DRIVING in the north is no longer so dangerous. A network of hard-surfaced roads branches out from the Trans-Saharan, linking the oases. The roads are narrow and sometimes interrupted by drifting sand, but well maintained. Although the distances are great, help is never far away. There are cargo trucks, passenger buses, army-convoys, occasional private cars, and swarms of yellow taxicabs. These taxis, mostly beat-up Peugeot station wagons, shuttle from one oasis to the next. Airline managers must dream of such schedules: the taxis never leave with less than a full load, and they arrive when they please. In that sense they are like the bush taxis of black Africa, but they are less crowded (only six passengers) and better driven. They are also better driven than the cabs of New York, and much cheaper. For the price of a trip from Grand Central to La Guardia, you can travel a full day in the Sahara. The desert undulates under a brilliant sky. You pass a ruined fortress, a stand of palms, a camel wandering untethered, a dry riverbed filled with refracted sunlight, shimmering like water. There is no dispatch radio. Instead, a tape deck plays melodic readings of the Koran.
The south is different. There are few roads and few taxis. You drive most of the time over open desert, following tracks that are braided, eroded, obscured by dirt and sand. The braiding occurs when one driver gets stuck and others detour around the signs of trouble, making new tracks. Still others follow, mire down in turn, and pick new ways through. The Oregon Trail used to braid the same way. In the Sahara every truck, every car, every motorcycle leaves its trace. This repeats itself over the years until a route consists of a band maybe twenty miles wide of crisscrossing tire marks. Intersecting routes lead off to unknown destinations. Seen from the air, the tracks might make sense; on the ground they become hopelessly confusing. People follow them in circles. There is no one to ask directions from, and no one to help you if you break down. South of Tamanrasset heavy traffic on the Trans-Saharan means two trucks passing ten miles apart, on opposite ends of a basin.
This is a subject close to Salah Addoun. His father was lost in the desert while driving with friends. It was 1962, the year of Algerian independence. Addoun's father wrote farewells on his chËchË. He survived a month and was the last to die. The next day his body was discovered. Addoun was six.
Years later Addoun set out on a trip at sunset, to avoid the heat of day. After a full night of driving he came to some lights -- and found himself back where he had started. As he says, Allah did not choose his death then. More recently he was a passenger in a desert taxi across the sands southwestward from al Golea to a village called al Homr. After a while one of the passengers said to the driver, "Where are you going?"
"To al Homr."
The passenger said, "No, al Homr is toward that star there." He pointed to the left. The driver was unsure. The passenger took the wheel and followed the star to safety.
These are the skills of the nomad, and they require an encyclopedic knowledge of the land. One old man explained navigation this way: "Yes, by the stars at night. In daylight by local knowledge of the desert -- this soil, this tree, this ruin, these tracks, these shadows before sunset. It is passed down from father to son, and spoken of among friends." He said "local," but we were discussing the smugglers who drive hundreds of miles across the open desert.
Concerned about the number of drivers lost in the south, the Algerian government has marked the main routes with metal pylons every ten kilometers. Ten kilometers is 6.21 miles, and drivers still get lost. For marking the Trans-Saharan south of Tamanrasset, the authorities decided on something more visible. This is the stretch that causes the most trouble. For 280 miles the route descends across infernal badlands to the border with Niger. There are no wells and few landmarks. Drivers take days to negotiate it. The solution was to be 451 white concrete markers, one every kilometer. A kilometer is 0.621 miles, an easy distance for seeing from one marker to the next. Addoun's company won the contract. It was springtime. He set off from Tamanrasset on foot followed by a three-man crew in a Land Cruiser carrying supplies and topographic charts. Over two weeks he walked the entire distance, surveying thirty kilometers a day and driving stakes at the prescribed intervals. He did this as casually as you or I might go for a weekend stroll -- no photographers, no expedition flags. Once the stakes were in place, he returned to Tamanrasset, gathered a larger crew, and set off with trucks carrying steel molds. Pouring the concrete took an additional three months. Thinking of his father, I asked if the walking had been a pilgrimage of sorts. He smiled and said he had needed the exercise. I asked if his markers would make the driving easy. He said no, he was not a dreamer. Smugglers and adventurers would still get lost. People would still take shortcuts, break down, or get stuck. And the tracks would still braid.
