Stories from African’s Last Colony
“The ongoing Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara is one of the most egregious yet most underchallenged affronts to the international system in existence today.”Stephen Zunes
Western Sahara History is the backdrop to the Saharawis’ stories told here. It is a history of plight and of war—a compelling story that holds abandonment, unfulfilled promises and betrayal. It is a narrative of the pursuit of human dignity, justice, and equality. The Saharawis are a dignified people. Their stories are worth telling to the world, and this collection aims to give a glimpse into the unique stories within the collective Saharawi community. Each story carries with it residue from the war and the pursuit of independence left unrealized. The narratives are powerful, but many are without resolve. It is a privilege to know the Saharawis, to see their compassion, resilience, perseverance, and dignity, but it is nearly impossible to ignore the suffering along their journey. These snapshots of life must be understood in the context of their undertaking as a people.
It is a joy to introduce the Saharawis—their world, their homes, and their lives.
My name is Selemhe. As a nomadic woman, I learned at a young age how to ride and care for camels. Camels were a very important part of our existence. We used them for transportation, for carrying our supplies, and for traveling from place to place. We even used them in battle. It is a skill to ride a camel, to train it, to break it, and to make it useful and obedient. For me, this was more than a necessity—it was something I really enjoyed. After the Moroccan invasion, I fled with my family to the refugee camps. In the refugee camps, riding camels became an occasional exercise instead of part of our nomadic tradition. We only have the chance to ride them during national anniversaries or cultural exhibitions. I used to race them! Now I seldom ride them. I remember riding through the trees and grassy places of my homeland. I felt free.
I’m getting older and older and my kids are trying to convince me that riding camels is not safe for me anymore. But I am not easily discouraged. This is part of who I am. None of my children know how to ride camels because life in the camps is transforming our heritage, especially after forty years. I’m saddened to see important aspects of our culture slowly fading. I desire to share the experience of riding camels with my children, to see if they like it. My last wish is to once again ride my camel in a free Western Sahara.
My name is Talib, and I am an agriculturalist. I actually had started studying medicine, but by an unfortunate event, or shall I say a fortunate opportunity, I had visa problems. After submitting my application, my visa was denied, and the only scholarship option was for agricultural studies. I was still holding on to the hope of switching back to medicine, but I soon realized that I enjoyed agriculture and saw its many potential benefits. I eventually finished my master’s, and in the early 2000s, I started working on agricultural projects in the camps.
One can find many obstacles to agriculture in this context, such as the following: no organic matter, poor soil, salient soil, heat, wind, and sandstorms. All of these problems can be overcome with enough knowledge, but our biggest problem has not been a lack of knowledge, it has been the mentality of the people. One example was the project of planting trees. The Saharawi hated trees being planted because it symbolized a sort of permanency. Over time, this mentality has changed, as people started to see the trees as leaving something beautiful behind for the host country, Algeria. Another challenge with mentality was based on our nomadic lives. As nomads, Saharawi were used to moving when they faced environmental problems. The people did not have a mentality that was conducive to a sedentary life. I saw starting a home gardens project, which was a dream for me, as a way to guard the dignity of the people. When people depend on the international community to provide for their needs, they are only meeting their basic needs. Malnutrition is a major problem, due to diets based almost solely on grains. People have problems with poor teeth, weak bones, anemia, and poor eyesight. The gardens add needed vitamins and minerals to maintain health and give the people a way to provide for themselves. The home garden project actually has done better than expected and has produced vegetables in the market within three years. Over the years, I have witnessed hundreds of gardens being planted. Recently we had a flood that did significant damage to the gardens. I did not stop work, and I will continue to look for solutions. If I had to share one thing that agriculture has shown me, it is the power of perseverance. To see a tomato plant grow in such a poor climate is amazing. It demonstrates the principal that if you keep trying, you will be able to succeed, even when all odds seem to be against you.
My name is Salama, and I am an English teacher. In 1985, I went to Cuba to study geography for four years, but I decided that geography was not helpful for my people. I switched my area of study to language, as language will always be helpful in how it opens windows to other parts of the world.
Coming back to the camps in the early 2000s, I could not find a job as an English teacher, but I found a job as a Spanish teacher. I worked as a Spanish teacher until 2005, when NFI offered me a job as an English teacher and one year later promoted me into a coordinating position.
In the camps, the educational system is based on international aid, and the conditions of the facilities are poor. In the past, materials were made by the Saharawi, but now they come from Algeria. The materials are based on French, which is not a natural language here. The teachers themselves are not as skilled as in other places because they lack sufficient training opportunities. This means that the methodology of teaching has not changed or adapted as time has passed. I think the education system here is poor. There are very few people who have college degrees here. Improving education will help Saharawi kids and give them a future.
The Saharawi people view education as a priority. Many youth know that without education you cannot do anything. They are finishing their educations and it is making a difference even in how they spread the message of the Saharawi people. Education is a humanitarian work that needs love. We would appreciate something as simple as to have qualified teachers come for a week or two and train our teachers in methodology, practices and skills. We need someone to push us forward.
Stories documented in 2016.