NOUAKCHOTT AND THE SAHEL
Nothing but a handful of dust will fill the eye of man.
The three men in the hut seemed as elated at seeing me as I was at seeing them. We hugged and embraced each other at great length, as though we had been long-lost friends. They smiled, grinned and laughed, slapped me on my back, and pinched my burnt cheeks as though to remind me that I was back amongst human beings. I felt wonderful in my exhaustion. The unutterably blissful feeling of knowing that my downward mental spiral, my hellish hopelessness, my solitude, had finally come to an end. I was utterly ecstatic, or as much as I could be given the state my body was in. I punched the walls, thumped my head, and beamed impossibly wide grins. My hosts looked on open-mouthed as I yelled my head off, just so fucking happy to be alive! So fucking happy!
How to describe my delirious sweet ecstasy? I was just so fucking happy to be alive! It was not so much relief at not being dead, but positive, childish joy and bewonderment, bewilderment, sweet confusion, endless days and endless nights now behind me, part of self, memory, recollection, never to be lost... Fuck, was I happy.
I was given a bottle of soda pop, and then another, and my body screamed in pleasure as my skin opened up, my pores unclogged, and I sweated like never before, gorgeous sweat. Then two large bowls of cold zrig, my body subsumed in perspiration, my body once more allowed to breathe. I lay exhausted on the bed, flooded with indescribable emotions and feelings. My kind hosts seemed to understand, and left me alone with my thoughts for a few hours, interrupting my reverie only to refill the bowl or to hand me glasses of steaming mint tea. I stayed until the evening, first resting and sleeping, and then talking, listening to Bob Marley on their battery-powered tape player, playing poker, eating, grinning and just so fucking happy to be alive, and I know I repeat myself, but how else to express my joy?
Besides all this, however, I was also to experience a nagging sense of anti-climax, which I suppose wasn't entirely surprising. My recovery from dehydration was rapid (perhaps too rapid), lasting only a matter of days rather than weeks, and from Akjoujt onwards (then only twenty kilometres away), the road to Nouakchott was asphalted and made cycling easy, and therefore also unremarkable. Perhaps more important was the curse of forgetting, the ease with which I became re-acclimatized to reality, the little I thought of those days between Atâr and Akjoujt, and the accursed ease with which my experiences were categorised and neatly filed away in my memory, and then forgotten. Once more, the ever-poetic Arabs have an epigram for this: in the desert, one forgets everything and remembers nothing any more.
The days from Akjoujt were bound to be days of anticlimax, and of disbelief tempered by the grey monotony of the desert. From here on, the Sahara was a vaguely undulating landscape of dust, nothing more and nothing less. The weird contradiction in my mind was that cycling was just easy. A half-decent road, a good mileage each day, little thirst and no hunger. These few days to Nouakchott were remarkable in that they were the only times throughout my travels that I was to feel properly lonely. With both land and sky devoid of colour and life, cycling was repetitive, even boring. The mornings shimmered like ghostly shrouds, and for most of the way the horizon was cut short by dust, which at times reduced my visibility to no more than twenty or thirty metres. The only vegetation for over two hundred and fifty kilometres was a few equally ghostly acacia and the occasional clump of omnipresent thorn grass. All colour, except greys and drabs, was absorbed by the wizened sky, rumpled with pleats of dust that obliterated even the evil sun. It was a windswept place, lifeless, and with none of the desert's more sensual charms.
I cycled with the wind in my back, and was pleasantly surprised at the ease with which the kilometres fell away. Apart from the dull aches and pains of my body, there was little sign of the exhaustion that my body had undergone over the last week. It was almost too easy. The temperature, regardless, continued to peak at over fifty degrees, despite the wind, and it was a relief to find roadside huts dispensing food, water, and shelter. At one of these roadsteads - a couple of huts beside a large blackened water tank - a goat was tied to a solitary post. Inside the smaller hut were four children, huddled asleep amidst an assortment of pots and pans and soiled Persian carpets. Their mother, a wrinkled but elegant bidan dressed in a black cotton wrap and loose head scarf, was weaving with green wool on a wooden loom inside the larger hut. Beside her were piles of ripped cardboard for her children to play with.
The woman insisted that I stay a while, if only to talk to her husband who spoke French. He was in a small side room, curtained-off from the rest of the hut. She called him, and then we waited. In the meantime we tried to converse, although I suspect that neither of us had the slightest idea of what the other was trying to say. When I mentioned Nouakchott, her ears pricked up a little.
'Ah, you have been to Nouakchott.'
'No, I'm going there.'
'Oh, what was it like?'
Before long, a small, gruff-faced black man emerged from the curtains, spanner in one hand and spliff in the other. He had been repairing a gear box, and was covered head to toe in engine grease. As he wiped his face on a flannel, I noticed that he was actually pale-skinned, which contrasted oddly with his tightly curled black hair, thick lips and flattened nose. He told me that his family, like all the other inhabitants of the roadsteads, had once been herders, but due to the droughts and the extermination of Mauritania's grazing land, they had settled into the business of providing food and water, petrol and mechanical expertise to the passing traffic. He prided himself on his skill as a mechanic, and proceeded to explain in great detail the inner workings of some gadget that I supposed came from a car or a truck. Although the volume of traffic was low at present - perhaps only a car or two a day - he said that business picked up considerably at the time of the guetna date picking festival, and also in winter when the few surviving caravans return to Mauritania, which means businessmen travelling up to the Adrar from Nouakchott.
