Below is a guest post from Erin Pettigrew, a friend of the blog and a PhD Candidate in African History at Stanford University. She has been doing field work in Mauritania for the last several months and has long experience there. She offers her insights and thoughts on change in Mauritania from the ground level.
The Arab Spring has inspired growing protest movements in Mauritania against a range of government policies, the current president, and social and economic inequalities. Despite this recent political activism, most Mauritanians still favorably speak of President Mohamed ould Abdel Aziz as the “paved-road president,” referring to the many roads constructed during his current term in the capital of Nouakchott and between major towns and cities in the interior of the country. Many of these projects were actually initiated under his predecessors but, because they are finally coming to fruition now, Abdel Aziz has benefited politically from their public visibility and use. These roads, especially outside of the capital, connect important regional administrative and economic centers. The most notable infrastructure projects link southern cities Rosso to Boghé to Kaédi and Sélibaby and the northern Adrar region to the eastern Tagant across large swaths of the unpopulated Mauritanian rural desert with the newly-begun Atar to Tidjijka road.
Construction on the paved highway begins 30k to the south of the regional capital of Atar and extends 340k towards Tidjikja. As of now, travelers between the two cities can either expect two days’ of full travel on an unpaved and rough trail, or a drive of 440k to Nouakchott, then another 480k to Tidjikja for the indirect yet paved path. The stated goals of upgrading the national road network are to open up the interior of Mauritania, to develop possibilities for tourism, and to encourage national and regional integration.
The Islamic Development Bank, Saudi Fund, and Kuwait Fund have delivered the majority of the funding for this project, with the Mauritanian government supplying the rest. Comete International and the Senegalese Consortium Des Entreprises (CDE) provide most of the engineering consultancies and skilled labor for a public works project estimated to be finished in 2016.
Two of the Adrar region’s oasis towns, Awjeft and M’heirith, sit along the beginnings of this new road project. Quiet, small towns, these two oases have a long history of involvement in the trans-Saharan caravan trade as stop-overs for agents moving commodities such as salt, slaves, and agricultural products between present-day Morocco and Algeria to Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal. The desperate rumbles of large construction trucks and bulldozers echo against the hot rocks and steep plateaus of the first 100k of the road and against expectations of change for these two towns. In Awjeft, people talk about the possibilities for selling more cold drinks and snacks to travelers, about tourists now coming with greater ease, and about all of the new commodities (like fresh foods and new lotions) that will reach them faster and in better condition. The sleepy market will probably expand and people will build small boutiques with verandas for tea-drinking and roasting goat. In M’heirith, an oasis stretching 8k along the base of a ravine, people anticipate the arrival of electricity and increased tourism.
The influx of Senegalese workers has already transformed the social landscape of Awjeft. A base camp sits at the entry to the town, complete with air-conditioned, aluminum-roofed living quarters and exercise bikes sitting outside. Workers rent houses from local families, injecting income into the economy and establishing new cultural contact zones. An enterprising young Wolof woman has set up a popular eatery where she serves omelettes and sandwiches to workers. Local kids beg their parents for 200 ouguiya (roughly $.85) to buy sandwiches from her, while the town’s older inhabitants cluck their tongues at the spices she uses and the Senegalese mbalax beats spilling out into the market from her shop. Giggling, young women crowd around a broken wall, peering in on Senegalese workers who bench-press in their free time with a homemade barbell. After six months of road construction, thirty new marriages between Senegalese workers and local, Arabic-speaking women have already taken place.
All of these expectations of change have not been positive. One local woman said she feared increased crime now that more people would be moving through the town. On the Tidjikja end of the project, an engineer was recently accused of raping a young girl
and inhabitants of villages surrounding the regional capital of the Tagant protested in April against the road construction, saying that it would compromise the water sources upon which they depend for drinking and watering their animals and date palms.
One wonders about the unrealistic nature of the expectations of an economy based on tourism when the industry has declined enormously in recent years due to concerns about Islamist groups like AQIM. Towns sitting far from the planned road worry about further economic and political marginalization now that a busy road will direct travelers away from them and there are concerns that people newly-made more isolated from the national economy will migrate to be closer to the road, shifting population and public services distribution.
People in Awjeft wonder what will happen when the construction finishes and the workers leave. What will happen to the children certain to come out of these new marriages? Will the projected new economic activity linked to the road cover the losses of rent and boutique purchases when the laborers return to Senegal? Will the increased ease of transport bring some men back from urban centers to again live in these now mostly-female inhabited spaces? What is certain is that two previously disparate parts of the country will now be connected, increasing contact and exchanges between the local and broader region.