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‘How long will you stay in Nouadhibou?’
‘I think just one night.’
‘Do you know where you’ll be staying?
‘Not yet, there’re a few options in the Lonely Planet that seem okay…’
‘You can sleep at my house if you want?’
He says it casually, as if it’s nothing special. Considering that I’ve known him for all of six hours, and we’ve spoken no more than fifteen minutes during that time, I find it incredibly generous. His name is something difficult that sounds like (but probably isn’t exactly) Boumalniène. He tells me to simply call him Boum, just like the Dutch engineers from Mammoet Salvage did when they were clearing shipwrecks from Nouadhibou’s harbor, and he was their local fixer. For now, my soon-to-be-host is still my taxi driver. He’s taking me, five other paying passengers, and as much cargo as will possibly fit his Hyundai van from Dakhla across the border to Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s
second largest city. Riding shotgun is his aging grandmother, whom he refers to as his Big Mother – I can’t help but giggle inside every time he says it, despite my admiration of him having taught himself English by listening to Eminem songs. She’s a strong-willed old Saharawi lady, with a Spanish passport because when she was born, the Western Sahara was still the Rio de Oro colony. One of her obvious talents is making absolutely disgusting snorting sounds for no apparent reason, even mid-conversation – a talent I will soon learn is common among Mauritanians. She also turns out to have knowledge of the medicinal use of plants. The further South from Dakhla we get, the more we come into the range of the occasional summer rain shower from sub-Saharan Africa, and it shows in the number of scrubs on the desert floor. Big Mother has Boum pull over at a particular bush and take off some branches. She’ll be taking them home, where something medicinal is always brewing, although it’s not entirely clear what…

Entering no-man's-land

After several hours of driving through land that’s mostly as flat as Holland, and shortly before we reach the Mauritanian border, the first sand dunes appear. With the wind always coming from the North, the dunes are shaped like crescents. Approaching them from the North as we are, they look like perfectly symmetrical disks of a radiant white gold, as if a group of massive UFO’s landed here. At the border post, we join a queue of cars for about an hour, during which I have a chat with some fellow Dutchmen. They’re driving their Renault Laguna to the Gambia in the hope of selling it there and making enough of a profit to make the whole journey worthwhile. Checking out of Morocco requires visiting three different offices at which a stamp and/or permission is given. After that, we enter the weirdest place I’ve ever been. Between the Moroccan and Mauritanian border posts is five kilometers of no-man’s land. After Spain gave up the Rio de Oro colony, this area was mined by Morocco, Mauritania and the Polisario front, with the result that no-one has a full idea of where all the mines are. There’s no real road between the border posts, just a collection of criss-crossing bumpy paths in the sand that are known to be mine-free. Completing the impression of being in a part of the world where the apocalypse happened before anywhere else are the piles of dumped household appliances and cars (some burned out)
that have been left to decompose. Walking along the paths are black Africans; from what I’m told they’re people who intended to make their way to Europe but got stranded here. They’re trying to make a living by exchanging money or trading cars without requiring any paperwork – if a car isn’t accepted for trade, it’s often stripped of parts and left on the spot, because nobody cares. Boum tells me you’re best off not doing any business with them unless you really know what you’re doing. Crawling, bouncing, and creaking along the paths of this dystopian wonderland is a constant stream of cars, pick-up trucks and even full-size cargo trucks; remember, this is still part of the most important trans-Saharan highway west of Egypt! With some skill, Boum gets his van – distinctly not built for off-roading – across the paths and to the Mauritanian border post. Here, we are required to get stamps and/or permission from another three or four officials, and my backpack is inspected – or at least the two items at the top. Boum has to pay a few bribes, too. This continues as we make our way from the border post to Nouadhibou; it’s only a short distance, but it’s full of military and police checkpoints, and each time Boum has to pay to be allowed through. At one point we’re even held for almost half an hour because a soldier wants more than the usual amount, which Boum doesn’t agree with.


It’s at this point that his ethnicity and social standing become useful. Mauritania has a complex caste system that plays a role in most aspects of life. Basically the same people as the Saharawi, the Bidan (also known as “white Moors”) are the dominant ethnicity in Mauritania (and the Western Sahara), and claim to be descendants of the first Yemeni Arabs who came to the Maghreb region. Below the Bidan are the Haratin or “black Moors”, (descendants of) freed slaves, who are black-skinned but also claim Arab descent and have adapted the Arabized culture of the Bidan. They often have strong religious and economic ties to the Bidan family that used to own them or their ancestors. The least powerful ethnic groups are the non-Arabized black peoples of the Sahel and the coastline; the Fula, Wolof and various Mandé. They have a history of not getting along terrifically well with the Moors – and it seems the Arabized black Moors in particular – which isn’t all that surprising as it was the black people getting enslaved. Complicating matters further is that things like education, economic power and social network might mean that, for instance, a Haratin has more standing than a Bidan.
Add to that happy mix a continuing problem of slavery, indentured servitude and other forms of not-being-completely-free, and the mess seems complete (Mauritania is the country with the highest percentage of slavery in the world; it’s been illegal since 1980, but slave-owners got away with a slap on the wrist until 2007, and even today politicians’ words aren’t being turned into action). So how does all that relate to Boum having to pay higher bribes than usual? He and his family are Bidan; and since they have for centuries been the ruling class in a country of little more than 3 million people, pretty much every Bidan has friends in high places. And indeed, it turns out Boum’s father (a bank manager) is friends with the greedy corrupt soldier’s boss, who will tell the soldier in question that he’ll have to make do with the normal bribe from now on. Lovely, isn’t it? And before anyone begrudges Boum for being Bidan, he in turn is jealous of Big Mother’s passport. He’d love to buy cheap goods in Spain and sell them on in Mauritania, but neither his Mauritanian nor his Moroccan passport gives him access to the EU. Outside of Mauritania or the Western Sahara, being Bidan counts for very little…