I was given some rather green water from the tank. Its colour was hardly surprising given that there is only one well between Akjoujt and Nouakchott. On reflection, it still worries me to think of all the shit I drank in the desert. Speaking from personal experience, I am quite certain that given no other choice, the human body will adapt to almost anything you might care to sling at it, if only for a short period of time.
As I cycled, the air became dustier and the sand whitened, spattered here and there with ancient chalky seashells. Although it was a gradual thing, by mid afternoon I was cycling through what could only be described as an achromatic dust storm, my visibility down to ten metres. Nothing at all broke the cast-iron monotony of the place. Kilometre after kilometre, hour after hour of the same unbroken sameness made for gloomy cycling. Only the relentless song of the desert gave any variety: hiss, growl, whoosh, silence, the sound of sand marching to the tune of a military tattoo.
At one point, a large black shape loomed out of the gloom, which turned out to be an antique car husk like that at 'Aggui. As I drew close, a wall appeared, and then another, and then a well, filled almost to the brim with sand. These ruins, I was told later, were the site of an abandoned French farming project from the 1940s. To think that not even fifty years ago the desert that I was now crossing could have been farmland was a sobering thought.
I passed another roadstead, but this time didn't stop as I had plenty of water. Two small children were chasing each other around the hut. They froze and stared at me as I passed. I waved and grinned, prompting much yelling and shouting. Like many Moorish children - especially young boys - their heads were shaved but for a Mohican kind of tuft, something that their heavenly protectors can grab hold of to pull them up to heaven in time of disaster.
Towards late afternoon my boredom was eased by a loud throbbing. The vague silhouette of a vehicle appeared from the dusty haze. As it sped past I could make out American plates and white faces staring at me. It screeched to a halt, and reversed at full tilt until it was in front of me again. Then the doors of the brand-new state-of-the-art white Chevrolet 4WD opened, belching forth the portly frames of five American tourists. Never mind my seeming alien to the desert nomads, this, I thought as I grinned at them in disbelief, was weird! Two shiny spare tyres and several metal hampers were strapped to the roof, and a big sticker reading 'Air-Conditioned Environment' was stuck on the windscreen.
'Bon-joo-er, vooz ate Fransayze?' said the fat driver in a blurred Texan drawl.
'Err, no. I'm from England actually.' I smiled at the bleached, middle-aged strangers.
'Oh, England!' he boomed enthusiastically. 'We're from Austin, Texas. The name's Flannigan. How d'y do?' He held out his hand and we shook.
'I'm Earl, and this is my wife Avril,' he said, pointing to a short, fat woman with an endearing grin. 'And you are...?'
Earl and his four companions were the archetypal American tourists, the eternal cannon-fodder of travel writers. Plump, greying, middle-aged, and in all the right clothes. Earl was wearing a garb of white tennis shorts, Nike sports shoes, short grey socks and a large red and white 'I love Dallas' T-shirt. A bulky camera hung about a protruding gut of generous proportions, and his reddened rotund face was topped with one of those shapeless cricket hats. The other four were similarly attired.
I was told by Earl, somewhat proudly, that it had cost him a minor fortune to airlift the vehicle from the States to Dakar, but that after only five days in Africa, he could see that the expense had been well worthwhile. Presently they were off on a two day trip to Chinguetti. The other woman, Vera, who I'd heard exclaim 'Gee whizz, it's hot!' on getting out of the vehicle, said: 'You know Gentz... It is Gentz ain't it? Well, Gentz, would you believe that we thought you were one of those nomads! Until Joe saw your face, that is!' Joe beamed broadly under his saggy hat.
'Tell me,' Vera continued, grimacing in the glare: 'How d'you cross the desert on a push-bike? Ain't it too sandy?'
'Yes, I suppose so,' I replied. 'That's why it's called a push-bike.'
As the chit-chat began to falter, Joe produced an outrageously large camera and started focusing it on me. Avril noticed, and added that perhaps they would all like to have their photos taken with me, and would I mind? Of course not, and so in turn, each of the five were photographically immortalised beside me. Both Joe and Earl put their arms around my shoulders as though we were great buddies, and grinned triumphantly into the lens while I tried my best to look like the real life adventurer that Avril wanted me to be. After the impromptu photo session, Avril and Earl asked for my autograph!
After a final round of handshakes, they piled back into the Chevrolet and drove off, horn blaring, into the obscurity of the dust. It took me some time to recover from the experience before I could remount and cycle away. I couldn't believe that I just had met these people, and I looked again at the packet of US Army ration peanuts that they had given me, just to make sure.
The hazy sun set slowly (for a change) behind a nearby sand dune, in its own way a gentle farewell for the time being. I slept behind a clump of prickly spine trees, on which I managed to gash my forehead, and woke to a beautiful sunrise, the bright crimson disc of the sun at first only just peeking over a salmon-pink landscape of gently undulating dunes, speckled all over with crooked acacia and smaller but equally gnarled thorn bushes. The wind, and therefore the dust, had settled overnight, resulting in a visibility of about four kilometres. The sky was a crisp blue canopy, gradually seeping away as the calm dawn was overwhelmed by the acrid magnesium sun. The wind picked up, and within an hour the sun and the sky and the horizon slipped once more behind the suffocating monotone dust.
