“God Makes Friends”

Did I mention the Sahara was a bit windy?

The constant howling gale might be great for drying washing, but it made it impossible to wash washing – for the first time we had to do it indoors, in our tiny sink, one garment at a time. It took 4 hours.

Windy day no.7. Good for washing at least.

Meanwhile Sampson was fixing the stuck fridge sliders, again. Zola did his washing for him as penance for pulling it out too far; he doesn’t know his own strength these days. When the washing was finally all dried, we turned the truck’s rear end back into the wind, so it was safe to open the door – a near lethal bang had almost broken Cleo’s back that morning.

We don’t feel too big in the desert.

It was our coldest night yet in the desert, 19˚ inside, 16˚ outside and 17˚ in the fuel tank when Sampson checked, so he swapped the feed out of recycled palm oil (which hardens at sub-17˚C temperatures) into the sunflower oil tank to be safe. On the bright side, it was also our first night without a mosquito net.

Brrrr.

As well as relentless wind, the relentless flies were driving me mad. How, with the whole of the Sahara to play in, do they consistently manage to land on my lips and march along my hat brim while doing T’ai Chi? Now we know why the nomads dress as they do.

Morning walk anyone?

The kids went exploring

Zola found wedges of quartz

which would make great paperweights

there were slabs of it all around

Ruby found more chalky lime lumps, and a chunk of china clay like the bottom of a cup

We’d finished term 2 work and were waiting for exams to be sent from school. On Saturday morning Zola was obsessively reading the Edge chronicles while Ruby was driving me mad arguing that reading books didn’t make you any more intelligent. I was desperate to escape the debate, get out of the truck and walk while the wind still relatively light, so was rushing to clean my teeth. Somehow I managed to stumble, jackknife and jab my eye into the spray top of a water bottle Ruby had made to discourage the cats from climbing on the table. I screamed: for a split second I thought I’d punctured my left eyeball.

Uh-oh

As I staggered backwards and fell on the bed, Sampson and Ruby were horrified to see my lower eyelid twisted inside out. All my eyelashes were stuck on the inside. Luckily it watered so much I was able to massage it back the right way round. The relief when I realised I could see again was huge; my eye was just massively bruised. In the absence of a gel pack, we improvised with a bottle of cold water from the fridge, then Sampson bandaged me up like Pudsy to give it a rest.

Whoops.

While he was busy figuring out why the solenoid was returning bio-diesel to the veg oil tank, the kids escorted me on a walk; I had to hold their arms, because I had no depth of field. We didn’t see snakes in the dunes that M. Hassan had warned us about, but just before we left we did see a lone wolf in the distance.

We suspected it was injured and alone.

The windswept road ahead

As we set off, Sampson was bemoaning the state of the front tyres – the crumbly edges of this tar road had resulted in more wear in these last couple of weeks in the Sahara than the previous six months through West Africa. The fact there wasn’t anywhere to do wheel alignment in Dakar had made it worse: if Big Reg went faster than 55kph, he started shaking.

The crumbling edges of the road were taking their toll on Big Reg’s tyres…

and Sampson was exhausted from fighting the steep camber all day

I had very blurry vision for more than 24 hours. The throbbing was worse when sitting up, so I had to lie down in the back. At lunchtime, Sampson rigged up a bag of iced water to hang from my bedside light to relieve the inflammation.

Bless him – this helped a lot.

So I wasn’t much help half an hour later when Sampson pulled over to assist Assange Diagne from Dakar, who’d just had his back wheel blow out on his very low clearance Ivesco panel van.

Whoops 2

Back wheel blowout.

Assane and his partner have a goods transportation business and he spends his life ploughing up and down the highway between Morocco and Senegal. His van looked like it was carrying more than its own weight of stuff on the roof. One tyre was flat and the other was in ribbons, the whole thing threatening to tip over.

First Sampson got a proper metal shovel down off the roof – Assane was trying to dig himself out with jack handle – and I was proud how both the kids set to help with a will.

While bad-back-Sampson plays foreman, the kids dig in…

It’s at times like this that I love them most – when they don’t even wait to be asked to help

After an hour Sampson tried to drag Assane out backwards but only dug the van in further. After another hour, Big Reg managed to pull him out forwards, burning the clutch and irreparably scarring the tar with the hub, but at least he was back on the road. It took another hour to change the tricky second back wheel. Assane was really stressing about delivery deadlines, periodically sitting back on his heels in dismay. When I found out he wasn’t fasting, we gave him some water and a few sweets to keep him going.

Big Reg to the rescue

Never mind the hub scraping the tarmac…

Whoops 3…

Now Assane just had to get the spare on

Enfin

We were swapping cards when another car full of Senegalese stopped to check he if he needed help. “No worries,” said Assane, gesturing at Sampson, “we’re already sorted”. He explained we’d been there three hours already and the worst was over. They thanked us and I grinned and said “On est ensemble!”. It was good to feel we’d paid back Mamadou’s act of kindness to one of his countrymen. We asked Assane to phone him when he got back to Dakar and pass on our love – what goes around…

A very relieved M. Assange Diagne ready to get back on the road

We drove on, past El Argoub, another empty toy town next to a military base full of unsmiling blokes.

El Argoub

To pass the time, we were reduced to inventing games like Douglas and Martin do in Cabin Pressure. ‘Things That Are Beige” didn’t last long. A lot more fun was “People Who Should Have Been in Lawrence of Arabia”: Sandy Toksvig, Camelron Diaz, Dust-in Hoffman… and “Alphabetcha-can’t-carry-on”: Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Frene Ginwala – off you go!

It got too hot to do anything but sleep…

really really hot…

and endless…

The monotony was briefly broken by this:

Bit windier than when we crossed Capricorn back in Namibia, about 3 years ago…

Nearly got blown off the road trying to take this one!

After driving through miles and miles and MILES of absolutely sod all but sand, like this:

Desert view from the truck 1

Desert view from the truck 2

it was a real shock to drive around a corner onto the Dakhla peninsula and suddenly be confronted with a hundred holiday-makers doing this:

Er…is that what we think it is?

No way!

Yes way!

Apparently Dakhla’s a top spot on the World Championship kite surfing calendar. So it seems even constant relentless wind has some perks…

Welcome to Dakhla

Check out the tourist development

An aspiring top holiday destination

for kite-surfers

and other thrill-seekers…

who can overlook the facts of the occupation

It looks like Morocco has been pouring cash into developing Dakhla for the tourist market. There was brand new infrastructure everywhere: hospital, power station, docks…

not to mention the welcome arch featuring His Majesty saluting

– all liberally spread out because space is never the problem in Western Sahara. It could almost be called impressive, if one could forget it was in occupied territory.

Theatre? Municipal building? Bit of both?

I was wary of taking close-up photos of military installations, even though the main barracks looked exactly like a Legoland castle with crenellated walls and turrets, and the naval HQ like a toy ship, with a giant blue anchor leaned against it and everything…

OK, so I did manage to snap this

The atmosphere seemed subdued but the main reason for that might be because amenities such as the public swimming pool and restaurants were all closed because it was Ramadan.

Big Reg took a drive around the rest of peninsula until Sampson found a potential surf spot down by the fishing village of Lassaraga.

At the very end of the Dakhla peninsula, beyond Garmin’s frontiers…

we found the village of Lassaraga

contender for the most miserable place in the world to live…

a lean-to of shacks…

slowly being blown to shreds by the wind

Grinning toothless fishermen gamely traded wave-mimes with Sampson while I sat in the truck imagining the lives of their women. It broke my heart.

The wind was officially driving us nuts by now. Trapped inside the truck without exercise, Ruby was becoming unbearable. Her typical obnoxious teen mood swings were being slowly pressure cookered until she finally exploded into a tantrum where she swore at her Dad.

This was a wonderful spot to park off

with a glorious view, but very very windy

Zola taking his mind off things indoors…

On top of that, we had to back Big Reg up in between buildings to stop the truck rocking in the gusts and get some sleep. A pack of bratty boys were throwing stones at supper time and, we suspect, cut the tarp around the bikes in the night. We were glad to leave.

Moroccan men appeared squat. The older ones we saw in Western Sahara were generally miserable. The younger ones showed more bravura, with mini-Mohican shaved heads, skinny jeans and attitude. Where were all the girls? I never saw one between the ages of 4 and 30.

On the tenth day of wind, we were heading north to Boujdour, and Hub and I were discussing options for our future. Sampson wanted to quit driving at 4pm but at 4.45 was still looking for somewhere. When he finally saw a safe spot, he pulled over, then started reversing into it…CRRRRRRUNCH. Bloody hell. How did he not see the two hapless blokes in a Golf Passat behind Big Reg? And why on earth had they pulled up behind but not overtaken? Thank goodness no one got hurt.

M. Hassan having a bad day. His friend Farid had just pressed the dent out of the squashed bonnet but you can still see where Big Reg backed into him on the left side.

The driver was in shock, and did very well not to lose it with us. He was a military guy at the Boujdour base who’d gone to Dakhla for his day off, all jaunty in his shorts, and we’d ruined it for him. I patiently waited for him to calm, took all responsibility for the damage and asked him if he wanted tea if he was not fasting. In the end he was reassured enough not to call the gendarmes, which was a huge relief as we had no Moroccan insurance. We promised to pay for the panel beaters when he got a quotation, swapped numbers and gave him $100 deposit. We duly paid the balance into his post office account a few days later. Thanks for your trust M. Hassan.

The next day was Zola’s birthday and I woke very early. If I hadn’t been looking outside at the dawn, I would not have noticed the police van crawling very very quietly up to Big Reg. They checked us out then backed away again, almost silently. It was a very impressive, a skill hard learned. I think we were tracked every step of the way across Western Sahara.

Birthday boy’s pressies

We got up at 6.30 and Sampson pulled out his secret stash: slabs of Aero and Galaxy chocolate from the Gambia, big bags of biltong and droewors bought at the Protea SA food shop in Dakar. I have never been so glad of his sneaky hoarding. That lot plus a Billabong mini-Leatherman tool kit, a little black book and a tube of Pringles meant the birthday boy got a half decent haul of presents after all. I wrapped them all up in colourful scarves in ten minutes. I love how truck birthdays are so low stress.

Happy 12th Birthday!

Zola thrilled to get a big bag of biltong

a slab of his favourite mint chocolate

and a mini-Leatherman.

I can’t believe Sampson even brought out Mrs Balls…

The chocolate was a bit the worse for wear after its trek across the Sahara

On Day 14 of the wind, we stopped at the Sea Point promenade-ish end of Tarfaya next to a tiny statue of a biplane painted green. I had seen a sign to the Musèe de Saint Exupéry on the way through town, and remembered Antoine de Saint Exupéry as author of Le Petit Prince (allegedly the fourth best-selling book of all time). When I looked him up on Wikipedia, I found out that he’d been a pioneer of international postal flight, flying the route between Toulouse and Dakar and working for a couple of years as airline stopover manager here at the Cap Juby airfield. He earned his first Légion d’Honneur from the French government for “negotiating the safe release of downed pilots taken hostage by hostile Moors”.

Big Reg in the background at Cap Juby

parked on the promenade in the town of Tarfaya

facing the windy beach

I also learned about Wind, Sand & Stars, Saint Exupéry’s seminal account of the experiences of the first airmail pilots to ply the routes between France and West Africa written in 1939 – months later I ordered it from the City of Cape Town central library and read it over Christmas. His evocative prose about the Sahara echoed the simplicity of trucklife for me:

“In the desert, as on shipboard, one is sensible of the passage of time. In that parching heat a man feels that the day is a voyage towards the goal of evening, towards the promise of a cool breeze that will bathe the limbs and wash away the sweat. Under the heat of the day beasts and men plod towards the sweet well of night as confidently as towards death. Thus, idleness here is never vain; and each day seems as comforting as the roads that lead to the sea.”

