Experiences: Telling Folk Tales In Mauritania

Nouakchott from the air / Wikipedia (William Darcy Hall)

I had done a little bit of homework before embarking on the next chapter of my adventures.

I had learnt that Mauritania is a mix of black African tribes and Arabs, who for some reason are referred to as ‘white people’ here. That modern slavery is prevalent. And that they still insist on fattening up some of their women as part of a cultural practice called gavage.

So the first surprise was the number of regular non-Arab white people who were on the plane from Paris to Nouakchott, Mauritania’s dust bowl capital. I guess having lived in Saudi Arabia where I’d got used to being the token amongst Arabs, I had figured that the situation would continue. So being seated in plane chock-full of Frenchmen and women was a bit of an ‘oh?’ moment.

For a country that seemingly has no large oil deposits, significant industries or is a key trade partner in the region, the number of pale faces on the plane seemed rather disproportionate. Again, I am used to being the token on a lot of these flights whizzing in and out of obscure ports, but I had kind of gotten used to my Arab peeps. I suppose my token status still applies with those of a Caucasian persuasion.

I flew into Mauritania from Paris after a 21-hour flight from Johannesburg. Turns out travelling to West Africa is not that easy. Or cheap. The immigration process at the airport makes the Department of Home Affairs at O.R. Tambo International look like the doyens of efficiency. Given that this visa comes in at almost ZAR1,000, you'd have thought they'd be falling over themselves in a frantic bid to get their hands on my money.

After hours of waiting in line, I got my visa. Picked up my bags, which by this time had been taken off the carousel (I'd been in the visa line that long) and headed out into greater Nouakchott.

Having lived in the desert before, Nouakchott didn't offer much in the way of surprise. What was surprising was how derelict everything is – it's quite badly run down, though the roads are in surprisingly good condition. I guess goats and donkeys don't wear the road down quite as much. I still get excited when I have goats in front of my door when I come home, or I see a donkey clopping down the street in the middle of traffic.

One of the things I enjoy the most about moving to a different place is making discoveries. Like finding a quaint little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves food so divine, and yet so cheap, that you seriously consider never banging any pots or pans in your own kitchen again.

Chancing upon a corner store where the shop keeper gets so excited to see you and to practise his rudimentary English that you feel bad that you can’t match his enthusiasm. Or finding a young man who offers up his “services” to you with a knowing look, but you are overcome with young-girl shyness and couldn’t possibly take him up on it.

But as with all things, not all surprises are of the positive, I’ll-have-more-of-that-please variety. For one, the driving is a thing for the ages! South African taxi drivers, who generally pride themselves on terrorising the average motorist, would cower in a corner crying like little girls who'd lost their favourite barbie if they had a chance to drive here.

Traffic lights are purely discretionary. The roundabout is a free for all. ‘Ceder passage’ (give way) for who? The most amazing thing I have seen is a driver overtaking cars stopped at a traffic light so he could speed ahead and turn.

I say speed; given how clapped out the cars are, with not even prayer still holding most of them together, average top speeds reach about 60 bone crunching kilometers per hour. I think Mercedes would have a fit seeing bags of cement strapped to the roofs of their vehicles while 7 people bear their weight down on the suspension. So it’s perfectly reasonable to then hear your driver say to another driver ‘You dropped a bag of cement at the traffic lights’. I am not sure there are many phrase books in any language that would carry that combination of words, even when they insert the mandatory phrase about hovercraft.

What has probably been the most awful is the prevalence of cockroaches in my apartment. I have a fear of cockroaches that borders on the neurotic. The thought of one laying eggs in my ears is a fear so real it almost has physical form.

I no longer jump quite so high when I see one. I have got better at the quick draw with the insect killer and could probably rival Chuck Norris in a shootout. I have for the most part stopped cooking since I have been here, because the cockroaches seem to have a permanent residence visa for the kitchen which I can't revoke, despite my best intentions.

I am like Gulliver invading the Lilliputian cockroaches. I burn offerings and conduct sacrifices just so that they don't strap me down and have their dastardly way with me. Can you imagine being made to host to thousands of cockroach eggs laid in all the moist cavities of the human body? Urgh.

Another reason for not cooking is that I hate how meat is handled here. Despite the very noticeable fly population, the meat is left out in the open for the green-bodied winged germ carriers to vomit on and spread disease and pestilence. Woollies with its beautifully packed meat trays glistening in healthy glory, complete with sell by date, is a distant memory.

I miss sterility and I miss it badly.

And as the warmer months approach the fly population will increase exponentially. I think I might just get one of those beekeeping suits and be done with it. There is only so much insect spray I can use before I poison myself. Finish off the job that the dust has begun.

The dust here takes some getting used to. I am not new to sand getting everywhere. But the winds here just carry it further. I think I put on a couple of kilograms every day in dust alone. And I have been coughing because of it. I think I have now started seeing bits of lung on the tissue paper, however, as I am not a smoker, I believe I have a bit of lung to spare.

Overall, most infrastructure seems to work well in Nouakchott. Not for us the electricity and water free existence of Harare. Nor do we have to worry about Strive’s Great Airtime Robbery every night on our airtime balances.

My biggest gripe however is the internet. Ye gods – it sucks hairy lice-infested balls. It is more awful than dial-up back in the day when you could fall pregnant and give birth and one pic still wouldn't have downloaded. And I so desperately need the internet as I don't watch TV. Give me internet, or give me death.

I know I whine a lot, but for the most part I am enjoying my time here. Work is alright partly because the students here are very different to my Saudi ones: they actually do work AND homework. However, like so many students who have gone before them and are still to come, they often don't listen and loosely pay attention to instructions.

They do have a better grasp of the language so that makes it easier to communicate. That said, you still have those moments of miscommunication, like when your student wants to tell you a fuck tale. Your head rears back and you ask him to repeat himself. A fuck tale he insists. Wary, you ask him to tell you this fuck tale.

As he draws to the end of his recounted tale, the penny drops – folk tale.

And somehow you manage not to fall about laughing, because moments like these are why you put up with 21-hour flights and going meat-free and the world’s dodgiest internet.

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