Monday, January 19, 2009


So here I am finally in Nouakchott (the capital of Mauritania). It took two and a half days to drive the 1500km from Bamako for a variety of reasons: the roads are not always the best in the world; with a 2.5L diesel engine Landrovers are seriously underpowered; and we only drove during the day to avoid wandering livestock and nutters in cars without functioning headlights. It did, however, give me the opportunity to appreciate the vast emptiness of of the country and the Sahara, which we skirted the southern edges of. The country is four times the size of the UK with a population smaller than that of Albania (although it does try an make up with its cows, donkeys goats and camels). As you drive through the southeast of the country you pass through vast tracts of Sahelian scrub alternating with rocky wasteland punctuated by tall, forbidding mesas that guard the way to the desert proper. There are, however, two constants: the incessant, dust-laden harmattan trade wind that blows from December through to March from the northeast and acts like a giant sandblaster; and the miserable villages composed of forlorn concrete boxes and semi-permanent tents that look as if they only offer token resistance to the driving sand. In all my travels I don't think I've seen any villages as grim and depressing as these and I was instantly thankful to just be passing through. As we approached Nouakchott the Sahel finally lost the battle against the desert and rolling sand dunes, of alternating red and white, took over. It was almost taking over the road as well and I think it's a continual battle to keep the roads clear.

Driving along one of the first things you notice are the cars. I immediately thought of Albania because the vast majority of cars (around 75%) are Mercedes; and just like in Albania they ll seem to be European imports (many still have stickers with a large D on them). It's obviously a profitable business as one of the people staying at my hostel is a young Frenchman who has driven down all the way from Bordeaux in a 4x4 to sell it on here. Although he has become so exasperated with doing business with Africans that he swears that this will be his last trip.

Nouakchott is a strange city. A place without history it was chosen by the ruling Arabs, who have their heartlands in the northeast in the desert, as a site for their capital in 1958 so that they could keep an eye on their black compatriots to the south more easily (more on this below). The Arab desert culture and disdain for the sea is evident from the fact that although Nouakchott is on the coast it's not really. A 5km strip of wasteland separates the western edges of the town with the beach and fishing port. A visit to the port emphasises this desert-centricness even more. First of all all the fishermen and people who work at the port are black, but despite the country having some of the richest fishing waters in the world the facilities are nonexistent. The fishermen go out to sea in nothing more than oversized canoes and have to land their catch on an exposed, windswept beach with no harbour. Instead of building up what could be a lucrative industry the government just sells the fishing rights to European trawlers so as to make a quick buck. Still, for want of any historical sites the fishing port is Nouakchott's main tourist attraction. And the bustle as the boats beach, the catch is carried ashore, and the fish are sliced, gutted, chopped and sold is certainly entertaining.

When walking about the town you don't get a sense of the litany of ills that supposedly befall the country (and I've got no reason to believe they don't) which sounds like a roll-call of problems faced by African countries. A non-functioning democracy (there was a coup in August), abysmal literacy rates, suppression of women's rights (female genital mutilation is widespread), and, in my view the most horrific, slavery is still very much ingrained in Mauritanian society (actually it is found to a certain degree throughout the Sahel, but the worst example is here). Despite being abolished on numerous occasions (most recently in 2007) it is estimated that up to 20% of the population live as slaves or indentured labour (all of these are black Africans). Not only is it shocking that in this day and age that such practices can still go on, but that it doesn't cause the outrage that it should.

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