Of women, bandits and a fake tan

23 & 24 March 2014
Ouadane to Atar

Chez Zaida is run, ofcourse, by Zaida. She’s a veritable powerhouse of a woman; black, fairly muscular, dressed somewhat in between Western and traditional styles, and giving her almost all-male staff orders in a calm but extremely authoritative way; there’s no doubting who’s boss here. Not that Mauritanian women are generally the stereotypical meek lambs; despite, or perhaps because of, the Arab culture and Islam placing much of the power with men, many women here have a whole lot of attitude. Something that might also be a factor is that in many Berber cultures of North Africa, of which there are still traces present in the Moorish culture, women have much more rights and power than in the Arab culture. Among the Tuareg people, for instance, it’s the women that own the property, not the men. Still, life is often not easy for women here, since whether the law (traditional or national) is upheld, and in which way, is mostly up to the mood of the local elders and judges.


Zaida seems to be doing quite well for herself though. She seems well educated and has travelled to Europe, but she came back to Ouadane to open her auberge. At the moment, it’s the only auberge in town, and business is good. I’m the only tourist here, but most of the huts surrounding the central square of the compound are occupied. There’re a couple of rich Moors from Nouakchott, the capital; they came here with their tricked-out 4×4’s to experience the desert from which their family came, and perhaps at the same time show off to the people who didn’t move to the capital during the droughts of the 70’s and 80’s. They invite me to lounge in their hut and have a couple of cups of tea, which I do, while admiring the finely decorated silver pipes with which they smoke their ground tobacco; it seems to be a typical Moorish thing.


Other guests at the Auberge are Mauritanians who work for the exploration mission that Total, the French oil company, is doing in El Djouff. Starting about 60 kilometers East of Ouadane and stretching all the way into Northern Mali, El Djouff is Mauritania’s “empty quarter”: a part of the Sahara, about the size of Germany, without any roads, tracks, oases, villages, or other permanent human activity. It consists of salt pans and dunes stretching up to a hundred kilometers in length, shaped by the constant North-Eastern wind. There’s no reason for people to be there, as there’s not enough vegetation or water for goats or even camels. The camel caravans that made towns such as Chinguetti and Ouadane famous avoided El Djouff, making a detour of hundreds of kilometers just to avoid this barren land.


The only people occasionally passing through it are drugs smugglers with specially equipped 4×4’s and secret supply stashes hidden in the sand, for whom the absence of human activity means they can get a thousand kilometers closer to Europe with hardly any chance of running into law enforcement. The drugs are produced by cartels in South America, and then shipped to unstable West-African countries just across the Atlantic, such as Guinee-Bissau. From there, local criminals, sometimes assisted by local warlords or terrorist organizations, take the drugs to North Africa, to be shipped across the Mediterranean. The overall effect this has on the El Djouff region is negligible though. That might not be the case if Total’s exploration mission proves successful. So far, they’ve set up a supply camp near Ouadane, because that’s as far East as the dirt road goes; from here on out, special off-road vehicles take the equipment that’s necessary for the exploration another 400 kilometers into the desert. Apparently, there’s a massive security team from the Mauritanian army to ensure the safety of the Total people and their equipment. Officially they’re drilling for oil and gas, but it’s whispered that they’re also hoping to find minerals such as uranium. Whatever the case, if there proves to be a financially viable deposit of something in the ground, it would certainly mean the construction of roads and a town in the middle of El Djouff. The conservationist in me would be sad to see one of the last great wildernesses become scarred by human activity. A local Total worker at the Auberge, though, points out that the local population desperately needs the employment opportunities that would come along with it.


After relaxing a bit to recuperate from almost 5 days of walking in the desert, I explore Ouadane’s Ville Nouvelle. The village is perched on the flank of a sandstone mountain, overlooking the oasis. There’s little to see in the village; most houses are constructed of natural stone covered with mud, and there’s a mosque with somewhat creative architecture. It’s still incredibly hot outside though, and most people are taking a nap in the shadow of their houses; the streets are all but deserted. I pass by a traditional Mauritanian shop, where two teenagers are playing a Playstation 1 game; it’s the only sound disturbing the afternoon’s silence. Standing on the edge of the plateau, I can see the desert stretching away into the distance, towards El Djouff. Through Zaida, I arrange for a guide to take me to the Vieille Ville (Old Town) of Ouadane in the early evening. To reach the old town, I first pass through the oasis that’s Ouadane’s raison d’etre. It’s not as dense and full of green as the ones I encountered in Morocco; like the Tanouchert oasis I encountered during the camel trek, most of it is just sandy ground, with patches of trees and herbs surrounded by walls or palm-leaf fences here and there. It’s quite a maze, but after a while I find the guide at the entrance of the old town. Like Chinguetti, Ouadane was an important caravan stop and center of Islamic learning. It’s not nearly as well preserved as Chinguetti (none of the old houses are in a habitable state, although apparently a few people did live here until about 10 or 20 years ago), but it’s situated much more prettily. Since the houses are all made from natural stone, the whole town seems to blend into the side of the mountain, and it’s only up close that you can see what everything is. Ouadane was a Ksar, or fortified town, so to enter we have to pass a gate in the wall. The alleys are narrow and winding, and the water well – the most important feature of an oasis town – is only accessible through an ingenious system: not only did the alley leading up to the well have its own guard posts and secret trap doors, the walls on either side of the alley had holes to allow additional guards to defend the well. Apparently nomadic tribes tried to take over the town from time to time, making such defenses necessary.