The chapter entitled Prisoner of the Sand is a grueling account of his surviving a plane crash and subsequent four days of dehydration in the Libyan desert in 1935. I felt his words should be heeded by the citizens of drought-stricken Cape Town in 2017:

“Farewell, eyes that I loved! Do not blame me if the human body cannot go three days without water. I should never have believed that man was so truly the prisoner of the springs and freshets. I had no notion that our self-sufficiency was so circumscribed. We take it for granted that a man is able to stride straight out into the world. We believe that man is free. We never see the cord that binds him to wells and fountains, that umbilical cord by which he is tied to the womb of the world. Let man take but one step too many… and the cord snaps.”

This experience is said to have caused him to hallucinate the character of the Little Prince, who came to comfort him as he lay near death, reflecting: “I have nothing to complain of. For three days I have tramped the desert, have known the pangs of thirst, have followed false scents in the sand, have pinned my faith on the dew. I have struggled to rejoin my kind, whose very existence on earth I had forgotten. These are the cares of men alive in every fibre, and I cannot help thinking them more important than the fretful choosing of a night-club in which to spend the evening. Compare the one life with the other, and all things considered this is luxury! I have no regrets.”

On reading about it, I reflected there is indeed much to be said for extreme experiences which allow the priorities of your life to be brought into sharp relief. I was not surprised there have been several movies made about the inspiring Antoine Saint Exupéry.

“I am not talking about living dangerously. Such words are meaningless to me. The toreador does not stir me to enthusiasm. It is not danger I love. I know what I love. It is life.”

The Sampsons had fun in Tarfaya:

We went to explore this building…

before it was surrounded by sea at high tide…

It must have once been a trading station…

for some colonial era buccaneers I haven’t been able to find anything out about…

it was a complete ruin inside…

but must have been a sturdy several storeys in its day…

though the steel girders had been worn away by the elements…

there were heaps of multicoloured pebbles around…

Ruby and I kept our favourites…

they’d changed colour by the time we got home

It was a lovely day

“No man can draw a free breath who does not share with other men a common and disinterested ideal. Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

This man, the guardian of the building next door, insisted on leaping up to make the photo more interesting. He also gave us the softest, most delicious dates we have ever tasted.

Zola takes up the challenge…

Ruby rises to the occasion

Somersaulting Z takes it to the next level, to the amazement of locals

After filtering some oil…

Zola, still not tired, decides to skateboard…

into a sand dune to see how far he can throw himself

That afternoon, we were visited by Salek the fisherman, who had popped down to the beach on his bike and stopped to chat. He was greatly enamoured of our whole adventure.

Salek speaks quite brilliant English for a man who has learned solely from interaction with tourists, who must be fairly few and far between. He also knows Spanish and gets by in German. He quite obviously understood French but was reluctant to speak it – this was evident in several Sahrawis we spoke to. They seem to prefer to use the language of their original colonists, rather than the present ones. “You can’t trust the Moroccan,” said Salek grimly, “His heart is black, put him behind you.”

We spoke of Saint Exupéry and he gave me directions to the Museum, while trying to remember “that sentence” the famous author wrote “meaning when you look at someone and you know you can talk to them”? He said he was so happy that “today I decided I just had to come to the beach” to allow him to meet us – proof, he thought, that “God makes friends”. It was only later I realised that the much-quoted line from Le Petit Prince he was searching for was not about trust or confidence but instinct:

“On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Our friend Salek

The museum display was impressive, detailed and very moving. Saint Exupéry and his peers such as Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet are revered across the Francophonie for their bravery. Of course, the great irony of this aviator-author being fêted in this part of the world is that he wrote his most famous story in exile while deeply depressed about the occupation of his country by the Nazis.

Saint Exupéry escaped to North America and appealed for US assistance to overthrow the Vichy regime while writing Le Petit Prince, as well as Letter to a Hostage dedicated to the 40 million French living under Nazi oppression. France had been occupied for a couple of years at that point; Western Sahara has been occupied since 1975.

I wondered if the Friends of Tarfaya who maintain the Museum are supremely aware of the irony and subtlely putting one over on the authorities..?

The Musée de Saint Exupéry in Tarfaya

In 1943, aged 43, 8 years over the limit, Saint Exupéry returned to active duty with the Free French Air Force to fight with the Allies. He had repeatedly petitioned General Dwight Eisenhower for an exemption despite limited mobility due to his previous crash injuries. He was reinstated to his old squadron, on provision that he was to fly only five missions, but it was during his ninth reconnaissance of German troop movements in the Rhone valley on 31 July 1944 that his unarmed plane vanished off the coast, south of Marseille (almost exactly where we are now as I’m finally writing this up).

“It is only when we become conscious of our part in life, however modest, that we shall be happy. Only then will we be able to live in peace and die in peace, for only this lends meaning to life and to death.”

Saint Exupéry disappeared just three weeks before the Liberation of Paris. Like his timeless hero Le Petit Prince, France remembers them as “innocents who fell from the sky”.

“Enjoy yourself…

it’s later than you think…”

Bonne nuit

Posted in 19 Western Sahara | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“We Are Sahrawi”

On 16th June 2016, we made our 20th border crossing (thanks to entering Senegal twice around The Gambia) into our 19th and 20th countries. Officially, we were moving from Mauritania into Morocco. But as far as South Africa is concerned, we’d just entered the occupied territory of Western Sahara.

That day was the 40th anniversary of the Soweto riots of 1976, a lifetime ago for most of us. It’s almost impossible to comprehend that Western Sahara has been a disputed territory since 1975, with the majority of its population living in the Tindouf refugee camps just over the border in southern Algeria, stranded on some of the most inhospitable land on earth.

South Africa is one of a handful of countries in the world to stand firmly in solidarity with the Sahrawi people and recognise their right to self-determination; as a result SA citizens are often given a hard time on entry into Morocco. If you recall, our SA passports were full by Senegal, so thank God for our dual citizenship: we were now travelling on our British passports.

After the Berlin Conference of 1884, Spain seized control of the desert area it had been using as a slave trading and commercial fishing port for the last couple of hundred years to establish a colony, which endured for another nine decades. In 1970s, when calls for decolonisation became too loud to ignore, Morocco and Mauritania argued claims to sovereignty of Western Sahara, but Algeria supported the Polisario Front’s demand for full independence.

The border post on the other side of No Man’s Land was monolithically massive with concrete boulevards, a huge hangar and floodlights, very much setting the tone for the display of Moroccan military domination to follow. (I definitely wasn’t risking taking any photos.) It was due to open at 8.30am by which time 10 or so lorries were jockeying for position in a queue outside. We were bracing ourselves for a long day.

On 6th November 1975, King Hassan II encouraged 350 000 Moroccans to converge on the southern city of Tarfaya to await his signal for the ‘Green March’ to cross the border in a symbolic show of hegemony. Moroccan Army troops had moved in the week before. But the Polisario Front resisted annexation and in 1979 Mauritania withdrew their claims to the land due to guerilla attacks on their capital. Morocco on the other hand retaliated by bombing refugee camps in Western Sahara, forcing the population to flee to Algeria.

First we were told to get out and ‘register’. There was a shouty man outside in a high vis vest throwing his weight around the gathering throng. Toxic Masculinity Walking. I warned the kids to keep their heads down and NOT to catch his eye while he bawled some poor sod out in front of the queue.

As Shouty Man barked orders, a nicer fellow motioned me to follow other ladies to where they were sitting on the high kerb. I wasn’t sure whether it was a ‘ladies and children this side’ or ‘foreigners this side’ situation. (My companions were American-accented white Mauritanians in full traditional dress with two little boys with crew cuts who looked like their Dad, who looked like his Dad, who looked like a missionary. I would have loved to know their story, but they had the demeanour of women from a different century and didn’t seem keen to chat to me.) Either way, Shouty Man eventually took our passports in the back door and we got to jump the queue. I kept my eyes averted and just bobbed a little thank you when he returned them, glad to move on.

From 1981- 7, Morocco extended its control by building a 3m high, 2700km long sand-berm in the desert to exclude Polisario’s guerillas and annex 259 000km² of resource-rich land. The belt that runs along this structure is thought to be the longest continual minefield in the world. The bulk of the land on the north and west sides of the wall are now referred to as Morocco’s ‘Southern Provinces’; the east side is the remaining ‘Free Zone’ of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with an estimated population of 30 000 nomads.

Next stop was the Passport Office where a man sat outside on a tiny table in the howling wind filling in Embarcation fiches with a scrum of truck-drivers around him. I realised later this wasn’t an official thing but a professional service for the bulk of drivers who are functionally illiterate so pay 5 dirhams each (R7.50) for him to fill in the form for them.

Not much thought had been given during the design of this enormous place to accommodate either the brutal wind, beating sun or queues of exposed people. There was zero shade, sheltered areas or seats, just intimidatingly high marble countertops and dark glass.

The bloke inside asked how we got to Mauritania – it was the only stamp in my renewed British passport – and without thinking I replied, “We drove from South Africa…ah”. My heart sank as I prepared to drag out our SA passports to demonstrate, but although someone out of sight next to him was checking the Congolese visas in the kids’ UK passports with a magnifying glass, I wasn’t asked any more questions. The Arabic translation of our Letter of Introduction was proving invaluable. There were no exclamations or enthusiastic curiosity, but no further interrogation either, as all our details were painstakingly entered into the system. We weren’t given a visa stamp, just an entry number, but finally the family was in; now we just had to clear the Big Green Truck.

The UN oversaw a cease-fire in Western Sahara in 1991 and ordered a referendum giving the local population the choice between independence or affirming integration with Morocco. This referendum, scheduled for 1992, has yet to take place. Despite determined efforts to negotiate a way through the deadlock made by former US Secretary of State James Baker between 1997-2004, ongoing disputes about who qualifies to participate have left the process permanently stalled.

I took a deep breath and trotted three doors down to the tiny customs room. A man with sparkly dark eyes, a grey beard and a white turban, whom I immediately recognized as lovely, kindly explained to me each step of the procedure I had to follow: take the green slip, fill it in, get a customs official to check it and the vehicle, come back to him, take it to the inspector, then the truck gets le scanneur and you’re done. Phew.

Ruby fed the cats an extra meal to get them sleepy, and got them cosy up in the net. I then went and invited the customs official to look round and help me fill in the form. He declined to get in truck, possibly because he felt too tubby to get up the ladder. A couple of other uniforms came along and asked what “all this” was hanging off the back? I explained the containers were to collect waste veg oil, waved the explanation, and he signed it off. There was no scouring of inside as expected, despite a dog handler taking the most gorgeous Alsatian through his circling paces outside just beforehand. It seemed like drug trafficking was their main priority and we didn’t look the type? On the other hand, we were asked if we had any hunting weapons or spray can cream…

In the absence of political will to solve the impasse, the 90 000 Sahrawi inhabitants of the Tindour refugee camps continue to be almost entirely dependent on Algerian and foreign aid, with all food, water, clothing and building materials having to be transported in. Ironically Spain may be the only other country to regularly feature their struggle in its media or offer sympathetic support. Next to the West Bank and Gaza, Jammu and Kashmir, the Crimea and even Tibet, there seems to be an egregious lack of global consciousness of the fate of this occupied territory and its abandoned people.

Back at the customs office, the door was now locked and I got chatting to a Malian truck-driver outside who does this regularly and had great line in eye-rolling. When Lovely Greybeard came back trailing a posse, a huge argument ensued about who was first and my Malian guy solved it by calling for “la dame, la dame”. Though I demurred, I was sent to the front and everyone else had to wait ages because it was Big Reg’s first time in Maroc and he also had to be comprehensively entered on the system. I tried to be as entertaining as possible to make up for the interminable delay; as Lovely Greybeard translated my patter from French into Arabic for the crowd he added a few bits on himself: “I just told them you have a goal – you are realising your dream.”

After working the room, it seems I’d been sufficiently charming to ensure that when, 20 minutes later, our South African VIN number had one digit too many for their chassis number spacing, he entered it anyway. I walked miles up and down to find the inspector in another random poky Kafkaesque office – there was no signage, no clarity, no logic – but he signed off our green card with a smile.

