Mauritanian Customs

November 19, 2007, Hotel de l’Amitié, Oualata, Mauritania

It turns out that Brooke, one of the Peace Corps volunteers from Ayoun, as well as some other Peace Corp volunteers from Nema, did arrive here yesterday in Oualata. They caught a ride with some oil company guys, so they could only stay for about one hour after the grueling ride here and before the grueling return trip. They did eat lunch and chat with me here at the Hotel de l’Amitié. It was fun to see Brooke again and to exchange more travel tips. No one from the Nema Peace Corps group has headed south from Nema to Nara, so it will be an adventure to see if that and the ongoing journey down to Djenne are even possible.

I’ve tried to observe differences between Mauritanian customs and those we have in the United States. Mauritania is officially an Islamic state, so there is the frequent usage of religious expressions, such as Ilhamdulilah, and the amplified calls to prayer of the muezzins at local mosques. Gender roles are somewhat different as well, with men generally congregating with other men, and women with women. In a family household, the sexes mix more. However, any casual touch between a man and a woman, other than husband and wife, or perhaps between or with children, is almost always forbidden. One must pay careful attention when handing objects between persons of different genders, as when I handed Mr. Moulay’s wife the medicine for her child with the burned arm. Casual chat without extended eye contact is apparently permissible. The only exception I saw was when Mr. Moulay visited elderly female friends in the ancient city: he held out his hand in a kind of weak handshake with them. While casual physical contact, such as embraces and holding hands are somewhat common among men who are friends, I haven’t seen any clear evidence of same-sex love. Greetings can be a short “Es salaam aleykum? followed by “Aleykum salaam? or may extend for several minutes with a ritualized and formulaic exchange that helps cement relations. According to the Peace Corps volunteers in Ayoun who teach in local schools, corporal punishment of children, in the form of thwacking them with a rubber hose, is epidemic here and usually so frequently arbitrarily applied that it cannot serve any pedagogical purpose. Race relations are on the surface quite cordial between the lighter-skinned Berber Arab population and the darker-skinned Africans, although the Peace Corps volunteers told me that there still is some discrimination, for example in employment and marriages.

Food consists mostly of various kinds of couscous topped with a sauce of vegetables and often meat. At hotels, the staff seem quite willing to accommodate vegetarians by not including the meat, although it can be more difficult at people’s homes when they simply don’t understand why you wouldn’t want the meat. Bowls of fresh cow milk are also quite a common local treat. Toilets, outside of city hotels catering to westerners or middle eastern arabs, are generally squat toilets.

The sunrise this morning was particularly beautiful with long arches of orange stratus clouds stretching radially from the sun across the entire sky.

Ancient Cities of Wagadu Empire: Oualata Wrapup

In touring the town, Mr. Moulay told me about a special hallway where the women gathered separately from the men.

Hallway for Women in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania

Next we visited a farming cooperative project with a water pumping station that makes it possible for local women to grow crops, sell the harvest, and reap the profit for their families. The project originally hired a fellow who advised the women on how to plant and maximize their crop yields, but that person is no longer there so the project needs another person to fill that position. I thought maybe a Peace Corps volunteer… Oualata would be a plum placement!

Farming Cooperative Project in Oualata, Mauritania Water Pumping Station at Farming Cooperative Project in Oualata, Mauritania Farming Cooperative Project in Oualata, Mauritania

Farming Cooperative Project in Oualata, Mauritania

We visited the reservoir which serves as a watering hole for camel trains carrying salt to towns across the desert.

Camels at Reservoir, Oualata, Mauritania View of City From Reservoir, Oualata, Mauritania Camels and Tenders at Reservoir, Oualata, Mauritania

Camels and Tender at Reservoir, Oualata, Mauritania Camels and Tender at Reservoir, Oualata, Mauritania

Ancient Cities of Wagadu Empire: Oualata Libraries

Sunrise at the hotel in Oualata rocks!

Sunrise at Hotel in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Sunrise at Hotel in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Sunrise at Hotel in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

I enjoyed Mr. Moulay’s tour of the interior of Oualata homes. The alcoves in Oualata have a unique shape. Traditional families often have staffs mounted to use to hang objects in their homes.

Staffs and Alcoves in Homes of Ancient City of Oualata Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania

Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania

Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania

Home in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Prayer Spot on Wall When Water Unavailable, Home in Oualata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City Entrance of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Mr. Moulay showed me the door of the mayor’s house in Oualata, at an old entrance of the city. We entered the library for a look at the painted interior with those uniquely shaped alcoves and, of course, the incredible book collection.
House of the Mayor, Entrance to Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City Entrance of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Old Door to Residence of Mayor in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Interior Doorway of Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Interior of Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Interior of Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Interior of Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Outward View From Interior of Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Interior of Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Interior of Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Label on Book Repository at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Damaged Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Label on Book Repository at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Label on Book Repository at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Label on Book Repository at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Doorway of Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Label on Book Repository at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Labels on Book Repository at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Termite-Eaten Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Book at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Books at Library in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Next to the library was a museum of traditional objects of Oualata.

