Land of Sand
Optimism in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania
By Christopher Ditto
February 15, 2002
The tires on the battered 20-year-old Mercedes taxi struggled for traction as the driver rounded the corner, beginning the third breakneck lap around the block. The journey began with a five-minute drive in the wrong direction, and had devolved into a quarter-mile looping slalom course of donkey carts, small children, and goats.
A man in the backseat moved a piece of cloth from his turban, which was protecting his mouth and nose from airborne sand, and offered and gruff explanation in French. "I think this driver would like extra luck from his maribou today."
A maribou, in the local culture, is a traditional witch doctor. Just five years ago, good luck would have been obtained by circling a maribou's home three times on foot. But times are changing in Mauritania.
Situated on the Northwest Coast of Africa, the very ancient and little-known country is undergoing the most sudden transformation in its two thousand year history. Transportation, tourism, and oil are redefining Mauritania, changing it from a land of slavery and mysticism into a country of the twenty-first century.
Nestled between Morocco's disputed Western Sahara territory and Senegal, The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, as it is officially known, is a land of harsh extremes. The country is roughly the size of Texas and New Mexico combined but, in terms of climate, it is hotter, drier and less habitable.
A vast expanding sea of sand, which threatens the last remaining plots of arable land, covers half of the country. Terrain not buried under sand is mostly rocky, dry and desolate. It is a region where the sun has been known to heat rocks to over 200 degrees and water, when it can be found, sits deep below the surface. Two and a half million of the most resilient human beings on the planet call Mauritania home. Only Mongolia and Namibia have a lower population density.
Nouādhibou, Mauritania's second largest city with a population of around 70,000, has no reliable roads connecting it to any other major city. Driving north to Morocco requires driving over soft sand with a military escort. Driving south to the capital city of Nouakchott must be timed to coincide with low tide because part of the route requires driving along a beach.
In fact, the entire country has only 1,100 miles of paved roads. Just three long ribbons of pavement stretch from Nouakchott outward across the country. Just five years ago, long distance taxi drivers, like the one who circled the home of the maribou for good luck, would have needed entire camel trains to do the same job.
One of the three stretches of paved road is the Trans-Mauritanian Highway, which links Nouakchott to Nema, a small town 570 miles to the East. A plan to extend the Trans-Mauritanian Highway 250 miles southward from Nema to Bamako would link Nouakchott's "Friendship Port" to the capital of neighboring Mali, a landlocked country with five times Mauritania's population.
Today, most of Mali's maritime imports and exports go through the Cōte d'Ivoire port of Abidjan, a destination that involves an additional three days of sailing between Europe and West Africa. A shift to Mauritania would be a massive windfall. It would be like funneling all of the imports and exports for a region with the population of Illinois through a town with the population of Indianapolis. The change would bring enormous profits and, the Mauritanian government hopes, boost employment in Nouakchott.
Mohamed Lemgembodj, a successful entrepreneur whose business enterprises extend into trucking, is eagerly awaiting new routes for his vehicles. "The road to Mali is not ready for timed transportation or organized trade flow," said Lemgembodj, "but everyone hopes the road will be finished soon. It will make this city very busy."
Lemgembodj, who was born and raised in Mauritania, drives a Mercedes, wears European clothes and is one of a new breed of capitalists poised to take advantage of Mauritania's changing economy. Lemgembodj's airline, Compagnie Mauritanienne des Transport Aeriens, currently operates four large Ukrainian propeller planes and carries everything from fresh shellfish to passengers between six Mauritanian cities. The formation of his airline, also known as CMTA, was made possible by the Mauritanian government's privatization of air transportation in 1999.
"I would like to learn more about Americans and Europeans," said Lemgembodj. "I think maybe more people will come here to see the Sahara." He hopes that he will soon be able to add additional planes to his fleet and provide more services for tourists. But tourists also travel by road, spending money and helping to compensate for cropland destroyed by the ever-expanding desert.
The recent completion of one section of paved road, a thin, straight one-lane ribbon of pavement stretching for 300 miles across the open desert, now connects Nouakchott and Atār. The new road has reduced overland travel times from three days by four-wheel-drive (or ten by camel) to just seven hours. But the desert has fought back and government workers must work day and night to keep the road clear of shifting sand dunes.
