15 March 2007

Embargoed for Release – My Mauritanian Travels Revealed

In August 2006 I set off to Mauritania with my friend Fatou Jallow. She had visitors who were leaving from Dakar, so we met there. We spent a night in St. Louis, a very nice colonial town (the oldest French settlement in West Africa, I believe) on the coast (with the old part of town on an island) which was the colonial capital of Senegal and Mauritania. With independence St. Louis ended up in Senegal (though Dakar is now the capital) so Nouakchott (Mauritania’s capital) was an ad hoc creation. It’s now grown to a population of over a million, but it’s a dusty place without much to see. I think Kombo (the region outside Banjul) is somewhat livelier, and it has more amenities and places to go out to. Both have their well-heeled expat classes, but Gambia has tourists to cater to as well.

After a couple of days in Nouakchott we headed inland (though only 5kms from the sea NKTT is basically desert). There we based ourselves in Atar (relying on the hospitality of a PCV-Mauritania) and went on trips to Terjit (an oasis enveloped by small mountains) and Chinguetti (apparently the 7th holiest city in Islam, although I couldn’t say why). Terjit was really nice, as there was a little rock swimming pool in the stream, we could do a little hiking in the cooler hours (I use the word ‘hiking’ lightly but it was a different landscape after a year in a country that never rises more than 300 metres above sea level), we could engage in some people watching (Mauritanian families came for day trips and picnics), and one of the workers gave us free food from the other customers’ orders. Chinguetti was pretty too, and we went on a short camel ride and spent the night camping in the desert.

After that we shared the back of a pickup truck with ten other people and their luggage and headed north to Choum. Once there we hung out with our fellow passengers, drinking ataaya (the green tea with sugar that is ubiquitous throughout the region), eating dates, and chatting. Mauritanian transit towns have little rooms or covered areas where people can lay about on mats or mattresses, resting, chatting, drinking tea, or eating. After it cooled down a bit, some of the young men went out to play petanque/bocce ball. I had a few gos, but didn’t do very well. I can blame the heavy metal balls, grassless pitch, and the claim made by my companions that Mauritania is the 7th best nation in the world when it comes to petanque.

Several hours later, after 9 o’clock that night, the longest train in the world pulled into Choum. There is no station to speak of but, as this is the only northern route west to Nouadhibou, it stops there to pick up passengers. There is a passenger car in the back, but we and most other travelers opted for the tops of the other cars, where you pay no fare. After scrambling on top (with some of our companions from the truck), we set to work leveling the iron ore dust and settled down for the night. The ride was nice, though cold and (iron ore) dusty, and there wasn’t much to do besides look at the stars and desert and listen to the train rumble along the tracks.

After 13 hours and 400-500 kms (not a bad pace by Gambian south bank highway standards) we disembarked outside Nouadhibou. The train was quite an impressive sight in daylight (it’s said to be some 2.3 kms long), although the same could not be said for us. It took an hour-long shower to get myself reasonable clean, and I was still discovering pockets of iron ore dust a couple of weeks on.

Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second city, was an interesting place, although we only had a day there. It’s right on the ocean, so it’s a bit cooler than NKTT, and you aren’t buffeted by dust from all sides – just three directions. It’s a big fishing port, one of the main industries in Mauritania. Most fishermen are black Africans (as opposed to fairer skinned, Arabic-looking Maurs), and some are from other countries, Senegal in particular. As a result, Nouadhibou is quite a diverse city, with lots of Wolofs and others around. Another, less positive, reason the city is a magnet for West Africans is that it is the prime launching point for boats of migrants aiming for Spain’s Canary Islands. From there we headed back to NKTT (which does have a nice market and okay museum) and then onwards to Senegal.

Overall I had a grand time in Mauritania. Language wasn’t too difficult, as I remembered French from some pre-Peace Corps courses I took in DC, plus we occasionally found Wolof speakers. A lot of Mauritanians travel to Senegal and Gambia for work (they run much of the fabric trade and many general stores in The Gambia), and Wolof is the lingua franca of trade in both places (to the chagrin of Mandinkas in Gambia).

Mauritanians on the whole treated us very well, and we experienced no problems in a country that is more conservative than SeneGambia. Before I traveled, a lot of Gambians warned me that “Naars” (Mauritanians of North African extraction) were wicked. I experienced nothing of this but I think that is because, as a visitor, I was no privy to the sometimes strained relations between more Arabic-orientated Mauritanians and black African Mauritanians, most of whom are from the southern area around the Senegal River, where there is some farming land. There have been race riots in the past, and black Mauritanians sometimes feel a bit marginalized economically and politically. Still, I saw generally friendly interactions between Mauritanians of all stripes. As for in The Gambia, the degree to which Mauritanians get along with Gambians varies from person to person. The same, of course, is true of PCVs in Gambia.

One potentially confounding way of life is the Mauritanian style of dress. Virtually all of the men wear either blue or white khaftaan tops, with no sleeves (the fabric does spill over the arms but is folded up), and with similar gold embroidery. In Gambia I use the (slight) variation in clothing as a crutch that helps me remember names. Black Eminem t-shirt – Eliman; blue Italy football shirt – Abdoulie; black halter top/tube top under shredded shirt – a boy named Samba; etc. I would not be afforded this luxury in Mauritania, with its uniform, albeit beautiful, national dress.

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