A Mauritanian Diary (part 2)

I finally arrived in Africa. Well, I once lived for half a year in Egypt and, later, spent two weeks in Morocco driving in an old Renault from coastal Casablanca through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech, but Mauritania: that was something else. For one, while it was still predominantly Arabic, it was already marked by sub-Saharan influence. In the south of the country – just where I was going to be deployed for four weeks – the Senegalese influence was very tangible, and indeed, the border – the river Senegal – was very close to my Mission “headquarters.”

My headquarters was nothing so flamboyant, however. It was in a small town called Magta’a Lahjar – the “Crossing of Stones”, and for several weeks our driver and interpreter both made fun of the name: La Croisée des Pierres. Obviously, they were not from that area and looked down at the provincialism of its inhabitants. In any case, there was indeed no shortage of stones in the town. In fact, there was little else.

We arrived after a day of traveling, concluding a longer trip that started for most of us at the Royal Air Maroc counter in Brussels. The dispatch at Brussels airport was quick enough – a brief hello by several young European Union contractors with clip boards in their hands, an envelope with a small wad of very clean €50 bills handed over for food and accommodation, plus a desert bag containing a sand-coloured T-shirt and a multi-pocketed “war photographer’s” vest, all adorned with the EU logo and the name of the Mission.

I had two more hours to wait at the airport before the connecting flight, and decided to spend them with some old friends: I ordered a “Leffe Brune” in the least dreary airport restaurant. The Leffe came, as usually, in a half-bowl glass but, more surprisingly, not alone but straight with another one; I guess they often had election monitors waiting there. A rather stressed waitress explained the miracle: special offer for having ordered a portion of frites as well. This rather augurs well for the trip, I thought, and anyway: probably my last beer for a couple of weeks. And so it was.

After having tried to read up on the Mission by thumbing through some 400 pages of background material on Mauritania and its political system – by no means an easy feat after two Leffes – it was time to go.

We arrived at 3 a.m., after a short stopover in Casablanca. It was striking how dark it was to arrive in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. For at least an hour we had flown across light-free desert, and although the runway and the airport were lit, Nouakchott was not, or only a little. Lit, I mean. I remembered having once read a newspaper article in my Arabic class (at uni) that said that Brussels was a preferred destination of Middle Eastern cargo carriers because the motorways were lit 24/7 – probably because it was easier to see where you are heading. Well, Nouakchott was quite the opposite.

After having got over the usual shock of stepping out of the air-conditioned plane on the melting tarmac and into the hairdryer heat of 45C (and this was only a mild spring night) we handed over our passports to a gentleman of the EU monitoring team, who took them for general visa processing and stamping. Then we boarded, eight at a time, the banged-up minibuses waiting for us at the exit. After my years in the Balkans, it was a similar feeling of relief I felt when seeing the EU logos on the 4x4s that accompanied us – a bit of a feeling of belonging. And dread about what was yet to come.

But it wasn’t that bad. We arrived at a second-class hotel, where I was shown after a short way of two hours my tastelessly ornamented room, which at least was cockroach-free. I passed out immediately.

Two and a half hours later, the alarm went and I got up for an early strut-about in Nouakchott. The city is very walk-able and I managed to see most of the interesting bits, which isn’t hard since there aren’t that many. After trying to send an email from an internet café equipped with four computers built in 1984, I walked back to the hotel and started my induction course.

The training was quite good. The EU long-term election mission had prepared themselves well, and invited a few very insightful speakers. In less than two days, we were all prepped with the necessary knowledge to monitor a Mauritanian election (these don’t happen that often, so it was a manageable task). We also met our team members, which in my case was a woman of roughly my own age from Luxembourg. We communicated in French. It worked, mostly.

The next day, we were matched with our drivers and set off to the provinces, but not until we had passed by several supermarkets to stock up on canned lentils and maximum-impact boxes of aspirin. Africa and aspirin have a common history; I never had as many headaches as in Africa, and the unrelenting heat didn’t help a bit.

We drove for hours through the desert to reach Stone Crossing. There were several stops, which were mainly marked by tea-breaks and snacks of boiled sheep. I am not a big fan of sheep, alive or as lunch, so this wasn’t ideal. At the time, I hoped that the elections would be over in two weeks and I could go back to a non-sheep diet, but this wasn’t to be.

Once arrived in the middle of the night in Stone Crossing – I think it was 7pm, but the night in Africa generally drops like a sheet at 6pm, and there is never a variation in the form of dawn or dusk – we ambled about to find our accommodation. This was harder than predicted because every house looked the same – corrugated iron, a small court-yard in front, stone walls with lots of broken shards of glass (not to deter the neighbours from watching your own TV programme but because wild goats seem to have the habit to jump into other people’s properties).

We slept and then got up to a meal of sheep and tea. After that, we drove for hundreds of hours (I think it might have been four or five in reality) through the desert to meet some local village mayor and talk elections with him (there were no female mayors). Then we drove hundreds of hours back, ate some more sheep and fell asleep.

And so it went – for the next two weeks. At the end of this period, there was an election. The goal: vote in a new president (if possible). This happened flawlessly, but we still found some irregularities. I cannot remember many of them but a few were about candidates buying votes or something. I cannot be sure that the official report ever took note of this – and anyway, they were only irregular irregularities – nothing to make a trend out of.

Later, we were repatriated to a coastal resort near Nouakchott, which could only be reached by passing through a stretch of holiday villas and a 10-hectar-sized outdoor garbage dump. Miles of rubbish just opposite pristine desert-coloured holiday homes.

At the resort, we were debriefed and waited for further instructions. It was hot, I recall. Very hot. I didn’t feel all too well and no amount of aspirin seems to have helped. The heat didn’t do its magic, either – rather the contrary. Nor did the proximity of the sea, which was reached by crossing a wide stretch of beach that, if I recall correctly, sported only very few bathers. Probably because of the heat. In the end, I concluded that Africa wasn’t really for me.

It would have been nice to call it a day there and then, but unfortunately, the vote wasn’t conclusive; we needed to stay to watch over the second round of voting. So out we went again, through the desert, to our beloved Stone Crossing, meeting some more of our mayoral candidates. The reception we received was already somewhat less enthusiastic, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have found it easy to talk to myself twice in a row, either, especially about the same topic.

But we made it, Ms Luxembourg and myself. We had many more adventures, such as when our light bulb burnt out and we needed to call in the army to change them. And when the goats came into our house after all, braving the glass shards and barbed wire. And when we stopped over in a desert oasis and I got scratched on date palm trees that looked really innocuous from afar. But these are all stories that will stay in my diary, because I have already written too much.