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Day 22: Zouérat

Zouérat, Mauritania 
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Panel beating in downtown Zouérat. This oil drum will be a few feet of fencing in less than five minutes.
Michael Palin - SaharaWhen I decline they scamper off and leap back onto their cart, aiming a couple of wild blows at the donkey. Zouérat is a frontier town, with all the mess and brutality that goes with the sniff of money. In the cluster of jagged peaks to the south of the town is enough iron ore to last 200 years, a resource that has transformed this corner of the desert into a multi-million-dollar asset, supplying 40 per cent of Mauritania's foreign earnings.

All the jobs, houses, public transport and associated support trades are in the domain of SNIM, Société Nationale Industrielle et Mini're, the once French, now Mauritanian-owned company that mines the ore. Without SNIM Zouérat would be no more than a collection of tents.

Which, in the poorer parts, it already is.

The back streets of Zouérat are open rubbish tips, lined with low, shabby buildings, but when the doors are open, business spills out everywhere, like the desert after rain. Barbers, garages, telephone points and lots of quincailleries (ironmongers). Cutting, fabricating and panel beating seems to be going on in every corner. I watch a middle-aged, red-robed man, using only an axe, hammer and his own sandaled foot for purchase, transform a BP oil drum into a 6-foot length of fencing in less than five minutes.

The reason why ironmongery should be the growth industry here is all tied in with desertification and the influx of nomads. Three years of drought have brought thousands in from the desert, desperately in need of shelter. We go to meet a family living in 'tin city'. Their home is a tent within a compound fenced with recycled metal. The outside of the tent still bears the manufacturer's imprint, 'Mining Explosive. Product Of South Africa'. Inside, the sacks are lined with strips of patterned cloth, and the woman who has invited me in indicates a rug. Her mother fiddles nervously with a row of beads. I slip off my shoes and squat down. Both of the women are in black. Others of the family, all women or children, gather around and regard me curiously. Tea is prepared, as in Western Sahara, with much ritual. They speak in Arabic and Cassa translates their story.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 22
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Zouérat
  • Book page no: 78

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