Back in the truck, Sampson drove into the vast hangar he’d been worried was hiding a weighbridge, but turned out to be a massive X-ray machine, a giant version of the one that scans your bags in the airport. This one scans lorries. The scanning vehicle was driven by computer, so we couldn’t read any faces as Big Reg was programmed in, and passed through. We held our breath…. and nothing happened. No sirens triggered, no eruption of blustery officials looking incensed, no fines issued on the spot. Bombs and guns were their main concern, and not, apparently, little warm cat bodies.

Phew!

Huh?

Mohamed Abdelaziz, 3rd Secretary General of the Polisario Front from 1976 and first President of the SADR died on 31st May 2016, just before we entered Western Sahara. He spent his entire life campaigning for the freedom of his people. He abandoned the guerrilla war in favour of diplomacy, condemning terrorism, insisting the Polisario fight a “clean struggle” and refusing to target private citizens’ safety or property. The OAU seated Western Sahara for the first time in 1982, the year he became President. Morocco withdrew two years later. When the OAU became the AU in 2001, Abdelaziz was elected vice-president at its first summit, and he received the Spanish Human Rights Association’s prize in 2005.

We pulled out of the scanner into an adjoining parking bay at noon and decided we deserved lunch. After noshing egg fried rice and salad, we were just about to drive out when I realised I’d forgotten to get our green slip back from the scanning office. As Sampson got down to let me jump out of his door, the three policeman at the gate looked up simultaneously and saw Tiger’s sleeping face in the net. “Is that a cat?” “Is he DEAD?!!” Sampson just shrugged. The first guy asked “Do you have his passport?” then grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. They were pulling our leg. PHEW.

Time to celebrate

Big Reg pulled away, past a very long queue of articulated lorries waiting to get in before closing time at 3pm. With all due respect to Morocco, there hadn’t been a single suggestion of bribery the entire day. As our AA carnet was not valid in Maroc, we’d been certain we were going to get clobbered for ‘insurance’ if not for cats. We were so elated as we drove out, high fiving each other, into an abundance of nothingness, I neglected to pay close attention to the road signs. I was very cross with myself later for not insisting Sampson stop and go back so I could take a photo of what turned out to be the only one we saw with a skull and crossbones stark on a red triangle saying “DANGER: LANDMINES”. It was the only time we were near the berm.

The Garmin was also warning us to stay on the road…

Not looking friendly out there

But what’s this?

And this?

And this?

And these?

There were dozens of them, hundreds…

Was this how the Polisario marked safe spots to snipe from, we wondered?

Even though the terrain was undoubtedly harsher and looking increasingly like the surface of the moon, we began to feel silly about being worried about getting stranded without water or food. Here in the occupied territory of ‘Southern Morocco’ there were radar points and police posts every 50km as well as petrol stations with taps every 100km.

Nie worry nie – Big Brother is keeping an eye on you

from military police posts like this

We stopped at the first (indeed only) town that day. C. Bir Gandouz had a very spooky vibe and seemed to have been constructed to test the theory “If you build it, they will come”. The Moroccan government offers their citizens tax breaks and cheap gasoline to live in Western Sahara, but we weren’t surprised that not many had been tempted.

Would you be?

Its pristine terracotta squares and streets were very much in the style of the toy town city of Duloc in the movie Shrek, if King Farquaad had pretensions to Stalinesque architecture, with a tense dash of High Noon. Only the tumbleweeds were missing. It looked eerily brand new and completely empty.

C. Bir Gandouz – Duloc on steroids

Look at all the happy inhabitants… oh

King Farquaad

King Mohammed VI of Morocco

There was a very despondent young man in the first grocery shop we stopped at, stocked to the rafters with consolatory sweets. When three SIM cards failed to work, he allowed me to call my Mom on his phone to tell her we were safe and refused to take payment for it, bless him. You got the feeling that everyone stuck down here was missing their Mom.

I was so looking forward to a shower, we took the first possible turn off as soon as we saw the sea, and drove down to a tent inhabited by two fishermen. We went to greet them, but they seemed bemused by us – they spoke no French and were unable to read my Arabic translation.

Finally, the sea: left turn Clyde

Ahhhhhhhh, that’ll do Donkey, that’ll do.

Big Reg, parking off in Western Sahara

with an uninterrupted view to the right…

and the left

Finally, we can let the caged beasties out…

for a run around…

and round…

and round…

By the time we’d walked 100m back to the truck, the cavalry had arrived: it seems that the minute he’d seen us pull up, soldier M. Hassan had set out to walk half an hour from the next military checkpoint along the coast. He was taking our passport details when a van full of crayfish suddenly pulled up outside and a cheery man stepped out offering to give us some.

Ndour Moual Ali, the best ambassador ever for the SADR

Ndour Moual Ali refused to consider payment. It seems almost everywhere on this continent, apart from South Africa, even in the very middle of the biggest desert in the world, to lavish hospitality on strangers is the norm. When I tried to remonstrate that his gift was far too generous, he shrugged my nonsense away: “We are Sahrawi” he declared in French, as if this was more than sufficient explanation.

What with the big bunch of fresh coriander which M.Hassan insisted on sharing with me, and another 3 crayfish the fishermen brought us, we ended up with a feast of 8 in all!

Even the cats ate like kings

Crayfish and coriander, with side helping of dahl, followed by Nouakchott Pudding. A feast fit for a desert prince.

Ahhhhh….

What a spot to contemplate life, the universe…

and one’s insignificant place in it…

Postscript

On Jan 30th 2017, the AU voted to readmit Morocco after 33 years’ absence. King Mohammed VI had spent a year touring Africa signing trade agreements to leverage support for readmission to counter heavyweights such as SA and Algeria standing firm against it. Nigeria and Ethiopia were persuaded by big deals involving gas pipelines and fertilizer (Morocco’s Saharan phosphate reserves are the largest in the world) and in the end 39 of 54 members voted with Morocco. The King’s intents as to the future of the territory are debatable, but, as he had been forced to sit down with them after a lifetime of refusing to do so, the SADR diplomatically welcomed the opportunity to reopen the debate around the long promised referendum.

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Mauritania Curveballs

The edge of the Sahara in midsummer feels a bit like Jo’burg in midwinter: it’s really dry, cold at night and you start the day by piling on layers which you then have to strip off in the hot mid-afternoon. We got chapped lips.

Sahara mornings – brrrr!

The guys in the distance brewing tea did not approach us. They were sievers – working in holes across the landscape towards the sea chucking spadefuls of sand against upright rectangular sieves creating piles of fine shells for building.

Can you see them, next to the piles of shells across the landscape?

Need a more powerful zoom, but you can still see this has got to be amongst top ten worst jobs in the world.

As we trundled through the open desert that first day, I reflected that there was something seductive about the endlessly receding empty horizon. It was so hypnotic, so calming. They should hold mindfulness courses out here, because it’s so much easier to empty your mind and just be.

Driving through the Sahara 1: Calm…

Driving through the Sahara 2: Calmer…

Driving through the Sahara 3: Ommmmm…zzzzzz

We found it hilarious how triangular Saharan road signs warn you of gradients less than flat and curves in the road that are anything less straight than a ruler. For example:

BEWARE: AN ACTUAL CURVE AHEAD!

EEEK: A GRADIENT!!

WATCH OUT!!! ROAD… DIPS A BIT…

Scared

Wikipedia says “Approximately three quarters of Mauritania is desert or semi-desert. As a result of extended, severe drought, the desert has been expanding since the mid-1960s. To the west, between the ocean and the plateaus, are alternating areas of clayey plains (regs) and sand dunes (ergs), some of which shift from place to place, gradually moved by high winds. The dunes generally increase in size and mobility toward the north.”

Regs

Erg

Regs

Erg

Regs

Ergs

Reg

On the second day, the wind started. It blew constantly for the next 15 days. By the time we reached the capital Nouakchott on third, I had already decided I could never live in Mauritania. Despite the straightness of the road, I felt I was slowly going completely round the bend.

Going round the windswept bend

I’m not built for the desert; without camel eyelashes, I get the hump

“There there” Cleo comforts me with a pat on the head from her berth in the net

No wonder the majority of desert-dwellers are nomads. I reckon they just keep moving to take their mind off the wind. Forget the Cape Doctor. This was the Saharan Sociopath. Guaranteed to blow your mind. By day ten I was reduced to stabbing myself in the eye with a… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Outta here

The howling wind overnight made it difficult to sleep soundly because the truck rocking kept making me think someone was climbing up on the roof. There was no respite on waking either.

Morning walk anyone?

On 14th June, the kids celebrated their grandparents’ wedding anniversary with some chaotic sand dune sledging. I think Reg would’ve been proud.

Zola valiantly setting out against the wind with a seat cushion…

Which didn’t prove so successful…

Surfboards worked better…

You can check some video of their attempts here. I shall never forgive myself for missing Zola’s very fast first descent on his surfboard – he was even carving! After surfing down a dune on it, Ruby sat on the bench seat behind us in the cab pursuing the ongoing debate about her future – we all knew it was time for her to go back to school, but where?

This is genuinely a camel in the back of a bakkie on the road into Nouadhibou

and this looked very much like a Bond villain’s lair perched on the side of a cliff as we drove onto the peninsula

There is nothing quite so beautiful as empty acres of sand and sea

Garmin’s info on Mauritania was equally empty

Early sun made Mauritania’s northernmost city of Nouadhibou look as bleak as Nouakchott. We’d been through so many road blocks, we were on our last set of fiches, so we trawled the main street searching for a papileteria to do photocopies. An old man in a grocery store really didn’t want to talk to this lone woman, and waved me out peremptorily, but a younger guy on the street gave me directions. Further down the road, another bloke was not at all keen on us parking outside his garage – Mauritania certainly seemed far less friendly than Senegal. Inside the shop, three young women sat on the floor giggling. They were strangely incurious – or at least showing a distinct lack of curiosity about me. The darkest complexioned one sat slightly apart from the other two. Was she the family slave, I wondered?

The prettiest bit of Nouadhibou

still didn’t win me over to Mauritania

Women were looking dramatically different from their elegant sisters in Senegal. We had been told that Mauritanian girls are praised for their girth and fattened for marriage but it still came as a shock to see paleskinned, lumpy ladies in wedgy black clogs, swaddled in layers of clothing topped with a flappy nylon wrap which was constantly having to be rearranged because of the howling wind. It was so impractical; I couldn’t understand why the heavy duty cottons of West Africa had been superseded, when they would be less at the mercy of the elements. Many of these dumpy women also sported woolly gloves in a clashing colour (e.g. pink with a lime green wrap). Their lack of style, indeed their apparent pride in deliberately making no attempt to be ‘fashionable’, reminded me of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women I used to see in north London years ago.

Outside Sampson was doing a magic trick for a sad-looking dark skinned boy in a doorway. I couldn’t stop looking around thinking that perhaps 1 in 5 of these people are enslaved.

Nouadhibou is connected by railway to the iron mines in Zouérat, 670 km to the east.

The freight trains can be as long as 3km, reputedly the longest in the world.

We drove right to the end of the peninsula looking for somewhere to park off for the night and became concerned about the terrible crunchy noises that started happening when Big Reg turned off the road.

Alain, the owner of the lot we parked outside, promised to get his mechanic to come in the morning. Philosophically, we put off worrying till then, ate supper and indulged in an Elementary marathon.

This didn’t officially count as a breakdown, as luckily it didn’t hold us up

Not quite sure what Alain kept in his lot, though it looked like missile launchers…

It was quite a surreal spot

with a charming view of the city…

Mechanic M. Samba arrived promptly at 9am, a lovely gentle man with a bobbing head, who reminded me of a certain Mr Fatti. We went for drive to show him the crunchy noise, which of course had now stopped. But he set to checking all the screws and found one that connected the motor could be turned by hand and the part that young Nigerian mechanic had fixed for us in Lagos had got very loose. So, 5000Um (R200) well spent.

Thanks a million M. Samba!

