Mauritania: Into the Adrar

Mauritania is the most amazing place you’ll probably never visit.

“There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by foreigners. If you do decide to travel to Mauritania, you should exercise extreme caution. If you are in Mauritania, you should avoid unnecessary local travel.”

The above warnings from the UK and the Australian foreign advisory websites made me think, “Where the hell am I going? Can I maybe just put my car on some kind of ferry to Senegal or breeze through the country in a day?” But these warnings and the media can generalize an entire country and make it seem so incredibly dangerous, even if it is not.

I did my own research and concluded that I should just go, see for myself and trust my instincts to get the hell out if there was anything odd.

My trip to Mauritania was a surprise, or rather it was as awesome as I imagined it might be and that was the surprise. Was it safe? It was for me. Does that mean I can recommend the whole world to visit? No.

I accidentally bumped into a group from the French military, based in Mauritania to monitor what’s happening. They said that all of the Adrar region, where I spent most of my time, is a “Red zone” meaning “No go zone”. They said that anything could happen at any time. That the bad guys were somewhere in the country and that I shouldn’t stay anywhere for more than a day, otherwise I would give them a chance to find out that we were around and get to us.

I ended up staying five days in the town of Oudane, as I loved it there and we enjoyed visiting the surrounding villages. I never felt unsafe in the slightest way, which is not to say that nothing can happen. It can, and some people will be turned off by the travel advisory warnings and the very thought of something happening. That’s ok. They will miss out on an amazing country, but, life will go on.

I guess when it comes to these matters my opinion is simple. Anything can happen to anyone anywhere. Getting hit by a car is a very possible hazard in most of the safe developed world. My friends have been robbed and injured in Australia. Getting struck down by a deadly disease is possible too. It’s really the luck of the draw. I wouldn’t go into a war zone, but, I won’t obsess too much about being in an area where the terrorists are lurking 500–1,000 km away, by desert roads, I might add.

Now, onto the photos...

NOUAKCHOTT

I started off photographing in the capital, Nouakchott, a tragedy of a city with congested roads, ugly architecture and busy markets, which is quite fascinating nevertheless. In Nouakchott there is a lively fishing harbour where boats arrive every evening and a buzz ensues. Fishermen scoop water out of their pirogues (boats) and battle the waves, as they push the boats back out to sea.

When the sea is rough, it’s hard to straighten out the boat and make it head out again. Crew from the boat load heavy boxes full of fish on their heads. The stinking water with fish blood drips all over their faces and bodies. Little boys scramble for the fish that falls out. Market ladies chase down the fishermen to buy the catch while it’s fresh.

Families of the fishermen and fishmongers quickly set up shop on the shore and sell the catch. Some of the smaller and less desirable fish are collected at a base, the weight is measured and the person who brought it gets paid accordingly. The woman above was unhappy with what she got. I was told that the fish from the large collection base is later used as animal food.

ATAR

After a few days in the capital we decided that it was worthwhile to try to have some adventure. We headed for Adrar, the region which the chaps from the French military referred to as the Red Zone. As I said, I never felt any threat, but, the road was eery with a few sand storms along the way and car skeletons like this one were a recurring scene.

In Atar, the capital of Adrar we found a local guide. A pleasant young man by the name of Alioune. He had asked me if I needed a guide when I parked near the main roundabout. Usually I never ever take guides up on offers like that in those circumstances, because more often than not they are hustlers, scam artists. But, I trusted my instinct. He seemed like he was honest and decent, and, I was right. He became my key to spending time with the villagers and a bridge between me and them.

On our first day together we were invited into a house full of women from semi-nomadic families. They were very jolly. One of them asked if Tanya and I were married. We said “Yes.” They thought it was a great reason to paint her hands with henna and to have a small party. I guess they just needed an excuse for some entertainment.

Plastic buckets became improvisational drums and soon the women were up and moving around in ways which you’d not associate with conservative societies.