A couple of hours later, I reached the outskirts of Nouakchott, mostly silhouetted slum dwellings rising inconsequentially from the flat and gloomy desert, devoid of any colour except for miserable greys and blacks and browns. Here and there grew a dusty palm tree or an acacia, chiaroscuro caricatures without shadows. There were a few dogs and donkey carts, and anonymous match stick people who shuffled around in the dust clutching empty plastic baskets or cloth-wrapped bundles. Opposite a junk yard, piled high with mangled vehicles, was a roadblock.
'You must be crazy,' said the gendarme.
* * *
Nouakchott, wrote Quentin Crewe (he who got blown up near Nouâdhibou), must be the favourite in a contest for the most irrelevant capital city in the world. Starting life as a French Foreign Legion outpost, it was chosen in 1957 by bidan elders to be the capital of the nascent Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Its name means either 'Place of the Wind' or 'Place of Floating Seashells'. With hindsight, it should more accurately have been called the 'Place of Dust'. The site, five kilometres from the Atlantic, was chosen for its then relatively cool and healthy climate, as well as for its proximity to the agricultural lands along the River Senegal. In recent years, however, the desert has expanded so much that dunes are now threatening large areas of the city, including, ironically, the presidential palace. A cemetery to the north of the city has already succumbed to the sands.
Originally built to accommodate 30,000 people, it is now home to almost half a million, a quarter of the country's population, and as a result is grossly overcrowded. There is little water, and in the slum town, where the majority reside, there are sometimes hundreds of families sharing the same standpipe. Yet, in spite of its huge population, the centre of Nouakchott is notable only for its lifeless sterility. Originally intended to be the visible centre and symbol of the nation's bustling modernity, it consists largely of a few perfunctory blocks of shops, three and four storey offices, clumps of wasted palm trees and windblown rubbish. The architecture, though officially Moorish, is in fact 'desert-utilitarian', the euphemism for concrete slabs strung together in monotonous rectangular grids. In the wide and dusty streets, drowned rather than bathed in sunlight, there is little traffic: only the odd green and yellow Transports Urbaines minibus, the zippy jeeps that belong to international aid agencies, and a few angry, low-horsepower Suzuki motorcycles. The so-called Chinese Mosque is perhaps the most interesting sight - its tall minaret sparkling in the sun. On looking closer, however, it is an ugly affair with fifteen zinc domes, mock battlements and a series of ungainly arches. Many buildings still stand unfinished, their ground floors often used as shops whilst the concrete pillars and struts overhead slowly crumble away. Like Cansado, Nouâdhibou and to some extent Akjoujt, Nouakchott resembles more a gigantic Lego Land than a real city, one whose impersonal nature is epitomised by the alphabetical numbering of its Ilôt housing blocks.
On the hot pavements, old men squat around in the dust, swaying gently as they move their pebbles or walnuts in makeshift games of draughts. Younger men stand around holding hands in greeting or friendship, wearing loose white turbans, blue boubous and white smocks with large embroidered breast pockets. On one street corner there are stalls selling French-style loaves of bread, and others peddling expensive imported fruit: oranges, mangoes, guavas, pineapples, melons and the like, around which mill knots of envious black-veiled women with dark puckered lips. Their blackened feet are hennaed like their hands, and their fingernails are painted bright red. At another corner is a shoeblack, presumably servicing the footwear of government functionaries, bank clerks and the resident diplomatic community. Nearby are a couple of old scribes, one of whom is deaf, sat behind their typewriters. They also sell stamps and paper, biros, envelopes, bleached postcards showing bleached desert scenes, and the national daily which has a circulation of three hundred.
As I cycled around town, killing time before my planned reunion with Albert (I was a few days late, but no matter), I was hailed by a shopkeeper on the junction of the city's two main thoroughfares, Avenue Abd el-Nasser and the Avenue Kennedy. Mahfoud Ould M'Hamed Hassani, a cheerful thirty-five year-old bidan Moor, was a devout Muslim, and supported his three wives and nine children by selling butane gas, various hair dyes and skin ointments from Asia, and rice, dates, peanuts and flour contained in large cardboard barrels. After a sweaty lunch and the requisite three glasses of mint tea, during which he closed the shop, he spent the best part of the afternoon trying to convert me to Islam. For most of the time he gave the impression that it was his duty, as a good Muslim, to rescue me from the infidelity of the Christians. His favourite means of attack was mentioning Cat Stevens' conversion, saying that since he had managed to embrace Islam, then there no reason why I should not also. When I eventually informed him that I'd never heard of Cat Stevens, he took great pleasure in citing Mohammed Ali as another example.