Ruby had seized the opportunity to wash some pants… Resourceful truck kids 🙂

When the bank told me they only changed dollars and euros, lovely manager M. Barakali offered to take me in his car to a money changer at the other end of town. I did wonder if I was mad to get into a car with two unknown men (M. Barakali and his friend M. Said), but he swapped me 1000 Md (Moroccan dirhams) for 36000Um before I even gave him any money, bless him. So it seemed my instincts were back on track…

We set out cheerfully for the border, which M. Barakali had warned me was “the worst road you’ll ever see in your entire life”. After dropping a couple of sets of fiches we finally took the left turn towards Dahkla and passed a long queue of lorries. Leaving Mauritania was a cinch: passport details were entered and our biometric details checked off, officials expressed great respect for the project, loved Sampson’s magic and shook hands…

Customs stamped our carnet, then at the last gendarmerie poste, there was an eager posse of six officials. While the big feller was eulogising Winnie Mandela, another guy was ogling Zola (looking cute in his cap) and finally offered to take him. “Jamais” I said firmly, “Never”. Then the first bloke asked if Ruby was available…? Sampson broke the tension with “What about me? No one wants me??” The guy hugged him and it was funny despite the underlying horror. I tried not to show the kids how freaked out I was.

We hopped back into Big Reg and set off across No Man’s Land, the section M. Barakali had warned us about. He’d never seen the Road to Foulamori, but we take his point. He’d told us to beware of getting stuck in soft sand but worse was the hard hard rock and lack of any clear track. There were huge lorries lurching all over the place, always in a hurry to get on, looping between piles of tyres and scrap cars and dead computers.

Crossing No Man’s Land…

between the tyres…

the hundreds of scrap cars on the ridge…

and the 1980’s computer consoles…

it was a surreal trip

There was great camaraderie with fellow truck drivers as we waved and bounced and rocked across – one gave us a strong arm salute! It took Big Reg half an hour to cover the 2-3km. We arrived just before 4pm which was when the border was supposed to shut but another driver told us it had shut at 3.30. We were now stuck overnight outside the gate – good job we have a house in tow!

On 16th June, thanks to entering Senegal twice around The Gambia, we made our 20th border crossing into our 19th and 20th countries. Officially we were moving from Mauritania into Morocco. But as far as South Africa is concerned, we’d just entered the occupied territory of Western Sahara.

(Yes, loyal readers, I am nearly a whole year behind with the story at this point – life and M.E. can do that to you.  But fear not, I have a cunning plan to bounce back up to date very soon… wish me luck.)

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Sahara Routine

The Sahara was a big surprise.

Before we left Dakar, we were bracing ourselves for two solid months crawling across the desert. We had packed in more food than at any time since we left South Africa in 2013. These days we don’t carry more than about 10 tins at a time for emergencies. Now the food box was crammed with +/- 50. We also had 20 packets of milk powder, 4 bags of lentils and 10kgs of rice. If we got stranded somewhere remote waiting for parts, we weren’t going to go hungry.

Bring it on, the troops are ready for the desert: Zola has his aviator shades…

…and Ruby her biscuits. For real, these were the ones she bought at the border.

We were also carrying more water than usual. Not only were our two 250L reservoirs full, Zola also cleaned out the Jojo tank on the back, normally used for the first filtering of waste vegetable oil. Now it was filled with emergency water for showers and clothes washing. We had visions of eking out our last drops on a parched plain while broken down somewhere in the middle of the Sahara.

Before we left Dakar, Zola had scrubbed dirty oil out the Jojo tank from inside so we could fill it with emergency water

But as soon as we crossed the River Senegal, Big Reg was whipping along perfect tar averaging 50kmph despite the head wind. We couldn’t believe the progress we were making, even when the road deteriorated with an occasional pothole. It only took us a week to cross the whole of Mauritania.

Welcome to Mauritania – perfect tar!

We were driving so much faster than usual…

it proved difficult to snap a decent pic…

of passing scenery

We also couldn’t believe the temperature. For two months in Senegal I had been berating us for being ‘late’. Every single book I’ve ever read about travelling the Sahara recommends going between November and March, as from April it’s just “too hot” to travel. But why didn’t I realise that a) inland temperatures are very different from the coast and b) all of those books were written by Europeans, coming down from the frozen north?! Let me tell you now (South)Africans, if you’re travelling up from the equator, you’re going to freeze your ass off if you cross before March!

Far from the 45˚-50˚C hell I was expecting, the Sahara’s dry heat was nowhere near as bad as the sapping humidity of Nigeria or Liberia at 30˚C. I was so relieved we hadn’t left Dakar any earlier than June. To dip below 20˚C at night is quite cold enough for me. Averaging 30something˚C of an afternoon was ample pay off and quite managable.

We’d stocked up on tonic for our 2pm pick-me-up, but we only really needed it once. That day, the coast road curved about 100km inland, and it reached 40˚C. Then we broke out the fizzy lemon from the Dometic freezer mid-afternoon and sucked on boiled sweets to give us a little lift.

This side of the river, there was an immediate change of scenery: scrub, thorn trees and suddenly dunes by the road. The white glare of rocky rubble varied with red sand. People appeared shorter and stubbier like the trees and the horses shrank to donkeys, sometimes miniature ones. There was an increasing incidence of camels.

Camel 1

Camels 2

Camels 3: wind powered

Every now and then, the squat houses would surprise us,…

their ice cream colours…

belying the heat.

Mosques are usually painted…

in variations of green, the holy colour of Islam.

The first day we were assailed by the smell of burning rubber and the air pressure gauge dropped to red. When we pulled over, we could hear the escaping hiss coming from under the passenger seat. The leak was in the same place Aman had tackled in Liberia. Sampson impressively fixed it in 5 minutes.

But a leak kept blowing continuously in the same place for the next month till eventually he had to replace the whole pipe.

People who live amongst sand don’t seem that bothered about going to the beach. That whole week there were hardly any roads off the highway down to the sea.

That first night, Big Reg pulled off on a rare side road and parked amidst a scattering of small square concrete houses with tiny rectangular windows or just a metal door, some painted in pastel colours of blue, green, yellow or mauve.

Our first overnight stop

amidst a deserted village

of houses like these

Next to them were ‘shade huts’ for sitting out the midday heat in – rectangular or circular structures with a roof and struts like a bandstand, covered in chicken wire with cloth sides you could drop to protect against wind, sun, sand and dust.

Cooooooool

Not a single person emerged. The peace was blissful if a little eerie. We indulged in simple food, Friday Night Treats, cat cuddling and reminiscing with Ruby about her toddlerhood. It was so silent and cool and dark, like a ghost town. Were these nomads’ homes? Had the whole village gone for a walk? Or had the water dried up so everyone had left?

That’s how deserted it was…

Sampsons: serious about conserving indoor tank water!

It was so lovely and quiet, I was so happy when I got up, excited about the empty day ahead. It was cold enough for trainers and a hoodie against the wind.

Time to take Huggy Bear for a walk

The lack of a beach wasn’t helping me deal with the challenge of teenagers on the road. At home, when they wake up grumpy, you can avoid them till they leave for school; on the road, their bad mood can sour the whole day for everyone if you don’t manage to coax them out of it with a bit of exercise. With Ruby it can take a whole walk…

In the morning, in the absence of a beach, we just set off into the desert…

The shells on the ground show the sea used to be a lot nearer

Evidence of an abandoned settlement: mossie net, old torches and batteries…

plus an arty line of sardine tins.

I try to be non-contentious with a quiz on French irregular verbs (we used to do times tables but Zola knows them all better than me now). Ruby is reluctant to get involved, but doesn’t like to be beaten by her brother, who is increasingly and annoyingly competent! I leave her to her sulky thoughts for a bit and pursue a cosy chat with Zola. Finally when she asks me a question, I beam the full light of my warm attention on her and she bathes in it – talking about herself and her future, comes to link arms and chats away merrily. Shoo, but it’s a trial of patience. I have to get her on an even keel before we get back to the truck where her father’s lack of tact can bomb a whole hour’s work in mere seconds…

Climbing dunes like they used to do…

on Noordhoek beach when they were little…

the joy of bashing and jumping never palls…

Now Zola’s tween temper is beginning to flare up too, it can be like a mood juggling act, balancing the needs of both of them.

My big babbies

It was while crossing the Sahara that I noticed Zola’s chin had turned from round and boyish to square and manly. This same week we found some old footage of him in St Newlyn East 18 months ago, with a piping voice and shock of 300 dreads (before Brian streamlined them back in Cape Town on his 11th birthday). This month before he turned 12, I realised that, in the interim, his voice has dropped to a tone as gravelly as the floor of the desert around us.

We were spending far more hours driving than during our usual routine, so some physical exertion at dawn and dusk became vital. I don’t know who felt more caged in the truck, Zola or the cats. Tiger and Cleo surprised us by loving exploring the sand, jousting and chasing and sprinting…

Escape from the truck!

There’s a whole world out there…

until the sudden scamper back home!

Chilling.

While Dad did his daily stretching to keep his back flexible enough to drive…

we would walk…

and walk…

reflecting on the changing scenery of the land…

the rocks

and the sky…

Very album cover

Ruby doing gym, Sahara-style…

with Zola on plastic bottle weightlifting

On our wanderings, I drove the kids mad with a catchy self-penned ditty which I will set down here for posterity (you’ll have to imagine the Paint Your Wagonesque melody):

“Little round balls, little round balls, must be goat poooooooooo
Little round balls, little round balls, must be goat poooooooooo
Big round balls….. big round balls…….
Camel camel…..
Arrrrrrr-ooooooooohhhh”

“Oh, Mom, really…?”

I only knew two things about Mauritania before I got here. The first was this bizarre story about President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who seized the helm of state in a military coup in 2008) getting bored during a soccer cup final and ordering the game to move to penalties – in the 63rd minute. That’s the kind of absolute power he wields.

Sadly, I failed to get a non-blurry snap of a poster for a national fishing competition, featuring the President dressed up in tweeds and waders looking like something out of PG Wodehouse. It was quite surreal.

The second was Mauritania’s reputation as the last country in the world to abolish slavery. Although it was only officially outlawed in 1981, it was not illegal to own slaves until 2007 and only one person has ever been prosecuted. Mauritania has the world’s highest prevalence of slaves, estimated at 4% of the population, but possibly as high as 20%.

Thankfully, Mauritania’s foremost anti-slavery campaigner already has a reputation up there with Malcolm X and Mandela when it comes to bravery –Biram Dah Abeid received the UN’s Human Rights Prize in 2013. Abeid, son of a slave (and whose last name means ‘slave’ in Arabic), was released from his third stint in prison in May 2016, the month before we arrived, for protesting the dropping of charges against a master who raped his 15 year old slave girl. He had received a two year sentence.

Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid

In 2012 activists from his anti-slavery organization L’Initiative pour le Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA) were imprisoned for staging a sensational demonstration outside a mosque on a Friday. Dah Abeid symbolically burned a copy of sharia law that keeps Haratin people enslaved, after first removing pages referring to the Quran and the Prophet; Dah Abeid states that sharia is not divine law but a set of outdated codes drawn up in the middle ages which shouldn’t be used to oppress so many black Africans in Mauritania.

The month after we left, the IRA was awarded the prestigious James Lawson Award for the Achievement in the Practice of Non-Violent Conflict in Washington as 13 more activists were arrested and sentenced to between 3 and 15 years, allegedly for inciting riots in Nouakchott. Freedom-fighter ‘Biram’ also announced that he would be standing against Aziz in Presidential elections for the second time in 2019.

May the grace of Allah go with him

We felt a definite sense of being in a more authoritarian state. There were marine police postes every 50km along the coast. However, officials at regular roadblocks were bored rather than threatening, asking only for passport numbers and vehicle registration.

Eventually, it became easier just to hand over 4 passport photocopies at each request for “fiches”. It was noticeable how often a darker junior officer was superseded by a more Arab-looking superior officer pushing in to deal with us. I won the first one over by asking him if Google had done a decent job of translating our letter of introduction from French into Arabic – and was rewarded with the briefest possible nod of approval.

