Hi everyone! It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Mauritania for six days — because we’ve been so busy, the time is passing very quickly. Next thing I know, I’ll be on a plane heading back to the US and this will all seem like a dream.
This particular trip has been very “office focused.” Each morning, I am picked up from the hotel, and then I spend all day at the office working with the program staff. By the end of the day, we’re all worn out and it’s back to the hotel to sleep (and maybe eat). So I haven’t been seeing much of the city or surrounding areas. But I have been learning a lot from the program staff, who are incredible and are doing all kinds of interesting work in their communities in health, nutrition, agriculture, and financial education.
In Mauritania, like many Muslim countries, the weekend is Friday-Saturday because Friday is the day for services. Since none of the program staff would be in the office, Romain arranged to take me on a long driving tour of Nouakchott so I could see more of the city and culture. I mostly observed the city from the car, but we were able to get out and walk around the fish market for a little bit.
Nouakchott is quite an interesting place! Although there are a lot of tensions and divisions between the white Moors, black Moors, the “former” slave class (known as Haratines), and the black African groups, there is also a fascinating cultural mixture here. There are a lot of challenges regarding land and property, and neighborhoods remain grouped by race and class.
Regarding the slave class, you can learn more about these issues here and here. It is a devastating issue with particular impacts on women and children. But while the government has formally outlawed it, the practice still continues. Slavery in Mauritania is a pervasive and serious issue. But while it is not openly discussed, it can show up quite casually in surprising ways — I’ve heard a few jokes as part of regular conversation that base friendly “insults” among friends on claiming that the other is inferior because he or she is a slave or comes from a slave family.
The problem of land grabbing is a big one in Nouakchott, ranging from land being confiscated and re-distributed by those in power (and kicking off the poor who are living on it) to the problem of land title owners losing grazing or uncultivated land because a wealthy person just up and builds a house on it. In the latter case, the issue is often “resolved” when the courts force them to come to an agreement, which usually results in the person who originally owned the land being paid a nominal sum by the house-builder and losing rights to the land. This has resulted in a practice of wealthy Moors bringing former slaves from the bush to live in tents on open land plots and fields to prevent others from building on it; however, sometimes they are chased away and construction begins anyway.
As we drove through one outskirt area, Romain pointed out where lots of camels were being kept by a group of people who lived in tents. He explained that many people come to buy camel milk from them. But these groups are often chased off the land they are occupying as it is distributed to others.
While we were stopped and looking at the camel herds, Romain asked if I would like to ride a camel. I think he was offering to arrange a little adventure ride for me, if I wanted one. But we both had a good laugh when I said, “Oh goodness, no! I’ve ridden one before. I don’t need to do it again!”
Another thing I learned about Nouakchott is that it is at or below sea level, causing a lot of infrastructure problems. We could see some small and large pools where seawater had risen to the surface, and if you dig a hole, salt water will eventually seep into the hole. Fresh water must be imported for people’s use. In the central and wealthier parts of town, there is running water. But where there is not running water, communities use a donkey cart distribution system. This also means that buildings and walls eventually soak up salt water from the ground. Many walls are partly wet, and they often start deteriorating from the bottom. Other buildings show water damage in the ceilings because the water has soaked up the walls and into the ceilings, eventually destroying the plaster and causing the walls to crumble. There is no drainage system, and when it rains just a few times a year, many portions of the flat, desert city turn to lakes because it does not absorb the water, causing further building damage.
I was able to observe quite a lot from the car, but unfortunately my pictures don’t come close to capturing the experience. (I brought along a little snapshot camera that wasn’t quick enough to get most of the images.) I saw fruit stands everywhere, selling lots of fresh fruit, with organized stacks of oranges and watermelon imported from Spain, There were a number of butchers, with meat hanging from hooks in the open air. There were lots of shops full of everyday goods. There were nearly as many donkey carts as cars, and goats mingling everywhere. Goats here are some families’ savings accounts — not only do they produce milk and meat, but a goat is worth approximately $50. Each time it reproduces, the family’s value increases by $50. So the more goats, the wealthier the family. And they are everywhere! Because we were driving mid-day, I saw lots of family groups gathered under tents and square wooden huts, sitting on colorful carpets drinking tea. Mauritanians love their tea, served in small glasses, very hot and very sweet.
I enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the car and visit the fish market. It was the time when all the boats had returned and were bringing in the days catch. The market was full of people buying fish and sellers with crates of fish. Open boats crowded the beach, and there were dozens and dozens crowding the water, waiting just off shore for the opportunity to land. It was surreal, looking like an invasion of fishing boats! Drenched, rain-coat covered men walked up and down from the boats to the warehouses carrying crate after crate of fish. It was a mad chaos of smells and sounds!
Hopefully I’ll get a chance to post again before I leave, but if not, I will plan to post a follow-up when I return. There will be a photo album with more pictures from the tour around Nouakchott posted to Flickr. In the meantime, enjoy the small slideshow below!