Over the past 27 years I have visited the country of Mauritania in West Africa 21 times. Why, I have to ask myself? In any conventional sense the place has very little to recommend it. It is a dump. Or at least, the part I go to in the south is. It’s a rubbish-strewn wasteland of sand, dust, dead trees and villages that are on the verge of non-existence. Climate change and bad politics have done their work, tearing out any vestiges of viable traditional life. Roads, where they exist, are atrocious. Villages and towns look as though they have been left behind in the wake of some war. The country is mostly desert, sandwiched between Morocco and the Spanish Sahara to the north and Senegal to the south.
I first visited it simply because no one seemed to have heard of the place. It was a big blank on the map and this, for me, was enticing. I have always loved maps: looking at them and dreaming what was actually there. I decided to go to Mauritania and fill in that blank. For six months, I criss-crossed the country, by bush taxi, camel and one memorably stubborn donkey. I stayed with Bedouin, drinking milk warm from the udders of their cows, sharing couscous and ghee under the scraps of their tents. I visited ancient caravan towns stuck far out in the desert and holed up for a while in a cheap hotel in the capital that doubled as a brothel, filled with the flotsam and jetsam of a precarious life.
Then one day I decided to travel to the south. This was where the Arabic culture of the desert gave way to the Bantu tribes of sub-Saharan Africa. It was here, on the southern fringe of the Sahara, that periodic rains made a sparse and brief form of agriculture possible. This was a place where customs and cultures merged, met and, not infrequently, clashed.
A bush taxi had just dropped me off in the regional town of Kaedi and I was standing there in the chaos of the taxi park wondering what to do next, when a young man who had been travelling in the same taxi as myself, asked if I would like to come to his village ‘nearby’.
“OK,” I replied, and two further hours of dust and discomfiture found me in the village of Kenieba. This was the home of Salif, my friend and colleague now for 27 years, with whom I have set up a development group for the locals.
It is, of course, the people who have drawn me all these years back to Mauritania. It is the humans who inhabit this vast, dusty space that make the country so special to me. From the poorest livestock herders in the desert, to villagers eking out an existence from their threadbare crops, to the countless Moorish merchants lining every street with a glint in their eyes, I have been treated always with utmost kindness and generosity by a people whose religion — Islam — in their eyes, impels them only to tolerance and hospitality.
But it is Kenieba, my friend Salif’s village in the south, which primarily holds my affection. It is here I have travelled every time I’ve returned. Here, I’ve made many friends. Here, my days pass to the great clockwork arch of the sun, sitting on mats shaded from the fiercest of heats, becoming small and insignificant in the blackness of each night under the towering array of stars. The women dress in the most colourful of clothes; the men in elegant gowns, or ‘bobos’. We make tea, chat and laugh.
In tandem with the local people, Salif and I have striven to find agricultural solutions to the ever more frequent droughts, or organisational solutions to communities now realising the need to work more closely with each other. It is like a game of chess: two steps forward, one back; two forward, one back.
For years, I was ill each time I travelled out to the village. Often before I even left the ugly, shanty-filled capital, Nouakchott, I would be feeling unwell, perhaps from the heat, perhaps from unfamiliar bacteria. The bush taxi ride to the village was 12 hours, negotiating as many as 20 military roadblocks. But they do say the best rewards come from the most toil.
The warmth and humanity, the enfolding press of a compassionate, cheerful people, were my rewards. And each trip I would end with a visit to the beach outside Nouakchott, where a thousand brightly painted fishing boats were pulled up on the sand, and I’d sit watching the fishermen bring in their catches as the sun went down on another African day.
Peter Hudson is a writer, farmer and charity worker. There are few parts of the African continent he has not seen from the back of a bush taxi, donkey or bicycle. His fourth travel book, Under an African Sky: A Journey to the Frontline of Climate Change, tells the story of the village of Kenieba over 20 years.
Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)