At the Mauritel office, a middle aged man inspects my Android and glances at me with compassion: poor foreign lady has no money to invest into a decent phone. Many people here seem to have a better smartphone than I. Without asking me, he peels off the old screen protector and I discover, with amusement, that it is actually possible to see more than just shadows and contours on the screen, even in bright outdoor light. After polishing the surface and glueing on a new protector, the man insists that I should accept a new phone case from him as well. I wish I could explain in fluent French that all the cracks and scratches of my gadget come with memories attached, and I do not want to let them go.
Lamine meets me in the afternoon, after work, to take me around the city. When I first met him at the border on my first day, he stood out from the speckled crowd of bored police officers and local hustlers. Donning a fedora like proper hipster, in a tidy Barça t-shirt and spotless sand coloured trousers.
“I’ve served my time in the army,” he says. “It was hard. And the pay was not good for the amount of time I spent on it. I still have a lot of friends there but I decided that going freelance would be best for me.”
He comes from a small village down south, on the border with Senegal, and his mother still lives there. With all available education he could get in his own town, Lamine moved to Nouadhibou and started working at the border. I am not entirely sure what his job is, and probably neither is he. In this country, you are better off if you become your own boss and invent your own job title. Lamine’s main responsibilities include just always hanging around.
“I decided to do this because I’m a people’s person. I speak French and some Wolof,” he explains. “People like me and I get to meet a lot of foreigners and show them around. Most of them just go straight to Senegal from here, but some stay in Nouadhibou for a few days.”
Mauritania’s geographical position as a transit point between North and sub-Saharan Africa is a blessing for its government. They jack up the costs of visas and transit vehicles, and border officials get to make up other additional fees on the go. As for the local people and businesses, most of the foreign travellers seem to slip through their fingers. Mauritania does not get too many reassuring hits on Google, and every official travel information about the country is always accompanied by a warning notice that Mauritania is unsafe and unstable.
So it happens that a lot of travellers only take the coastal road to get to Senegal, stopping over in Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, and no African country should be judged by the glorious mess of its cities. You know that wise story about blind men and an elephant, where each one of them is put to a different part of the animal and asked to describe what the whole elephant is like. Well, describing Mauritania based on what you saw in Nouadhibou and Nouakchott is like defining what an elephant is based on the texture of its poop.
Where to stay and eat if you’re stuck in Nouadhibou:
Camping 5,000 ougiya pp (the owner swore he had hot showers, many overlanders stop here)
Auberge Sahara 3,000-5,000 ougiya pp (looks sketchy but it’s the nicest place with a kitchen and hot showers)
Café Pleine Lune – coffee, tea and cake
Le Pecheur restaurant – pizzas and local dishes on the menu, also smoothies from heaven and custom-made vegetarian improvisations
The city is built along the headland that extends to the south and protects the bay of Nouadhibou from the unquiet waves of Atlantic ocean. Fishing is one of Mauritania’s main export industries. Fish is also what you mostly get on your plate wherever you go for dinner in the evening. And Nouadhibou’s fishing harbour is a place you can never forget.
Antony came here from Senegal about 6 years ago. The skin on his hands is hardened by salt water and incessant friction against the hilt of his knife. He spends every afternoon like this, tirelessly chopping off fish heads and cutting their bodies into long strips that he will, almost in some kind of artistic composition, hang to dry in the sun.
His friend, Perera, also from Senegal, jokingly wields a huge lobster and asks me to snap a photo of him.
“You are a writer then? Don’t forget our names: Antony and Perera. Write that down,” they tell me in French.
Although you can spot a few larger industrial vessels out in the bay, Nouadhibou prides itself in artisanal fishing. The array of once colourful wooden boats launches into the open sea early in the morning, loaded with nets and wide rubber tubes that fishermen use to catch crustaceans. I don’t know what bothers me more: the fact that more than half of these people, who navigate across the bay daily in decrepit wooden boats, cannot actually swim (Lamine tells me), or that I just saw a godzilla-sized rat lurking between the rocks by the water. It’s alright, I love all sorts of critters. I used to have one as a pet.
As I try to snap more photos of the harbor’s entertaining wildlife, we are approached by a man in uniform who – I understand that without any translation – demands that I stopped taking pictures. The constant presence of men with guns, who might be unhappy about tourists being tourists, is one of the most unsettling things in Mauritania.
