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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 December, 2003, 02:27 GMT
Doing business in the desert
By Sarah Simpson
reporting from Nouakchott, Mauritania

Market in Mauritania
Connecting with the outside world
One of the most remote countries in Africa, Mauritania, dominated by the Sahara desert, is rapidly changing with the arrival of modern technology.

In the far west of the Sahara desert lies the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, a hot and dusty city that came into existence, along with Mauritania itself, in 1960.

There is sand everywhere in Nouakchott, a reminder that this is a city adrift.

The roads will bring lots of changes to the remote villages that they pass through and the people there are not prepared for the change
Professor Cheikh Saad Bouh Kamara
To the north, south and east lay thousands of square kilometres of Sahara desert, to the west the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean.

There is no road linking Nouakchott with Mauritania's second city, Nouadhibou, 470km away to the north.

If you have the money you can fly, but for most people the only affordable option is a bush taxi that bounces and clatters over the sand.

Cut off

It is not only the absence of roads that gives Nouakchott a remote feel.

shanty town in Mauritania
Poverty is still widespread in Mauritania
Nouakchott is one of the few world capitals that has still to be linked to the international banking network.

That means no credit or debit transactions on international accounts.

If you need cash, it has to be sent in by money transfer.

But times are changing.

New roads

A new trans-Sahara road is being built, which will not only connect Nouakchott and Nouadhibou but also complete the missing link of a road running from Morocco to Senegal.

Politicians make much of the new road and the investment and economic development that it will bring.

However, Professor Cheikh Saad Bouh Kamara from the University of Mauritania is more reserved about the benefits.

"We are not ready for it," said Professor Kamara.

"The roads will bring lots of changes to the remote villages that they pass through and the people there are not prepared for the change."

Mobile phones

Alongside the donkey carts that young boys drive along the main streets of Nouakchott, there are brand new four-by-four all terrain vehicles.

Their drivers still wear the flowing robes that are traditional to the country, but somewhere in the folds of cloth there is invariably a mobile phone.

In a country that has never really developed a national telephone infrastructure, mobile phone technology has been nothing short of a revolution.

Mobile phone coverage is reaching far into the Mauritanian interior, to parts of the country that have never had fixed line services.

But along with the numerous advantages of the mobile phone, their popularity creates other difficulties.

Karen Homer works for World Vision, and she wonders whether the novelty of mobile phones will wear off with time.

"Mobile phones can be problematic," says Karen, "Many visitors to the country are struck by their popularity and wonder 'How do you get anything done with these phones going off all the time?'''.

Internet links

The telecoms sector has been privatised and Mattel competes with the former state owned Mauritel.

As well as mobile phones, internet connectivity is also spreading rapidly.

For 100 units of the local currency, the ouguiya, or about US$0.40, you can surf the net for 20 minutes in one of Nouakchott's many internet cafes.

Some of the computers may be past their prime, but this doesn't bother the young men who use the cafes for socialising, just like their peers might anywhere else in the world.

Oil finds

Oil has been found off the Mauritanian shore.

Those oil finds could be on-stream in 2004 and with it tens of millions of US dollars are expected to come flowing into state coffers.

Some fear that the increased money will just fuel corruption in the country, which is already on the rise.

Ahmed, a driver, pulls on his cigarette and shakes his head. "It is not what this country needs," he says. "Look at what it has done for Nigeria, Angola. Oil will not be good for us."

Nomad History

Most Mauritanians come from a tradition of nomadic and semi-nomadic herders and traders, but the population is increasingly urban.

Thirty years of climatic degradation and desertification has forced many Mauritanians into the cities, and in particular to Nouakchott where the city has swelled with squatter camps.

In one such suburb, called Elmina, houses are built out of scrap metal, tyres and other people's rubbish.

According to Karen Homer, who works with the residents of Elmina, they never expected to stay here for so long.

Karen believes that this has been an impediment to the city's development as people have been reluctant to make permanent lives for themselves in the city.

Desert dreams

Ibrahim Mohammed Dahdah is a maths teacher.

He lives in Nouakchott where he is better off than most. Ibrahim loves to spend weekends or holidays getting out of town with his family.

For him it is important that his children experience the beauty of the desert and know what it is like to spend a night under the stars.

"It is their heritage," he explains simply.

But growing up in a new world of mobile phones and internet cafes, the love of the simple nomadic lifestyle could soon be a thing of the past.

Mauritania's nomadic elections
06 Nov 03  |  Africa
Q&A: Mauritania's murky coup
09 Jun 03  |  Africa
Mauritania 'foils' coup attempt
09 Jun 03  |  Africa
Country profile: Mauritania
08 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Mauritania
08 Nov 03  |  Country profiles

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