I caught a ride on one of a pair of battered trucks exporting dates down the Trans-Saharan to Agadez, Niger. It was the only public transportation available heading south. Addoun saw me off. He introduced me to the chief driver, a bearded man with quick, amused expressions, whose name was Ali. He wore stained trousers, a ragged shirt, and no shoes. Addoun had told me that Ali was the best: he practically lived in the desert. He was a trader as well as a driver; the trucks and the cargoes belonged to him. The dates were lowquality export varieties in burlap sacks. I asked Ali what he would return with from Niger. He said chickens.
The other driver was a gaunt, silent Tuareg, who spoke no French and little Arabic. I was assigned to his truck. Addoun gave me a chËchË against the sun and dust, a blanket for the nights, and a sack of oranges to share with my fellow passengers. On my truck there were ten of them -- Tuaregs and black Africans, immigrant workers heading home. They peered down at me from atop the cargo. I threw my duffle on board and climbed up to join them. Each driver had an assistant, and started rolling without him. The assistants pretended not to notice. At the last possible moment they swung into the cabs. It was late afternoon.
By sundown we had settled into a rhythm. The trucks were like great beasts, guided lovingly across treacherous terrain. We wallowed and rolled, hesitated, backed, and shuddered. The gears ground. On high-speed level ground the engines bellowed and the tires heaved dust, and we hit twenty miles an hour It was not to be a fast trip.
The darkness closed around us, and we probed it cautiously with yellow headlights. The trucks competed for the lead. Now we were ahead, watching our dust swirl around Ali's lights; now we were behind, tasting his dirt, following his single red taillight. We made camp late, drank from fifty-gallon drums lashed to the chassis, and built two miserly fires. Campfires in the Sahara are fed by twigs and refuse, and are sparing of fuel. I have seen entire meals cooked on a few scraps of cardboard. Tonight we baked unleavened bread in the sand below the fires. After scraping the loaves clean we shredded them into goat stew, and ate from communal bowls. The air turned cool. I walked away and rolled myself into a blanket under brilliant stars. The desert was silent.
Hours later a truck passed. I heard its engine clearly, and after a while saw its lights creeping through the distance. It crested a rise maybe five miles away and disappeared. Someone was pushing hard for the border, giving dimension to the night.
We left before dawn, and the next day passed through a land of torn hills, where sand lay in pockets too deep to escape. This was why passengers were taken along: the trucks bogged down often. You could sense the trouble coming on: the double-clutching of uncooperative gears, the desperate shifting-down, the shuddering loss of momentum, the halt, the surrender. We dug ourselves out with hands, shovels, and sand ladders. The sand ladders were ten-foot segments of portable runways from the Second World War -- perforated metal strips, designed to link together and support the weight of an airplane. Now they supported the export of dates. Each truck carried a pair. I sometimes had the feeling we were digging our way across the Sahara. Other people had not succeeded; we passed the rusted hulks of their cars, partly buried in the sand. I saw an old Volvo, a Lada, Renaults, Peugeots, Volkswagen buses, and a Fiat clustered around the worst spots.
In the late afternoon nomadic children materialized from the empty desert. They ran toward us in a flock, waving plastic bottles to be filled. We stopped and gave them water. They had copper skin, ragged robes, and hair in wild dreadlocks. They begged for sugar, but we had none. I finally spotted their camp at the base of a hill -- two tents, some goats, a camel, a woman watching. The children waited for us to leave. They stood looking up, shielding their eyes from the sun. Then they trudged off, lugging the heavy water bottles. They lived this way, off the traffic of the Trans-Saharan. It has become a moving oasis.
That night I mentioned to Ali that I had seen only one of Addoun's markers. Ali answered, "It's better to find your own way. " I asked when we would get to the border. He was amused by the question. "Maybe not tomorrow," he said.
Maybe not ever, I thought the following afternoon. Against all reason, the trucks had been driving in loose formation, miles apart, as if to demonstrate that maddening disinclination to prudence that one encounters so frequently in the Third World. I was angered but not surprised when we lost sight of each other. After an hour in a maze of trackless basins, I began to worry. So, apparently, did our driver. He parked, killed the engine, and without a word marched off to a nearby hill, where he stood looking. I followed him. In all directions the land was empty. I left him there and returned to the truck. My concern was not Ali but the ignorance of our driver. I sat and waited. The desert was calm. I had hours to consider the worst. Somewhere out here, perhaps not far away, the Belgians had been lost.
