Sunday, 15 April 2012

West Africa part 3 - The Land of Moors


No-man’s land between Western Sahara and Mauritania can only be described as a graveyard of electrical appliances. Everything from TVs, washing machines, toilets and cars lie segregated into rusting piles of garbage. How this technological wasteland developed in the middle of nowhere is beyond comprehension.

The border crossing ranks as one of the most land mine riddled in the world. This is in large part due to the territorial claim Mauritania once held towards Western Sahara. It was abandoned following a costly war with POLISARIO and a military coup d’etat in 1978. Despite the presence of landmines people seemed to be walking around freely. Some even left the safety of the path to watch comings and goings from sandy garbage hills in the desert. Our car had to struggle across a large area of rocks and craters. The drive was bumpy and time consuming. The Mauritanian side was packed with French overlanders in expensive new land-rovers.

Mauritania has been plagued by numerous cases of kidnapping and killings directed towards westerners. These type of attacks are carried out by the local arm of Al-Qaeda or opportunistic bandits. This makes the majority of the desert country off limits to travelers. We had hoped to visit the ancient caravan town of Chinguetti (seventh holiest city in Islam), but were dissuaded due to the security situation. Driving at night is also to be avoided.

The Sahel is the desert area stretching across Mauritania, Algeria, Western Sahara, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. The majority of the Sahel remains unsafe for travel as the threat of kidnapping is high. Borders are large and porous making conflicts prone to spilling over from one country to another. The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali is one example. This conflict is connected to the destabilization caused by the return of Qadaffi’s mercenaries (of whom many were Tuareg) to Chad, Niger and Mali. The Sahel is also dangerous due to its extensive network of drug smuggling routes.

In Mauritania, one main road leads from Nouadhibou (second largest city) along the coast to the capital Nouakchott. The drive was incredible. Vast desert on both sides of the road as far as the eye could see. At times the Atlantic ocean would make an appearance in the distance. The vegetation shifted from patches of green to majestic sand dunes. Small encampments of shacks lay spaciously separated by old tires and decaying garbage. Mauritanians are still nomadic, so many either live in or seek refuge in the desert at regular intervals.

We stopped for lunch at some traditional Mauritanian tea houses (the domain of men). The small entrance led to a cool and colorful room full of pillows. The driver poured water as we washed our hands. He broke into laughter when I used the soap. This was a breach of etiquette as it was meant to be used after the meal.

We were served a large shared plate of rice and camel ears. Else played the vegetarian card, but I was too slow with my excuse and therefore had to eat. Our driver began describing the political situation facing his country, but also gave less than flattering critiques of USA and Israel. In the end he insisted on paying for the meal.

The tea ceremony – Attaya – is of crucial importance in Mauritanian culture. It consists of three seperate rounds of tea, but may last for many hours. It is a forum for maintaining social relationships and acquiring news and gossip. Women bear the brunt of manual labor whilst men lounge around in lazy tea ceremonies. This is of course a stereotype that is undergoing change like the traditional ways of life in Mauritania.

The drive onwards was characterized by a never ending collection of military and police check points. We had made countless copies of our passport information (in French and Arabic). The driver nodded approvingly each time as this made the process considerably shorter.

There were large herds of camels in the distance or crossing the road in front of us. They darted frantically in every direction as the car approached. Desert and pyramid domed houses of green could be seen along the road. The driver stopped to pray. Afterwards he pulled out a large bag of dates and let us eat to our hearts content.


We reached Nouakchott in the evening and realized that this city was beyond anything we could have imagined. Like a desert encampment that had sprouted in the middle of nowhere, become permanent and then been developed with some very random city planning. It’s an unbelievable collection of people and unusual construction. The pavements consist of sand entirely. We checked into the supposedly luxurious hotel Halima as my birthday drew near.

White Moors (those of Arab or Berber descent) constitute nearly 2/3 of the population. This is the dominant group in terms of economy and politics. Black Moors are the descendents of local slaves and make up another portion. They have assimilated the culture and language of the majority, but remain a persecuted and marginalized group. In the early 1990’s around 70,000 were expelled to Senegal and have not been allowed to return. The southern population is Fula. A people spanning across neighboring countries like Senegal and Mali.

Mauritania is a military dictatorship with a history of military coups. The last time they redressed the social order was when the president sought reproachment towards black moors in exile. This went against the aspirations of the ruling elite. A rigid caste-system ensures the survival of slavery in modern day Mauritania. Despite abolition (in 1980) and government denial it is estimated that more than 100,000 people of a 3,3 million population remain slaves. These are ethnically inferior workers that belong to individuals or families for the duration of their lives. For some it is a guarantee of sustenance and shelter, but also crushing poverty and hardship.

On our way to breakfast we bumped into a perfume salesman dressed in his traditional draa (a light blue robe). He was infinitely strange and prone to re-telling a story of a businessman from Paris that was gonna help him with some quality perfume that would drive the locals crazy and make him rich. The conversation grew stale after a while so he dialed up his English speaking friend. I inquired about finding Mauritanian hip hop music. He was also a businessman, but it didn’t seem like either of them had more pressing matters to attend to. We set out on a quest that lead us to the local film institute.