The road deteriorated further on the way to the capital, Nouakchott.

From this…

to this…

to sometimes this.

The CBD lacked charm…

to the same degree it lacked women.

There were no women on the streets but men everywhere. I don’t know if this was the norm in Nouakchott or an effect of Ramadan.

I wonder if anyone has done research on the aesthetics of towns in a massively male-dominated society? Nouakchott was marked by an array of ugly thoughtless grey bunkers plonked anywhere, anyhow.

The Mauritanian boubou likewise prioritises function over fashion. The voluminous loose blue or white robes have built in kangaroo pouches to hold money or cell phones. Big armholes presumably allow you to sweat without staining which is practical, though Mauritanian men spend a lot of time hoiking their sleeves up over their shoulders. Most interestingly, the Mauritanian boubou seems to be something you can bung over anything to make your outfit acceptably smart to wear out in public – even pyjamas.

Sights of Nouakchott 1

Sights of Nouakchott 2

The hotel we approached couldn’t give us water without the permission of an absent director. We were saved yet again by the grace of our Senegalese friend Mamadou – his niece Khady Sarr married a Mauritanian, and this beautiful quiet lady came to find us when Big Reg got lost going up and down the main drag. We had a lovely chat in the parlour with her sisters-in-law before filling up our water tanks from their tap.

Many thanks to Mamadou’s niece Khady, sitting centre, with her husband (standing r. with their 5 month old son) and daughter 3 and visiting cousins, who were terrified by cats!

After so many sandy days, it was worth the struggle of finding our way across town to the port just to get to the sea, which was calm and warm to paddle in.

Big Reg parking off outside the port at Nouakchott

Inviting.

We took a rest afternoon: Zola played keyboard in the cab, while Ruby played guitar with Dad and I got stuck into writing up Dakar…

Zola reading in the nose cone

while Ruby cooked up some gluten-free treats for her ma…

YUM!

That night Ruby invented Nouakchott Pudding: the drop scones she’d made in a pan from pear, mango, raisins, rice flour and two eggs, were crumbled and drenched with ‘vanilla cream’ (extra thick powdered milk drizzled with essence) perfected by Sampson.

YUMMIER!!

It was a fitting celebration of the relief that comes with knowing you have an abundance of water at your disposal despite being in the middle of the desert.

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Ripped Off in Rosso

This blog tells the story of the one time we got thoroughly ripped off at a border. After travelling through 18 African countries back to back, I thought I was pretty good at sussing out con artists by now, but entering Mauritania I got well and truly taken for a ride.

The night before we crossed the border was the first cold one: I snuggled under a blanket, Sampson got in his sleeping bag and Ruby slept in a hooded fleece! I thought my cosy sleep had bolstered me sufficiently for this big day, but how wrong I was.

It started well. After spending an hour refamiliarising myself with all the documents and signing new Arabic versions of our Letter of Introduction, I felt thoroughly equipped. For me, preparing to cross a border is a bit like getting ready to go onstage. I get my Mandela skirt on, I run my opening lines in French, I calm myself to complete focus.

Sampson was checking the swell online. There was a heatwave forecast with 40˚C max for the Mauritanian coastal capital Nouakchott that day; border town Rosso was inland and lacking the sea breeze. It would definitely hit 38˚ and  30˚C overnight. We were already washing in our tiny plastic sink rather than showering to conserve water.

Getting my border-crossing head together

Getting my border-crossing head together, with no help from Tiger and Cleo

Setting off in high spirits. Today was the day that headscarves became standard wear for Ruby and I as we officially moved into North Africa.

Setting off in high spirits. Today was the day that headscarves became standard wear for Ruby and I as we officially moved into North Africa.

In the morning, Big Reg was stopped on the road by a Water and Forests official, who was fascinated to hear about our cooking oil conversion. During the explanation, some boys approached with a couple of scabby donkeys pulling a cart with a flat tyre. While Sampson helped them pump it back up, the Water and Forests feller asked me cautiously if we’d been to Mauritania before.
“No” I said, “Why?”
He looked at me pityingly, gave the Senegalese equivalent of “Shoo” and shook his head. “They’re going to nail you that side. That’s how it is, Mauritania.” Sampson showed him the disappearing cloth trick and explained how we’d never yet paid a bribe. But our hubris was about to be severely punished…

Sampson's good deed for the day number 1

Sampson’s good deed for the day number 1

Half an hour later, a policeman at a roundabout pointed out Big Reg’s right brake light wasn’t working. He was easily won over and didn’t fine us, but Sampson pulled off a little way along the road and turned the truck into the shade to fix it. At 11am it was already 32˚C. While Ruby and I were chopping greens and onions for lunch, a youth appeared from the paddy fields to the left covered in blood. He was in shock and the tip of his finger was missing: he’d just sliced it off with a machete.

While Sampson helped Gambian Musa to sit down in the shade, Ruby ran to bring him a slab of bread and butter and two cups of water so he could stomach a couple of Ibuprofen. Sampson dressed his wound with Betadine and made him hold it above his head to stop the bleeding.

Sampson and Musa so ridiculously thankful to find medical assistance in the middle of nowhere

Good deed number 2: Muss Baldeh was ridiculously thankful to have found medical assistance in the middle of nowhere

We hoped this good Samaritan act would counteract any bad karma coming our way; the jury’s still out on that…

An hour later, we arrived in Rosso. It was hot to the point of sweat running down the back of my legs under my Mandela skirt, which reminded me of the Nigerian border post. I had a similar sense of being about to run the gauntlet.

As the Big Green Truck pulled onto the main drag, men began running down the road ahead of us vying to be our guides. We studiously ignored everyone waving frantically at us except those in uniform, and I took my time to exit the vehicle wrapped in a big scarf and carrying an umbrella against the fierce midday sun. Head down, I walked determinedly through the haggle of hustlers to the police post and got exit stamps in our SA passports for the last time.

However, the delay with Musa meant that we had arrived later than anticipated. I was told that Customs were closing now and would only reopen at 3pm, so we couldn’t stamp the truck out on the carnet. Amidst a scrum of hustlers, I was told to go round the back and upstairs to an office, where I was met by a calm young man dressed all in white with a dark blue scarf wrapped in a turban around his head who shooed the others away, reassured me that this was indeed the Customs office and that there was nothing to pay.

His name was David and I immediately trusted him. Why? He was not a uniformed official, but I assumed, as he was sitting inside the office rather than outside with the hustlers, that he had an official role. The uniformed Custom officers didn’t shoo him out as they were leaving for their break, so I presumed he was employed as a runner, of the sort we had encountered many times before.

David suggested that in the meantime we could sort out the compulsory carte grise. He escorted me to an official who asked to see our international drivers licences and truck registration documents and said the carnet didn’t cover Mauritania so we had to buy car insurance, which was the same price for between 4-10 days 21000 Ouguiya (Um), about R800 (1FCA= 0.62Um according to Google the day before, but we were only getting 0.5Um here).

The official didn’t seem to speak French, so I sought David out to ask if we could pay in FCA and he said no, it was all in Ouguiya that side (though still in Senegal!), but only change the minimum because he could get us a better rate across the river. He deigned to come up into the truck and took me through a list of charges we’d have to pay the other side: first the ferry – he was going to try and get us the discount rate – then douanes, (customs) commun (municipality) and the biggest, the “frais de l’escort” – a charge for the first time entry of vehicle into Mauritania (we wouldn’t need to pay it again if we were returning). Oh and a “bon de sortie” (‘good to go’ exit fee).

Can you believe I didn’t question any of this?

I think I was just too glad to have found someone to help me navigate the shark-infested waters of this notorious border post. I called one of the scrapping moneychangers in and David oversaw me convert 350 000FCA to €500 to pay for visas the other side. €1 = 700FCA wasn’t an appalling rate, as the internet was quoting 655.86. It cost us 22000FCA to change (R440) and 50000FCA for the vehicle insurance.

It was the hottest part of day, between 2 and 3pm when only mad dogs and European travellers move about, so it seemed natural to let David park off with us in the truck under the fans. It was the fourth day of the fast, and he was suffering from toothache and spitting often. Sampson offered him painkillers, but he said he couldn’t take them before this evening. The kids went off to spend the last of our FCA on biscuits (Ruby) and aviator shades (Zola).

David was very interested in how Zola came to be with us so I told him the history of his adoption. He graciously invited us to his house, offering us access to showers and TV: “Come as my guests, don’t pay”. It seemed a genuine offer, as he appeared to be one of those guys who liked to collect foreign friends he kept photos of and received postcards from.

At 3pm David sent us back inside with another non-uniformed minion holding our carte grise and carnet for me to present to the young customs officer, who queried the list on the back. I had to find Senegal in the alphabeticised register of covered countries for him. “No charge” he announced, like he was doing us a great favour. Sampson did the trick for him anyway, just to be on the safe side.

Outside, David warned me just before the hordes descended “Right, they’re going to ask you for R10 000FCA for the ferry now, but only pay R5000”. Minion no. 1 seemed so genuinely distraught at this lack of what was ‘usually’ given, I gave him another 1000Um when Big Reg finally drove on to the ferry with four other vehicles.

This is the only photo of us crossing the River Senegal; I was too wary of offending someone.

This is the only photo of us crossing the River Senegal; I was too wary of offending someone.

On the other side, David took our passports, carnet and truck registration papers in his hand and led us out. It seemed I’d handed over authority. First stop was the biometric visa process, very impressive in a small room at a dusty border post, with electronic fingerprinting and photo capturing right there on the spot. The big relief was that there were no questions at all about the lack of a Senegalese stamp in the British passports we had just transferred to using now our SA ones were full.

Meanwhile David was hurrying me along, pushing me to leave Sampson and the kids in the passport office and come with him to sort the carnet out – he got me to change 130000FCA (R2600) into Ouguiya on the stairs with his mate – but it wasn’t a better rate as promised. I began to listen to the uneasy feeling that had been twingeing in my gut since David dropped his attempts to be charming and made himself at home in the truck.

I returned to the others to pay the €120 each visa charges. The guy registering was grumpy but there was lots of admiration in the queue for my Madiba skirt. David was still rushing, seeming suddenly to be in a hurry to get home. He told me to give him 35000Um (R1300) for the escort charge and 4000Um (R150) for douanes so he could go upstairs to sort them out, while he sent me with another minion to pay the 7500Um (R270) ferry charge and 3000Um (R100) commun charge – we queued for both and got official receipts.

As I followed him across the yard, I heard Minion no. 2 say, in response to a query from a passer-by, “Cent mille” but was feeling too dazed with the heat and exhaustion by now to interrogate this. We were just wanting to be gone, but then David had a massive row with an official who insisted the truck needed to pay a 13000Um (R500) ferry charge not the 7500Um charged for a car. I really couldn’t be bothered to fight about R200 at this stage, and demurely coughed up another 5500Um while David raged that he was an “imbecile“.

We then drove out the border post to a random spot off the town square, where he disappeared to pay the ‘bon de sortie”. Suddenly the charge was double the 4000Um he’d quoted earlier. “Why?” “Because you paid double for the bac” seemed too glib and quick an answer. But I still dumbly paid up another R300. When I protested his friend had only given us a 0.5 not 0.6 exchange he got haughty for a second and said “Wait till a bank then, but there’s none till Nouakchott”.

I was so tired and desperately needing to lie down, I was beginning to regret agreeing to go back to his house, but Ruby was extremely keen to wash her hair in running water. First we were subjected to a bizarre interlude where we were paraded in a square in front of a group of limp pre-Iftar men lying down playing drafts and a couple of women selling bread and bottles of fizzy drinks that David picked up for supper. Sampson was forced to perform the disappearing cloth trick like a dancing monkey.

David disappeared again, and we only realised after 10 more minutes that he was on the ground in the middle of the scrum playing drafts. I was fading fast and leaning against the wall by now. Two games later, he finally led us off like sheep. I was increasingly disconcerted by David’s fondness for Zola, which was now being expressed in headlock-type hugs. Zola was dealing with it better than I was; I’d begun to suspect manipulative narcissism not to mention nefarious intent. David was after all one of the very few border officials not to express open admiration of Ruby.