They were husband, wife, and five-year-old boy, driving a Peugeot sedan for resale in Burkina Faso. At first their trip went fast, from Algiers through the northern oases to points south. Eventually the pavement ended. They were prepared to spend nights in the desert, but the driving was slower than expected. They were encouraged when they made Tamanrasset. After resting there they pushed on, planning on three days to the border.
When they got lost, they still had plenty of gas, and they set out to retrace their route. This was not easy, because the ground was hard-packed and rocky. They grew even more confused. But getting lost was part of the adventure, a special game for carefree Europeans. We know this because the woman later wrote it down. People dying of thirst in the desert often leave a written record. They have time to think. Writing denies the isolation.
The car broke down. They rationed their water and lay in the shade of a tarpaulin. The rationing did not extend their lives. They might as well have drunk their fill, since the human body loses water at a constant rate even when dehydrated. The only way to stretch your life in the desert is to reduce your water needs: stay put, stay shaded, and keep your clothes on.
The Belgians hoped a truck would pass. For a week they waited, scanning the horizon for a dust-tail or the glint of a windshield. The woman wrote more frantically. Their water ran low, then dry. They grew horribly thirsty. After filtering it through a cloth, they drank the radiator coolant.
Water is the largest component of our bodies, but we have little to spare. In the hottest desert we can lose it (mostly by sweating) at the rate of two gallons a day while resting in the shade, or four gallons a day walking. Because sweating keeps us cool, we function well in extreme heat as long as we have plenty of water. We need a lot of water -- say, half again as much as a camel over the course of a year. The rule is to drink until your thirst is gone and then drink a little more. If water is available, you naturally maintain your fluid content within a range of a quarter of a percent. If water is not available, juice, Coke, or beer is just as good. Apparently, radiator coolant also works. But what happens when it all runs out? Inevitably this becomes the question for anyone stranded in the Sahara. I can only list the symptoms.
Thirst is first felt when the body has lost about 0.5 percent of its weight to dehydration. For a 180-pound man that amounts to about a pint. With a two percent loss (say, two quarts) the stomach is no longer big enough to hold as much as the body needs, and people stop drinking before they have replenished their loss, even if they are given ample water. This is called voluntary dehydration, though it is not a conscious choice. Up to a five percent loss (about one gallon) the symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, flushed skin, irritability, increased pulse rate, and mild fever. Beyond that lie dizziness, headache, labored breathing, absence of salivation, circulatory problems, blue skin, and slurred speech. At 10 percent a person can no longer walk. The point of no return is around 12 percent (about three gallons), when the tongue swells, the mouth loses all sensation, and swallowing becomes impossible. A person this dehydrated cannot recover without medical assistance. In the Sahara it may take only half a day to get to this stage. Now the skin shrinks against the bones and cracks, the eyes sink, and vision and hearing become dim. Urine is dark and urination is painful. Delirium sets in. In a hot desert climate, as the body dehydrates, a disproportionate amount of water is drawn from the circulating blood. The blood thickens and finally can no longer fulfill its functions, one of which is to transport heat generated within the body to the surface. It is this heat that ultimately kills. The end comes with an explosive rise in body temperature, convulsions, and blissful death.
After the radiator coolant was gone, the Belgians started sipping gasoline. You would too. Call it petroposia: Saharans have recommended it to me as a way of staying off battery acid. The woman wrote that it seemed to help. They drank their urine. She reported that it was difficult at first, but that afterward it wasn't so bad.
The boy was the weakest, and was suffering terribly. In desperation they burned their car, hoping someone would see the smoke. No one did. They killed their son to stop his pain. Later the husband cut himself and the wife drank his blood. At his request she somehow broke his neck with a rock. Alone she no longer wanted to live. Still, the Sahara was fabulous, she wrote, and she was glad to have come. She would do it again. She regretted only one thing -- that she had not seen Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III. Those were her last lines. The family's remains were found later, and returned to Tamanrasset.
Sit, wait, you will find your orientation. Ali drove up after several hours. He had been behind us, stuck in deep sand over his wheels; we had not been lost at all. We headed south again, and arrived at the border late in the night, at the village of In-Guezzam.