I was worried that this moment would come and it did. After the women danced for a while, they said, “Ok, now, you dance!” They wanted Tanya to get up, but she was too shy. The crowd wanted to be entertained, so they pointed at me. Alioune gave me his bu-bu, the traditional garb in Mauritania, and soon I was pleasing the crowd by making a fool of myself. Seems that they enjoyed it and soon Tanya joined in too.

We wandered around some villages and photographed some people who were in their homes or around during our visits. This gentleman also belongs to a semi-nomadic family. He was covering himself from the sun and the sand with his bu-bu.

CHINGUETTI

While I was in a guesthouse in Atar I saw some coffee table books with some wonderful images from Mauritania. One thing that caught my eye was an image of children in a Quranic school. I heard there were some of these schools in Chinguetti, so, I asked Alioune to take me to one. Chinguetti used to be a touristy place, so the children still remember having loads of tourists in their town, hence they were cheeky with me.

The girl in yellow kept covering her face with the wooden tablet and then she’d uncover it and make faces. I played with her too and waited till when she’d stop making faces and had her face uncovered. There was lots of giggling throughout and I got a wave and a thumbs up before I left.

When the children learn an extract from the Quran or when they finish for the day, they leave their wooden tablets in one common room. This youngster paused after putting down his tablet, I asked him to freeze for a second and took this image.

OUDANE

From Chinguetti we went to Oudane, a little town which I fell in love with. For the first time in this entire journey I remembered one important aspect of why I love traveling. It is because I like sharing things about me and my world with curious locals. I hadn’t met any in Morocco and hadn’t yet met any in Mauritania. Finally, here, in a remote location we were greeted by dozens of curious boys, asking about my favorite football team, what I thought of Mauritania and so on.

One of the boys, 16 year old Mohammed, particularly stood out. If you ask me, he was borderline genius. The kid knew about Einstein, Stalin and Hilter. Drew maps of different continents in order to better memorize where different countries were and was generally very forward thinking. He said he planted some new trees in his family’s palmerie. I said that he probably wouldn’t see them grow to full size during his lifetime, to which he replied “It’s ok, I am thinking about the future generations, not just me.” If you’re traveled around Africa, you know this is far from the most common reply.

After hearing “No” to almost every request for photos in the town streets over virtually my entire journey, it was a very welcome break to hear “Why not?” in Oudane, as I asked the men above, who were playing a traditional Mauritanian game similar to checkers.

Over our time in Oudane we met Mohammed Mbarak, a man who started a local bakery some years ago. He built the oven from what he remembered an oven looked like during his visit to Nouakchott and soon most of the town was buying bread from him.

Now Mohammed no longer bakes, his business is successful enough to allow him to focus on doing things around the house and working in his garden, some kilometers outside of Oudane. After we had this tea with Mohammed, we gave him a lift to his garden.

Donkeys are still used for transport in many situations in Mauritania. One of the most common tasks is transporting water, which usually happens in the mornings. Water was delivered to this village by a large truck, as there was no well nearby. The whole village comes with their donkeys and takes their share.

This little girl is the sister of the boy with the donkeys, she assisted him with the taking off of the jerry-cans filled with water. She was suspicious, yet curious to know who I was, so, when I came up to her with the camera, she didn’t run off, as some children do. Instead she stared right at me. The wind moved her hair and I had an image.

The cool thing about the area around Oudane is that the villages are for most part unspoilt by mass tourism. There aren’t the regular requests for a cado (present) from annoying little brats, as there are in so many parts of Morocco and the bigger tourist attraction of Chinguetti. Here people live independently of tourism. They don’t know what to expect from outsiders, so as a result, they just act normal, as they are.

They also don’t have the strangely negative approach to photography that I’ve seen so much during this journey so far, so, when I asked if I could photograph the woman doing her everyday chores she said “Sure.” Here her daughter is assisting her by capturing a baby goat, which is to be taken out of the pen and placed next to its mother for feeding.

