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Day 16: Smara Camp

Smara Refugee Camp, Algeria 
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Bachir, Krikiba and the children.
Michael Palin - SaharaThe children are getting bolder now, especially Sidi, the more hyperactive of the five-year-old twins. In between fetching water and preparing breakfast, Bachir tries to call him to order, but the lure of thirty pieces of film equipment is too much and he spends most of his time in our room shrieking with excitement at each new discovery.

Though I hear the muezzin's call in the morning, religion does not seem a big issue here. Education and political discipline are more important. Bachir and Krikiba's children are educated at the primary school nearby, after which they will go to one of the two big boarding schools that serve the camps. The literacy rate amongst the Saharawis is now 90 per cent, far higher than in Morocco or Algeria. The Hispanic connection is strong and many of the teachers are from Cuba. Some of the brighter pupils go over there to complete their education.

Bachir introduces me to a young woman called Metou. She is in her early twenties, was born in the camps and has never seen her homeland. She's bright, well educated, lively and attractive, a modern girl. She wears a light, but all-encompassing, purple sari called a melepha, which doesn't attempt to hide the imitation leather jacket, jeans and Doc Marten boots beneath. Metou is a cosmopolitan Saharawi. She has travelled in Europe, speaks fluent Spanish, French and English and spent time at university in Wales. Beneath the blazing Saharan sun we discuss the knotty problem of getting from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth by public transport.

She takes me to a workshop in a collection of mud buildings called the 27th February Village, which cumbersome title commemorates the day on which the landless Saharawi Democratic Republic was founded, in 1976.

Thirty women are weaving brightly patterned rugs and carpets on the simplest of hand-looms. The carpets are made of thick, coarse sheep's wool, in bright, strong colours and improvised designs, and I'd buy a couple if we weren't on our way to Timbuktu.

The women run the camps, says Metou. They cook, build, administrate and raise the children. The young men leave at eighteen for military training.
Smara Refugee Camp, Algeria 
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Outside the room we shared.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 16
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Smara Refugee Camp
  • Book page no: 64

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