Pouch and Elaborate Door Key at Museum in Oualata, Mauritania Mr. Moulay Showing Me How He Says Traditional Women Play Gourd in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Maybe Traditional Jewelry Box in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania

Maybe Cowrie Shells at Museum in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Traditional Staff at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Traditional Bag at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Maybe Door Key in Museum at Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Traditional Bracelet or Anklet at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Maybe Tobacco and Pipe Pouch at Museum in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania

Unknown Object at Museum in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Amulet at Museum in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Unknown Object at Museum in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania

Pipe and Tobacco Pouch at Museum in Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Traditional Water Container at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Traditional Sandals at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Pottery Object at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Traditional Stools at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Traditional Camel Saddles at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Traditional Camel Saddle at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Mr. Moulay Showing How Staff Used as Authority Symbol, Museum at Ancient City of Oualata, Mauritania Traditional Bed Platform at Museum in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Interior Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Ancient Cities of Wagadu Empire: I Love Oualata!

Written on November 18, 2007, Hotel de l’Amitié, Oualata, Mauritania

I slept on a mattress in the hotel courtyard under the crescent moon and the stars. The sounds are mostly the bleating of cattle and the chirping of birds with occasional human songs or chants as well. This magical place has already made its way into my novel. Aside from a few details, like plastic bottles, one has the impression of living centuries ago.

Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Hotel Room in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Hotel Room in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

The walls of the hotel are a lush red-brown clay which contrasts spectacularly with the light sand of the hotel compound floor. Artisans here etch designs into the walls and paint them, yet each year the rains wash some of their work away, so each year they repair and renovate their dwellings and so continues the cycle of the seasons here in Oualata.

Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Banco Building in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Banco Building in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Mosque and City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Hotel in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Banco Building in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Ruins in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Mosque and City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Thin Passage in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Thin Passage in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Water Tank in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

I was so stressed and exhausted, I took one day completely off yesterday, except for my writing. I might as well have done so, because it was Saturday and today is Sunday, so the only site I can see today is the old city. The library and the painted houses are open tomorrow and Mr. Moulay will give me a tour of the houses so I can see their painted interiors.

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Unique Alcove Shape in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Possibly Drainage Technique in Wall of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City Entrance of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City Drainage of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania

Doorway in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania City View of Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania Thin Passage in Ancient City of Oulata, Mauritania
Yesterday, the woman who I assume is Mr. Moulay’s wife showed me how one of her boys has a bad burn from boiling tea water on his arm. I gave her some medicines to try to help him heal more quickly and to relieve the pain. Apparently, he slept much better last night than he has for the last eight nights, so we are all happier today.

Mr. Moulay just told me that some Americans are arriving today from Nema, which may mean that Brooke, one of the Peace Corps volunteers from Ayoun and perhaps some others are on the way here.

Ancient Cities of Wagadu Empire: Approaching Oualata

The truck guys from Koumbi Salah, Baba and Sidi, were off having tea while I spoke for awhile with Hassan, then he sent me off with them after they had already picked up some passengers along the way. Baba got the owner guy to translate that he too wanted a cadeau. I asked if I had already paid for the ride and they agreed I had. The first third of the ride to Timbedra, Sidi the navigator wanted to get in on the act and kept nagging me for a gift. I kept telling him to talk with Hassan if he had any problem. But he just wouldn’t stop after dozens of times, so I just put my fingers in my ears and sulked for awhile. Only that seemed to work. I felt actually quite hurt because I had through we were becoming friends, or at least buddies. I sat without speaking and pondered the situation – the needs some people have or feel they have, the stereotype of the rich foreigner, what it means to give, to ask, and to demand, and how to set limits to make my voyage even possible. I nearly cried.

Mother and Baby Camel on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania Mother and Baby Camel on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania Mother and Baby Camel on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania

Finally, we arrived in Timbedra. I gave Baba Ahmed, the driver, and Sidi Mohammed, the navigator, each a small packet of tea as a gift, then we said our goodbyes. The meditation on this experience brought me to a place where I could thank the rip-off artist who brought me to Aoudaghost for helping me to learn a lesson.

Desert on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania Desert on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania Desert on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania

Sunrise in Desert on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania Desert on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania Desert on Route from Koumbi Salah to Timbedra, Mauritania
Timbedra, Mauritania

In Timbedra, I hitched a quick ride to the garage for Nema. I waited awhile for a vehicle that didn’t look like it was leaving anytime soon, since they drive wanted a total of nine passengers. After two other passengers had paid, and I had wisely withheld paying, another driver offered to take me for 3000 ougiya instead of the first car’s price of 1000 ougiya, but with the advantage of having no other passengers, and more importantly of leaving right away. We did actually leave fairly soon thereafter, following an argument between all the drivers at the garage and a threat to call the police. Of course, the driver I went with packed the back seat with passengers, but at least didn’t try to push any more into the front seat with me. We got underway, and the driver, a Malian from Bamako who already had four kids by two Mauritanian wives, grilled me about how to get to America to make lots of money. I explained the usual four ways I know of and discussed at length with him why it would be difficult for him to marry an American woman.