The old mosque is quite impressive; it has a large central square with arches to provide shade without interrupting any breeze; after the brutal heat of this afternoon, I can see why it’s a desirable feature. The guide speaks only French, but halfway through the tour, a teenage kid in a blue T-shirt starts following us around, not speaking at first. After making eye contact a couple of times, he starts to speak to me in English. Whenever the guide isn’t speaking to explain something, the kid and I talk about music (he likes rock and traditional Moorish music), politics (he’s a big fan of the current president, who he claims improved security massively; it’s something many Mauritanians seem genuinely grateful for), and the old town (whenever my French is not enough to understand the guide, he’s my translator). The guide seems to feel a bit overshadowed, though, because after some time, he shoos the boy away. That’s a bummer, because now I don’t quite understand exactly why the people of Ouadane started incorporating decorative triangles and circles into the facades of their buildings.


We pass by a house with traditional domed mud-roofs, which were constructed when the owner couldn’t afford the wood needed for a flat roof. On the side of the road leading down to the oasis, we see a group of men sitting in a circle. As we get closer, it turns out they’re playing Desert Checkers. It’s the same as regular checkers (which is massively popular in North Africa, by the way), except the board is created by digging little holes in the sand, and the white pieces are made of little sticks. And the black pieces? They’re made of dried-out camel poop, of course!


In the evening, I have dinner with Zaida. The food – some kind of ground meat with vegetables – tastes absolutely fantastic after 5 days of desert travelers’ food, although at first the meat is too raw, and Zaida lets the chef know in no uncertain terms that that’s unacceptable. We talk about Mauritania, her choice to live here after having spent some time in Europe, and current developments. She books me a seat on the taxi leaving for Atar tomorrow morning, and then it’s time for me to sleep – on a proper mattress!


The bush taxi to Atar could arrive ‘from 5 in the morning, maybe later’; having become familiar with the pace of life in Mauritania, I get out of bed at 5:30, pack my stuff, and have breakfast. At 7:30 in the morning, the taxi rolls up to the gate of Chez Zaida; I had expected a Mercedes, but it turns out to be a taxi brousse (a Toyota Hilux, as usual). We pick up some more people in Ouadane, and then make a small detour to a minuscule village on the edge of the plateau to pick up an old wrinkly man, with whom I end up sharing my seat next to the driver. I’m amused by a thorny tree that has circle of branches reaching the ground, in a circle about 1 meter away from the trunk; with the addition of a little door, it forms the perfect natural goat shelter!


With our last passenger on board, the pickup truck proceeds to drive almost straight up the wall of the plateau; it’s now obvious why the taxi can’t be one of the ubiquitous Mercedes sedans. The top of the plateau looks like a Martian landscape, with rocks ranging from rusty red to deep purple. Some patches of pale lime coloured grass and some thorny trees separate the purple rocks from the blue horizon; in the distance, we sometimes see other mountains, each with a similar plateau on top. It’s a stunning landscape, and I’d love to have the time to explore some of these plateaus in more detail. After an hour and a half, we make a little sanitary stop. There’s nothing in sight to hide behind, so men and women alike just squat down right next to the car, lift up their traditional clothes a bit, and do their business. I feel a bit awkward to observe this scene, but as there’s nothing to see apart from a couple of growing wet spots on the ground, everyone’s dignity remains intact. After two hours or so, we reach the dirt road between Atar and Chinguetti, and the pace picks up. At the end of the last plateau, as we descend the Chinese built road, there’s a beautiful view over the valley that leads to Atar. Once I’m back at Auberge Bab Sahara, I take a siesta, but not before taking a long-overdue shower. That’s when I make a surprising discovery; I thought I had developed a very nice tan in the desert, but it turns out that during those seven days in the desert, an incredibly fine layer of dust has built up on my skin. As the shower water runs over me, my dust tan washes right off, and I’m as pale as ever!

6 Responses

  1. Wow, what a strange experience! That goat shelter is great, and how fascinating about Total and what they’re doing in the region. You mentioned the mosque – is there a predominant religion in the region?

    1. You could say that – Mauritania is more than 99% muslim! It has traditionally been a fairly moderate version of islam that’s practiced here (and often mixed with pre-islamic / animist practices). However, like many other North / West-African countries, Saudi-sponsored Salafism (a very strict, hardline school of islam) is gaining a foothold in some places.

      1. Isn’t it interesting how religion is subtly different (or not subtly) depending on context? For example, the Buddhism that’s practised most here in Vietnam is starkly different to the original ideas of Buddha, and also to the practises in Japan, Korea…different peoples have different histories and different needs, so different religious emphases

      2. That is interesting! I knew there were different currents within Buddhism as well, but I never knew that some of them are really different from the original ideas!

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