Another new road, a six-mile section of pavement that traverses the Amogjar Pass, speeds up the journey between Atār and Chinguetti by 45 minutes and eliminates the need for a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Chinguetti is an ancient town, considered by Moslems to be the seventh holy city of Islam. Shifting sand has caused substantial damage to the revered city over the past two decades. "There used to be a gorge here that required a full day to cross," explained Lesyad, a local guide, as he drove his four-wheel-drive truck over a flat undeveloped strip of sand that divides Chinguetti into two distinct sections. "Now we can drive across in one minute. I am very sad that the sand has come because it has made many people move away." A group of a half dozen men worked hard to dig a trench across the sand, burying a thick electrical cable and allowing the two halves of the city to share the same electrical generator.
It is tempting to blame the steady desertification of Mauritania on overgrazing and firewood collection practices. Indeed, herds of cattle are responsible for removing great quantities of sand-stabilizing grass, and small hardy trees rarely last long near population centers where firewood and building materials are often scarce. But local legends, and more recently geological and archaeological evidence, point to a process of desertification that has continued for at least five centuries.
Ancient rock paintings in caves at the top of the Amogjar Pass near Chinguetti depict giraffes, antelope, and cattle. Today, the area is completely devoid of trees and the ground is covered with fist size rocks. The place looks remarkably similar to photos of the surface of Mars taken by the NASA Pathfinder mission.
But even with the introduction of roads, many of the ancient traditions of desert travel have been retained. Drivers who recognize each other will often stop, reverse until their cars are side by side, and greet each other traditionally. The greeting plays out as follows:
"Peace be with you," one driver says in Arabic.
"With you be peace," the other responds.
"On you no evil."
"How are you?"
"No evil, thank God."
The preset dialog continues for twenty or so exchanges, each man speaking rapidly since each can usually anticipate what will come next. A few short personal phrases are inserted into the conversation before it reaches its conclusion. While fifty years ago the personal phrases might have centered on water and where it could be found, today drivers are more likely to discuss wind or road conditions. Each conversation invariably concludes with:
"May you not be thirsty."
"On you no evil."
The drivers move their heads back into their cars and continue their journeys. On a given day between Atār and Nouakchott, a taxi driver may recognize the drivers of a dozen or more taxis, about one every half hour, each time blocking the highway to complete the required greeting.
But in the country's capital city of Nouakchott, ancient traditions are overwhelmed by modernization. "Our soccer team is no good," a policeman explained from the top row of bleachers in Nouakchott's National Stadium. "The national sport of Mauritania is commerce." He pointed toward the center of the city where construction is now the most salient feature of the landscape.
In looking out at Nouakchott's urban sprawl from the top edge of the stadium, it is easy to forget how new the city is. Until 1958, Nouakchott did not exist.
When French West Africa was divided into seven countries in the late 1950's, Mauritania was left without an administrative center. Nouakchott, which means 'place of the winds', was chosen as the location of the new capital because of its distance from desert, its climate, and the presence of a nearby road leading to Senegal. The city was built from scratch and designed with wide streets that would comfortably accommodate a population of 200,000.
But in the last forty years, Nouakchott's population has swelled to over 700,000, almost a third of the country's population. The city is now a bustling metropolis with occasionally modern buildings, travel agencies, and even a large multi-story daily market.
Internet Cafes, known locally as cyber-thes (literally cyber-teas), have popped up along the city's busiest streets and are easy to spot as their large signs compete for both locals and the growing pool of mostly French tourists. Pizza parlors like the modern air-conditioned Pizza Lina and hamburger joints like Ali Baba and Welcome Burger are replacing traditional restaurants.
Both tourism and capitalism have surged in the last ten years as Mauritania has turned increasingly westward for political guidance. Democracy, though still a far cry from European and American standards, is making progress through elections and the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1992. After publicly supporting Iraq during the Gulf War, the Mauritanian government changed its stance in 1995, expelling the Iraqi ambassador and, for the first time, officially recognizing Israel. Israel now has an embassy in Nouakchott.
But tourism, transport and burgeoning capitalism will only take the country so far. Mauritania's economy, even by African standards, is poor and it relies heavily on iron ore deposits in the north, and the abundance of fish off of its coast. The two resources constitute 90% of Mauritania's current export earnings. Oil, it is hoped, will change everything.