Mahfoud then added that Islam was the most tolerant of religions, something I might have believed had it not been for Mahfoud so insistently tried to convert me that I felt victimised, and most certainly not the recipient of the tolerance that he so forcibly preached. When I queried the position of women in Muslim society, he became defensive and after much goading admitted that it was wrong to oppress them, but he then added that the Qur'an itself did not advocate the superiority of either sex, which was true. Later, Mahfoud changed tack to propound the more liberal side of Islam, saying that so long as I believed in God there was always hope, and even went on to say that I didn't have to become Muslim in order to enter heaven, but that it would be better. He believed that heaven was a place beyond the universe, because all life and time would cease on the Day of Judgement. At one point, when a few customers were in the shop, Mahfoud asked me, with a sneer: 'Do you know where paradise is?' I thought for a moment, and then mumbled some or other equally unmemorable response. Thinking about this some time later, I decided that I should have said: 'Inside your mind.' As George Orwell's interrogator in Nineteen Eighty-Four put it: 'Nothing [is] yours except for the few cubic centimetres inside your head.'
My host persisted regardless with his proselytising, and in exasperation, began to pray for my salvation.
* * *
I eventually met up with Albert at El Frisco's, an expensive and pretentious expatriate restaurant guarded by three stone-faced bouncers, intended to deter inquisitive locals. After talking myself past these gorillas, my filthy and bedraggled appearance was greeted by the rather shocked expressions of a dozen or so dinner jackets and accompanying haute couture gowns. Following a cursory wash in the toilet, I sat down at a table laid with silver cutlery and bone china, to a meal of shark steak, lobster, shrimps, stuffed avocado, mango and guava salad, and a bottle of smuggled wine - ah!
Nouakchott's European community is, understandably, very isolated. Geza was fed up with Mauritania, saying that the people were lazy and that the government was corrupt. It was a view similarly held by a group of aid-workers I met at a barbecue later that evening. Aid workers, no matter where they are, always seem to grow disillusioned with time. Albert's main grudge, though, was the ban on alcohol, even for Europeans, which meant that half of his diplomatic luggage was taken up with bottles of Irish whiskey. The strain of the place seemed to show on a large burly Dane I met at the party, whose catch phrase was: 'La vie est belle, mon ami, que la vie est belle.' He had suffered his third nervous breakdown two weeks earlier, and wanted out.
Albert's villa was on the northwestern outskirts of the city, beyond the last of the slums. Alongside was Mauritania's only stadium, home of a fledgling football league. Opposite was the new Novotel, at which the pleasure of spending a night in an air-conditioned room costs upwards of a hundred dollars. For most of the day its gates were besieged by an army of hawkers, selling anything from Neolithic spear heads to gold painted 'nuggets' at a fiver a throw. I was to spend four days at Albert's, largely uneventful save for a large bougainvillaea hedge with green leaves and aphids which made me realise for the first time in weeks that I was once again able to smell, a sensation that had been totally absent in the desert. Except for the fine-mesh mosquito netting strung over the windows, there was no indication whatsoever of the continent that lived outside the walls and iron gate of this villa. There was electricity and running water, and all the kitchen appliances were in full working order. The larder was full of canned produce shipped in from Belgium, and the walls of the living room were hung with prints of Vanderbilt's steamships, Jean-Michel Jarre posters and postcard views of grassy North European landscapes.
Although I had experienced great relief on reaching Nouakchott, within days I was again feeling restless and frustrated, all the more so because the only thing that was keeping me here was trivial money hassles. Foolishly, I had changed £150 into ouguiya, in order to buy a plane ticket to Paris, the idea being to return to Mauritania after having visited black Africa. Only then I discovered that no such flight actually existed, and so when I tried to change the ouguiya into CFA - the common West African currency - the banks refused on the grounds that Mauritania was poor and that I was rich. This resulted in three intensely irritating days of to-ing and fro-ing between banks and institutions in order to obtain the necessary permission for the transaction. I knew what I was trying to say when I told the director of the Banque Centrale de Mauritanie that he would be acting idiotically if he let rules be more important than the people they were supposed to protect, but he misunderstood and took offence. 'From now on, I will ignore you like you are not here!' he exclaimed, and emphatically turned round on his swivel chair to shuffle some papers. And ignore me he did, but only for three hours, after which his resolve weakened and I was grudgingly handed the relevant papers and forms.
I was finally kicked out by Albert when his blonde girlfriend came to stay (his Belgian wife lived in blissful ignorance). Although I had hoped to leave that day anyway, my financial troubles forced me to stay on for another few nights. Frustrated at my first taste of intransigent bureaucracy, I spent much of the day sitting with the scribes outside the bank, who also dealt in old Asian magazines, cigarettes, digital watches and shades that few could afford. There, I met Oumar Niang, a tall black youth who kindly offered to put me up for as long as I wished. He had the sort of handsome features that would make him look very dignified in his old age. His great dream was to become a fashion model in Paris, and so follow in the footsteps of both his sisters. In the meantime, he worked in a hardware store that sold Sony TVs, Atari computer consoles, diamond necklaces and Christian Dior perfumes.