He directed us through dusty streets to his house, a compound around a courtyard. It was stiflingly hot in the confines of the narrow sandy lanes between the buildings. We were introduced to his 60 year old father, his mother (more my age), his younger brother’s wife (aged about 20, with two daughters) two younger brothers and small sons of other siblings. Oh, and two baby goats. We were objects of interest but not fascination, so had a definite sense that this must happen often, David bringing foreigners home to visit. The women kept their distance.

He proudly showed off ‘his’ side of the house: an enormous shower room with huge marble tiles, and a plasma TV room blasting freezing aircon with a stack of mattresses. While the Sampsons took their stuff in to shower, I chose PEACE and solitude and a flannel wash in the truck before phoning my Mom to say we were safely over the border at least.

I dressed quickly and reentered the compound as dusk was settling. The family broke the fast with dates and a gluten-y porridgey drink I didn’t dare try and a syrupy sweet bissap brew which I gratefully did as I was feeling dizzy with low blood sugar. I just said a little prayer hoping the water had been boiled long enough to be safe for us.

Sampson was uncomfortable sitting cross legged so I asked him to please go and heat a bowl of leftovers for me. Ruby tucked away two cups of coffee and a mint tea before the big platters of goat meat, maggi and onions were served – the first one to the father and the little boys, the rest shared our plate.

Little 2 year old Fatima was desperately adoring of David, clinging to his knees while he was praying. She turned out to be the daughter of his divorce. That explains why he described himself as ‘unmarried’ in vaguely bitter tones. I speculated in what dire straits a woman would have to be, with no choice but to leave her baby girl behind.

On the one hand, it was amazing to be sat sharing such a meal on our first night in the country, breaking the fast with a Mauritanian family, with holy music playing on the radio and a clutch of toddlers rolling around on a mat with their dozing grandma. On the other hand, it was a bit galling to suspect you’re probably paying for all of it.

After supper, David took us to his room to watch TV. It felt surreal to be watching an American celebrity fashion piece on Kate Winslett and Emily Blunt dubbed into French, though Ruby was enjoying it. I was reeling from exhaustion by now, and called it a night as soon as we could get away, feeling very glad that Zola, with a headache, was keen to come too. When we came in at around 9pm the temperature gauge was still showing 28˚C and it didn’t seem to drop all night. It took four episodes of the News Quiz to fall asleep.

David with his daughter in his TV room

David Diallo with his daughter in his TV room

I woke with a start after midnight and found myself in a sweat, assailed by the sickening conviction I’d been royally HAD. Outside there was a raucous group of lads on a mat eating their main meal of the night, giggling like hyenas. After half an hour, I put my reading light on and started writing out exactly what had happened to work out how much money today had cost us.

It took me three hours to write my diary, recalling each step, each calculation. Little by little I started putting it together:

  • How the hassle of the hustlers was excessive – staged to make me feel under such a state of siege that I gratefully accepted David’s protection.
  • How the hustlers melted away once I’d been delivered to him and were significantly absent afterwards.
  • How David had walked away, in the Mauritanian insurance office. This, I realised, had been his masterstroke: to leave, having charitably ‘helped’ us, without putting any more pressure on. This persuaded me into thinking he wasn’t in it for the dough.
  • How he’d stoked our confidence by arranging for us to pay “only” 5000FCA not 10000FCA for the ferry, and by making us a generous offer to stay at his house just before hitting us with the big payouts on the other side.
  • How he’d interspersed utterly fraudulent payments with ‘official’ ones, thoroughly receipted (even though we’d never had to pay anything like them before). Only looking closely later I realised the largest receipt he’d given me was ripped in half so couldn’t be read properly.
  • How fake the row was about whether the truck ferry charge should be 7500Um or 13500Um, where David threw his toys ‘on our behalf’, just to salve any doubts I might be having at that point about suddenly having a much lighter wallet.

It dawned on me that the whole Mauritania border crossing was like The Sting and I’d been the mark. Looking back it was obvious that absolutely everyone at the border post was in on it. It was quite magnificent really. The difference between the Mauritanian and Nigerian borders is that, at the latter, the coercion was in your face and the hustlers were trying to outdo each other, not working together to fleece the foreigner.

I remembered wondering vaguely how David was getting away with dozing on a bench in the truck and not ‘working’ – derrrrrr, he was working. On us. Why didn’t I ask why he was crossing with us and escorting us through to Mauritania, if he worked in the customs office on the Senegalese side? David’s aura of authority belied the lowly role of minion I had assigned to him. If he wasn’t the mastermind, he was at the very least the paymaster: all the minions and uniformed officials who aided and abetted got their cut.

Is this state-sanctioned fraud on a massive scale? I thought at the time I was being paranoid when I overheard the figure of “cent mille” i.e. 100 000FCA but it proved to be quite true: we paid 130 000FCA more than we were legally obliged to do (visa and ferry only) presumably with David taking 30 000FCA for himself. The total cost for us to get in to Mauritania was +/- R10 600 (that’s 530 000FCA) of which the visas cost +/- R7000 (350 000FCA); with the validity of the insurance debatable, it was at least R2600 over the odds.

An expensive day.

***

So, is the moral of the story that you should only trust a guy in uniform and never allow yourself to be escorted up the backstairs? But the Ghanaian guy who waylaid me in the immigration office in Accra and tried to pocket our visa extension fees for himself was in uniform. It seems there are no hard and fast rules except: 1) don’t be rushed and 2) handle all transactions yourself.

Are we obliged to drop the line “They have never paid a bribe” from our PR now? I wondered out loud to my husband if what we paid out wasn’t rather a ‘facilitation fee’? “Isn’t that the definition of a bribe?” he pointed out derisively. I pondered.

No, I decided later. Bribery lies in intent. If I was meaning to pay David off to cut corners for us, that’s a bribe. If I got conned into thinking that those extra charges were genuine fees issued by the Mauritanian state, then that’s just a embarrassing indictment of my intelligence.

***

I didn’t look at my diary’s account of this day for many months, it was too painful. But I wrote this on the following:

“This morning I woke up in absolute silence, and golden light. The peace of first thing cannot be matched. Cats hear me moving, Tiger mews plaintively and I make up milk. I move the buffer tray and they jump down. I massage Hub’s hand, hanging out of his net. The kids are fast asleep, a cool breeze blowing through from the sea we can’t yet see. It is so peaceful. We are all together. And they are enjoying it as much as me.

Tiger tries to jump back up on to the book box so he can go back and cuddle on Ruby. He lands on a teatowel, which gives way under him, ends up sliding down Mark’s mosquito net, falls on his back then jumps like lightening into the cab scared to death. I laugh.

I go back and start taking my net down. I have everything to look forward to. No meetings, no deadlines, no routine. Just a new capital city, a new beach. I think I may never be happier. I feel completely at peace.”

As Sampson got out to stretch I grinned at him, “Not boring though, is it?” Seems I’d rather be ripped off than mired in routine.

The quiet of their courtyard on a Ramadan early morning

The quiet of their courtyard on a Ramadan early morning, where we ate the night before

David's father, brothers and nieces

M.Haroun, David’s father, brothers and nieces

While doing T’ai Chi, I reflected that if our money went to David’s mother and paid for a month’s groceries for this family, it was not so bad. It was an expensive cultural evening, but a good lesson in humility.

Posted in 18 Mauritania | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Saint Louis: An Audience with Zoumba

Just before the blog leaves Dakar, I have to make one last mention of Monsieur Sall, LASA’s long-suffering truck consultant, who made the trip into town to attend to Big Reg’s needs many times over our two months there, and whom we visited at his workshop in Rufisque and outside his home in Diamniadio just before we left.

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The Big Green Truck parked overnight outside M.Sall’s workshop in Rufisque…

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where his team took out the stiff clutch pressure plate, cleaned all the dust off, greased and replaced it, and welded Big Reg’s broken accelerator pedal back together.

LASA had paid Top Pneus to get the dodgy Foundiougne repair strengthened as it was bulging through the tyre. But the front wheel was unbalanced since it had been taken off, and there was nowhere in Dakar that could do wheel balancing for 14” radials. We found ourselves rather wobbly going above 55km, and Sampson was worriting about it ahead of the Sahara.

So we went back to M. Sall, who was at a loss as to what more he could do. Sampson’s anxiety about the road ahead was manifesting in his tendency never to be satisfied, making a fuss about the tightness of the brakes and the clutch pedal, insisting the revs were set too low, then too high…

I sat with his wife and commiserated about the challenges of managing men. She shed a few tears in memory of her father, whom she nursed to his too early death, and confessed a deep longing to travel. I said she had a wonderful headstart on the rest of us: a qualified mechanic for a husband!

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Our friend Oussèynou Sall, his wife Aïssatou Diandy and their son Mohamed (with toy cars donated by Zola) outside their house in Diamniadio. Thanks so much for your patience!

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We finally left Dakar on the first day of Ramadan.

It was SO great to be Going at last. We trundled through Thiès, an unexpectedly pretty town with cute cafés and colourful raffia bowls and baskets piled on roadside stalls. Despite the slightly muted feel of the first day of the fast, it was a day of brightness: intense bougainvillea splashes on walls and women wrapped in gorgeous cloth gliding along dusty streets.

I was comforted by the thought we could still make it to Spain before my folks’ birthdays in July. My Mom was getting worried about us. On the phone that morning she said “Isn’t it a danger that the old cooking oil stored on the roof might explode in the high temperatures?” I said “Mom, it’s cooking oil. It’s designed for high temperatures!”

On the road north to Kébemer, the scenery was increasingly reminiscent of Angola and Nambia, with the surrounding scrub mirroring the vegetation at the other tropic. We also saw our first camel.

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The road north through the Sahel…

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full of thorn trees…

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and the occasional baobab sporting green shoots.

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Back on the road, with the kids back in the nose cone looking out of the window…

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and the cats back dozing in the nets as we bounce along…

Saint Louis is Senegal’s ‘second city’ but it was not as city-like as I expected. There were no industrial outskirts and the centre was more old colonial town-y, more crumbly, more colourful. We crossed the huge Pont Faidherbe onto the rectangular island of the centre ville, very reminiscent of Gorée but not as well maintained.

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Welcome to Saint Louis

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a city so close to the water…

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that the centre is situated on an island…

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reached by a giant bridge…

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le Pont Faidherbe, named for colonial governor Louis…

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and in the centre of the old town…

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every street ends at the water.

Within minutes Big Reg was through the narrow streets and across a bridge the other side, stranded amidst pony traps and a market full of vividly dressed women. I had a definitive feeling of having crossed into North Africa.

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Off the bridge the other side…

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past the WW1 memorial…

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into the pulsating market street

Up to that point, I had no idea Saint Louis was on an island in the middle of a river! It was utterly charming, but its position on low-lying land in the mouth of the River Sengeal make Saint Louis “the city most threatened by rising sea levels in the whole of Africa” according to the UN Habitat agency.

Big Reg turned back onto the island and we found ourselves outside the Institute Français. We picked up a programme outside its wonderful library, teeming with school kids, but it was just too bloody hot to look at any exhibits. We discreetly hid from those fasting in the truck and had a cuppa bissap and ricecakes with chocolate spread instead. The sugar lift was much needed.

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While Sampson tucked into a chocolate pastry…

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the kids and I indulged our love for Chocopain, Senegal’s peanutty version of Nutella

Nathan had been pressing us to meet his friend Zoumba. Pape Samba Sow a.k.a. Zoumba might be nearing pensionable age, but this father of five still burns with the fiery energy of a 21 year old. He turned up to meet us on a moped.

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Zoumba, on the right, with his wife and youngest daughter plus a colleague and her daughter

He is an all round artist: a famed teacher, writer, actor, dancer, comedian, musician and mentor but above all dramatic performer. He also MC’s the famous Saint Louis Jazz Festival. Zoumba is such a force of nature, his larger than life personality makes you feel you are in the presence of a Senegalese version of Alan Bennett, Robin Williams or some other national treasure. (See footage of him lecturing at the University of Freiburg here.) In Europe he’d probably be fêted with BAFTAs and TV specials but here he’s still scratching a living.

