Mauritania is a desert. There is little plant or animal life except in the south near the Senegal River where most of the population live. Berbers on camels dominated the indigenous black population in the 3rd century AD and established trade with the Ghana Empire whose capital Kumbi Salah was located in the southeast corner of the country. In the 11th century the Almoravids further extended the domination of the Berbers over the blacks by razing Kumbi Salah but they were later by the Arabs who replaced them as the governing elite in the 17th century. Today’s Moors are the descendants of this Arab elite and of the Berber population who adopted Hassaniya (an Arabic dialect), both of which having a tradition of dominance over blacks.
Mauritania became a French protectorate in 1903 and French was the official language until independence in 1960. Democracy was attempted and elections were held in ’61, ’66, ’71 and ’76 but the country’s difficulty in handling the armed conflict with the Polisario Front resisting the take over of part of Western Sahara provided the occasion for a military coup in ’78. Government took a turn towards Islamic fundamentalism and another coup in 1994, installed Colonel Ould Taya as President. In 1989 the traditional tension between the dominant Moors and the subservient blacks, both indigenous and of Senegalese origin, came to a head and led to racial atrocities on both sides of the border with Senegal. More than a hundred thousand blacks had to flee Mauritania while an equal number of moors fled Senegal. The border was closed. Pro forma elections held in ‘92 and ’96 confirmed Ould Taya’s presidency.
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At Guerguarat in Morocco I left the Huraults who needed my seat for the guide they had hired and joined a British group travelling in a five ton Bedford truck. They did not hire a guide for they had decided to join a group a Germans ferrying trucks to Gambia and to rely on GPS devices (global positioning system), to find the way across the desert to Nouakchott.
After innumerable police checks and lengthy border formalities, we finally we got to Nouâdhibou late in the afternoon and found a guarded camping ground for our first night in Mauritania.
Here are the seven of us just before moving out after a hearty breakfast : Lee Thomas & Ian Townsend in front and in the back, Steve Hibbert (owner of the truck), Peter Faulstroh, Emma Hibbert, Abdalaii (the campsite manager), myself and Nicky Dabbs.
This endless train bringing iron ore from Zouérat 700 kms away was a bizarre sight in the middle of nowhere as it thundered by, raising a cloud of dust on its way to the port of Nouâdhibou.
I was delighted by the prospect of renewing the experience of a long trip through the trackless desert which I had enjoyed when visiting remote drilling sites in the Algerian Sahara more than 30 years earlier.
On the left, approaching the rig that drilled the discovery well at Nezla shortly before the oil gushed there in 1965 and on the right, the crew's camp seen from the top of the rig.
Vast unlimited expanses have always fascinated me. The open sea, the empty desert and the frozen whiteness of the far arctic share a beauty devoid of distractions akin to the emptiness of meditation. The contemplation of vast empty spaces is hypnotic and can bring on a state of trance where the conscious and unconscious meet.
A GPS is a remarkable instrument. It costs only a couple of hundred dollars, it's no larger than a cellular phone yet it can tell you exactly where you are on the surface of the earth with a precision of 10 meters. It can give you the compass bearing and distance to the next point you wish to reach but unfortunately it cannot tell you if the sand is firm or soft nor weather the way is clear or blocked by a string of dunes.
The trip from Nouâdhibou to Nouakchott can be done easily in a day a half with a good guide who knows the latest shifting of the sands and the best route through the desert. We got through all right with the GPS but it took us five days and four bivouacs to do it.
The photo shows our first bivouac at Baie du Lévrier at only 55 km from Nouâdhibou. The Germans were ferrying three trucks, a bus, a Peugeot station wagon and a four-wheel-drive Mercedes. You can glimpse the green top of our truck behind them.
Speeding cross-country in the desert its great when the sand is firmly packed but in many places, more recent accumulations are still soft and almost impassable. The multi-geared four-wheel-drive Bedford had power to spare but its weight made it bog down frequently.
The four-wheel-drive Mercedes had the least difficulty of the 7 vehicles in our convoy, as a matter of fact it never got stuck. The next best was the Peugeot followed by the three trucks. The bus and the Bedford really had a hard time.
Sand dunes like this one are constantly shifting from one place to another so it is difficult to tell where the sand is hard and where it is not.
This trip was rewarding for me not only because I love the desert but also because it gave me the opportunity to observe how role playing can become stereotyped between members of a small group isolated from external influences.
A sand storm.
In this case, the group had been travelling for several weeks in France, Spain and Morocco before getting here. It was self-sufficient, it had tents to camp out and cooked its own food. It was organized like a scout troop with a Head Scout which happened to be Steve's wife Emma who edicted a set of rules such as washing our hands with Dettol disinfectant before every meal, not eating ice cream to avoid poisoning etc...
