Nouakchott, Mauritania * October 25, 2008
“Man is alone with himself; I defy him to be happy. And yet this is how travel enlightens him.”
I decided to be alone with myself. Peter and Migo motored up to Atar and Chinguetti, ancient towns in a plateaued region a day’s ride from Nouakchott with lovely mesas and gorges and sand dunes and ancient mosques and Tuareg nomads who will take you for a camel ride in the desert.
Geoff gunned off for Senegal and its French-colonial jewel of a city, Saint Louis. He’s been itching to get to sub-Saharan Africa, in part because in the Islamic countries of Morocco and Mauritania it’s been difficult to readily obtain at reasonable cost the fuel and lubricant crucial to an adventure motorbike ride – beer.
“Mate, I need to get drunk and get in a fight,” he said just before fleeing Nouakchott. “Give me a choice of five years hard labor in a British prison or 15 years in an Islamic country, I’ll take the British prison.”
I elected to remain in Nouakchott and immerse myself in the earthy animation of this ordinary African city, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. An estimated 1.6 million people live here, 3 miles from the Atlantic ocean, by far the greatest concentration of Mauritanians anywhere in this vast desert country.
It is a hot and dirty and broken and dusty and crumbling place. This is part of its charm. The people are sweet and friendly and welcoming. On my strolls about town, I am greeted warmly – by the gap-toothed café manager down the street from my shabby yet expensive hotel ($28 USD, and where I was attacked by a goat), by the kid at the Internet café who would later send me emails titled “friendchip,” by an English-speaking schoolteacher who, contrary to my expectations, did not want to sell me something, and even by a jewelry tout who knew after my first day that I was not in the market for any of his merchandise.
Personal safety is of little concern here. I can walk about even late at night, unmolested except for the indefatigable and overzealous touts. There is a politeness here, a sort of gentility among people struggling to get by, to put food on the table, and to enjoy their lives. It wasn’t obvious on my first day in Noaukchott.
After a few days, I could see the beauty that lay beneath the city’s crumbling exterior, behind the prodigious, stinking piles of garbage that had accumulated at the inaptly named Grand Market, and along certain of Nouakchott’s downtown streets. I still had in my tankbag map window a page that Migo had given me from his Tao Te Ching book.
The verse said, in part, “Under heaven, all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.” There was a physical ugliness here, but a beauty of community that transcended it.
In the morning and evening, outdoor cafes are packed with men sipping coffee and smoking. Some are playing chess. They talk animatedly among themselves; many will give me a friendly nod or greeting as I sit writing in my notebook, studying my French, or reading the copy of the English-language The Economist that I managed to find in the lone bookstore downtown.
The main streets in the center are lined with sand while smaller streets are unpaved, no more than sandy tracks. Donkey-led carts mingle with vehicles that are for the most part old and beaten and spew black smoke. One needs to walk carefully, as gaping maws along the sides of the road can snap your ankle like a wishbone, if you step into one wrong.
Dust is everywhere. It is as fine as talcum powder. At night, you can see it swirling in the headlights. In the afternoon, it sticks to the perspiration inevitable in the 100 F heat. Soon enough, your face and arms are coated in a dirty, greasy patina.
Flies are everywhere, too. They are small flies. What they lack in size, they make up for in population. I cannot sit at a café with a coffee or a tea without being pestered by flies. It does no good to curse at them, but I do so nonetheless. I watch how the locals abide the flies, but they have no tricks that I can borrow. They brush and swat and appear every bit as agitated as I.
This area was at one time heavily forested, but only a few large trees survive. Most, it seems, were chopped down when Nouakchott was constructed in the late 1950s. Now some enterprising civil servants have planted small trees on traffic medians downtown, and beneath that hundreds of people take cover from the afternoon sun, lolling and languishing and sleeping.
When a wind comes, even a slight zephyr, they arch their faces to capture the breeze. The word Nouakchott is from the Hassaniya Arabic, “place of the winds,” yet the wind seems to stir chiefly at night, so that as dawn breaks the sky is grey with dust and sand.