Right by the harbour starts the fishing village and market. There is nothing appealing or extremely picturesque about this place. Discarded parts of fish, mostly heads and tails, bones and fins, are scattered around in big rotting piles. Makeshift shelters that house the fishermen families are constructed of recycled sheets of metal or plastic. Some houses are actually made of bricks and clay, with solid roofs and glass windows, sometimes even proper doors.
While we push our way through the busy streets of Nouadhibou’s fishing district, my eye catches an eerie silhouette on the ground. With their paws sticking out like crooked twigs, dead rats (did I mention the godzilla size?) lie on the ground here and there. If I ever had to imagine Black Death swiping over medieval Europe, this would be it. Here. Now.
There is still time until sunset. And the evening sun in Mauritania looks like a big white dish in the dusty ochre sky. You can stare at it with unarmed eye and watch it slide lower and lower to the horizon, as the Moon pops up somewhere random and starts teasing you with the promise of a chilly night.
A few kilometers south of Nouadhibou lies its posh suburban neighbourhood, Point Cansado, detached from the rest of the city like a chunk of another dimension. There is no noise of bustling crowds and traffic, no smell of fish and goats. The white-washed villas and hotels behind tall concrete fences, wrapped in thick bougainvillea bushes, face the Atlantic ocean, and women in colourful melaffas sit down by the water to keep an eye on the swimming children.
Most people who can afford to live in this part of Nouadhibou are foreign expats or local Mauritanians who own the shares in the mining industry. Besides fishing, one of Mauritania’s main treasures is the iron ore that comes to Nouadhibou from the faraway mine in Zouerate. But this is another story.
Le Pecheur / Sayade restaurant in downtown Nouadhibou is a quiet venue where local families drop by to have a decent pizza or a humungous plate of rice, fish, meat or fries. The chef actually comes by our table when he hears the word ‘vegetarian’. Of course, there is nothing vegetarian on the menu, but a few minutes later he lands before me a platter of fresh vegetables and a dish full of rice and cooked beetroots and carrots.
“Vegetarian special,” he smiles, and I forget to ask his name. You should find out when you visit Nouadhibou.
Lamine is very patient about my French. Never having learned it properly, I am trying (and will be, for the rest of my stay in Mauritania) to construct French words and syntax out of Italian and Spanish. I sound like a medieval peasant at the dawn of transition between vulgar Latin and modern Romance languages. It works fine with some basic enquiries, but I feel like I am missing out on a lot of stories these people could tell me.
It occurs to me that among all the scary stuff I read about Mauritania online, not speaking French is perhaps the biggest inconvenience one can face in this country.
Two and a half years ago, in Ethiopia, I could spend hours in street cafés that served fresh fruit smoothies. It was not just a regular orange or carrot combo, but a whole variety of handpicked avocados, papayas, bananas, strawberries, apples, mashed and layered in your tall glass like a motherflippin’ rainbow. Although Mauritania hardly grows any fruit of its own, regular trucks come down from Morocco, and the first time I saw a juice section on the menu I knew I was back in Africa with all my heart and mind.
It’s funny how it works. Two years ago, when I finished my journey through East African countries in Cairo, I swore that I’d never go back to this continent again. Everything was too much: too much sun, attention, watching my back, struggling to understand the way things work in this world. And yet here, on this day, amidst the streets of sand and dust, decaying buildings and foreign sun, my heart fluttered with some masochistic love and nostalgia.
“I have been here for about half a year now,” H. tells me.
He is from Syria, and for many years he ran a very successful restaurant and hotel business in his native Aleppo. That is, until the bombs destroyed everything he owned. Now, he lives in Nouadhibou and makes fruit smoothies at Le Pecheur. His English is impeccable, and he hasn’t spoken it for a while.
“They speak Arabic here, yes, but it’s very different from Syrian Arabic. Hassaniya is like a totally different language. I know French too, so we get by, my family and I,” he adds.
When H. and his wife and daughter arrived to Mauritania, they thought of it as a temporary home until he would get his visa to Morocco. His wife and daughter are both Moroccan and Syrian citizens, but H. is not. After a few months of waiting, the Moroccan government rejected his entry visa.
“It doesn’t make any sense. My wife is Moroccan, my daughter has Moroccan passport too, but they would not let me in,” he shakes his head. “I am grateful that this country, Mauritania, accepted us. It was hard to find a job but I managed to get employed at this restaurant. But I do not want this future for my daughter. Mauritania is far less progressive than Syria. I want my daughter to go to school, and make a life for herself.”
He sighs and looks outside the door:
“And come on, look around: there is not a single tree in this city. I cannot stand this much sand”.