Nouakchott has been called the world's largest refugee camp, and not without reason. It is a city hemmed in by a sprawling grey bidonville of unbelievable proportions. Galvanised iron, ripped hessian sacks, crudely sewn linoleum awnings, old mouldy packing crates and tarpaper, form the tiny shacks that often house families of ten or even twenty people. As I walked my bike with Oumar to his family compound, little children came out onto the dusty alleyways to stand and stare, yet not a word was spoken. What struck me most was the dull lifelessness of it all, murky black and brown dwellings rising from the pale grey sand under the pale grey sky. The nomadic past of many of its inhabitants was still discernible in the thousands of tents that make up part of the slum town. Some had even sprouted in the gardens of larger buildings and in the shells of others unfinished. The place was stricken with poverty and, to some extent, fear. Most children forgo the opportunity of education to become beggars, thieves or prostitutes. Or else they die from disease. There have been cases of ex-nomads going mad in these shantytowns: flipping out, killing randomly, or killing themselves. Suicide, which until 1975 was absolutely unheard of among these people, has become commonplace. To add to these already horrendous problems, the combination of extreme poverty and varied ethnic composition has resulted in the slums becoming a hotbed of racial and political foment. Although the majority of Mauritanians are, of course, Moors, there is a substantial minority of Negro sedentary tribes living in the south in the precious cultivated lands of the River Senegal: Tukolor, Fulani, Sarakolé, Marka, Wolof and Bambara, all of them with their own languages, customs, traditions, histories and lands. And here in Nouakchott, to an even greater extent than Nouâdhibou, these many disparate people find themselves forced to live together. The greatest agency of change was the disastrous drought of 1968-73, when a high proportion of pastoralists - even from the Senegal valley - lost their herds and were forced to flee to the towns.
The predominantly bidan government hasn't helped matters by openly and often contemptuously referring to Mauritanian blacks as 'Senegalese'. A one-party state since 1964, the government's policy of enforced 'arabisation' was greeted with riots on its introduction, and still causes considerable animosity between Moors and Negroes. In 1983, the clandestine Forces de Libération Africaines de Mauritanie (FLAM) was formed to campaign for black rights, but was powerless to prevent the imprisonment, in 1986, of twenty Negroes accused of 'attacking national unity'. Then, in October 1987 (the year before my visit), Mauritania saw its first coup attempt to have been entirely racially-provoked. In the aftermath, three Tukolor officers were executed, and five hundred black NCOs (a little less than 10% of the total number) were ejected from the armed forces. That, in turn, led to minor school strikes that ended a month before my visit, and on the day I left, two Moors and a Senegalese taxi driver were murdered in Nouakchott, presumably in racially motivated killings. In April and May 1989, the year after my visit, the tensions escalated catastrophically, when two hundred Senegalese died in riots in Nouakchott, and an unknown number of Mauritanians were killed in Dakar. It was an outburst of violence that led both countries to the brink of war. Altogether. some 300,000 Mauritanians fled or were expelled from Senegal, with untold consequences on the already dire situation in the slums of Nouakchott and Nouâdhibou.
Oumar - a black Moor - was surprisingly optimistic about the future. It was an attitude, I suppose, well in keeping to the character of a country that can call the road to the drought-stricken east of the country, the 'Road of Hope'. Indeed, the Niang family seemed to have made the best of the generally atrocious conditions in the slum town, having travelled the 'Road of Hope' five years earlier, all of seven hundred kilometres from a village near Koumbi Saleh (site of the ruins of the capital of ancient Ghana). The Niang family compound - five adjacent huts - was well kept and as clean as conditions would allow. Oumar's room, which he shared with two brothers, was decorated on two walls with Senegalese tapestries, and with a tattered poster of Bob Marley on another. In the corners were cushions on which to sleep, or relax to the rather distorted strains of a battery-operated stereo. Outside, in the narrow dusty yard, lived two chickens and a goat, which would be slaughtered come the feast of Aïd el-Kebir. Oumar's parents were very sweet and gracious, always at pains to ensure that I was well fed and content, and were almost embarrassed by what little disorder there was in the compound. They were very proud of their son being able to speak French, and my presence seemed to confer some kind of status on the family as a whole.
I parked my bike, washed in the slimy cubicle that doubled as the toilet, and was then dragged off by Oumar to be presented to some of his friends. They lived in one of Nouakchott's few five storey blocks, built in the 1960s but already decrepit. It gave the appearance of being at least a hundred years old. Inside, I noticed at once that its roof was missing. Shards of stark sunlight baked the miserable crumbling concrete staircase and its flaking, rot-ringed green and blue paint. The walls, once white, were now yellow or brown, and its wooden banisters and window frames had long ago been used for fuel. As we slumped up the stairs and into a dark tiled room, Oumar was assailed by questions regarding the Toubab. Two girls, wearing orange and pink dresses respectively, were reclined on an old brown couch, watching what was left of the TV. On the walls hung a couple of the ubiquitous Marley posters, one of them saying 'Exodus'. I remember feeling slightly awkward, even ridiculous, when Oumar loudly announced that I was an adventurer all the way from Manchester United! He then pinched my calves to show the girls how fit I was. In the evening a few male friends turned up with some dope, and the conversation turned to alcohol and sex, except for one guy who was too far gone and kept smiling and exclaiming 'C'est extra!' Oumar, who didn't smoke, quickly got offended, and later apologised (needlessly, I thought) for his friends' behaviour.
