With a project launched by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in partnership with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Fatimata Walet Mohamed, 25, has become a topographer.
The goal is the construction of an elementary school in the refugee camp at Mbera, in the south-eastern corner of Mauritania that, since 2012, has been home to more than 50,000 refugees fleeing the civil strife in Mali, 60 kilometres away.
She has every reason to be proud – nine months ago she knew nothing about topography or the strange and powerful gauge that has become her indispensable working tool.
But as she cheerfully explains, “yes, at first it was complicated – the angles, the levels, the distances. But if you want to, you’ll learn,” especially because “sandwich courses are great. If all you learn is the theory you won’t understand the practice and vice versa.”
Before she was trained Fatimata didn’t imagine she would ever do anything after leaving school. “Today, I know that I’ll be a topographer my whole life, I’ll go wherever there’s work.” She now sees a future for herself beyond the confines of the refugee camp.
The chantier-école (construction site for hands-on training) is part of an ILO programme to enhance the employability of young people and promote their integration into a promising job sector.
Specifically, the PECOBAT project aims to develop the local economy in the Assaba, Gorgol and Guidimakha areas of Mauritania.
The trainees are between 16 and 28 years old and left school with no qualifications. Some of them are from the neighbouring Mauritanian town of Bassikounou.
The aim is to teach them a trade for the building and roads sectors – where demand is strong – as bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, surveyors and road workers, who will build the economies of Mauritania and Mali.
The programme also aims to promote gender equality – women make up half of the students at the chantier-école, in all trades.
Mariama, 23, a refugee in the camp who arrived there from the Timbuktu region, has been a team leader since 2018. “I learned the trade of bricklaying last year. I love construction work and the atmosphere on site”, she says.
Gathered around the foreman the trainees listen to his instructions for the coming operation; putting up a fence around the future elementary school.
For days students equipped with shovels and picks have been digging straight trenches for the concrete foundations. The sand is very fine here and a day’s work often caves in overnight and has to be redone the next day.
Another objective of the PECOBAT programme is to promote local materials. The project, therefore, uses mud bricks, whose insulating properties are invaluable in a country where temperatures can go as high as 50°C in the rainy season.
Mud bricks have been employed for construction since time immemorial in tropical and Sahelian regions, and the fact that their use remains widespread in the region bodes well for the future bricklayers’ employability.
The chantier-école represents a true challenge for young people who, until a short while ago, knew nothing about the building trades.
It also represents an enormous source of hope for the children in Mbera camp, who will attend class in a real school building when the next academic year starts.
The school is expected to open its doors sometime after October when the dry season begins.