NOUAKCHOTT, MAURITANIA—At a book market in Mauritania’s capital recently, a prominent author, Al-Mubarak Weld Al-Khal was looking for some of the more than 20 textbooks he has written.
It might have seemed like a simple task. But in a nation where textbooks are increasingly hard to find, it was tedious and difficult.
Since last year, books in Mauritania have, for reasons that are not always clear, been steered from legal distributors into the black market, and they have become difficult to find and overpriced.
“The prices of school books are unbelievable, and so is the fluctuation of prices in the black market these days,” said Al-Khal, who is also a former director of the Primary Education Department in Mauritania’s Ministry of Education. He attended the book market recently to buy books for his grandson.
Scarcity of primary, middle and secondary reading-level books are a hot topic in Mauritania, where many parents—and even grandparents—are struggling to find the educational materials their children need.
Among them is Maryam Ment Ahmeida, whose children have difficulty studying due to lack of book availability. She can’t even find an Arabic language textbook, which a teacher had recommended she buy, on the black market.
When books are available, they are often expensive. The price of a single book can be as much as around 3,000 Mauritanian Ouguiya, the local currency, or $10.32—much more than previous rates that typically would not exceed 100 Ouguiya ($.34) at small kiosks where books used to be sold. This kiosks closed 15 years ago based on recommendations by the World Bank that aimed to reform education and prevent fake books from hitting the market.
Aldada Weld El-Salem, who is in his thirties, said he was lucky to find six schoolbooks for his daughter for a total of 20,000 Ouguiya ($68.81) on the black market.
“I did not want to risk the future of my daughter so I recently gave in to the prices of the dealers and I paid whatever they asked for,” he said. “I did not want my daughter to be a victim of the indifference of the official authorities toward a current crisis afflicting all of Mauritania’s schools.”
While the reasons for the problem were unclear, Al-Khal said book shortages and black market prices—combined with rife book theft and smuggling—are symptoms of broader corruption in Mauritania’s education system. Al-Khal is specifically concerned about what the high cost of books means for the nation’s poor. Other parents have complained to Ministry of Education officials about the challenges the crisis creates for their children’s futures.
But shortages and costs don’t effect children alone: Arabic teacher Ahmed Salem said he has been unable to find a copy of a teacher’s guide—helping him understand why children come to school without books.
Others are less forgiving.
One student, Azza Ment Abah, who attends a school in Nouakchott, said some of her classmates were expelled from the school because they could not buy books. A parent, Al-Salek Weld Moatalan, said he was annoyed when another teacher in the city sent his children home because they lacked the learning materials they needed.
Officials vow they are working to combat the problem.
Sidi Mohammad Weld Kaber, the director of the National Educational Institute, a public organization in charge of the printing and nationwide distribution of school books, acknowledged difficulty people face finding books. He also said a law should be passed criminalizing the theft of schoolbooks and black market sales, and that he needed time to investigate the problem.
Providing children with the books that they need as soon as possible is on top of his team’s agenda, Weld said. He is also considering of re-opening schoolbook kiosks.
Additionally, the National Educational Institute recently started investigations into the textbook shortage and the illegal sale of books.
Earlier this year, security officials announced that attempts were made to arrest a network of textbook smugglers following the theft of 3,000 books from a secondary school in Mauritania’s capital. A similar robbery had also occurred in a primary school in the same area.
To get around the problem, one primary school student, Ahmed Walad Mohammad said he photocopies pages of books he needs.
“Since we go to a private school, we are allowed to photocopy our lessons,” Mohammad.