Walking around the villages you see some amazing characters. Hanaan, in the left-hand image above, was one of them. I spotted him and his family under the shelter of a hut and as we came closer, we were invited for tea. Hanaan has one of these incredible faces, which is very stoic and serious. He is almost intimidating, until he smiles, when he looks disarmingly charming and almost goofy. I later learned that his name meant ‘Merciful’. Hannan is a real nomad, he came to the village for the summer, as do most other nomads during this time. The village is in an oasis, there’s plenty of water and, it’s date season, which is a big thing in Mauritania.

I said to Hanaan that I might come back to visit his nomadic settlement some time. He asked me to bring a binoculars, he would buy it off me. I later learned that to have a binoculars is almost every nomads dream. They use it to watch their camels from afar.

On the right above you see another great character. The man’s name is Selim. He was chatting to the shop owner and making a transaction when we came in and asked him for a photo. I took a few shots. At the end he said, “Ok, you have to pay me now.” With this being a common request so often before I reached Mauritania, I paused and thought, “Here we go again, where did he learn this?” But just as I finished my thought, he smiled and my guide said, “He is joking!” To Selim the idea of getting paid for a photograph was absurd, so, he thought it would make a funny joke, and we all shared a laugh together.

During my time in Mauritania I developed an interest in photographing at the Quranic schools called Mahadaras. Not Madrassas, which is the name for regular schools in Mauritania. The students are given texts from the Quran to memorize. They chant it until they do. The teacher listens in and corrects those who mispronounce the words. Apparently some children memorize the entire Quran by their teens.

The Mahadaras are for boys and girls. In some cases the boys and girls are sitting in close proximity, in others, they are more isolated. In any case, this was a welcome change after very rigid gender restrictions I experienced in Morocco.

Some of the Quran reciting sessions can get pretty intense. Here, Mohammed, the curious genius boy who had decided to accompany us to his town’s Mahadaras, was encouraging the children to recite louder and more clearly.

At one stage, when the children learn the text written on the tablet, the ink is washed off and the teacher writes a new text for them to memorize. As the morning learning session was over and the teacher headed out, I asked him to pause for a portrait.

These guys (the teachers) usually look very serious and even somewhat intimidating. I guess that’s the intention, as far as the students go. They have to be taken very seriously. Outside of the classroom they are much more cheerful and even smile a bit.

While in Oudane, we came across a wedding party in the old town. However, before long the music finished and suddenly everyone went off to their homes. But the party continued at night with a large gathering at someone’s house. More dances, more singing, more joy. I was lucky enough to be invited because we were staying at a guesthouse where the owner, Zaida, was friends with the soon-to-be-married-couple.

I think that due to what we see on TV a lot of us in the West associate Islam with repression, no alcohol, no music, no fun. Sure there is no alcohol, but, the dancing, the singing and the celebrations were up there with some of the liveliest I’d seen.

TANOUCHERT

We left Oudane after the wedding night and headed for the oasis settlement of Tanouchert. Back when there was tourism we were told that fifty tourists would pass through the village daily. I can only imagine what it was like then and how many stilos (pens) and cados (presents) were handed out. Ironically the lack of tourism (which is what the villages want) is the very thing that makes them so attractive now. People are normal, children don’t bother and nag you for things, it’s great. In an ideal world, the villages could manage this with tourists around, but until then I’ll enjoy what is there.

The image above is the scene that we saw shortly after arriving. A man and a woman wait to use the public phone. There isn’t mobile phone signal here, so the only way to communicate to outside villages is by going there in person or by using the public phone. It’s great to experience truly isolated places sometimes.

The next morning we woke up to the surprise of seeing dozens of camels gathered around a well. Many nomads come past the oasis to provide water for their animals.

One of the conveniences of modernity is that nowadays the nomads sometimes carry diesel powered water-pumps on one of the camels, and, rather than pull the water out manually, they pump it out and fill in the small drinking pool.

