Sunday, April 14, 2013

Letter from Mauritania: The Boats

I’m in the midst of ten days in what I’ve heard even Mauritanians refer to as the “least well-known country in Africa,” a country that is best known as one of the last vestiges of old-school slavery. I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in the Middle East and Nouakchott is unlike any place I’d ever been. Well, some things are the same – the fierce craving it gives me for shawarma and Coke, the way religion permeates everyday life, the fact that I can understand more of Hassaniya Arabic than I expected. But it looks just about completely different. Nouakchott has only a handful of paved roads; compared to the near-constant risk of death by Cairo traffic, your biggest transit risk here is getting your car stuck in a sand dune. It’s a capital without a real history, a post-independence construct. And like my hometown of Washington, DC, almost no one is actually from here. But more than all that, Mauritania is located at the transition between North Africa and, umm, Africa Africa, and that’s reflected in its demographics and culture.
The result is fascinating – it’s kind of like a West African version of Sudan. There are three major ethnic groups: White Moors, or bidan, who have traditionally dominated the socioeconomic hierarchy; Black Moors or Haratines, whose ancestors were enslaved by the White Moors; and black Africans, who were never enslaved and who have some cultural and linguistic similarities with West African groups like the Pulaar, Soninke and Wolof. But I am not at all qualified to talk about the racial and cultural complexities of a country I’ve been in for four days, so I’ll leave it there and refer any interested readers to a good CNN piece on the subject.

One of Nouakchott’s main attractions is the port de pêche, where the fishing boats come in every afternoon with their catches. It was a fascinating place. Men, mostly Wolof and Fula, dressed in full-body waders (?), were hauling the boats onto shore for the night, singing as they worked to keep moving in the same rhythm. Kids frolicked in the waves and waved around handfuls of fish; women gathered in small groups and hawked fish in the beach market. In conclusion: I made some poor sartorial choices and now most of my clothes smell like fish guts.

Thus far, my big (and embarrassingly obvious) takeaway is that the world is huge and almost totally unknown to me. In all my travels, I’ve never had quite that reaction before. After all, I’d given a fair bit of thought to the Middle East before studying abroad in Egypt, and the Palestinian question is constantly on the global stage, even if it’s hard to imagine the details of life under occupation without experiencing it. There are plenty of developing countries that come onto our radar because they supply handicrafts to our favorite fair-trade store or because they experience awful conflicts that we feel guilty for not understanding better or doing more to stop (if only we had shared the Kony 2012 video!) or for probably abetting due to our cell phone purchases.
But Mauritania is a country that I (and most other westerners) basically never think about – and yet there are 3 million people here, living out their lives in what really does feel like a corner of the world. It’s not that they live in unimaginable poverty or anything (though Mauritania is one of the world’s least-developed countries), just that it’s not a place I’d ever really bothered to imagine until recently, and yet here it is.


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