The city is a melting pot of north Africans, from Morocco and Western Sahara and Mauritania, and sub-Saharan Africans. These two groups are distinguished by their skin color and clothing. The northerners are fair-skinned, though swarthy, and many wear breezy djebellah robes and houli head scarves, concealing all but their eyes against the sun and wind and sand. The sub-Saharans are far darker and wear either Western-style T-shirts and trousers or the colorful garb of their native countries (the women particularly).
An uneasy tension seems to exist between the two groups. Economically, the northerners are far better off. The tension owes in large part, I suspect, to Mauritania’s on history of slavery and the historical servitude of sub-Saharan blacks. Slavery was outlawed only in 1980, and its residue still stains this culture.
I stayed for 10 days.
A tourist cannot wander about Nouakchott and not be molested by touts, hawkers, vendors of jewelry and clothing and phone cards and sunglasses and knife-sharpening sets, or the dozens upon dozens of moneychangers who linger about the central market and its outskirts. It occurred to me it might make sense to invest in a djebellah robe and houli headscarf so as to stroll about Nouakchott undisturbed.
A tourist is immediately recognizable by his fair complexion and Western attire, his multi-pocketed NorthFace shorts and white Wal-Mart sneakers, and stands in bas relief contrast to the typical Nouakchottian. The touts are as gregarious as they are predatory, and it can be great fun to play along with them and angle for the upper hand.
Entering the city on our conspicuous motorbikes, the four of us pulled over downtown to check a map for the auberge we had in mind for lodging. I knew it was on a side street a few blocks away, but the absence of street signs made it virtually impossible to locate on a first attempt.
Within seconds, we were surrounded by three or four touts. “My friend! My friend! What you look for? Welcome to my country! Where are you from, my friend?” The leader of this particular pack was a Senegalese, 6’ 2” and built like a linebacker.
After the unavoidable handshakes and greetings, we are in a spirit of brotherhood invited to step across the street and inspect the fine wares at the gentleman’s nice shop. Thanks pal, we’re just trying to find Auberge Menata.
“Ah, Menata, yes, come, I take you!” the guy says. Needless to say, he will expect some ougiya for this service.
“Um, can you just tell me where it is?” I asked him.
“Come my friend, I take you!” He starts tugging on my elbow. “Come look at my shop!”
It’s virtually impossible to ignore them. The words no, please, and thank you are wholly ineffectual and swatted away like flies. To get rid of one of these clowns, another tack is required.
“Am I sorry, we cannot,” I told the guy. “My friend, he is sick.” I pointed at Migo, who looked at me quizzically. “Bad food.” I patted my own stomach, and squatted just so in the attitude of a bowel movement. “BBBBLLLLLLPPPPPP,” I went. Migo choked back a laugh.
“Ahhhhhhh, OK, OK,” the man said. He seemed genuinely sympathetic. “OK, later, you come visit my shop, yes?” In fact, Peter and I did – we almost had to – though we managed to escape with our ougiya intact.
Two days later, I ran a gauntlet of bracelet and necklace shops and braved entry into several of them. I didn’t buy anything, but up and down the street all the merchants had smelled blood. If I left one shop, another merchant would be waiting outside, ready to greet his new good friend.
I had just about gotten away when I heard the dreaded, “Mon ami! Mon ami!” a few feet behind me. In an instant, he was at my side. The introductory question is nearly always the same. He must have heard me earlier speaking English, because that’s the language he used, broken though it was.
Him: “Greetings my friend! Where you come from, Francais, oui?”
Him: “Ingleterre? Alemaigne?”
Me: “I am from Turkmenistan!” I say this with a certain virile verve and thrust my chest out just so, as I imagine a real Turkmeni would.
This throws him off a beat. Chances are good he has no idea where Turkmenistan is, but he’s probably heard the savage-sounding name at some point. But soon enough, he’s back on his game.
Him: “Ah, very good country, very nice people. Your first time in Mauritania?”
Me: “No, I’ve been here many times.”
Him: “You live here, my friend?”
Again, this throws him off a beat, because other than a handful of UN and consulate workers, few Westerners live in Nouakchott. But no matter.
Him: “You come to my shop, my friend, I show you nice things!”
