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Nobody’s slave

Senegal River, Mauritania, 1995

When we realised there was no chance of reaching Nouakchott before nightfall we turned off the main road and headed south towards the Senegal River. We hadn’t eaten since dawn and I was aching with hunger.

J’ai tellement faim,” I said.

Moi aussi,” replied Mohammed.  He was sure we would find something to eat, and somewhere to sleep, once we reached the river.

It was around ten o’clock when we pulled into a small town without streetlights. Everywhere seemed to be shut: the small breeze-block shops with corrugated iron roofs; the tea shacks with their crooked doorways; the modest dwellings that lined the sandy streets. Eventually we found a policeman, who directed us down a narrow alley. We knocked on a door, which was opened by a tall, handsome, full-figured woman. Mohammed asked her something in Arabic; she responded in French.

Je ne veux pas manger ici,” he said, turning to me. I don’t want to eat here.

“Why not?”

“It isn’t good.”

“It looks fine to me.”

It also smelt fine. There was an enticing aroma of warm spices; besides, I liked the look of this woman and the way she responded to Mohammed’s evident disapproval – disapproval, I suspected, that had nothing to do with the food she offered or her simple home, but everything to do with her race, and possibly her haughty manner. She was black; Mohammed was a light-skinned Moor. Mauritania was the last country in the world to outlaw slavery, and even now there were occasional reports of blacks being sold by Moors in remote parts of the country.

“Well, I’m starving, and I intend to eat here,” I said.

Mohammed, who had been a pleasant and helpful companion during our week-long travels, sullenly acquiesced.

As a gastronomic experience, Mauritania had been a disappointment. The only decent meal we’d had so far was in Mauritania’s equivalent of a transport cafe, a vast tent with billowing awnings and worn rugs besides the Route d’Espoir, or the Road of Hope, an inaptly-named ribbon of tarmac which slashes its way some 1000 miles east from Nouakchott, on the Atlantic coast, to Timbuktu, deep in the Sahara. Wearied by hours of hot, dusty travel, we had gratefully taken refuge in the tent with a dozen or so others, mostly merchants, all Moors and dressed in blue robes and white turbans.

Milking by night in the desert near Ayoun el Atrous

Milking by night in the desert near Ayoun el Atrous

The food arrived on circular brass platters. A roasted goat’s head, perched on a small mountain of couscous, was surrounded by bowls of stewed vegetables.

Vas-y!” said Mohammmed, motioning me to serve myself.

Everyone fell silent. I began to mould a ball of couscous with the fingers of my right hand.

Non, il faut que tu prennes la langue!” Take the tongue!

I studied the goat’s bared teeth, its charred lips and flat, baked eyes and I was wondering how to remove the tongue when Mohammed ripped it out and handed it to me.

“No, you have it,” I said, sounding as magnanimous as possible.

Mohammed briefly held up the tongue with its trailing ligaments, as though raising a toast, before popping it in his mouth. Conversation resumed and we set about the food, whose variety and flavours were infinitely superior to anything we were to eat over the coming days. On one occasion, prior to setting off for the desert, we bought the local equivalent of fish and chips in a small market place. An enormously fat woman stirred the contents of a dustbin, which bubbled furiously over a charcoal fire. She ladled out some pieces of fat, bone and gristle and wrapped them in newspaper. Late that night, in a nomad’s camp, watched over by camels and goats, we chewed our way though this grim offering beneath a sky dizzy with stars.

The predominantly African communities who live in the settlements along the northern banks of the River Senegal are more fortunate, from a culinary point of view, than the inhabitants of the desert, for beside the river a profusion of vegetables grows on the alluvial soils. At other times, I might have considered the stew we ate in the riverside shack – courgettes and aubergines in an oily tomato sauce – ordinary fare. But here, watched over by a woman of quiet and sensuous authority, who in view of Mohammed’s behaviour would have had every right to turn us away, I felt much as the early Christians must have done when they broke bread in hidden places at the dead of night, beyond the reach and knowledge of their persecutors. This was one those times when food is fellowship, a bridge across race and culture.

She was a member of the Haalpulaaren tribe and she seemed to be running a crèche of sorts, besides feeding strangers. There were eight babies and small children sleeping on rush mats at one end of the room and after she had served us she flipped them over, one after the other, from their fronts to their backs, like a cook expertly turning a row of squishy fritters. None of them stirred.

Mohammed, on the left, with other Moors at a tree nursery

Mohammed, on the left, with other Moors at a tree nursery

I asked if there were any second helpings.

No, but she could make some tea.

“We don’t have time,” said Mohammed, who was eager to escape her company. “We need to find somewhere to sleep.”

We began driving slowly and aimlessly along the dark streets, as though waiting for providence to rescue us. A night watchman, alerted to our needs, climbed into the vehicle and directed us towards the rising moon. I would happily have slept on the ground, as we had done every night during the past week, but we soon arrived at our destination, the headlights illuminating a pair of wrought-iron gates. The watchman got out and soon the gates swung open. We were beckoned inside, where we were greeted by a man in a jellabiya who was shaking the sleep from his eyes. Having intntroduced himself he gave order in Arabic to his servants. While they were arranging some simple iron beds in the garden, our host explained that he was a general in the Mauritanian army.

“Now, let us talk about life,” he said as we arranged ourselves on the beds.

The General spoke beautiful French – mine, at the time, was very poor – and he told us about his life as a soldier, the times he had spent in France and the current dispute between Mauritania and Senegal. The previous year, several hundred people had been killed in skirmishes along the border, most between settled farmers and nomadic cattle-herders searching for fresh pasture. After a while, I drifted off to sleep, lulled by the breeze from the river and the whispered conversation, now in Arabic, between the General and Mohammed. Next morning, before sunrise, I was woken by the sound of heels crunching on gravel. The General, dressed in full uniform with gold-braid epaulettes, had come to say goodbye. Breakfast was on its way, he explained. He was sorry he couldn’t join us but there were pressing matters to deal with, including, presumably, the troubles along the border. “Perhaps we shall meet again, Inshallah!” he said as he left us.