Eni-Agip, an Italian oil and natural gas company, is leading a group that is currently conducting a $100 million exploratory drilling program off of the Mauritanian coast. In May 2001, the group confirmed the presence of oil in the region for the first time, but the volume of oil, and the feasibility of removing it, is currently under wraps. Australian ROC Oil, which owns a 2.4 to 2.7 percent interest in three of Mauritania's eight government-defined offshore oil-drilling blocks, predicts that results will start coming out in June of this year.
"Finding oil is the key to our modernization," said Achmed, an elderly man who spoke between bites of tough bread on a truck ride from Nema to the Mali border in the southeastern corner of Mauritania. Reports of coastal oil exploration have given hope to many who, like Achmed, wish to see their country modernize and end its reliance on foreign aid.
"When oil comes," Achmed continued optimistically, "this road will be paved and trucks can go to Mali all year." Achmed was traveling on a road that was barely passable, even in a four-wheel drive vehicle, because of heavy mud brought on by the seasonal rains that affect Mauritania's southern border region.
Also found in the southern border region is a tradition that most Western countries have chosen to overlook. As recently as 1994, Amnesty International estimated that 90,000 Mauritanians still lived as property of their masters, but an accurate number is difficult to determine. Many workers choose to work without wages, unaware or uninterested in alternatives, many others, according to a number of anti-slavery groups, have no choice.
According to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization active in the anti-slavery movement, the practice of slavery has been banned four times this century in Mauritania, most recently in 1981. The wording of the 1981 ban provided for compensation to be given to slave owners but since then, according to the AFSC, no money has been given to slave owners and the ban has not been enforced.
The Mauritanian government has repeatedly denied that slavery still exists, but many of those who have fled Mauritania strongly disagree. According to Bakary Tandia, who left Mauritania in 1992, "classic chattel slavery" is still practiced. "In Mauritania, slaves don't have rights and they are not considered human beings," said Tandia. "They can be rented out, given as wedding gifts, and they can't act as witnesses in court." Tandia is now president of the New York-based Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Mauritania.
Slavery is especially prevalent in rural areas, especially in the deep desert and away from the cities. Typically, lighter-skinned Bidan Moors of Arab and Berber decent, maintain control over darker skinned Haratin Moors, who tend to the farms and household chores.
"The main victims of slavery are women," said Tandia, who was born with darker skin. "The person who owns the woman, owns the children. It makes the women more valuable than the men." Women who want to escape, explained Tandia, must often choose between staying with their children or leaving them behind when the make the journey to Senegal or Mali to escape.
IN REMOTE AREAS LITTLE HAS CHANGED
Despite the changes taking place in regions connected by paved roads, more remote areas, where slavery is most common, surprisingly little has changed in the last several centuries. Camel trains still set out across the desert, returning months later from Northern Mali with salt that has been mined from the earth by hand. Nomads still live in temporary shelters, hundreds of miles from roads, tending herds of goats and sheep.
The chance to see the remote desert and the people who still live in it that attracts adventurous travelers to Mauritania but without the roads the journey is difficult.
"The idea of visiting the desert just got under my skin," said Marion Meresse, a French business consultant from Paris who works for Accenture. "I dreamed of walking into the Sahara for ten years. I still can't believe that I am finally here." Meresse was drinking traditional mint tea at an austere desert camp in the Sahara, thirty miles east of Ouādane.
Strong mint tea, a mixture of green Chinese tea, copious amounts of sugar, and mint, is the de facto national beverage of Mauritania. The tradition involved in making the tea, even under the most inhospitable conditions, is far more complex and than the ingredients. The tea is served to each person in shot glass sized cups three times and drinking anything less than all three is considered impolite.
"The first glass is bitter like death," said Lesyad, a local guide. "The second glass is sweet, like life. But the third glass, the third glass is just right, like love." Laysad smiled showing his tea-stained teeth.
Lesyad used to trade animals but now makes a living driving tourists into the desert in his used four-wheel-drive Toyota truck. The changes in Mauritania, he says, have brought him a better life.
He let out a rare chuckle before drinking his third glass of tea and collecting the empty cups. He needed to hurry so that he could cover the windshield of his truck with cardboard, a measure that would protect it from the sand carried by the steadily increasing wind.
"If the windshield is damaged, I will need to wait for a replacement," Lesyad explained, "and that will mean no work for me."
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