I spoke to the director of the institute in Arabic (In Mauritania and Western Sahara they speak a dialect of Arabic called Hassaniya) and handed him a list of artists I had compiled. He pointed to one of the names – Monza – the biggest rapper in the country and organizer of the annual Salam Aleykum hip-hop festival. He rang him up and gave me the phone. After a brief chat we were invited to visit his studio. This is also the place where the majority of Mauritanian rap music has been recorded.

To get there we had to find a taxi. We soon learned that taxis don’t exist in the traditional sense. Instead every vehicle could potentially double as a taxi. Therefore one hails down everything until something stops. Later, we tried to order a taxi to our (luxury) hotel. The reception lady broke into a sincere, but mocking laugh. She told us : « This is Mauritania, just go out into the street ». Our local guides were clearly experts and found one after a few heated discussions.

The car drove around a large maze of market stalls on an enormous field of sand, which was the central square. At the same time cars were speeding by in every direction. A kaleidoscope of color and people were congregating in the dust.

Monza is in his thirties and has been rapping for half his life. We were invited into the studio and he played music from his own career as well as other artists. The perfume salesman sat open-mouthed in concentrated awe. He had never heard traditional instruments in combination with this foreign sound. The perfume salesman’s associate was not impressed by the rapping as this was easy and something anyone could do. Mastering the traditional instruments in the background, however, was truly an accomplishment. Monza had no comment. He compiled a large collection of music and videos which was given to us as a gift.

Afterwards we headed to the « African market » to find more cds. The market is a vast maze of makeshift stalls covered in a thick layer of garbage. Plastic sheets or fabrics hang above the narrow passageways to protect from the scorching sun. Deep inside the market we encountered some local youths who were able to help us. They gave us a USB stick full of local rap music. The owner of the stall was a big fan of 2Pac and dreamt of going to the United States in the future. Our guides were retired after a small stand-off concerning the size of the payment. They shuffled off in different directions in search of more business opportunities.

We had arrived in Mauritania carrying all the cash we were expecting to use. Cash machines were not supposed to exist, but did to our surprise. This was a cause for celebration as most nights were spent eating at a Chinese restaurant with extremely overpriced Danish beer. One night we walked home in the pitch darkness and encountered a feminine DVD salesman. He eagerly presented his wares. As we got to the bottom of the pile he whispered «porno» and looked over his shoulder suspiciously. Needless to say his warning rang true. We left him and his stack of Nigerian porn films.

My Birthday

We began the day with breakfast in bed. Later in the afternoon we hitched a ride to the local fish market (on the outskirts of Nouakchott). Thousands of colorfully decorated pirogues (fishing boats) line the beach for as far as the eye can see. The fishermen return in the afternoon with their catch. It is then transported from the boats to the market by human chains. The market is located about a hundred meters from the shore. The atmosphere is extremely lively and colorful. Women in traditional dress work next to fishermen in brightly colored rain gear. We spent a few hours walking around and watching the frantic activity. The sheer scale of impressions is impossible to put into words. We were met with smiles and curiosity as the presence of tourists did not seem to be a common occurrence.

We got into the skeleton of a car – the absolute worst example encountered on the whole trip from Morocco to Ghana. The inside had been ravaged completely and a swarm of flies filled the interior. We jumped off at a small Lebanese tailoring shop. I picked up a Mauritanian flag as well as appraise for my Arabic speaking skills. As we left we were assailed by a deranged woman screaming Quranic passages. More annoying than uncomfortable, she followed us through the bustling market. People were shaking their heads in embarrassment and smiling comfortingly towards us. We left her shouting by the curb until our taxi became a silhouette.

Rosso and Diamma border crossings

After a few days we left Nouakchott heading southwards to Rosso – the busiest border crossing to Senegal. We were packed into the shared taxi like a box of sardines. I sat crouched like a hunchback as neck space was severely limited (and would be in the future also). We arrived after 4-5 hours and many unnecessary pit stops. Rosso lived up to its reputation as a notoriously hustle ridden town of nightmarish proportions. We managed to find overpriced transport to take us to the Diamma border crossing instead – along the road less traveled.

The drive took us through a large national park that stretches across the Mauritania/Senegal border. Huge swarms of birds followed the car playfully in a choreographed dance. Each time the swarm would disappeared into the tall grass only to be relieved by another strain. Warthogs ran across the road in what is the lush and green area of Mauritania. The south is the agricultural bread basket for the entire country. As we left the park we were order to pay an extortionately high amount, but resisted.

The border crossing was swift except for the sheer number of immigration officials hoping to check our passports in the slim hope of extracting bribes. At this point we had no cash whatsoever. When I explained this in Arabic we were let across without further ceremony. On the Senegalese side more of the same ensued. We found some more overpriced transport and left for St. Louis in complete darkness.

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