28 March 2014
On the morning of my sisters’ birthday, I meet a couple from Bretagne, named Simon and Valerie. She works as an independent fashion designer, and he works on the local water quality authority. Their great passion, however, is west-African music. Their main reason for coming to this part of the world is to interview and record West-African artists and others in the music industry. They came down from France not long ago, hitching a ride with a Mauritanian man who took them on a 2,300 kilometer, 48-hour ride while only stopping for petrol and food – almost falling asleep while driving from time to time! – to Nouadhibou. Now they are looking for an American, who supposedly lives in Nouakchott and records local artists. It sounds interesting, so when they ask me to come along, I gladly accept. Our first stop is at the city’s largest market, in the poor Cinquième Quartier. Especially after the calm of the markets in desert towns such as Atar, this one is overwhelming. It’s full of people, stalls with second hand clothing, electronics, cobblers, flies, and fish stalls. So many fish stalls, in fact, that the ground is covered in a layer – up to ten centimeters thick in some places – of fish scales! The smell is unbelievable, and there’s very little attractive about this place. The locals’ surprised stares at seeing three white people confirm that Nouakchott’s few tourists usually don’t make it here, and I can see why. We have a mission, though, and that’s to find the American recording guy. Simon and Valerie ask around, and are directed towards his shop. Alas, apparently he has moved to another part of town, and nobody knows where exactly. Disappointed, we look for some place to eat. We decide to skip the stalls in the market, dirty as they look, and end up at a tiny restaurant. It is literally a hole in the wall; a room in a larger building, with the façade seemingly removed. Inside are a few guests, and a family simultaneously watching TV and preparing food on a stove connected to a gas canister. One of the women starts breastfeeding a child in plain sight, while preparing our food. This would be unimaginable among the Arab-cultured Bidan and Haratin (white and black Moors), but Mauritania’s coast is home to many black Africans – often fishermen – from southern Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia. They are still Muslims, but their sub-Saharan culture is much less strict than the Moors, and often a lot noisier, too. All in all, it’s a strange setting for a restaurant, but it’s definitely no tourist trap. I wasn’t really sure what I was ordering, and now that it’s on my plate, I’m still not sure what it is. It contains rice, some kind of fish, and a reddish sauce. The taste is unrefined, but really good.
After our lunch, Simon and Valerie want to ask around for the American in another part of town. I want to join them, but my stomach isn’t feeling very good. I weigh my chances, and decide to play it safe and take a taxi back to the hotel. A few minutes into the taxi ride, I realize that whatever was in that food, it’s not agreeing with my digestive system at all. I ask the taxi driver how much longer it is to the hotel; about 10 minutes, he says. 2 minutes later, I realize that I don’t have 8 minutes; I need a toilet now! I ask the driver to take me to a restaurant with a toilet – the one we just visited didn’t have one – but he tells me that we’re in a residential neighbourhood, and none of the restaurants have toilets. The only option he can think of is a public shower, around the corner; it’s not meant to be used as toilet, but the showers are basically squat toilets with a shower head above them. I give him the first banknote that I can find – about 20 times the price of the ride, but I can’t wait for the change – and run to the public shower building…. from which I arrive some time later, equal parts relieved and embarrassed, giving the caretaker a big tip…
Back at the hotel, I have a Skype conversation with my sisters to congratulate them on their birthday. Later, I run into Simon and Valerie again. They met a Frenchman who lives here, and who knows where to find the American. I decide to join them again, and wait for the Frenchman to arrive. He’s hard to miss; driving the only Volvo station wagon I’ve seen anywhere in Africa, in white, with a missing rear window, an orange flashlight on the roof, and hiphop and reggae bouncing from the speakers. A heavily-built man with dreadlocks steps out, and introduces himself as Marco – or Marco van Basten, as he keeps calling himself to his own amusement. Apparently he sells audio systems – a big ad for them is stickered to his Volvo, as if it wasn’t conspicuous enough already – and he’s connected to the local hiphop scene. He’ll take us to the American, but first he wants to show us Nouakchott’s fishing port. I’ve read about it, and it sounds fascinating, so I gladly agree. On the way there, we pass by his house, from which he wants to get something. It’s on the other side of the road, and he steers the car across the road, right in front of an oncoming truck! Valerie, Simon and I are all shocked, but he laughs it off; ‘relax, that’s how everybody drives around here!’