Skip to main content

Oasis of Hope: Sahrawi refugee camps in Western Sahara bear the fruits of self-sufficiency amid a harsh environment

de Cherif
Teresa K. Smith

Oasis of Hope: Sahrawi refugee camps in Western Sahara bear the fruits of. self-sufficiency amid a harsh environment

THE SAHRAWIS OF WESTERN Sahara are an indigenous African people hardly known in the West. There have been no televised-music concerts nor front-page news stories on their plight. Yet this desert nation has persevered. The Sahrawis' country, the former Spanish Sahara, lies across the ocean from Florida, wedged between the Atlantic and the inhospitable hamada region of the vast Sahara, between the Mediterranean littoral and sub-Saharan Africa - between the West and Islam.

Since 1975 the Kingdom of Morocco - with 160,000 troops - and the nationalist Polisario Front - some 10,000 regulars - have been contending for control of this mineral - and fisheries-rich patch of desert. Had it not been for the Tripartite Madrid Accords of 14 November 1975, Spain's dishonorable formula for retrenching from its last overseas colony, the Western Sahara already would have achieved independence: the accords allotted the northern two-thirds of the Spanish Sahara to Morocco and the southern third to Mauritania. This arrangement violated standard practice on decolonization and prevented any chance for a self-determination referendum, which the United Nations had been calling for since 1966 and to which Spain finally had agreed in 1974.

When the armies of both Morocco and Mauritania rolled in, the Sahrawi people resisted, but not without great human costs. Between 800 and 2,000 civilians of Western Sahran origin have disappeared since the war began in 1975. Meanwhile, the entire Sahrawi population has lived divided. At best, 30,000 Sahrawis remain in the territory, and sizable Sahrawi communities live in exile in the West. The majority of Sahrawis, however, live in refugee camps located in southwestern Algeria.

Mauritania, too, hosts tens of thousands of ethnic Sahrawis. A contender in the Sahara war for four years, Mauritania withdrew and signed a peace treaty with the Polisario Front on 5 August 1979. Some nine days later, Morocco moved to occupy the whole of Western Sahara.


After 16 years of war, one might expect to see the all-too-familiar tragic camp scenes. Instead, the Sahrawis have turned the harsh desert of their exile into an enabling environment. In the midst of another drought on the African continent, the Sahara is blooming. In a daily struggle against their bleak surroundings, Sahrawis have planned gardens in their refugee camps as well as inside Western Sahara. Some of the food needs for the camps' 165,000 residents grow out of these small oases of hope. The vegetable gardens are one of many self-supporting programs initiated by Sahrawi exiles.

Three young Sahrawi agronomists direct the agricultural programs. Working with them are Sahrawi technicians in irrigation techniques, soils, and plant protection in desert environs, and older Sahrawis who contribute their traditional knowledge. For Sahrawis who were accustomed to the less extreme conditions of the Atlantic region of the Sahara, wrenching greenery from this arid land of rock and sandy desert must have seemed a preposterous idea when it was broached in 1977. Some 14 years later, however, the land is well prepared, wells and water pumps are in place, and a permanent Sahrawi workforce has been trained.

With more than 100 acres under cultivation, the Sahrawis produce enough food to meet the needs of the nutritionally vulnerable in the camps, thereby reducing total dependency on foreign food aid. The current agricultural production may be small scale, but it has been undertaken against formidable odds. Evaporation, why temperatures variations, and locust plagues are just a few of the challenges the hamada presents. This perseverance will serve Sharawi well when they return to their country. Their vegetable gardens serve another purpose, too: as public parks where children can pay, rest under the shade of an acacia tree, and enjoy pomegranates, figs, or dates.


Fifteen years ago, conditions in Sahrawi camps were similar to those in northern Iraq, coastal Bangladesh, and the southern Sudan. Today, while refugees and displaced persons in much of the Third World are suffering from starvation and disease, most Sahrawi exiles are healthy. In the hamada there are no listless faces, no blank gazes. The Sahrawis have implemented a self-supporting, comprehensive health-care system, the main thrust of which is preventive medicine. Nineteen Sahrawi doctors, seven of whom are women, spend mornings in the camps' three central hospitals and afternoons in four regional hospitals. In addition, there are scores of nurse practitioners, trained to diagnose and prescribe, and nurses, medical technicians, and outreach workers. Traditional healers also offer their repertoire of cures in another Sahrawi effort to adapt long-standing customs to a new setting.

