Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reunion with Pop's in Noakchott, Mauritania

Go figure the pilot from the night before in Bissau was the pilot for my flight to Noakchott, the capital of Mauritania. I was happy to see him, but from the look of  fatigue on his face I questioned whether he had gotten some sleep since the time I had seen him the day before.

My dad's apartment building
I arrived in Mauritania at 3 am (sorry Baba). I came packed with all the culturally appropriate clothing: long skits, scarves, long sleeve shirts, but when it was time to get ready to go to the airport, I couldn’t bring myself to change into them.  So while I sat in the airport in jeans and a tee-shirt, I immediately regretted not having dressed a little more conservatively.  I was getting A LOT of strange looks. I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t naked! Someone at the airport gave my dad a call and said, “ There is an American girl here waiting for you.” Ahahaha  He told me this after he picked me up.

Fishermen at the Port de Peixe
It was CRAZY to see my dad after almost a year. He looked so happy, and younger! My Aunty was also in Noakchott, so it made for a nice reunion.

I spent 6 days in Mauritania, and I spent it unlike I’ve spent any other vacation. But then again, I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical vacation.  

My dad has a nice apartment just out side the capital. There was electricity 24/7, I took my first hot shower in almost a year, and ate home cooked meals (I’ve been eating out since September). I was completely blissing out on these simple pleasures.

My dad teaches by day and studies by night.  stays up until about 7 or 8am to study and eat breakfast and then sleeps until anywhere between 2 pm- 5pm the following day.

Musa, the go-to fish cleaner at Port de Peixe
In Bissau I’m up by 6 and in bed by 1030, so it was almost completely inverse to my schedule. In Mauritania I slept every night at 3 or 4 in the morning. We read a book together every night called Milestones, which is actually a banned book in most muslim countries. It is written by Seyid Qutb and is about how Islam has been influenced by modern culture. My Aunt and I would take turns reading and then stop and discuss what we read with my dad. I also read about sharia law, purification of the heart,  and other spiritually and islamically rich books. 

Aside from late night reading sessions, almost all of my time was spent talking and discussing and asking questions.  I had met and spent time with lots my dad’s family and I had gone all the way to the village where he was born,  and  now I could finally share my experiences with him get his perceptive and input on stories and histories I was told.

So in all honestly I wouldn’t say I saw too much of Mauritania because, as I mentioned, I spent most of my time picking my dad’s brain. I only went to downtown one time. But it was so much like Bissau that one time was enough. We went to the famous port where they catch and sell fish as well.  I went on a couple walks to the big market and around the town to see what there was to see.

Despite my limited explorations, I learned a lot about Mauritania via discussion with Mauritanians (In my broken French haha)! Here are some things I learned:


Effect of Rain, many places throughout the city look like these.
Mauritania is a desert, so there is almost no greenery or vegetation. Due to climate change, in the past 5 years Mauritania has received more rain then ever. There is no infrastructure set up to deal with the amount of rain they are receiving, so after just 2 days of rain, many neigborhoods were flooded. This means that people become stranded at home, there is limited transportation ( it is a city highly dependent on Taxi services), it damages houses and roads, and increases filth and odors due to lack of a public waste system. 


There is electricity but water is bought and sold from underground pumps that the government put in throughout the city.Health Care seemed to be the same as Bissau. There is a national hospital, but most people who have the means, resort to private clinics managed and funded by international NGO’s. There is a university and a medical school, an Olympic stadium.  And evidence of their booming industries are the many factories you find along the coast.


Typical streets just outside of Nouakchott
I don’t think I saw a police officer once. My dad said that because the country is 99% Muslim country there is a very low crime rate, so most police. I’m not convinced by this answer. From what I picked up, My aunt and dad tended to romanticized the conditions of life in Noakchott. Because If I’ve learned anything in Bissau,  its that just because you are Muslim doesn’t mean you are not human and apt to commit a crime.

Mauritanian culture was very much like Guinea Bissau in that women stay home and cook and raise the children. The food is similar and they also drink warga (strong green tea) . The only major difference was that the country is 99% Muslim, so the country functions in accordance to Islam. This means that most women wore head scarves and holidays are taken on fri and sat, not sat and Sunday, and etc..

There are however, 3 highly controversial social issues that Mauritania is facing.

The first is SLAVERY! While it was abolished in 1981, it only became illegal to have slaves in 2007!!  An astonishing 10-20% of the population of Mauritania is considered slaves!!

Due to the persistence of slavery in society, racism is incredibly high.  The division is between the ‘white’ moors and the black Africans.   

“Cotton describes the class and race structure of society in Mauritania. The ruling class is known as white Moors, who are descendents of the intermingling of two groups of people: the indigenous Berbers and the Arabs who moved into the territory centuries ago. Historically, the Arabs have always had slaves. Owning other people as property is evidently not a foreign or repulsive concept to them. While this may not be true for every white Moor, they generally look down on black Africans.”          

Lastly,  the force feeding of young girls, called leblouh, is cultural practice  which can be found mostly outside the capital city. Beauty standards in Mauritania are such that women are found more attractive and marriageable if they are heavy/fat. So Girls ages 7-12 are force-fed to make them get fat so that it will be easy for them to find a husband. The participation of girls in the education system is not prioritized, so the best hope for a girls success in the future is to find a good husband.

Here are some links to a video series which touches on some of these issues

Every country has its problems, some worse then others.  In my experience, Mauritanians are very kind people. I was disappointed I didn’t get to explore out side of the capital, where the desert scenery is beautiful from what I’ve seen in photos. But maybe one day I'll go back. 

Donkeys like to go to the beach too! 

Fish for Daaaaaaaaaaaayzzzzz

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