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Mauritania graduates turn to manual labor to end years of unemployment ^By SHEIKH BEKAYE= ^Associated Press Writer=

Mauritania-Working to Survive

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) _ When donkey-carts
roll toward Ahmed Ould Sidi, the graduate gets up from
his old wooden chair, puts down his
William Shakespeare play rand fills plastic cans with
water from a nearby fountain.

¶ Despite graduating from the University of
Nouakchott five years ago with a degree in English,
selling water in a poor neighborhood of the capital is
the best job Sidi can find in this desert nation beset
by poverty and unemployment.

¶ But after years of being jobless, Sidi isn’t
choosy, he’s happy just to be working.
¶ “It gives a meaning to time and keeps me
active,” he said. “I am in a better position than
thousands of my colleagues.”

¶ It also gives him time to keep up with his
English _ between filling
water cans he sits in his chair reading Charles
Dickens’ novels and Shakespearean prose.
¶ Sidi got the job earlier this year as part of a
government program to help Mauritania’s thousands of
jobless graduates get employment.

¶ Under the program _ run by the Commission for
Human Rights, Integration and Fighting Poverty _ the
government provides loans so graduates and other
jobless people can open small businesses.

¶ Loans can be up to 800,000 auguiya (dlrs 3,000) on
the condition that the beneficiary receives training
in the business he or she intends to set up.

¶ Since its inception in 1988, more than 2,000
people have been assisted by the program, said Ahmedou
Ould Ali, director of
the commission.

¶ Others, like Sidi, are employed by the state-run
water company to sell
water to traders who take it to poor neighborhoods in
Nouakchott, the capital, where there is no running
water.

¶ “University graduates are only part of our
interests. We also help those who did not continue
their studies,” Ali said.

“We prepare graduates for active life. Some benefit
from 12 months training … others get jobs or set up
their own business.”

¶ The University of Nouakchott is the only
university in Mauritania, and some 1,200 men and women
graduate each year
¶ Sidi earns 30,000 auguiya (dlrs 120) per month.
¶ “We now have salaries which is better than
nothing. We at least kill time waiting for better
days,” he said.

¶ Mauritania is a vast country _ about twice the
size of France _ in the northwest corner of Africa,
but 90 percent of the nation is desert.
¶ And as the desert has expanded, more and more
people have headed to urban areas, in search of jobs
where few exist.

Of Mauritania’s 2.5 million population, more
than half live in urban areas.
At independence from France in 1960, most
Mauritanians were nomadic and only five percent lived
in urban areas.

¶ Recurrent drought, lack of resources, huge
external debts and falling iron ore prices _once the
largest source of foreign currency _ has left the
Sahara Desert nation’s economy fragile and its people
poor.

¶ In a bid to improve foreign investment, the
government of President Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya _
one-time close ally of Iraqi President
Sadam Hussein _ abandoned that alliance and focused
its efforts on improving ties with the West.

¶ Since 1992, Mauritania has undertaken “an
ambitious and successful transition to an economically
liberalized and politically diverse country,” the
World Bank says.

¶ The scheme which found Sidi his job has enabled
many people to establish their own businesses, a World
Bank official said.

¶”The economy is performing very well and the
private sector is creating a lot of jobs,” the
official said. “It (the
government program) does not mean every university
graduate is jobless.”

¶ For the last four years economic growth in
Mauritania has been around five percent, according to
the World Bank.

¶ But the economic success is narrowly based _
fishing and mining account for nearly all the nation’s
export earnings.

¶ Unemployment is around 39 percent, while some 42
percent of the population live below the so-called
poverty line,compared to 56 percent
a decade ago, the World Bank says.

¶ The key to its future success, economists say,is
how it is able, or willing,to expand its economic
base.

¶ Meantime, jobless graduates turn to their hands,
rather than their academic certificates, to earn a
living.

¶ “I never thought woodwork would be my destiny,”
said Ali Ould Moussa.

¶ Moussa opened his carpentry workshop with
government assistance three years ago. He turned to
woodwork after spending four years without
work,despite graduating with a degree in law.

¶ “I’m relatively okay with my small carpentry
business, but sometimes I feel bitter when I see
people less educated or with the same qualifications
with me occupying high positions,” the 36-year-old
said.

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