Later in the evening, we paid a visit to the wife of his elder brother, a beautiful young lady with high pronounced cheekbones, who was pregnant for the first time and had been suffering from a splitting headache. We arrived as she was still in bed, lying on her side and groaning loudly. Oumar surprised me. As we entered the room, the family moved aside after the perfunctory greetings to let him through to the bed, whereupon the woman sat up and Oumar began to mutter a strange litany of what could only have been spiritual incantations. Then, placing both his hands on her scalp, I saw his arms tense and his eyes close as he began to concentrate. The incantations grew louder as his grasp became firmer. Then, slowly but still powerfully, he began running his fingers up through her hair, pulling at the roots as he dragged the demons out of her skull and flung them away into the air. Then again, and the tension in her face was seen to ease. Finally she smiled, and told Oumar that the pain had gone. More incantations followed as the floor was wetted to keep the exorcised demons at bay, and finally she grinned, albeit weakly, and held Oumar's hands between her palms to thank him. There is a similar ritual among the Lébou people of Senegal's Cap Vert peninsula. Ndeup is a mystical faith-healing ceremony held in the open, and is performed to extract the evil spirit from a person. It is often conducted by women, and involves much dancing and drumming.
Oumar later told me that back home in his old village his family had for generations been able to cure illnesses with their hands. But he then asked me not to mention this to anyone else in Nouakchott, because they might become suspicious...
The last evening was spent at the Maison Française, which was holding some kind of cultural soiree. Oumar made a special effort, and was dressed in very chic Parisian style: smart white shirt, silk tie, and carefully pressed slacks. For my part, Oumar was so embarrassed at the prospect of being seen with a dirt-ball whose only trousers no longer had a backside, that he gave me an old pair of jeans to wear. We bluffed our way in by saying that we'd been invited by the ambassador's wife (she was apparently well known for liking young men). Following canapés of smoked salmon and liver paté, the gathering of assorted dignitaries and clandestine gatecrashers made their way into the main hall, where the evening's distraction was the screening of a dire Bourbon romance, complete with crinolines and whalebone frocks, the talc-besmirched Marie Antoinette in an array of bouffant coiffures, pompadours and frills, and transparent intrigues galore! Given that we were in Nouakchott, I considered all this to be frightfully amusing, as did Oumar. Most of the Europeans, though, did not share the joke, and stared accusingly at me each time I sniggered. It was an absurd and wholly enjoyable evening, one that was at once hilarious and sad.
* * *
Having finally ironed out my financial problems, I left Nouakchott for the River Senegal, the southern boundary of the Sahara. Needless to say, I felt extremely excited. As to the north, the southern outskirts of Nouakchott consist of a sprawling expanse of ramshackle huts and tents, on the periphery of which rises a waist-high rubbish tip consisting of stinking rotten food, jagged metal, broken glass and dead dogs. A flock of screaming seagulls circled above, preferring this dump to the nearby Atlantic for their source of food. Unfortunately all too memorable was the pitiful sight of an elderly, veiled woman scavenging through the rubbish for anything remotely of use, while her children kicked saggy footballs and bottles around in the dirt. For me, the rag-picker epitomised Mauritania, both her dreadful plight, and her steady resolve and determination to overcome even the most shameful adversity.
The desert here was flat and, except for a few withered shrubs, featureless. The road itself had recently been tarmacked, and so had not yet had a chance to break up, which, with the strong tailwind, made cycling easy. The sand was a drab, ashen colour, peppered with shiny pebbles and white oyster shells left over from long-gone days of tropical mangrove swamps. Miniature clay mounds moulded by the gradual erosion of sand and wind and flood water rose almost guiltily from the omnipotent sand, sheltering a spattering of compact bushes and shrivelled thorn grasses. Some of the mounds harboured the crumbling entrances to abandoned jackal or hyena burrows. Cracked and splintered branches surrounded these pitiful remnants of life, waiting to be carried away in the next deluge, or more likely, by nomads searching out firewood. The wind howled.
As I cycled, the left horizon shrank closer as large dunes came into view - the western periphery of Erg Trarza. Further on, a dry water course appeared, a flowing river of soft white sand, straddled on the one side by half buried tamarisks and acacia, and on the other by the road. Beyond the old stream rose a belt of beige dunes, and behind this an altogether more imposing ridge of dunes, violent amber in colour. The road skirted these for much of the day.
There is only one major oasis along the road to Rosso (on the banks of the Senegal). Yet even quite recent maps show the latitudes between the river and Nouakchott to be sub-Saharan savannah - the Sahel - which stretches for three thousand miles along the southern fringes of the Sahara to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The name Sahel derives from the Arabic for 'coast' or 'plain', and in effect, the Sahel is the coastline between a sea of sand and the lands of the Tropics. Until the 1960s, the Mauritanian Sahel supported a thriving population of pastoral nomads, and provided ample grazing for large herds of cattle, sheep and goats. In the last century, the area was part of tropical Africa, and giraffe, cheetah, lion, leopard, antelope, ostrich and even elephant roamed the land. Today, however, the Mauritanian Sahel has been replaced by a flat, arid wasteland, for the Sahara has moved on. Although the expansion of the desert is in part due to natural causes such as drought and the windblown sand from the north, much more damaging has been the human element. Most of the big game, for example, was exterminated by indiscriminate or naïve hunting, and more recently, selective irrigation has deprived much of the land of flood water, destroying first its flora and fauna, and then the irreplaceable top soil and humus, thereby turning good farmland into desert in a matter of years. More than anything else, it is ignorance of the dynamics of deserts and of the needs of the savannah that has hastened the destruction of the Sahel. By way of example, in 1959, the outgoing French authorities, in cooperation with the fledgling Mauritanian government, determined to wage war against what they perceived as being the greatest threat to their agricultural programmes - birds. Altogether, an incredible forty million 'millet-eating birds' were destroyed across southern Mauritania and northern Senegal, using a burlesque combination of explosives, nets, and flame throwers. Needless to say, this farcical operation did nothing to prevent the desert from advancing, and in actual fact, the agriculture that it was supposed to protect itself played a part in quickening the onset of desertification. Indigenous vegetation was destroyed both to make way for the planned millet fields and also to provide firewood for the new settlers. The new deep wells in turn encouraged the proliferation of animal stock, which led to overgrazing.
