Why not?

29 & 30  March 2014

The morning after our crazy day with Marco not-Van-Basten, I need some time to recover and celebrate the fact that I’m still alive. Valerie, Simon and I have late breakfast, followed by a walk around the area on my own. After buying some Côte d’Or chocolate at the supermarket, I explore the streets around the hostel. Across the street is an epicerie – a grocery store that’s smaller than a supermarket, which in a Mauritanian context usually means a tiny hole-in-the-wall of less than 10 square meters. The owner is supremely friendly, and we chat about his efforts to support his young son and provide him with more opportunities, in a country where opportunities can be rare. I decide to stop buying my supplies at the supermarket, and get everything I will need in the coming days – bread, canned fish, flipflops, and cookies – from the small business owners in the immediate neighbourhood. Dinner is shared with Simon and Valerie, at a little Senegalese restaurant just around the corner. We decide to try the Mechoui (a dish from Northwest Africa, where a (leg of) goat is roasted in one piece, after which chunks are cut off and served to each member of the group), with some Senegalese sauce. Unfortunately, the cook is considerably better at roasting a flavourful piece of goat than he is at handling his machete; the chunks of meat taste great, but we soon find out that they’re full of bone fragments. The romantic image of Africans creating magic with what little tools and ingredients they have, is more often than not just that: a romantic image. There are quite a lot of people out there who really don’t have a clue what they’re doing… and to make matters worse, the paper in which our Mechoui is served, turns out to be from discarded cement bags – with a healthy serving of cement powder still on it! That might explain the unique flavour though…

The following day, I meet David, Daniel and Yasmine in the hostel. They’re from Germany, and are driving a Toyota Landcruiser to Burkina Faso. They bought the car second-hand in Germany, and want to sell it in Burkina Faso. Apparently they have some connections there who can get them a good price – all over Africa, there’s a lively market for used cars from Europe. Many of them have enough defects be sent to a European scrap yard instantly, but end up living a few more decades in Africa. The Landcruiser is in good condition though, and the three Germans hope that the price they’ll get will pay for both the purchase of the car, and the holiday / drive through Africa.

Their route to Burkina Faso goes from Mauritania to Mali, and to enter Mali, they’ll need a visa. If the rumors are true that Mauritania might close its borders with Senegal in order to stop Ebola from spreading, my planned route to continue South would be closed off. That would leave Mali as my only option. Since the Germans are visiting the Malian embassy, I might as well tag along with them and get a visa too… why not, right? It’s only about 10 euros, and I’d only get the visa for a worst case scenario, and it’s not as if having the visa in my passport would be an incentive to travel to a country so full of chaos… right?

After talking myself into getting the visa along with the Germans, I bring them along to the Port de Pêche. It’s around three in the afternoon, and it’s a completely different experience now. On our approach, we become part of a small river of people moving towards the beach. The sea is dotted with hundreds of pirogues, waiting to be brought ashore. The beach is littered with thousands of men, women and children, whose job is apparently to bring the fish from the boats to the traders. It’s a dramatic scene, and one that repeats itself every afternoon.

Fishermen drag their pirogues ashore using ropes and muscle power; thousands of people are waiting on the beach, and descend on the boats – they don’t even wait for them to be completely out of the water – with buckets, crates, nets and handcarts to bring the fish ashore. Both pulling the boats onto the beach and bringing the fish ashore are hard jobs, and dangerous, too. Every once in a while, a big wave picks up a boat and drops it a meter or so closer to the beach. Anyone standing next to the boat at that point risks having the long wooden boat, weighing thousands of kilos, dropped on top of them, either crushing or drowning them. A few times, I see somebody almost disappearing beneath a boat; thankfully, the people around the boats do pay attention to each other, and drag their unfortunate colleagues out of harm’s way, just in time.

Walking a bit further along the beach, I run into a little boy, perhaps four or five years old. He seems to be thrilled to see a foreigner, and proudly shows his “discovery” off to his older friend or brother. From then on, I have two fans following me around, bringing me odd-shaped fish – apparently not commercially viable – for me to marvel at. When I go back to take more photos of the boats in the surf, the smallest one follows me into the water, but he’s not really big enough to withstand the waves. Thankfully he holds on to my pants whenever a wave crashes over him. It’s incredibly cute, but I don’t feel like taking on such a responsibility, so I head back to dry land, my little friend in tow.

At the trader’s post, the big fish are cut into pieces, minutes after being brought ashore. I’m told the big fish are much, much rarer now than they used to be. The cold Atlantic waters off the West African coast have long been incredibly rich in fish, but a combination of massive, sailing fish factories from developed countries – including Holland, I’m sad to say – and the huge number of pirogues catering to the growing demand for fish in West Africa itself, is putting too much pressure on fish stocks. [As of 2021, European fisheries have had limits imposed on them for emptying these waters; instead of allowing the fish stocks to replenish, the Mauritanian government has sold the fishing rights to Chinese fleets, which seem to leave even less fish behind, and use whatever they catch for fish meal to be used in pet and livestock food] As I watch the few really big fish being cut up, it occurs to me that this really doesn’t look very hygienic…

… but that’s nothing compared to some of the cars that are used to transport the fish to the local restaurants! The car in the photo isn’t even the worst; another fish transport car is an aging Citroen, which has the entire C-pillar missing on both sides; basically, the roof is suspended by the front window and the door frames. When it moves, the rear half of the roof bounces up and down every time the car – with broken suspension at one of the wheels – hits a bump. With fish being moved in cars like these, it’s little wonder that yesterday’s lunch made my bowels explode…

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