This is a question I keep asking myself from the moment I walked out of the airport in Nouakchott until the moment of my approaching departure. Driving around the city in broken down Mercedes taxis,mainly on streets of sand with the relentless sun beating down from late morning until five in the afternoon,I was curious as to the kind of people who would chose to live here. There are always the expats who are here with embassies or foreign companies who are paid too well to complain,as long as they know they will eventually leave within a year or two. Most have extremely comfortable living conditions,a large SUV and keep themselves in their small expat community. Nouakchott,a city of mostly new construction during the last twenty years, has an amazing number of tasty continental restaurants so decent food is not one of the sacrifices if you are living here. The city is already cursed with chaotic traffic conditions,one reason being there are hardly any traffic lights; the other is manuvering between donkey carts,goats wandering the streets,huge SUVs and bad drivers. Walking the sandy roads in town almost feels like I am on a very large beach and I am always empting my shoes. The majority of women wrap themselves in a sari like scarf called melehfe. The more expensive melehfes,five yards in length, are tie dyed fabric of multicolored crepe,costing between 4000 to 7000 ougiya. The average monthly salary for a worker is 23,000 ougiya and of course the price of fuel is 1400 ougiya a gallon(one dollar is 230 ougiya on the black market) Life is very expensive here,especially for people like myself,a savy business woman,who has been cheated or overcharged,with at least half of the people I did a money transaction with. At my auberge,I met a German woman who with her Dutch husband,have lived here for over eleven years,running a inexpensive packpackers haunt and arranging tours in the desert. I was wary of the Mauritanians but I never questioned my new European friends. So when he quoted me sixty euro a day with a driver and 4×4 truck,plus fuel,it never entered my thoughts to bargain him down.But I have learned as I am about to leave,that almost no one is to be trusted in Mauritania. I accidentally found some French peope who had chosen to make this country their home. I was back from my five day desert sojourn,looking for a civilized spot to have something to eat in Attar,the town where I started the desert trip. By chance I wandered into a restaurant kitchen looking for signs of life. The cook was working and two white faces appeared through the door. Two Frenchmen, Emmanuel had moved here in October 07,buying the restaurant from a previous French owner and Cyril was updating the guide book he had written on desert travel in Mauritania. One conversation led to another and then Lillian,a French woman with bright red hennaed hair,wearing a melehfe,appeared on the scene so we all sat down,had lunch and talked for several hours.
As I asked each of them how they ended up becoming permanent residents of Mauritania,I realized how different people’s perceptions are of the same place. Lillian said she had never heard of this country until several friends invited her to come on a desert adventure for a few weeks. She was immediately enamored with the desert and within a year had given up her life in France, began her new life in the town of Attar,and became a Muslim. Since she arrived over a year ago, she has been teaching abused and abandoned women how to weave fabric using plastic bags and clean up the environment at the same time.. I visited the home of one of the women,whose husband had left her years ago with 5 young children. She was pretty bitter about Mauritanian men. Her 28 year old daughter,sitting in the room cleaning cous cous, had been left with with a two year old daughter. When I asked who was the father of her second child, who was sixth months, Lillian just shrugged as if to say inshallah.(Josie,the French guy I had met through the Peace Corp beach experience,told me on the way back to Nouakchott that sex was the only entertainment the country. Islamic republics do not allow alcohol,clubs,movie theatres and other forms of decadent entertainment, unless you are rich and then have access to everything)
Cyril, who writes guide books,had spent endless months and years traveling
the desert in Mauritania and Niger,sometimes with his wife and two young children. His website takla-makane.com is definitely worth a visit. Unfortunately he told us that he and his wife had invested several years writing their Niger desert guide and now when they were ready to publish it in France,there is a civil war in Niger between the Niger government and the Tuareg nomads who want a share in the profits from the uranium mines.
Emmanuel,the owner of the restaurant explained he had returned to his birthplace. His parents,his mother a doctor and his father at the embassy,had been working in Mauritania in the late fifties so his first five years were spent here. They moved after to Senegal and eventually back to France. This soft spoken,gracious Frenchman explained that he too had been drawn back to the place of his birth to live a more simple, spontaneous life. After a few hours of conversation and food, I realized that Emmanuel wasn’t as gentle as he appeared.
The previous day I had spent the night in the village oasis of Terjit,which had become a ghost town since the killing of the French people in December. Making the best of this isolated,lonely place,I befriended the three young boys who were managing the rustic auberge where I was staying. I realized the family dog had just had babies and asked to see them. There is only one left,the other seven were killed by the owner’s friend,another Frenchman who lives in Atar. I realized during lunch that Emmanuel was this particular Frenchman. I finally asked him if and why he had killed all the puppies at the auberge. What can you do with 9 puppies in a desert village in Mauritania.. Most people in developing countries resent feeding dogs,sometimes they will feed themselves before they feed their children. I discovered on the trip back to Nouachoutt with Josie, the French driver,that killing puppies was kinder than letting them die in the streets.
That night at Emmanuel’s place,I was the only English speaking person among the six French
expats that had made their home in Mauritania.