To find In-Guezzam, go to the end of the earth and keep driving. It sits on a hot plain, a sad settlement of adobe and concrete -- a customs outpost and police station, a cafe, a gas station, a dirt runway, and a few houses. We spent the morning at the Algerian exit post, filling in forms and answering questions from hostile policemen. When they released us, we drove off into the braided noman's-land that separates the two countries. These noman's-lands exist everywhere in the Sahara, presumably because the countries are too hostile to put their posts back to back.
After fifteen miles we came to the border station at Assamakka, Niger. A line of fifty-gallon drums stood in the dirt, a roadblock without a road. On the other side was a settlement of shacks, a tree, and a barracks. The soldiers were black-skinned southerners. One wore an Australian bush hat and carried a Bowie knife. Another wore twin pearl-handled revolvers. A third fingered an automatic rifle. I wondered what they had done to be banished to the remote north of their country. They seemed discouraged by fate, and resentful at being waked from their midday dreams. After taking our passports they ordered us to unload the trucks, every sack. Then they went back to sleep. Children emerged from the shacks, hawking cigarettes, soft drinks, and chickens. Two Ethiopians approached me for help. They had been deported by Algeria and refused entry by Niger. For weeks they had been stuck between the countries, living on donations from passing strangers. They were hungry and sick. I gave them my blanket and my last oranges. They handed me a crudely written letter to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. I promised to pass it on when I got to the capital, and I did.
The guards returned to probe the sacks for hidden weapons, which they said were being smuggled to the rebellious Tuareg. Ali remarked, "Why would we come through this checkpoint? It is a big desert." He seemed amused, and infinitely patient. The guards pawed through our luggage, confiscating the small stuff -- pens, batteries, and rolls of film. They did not ask directly for money. After another day they seem to have realized that Ali would outwait them. They stamped our passports and let us go.
In Arlit, 150 miles to the southeast, you have made the crossing and have arrived suddenly in black Africa. Arlit, in Niger, is a uranium town. The streets are noisy and bustling, and travelers from the desert are greeted by energetic hustlers. The Sahara is all around, but now the road is paved. It leads south for another 150 miles, to the ancient caravan center of Agadez.
Agadez is a poor, mudwalled town, dominated by a sixteenth-century adobe mosque and its Sudanese-style minaret, rising ninety feet above the dusty streets. Once, the town sat on the southern fringe of the desert, and prospered on a booming trade in slaves, gold, and salt. Now the desert has moved farther south, and the town runs on a little commerce, a little charity, and a little international aid. There are wells here, and government offices. As a result, the population of Agadez has swollen with refugees from the droughts. The refugees remain even when the rains come. Their herds are dead, and they have nothing to return to.
From Agadez I took a bus 550 miles southwest to Niamey, the capital of Niger, and watched the desert disappear. It was a good, clean bus, with air-conditioning and a stereo. The driver sat upright and wore lightly tinted sunglasses. There was drama in the way he drove, flashing through villages, overtaking the cars ahead. He had a multi-tone horn, and he could make it talk. Thanking, scolding, proclaiming, the Niamey bus was coming through.
At first the land was barren, a desert of gravel and gullies. Then acacias became more frequent. Three hours out of Agadez the country turned to rolling, eroded grassland, inhabited in the valleys by isolated families. Later the grass turned thicker, and the country began to resemble American rangeland, with goats and long-haired cattle. There were villages of round huts and cultivated fields of hand-planted corn. Then we came to a reservoir, the first open water I had seen in thousands of miles. The wind pushed up little waves that lapped the shores. The shores were farmed. There were flooded trees. I delighted: water is life.
We stopped only for roadblocks and prayers. At the roadblocks illiterate soldiers peered at our identity papers and tried to record our names in ledgers. They asked me to help. At prayer time the passengers knelt together in the dirt, and the driver responded by playing a cassette of the Koran.
After dark we drove along the border with Nigeria, through frequent villages. There was no electricity and no moon, and the night was black. In the markets lining the road the vendors lighted their wares with kerosene lanterns. There were hundreds of them, casting flickering orange light on thousands of milling villagers. Everyone was outside, enjoying the evening. We stopped for dinner in the largest town, and I wandered in the crowds, listening to the constant calling. Sitting on a bench with others, I ate a bowl of rice with a spicy sauce, impossible to see in the darkness.