The Sahrawi prevention policy works through public outreach and stresses hygiene, nutrition, and health awareness. The key to the prevention system lies in the health committees that have been established in all of the camp communities (called diaras). Local committee members keep the common spaces clean, demonstrate important health tips, and refer those who are sick and malnourished to the local clinics. In addition, outreach workers sponsor community discussions, conferences, films, and demonstrations on public health.

The generalized immunization program is another aspect of prevention. Imported medicines and vitamins, too, are being used in the camps. Still, the Sahrawi health service's overall approach stresses good nutrition rather than supplementary pills and tablets. With the gardens producing more food, pregnant women have shorter hospital stays and undernourished children are making steady recoveries. In addition, dieticians and food supplies for supplementary feedings, available at four regional nutritional centers, have contributed to the low infant mortality rate. The nutrition centers also provide mothers and their newborns with a place where they can convalesce during the first six weeks postpartum.

The curative health services in the Sahrawi camps begin at the local level. Those who are sick can visit a nearby dispensary staffed by a nurse practitioner and several nurses. If the diagnosis reveals that the problem cannot be treated locally, the patient is referred to a regional hospital. Generally, recovery can be guaranteed at these hospitals, which offer a full range of services. More serious operations, including orthopedic surgery, are performed in the camps' hospital for general medicine.

Another objective of the health program is to build human capacities. Theoretical and practical courses in medicine are given at three central hospitals for general medicine, pediatrics, and maternity, where scores of health workers graduate every year. The Sahrawis also conduct medical research at the laboratories in the central hospitals; among other things, they are working to standardize traditional medicines. The disease and health problems that do persist in the refugee camps are connected to the extreme climate of the hamada. Remarkably, the Sahrawis have put the despair of epidemics behind them, progressing to steady recovery and generally good health.


The World Bank and other nongovernmental organizations only recently have begun to make development projects people-centered; the Sahrawis, on the other hand, have focused on building human capacities throughout their 16 years in exile. With a minimal supply of books, paper, and visual aids, the Sahrawis have created public schools (from the nursery through secondary levels), vocational training programs, and adult education classes. For the Sahrawis, developing human resources is a way of clearing the roadblocks for the journey home.

Complementing numerous young teachers and locally trained classroom assistants, older Sahrawi men and women teach in the Sahrawi school system, giving children their first Arabic lessons through stories and songs. Sahrawi children learn in Arabic from nursery school through the second grade, after which Spanish is introduced and bilingual education begins. The core curriculum includes the standard array of subjects; notably, English has become one of the students' favorites. Teachers incorporate traditional Sahrawi games, legends, and oral literature into their lesson plans. In contrast with other Islamic nations, sports in the Sahrawi camps are coeducational.

Sahrawi women work toward higher education certificates at the February 27th School for Women, so named to commemorate the 1976 proclamation of the Sahrawi Republic in exile. Its one-year program offers, in addition to standard subjects, nursing, teaching, sewing, leather work, and carpet making. Seemingly ahead of Western colleges, the February 27th School has instituted family housing, where women can live with their children and other relatives, and day care services.

Each summer, Sahrawi college students offer basic literacy training for the camps' adults; summer is an ideal time to offer classes under the shade of the tents. The curriculum, structured in Arabic, is adapted to the particular level of the participants, and student-teachers often incorporate their own research on Sahrawi culture into the lessons - teaching how to read and write through traditional Sahrawi poems, for example.

Unfortunately, the Sahrawi educational system is overburdened; schools run in shifts and constantly lack basic materials. Yet the Sahrawis draw on their own resources, showing the way forward by one person teaching the next. In the emptiness of the hamada, there is on evidence of a lack of creativity. On display throughout the camps' educational centers are the paintings, murals, and other research projects made by Sahrawi students.