The figures speak for themselves. In 1963, the Sahara covered an estimated 5.6 million square kilometres. By 1988, the area had almost doubled to 9.1 million, and still the desert grows. In Mauritania, 80% of the country's grassland has been destroyed over the last two decades, and on the rare occasions when it rains, over ninety percent of the water evaporates.
The fate of the area that I was cycling through was starkly illustrated by the sight of a complete camel skeleton lying bleached and half-buried in the sand, exactly as the poor beast had fallen. Its head was bent back in a contortion of agony, and several of its ribs lay scattered around, presumably having been dragged there by vultures or other carrion-eaters. The skull still had all its teeth, and around the eye sockets, small patches of dry parchment-skin flapped in the wind. A small token of hope: two dusty myrtle saplings sprouted from what would have been the camel's underbelly, nurtured in sand fertilised by flesh and blood.
Towards evening the bright orange sands of Erg Trarza dominated completely. The wind had by now blown away the dust, washing the sky bright blue for the first time in days. The road veered eastwards towards the small village of Tiguent, once an important trading centre in gum arabic, which was collected from Acacia arabica by Brakna and Trarza Moors. Here, thick orange sand crept over the road, although the tarmac underneath still made cycling possible. I reached the village as the sun was setting. It was a disconsolate place. There were no palm trees, no pools of fresh water, and only a few concrete shacks and tents scattered on the sand. To the north and east, dunes loomed ominously. Some distance below their surface lay the remains of fences that had been hastily erected a few years ago, in a futile attempt to prevent the sand's relentless march. In places, roof tops were still visible, but only just. Southern Mauritania once consisted of 'stabilised' dunes, in parts conducive to cultivation. In many areas now, however, the dunes are reactivating, like skeletons rising from their graves, and are even threatening to cross the river into Senegal.
To my left, a couple of goat herders in indigo robes were walking their animals back to a friq pitched in the distance. At the end of the village, I came to the 'Poste Gendarmerie Nationale Tiguent': two concrete pillboxes, hardly five metres square, with turquoise venetian blinds that hung limply from gaping holes that were once windows. A couple of gendarmes greeted me. Thiam Youssef, the older of the two, was a tall and skinny Moor with unkempt hair, scraggy goatee, moustache and sunglasses. The other, a Negro named Diallo Adama Yero, never stopped grinning, despite the desolation. Both guards wore the usual green battledress, boots and berets. They were very friendly, and invited me to stay for the night. I accepted. As we talked, we were joined by one of the blue goat herders, and the conversation switched to a discussion of goats. Manga Suba, the shepherd, and his brother, owned about twenty animals. Like many Sahelian herders, Manga believed that goats are testimony to the wisdom of Allah for having created such a wonderful machine that it can transform waste paper and other refuse into good milk. The guards thought otherwise, saying that goats were a nuisance because they ate anything and everything, including Thiam Youssef's beret a few months back.
* * *
The desert rain fell stealthily that night as I walked sleeplessly around on the hot sand. The drops fell like a million tiny crystals, glinting in the starlight.
* * *
The morning air smelt fresh and sweet as it drifted gently about my nostrils. The sand was still wet. Shards of glistening water hung from my bicycle's frame. The sky was a rich ultramarine, reflected in a large shallow puddle which had formed on the road between the two huts, and from which a goat was drinking. The guards were hunched at the door of the other hut, joking bawdily as they ate from a large tin pot.
'The rain! The rain!' exclaimed Thiam Youssef as I appeared. 'Allah is indeed great, praise be to Allah!'
He said a prayer.
Within an hour, however, the desert was once more dry and dusty, and nothing remained in testimony to this most precious desert rain except the grins that remained fixed on the faces of my hosts. For them, the years of drought were almost at an end.
Breakfast consisted of half-cooked camel stew. The meat was sandy, tough and difficult to chew, but it made a welcome change from stale bread and peanuts. Under great protests from the guards, who wanted me to stay with them a few more days, I said goodbye and started off on my final day in the desert, not entirely oblivious to the irony of leaving it on the occasion of the first rain.
A few kilometres from Tiguent, the orange dunes cascaded onto and over the road. All the time the dunes were growing taller and larger. I stopped at the foot of one particularly high ridge to climb the 200 feet to the top. Its surface was unreal: perfect ripples gently stroked by the shadows of the wind that had formed and moved the dunes at its will. They were the most perfectly formed dunes I'd ever seen. A single thorn bush was growing half way up, drawing water from deep aquifers. At the top, sand was being blown horizontally off the edge dividing northeast from southwest, slowly pushing the desert further south still. The view was stunning. To the north and east, the dunes rolled on like clouds over valleys, endless. To the south, a belt of orange dust ringed their periphery, and beyond, over the dry watercourse, spread a grey expanse mottled with dull green shrubs.
