We both turned round to look at the speaker. He was a good-looking bloke in his early 20s, dressed in a warm woollen jellabah with a scarf wrapped loosely around his head and shoulders.
‘Excuse me please,’ he said in English, ‘but would you know of any ladies in your country who would like a husband? Or a good worker?’
Well I could think of plenty of females at home who would appreciate a good worker but certainly not a husband. I didn’t think though, that he meant someone to do the housework. Claire didn’t even bother to think about it.
‘All we know at the moment mate, is that we need coffee.’
‘I will show you. Come.’
‘What’s wrong with this place?’ I asked pointing to the stall behind us.
‘Just tea here. Only Arab tea.’
As we followed our new friend over the flat wasteland by the road towards a group of modern two-storey buildings I had a good look round. It was a fairly sizable settlement with buildings on both sides of the road. The architectural style was the ever popular in West Africa, ‘breeze-block’ brutalism painted predominantly in shades of reddish pink. The mosque was one of the few buildings of note merely because its stark unadorned parallelism was not something that you’d normally associate with Islamic architecture. We had also parked the truck on empty land opposite the other building of interest. Pale yellow seems to be the preferred choice of colour for ‘official’ buildings right up through Mali, Mauritania and in Western Sahara.
This particular example was very new, freshly painted with script and insignia, nice little garden arrangement at the front, white painted railings with a big red and white stripped pole across the entrance. Could’ve been military, could’ve been police but either way, it’s just not a good idea to stare for too long trying to work it out. As we walked up the steps to the café door I spotted a curious looking thing by the side of the road to the front of us. Maybe 3-4m high, it was a perfect pyramid shape made out of some highly polished dark pink rock. There was something carved into the side of the pyramid but I couldn’t make out if it was writing or what. Even though it was chilly we opted to sit outside for breakfast.
It was quite a small but perfectly formed café and it was obviously where the older male residents went of a morning to catch up on what had happened since the previous day. They made us quite welcome but it was nice to sit outside and watch ABSOLUTELY NOTHING go by. This was Tah, officially the crossing point from Western Sahara into Morocco and which also the starting point of the Green March in November 1975. Basically after the International Court of Justice said Western Sahara should be independent the Moroccans decided this was rubbish and that they should have it. But they would share some of it with Mauritania! So King Hassan II encouraged 300,000 or so unarmed civilians to wander across the border and stake their claims. It wasn’t so much a march as a dispersal really. When and if the proposed UN referendum on independence for Western Sahara ever takes place, as it will be the residents who vote.
After the Green March the Moroccans can ensure at least 300,000 votes in favour of it becoming part of Morocco. At least, that’s the theory and that’s what the pyramid monument is all about. Western Sahara even has a government-in-exile which, in 1976 named the territory the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, and has been officially recognised by over 70 nations. Frankly I think the Moroccans little ruse on the voting tactics might backfire, particularly after what our friend told us that morning. But first we had to deal with the husband/worker issue which, as it turned out, was directly related to the Western Saharan settlement policy of the Moroccan government. Our friend* and his family used to live just outside Marrakesh until, enticed by inducements such as free housing, power and water, subsidised fuel and no taxes, they moved to Tah. After finishing school in Tah our friend went to college in Agadir where he studied English, and Business Studies.
He wanted to stay near his elderly parents but there is no work in Western Sahara whether you’re qualified or not. If he moved to another part of Morocco he wouldn’t earn enough to pay for someone to look after his parents. He wished they’d never moved to Tah and the only way he could see out of it was to get to Europe and the only way he could do that was to marry a European woman. In Europe he would earn lots of money. By the time we left Tah I think we’d managed to convince him that it probably wasn’t quite as simple as that. We couldn’t however, convince him that the streets of Europe weren’t paved with gold. I know we must seem rich when we waltz about in less-developed countries with our digital cameras and assorted gadgets so it’s not surprising people think like this. And then you look at the imported stuff on the TV in these places – the only time they see anything other than wealth is when they’re watching documentaries about their own countries.
There’s nobody around to explain the difference between fact and fiction in these imported programmes. I remember once being asked by a friend in Burma if my car at home could go under water like James Bond’s. A couple of gritty social realism dramas set in housing schemes in the UK would go a long way to dispel the myth that we’re all loaded. Our friend wasn’t the only guy we’d met who seemed to think like this though and he certainly wasn’t the only guy who was into what we called ‘Yahoo Girls’.
Throughout West Africa there must be thousands of guys searching the internet for European female ‘pen-pals’. Our friend had a ‘Yahoo Girl’ who lived in London and who has said she may come out to visit him. I hope she likes sand and ‘breeze-block’ brutalism. But our friend was unusual in so far as he wanted to stay near his ageing parents. He told us that the majority of his peer group were living in shanties outside Agadir in the hope of picking up work. So, I’m not convinced that all the freebies in the world make it worth the move to Western Sahara. If there was a referendum I’d be tempted to vote for independence on the off-chance the government might relocate me back to Morocco for free.
‘Do you know why Tah is famous in Morocco?’
‘Start of the Green March?’ we ventured.
‘What is out there?’ he asked pointing over the road towards the buildings there.
‘No it is Canary Islands.’
Sure enough, we knew they were out there beyond the mosque, the sea and the horizon.
‘It is where many people try to go in boats at night. It is best way to Europe so people come to nearby to Tah to take boat to leave Africa.’
When I asked him if he would ever do that he said no because many of these boats are too full, people drown often and he didn’t know how to swim. We finished our breakfast, walked with our friend back to the truck and wished him good luck in his search for the perfect ‘Yahoo Girl’. All we had to do to leave Western Sahara or the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, depending on your leanings, was to drive past a pink pyramid towards Tarfaya.
* Of course he had a name but you just never know do you? I wouldn’t like to think of him being forced to dig berms or make random piles of tyres as a consequence of his anti-government sentiments.