. After yesterday’s ganja loving taxi driver, I kind of see what he means, but my heart is still pounding. Once we get to the beach – there is no real port, just an endless stretch of beach where the fishing boats are brought ashore – I see what the appeal is. Resting on the beach are hundreds of pirogues – wooden boats, resembling giant canoes – with the most psychedelic paint jobs. Bright colours, circles, lines and waves, flags, religious motifs, favourite football clubs, messages of gratitude, political slogans… everything imaginable is painted on them. The cold waters of the Atlantic off the Mauritanian coast contain some of the largest stocks of fish in the world, and a significant part of the Mauritanian population makes a living from it. They go out to sea at night, in these wooden boats, powered by an old outboard motor, hoping to return in the afternoon with the boat filled to the rim with sardines, herring, or other fish – or hoping at least to return at all. Unfortunately, we arrive at the end of the afternoon, and today’s catch has already been brought in, so there’s not much activity. We do speak to one of the men – a boy, really; I think he’s maybe 16 or 17 – working on such a boat. He’s from Liberia, and he came here to join his brother, who fled Liberia’s civil war a decade earlier. In general, I’ve been surprised to learn how much West Africans move from country to country; I had imagined that the poverty would limit people’s horizon, but it’s quite the opposite. This young Liberian has seen more than I probably ever will, and is struggling to make a living doing a dangerous job in a foreign land, but he doesn’t let that get him down. ‘A lot of people turn to crime, but I consider myself to be strong’, he says; ‘if I can set my mind to it, I can achieve anything’.
After chatting with him some more, and admiring the sun sinking into the Atlantic, we head back into town. The search for the American continues, and so does Marco’s curious driving style. Actually, that’s not quite correct; it becomes worse and worse. We’re driving well above the speed limit. When there’s a junction, Marco just honks the horns and drives through, not slowing down at all. When there’re slower cars in our lane, he moves to the opposite lane. When there’s oncoming traffic in the opposite lane, he continues at the same speed on the sidewalk, honking his horn to make the pedestrians run out of his way. Before long, a thought occurs to me: if we keep going like this, we’re either going to kill a pedestrian, or get ourselves killed – and dying today would be a good way to ruin my sisters’ birthday forever. Trying to talk some sense into Marco, I ask him angrily: ‘can we please not kill anyone?’, not knowing what a mistake that is. ‘I NEVER KILLED ANYBODY!!!’, he shouts, fully turning around to face me for at least five seconds, not paying any attention to the road at all. Okay, so the confrontational approach doesn’t work on this guy… At the next junction, Marco cuts the corner by driving over the pavement, making three police officers jump out of the way to save their lives. Finally, this makes him stop; he gets out of the car and walks over to the Gendarmes. Simon, Valerie and I look at each other in shock. Valerie explains that the plastic bottle of water he’s been drinking from, doesn’t contain water. Alcohol is prohibited in Mauritania, but colourless rice wine in a water bottle doesn’t raise suspicions easily; now, it has allowed him to get drunk. Even though it leaves us stranded in a dodgy part of the city, I’m glad that Marco will finally have to take responsibility for his behaviour, having nearly run over the policemen… or so I think. I don’t know if he paid them, or said he was friends with the president, or performed some local kind of magic – but to my surprise and horror, Marco makes it back to the car within a minute, and prepares to continue his way. I’m about to leave the car and make my way out of this part of town on foot, when Valerie decides to try a more gentle, less confrontational approach to calm Marco’s driving. ‘I’m not feeling so well, could you please drive a bit slower?’. Marco agrees grumpily, and for the rest of the evening, he drives like a painfully slow grandmother – and I love it. Thank you Valerie!
