Land of the Slave

The thing you're struck with most upon arriving in Mauritania is the poverty. And I'm saying that from the perspective of the 2/3rds world country of Morocco. The second largest city, Nouadhibou, is dingy and grey, sometimes brown. Even compared to Morocco, there's no green at all. It's dusty, and surrounded by more dust. Everywhere is unremitting desert.

I asked a local cabbie to take me to the beach where everyone goes to bathing. I wanted to see if there was perhaps some coral reef snorkeling this far South. But their form of Arabic is very different from the Arabic I know. I tried two different cabbies. They kept on taking me back to this same garbage strewn beach, through the desert dusty dunes, with fish drying and hanging out, and no other people. And when I say garbage strewn, I mean there was some occasional water in between the plastic and metal. In the distance are the rotting remains of wrecks that once were mighty ships, and now are only rusty remnants of proud glory.

The shops are much smaller than those in Morocco, maybe 100 square feet, and there are far fewer vegetables for sale. Most of those there are rotting tomatoes and cucumbers. It turns out most of the "fresh" vegetables are carted all the way from Morocco. Incomes and prices for items like taxis are far lower here than up North. I've gradually came to realize that Morocco is to Mauritania as the U.S. is to Mexico. And Morocco is not a wealthy country.

Clothing and language are fairly similar to that of the Southern half of Morocco. Unfortunately Hassaniya Arabic is fairly different from the language of the Northern half of Morocco where I live, so communication is more limited. Men have these awesome blue drapes they wear with giant holes below the armpits. You have to wrap the cloth behind you when you walk, or pile it up on your shoulders so it doesn't drag the ground. Women are wrapped up in sari cloth, or wearing traditional Sub-Saharan African clothing, as there are a lot of immigrants from the South who've come up to Mauritania to escape the
poverty below.

I went shopping in the souqs to get an idea of the native artwork and merchandise. I think I was the only Westerner I saw the entire time. I found a donkey corral, where they hold the asses in between work. I've noticed that donkeys get really badly treated in Morocco, and so every chance I get I try to pet them, talk with them, and encourage them. I went up to the donkeys in the corral and started doing this. A large crowd of Mauritanian men gathered around me, wanting to know what the strange Westerner was doing in such a counter-cultural manner.

I asked them, "Hasn't God created all things?"

They agreed.

"Then hasn't God created donkeys too? And shouldn't we love all of his creation?"

They couldn't disagree with that.

It was good to see that signs and practices are the same in both cultures. Still here signs on the walls saying not to pee or deposit trash, right next to the trash. (I didn't check for the pee.)

Every chance I got, when I was alone with someone who spoke some English or Moroccan Mauritanian MosqueArabic, I asked about the slaves. I knew from my reading that Mauritania was the only place in the world that still had chattel slavery. Where people are actually owned, family lines belong to the master, there is a lot of work and no pay, and the master has all rights. There are three ethnicities in Mauritania- Arabs, Africans freed long ago, and African slaves. The second group does not associate with the lowly third. But the government doesn't like all this to be made known. It's bad for business. Every few years all the slaves are permanently freed. They just have to keep on doing it.

So when I'd ask about slaves, people didn't understand me. Or they'd change the subject. The most honest ones would quickly silence me, making sure no one was around, and warn me not to talk about such things. The government doesn't like it to be made known. And they make sure their people know that too.


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