A few hours later in the same sand storm. From time to time some of the trucks ahead of us could barely be seen through the sand.
Steve did not interfere with the Head Scout role his wife had adopted, he appeared not to see it. Nicky actively supported it and was verbally gratified several times a day for doing so. Her role of transmitting the Head Scout's wishes gave her a degree of authority she probably would never have achieved by herself.
Our second bivouac was only 80 kms from the first one. According to our longitude and latitude we were supposed to be close to a place called Bir el Gareb but I didn't see anything that looked like a well (Bir means well).
The two groups used the the same campsite but each one cooked its own food and kept pretty much to itself except for Peter, who spoke German and owned the GPS. He spent most of his time driving in the Mercedes with Klaus who also had a GPS. Together, they decided upon the route to be followed. That distance from the scout group probably saved him from role playing.
Ian and Lee, the bottom men on the totem pole, grudgingly accepted the role that had been thrust upon them and chose to obey rather than contest the Head Scout's orders even when they did not make sense such as cleaning the sand out of the lockers during a sand storm.
More empty space.
French being my mother tongue, the Head Scout asked me to translate for her a couple of times when dealing with the local authorities but every time she pushed me aside, took over and finished the job herself even though she did not really understand what the officials were saying. I gathered that I had been attributed a low position on the totem pole and decided to keep my distance to avoid being stuck with the role I was being asked to play.
And more sand traps.
I think that role-playing is normal. We all do it in everyday life but we have several roles to play. All of us can be dominant or submissive, serious or buffoon, according to the circumstances. As we switch between these roles and many others during the day, we don't realize that we are role-playing. Precisely because we're not stuck with a single role.
I think there is a multitude inside each one of us and that each one of that multitude deserves to be heard. Each one deserves to play his "role" on the stage of life. Roles are played for the benefit of the audience around us who generally can accept and understand only one of our roles at a time. Whether the environment we build around us is homogeneously narrow or pluralist and polychrome makes all the difference in the world on the survival of our personal multitude.
Our third bivouac was somewhere south of place called Chami. We had traveled 136 km that day.
This trip through the desert in the microcosm of a small isolated group gave me the occasion to see once again how social pressures limit the expression of the multitude inside of us. I am sure that Emma, Nicky, Ian and Lee have more roles at their disposal than those they chose to exploit or accept during this trip.
This is true for all of us, wherever we are, social pressures force us to limit the number of roles we choose to play with the unfortunate result that parts of our reality are never expressed.>
Our German friends had a had the brilliant idea to stock-up on beer and wine and invited us to enjoy it. We gratefully accepted their largesse and pooled our resources to share a meal together (the only one in 5 days).
More empty space.
The wonderful thing about emptiness is that it presents no limitations to the free rambling of ideas, all of them becoming permissible as long as they are not taken seriously as "Truths".
Finally we reached the Atlantic coast. The crossing of the desert was almost over and soon, outside influences might bring variety to the stereotyped stage play the group had gotten itself into.
The original plan had been to bypass Nouâmghâr to avoid paying the fees of the Banc d'Argouin National Park. The intention was to continue south past Nouâmghâr's latitude before turning west towards the coast but we were stopped by an east-west string of dunes that forced us to come this way.
The Germans paid up without a word but our Head Scout became quite upset and started berating the Mauritanian officials. Fortunately her husband calmed her down before we got into trouble. We all paid up and were allowed to continue towards Nouakchott.
Here is a last shot of the group by the seashore on the way to Nouakchott where we arrived at 4:00 pm. I was grateful for the ride but happy to be on my own again. I went to the local youth hostel and they went to a camping ground.
There is a large market near the center and the great Saudi Mosque is an attractive building. Unfortunately the National Museum to which is reputed worth seeing was closed when I was there. I did find a cybercafe and spent a whole afternoon catching up on my e-mail correspondence. The city was created less than 40 years ago so it is not surprising that there is not more to see here. Since its creation, desertification has reached the suburbs and hordes of nomads have been forced to move into the city's slums by droughts.
These black Mauritanian money changers invited me to share their meal of fish and rice as I was waiting for the border to open during the lunch break.
The Mauritanian border office finally opened. After stamping my passport, a uniformed official brought me to small room where he asked me what I had for him. Remembering an anecdote I had read somewhere, I immediately grabbed his hand and shook it saying to all I had to give him was a heartfelt handshake. He was so flabbergasted that I had time to scoot out of that room and move on towards the ferry to Senegal before he could react. I was lucky once again and he did not come after me. You may try that sometime, but don't blame me if it doesn't work, you might not be as lucky is I am.