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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.