A few minutes and less than a city block later, we reach our destination. Marco climbs the stairs to the side of the building and softly calls out to whomever is behind the door. Nothing happens. He calls again, and again. After a long wait, a woman opens the door. He tells her that he’s friends with such-and-such, but he gets a firm ‘non’. Some pleading to let us in follows, but the woman keeps refusing, and shuts the door in his face. Simon, Valerie and I look at each other, puzzled. When he rejoins us, Marco explains that this building is a sort of shelter for people who are critical of the government, or have some other reason to fear the authorities. There has been a raid recently, in which some of the inhabitants have been arrested; since then, the people running the building have become scared and try to stay under the radar, which includes a stricter entrance policy. Why we would need to enter such a place, I’m not sure; maybe Marco expected the American to be here, or to find someone who knows where to find him. Just as we are about to walk away, a side door opens, and a dreadlocked man comes out. Marco spots an opportunity, and approaches his fellow Rastafari – he turns out to be from Ghana – joyfully. After some chatter, and lots of hugs and ‘one love!’ exclamations, the Ghanaian Rastafari opens the side doors for us, and we walk in. We find ourselves in a complex of two or three buildings around a courtyard, with only bare walls, bare floors, a few plastic chairs and one or two lightbulbs emitting cold, almost blue light. Simon and Marco chat with one of the inhabitants in French. I don’t understand much of what they’re saying. After a while, a few black men walk by, and Simon says: ‘can you believe that these people are slaves?!?’. Mauritania’s slavery problem was, and to some (too large) extent still is, so ingrained in the society, that no chains or fences are needed to keep slaves tied to a master family, so it’s difficult to see at a glance who is or isn’t free. I’m not sure if Simon means that they used to be enslaved and now fled here, or if they still are in a situation of slavery; either way, my throat constricts and I haven’t a clue what to say. I’m still stunned by the time we leave the building, a few minutes later – thankfully without running into the woman that refused us earlier.
Marco hasn’t been able to find out where the American is, but he says he knows some talented musicians who live right around the corner. It’s getting quite late, but Simon and Valerie seem eager to hear them, so we agree to pay them a visit. We meet them in a side room of the house in which one of the musicians live; his mother and sister bring us delicious food (that my stomach can handle!). A small audience of nephews and nieces gathers, at least as excited to have four European guests as to hear the musicians play. They are two young guys playing guitar, with both Western and Mauritanian influences, and they’re called Mauritanides. Their songs about Africa and freedom sound wonderful. After a while, Marco cuts in, and sings a wild, passionate and rhythmic song to the Mauritanides’ guitars, in a local language… I’m impressed, and just about to see Marco in a slightly more favourable light, until one of the nephews tells me that he’s not singing in any local language; he’s just making words up, apparently still drunk out of his mind. The Mauritanides don’t seem to be amused, but they’re too polite to tell him to shut up. Thankfully, after a while, Marco falls asleep, and Valerie, Simon and I once again enjoy the wonderful music. Some time later, when Marco wakes up, we decide to go back to the auberge. We thank the Mauritanides profoundly for their music and their hospitality. Marco is not quite sober yet, but at least a lot less drunk than before, and his driving is tolerable. That’s not the case for his navigation; he’s sure that he knows the way back by heart, and we’re well into the desert and on our way to Senegal before he admits that he got it wrong. On the actual way back, he manages to completely overlook an aggressive speed bump – despite me shouting out to warn him – and the poor old Volvo comes off the ground with all four wheels, giving all of its occupants a big bump on our heads from hitting the ceiling (there are, of course, no working seatbelts). Thankfully the streets are deserted by now. Once we finally reach Auberge Sahara, I am exhausted from this crazy, crazy night. ‘Thank you for not crashing’, is the only way I can think of to say goodbye to Marco. Valerie, Simon and I look at each other, and all share the same feeling: thank goodness we’re still alive!