Well, it was a new day, a new dawn and although I wasn’t exactly feeling like a new woman, I definitely felt better. The night before, Claire had woken me to tell me we were there. I had no idea where there was and it wouldn’t have meant anything to me if Claire had told me. I remember a meal but I’m fairly sure I didn’t actually eat anything. And having a wash. I think I got lost at some point and there seemed to be a lot of tents around. I do remember looking up at the clear night sky before getting in the truck to sleep. The stars were so spectacularly bright it made me want to go round shooting out street lights on return to the UK. I slept like a log, woke up in the morning feeling sort of OK and looked out the back of the truck.
Directly in front of me and about 10m away across a stretch of gravel was a building or structure or something – I’m not really quite sure which word to use here. There was definitely some sort of painted concrete structure but this was almost completely covered in lush foliage. The entrance appeared to be through a tunnel of vines and creepers. On either side of, and somehow attached to, the building were tents. More tents and a couple of small white painted concrete outbuildings stood independently to the sides and rear of the main building. It took me a moment to figure out what was bothering me. It was the plants of course! They didn’t look right. We were completely surrounded by rocks and sand and the odd patch of dusty grey scrub yet I was looking at a small but thriving tropical garden. I recognised some of the plants and associated most of them with places that were more on the humid side than inland Mauritania tends to be. Somewhere like Amazonia say!
Anyway, there was no sign of Claire and the cab was locked so I took it slowly across to the foliage tunnel where I was slightly puzzled by the sound of gently trickling water. Somewhere in amongst the roots of some creepers, I couldn’t really see, must’ve been some sort of fountain. To get into the building you had to cross a very shallow, one step wide stream which seemed to be part of an irrigation system for the plants. I didn’t remember that from the night before any more than I remembered that there was also a totally unnecessary but thoughtfully provided stepping stone. I found Claire sitting at a table in the centre of a large covered courtyard, book in one hand, coffee cup in the other. There were plants and rugs and strange motifs on the walls. The roof was this amazing patchwork of fabrics stretched over wooden poles. Sofas and low banquette seating was arranged around the edge of the carpeted area. This was the Auberges Le Phare du Desert just outside Kiffa and very nice it was too.
The road we were driving has a name – Route de l’Espoir, or Road of Hope. It runs from Néma in the east for over 1000km to Nouakchott in the west and it’s a great road. It does sound like a very optimistic and positive name for a road which is what it was meant to be. Built with Brazilian aid, the road was intended to bring social and economic benefits to the towns and villages of Mauritania’s impoverished interior. But that’s not what happened. If you build a road to a place that more people want to leave than want to get to then surely it stands to reason that the place will disappear eventually. Since the road was completed, Nouakchott has become a magnet to poor rural migrants from the east who eke out a living in the shanties that now surround the capital. They’re no better off there than when they were scratching a living on their unproductive farms. But I can understand why they left.
If I lived in one of the desolate, windswept villages we passed through after leaving Kiffa, and I thought there was even the faintest glimmer of hope that I could improve my lot by heading for Nouakchott then I’d be off too. The landscape was big and impressive with more than a touch of topography at last. In the early morning light the deep orange rock outcrops were sharply defined against the bluest of blue skies. At the crest of a long slow hill the rock outcrops gave way to a vast panorama looking over a gravel plain towards a heavily eroded escarpment on the far side. Reminiscent of the "butes" in Arizona, a number of pillars of rock stood, eroded and misshapen, at intervals on the plain. As the day wore on the landscape became bleached, the sunlight unbearably bright and the horizon was hidden by a shimmering haze. The intense blue sky of the morning had gone.
Instead of seeming to absorb light, the sky now bounced the sun’s rays back to earth like a giant reflector. The heat was dry and intense. And then, there would be a village. The majority were nothing more than a small cluster of semi-derelict, single-storey mud buildings on either side of the road with sand drifts blown half way up the walls facing the prevailing wind. There was no evidence of cultivation or anything in the environment to suggest the possibility of cultivation. Shadowy figures sat under woven palm leaf awnings, hiding from the midday sun. The occasional chicken could be seen scratching in the sand and somewhere nearby would be a herd of sheep or goats. Sometimes when you look at a desert landscape you can understand why there are so many religious stories about man meeting God, or whoever, out in the wilderness.
The problem with these stories is they do tend to be told from a single perspective. I mean, there surely is a bit of a difference between having the choice to nip off to the wilderness voluntarily to do a spot of communing with your spiritual side, and been forced to live in that albeit spiritual, but nevertheless desolate, barren and inhospitable landscape? What a grim and wearing existence and what a test of human endurance. We may not necessarily be seeking spiritual enlightenment when we visit Mauritania but we are still, like the prophets, just passing through. I cannot begin to imagine what form my spirituality would take if I lived in one of these villages. Bit of a paradox really – how you can find both heaven and hell on earth in the same place?
Of course, not every village was like this and yes, there was certainly evidence of less grinding poverty in the villages closer to Nuoakchott. In stark contrast to Ayoun the day before, the small towns of Aleg and Boutilimit were busy and the majority of people seemed quite well-off; there were a couple of pristine Mercs parked up between the rows of equally gleaming, usually Toyota, four wheel drive land-cruiser type vehicles. Silver and white being de riguer. Traffic on the open road was rare, mainly trucks but very occasionally we would meet or overtaken by one of these shiny vehicles, usually stuffed to the gunnels with large black-clad ladies in the rear, a number of children of varying ages on the rear parcel shelf, maybe three guys in the front and the person driving wasn’t the man in the driving seat but his 10 year old son who was sitting on his knee. It was the arrangement and number of passengers that Claire and I discussed when this happened.
It wasn’t until we saw a cluster of these vehicles parked up in Boutilimit that we really thought about their significance – that some people in Mauritania do actually seem to have a shed load of money. Not only that, nothing that we had seen so far in Mauritania suggested that it was possible to make money anywhere east of Nouakchott. No mines, no factories, no water. So why so many up-market vehicles around Boutilimit then? Two reasons, firstly Boutilimit is the religious capital of Mauritania and a prestigious seat of Islamic scholarship. Many male children of the Nouakchott well-to-do attend the Koranic school here. Secondly, as the town is only a couple of hours drive from the capital and is home to a library housing some of the country’s most valuable and rare Islamic manuscripts, it is a popular destination for day-trippers from Nouakchott. In fact it’s probably the only destination for a day-trip from Nouakchott!
I was still feeling OK, I’d managed to stay awake all day, and once Claire started banging on about camel sandwiches for dinner I actually started to feel hungry.
*John Gay (C18th), ‘Fables’ Pt I