Road to Senegal, October 23, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Flag of Mauritania  ,
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Once beyond Nouakchott's rubbish-strewn suburban orbit on the way south, the landscape gradually changed from barren desert to scrubby Sahel with grass, bushes, and low thorn trees.  There frequency of villages was greater, and they were populated by darker-skinned tribal Africans who make up about a third of Mauritania's small population. 
Sahel means shore in Arabic, but the term generally refers to the wide band of semi-desert scrubland and grassland between the Sahara Desert to its north and the tropical savanna and rain forest country to its south.  The Sahel stretches from the Atlantic Coast in Mauritania and Senegal to the Nile Valley in Sudan.  If I were to compare it in appearance to something more familiar in America, I'd say that (except for the human population) it resembles western Texas where the green hill country flattens out into the browns towards the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers.  The Sahel is one of the world's poorest regions, a condition exacerbated by climate change that has led to increasing desertification  and some of the world's highest population growth rates.  Human and livestock populations have passed the land's carrying capacity in many areas leading to the famines during droughts in the 1970s and 1980s that have shaped much of the world's perceptions of Africa.  Parts of Niger even had localized famines in 2005.  However, 2008 was an especially rainy wet season in much of West Africa leading to a great deal of flooding, although the only signs we saw of it were some swollen rivers. 
We took a detour from the main route to Senegal to avoid the border crossing into Senegal at Rosso, a border post notorious for its hassle and aggressive bribe-seeking gendarmes.  The town of Rosso, where we turned off in Mauritania was the scene of some of the worst squalor and filth I've seen anywhere with naked children playing around in the rubbish and putrid animal corpses lying in the streets.  Our alternative route was to the west and closer to the coast, a badly rutted unpaved road rapidly eroding into oblivion.  The road went through flooded salt marches and crossed the border and Senegal River at a dam named Maka-Diama Barrage. 
Ian and Blair, the group's two avid bird-watchers were in their glory.  "Stop, I think I see a Double-Headed Crimson-Beaked Rhinoceros-Horned Bee-Eating Honey Thrush," one would yell.  Or "Well look at that... it's a Bow-Legged Australasian, Clam-Digging Plover," as their super-magnifying binoculars were glued to their faces.  I like birds and all but just can't get into collecting species like the manic birders, or "tweeters" as they're called. 
African corruption became apparent at the numerous police checkpoints in the short distance between the border and Saint Louis.  You never really know what to expect at police checkpoints and borders in West Africa.  You might just encounter bureaucratic inefficiency; there could be belligerent guards demanding bribes or even personal belongings such as cameras; there could be friendly types who invite you to join them in a meal; or in some cases there could be a mixture of two or three of those. 
The last was the case shortly before we left Mauritania where we were charged a "truck tax" of 1,000 Ougiya (about $4) per head by some military men who had set up a makeshift roadblock.  They were friendly about it, though, and invited us to join them in their couscous meal.  Dave declined the invitation for all of us, but after a breakfast of rice crispies, a lunch of fruit salad, and running out of my personal food provisions I was tempted to tell him, "Speak for yourself, I'm eating couscous with the soldier dudes.  I'm hungry!" 
At the barrage on the Senegal River where we crossed the border, the bridge keeper demanded a "toll" of 200 Euros but settled for 20 Euros after much waiting.  A short distance farther a traffic cop tried to impose a fine for speeding, a charge that was clearly disproven by Daphne's tachometer.  The charge then quickly changed to "the truck is too old to be driven into Senegal".   Then the charge was that the numbers on the license plate weren't big enough. 
The next cop's charge and fine were for "not having a fire extinguisher", but Dave pulled Daphne's out and showed it to him.  His reason for a fine them became that the drivers didn't have fly spray in the cab and might get into an accident while swatting flies.  I was sitting in the front row of passenger seats that day and showed him my insect repellent.  Dave ignore the constant barrage of threats from the police and countered them with threats to contact his embassy or negotiating the "fines" down to small amounts that could be paid out of the fund set aside on West Africa trips for such incidents.  And this supposedly ain't nuthin' compared to what it's like in Nigeria!  The police hassle is apparently much worse in some West African countries than those in Eastern and Southern Africa where governments rely on tourism for revenue and have more reason to see that petty official corruption doesn't scare away the goose that laid the golden egg. 
Senegal is one of West Africa's more prosperous and stable countries with a fairly well developed tourism infrastructure and some industry.  Like most African countries it's a land of numerous tribal and ethnic groups amalgamated into a nation state by lines the colonial powers drew arbitrarily on the map.  For all the religious and ethnic differences, though, I was surprised to find as much nationalism in West African countries like Senegal, Ghana, and Cameroon as I did, suggesting that in many countries a have century or so of independence has created a sense of national identity.  This seems to be particularly true when it comes to sports, or at least to everyone's favorite - football (soccer), over which Africans take genuine pride in their national teams. 
As we entered a new country and a new culture it was again very tempting to take pictures of colorful and interesting people through Daphne's windows.  It is said that the problem with taking pictures in Africa is first that anyone you would want to take a picture of will say "No" and second that anytime someone does say "Yes" a dozen bratty kids will rush in front and ruin the photo for you.
It's most definitely polite to ask people for their photo by pointing to your camera and making eye contact, but sometimes, especially when on the truck, it's tempting to take a sneak pic of unique and colorful people, especially the women who are usually most reluctant to be photographed.  If you get caught, though, you risk being given "The Look", the simultaneous fierce-looking frown with lips slightly pursed, straight-in-your-eyes stare, wobble of the head, and wag of the finger that says, "Don't you dare even think about it (or I'll put a curse on you and all your loved ones)".  I definitely got a few such spells cast on me as we entered Senegal. 
As far as I can tell the most important component of "The Look" is the head wobble, a motion I believe African women excel at because of the neck strength they build up from carrying things on their heads.  I'm not sure why, but it seems as though carrying huge loads on one's head is a practice common only among Africans and their descendents in places where African slaves were taken.  I don't recall ever seeing massive buckets, huge loads of wood, or a half dozen suitcases ever being carried on heads in China, Central Asia, or Southeast Asia.  Not only do these feats take impressive neck strength but also an amazing sense of balance, especially when women use the "Look, no hands!" technique to carry big buckets of liquid and manage never to spill a drop.  But no matter how painfully heavy or precariously balanced these loads look, an African woman can still always give you "The Look" if she senses you might be about to whip out your camera.
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