In Niamey I went to the national museum to find the remnants of a famous tree. It was an acacia, and it had grown in the Tenere, the great sand desert east of Agadez. For hundreds of miles in any direction it was the only tree. Maps showed it. Then, in 1973, a Libyan truck driver collided with it and knocked it down. The trunk was hauled to the museum. Out in the Tenere a simple metal statue was erected. Someday I will go to see it, a most peculiar monument to driving in the desert.
Desertification in Mauritania
Some 4,000 miles to the west of Niger, beyond Mali, lies Mauritania. I flew to Nouakchott, its capital, which is accessible in virtually no other way. There are no tourists in Mauritania. It is one of the world's most wretched countries. Malnutrition and disease are endemic, and in bad years there is famine. There are few roads, schools, or hospitals. Politics is driven by poverty, fear, and racial division. The military rules repressively. The towns are in disarray. For all this the Sahara can be blamed. The desert is expanding rapidly and has overwhelmed the country.
Mauritania was given life by the French in 1960, as a desert nation to be ruled by desert nomads but to include a fertile strip of savanna and riverland along the southern border. In thirty years much has changed. By leaps and bounds the savanna is turning to sand. The drought has done more than damage the savanna; it has deepened the desert itself. Dunes have buried whole villages.
In theory there are solutions. You can drill wells, irrigate crops, stabilize dunes, and plant trees. You can teach people to use the land more carefully, not to overgraze, overcut, or overpopulate. You can balance indigenous and imported technologies. You can preach hope that agriculture in the south might someday feed the country's two million people.
In fact there is little reason for optimism. Only rain can threaten the desert, and in recent years there has been mostly drought. The power of weather dwarfs human effort. In the past decades the pluviometric threshold of six inches of annual rainfall -- the minimum for grazing -- has moved south sixty miles. Nouakchott, once surrounded by grasslands, is now swept by blowing sand.
The Sahara is mercurial, and does not attack in regimental formation. It sprouts in barren patches here and there, perhaps a hundred miles ahead of the absolute desert, and bypasses the greenbelts planted to block its advance. Greenbelts are trees, Maginot lines in a losing war against the climate. If they survive, they protect only themselves. Farther on, around a well, near a village, for miles outside a city, the land goes bad. People steepen the decline once it has begun. There are more of them than ever before, wielding better tools. But it is hard to blame them. They cannot wish themselves away, and they must eat. The land cannot support them. The rains have stopped. This is the process called desertification.
The flight gave me no preparation for the conditions in Mauritania. I sat comfortably in the airplane watching the sun set against the ocean horizon, drinking strong black coffee. A fog bank lay below us. To the east the Sahara stretched in graceful plains. I sampled a pastry. I wiped my hands with perfumed towelettes. Then we were on final approach over a coastal desert of sand and gravel. Shacks passed by the right wing. We landed, and disembarked by a ramshackle terminal. The dusk was thick with heat, dirt, and humidity. Within minutes my shirt was soaked through.
Mauritania is edged on the west by the sea, on the north by the Polisario rebellion of the Western Sahara, on the east by the roadless desert, and on the south by hostilities with Senegal. The Nouakchott airport is the gateway to the outside world, and the few flights are booked weeks in advance. With some regret I watched the airplane depart for Mali. The remaining daylight was gray and threatening. I did not like the looks of the soldiers who loitered on the ramp, eyeing the passengers. I stood in the crowd, fighting mosquitoes and flies. Ahead, the police were carefully checking identities, and bodily searching the men. I wondered what they hoped to find.
The other passengers were native Mauritanians, returning from the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Most were Moors, members of a Berber subgroup who speak an Arabic dialect known as Hassaniya and who form the upper caste of Mauritanian society. The men wore traditional Saharan robes, while the women wore full dresses with colorful scarves, and went unveiled. Though many people undoubtedly spoke French, none would talk to me. They were reluctant to be seen with a foreigner.
Mauritanian society is closed and hierarchical. Below the ruling caste of Moors is a Haratin class of slaves and ex-slaves, known as Black Moors. Slavery was banned in 1980, but it continues today. That is less shocking than it might seem: free people die of starvation in Mauritania, and some slaves prefer their servitude. The third level of society, below the Haratins, is made up of farmers and pastoralists from the sub-Saharan south -- black Africans with ties to Senegal and Mali, who have never been integrated into the desert society. They inhabit the savanna and the prime farmland along the Senegal River, and constitute perhaps half the population. The Africans are a problem for the ruling Moors, who despise and fear them and worry that they will rise in revolt. The Moors would like to reduce their numbers.
