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French Engineer Reflects on Mauritania's Development


French engineer Jean Sahuc arrived in West Africa in the early 1950's to oversee the building of Mauritania's capital. Almost 50 years after he laid the first foundation stones in Nouakchott, Sahuc takes reporter Phuong Tran on a tour of the capital for her report on one of the oldest immigrant communities in Mauritania, the French. This report is one of a five-part series on immigrant communities in West Africa.

French engineer Jean Sahuc, 78, leans close to the steering wheel of his white truck as he drives around Nouakchott.

He has been retired from the French civil service for more than 10 years.

But even in retirement, he is surrounded by multi-colored folders that carry plans for World Bank-funded schools he is helping to build.

The engineer says when he arrived in Mauritania in 1953, there was no airport, no agriculture, no local government employees or even a capital. The capital was located in St. Louis, Senegal.

Sahuc says he attended the signing ceremony when the capital was moved to its present location in 1958, two years before Mauritania gained independence from France.

Sahuc says that throughout the 1960's he helped the new government build its offices, ministers' homes, roads, a hospital and airport.

Sahuc points out traffic lanes added in 1970 to ease congestion. But he says traffic has been a problem since the 1972 drought sent people fleeing to the capital in search of work.

Sahuc says, in the past, French families working in Mauritania stayed at least 10 years, some up to 20. Now, he says, the French do not stay as long.

He says it used to be easy to form long-term friendships with other French residents because they stayed longer in Mauritania. Sahuc says that since the French government limited the amount of time its civil servants can work in Mauritania to less than five years, the community is not as close.

According to France's ministry of foreign affairs, 3,000 French live in Mauritania, mostly in Nouakchott, while an additional 8,000 pass through every year.

The total population of Mauritania is more than three million.

Even though the French foreign ministry says France is Mauritania's largest bilateral donor, giving about $25 million every year, Sahuc says he thinks France has less influence than before because there are more investors from other countries.

He says 50 years ago, there were more than 400 French companies in Mauritania. The French embassy in Mauritania says there are now about a dozen.

Sahuc says despite 50 years in Nouakchott, he and his wife live much like they did in France, with a home garden and colorful flora he manages to keep alive in the middle of the desert.

He says the garden is his way of fighting back against the sand.

Sahuc says he continues to live in Mauritania because of the climate and the simple way of life. But even that is changing, he says.

He says he used to enjoy camping out in the desert among the sand dunes, a common vacation in a country where most still live the nomadic life. But Sahuc says everyone seems to think only about making money now. He says it is hard to get away from that, even in the open desert.

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