, 2010, 07:53

Hi, I really enjoyed reading through this article. Nicely written and it had some good arguments in both directions. I personally feel that Bricolage is only an obstacle if the society purely depends on it. If, like in many western cultures, we use Bricolage alongside the proper tools then it can be a massive progression. Surely Bricolage is spawned from individuals inventive and innovative nature? If that is the case then it has to be one of the helping reasons why western cultures have advanced so much. Solving problems is what Bricolage would be best used for if i needed to bash in a nail, but forgot my hammer, then i may use another hard tool i have in its incorrect use.. i get the job done, maybe a little slower, but i have progressed, and i may find in the future that i do not need my hammer again for such tasks (this is a silly example, but i think it says what i am trying tog et across quite nicely)
Thank you for your post, highly interesting read!

Comment from eatbees
Time: March 9, 2010, 13:32

Thanks, Tom. I may have been feeling a little pessimistic about bricolage when I wrote this post, but I actually think it’s a necessary part of human development. In fact we would never have developed the “right” tools at all, without bricolage the first time around!

If a society is too advanced, we may suffer from exactly the oppostite problem. We get stuck in paralysis if we don’t have the perfect tool for the purpose, and step-by-step instructions to go with it! Moroccans don’t have that luxury. It’s true that they rarely have the “right” tool but they figure things out anyway, and that’s what I admire about their spirit.

Comment from Tom Barden
Time: March 9, 2010, 15:01

I think it comes down to the way different cultures and societies percieve things as well.. If we didn’t have the instruction manual with the tool (in western cultures) we would be afraid to go ahead and improvise for fear it wouldn’t look “correct” but who is to say what is correct anyway.

You are correct about the not having the right tools were it not for bricolage.

Quite an interesting topic, and so many areas of it that can be discussed.

Comment from Julia
Time: May 31, 2010, 15:08

Bricolage is especially good in architecture. If you’ve seen some buildings created in this style (e.g., buildings by Bricolage Architecture & Designs), they look modern, but not boring.

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