His latest project was featured on the cover of the Institute Français programme commemorating the wreck of the Medusa on the Banc d’Arguin off the coast of modern Mauritania 200 years ago. (Saint Louis is situated right on the border with Senegal’s northern neighbour, though the Big Green Truck still had to travel 100km further north by road to cross it). While ferrying 400 people to reestablish the French colony after the British handover, an inept captain hit the bank on 2nd July 1816.

In May 2016, Canadian artist Adad Hannah and the local community recreated a raft, made by survivors of the wreck to supplement lifeboats, to the exact dimensions for the installation. More than 150 people were cast adrift on the original; 13 days later, having faced storms, drunken rebellion and cannibalism, only 15 survived. In the context of the modern migrant crisis that was beginning to dominate headlines to the north, Hannah was inspired to reimagine the disaster like Franco-Brazilian artist Alexis Peskine did at the Dak’Art Biennale exhibition 2016. You can see Hannah’s Saint Louis artwork here.

Everyone was battling tiredness, getting used to the new routine of Ramadan, eating main meals during the night. So we left Zoumba’s family to rest and found a quiet breezy spot by the riverside to park off. That night’s sleep was disturbed by a massive party happening at Flamingo’s on the opposite bank, with mass drumming and singing sounding out at 4am. I was less upset by being woken up as not having been invited!

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Zola weightlifting with a plastic bottle full of sand while Ruby plaits her hair.

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Flamingo, the live music club on the riverbank opposite

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Zola hard at work the next morning, nevertheless

The next morning, after school, we found Zoumba entertaining a Québécoise visitor Chantelle and her guide, El Hadj, an ex-pupil of his. He took us round the house he built himself, before showing us his publications. He’s written novels (Les Anges Blesses Fama Editions 2009) poetry (Arc En Fleuve Harmattan, 2013) plays and theatre criticism (Théâtre Nawetaan, Théâtre des Valuers).

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Zoumba the endlessly creative entertainer

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Zoumba’s poetry collection, between publications of his mother Amina Sow Mbaye

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Zoumba told us he never travels without this sculpture “my wife”…

The supreme storyteller regaled us with the tale behind a poem he wrote called Double Thérapie “with medical words I didn’t know I knew” about a sudden sickness of his mother. I struggled to follow the rich flow of his figurative French but was very touched by the little I did understand.

Zoumba considers himself so close to his mother that he is like “her twin”. After his father died in 1988, he became her first confidant, was the first reader of her books. When many years ago, she fell ill, he had spent the day playing football and karate, then felt suddenly ill himself and went home to sleep. He woke at 5am to find his mother in a deep coma. When both the doctor’s ministrations and her marabout singing devotional verses failed to rouse her, her son started crying.

“Tears closed my eyes, and I couldn’t see. My imagination entered her stomach as if it were a house. I walked through the rooms, at ease, and started to clean up, mopping up the mess. I pulled on a wire to flush the blood out and I could hear my mother singing outside”. When he came round, his mother woke and said, “I don’t know what you did, but I feel better”. They suspect a blood clot had been cleared.

Regrettably, because of the first-days-of-fast fatigue, we didn’t get to meet his mother Amina Sow Mbaye, pedagogical expert and famous author of a novel about her experiences as a newly qualified teacher in newly independent Senegal called Mademoiselle, now a set work. Aged 79, in her youth she was a 400m African champion, a basketball referee, and founder of the scouts in Senegal. She was also President of the national Federation of Women’s Associations, and is considered ‘the mother of all Saint-Louis intellectuals’. I look forward to the honour of meeting her next time.

We were blessed to pull up in a petrol station with an ATM and a market next door, allowing us to stock up with cash, water, eggs and veg at same time. Thank goodness, because a long afternoon slogging round town in the heat trying to find all that would have finished me off – it was still 30˚C at 5pm. In the depths of the uncharacteristically quiet market, a man tunefully intoned comforting verses from the Quran while sitting crosslegged on a pile of pallets. Below him, fasting tradeswomen squatted next to their wares fanning themselves slowly, or lay on sacks in the shade. The thought of trying to get through just the shopping without some sustaining food or water first was unthinkable for me in this heat; I admired their spiritual inspiration and their fortitude.

I was so happy to find someone selling big dried hibiscus flowers, I bought a huge bagful of this bissap to make tea and insisted on paying 1000FCA (R20) for it, double the asking price. I’m dolefully coming to the end of this supply now…

Sampson stopped the truck on the road out of town when he saw a shop with a fridge to pick up little tubs of yoghurt and fizzy coconut drinks with lumps of actual coconut in. He had to gently but firmly fight off a couple of fake Baye Fall dudes, stylish beggars hassling for ‘succour’ for les talibes ‘les petits enfants’. When one got very insistent – stepping up and placing a handful of heavy silver rings on the steering wheel – Sampson showed ’em a trick and Zola came forward to smile from under his dreadlocks. Confused then mollified, they left.

Did I say how great it was to be MOVING again? The stretch between Saint Louis and the border was notable for the huge amount of bags of onions everywhere, and bright green paddy fields.

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There was really no need to have stocked up in Dakar!

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A new agri project using irrigation canals from the River Senegal was growing rice on the left hand side of the road…

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while the barren flat red dust land continued unbroken on the right.

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Meanwhile Ruby was busy making pictures…

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from Zoumba’s bougainvillea petals, having been inspired by the Butterfly Island artist.

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Aren’t they lovely?

On the road to the border through Ross-Béthio we were beginning to see more Berber headdresses and long baggy boubous on men and baggier outfits on older women. We’d reached North Africa at last.

Big Reg pulled off in a JCB storage place just before the border in Ndiael, which, the way the locals pronounced it, sounded like Nigel.

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Our overnight stop in Ndiael

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thanks to welcoming security guard Mustafa Khan

After a truck tour, the Gambian security guard Mustafa was very enthusiastic for us to stay. He led his elderly and respected boss M. Amadou Nyama Ba by the hand to meet us and translated his formal Pulaar into French:

“May Allah bless you for this brave endeavour and see you safely home. So many of our compatriots are overseas so whenever a visitor comes to us, we show them the welcome we hope they get that side…”

I winced, opened my mouth, then closed it again with a sigh. It seemed too great a shame to cast doubt on such lovely sentiments.

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A raft of cats to cover our pain and shame

Posted in 16 Senegal | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

WE LOVE DAKAR! Part 5: You Are My Tribe

This is the last Dakar blog, I promise.

When we originally planned this trip, we intended to cross the Sahara before the end of March because of the encroaching summer heat. (The fact that was originally March 2014 we can set aside for now!) Chatting with other travellers en route who were coming the other way, we had been told we’d be OK pushing it until the end of April.

When we arrived in Dakar at the end of March 2016 I thought we could be in and out within the month. But then we spent 3 weeks in the garage and it took longer than anticipated to collect enough oil – filtering 600L into the fuel tanks and storing an extra 400L on the roof – to get to Tangier. It was now the third week of May and we were desperately eager to hit the road, but we weren’t quite full yet.

Then Sampson got the flu. He didn’t know whether it was because he snorkeled in dirty water with Nathan, or because he ate with his hands at Ousmane’s baby party having neglected to wash them after being climbed all over by little kids wanting to greet the magician after his show. Either way, he went down hard, and the rest of us followed like dominoes: Zola, Cleo the cat, me. (This is how I found out cats sneezed.)

We were blessed that by now we had our infrastructure sorted. This lovely man delivered fresh bread to us every day, and our lovely fruit lady down the road kept us stocked up on Vitamin C.

M. Dioda delivered fresh baguettes every day to Ngor Lounge and insisted on treating us to many

Douda Dione delivered fresh baguettes every day to Ngor Lounge and insisted on treating us to many

Ma X lovely fruit lady receiver of Ruby's daily chat

Younousse Diatta, distributor of delicious fruit and receiver of Ruby’s daily chat

So I made my husband chicken hotpot and bought grapes. It was strangely cool, jeans and socks weather. Zola learned valuable lessons about ‘spoons’ and not squandering energy. Normally he’d be hammering up and down on his bike, but now he was exhausted after playing the keyboard for an hour, never mind going outside.

Sadly, we had to cancel our planned weekend trip to Nicole and Mamadou’s farm in Joal. That Saturday night, Mamadou had a terrible accident: he rolled the car three times, with five volunteers in it. Lucky no one was seriously hurt, and he came out with just cuts and bruises. But Nicole was hoping that the shock would make him seriously consider stopping trying to live these crazy parallel lives of theirs – it was time to plump for one or the other.

Please take care of yourselves, dear ones!

Please slow down and take care of yourselves, dear ones!

Ruby was the only one who didn’t go down with flu. Nicole took her off to help with her wardrobe clearout: she gave Ruby three skirts, two blouses, and two awesome dresses, one of which made her look so frighteningly like Marilyn Monroe that it took a while for her to work up the courage to wear it out.

She also enjoyed talking with Mamdou about the plan for training horses at their farm. She said it was the first time she had ever been respected as a speaker with an opinion by an adult other than us, and listened to as a peer. Bless you Mamadou – you may have changed her life with that conversation. Not to mention your own. Ruby’s dream is now to get back to Senegal, go to West Africa’s best Veterinary Science College in Dakar and live with Mamadou at the farm. We’re not far behind.

***

On Saturday, as I was beginning to sicken, Nathan popped by for a chat and left some moringa powder with us. I was amazed that the spoonful I took before bed, as he recommended, seemed to lift me over the worst day of ‘flu I knew I had coming, and carry me straight into recovery.

On Sunday, Mina volunteered to host a Vegan Feast to enable us to say goodbye to a few friends. We came early to help prepare, but the recipes were all hers:

While Ruby and I helped chop...

While Ruby and I helped chop…

...kitchen alchemist Mina whipped up magic in a blender - a 'cheesy' dip from cashew nuts...

…kitchen alchemist Mina whipped up magic in a blender – a ‘cheesy’ dip from cashew nuts…

for the crudités...

for the crudités…

before she transformed raw beetroot and fresh herbs dipped in millet...

before she transformed raw beetroot and fresh herbs dipped in millet…

...into 'burgers', with sweet potato chips, an apple, cabbage and lime salad and...

…into ‘burgers’, with sweet potato chips, an apple, cabbage and lime salad and…

my favourite, the chilled mango and carrot ‘soup’ starter with a spoonful of mint cream...YUM!

my favourite, the chilled mango and carrot soup starter with a spoonful of mint cream…YUM!

I’m not sure which was the most mouth-popping taste sensation – the blended juice ‘soup’ with the fresh mint cashew cream or the dessert Mina made just for me: toasted chewy coconut and date bites. I ate an icecreamcartonful.

While Nathan was giving Sampson the lowdown on top 9/11 conspiracy theories, other guests arrived: Nicole and Mamadou, a German-American vegetarian restauranteur couple, a Senegalese filmmaker based in LA, and Youssou N’dour’s manager formerly based in London. Sampson took part in a fascinating conversation debating whether or not the customary peaceful, gentle and tolerant Senegalese personality and warm welcoming traditions pre-dated the arrival of Islam and the ethos of Mouridism.

It was explained that among the different ethnic groups in Senegal there is a playful way of teasing each other in a very friendly way that has built cohesion. For example, the Diola and the Serere are considered cousins, so when a Serere and a Diola meet, even if they don’t know each other, they will always tease one another. It is the same between the Serere and the Toucouleurs. That’s what I call extended family.

A roomful of fascinating lives and sublime tastes!

A roomful of fascinating lives and sublime tastes!

I love the people you meet in Dakar.

Nathan insisted Sampson take his new surfboard for Zola, as the lad had outgrown his other one, and pointblank refused to take any money for it. It was genuinely painful for us to leave these dear friends: this supportive community felt so like home already.

