As the plane flew over the straight of Gibraltar, I got first glimpse of Africa! At first the scenery was mountainous and the valleys were green with irrigation, but as the plane flew further south all signs of mountains and irrigation disappeared and there was nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye could see – the Sahara Desert!
Mauritania is first and foremost a Saharan country with a human population of 2,800,000 and an extremely low density of 2.5 inhabitants per square kilometer (lower than Canada at 8 and way below the Netherlands at 981). Half the population is concentrated in two large coastal cities, Nouadhibou, the economic capital, and Nouakchott, the political capital where the plane landed.
From the plane window Nouakchott seemed to appear out of nowhere – a sea of low buildings spreading out in rows and separated by paved streets half covered with drifting sand. The city was built on a former oasis in 1958 when it was decided that Mauritania needed a political capital. It was designed for 15,000 people, but has ballooned to a population of over 600000 since the devastating droughts of the 1970s.
As we exited the airport we were greeted by representatives from the national park as well as a group of people asking for dollars, euros, pens, chocolate or whatever we had. It was an interesting combination of desperation and humor. They joked with us when one of our party used the excuse “I only have large bills.” to send them away. “That’s even better!” they laughed, “We’ll all share.” But we didn’t.
We spent one night in Nouakchott giving me time to see a bit of the city. My favorite place was the market. There was a wonderful and contagious energy of local people preparing for a celebration (Eid ul-Adha falls close to Christmas this year). I was enthralled by the beautiful scarves of indigo, fuchsia and gold displayed in stalls and hanging from the balconies overhead as well as on the hundreds of women shopping and selling in the market. The effect was an explosion of color that was elegant and fluid. It left me wondering why we in the north can never seem to emulate the colorful energy of the south without looking gaudy. Even what we would consider garbage was made to look elegant and I was amazed (as I always am) at the ability of people to make something from nothing by covering light bulbs with old packaging material to make lamp shades.
Outside the fabric market people were selling vegetables, rice and meat. The meat was not cooled and was covered with flies and there were many people with deformities indicating vitamin and mineral deficiencies in childhood and hinting at the poverty that still exists in Mauritania. But things are changing. This year there was a working elevator and automatic sliding doors in a newly constructed hotel. There were also billboards showing the Nouakchott mosque surrounded by skyscrapers with the caption “Nouakchott of the future”. I waver between happiness and sadness at seeing Mauritania on the cusp of development. I am happy that people’s standard of living will improve, but sad that another part of the world may lose its authenticity and turn into another shopping mall strewn clone of the “First World”. But it hasn’t happened yet and that evening at sunset the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer emanated from the minarets of the mosque unimpeded by skyscrapers.
The following day we piled into trucks and headed to the Parc National du Banc d’Arguin (PNBA). The Banc d’Arguin is one of Mauritania’s most important national parks and makes up the northern portion of the Mauritanian seaboard. The park was established in 1978 and has the largest winter concentration of wading birds in the world (an estimated seven million shorebirds alone). It is also the most important breeding area for birds on the Atlantic seaboard and the richest fishery off the West African coast. In a nutshell the landscape is wild, desolate and beautiful, made up of sand dunes, coastal swamps, small islands and a wide expanse of shallow coastal waters. Some 1,200 people, the Imraguen, inhabit the park in nine fishing villages along the shoreline and our expedition stayed near to one of those villages – Iwik. Until the droughts of the 1970s the Imraguen (which means fisherman) were nomadic, fishing only from August to February and then moving into the desert where they raised camels and goats for the remainder of the year. After the droughts the Imraguen took to living in permanent villages and fishing year round by following the fish on their migration. Or else, like many other Mauritanians who lost their domestic animals during the droughts, they moved to the cities to look for work.
As we drove out of the city the buildings gave way to tents and then to endless desert. At first the desert was covered with low scrubby vegetation dominated by Euphorbia balsamifera (a native plant used to counteract desertification). But as we entered a hilly area, the vegetation gave way to fine orange sand blown into ever shifting dunes and dotted with the odd acacia tree – the quintessential desert. In places the road was covered with drifting sand, very reminiscent of snow and in fact the sides of the highway had “sand fences” that looked a lot like our “snow fences” in Canada. Just as it was beginning to get dark we turned off the paved road into the desert itself for the last leg of the journey to Iwik. We reached the research station in the dark and could choose between sleeping on bunks inside the concrete buildings and sleeping in a tent. I chose the tent and was delighted by the lovely quilted decorations which covered the interior.
One of the first lessons I learned in the desert was the practicality of head scarves. On our third morning I awoke to the tent flapping wildly, pelted by dust and sand. Visibly was poor and my eyes, nose and hair were filled with dust as soon as I went outside. Although the wind wasn’t strong enough to be a real sand storm, it was very impressive. I now understand completely why people living in hot, dry and windy places (i.e. much of the Arab world) wear head scarves which cover their faces. When walking outside I also wrapped my head and face in the traditional style and it helped immensely. Of course there are religious and social reasons for head scarves as well, but I had a lesson in their practical purpose.