RPN 21 published April 1996

10. 'Palaces for children': education in the refugee camps of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) by Agustín Velloso


The history of the Western Sahara can be divided into two main periods: before and after 1975. Before 1975, the territory was a Spanish colony. In 1975, with a view to decolonising the territory, Spain, Mauritania and Morocco signed the tripartite agreements under which Spain abandoned its colony in the Western Sahara and the latter two countries divided the territory between them; the Saharawi people began a war for selfdetermination and thousands of civilians fled to the safety of Algeria where they have lived in tented camps ever since.

In 1976, the General Secretary of the Frente Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro, as the two main parts of the territory are called) proclaimed the creation of the Sahara Arab Democratic Republic. It was introduced as a free, independent, sovereign, democratic, nonaligned Arab state of Islamic religion, adhering to the United Nations Charter, the OAU, the Arab League and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man.

There have now been more than 20 years of war with declining intensity. During this period, the most important events have been the Moroccan military invasion; the liberation of some territories by the Frente Polisario; the United Nations' resolutions in favour of the right to selfdetermination of the people and parties involved in the Western Sahara; the recognition of the Sahara Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and, gradually, by 72 states throughout the world; and finally, the current wait for a referendum on the selfdetermination of the Saharawi people which should have taken place in January 1992, under the auspices of the UN. To date, it is still not known when this referendum will be held.

Undoubtedly, the referendum is the key to ending the war and beginning a new era for the Saharawis. The UN presented a peace scheme, under which both parties put the responsibility for organising the referendum into the UN's hands. There is a UN mission for the Western Sahara Referendum, called MINURSO, which is composed of three groups, one civil, one police, and one military. It should also be pointed out that Morocco is trying to change the terms of the referendum in its own favour, as well as delaying a solution to the conflict. If the referendum does not take place shortly, 'it means that the diplomatic way has been closed, which obliges us, naturally, to renew the war for independence,' said SADR President Mohamed Abdelaziz to an interviewer in Washington early this year (El País, February 10 1995, p 10).

The area controlled by the Frente Polisario (including the camps of exiles in Algeria) lacks almost any means of production (or else these cannot be put into use); the people use no currency and depend almost entirely on international aid, which to some extent covers every sector of economic and social activity. This aid is channelled from the Algerian Red Crescent to the Saharawi Red Crescent which distributes assistance through neighbourhood committees.


How do you educate children and youngsters who never see trees, museums or parks in which to play? How do children imagine their future under refugee conditions? How do school teachers teach without suitable training and with inadequate teaching materials? How does a child learn about the outside world when his own is made up of sand, tents and war?

The Saharawis who live in the camps near Tindouf, Algeria, are a people who are consciously preparing themselves for life in a modern nation. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Ministry of Teaching and Education, established in 1976, has been the provision of education to all children living in the camps around Tindouf.

This accomplishment must be seen against the fact that, before exile, many parents did not send their children to school. When the camps were first established there was a complete absence of school buildings and teaching materials, as well as a shortage of trained teachers. These difficulties were compounded by the continuing difficult conditions of life in the Sahara desert.

Conditions for teaching remain extremely austere. The Saharawis have constructed schools out of adobe bricks, and because of the high desert temperatures and the wind which blows the sand, the tiny, glassless, wooden windows must be kept bolted; as a consequence, light is extremely scarce inside the classroom. Desks designed to seat two often have to seat three. With the exception of the Secondary School, there is little equipment for sports or other activities, no lecture halls or space for school clubs.

A most serious problem is the lack of textbooks. For some subjects there is one book available per pupil, but in other subjects two, three or more pupils share one book, and in the worst cases there is only one book for a whole class. This problem is worse for the higher grades. Library resources are practically nonexistent. Given the lack of resources, it is not surprising that the educational system lacks provision for children with special learning needs. There is a lack of money even to fit those who need them with spectacles; shortsighted children must be accommodated in the front rows!

Despite these and many other difficulties, the Saharawis' attitude towards the education of their children is expressed in the name given to their schools; they are called the 'palaces for children'.

The Saharawis have three major priorities in improving their palaces for children. These are to continue to write and publish textbooks and produce other teaching materials, to upgrade the school buildings and other facilities, and to ensure that adequately trained teachers are available for all levels of education.

Since the early days of their exile, some textbooks have been published by support groups in Europe. Now there are two projects one Spanish and the other Swedish for installing printing facilities in the camps. In the meantime, most texts are produced in the camps using a duplicator, the pages stapled together.

The 'palaces' are also in urgent need of maps, educational games, instruments for measurement and calculation, pictures of social or natural subjects, and sports equipment. The Saharawis emphasise practical education, but the car engines used are very old models which may be too unlike the models currently available on the market. The carpentry workshop makes use of materials from the crates in which aid was shipped. Typing skills are learned on manual typewriters.

Some of the teachers have been trained abroad, others have not received formal training. The Ministry of Education organises regular inservice courses for this latter group. As is the case everywhere, a great deal of effort, imagination and educational skill is required to motivate, teach and encourage pupils to study. Saharawi teachers work six days a week, which includes classes and the tasks related to daily school life. During the holidays they attend extra training courses or take part in missions or other activities. At one point, a move was made in favour of a fiveday week, but this was rejected because of the recognised importance of occupying children's time.

Anyone visiting the Saharawi camps will be struck by the content of the children's drawings. They draw things they have obviously never seen: flowers, cities, highways, mountains, and fields. From the early 1980s, with the help of some European Saharawi support groups, each year a group of children have a holiday from their life in the camps and visit a European country. This gives them an opportunity to know something about other ways of life. These youngsters are accompanied by Frente Polisario delegates. When they return to the camps they share their experiences with fellow students. The Saharawis place great value on academic achievement and this is the main criterion for choosing which children will go on a holiday to Europe.

Dr Agustín Velloso is Lecturer in Comparative Education at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Madrid. His book on the subject of this report, La educacion en el Sahara Occidental, was published by UNED in 1993.

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October 1996