Whenever you wander around a little village like Tanouchert, you’re likely to encounter numerous invitations for tea. I enjoyed many of these friendly meetings, drank my tea, and made photos.

During one of the tea sessions, Mimouna, a girl from a semi-nomadic family entered the hut of her neighbours. I was waiting for tea, she was waiting for her friend, so, while we both waited, I took her photo.

This is what a street in the village of Tanouchert looks like. During the early part of the day everyone passes through the streets, so that was the time I was around, shooting.

The morning after our arrival we met a very friendly and very jolly man named Bugia, who you can see in the image on the right above. He was visiting Tanouchert and everyone seemed to have great respect and affection for him. He didn’t have much to do, so, he joined us and walked around with us for a little while, chatting to other villagers and helping them out where he could.

Mauritanians love their dates and summertime is the date season. Instead of heading to the coastline, where the temperature is significantly cooler, most of the population heads to the desert, to their oasis palmeries, where temperatures can rise up to 50°C/122°F!

Bugia is actually a nomad, but, like most of the country, during the summer months he settles down in or near an oasis. He leaves his camels with another nomad, a caretaker, and moves to a little settlement not far from the oasis. He has a palmerie in Tanouchert and as he gets older plans to build a house there as well.

Hassan, in white above, is another friend we made in Tanouchert. Hassan is a true nomad who is also staying put for the summer. He used to travel with his caravan from Mauritania to Algeria and to Mali, all through the desert, without crossing the official borders. Hassan invited us for tea and we spent some time with him and his family.

Hassan’s children and their neighbour were heading out to herd the sheep for an hour during the evening. The sand dunes are great fun for kids. They roll around and run on the sand, while adults like me just don’t have the energy.

Our host, the village chief (with the bloody hands), offered to make his signature dish called mishui for us. We just had to pay for the goat and this, being a village, meant that they’d have to kill it. I love animals, so, it’s hard for me to shoot stuff like this, and excuse the graphic nature, but, this is how meat is made if we’re lucky enough to eat the type that hasn’t been genetically modified.

The goat was big enough for two meals. We invited our new friends, Bugia and Hassan, and a friend of the chief for dinner. The goat was accompanied by couscous and traditional bread, which you can see being baked in a traditional oven in the right-hand image above.

After a few days at Tanouchert the winds got stronger and they stared to blow sand. At 43°C and with hot wind blowing sand it was time for us to leave the desert. We headed back to Chinguetti, the wind was still blowing. We saw a group of people, man, woman and two boys with donkeys and water containers.

I stopped the car and Alioune asked if I could take some photos. The man said, “no problems” but quickly asked, “Can you give me and my son a lift to our home?” I said, “Of course!” hoping that I could still photograph them on their donkeys for a little while. Instead he quickly unloaded the water containers off the two donkeys and disappeared.

It turned out that only one of the boys was his son and the woman and the other young boy were someone he knew, from whom he had borrowed the donkeys to transport water. The man ran after his son, and you can see them walking through a sandstorm above. We helped him pack about 100 litres of water onto our car and off we drove to his home.

The man who we had helped was named Abdullah. He of course invited us for tea in his hut, which was home to his four daughters and one son. That’s his son looking curiously through the hut door with the wind still blowing strong and the sand going everywhere.

You could say that some of these nomads and semi-nomads are opportunists, but, unlike the opportunists you see in bigger cities or popular tourist areas these guys are straight-forward and their requests for any kind of help are human and reasonable.

Seeing that I had a car Abdallah asked if I could drive him to a well to get more water. The well was about 5km from his hut and it would take him a few hours by donkey to go there and back. With the car it was a matter of minutes. I agreed to drive him, took more photos along the way and refreshed myself with a couple of buckets of cold water.

The twelve days that we spent in the desert were now wearing us out. The heat, the hot wind and sand were becoming too much for Tanya. It was time to leave this amazing region. Abdullah’s family saw us off and off we went, back to Atar and then to the capital, Nouakchott.

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