The road wound on through more and more bushes, some growing in distinctly brown patches of clayish sand. Then a few old trees appeared, and the road crossed firmer hillocks and troughs of rock and soil. In the hollows on either side of the road the odd well stood guard over small patches of vegetation, patches that were to grow larger and greener as I sped on south. Then, at around midday, and some forty kilometres from the River Senegal, low tussocks of prickly-seed grass appeared. This khram-khram grass is generally taken by geographers to mark the end of the hyper-arid desert and the beginning of the true southern Sahel. I had come to the Sahara on a sudden impulse. I had come to the Sahara wanting to see a land of sand and camels and oases, but I was now leaving it having encountered the desert of the mind of which I had been so ignorant, and the desert of dust of which I was made and would in turn become. It was hard to believe that this part of my journey was nearly over, and I could not help but feel a sense of anticlimax. My home for the last two months was rolling gradually away under the wheels of my bicycle.
The first of several settlements appeared, either temporary or abandoned. Several were little more than a few oddly placed rocks with clusters of collapsed reed fences. Further on, I passed larger villages, with perhaps a hundred inhabitants in each. The dwellings were made of reed or matted woven grass, strung over wooden hoops that rose from the smooth sandy soil like bronze igloos. Some had branches placed on their roofs to secure the huts in high wind, and many had fences, not only around the few pitiful vegetable and sorghum plots, but around the huts themselves to keep away the pilfering goats. Stick-legged children with shorn scalps, long sad faces and protruding bellies walked about somewhat rigidly, wearing plastic sandals and torn and very dirty hessian smocks. In the 'gardens', fenced with the old sacks of aid-donated rice and flour, their mothers tended plots of vegetables, watering them lovingly and perhaps vainly from blackened kettles. Not only is their work hindered by the arid conditions and the hungry goats, but by plagues of rats and locusts, and the risk of freak, cruel rainstorms that can flatten and destroy crops within minutes.
Here and there a few donkeys stared indifferently at my passing from the shade of palm trees growing on 'stabilised' dunes. I saw no new saplings, though, and so once these remaining dusty trees finally collapse to the ground, and the remains of the settlements are blown away, there will no longer be any reminder of the greenery and the villages that once were - all will have been reclaimed by the desert. Already now, some trees were half-buried by the sand - trees of twenty or thirty metres buried up to their necks, with only a few branches protruding to remind one of the past. The Tagant region to the east has suffered similarly. Its name, ironically nowadays, means 'forest'. As I passed through the villages, no one would appear to cajole or chase or shout, no one to smile or to cry, to remind me that they were my brothers and sisters and that they too were still alive in this stupid and confusing world.
Further south still, the once sporadic tussocks of grass, clumps of acacia and palms began to get more frequent. I saw two donkeys trying, unsuccessfully, to mate under a clump of spiny trees, whilst a group of children laughed and prodded them with sticks. I was finally entering the valley lands of the River Senegal. But the river level over the past 30 years has sunk by over half, to the lowest since records began in 1904, and the river has not flooded for decades. Only within a few kilometres of the river was there really anything of consequence. Here, its waters were being used to irrigate plantations of sorghum, for a while thwarting the evil ambitions of Sahara. This is the land of the black sedentary tribes. Their homes, so typical of black Africa, are made of straw and stone, topped with thatched parasol roofs. It was the first time I'd seen 'proper' reed huts. I came finally to Rosso, capital of the Trarza region. The town is situated near the mouth of the River Senegal, and - along with other riverine towns such as Keur Massene and Kaedi - in the old colonial days supplied food to much of French West Africa. In the years following independence, however, Rosso and the Trarza region have suffered acutely from the droughts, and in consequence Mauritania now only produces about five percent of its own food requirements, the shortfall being imported from Senegal and elsewhere. Yet Rosso was a lively place, even in the midday heat. There were people everywhere, the majority of whom were black. Veils were a rare sight, and women sauntered about almost flirtingly. A lot of care seemed to have been lavished on appearances: an array of skilfully sculptured hairdos, heavy jewellery, brilliantly coloured scarves and body wraps, semiprecious stone necklaces, gold chains Land other jewellery.
An old Fulani sage walked past, followed by a cringing and downcast young man. The sage, all of seventy or eighty years old, had a knotted and wrinkled face, and a rubbery nose that he picked at with his fingers. Under his tattered oily turban and mushroom straw hat - a smaller version of the Riffian sombrero - he wore a broad but toothless grin, and a blue denim shirt. My remaining ouguiya bought a bottle of fizz and a bag of peanuts, leaving a few coins which I gave to a fat grinning dwarf who'd insisted on following me throughout the town singing: 'Toubab, Toubab, m'sieur le Touba-beu!' Having spent all my money, I made my way to the river. It was a brown sliver whose northern shore was festooned with stinking lines of drying fish. A few lazy boatmen wandered around, touting for business. Above it all, seagulls cried or wept. Standing on the clay bank, gazing out at the murky waters sifting slowly by, at last I allowed myself to be overcome by the most absurd realisation that I had actually crossed the Sahara on a bicycle!