Nema, Mauritania

We arrived at Nema and I dragged my bags through the sandy market streets to the “permanent garage? for Oualata. For some reason, the driver wouldn’t sell me the more expensive seat in the front of the vehicle. While sitting on the sidewalk waiting, I say “es salaam aleykum? to virtually everyone who passes by and chat with whomever seems interested or interesting. Most of the conversations are in halting French or minimalist Hassinaya/Arabic about where I am from, where I am going, and what is my name. I tried to telephone the Peace Corps volunteers here that the Ayoun volunteers had mentioned, but it was impossible to find a phone, and I didn’t have a Mauritanian “puce? or SIM card for my travel cellphone.

Written on November 18, 2007, Hotel de l’Amitié, Oualata, Mauritania

Oualata, Mauritania

The truck ride from Nema to Oualata was the most trying ride I’ve ever had, and I’ve been in some pretty horrible rides. I tried to reserve a place in the cab, but the truck owner said he wouldn’t be able to tell me if that was possible until 3pm. I had arrived at the “garage? around 11:30am. When some other passengers came along and he no doubt sold the cab seats to them, he glanced at me smiling. Somehow I knew he hated my guts, although I had never done anything to him. The problem continued with the owner of the truck not ensuring the truck bed was clean. Some animal, probably a goat, had pissed on the fiber netting and the driver hadn’t washed the netting or the truck bed since. The owner managed to pack my bag where the pissy portion of the netting was. When I protested, he face broke into a wide smile. I sarcastically laughed back and him and he back at me. I handed him 1000 ougiya and told him that’s all the seat he gave me was worth. He looked worried for a second, then greedily demanded the other 1000 ougiya for the price of the ride. My plan, after being relegated to the truck bed, was to position my bag so I could rest my back in relative comfort against it while riding. That plan was foiled because I couldn’t stand to sit down in the pissy netting. I was already immersed in the stink of it within five minutes after getting on the truck. The terrain was at times comparable to some of the worst bumpy and sandy desert roads I encountered in out-back Sudan. But what made the ride absolutely miserable was the way the truck owner packed myself and the other passengers in the bed of the truck along with a continually protesting goat and all our baggage. While some passengers admittedly rode in relative comfort up front, that is, squished in the seats of the large cab of the truck, the rest of us squatted, perched, and squirmed as the truck bumped and swerved for hours. At the last moment on the way out of town, I saw a toubab, a white woman, wandering the streets of Nema who I would coincidentally meet again later on. The route to Oualata seemed never to end, winding and twisting, at times backtracking for the correct route. Once we spotted a town and my spirits lifted only to have my hopes crushed by finding out it was another town and we still had a long ride to come. Every cloud has its silver lining and this trip was no exception. The sunset was exquisite. When we stopped for evening prayers, one fellow taught me how to put on a turban properly and we reshuffled ourselves in the truck bed. For about twenty minutes, I was actually comfortable — that is, until we picked up another passenger along the way, a handsome young fellow with deep brown doe eyes, startled by my appearance, but sitting basically in my lap with my legs spread wide and squished down below everyone else’s body parts. By the time we arrived in Oualata, I worried my legs and neck had received serious damage. After proceeding under a crazy welcoming town arch, the truck stopped at a police outpost. I tried explaining the name of the hotel where I wanted to go, but no one understood until I tried saying the name of the hotel’s owner and suddenly they figured out where I wanted to go. The “streets? were dark except for electric street lamps located at seemingly random spots around the town. The police officer took my passport to a little mud-brick building where he slept, ate, and conducted his duties. He insisted on copying my name and passport number, although he couldn’t spell in English or French. Eventually, he wrote my name in Arabic, even though I offered to write it several times myself for him. Meanwhile the passengers on the truck were getting restless and, preparing to abandon me there, the driver brought my bags to me. I groaned and the police officer said it was OK to leave, so I started dragging my bags back to the truck just as it was preparing to go. I yelled “Merde? (“Shit?) loudly. The truck waited for me to get my bags back on board, then started to leave without me having a chance to crawl back on so I had to thwack the side of the truck until the driver stopped, then clambered on board completely and utterly exhausted and nearly hysterical with stress. The driver dropped everyone else but me off first, and I even helped him unload several heavy sacks of grains and vegetables. Finally, the truck arrived at the hotel and Mr. Ahmed Moulay came out front to greet me. My final moment of high stress ended when he answered that there was indeed room at the inn, so I grabbed my large bag and he my small one, waved a quick goodbye to the driver, and entered the hotel compound.