The beginning at the End of the World

3 & 4 April 2014

All journeys begin somewhere. And when goods are so valuable that they are imported from the end of the world, that’s where the journey begins. That place – the beginning of the journey, the end of the world – used to be Oualata. This town has probably existed in some form since the stone age, when North Africa was slowly becoming the Sahara desert. The Aoukar basin, from which water cannot drain but only evaporate, remained a lake until a few centuries B.C., and on the rim of the depression, farmers and herders built some of the oldest stone villages in Africa. Fast-forward about a thousand years, and the great West-African empires – first Ghana, then Mali – make sure that salt, ivory, gold and slaves can be effectively traded through West Africa. The real challenge is getting it to the Arab world in the north, on the other side of the Sahara, where these commodities are incredibly valuable. Enter the camel caravan trade, and Oualata’s role as the most important departure place of trans-Saharan caravans. The town becomes spectacularly rich, but not only that; scholars, theologists, and famous travellers such as Ibn Battuta all visit the town, which becomes one of the most important centres of learning in West-Africa. And then, just as European countries become interested in exploring the rest of the world, Oualata is replaced as the starting point of the caravans by a nearby town, barely 200 years old, called Timbuktu… which is why, when we mean to say “at the end of the world”, we say Timbuktu instead of Oualata.

In the centuries after Timbuktu took over, Oualata loses importance and wealth. The Berber and black African cultures become more Arabized. Later, French colonial rule does little to change Oualata (or anywhere else in Mauritania), but the decades of drought just after Mauritania’s independence push people from the desert to the coast and the Southern border. Oualata is just about to be abandoned when the droughts end, and Unesco realises the value of its history, leading to restoration projects and some income from tourism. But, in 2014-era Oualata, there’s the threat of terrorism in nearby Mali, and the meaninglessness of the concept of “borders” in the Sahara desert. These factors mean that even the few tourists visiting Mauritania, usually skip this corner of the country. Given my experiences in Nema, I can’t blame them.

As my “bush taxi” pick-up truck enters Oualata, the police confiscate my passport; apparently it’s a good way of ensuring my safety? I’ll get it back when I leave town, I’m told. When I get out of the car, a Bidane (white Moor) sitting by the side of the road veers up, introduces himself to me as a tourist guide, and that’s that. The police indicate I should follow him, he takes me to the auberge I had in mind (a multi-building compound in the old town), and I negotiate a price for my stay and for dinner. Maybe it’s because it’s expensive to bring goods out here, or maybe they are trying to make up for the lack of tourists; either way, it’s far from cheap, even after some fierce haggling. The food isn’t great, and the room is muggy – daytime temperatures are above 40 degrees C – so I sleep outside. The shower’s a bucket of water with dead flies floating around in it, so despite the beautiful surroundings, this won’t go down as my favorite hostel in Mauritania…

The following morning, my “assigned guide” is back, for a tour of the town. Given the steep prices, I can only afford a morning tour. At least I can see why Oualata’s old center became a Unesco World Heritage Site. As in Chinguetti and Ouadane in the Adrar region, the houses are built from stones, in the Berber style. Unlike those towns, though, they are then covered in mud plaster; this is probably an influence from the Soninke (a black culture from the Sahel and savannah, and founders of the Ghana empire). Mud is a construction material that’s typical of the edges of the desert; there’s just enough rainfall to make mud at least once a year, but not enough rain to wash away the resulting buildings. The orange, pink and yellow mud plaster in Oualata is often decorated with white geometric medallion patterns on the outside; the interior walls are often decorated in curly patterns. I’m not sure whether these patterns are of Berber, Arab, or Soninke heritage, but it gives the town an appearance unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in the Sahara or Sahel. Add in some cow herders walking their animals through town, lots of kids saying “bonjour monsieur!”, and smiling adults, and Oualata feels like a breath of fresh air after the tense atmosphere in Nema. If you’ve ever seen the fantastic movie Timbuktu (if you haven’t: find a way to see it, on the largest screen you can find), you’ve actually been looking at Oualata (Timbuktu was too dangerous at the time of filming).

The guide’s route passes by some ruined buildings which have not (yet) been reconstructed; this brings me face to face with the reality of being in a town that’s stranded between the 12th and the 21st centuries. There is modern garbage, but the connection to the outside world doesn’t allow proper garbage disposal. In a town proud of its unique looks, having the garbage lying around in the streets won’t do, either… so the solution is to just toss it into the remaining ruins, where it piles up. Especially where modern plastic diapers are concerned, the results are downright nasty…

Thankfully, a women’s co-operation making clay art is a more pleasant stop on the tour. The clay objects are pretty, and if the auberge and the guide hadn’t demanded such high prices, I would’ve loved to buy some of their wares. A traditional game based on a clay board, in particular, looks very enticing. As it is, my main take-away is in the form of photos, as the interior is stunningly decorated.

The tour continues to a multi-storey traditional house that is still inhabited. The family living there are apparently paid for the visit, but don’t show much interest in me. After I admire the views that the top floor allows over the old town of Oualata, the guide turns out to have joined the men of the family in watching a French television quiz show via satellite, with the men eagerly answering the questions. They seem to get it right more often than the French candidates themselves, indicating a whole lot of TV watching and a pretty thorough knowledge of the old colonizers’ country and the western world in general (certainly more than the average Westerner would ever know about any place in Africa).

When I indicate French television quizzes aren’t really what I came to Oualata for, we continue our tour past an outdoor madrassa (religious school). A group of kids sit on stone benches by the side of the alley and read faded Quranic texts off of wooden boards over and over until they memorised them. The (Bidane / white Moor) guide indicates that this madrasa is for kids that are Haratin (Arabized black Africans called “black Moors”, often (descendants of) slaves) , rubbing his skin to indicate their blackness. It feels rather awkward.

Next up is a visit to the local librarian / conservation specialist. His job is maintaining and researching the ancient documents in the library and some of the houses, from the time that Oualata was a center of learning. He often cooperates with scientists from universities around the world. Unfortunately the library is closed today, but he shows me some of his work on his computer. He lives in a multi-storey compound in the old town, and invites me over for lunch with his family, who are perfect hosts; lunch also tastes quite a bit better than the food at the Auberge. His enthusiasm for his work and the history of the region is infectious; he’s obviously happy to have a visitor to discuss it with, but we also talk about Mauritania in general and my journey through it. Halfway through our chat, Coumba from Atar calls me to ask when I’ll be coming back so we can have our date; I guess her sister has left for her honeymoon and so she’s finally able to go unchaperroned, but I have to disappoint her. I don’t have a fixed route yet, but it’s unlikely to take me back to Atar anytime soon.

By now the guide has left, but to be honest, the librarian has been more informative anyway. After quite some time chatting, I make my way back to the Auberge. The midday heat is stifling and I don’t do much of anything until early evening. I make a solo round through the old town; some kids do a little dance when they see me, and are beyond delighted when I copy them. Just after sunset I climb the hill that separates Oualata from the Aoukar depression. The deep purple rocks of the hill and the salmon colored sand are beautiful in the twilight, and the cooling air is just what I needed. I hurry back down to make it to the Auberge before the old town descends into pitch black darkness, and because I’m getting quite hungry. Unfortunately dinner at the Auberge is again a disappointment given the price I’m paying. Still, Oualata the town has not disappointed me, with the beauty of the buildings, the desert around it, and the friendliness of the locals (if not the guide or the police). If the way there weren’t so massively exhausting and potentially dangerous, it’d be a very easy recommendation indeed. As it is, I still have to make my way back from the end of the world, but that’s a story for another time…

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