Boum and family

Dinner at Boum's
It’s only a short drive from the border to Nouadhibou. As we enter the city, it quickly becomes obvious that Mauritania is not just a continuation of Morocco on the other side of the border. In fact, as much as Morocco was a culture shock to me sometimes, it’s probably closer to Europe than to Mauritania; not only in terms of people and culture, but also when it comes to economic development. Nouadhibou is the second largest city of the country, and yet it looks like a larger version of a neglected rural village in Morocco. It has only a few paved roads; as soon as you get off the main roads, you’re bumping over rocks and slushing through piles of sand. Barefoot kids are playing with garbage, and wandering goats are holding up traffic everywhere, even in the main street where the Moroccan consulate and major bank offices are. Boum drops off the other passengers, and takes Big Mother and me to his sister’s house. There, we have lunch: couscous with meat… camel organ meat. As is customary in this part of the world, it’s served on a large plate from which the entire family can pick up food with their right hand; using your left hand is extremely rude, as you use it for wiping your butt. The trouble with camel organ meat is that it appears to be an unusually flavoursome variety of rubber; it’s virtually impossible to tear it into bite-sized chunks using only one hand. I end up putting larger pieces in my mouth, but it’s still rubbery; I have to spend several minutes chewing even a single piece of meat, and no matter how decent the taste is, the texture makes me want to gag. In the end, I get away with a stomach filled with lots of couscous and very little meat. We continue to Boum’s house, where I meet his wife, his son Hamud and his baby daughter. Boum is not poor, especially by Mauritanian standards; he has warm running water, two flatscreen TV’s and internet in his house, but not much else (Mauritanians tend to socialize laying on pillows or mattresses and use the ground as a table, making for very empty rooms). A quick shower later it’s time to do some chores. Since I have no Mauritanian currency (the wonderfully named Ouguiya), we head to a bank, but it turns out that none of the banks in Mauritania accept MasterCard; I’ll have to use a Visa card. I do have one, but it’s a prepaid thing, so I have to transfer money to it using my regular bank account. With my bank, that requires a confirmation text message on my phone, which brings me to the next challenge: foreign SIM cards don’t work in Mauritania (not even from neighboring countries) and vice versa. So it’s off to get a local SIM card. In Morocco,
Dinner at Boum's
many small stores have a sign on the wall indicating you can buy a SIM card there. Not Mauritania. Boum drives along the main road until he finds a guy standing by the road who looks like he just walked out of a hiphop video, wearing a shiny black padded jacket that’s far too warm for this weather, a woolen cap and some golden jewelry. As Boum pulls up next to him, I wonder if he’s going to ask for directions, but no, this is the SIM card salesman. He opens up his jacket and reveals not only a shirt with flower print and an adorably girly lace collar, but also a row of SIM cards and credit top-up cards hanging neatly organized on the inside of his jacket. He’s very helpful and gets me free additional credit, as well as a plastic card with my new cell phone number written on it with a marker… Dinner at Boum’s is, thankfully, much easier to eat than lunch was; roast chicken with fried potatoes and baguette. Hamud is filled with curiosity about this foreign visitor, although he doesn’t seem to understand that I don’t speak Hassaniya (the Mauritanian and Western Saharan version of Arabic). In the evening, I join Boum as he brings his van to a nearby petrol station and parks it there, after which his brother picks us up and brings us back to his house. I ask him what the point of all this is. ‘The petrol station has 24/7 security. It’s not safe to leave the car in the street by my house. There are a lot of black people who came to this city but don’t want to work.’ I don’t know how fair it is to attribute the crime problems exclusively to black people; I do know that, coming from a well-connected Bidan family as he does, Boum has had ample opportunity, at least by Mauritanian standards. In the car on the way back, the radio plays popular music. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a country so immune to the outside world, what’s most popular here is basically traditional Arab and Berber music. Call-and-response lyrics have been adapted from sub-Saharan Africa, and the tidnit has sometimes been replaced by an electrical guitar (while keeping the same sound), but not much else has changed. It’s often a shrill, piercing, repetitive sound, very difficult on the Western ear – until it isn’t. All of a sudden, I recognize aspects of this music that have, through various ways, been absorbed by Western styles – the sound and hypnotic melody of the guitars in The Doors’ The End, lots of Led Zeppelin here, some aspects of rhythm and blues there… It’s a startling revelation, and I suddenly feel that this strange, voluntarily isolated country does fit in the larger story of the world we’re in.

Sahara, meet Atlantic