While many African countries remain tried to foreign aid, the Sahrawis have opted for self-sufficiency. Emphasizing grassroots participation, indigenous training, and the informal sector, the Sahrawis have created an enabling economic environment out of their otherwise harsh surroundings. In November 1975, within the first months of exile, the Sahrawis decided that they could not entrust their fate to outside donors. They organized themselves, even without supplies, using whatever resources were available. Because they channeled energies at the local level, everyone became involved in the daily life of their communities. People felt empowered rather than overwhelmed. Sixteen years later, the Sahrawis are meeting the most basic needs of food, clothing, and housing through local production. By encouraging individuals to show the way, the Sahrawi development strategy has produced a vibrant labor force.

A large chicken farm and two cottage-industry centers are located in the Sahrawi camps, producing a local source of protein and turning out shoes, clothing, and a variety of domestic goods. Crafts production, normally an unsupported activity of the informal sector of a nation's economy, also is thriving in the Sahrawi camps. Individual producers start off by making the odd piece in their spare time under the shelter of their tents. Once they develop their skills, they move on to the grassroots workshops offered in every community, where necessary domestic goods, such as leather cushions, tobacco pouches, mats, and teapots, can be made on a larger scale and then returned for local consumption. Oftentimes Sahrawis participating in such workshops and individual producers convene to repair a damaged mud hut or to make a camel-and-goat-hair tent. Their community labor, or tuiza, is a spirit of cooperation that has been passed from one Sahrawi generation to the next.

The strides made by the informal sector are most evident in the cottage industries, where carpets, leather crafts, and cookware are made on such a scale that they can be exported. Elegance and exquisite detail have come to characterize this generation of Sahrawi crafts. A teapot and stove, pounded out of scrap metal, are both utilitarian and beautiful. The thick carpets, displaying abstract desert streams, are as awe-inspiring as Turkish kilims.

Although Bedouins are held in contempt by most societies, the Sahrawi nomads are respected by their people for practicing an art that is disappearing rapidly in other Saharan countries. Covering vast stretches in search of water and pasture, these Sahrawis continue a tradition that predates both Mohammed and Jesus Christ. Today some 200 nomadic families supply food and raw materials to the Sahrawi refugees, cutting desert grasses for the locally produced mats, drying camel meat for the elderly population, and collecting meswak twigs for toothbrushes.

During the afternoon hours of intense heat, Sahrawi men gather to play desert chess (dama) while the women take up another traditional game, es-sig. The afternoon is also the time for tea; in the desert, one does not live on water alone. As the proverb goes, the first glass is as bitter as life, the second as soft as love, and the third as sweet as death.


The enthusiasm for democracy that is burgeoning across the African continent is emerging in the Sahrawi refugee camps, too. Demanding democratization before independence, however, is truly remarkable give the postcolonial African history of monotonous one-party rule. Individual Sahrawis have led the way with concrete measures for achieving political pluralism - through individual dissent, nongovernmental commissions for human rights and democracy, and the call for free elections. Their democratic initiative is a political extension of the Sahrawi economic program of individual empowerment. For the Sahrawis, democratization is ushering in the critical self-analysis necessary for genuine liberation.

With high morale, future-oriented direction, and practical experience, the Sahrawis have overcome the difficulties of exile. Sixteen years ago, the United Nations was powerless to prevent the war in Western Sahara and the exile it produced. Empowered by unprecedented multilateral cooperation, next January the UN will implement a self-determination referendum in order to solve the desert conflict, and the Sahrawi people will be able to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. Sahrawi people hope that the world will be vigilant while Western Sahara is at its turning point.

How You Can Help

For more information on Western Sahara and other African countries in the Saharan region, contact:

Sahara Fund

4438 Tindall St., NW

Washington, DC 20016

(202) 364-9473

You can get additional information on Western Sahara by subscribing to a quarterly newsletter published by:

Sahrawi People's Support Committee (SPSC)

217 East Lehr

Ada, OH 45810

(Suggested donation $5)

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.