Me: “But my friend, remember, I was in your shop six months ago.”
Him: “…nice shirt, nice dresses…”
Me: “Don’t you remember me, my friend? I was in your shop six months ago, and I bought a nice shirt. Very nice shirt!”
This really knocks him for a loop. Evidently it would be a grave faux pas to not remember a good friend who has already made a purchase, and suddenly I’ve got him in checkmate.
Him: “Ah yes, of course I remember you, my friend! OK! Thank you! Good night!”
I knew I would see poverty in Africa. I knew the emotional reaction it would trigger within me. And yet coming face to face again with it was like happening upon an accident. It is disturbing, occasionally shocking, regardless of whether I had expected it or not.
The best restaurant in Nouakchott is called Le Prince. It’s a fast food joint in the center of downtown. I sat at its outside patio for a large plate of chicken and fried eggs and lamb and rice and French fries and a salad of tomato and lettuce and onions. Young boys of eight and 10 and 12 years watched me from the other side of the patio fencing.
I said, “Hey fellas,” and they smiled shyly and looked away, giggling. They were barefoot and wore grimy T-shirts and carried large tin cans. One had cleverly fastened a rope to his can, so that it could be slung over his shoulder.
When I had eaten enough, I called the boys over. I gave them my plate. Their hands were dirty and greasy. They shoveled my food into their tin cans with their hands.
The boys went around the corner, sat on a stoop, and ate. Others joined them. They shared freely among themselves. This repeated itself virtually every day, because Le Prince was, with one regrettable exception, the only place I ate.
They boys got to know me. The Le Prince manager got to know me, too. The first time I sat for lunch at Le Prince and the boys approached, politely, after I had finished, the manager hustled out and yelled and slapped one kid across the side of the head. They ran. In the hubbub, one boy left his tin can on my table.
“Senor!” I exclaimed, unwittingly reverting to the Spanish that I know far better than French. Then English: “Leave them alone! It is OK with me.” He apologized and greeted me warmly every day after that. The young boy slunk back to retrieve his can, which I held out for him.
It wasn’t just the young boys. Poverty was everywhere you looked. The greatest concentration is on the south side of the city, in a shantytown known as Cinquieme. Nouakchott was designed for 50,000 people, but droughts in the 1970s and 1980s triggered a massive influx of immigrants from the Sahel region to the east, and now hundreds of thousands live without electricity or running water.
On the outskirts of the central market, a man sold meat. On a weatherbeaten wooden board, parts of some beast – a goat, a cow, a camel, it was impossible to tell – were arrayed in the hot sun. They were almost completely covered by flies.
The man was a dark sub-Saharan African and his eyes were a deep and jaundiced yellow. I found myself looking at him, so alarmingly diseased were his eyes. He spotted me, and immediately began brushing the flies from the meat, looking apologetic and ashamed.
Yet it was me who felt apologetic and ashamed, in a twisted way. I had arrived on a $5400 motorcycle and carry an embarrassment of expensive gear – an IBM ThinkPad computer, two Canon cameras, an iPod – while the man with the badly jaundiced eyes shoos flies from meat unfit for human consumption.
For me, it’s the most disturbing aspect of motorcycling through the Third World. I find myself particularly sensitive to the pain of others, human and animal (the loss of bird life from a fall 2007 oil spill in San Francisco Bay disturbed me so deeply that I could not bear to read the news reports), and that only exacerbates my twisted shame.
My decision to remain here in Nouakchott was perhaps a concession to that aspect of my psyche, a way to pay alms, in a sense, to feed the children, such as it were, to pass out some ougiya, pointless though it may be.
I know, too, that in the course of my Africa travels I will become inured to these spectacles of poverty. They will no longer elicit the sense of shock that I experienced as I explored Nouakchott. Poverty is pervasive throughout Africa. The novelty will be gone for me, though the pain for them will persist.
My riding partner Migo affiliated himself with a charity called betterplace (www.betterplace.org), and at his encouragement I signed up, too. This organization targets areas in Africa and elsewhere for specific, member-supported projects, and we have in mind to visit several locations in Africa.
Learn more and make a donation to a project of your choice at www.betterplace.org.