Various letters concerning the construction of a road across the
Sahara Desert from Gao to Algeria (1941-1942)
|© 1999 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.|
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This file contains documents that provide details on the STAPS project (Service Temporaire d'Aménagement des Pistes Saharienne) to build a road across the Tanezrouft (portion of the Sahara Desert between Gao and Adrar). Simultaneously, the French authorities expected to use the work on the road as a preliminary stage in the preparation of the roadbed for the Chemin de Fer Mediterranée-Niger in the vicinity of Gao.
This is a four-page memo on construction costs and details. The cost and materials would be divided between the colonies of Algeria and AOF, but the AOF would provide labor and supplies for a portion of the piste north of the Algerian border because they were in a better location to supply food and water. The plan called for 1,200 workers from the Soudan, plus large amounts of vegetable oil to fuel vehicles.
The outbreak of war caused fuel shortages that resulted in bad health conditions for forced laborers in the 2ième portion du contingent. There were 300 Mossi drafted for STAPS who had to travel by boat because trucks were not available, lengthening their travel time. They had to drink river water instead of well water and their diet was limited to rice and dried fish. They didn't have enough blankets or clothing either, because supplies didn't arrive. There was a shortage of material with which to build shelters.
The director of STAPS asked for 800 men to build roads - 600 for the Tanezrouft piste and 200 for the road from Gao to Labbenzenga. He also recommended that the labor recruitment period be moved to December in order to take advantage of high river levels for transport.
800 Mossi were found to work on the road.
STAPS work camps were located at Tessalit, Bourem and Ansongo. The 800 Mossi, who had six month contracts, were replaced mostly with prison labor from as far away as Dakar, plus some local recruits in Cercle de Gao.
This is an 8-page document describing the personnel, machinery and work camps of STAPS from Gao to Bourem and Tessalit. The planned route followed the Niger River northwest from Gao towards Bourem and then veered northeast towards Anefis, Tessalit, and the Algerian border.
This letter has some important information. Control over the Tanezrouft project was recently transferred from STAPS to the Chemin de Fer Mediterranée-Niger. It appears from this document that the 600 Mossi laborers for STAPS were contract laborers, since it mentions that their contract was due to expire in August. The director of the Chemin de Fer Mediterranée-Niger wanted to replace them with prisoners and forced laborers.
The Commandant du Cercle de Gao must have complained about the number of workers requisitioned from his cercle. The Gouverneur du Soudan Français admitted that the number was large, but pointed out that there had been no requisitions outside the cercle for years. Now they were expected to provide 600 workers for Entreprise Vidal and 600 for construction of the route from Gao to Labbezenga.
M. Vidal operated some sort of agricultural entreprise. The main recipients of labor provided by Cercle de Gao were Vidal, the Chemin de Fer Mediterranée-Niger, the construction project for the piste between Gao and Labbenzenga, and various local needs. The only local road that needed maintainance was that between Gao and Gossi, and that was only about 100 kilomters worth.
During an inspection tour, Commandant du Cercle de Gao Reben tried to get Mossi workers to extend their contracts for six months, because the administration had such a hard time finding replacements. He offered them double pay, better clothes and an assurance that they would not be forced to work through the winter. However, no one accepted, and instead they complained about the food and the lack of uniforms. Reben acknowledged in his report that 600 grams of rice was not enough to sustain a man doing hard labor in the desert, and that most of the workers had little more than ragged loin cloths to wear, which made them too embarrassed to visit nearby villages.
The files continue on a yearly basis up to 1946, when the road work was still in progress. They still had trouble finding decent blankets with which to supply the men. There are also references to isolateurs, which were something used to keep the men from sleeping on the ground (perhaps a cot). The railroad workers men had wooden isolateurs, while the workers on the road north of Gao had isolateurs made of sticks and reeds.
This file contains plenty of letters concerning the difficulty of obtaining adequate labor for road building. There were transport shortages and not enough prisoners available. It is clear from the tone of these letters that even if the Vichy government put the highest priority on building Saharan pistes, Africans only responded to economic incentives or coercion.