***

Our last Monday, while Sampson finished the oil filtering with Ousmane’s help, I sat alone in Ngor Lounge loading the Pop Goes The Wheel blog, revelling in the peace and the wifi. The story had finally reached Dakar, just as we were about to leave it. Sigh… Bietjie bietjie maak baie…

Cats keeping me company on my keyboard vigil

Cats keeping me company at my keyboard vigil

while outside, Ruby busy being creative...

while outside, Ruby was busy being creative…

with some Senegalese-inspired colour

with some Senegalese-inspired colour

Ruby was surprisingly ready to leave the wifi behind. She’d been shaken by the vitriol she’d unwittingly unleashed after criticising a yellow T-shirt of Justin Bieber’s on Instagram: two grown women led an attack on her!

My darling girl, such a mixture of temper and tenderness

My darling girl, such a teenage mixture of temper and tenderness

We did a final stock-up shop at Casino ready to hit the Sahara. The food cupboard had more tins crammed in it than when we left Cape Town in July 2013. We also bought half a giant sack of onions from the fruit and veg lady for 4000FCA. This was possibly overkill, but I figured that if we broke down and got stuck in the desert waiting weeks for parts, as long as we had onions and tinned tomatoes, beans, rice and pasta, we’d survive.

When we finally left, I’m sure everyone at Ngor Lounge breathed a sigh of relief. The box of chocs I gave Peggi was hardly adequate recompense for the Big Green Truck sitting on their forecourt for over a month. Sis Yandiswa will be glad to know that Mapiko’s placemats made from recycled bottle tops were given a good home in Boris’s art garden. THANK YOU Boris and Peggi Sow, for your patience and big hearts.

Looking on the bright side of being late to leave, it had been good to stay so long in Dakar and acclimatise to the dry heat of the Sahel before pushing north. Plus, the hotter it got, the more likely palm oil would continue to flow through the pipes and not solidify during cold desert nights.

Our delay also meant that we were still going to be here on 2nd June for the big launch party at La Sénégalaise de L’Automobile of the brand new GLE Coupé – a huge event and a great opportunity to meet the Mercedes team who were flying in from Paris.

So, on the last day of having the hire car, I was driving the pick-up behind Big Reg on the way back to LASA when Sampson pulled up in a garage on the wrong side of the pump. I needed to fill up the bakkie, so the attendant told me to back up and go the other side.

I reversed straight into a Peugeot 206, which luckily belonged to the chill-est man in the whole world. When I got out apologising (and sweating) profusely, M. Ndiaye told me “not to worry, it was an accident” and the little dent in his bonnet didn’t matter at all. Bless him.

You gotta love Dakar.

Things you can buy from street hawkers during a traffic jam in Dakar:
boxes of tissues, teatrays, bowls, cups, sunglasses, strawberries, cashew nuts, Koran inscriptions, airtime, prayer mats, wrenches, parakeets, trilbys, cool drinks, coffee-table-sized pictures of marabouts

Half an hour later, pulled up in a Colobane traffic queue, we found ourselves outside the perfect leather shoe stall and jumped out to buy a long-promised birthday present for my sapeur son. Their pointy Congolese sexiness made his size 8 feet look even bigger…

Forgot to take a pic at the time - here they are 6 months later, very well loved

Forgot to take a pic at the time – here they are 6 months later, very well loved

When we arrived at LASA, the Big Green Truck was stalled by a blockage in a fuel pipe and couldn’t park under the spotlight opposite as planned. This added to the stress of all four of us trying to get our glad rags on at same time but Zola ended up looking awesome in his navy suit and sharpsharp shoes, with Ruby wearing a Senegalese dress of Nicole’s. Sampson was looking more like a Tarantino pimp in his linen suit with sneakers and a ponytail…

The champagne was already flowing when we entered at 6.45pm

The champagne was already flowing when we entered LASA at 6.45pm

Café Bivouac had been transformed into a cocktail lounge with high stools, black and chrome décor...

Café Bivouac had been transformed into a cocktail lounge with high stools, scattered jewels and black and chrome décor…

and futuristic waitresses in A line miniskirts and bobble afros wandering amongst the crowd around the cars

and futuristic waitresses in A line miniskirts and bobble afros wandering amongst the crowd around the cars

I sampled the sublime quality bissap and bouyé juice while the others tucked into melon balls in liqueur with parma ham, cream cheese with olives and chicken mafé kebabs…

Yum - I spot the artistry of Terrou-Bi

Yum – I spot the artistry of Terrou-Bi

The cognoscenti of Dakar milled about the gleaming cars nibbling on the bijou snacks. It felt more like the première of a James Bond film than the launch of the new GLE Coupé, all whirling spotlights, billowing dry ice and huge plasma screens showing Mercedes motivational ads about how to turn clients into fans. LASA’s got it down.

Our friend and patron, LASA DG Jérôme Barth...

Our friend and patron, LASA DG Jérôme Barth

on top form...

was on top form, totally relaxed despite all the media attention, an apparently effortless host

Sampson loved the virtual reality tour of the latest Mercedes

Sampson loved the virtual reality tour of the latest Mercedes

We were taken upstairs to do an in-house TV interview and introduced to Corinna Fiora, an Egyptian/Belgian/Italian who has lived in Dakar for 10 years. With her dark eyes, cheeky curls, bolshy energy and almost tangible sense of fun, Cori emanates an intoxicating aura of Audrey Hepburn meets Amy Winehouse.

Proof that dynamite comes in small packages, Cori in her heels was the same height as Zola

Proof that dynamite comes in small packages, Cori in her heels was the same height as Zola

All in black, with her wild curls tied back, Cori was successfully masquerading as corporate but I immediately recognised a kindred spirit. We saw the alternative work ethic radiating from each other: we are the people who resist the pressure to conform, to colour inside the lines and live inside the box. We travel, we make cross-cultural alliances in order to create and we don’t settle – for mediocrity, for the easy way or for the status quo. We compromise as little as possible and stretch our money as far as we can, to make the art we want to make, by sharing resources with like-minded friends who become like family. We strive, we shit stir, we challenge. And we sure know how to party.

When she came outside to see the truck, Cori took one look and said “Ah. You are my tribe”.

As well as doing presenter work, Cori sings in a band called I Science with her Senegalese husband Staz a.k.a. Ibaaku – check out their latest work here. He was busy DJing across the other side of the showroom, supporting a circus show of stiltwakers, a scarf artist and a dancer who managed to perform despite a car alarm going off and the audience’s view being blocked by the electronically-raised boot of the new GLE Coupé…

After Jérôme gave his welcoming speech on the staircase...

After Jérôme gave his epic welcoming speech on the staircase…

the entertainment kicked off...

the entertainment kicked off…

with Star Wars-esque stilt walkers...

with Star Wars-esque stilt walkers…

and a stupendous...

and a stupendous…

scarf aerial act...

scarf aerial act…

that...

that…

blew...

blew…

the crowd's...

the crowd’s…

mind!

mind!

Not to mention the DJ...

Not to mention the magnificent DJ…

and the dancer...

and the mesmerising dancer…

Cori's husband DJ Ibaaku with Paula the dancer with the most professional poise under pressure I have ever witnessed!

Cori’s husband DJ Ibaaku with Paula N’Boussoungou, the dancer with the most professional poise under pressure I have ever witnessed!

But the best treat of all was to meet the Tractafric Motors Corporation Mercedes team who had been supporting us since Sampson’s serendipitous meeting with Stéphane Vautherin in Libreville, Gabon in October 2013. Time and again, services at partner garages had kept the Big Green Truck on the road, through Cameroun, Ghana and Liberia. Tractafric are the difference between us making it this far and not surviving beyond the Tipping. We are forever grateful.

We were honoured that Parts and Services Director Guy Allard from Tractafric Paris made the effort to come across the city to visit us in Ngor earlier in May – he’s the only person we’ve met apart from Kingsley Holgate who’s been to more African countries than us (27). He asked us to stay for the launch and we thought we’d be long gone… ha!

Sampson with Guy Allard, Parts and Services Director from Tractafric Paris and J-P Blanc from LASA

Sampson with Guy Allard from Tractafric Paris and J-P Blanc from LASA

The big shock was that his colleague Nicolas Augereau, the Mercedes Benz brand manager that Sampson had been communicating with for months and had assumed was also a veteran of the company, turned out to be in his mid twenties!

Nicolas Augureau and Charles, the sharp-suited duo

Nicolas Augereau and Charles Monnoyeur, the sharp-suited brand managing duo

Nicolas takes his specs off for photos, but we think he should leave them on ‘cos they give him a sexy when-Joe 90-grew-up-and-became-James-Bond look…

Dudes in suits...

Dudes in suits…

We took the team down to meet Big Reg. We were honoured to welcome Éric Mougenot, DG for Tractafric West Africa, and Deputy DG Emmanuel Miette round our little table, while enthusiastic marketing coordinator Imane Benjelloun jumped straight into the driver’s seat!

The Tractafric team and Cori getting to know Big Reg

M. Mougenot and the Tractafric team, with Cori, getting to know Big Reg

Moroccan team member Imane taking the wheel

Moroccan team member Imane taking the wheel

Tractafric team l to r: Fatou Mata Bakayoko, Charles Monnoyeur, Emmanuel Miette, Rajaram Krishnamurthy, Nicolas Augereau, Sampson and Imane Benjelloun

Tractafric team l to r: Fatou Mata Bakayoko, Charles Monnoyeur, Emmanuel Miette, Rajaram Krishnamurthy, Nicolas Augereau, Sampson and Imane Benjelloun

LASA also had a cool spot set up for Polaroid studio shots:

whole team

Official one of whole team

The prospect of meeting the top team from Paris had been a bit nerve-wracking, but they turned out to be such great fun – we can’t wait to go visit them in Europe!

But how did Sampson manage to stick his hand in front of the face of M. Miette?? Sorry sir!

How did Sampson manage to stick his hand in front of the face of M. Miette?? Sorry sir! But Betina keeps her cool…

Ah

At ease…

Posing 1: Pimping Out

Posing 1: Pimping Out

Posing 2: Keira Knightly pouts

Posing 2: Keira Knightly pouts

Posing 3: dignity go hang

Posing 3: dignity go hang

Posing 4: Doooooods!

Posing 4: Doooooods!

Erwan had given us invites to ‘Terminus’, the last of the Afrosiders Biennale parties at la Gare. Nathan was already there, Nic and Charles were taking their sharp suits down the old station now, we were so nearby it seemed utterly ridiculous not to go. We were already knackered, we figured it couldn’t be much worse? Ruby was initially reluctant, but then put her Marilyn dress on and got into the idea. After eating I felt better, so at midnight, we all jumped in the car and set off!

La Gare was twice as packed as last time. There was an awesome collection of professional hiphop and contemporary dancers trading choreographed routines with a troupe of roller skaters on glowing neon wheels. It felt very Kids from Fame. Ruby and I asked the roller skaters for permission to join in and, with the help of Kia and her sister pushing the crowd back a bit, we did a fireshow for them at around 1am.

With me on clubs and Ruby on chains, we jammed to music the DJ was playing and at one point improvised with a rollerskater circling in the opposite direction around us. We didn’t take any photos, but there was a guy watching with a camera who turned out to be Antoine Tempé, the photographer exhibiting with Mis Wude at Hotel Sokhamon featured in the Dak’art blog. Please send us some pics Antoine!

Afterwards we all felt so amped, even Sampson was dancing! Nathan watched us fondly but “hasn’t danced since Doudou died”. I hope the urge will return when the tsunami of his grief has finally subsided abated.

In the end, Ruby and Zola were dropping from tiredness and begging us to go home (lightweights). Bizarrely, I felt better for the physical exercise exorcising the stress of the evening from my system, and it felt wonderful to shower and fall into bed at 3am.

Message to the kids reading this in the future:
“Yeah guys, just remember your folks could still kick your asses partying with 50 in sight…”

Sorry we missed this! Next time...

Sorry we missed this! Next time…

Bye Dakar. Ba benene yon.

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