World Water Day – today!

Some more alert people than myself noted that today is World Water Day, and posted a picture in relation to it. Heck, I thought I can do that too, and so I found this one. It was taken at a trip to southern Mauritania where I was an election observer in spring 2007.

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Southern Mauritania is one large bit of very picturesque desert with the occasional oasis and palm grove thrown in. Every day, we drove for hours around the desert, indeed off the beaten track with nothing to guide us than the local knowledge of our driver and interpreter. We would inevitably end up at the right place, and on the way come across small settlements of mud houses and tents. The people living in these settlements definitely had to face a daily struggle to get water, food and education for their children. However, there was no indication of  crass poverty, just of very simple lives. The elections brought people out in droves, but the elected president and government were finally swept away in a coup a few years later.

One day, we drove past a palm grove. As we had been sitting in the jeep for more than four hours, we all opted to get out and walk about a bit, and I walked over to the grove. I had never been so close to an assembly of low-growing palms, and was quite surprised how hard and sharp their leaves are. After a short trot around the grove, I walked back to the car. In the meantime, a local Mauritanian had showed up, whose job was clearly to guard the well. I hadn’t even spotted it at first, but there it was – a car tire in the ground marked the spot. When hovering above the tire, one could faintly see the shimmering ground water. This picture shows our interpreter taking a big gulp of water in this otherwise fairly dry area. Desertification is obviously a huge problem worldwide, and with climate change advancing, it will be even more so in this region, which is adjacent to the Sahel area.

Thus: SAVE WATER WHERE YOU CAN AND WHEREVER YOU ARE!! In Southern California, thoughtful restaurants have little table-tents that remind their guests that saving water is in everyone’s interest and for everyone’s benefit. If it can be done in California, it can be done everywhere.

Support www.charitywater.org or some other charity or NGO that helps people get access to clean and sustainable water sources.

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.

A Mauritanian Diary

Hardly anybody outside of Africa will have noticed it, unless you are a reporter or a foreign affairs buff. But Mauritania had another coup last week, bloodless as all the other five previous ones, but still a more significant one – because it reversed all the gains made since the first-ever democratic election in 2007, which was monitored by the European Union.

As it happens, I was one of the EU monitors back then. It was March 2007, and we were scheduled to stay in the country for four weeks, on account of the two weeks gap between the first round and the run-off of the presidential election. Without going into the political intricacies of Mauritania and its historical evolution to this day, I thought it an appropriate moment to finally upload my diary of these days. It was exhilarating for me to go to this country that few ever talk about, testimony to which I could find on the Internet. Or rather, I could not. As a matter of fact, there is very little information to be found in English on the web on Mauritania, and you have to delve into French or Arabic sources to find more.

It is a country with a lot of history and a lot of desert. Some of the oldest Islamic literature was published and archived in Chinguetti, a small town in the middle of the desert, which used to be one of the most central places of medieval Islamic learning. Mauritanians claim that their dialect of Arabic is as pure and as close as you can get to the original Arabic of Qur’an. However, most Mauritanians do communicate these days with a mix of Arabic and French, on account of its colonial history and the close relations between the two nations, for good or for worse.

In fact, most people will have heard of Mauritania only as a stopover of the Rally Paris-Dakar, nowadays only the “Dakar” (the rally does not necessarily begin in Paris anymore). Every year, hundreds of rally drivers and their support teams descend on Northern Africa in huge cargo planes, build up their camps and drive a couple of hundred miles in reckless speed across the desert and past bewildered nomads, before decamping and moving on to the next pit stop. Except this year. The killing of several French tourists and some credible claims by Islamic extremists pushed the organizers of the “Dakar” to cancel the rally, for the first time ever.

But let’s move on to the few notes of my stay there; for a full diary I feel is a bit too ambitious, given how events have unfolded.