In April of 1989 riots broke out for three days, during which 400 of these "foreign" blacks were hunted down and slaughtered. Afterward Mauritania expelled as many as 170,000 of them, calling them Senegalese. Senegal responded in kind, and the two nations settled into the state of near-war that exists today. In Mauritania the persecution continues. Along the Senegal River the army is driving people from their land. There are rumors of killings. In the name of national security the area has been closed to outside observers.
Officially it is called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. This is a cynical play on words, but one with relevance to the country. In Mauritania the military has assumed not only command of the government but also the trappings of Islamic purity. Islam there has become a tool of social control, wielded to enforce discipline. Shari'a, the severe Islamic code, was instituted in 1980, both to pre-empt the small fundamentalist movement and to reinforce the power of the ruling Moors. Since then the government's Islamic rhetoric has grown stronger, and for the same reasons. The African underclass, though devoutly Muslim, is not pleased. Arabism and Islam are closely linked. By declaring its religious credentials, the military has aligned itself with the Arab north, at the expense of the Africans. In Mauritania policy usually boils down to racial division. For now no one dares to object. The military knows what it is doing. As thc Sahara squeezes the populations together, the choice is between Islamic discipline and ethnic disunity, between the military and all-out civil war. In Mauritania, Islam is martial law.
Nouakchott itself is a political creation, founded in 1957 as the capital of the soon-to-be nation. It is a dispersed, low-rise city of boulevards and blockhouse architecture -- a place that speaks of the Mauritanian expanse. Goats wander the alleys. Donkeys haul loads of precious firewood to be sold in small bundles. The buildings are concrete, crumbling, dirty, and hot. There are few cars and fewer trucks. Scant downtown traffic lights regulate the flow of green Toyota vans packed to the limit with thirty or more passengers. The wind blows constantly, carrying the desert with it. Sand is everywhere. Slowly it is turning even the busiest streets into tracks. Inside the buildings workers sweep it, shovel it, and take it back outside.
The most surprising fact about Nouakchott is its size. Downtown you might guess it at 100,000 inhabitants. The actual number is closer to 800,000 -- more than a third of the entire country's population. Most of the people are Moors. They live in squatters' camps that ring the city, and are discouraged from coming downtown by government policy and lack of transportation. Many are semi-nomadic: if the summer rains come, they leave with their goats for the open desert. When the season changes and the land can no longer support them, they return to the capital, where there is electricity and water. The goats graze on refuse, at times on cardboard alone. The people have more elaborate needs. They suffier hunger and sickness, but in Nouakchott, at least, they manage to stay alive. Nouakchott is Mauritania's most efficient distribution center for foreign food and medicines.
I drove out to the squatters' camps with a Moorish businessman who explained his work as "sometimes import-export." We went to the animal market, in a sea of tents and flimsy shacks. Pencil-thin nomads crowded around us. My host said, "They are not as miserable as they seem. They think that by living like this they can force the government to give them housing and land. It is mostly fakery." And these were his fellow Moors. I wondered what he thought of the black Africans.
We bought a struggling lamb at the market, forced it into the trunk, and drove home. The businessman lived in a two-story concrete house with a large parlor. It was too hot inside, so we sat out back on a rug in the sand, and drank Coke and traditional Saharan tea. Nearby a slave slaughtered and skinned the lamb. I write "slave" without being sure. He was a Haratin black with a peaceful face. He wore no chains. This is the modern form of slavery -- a lifelong but willing servitude. I have seen it also in Tamanrasset. If I had asked, he would have been called a friend of the family. He was clearly more than a servant.
It was the week of the tree. On the television news we watched a government minister plant a sapling in the desert. There was no mention of world events. The businessman sneered. "They are confused and afraid, and don't know what to say. So they say nothing."
We went to his office, in a shabby building. He sat in grand style behind a large desk. On the wall hung the mandatory portrait of the President, Colonel Taya -- a handsome man with a moustache. I sat at a coffee table. We talked business -- about the economic potential of Mauritania, the iron deposits in the north and the rich fishing grounds off the coast. We talked imports and exports. He argued that American magazines need permanent representatives here. He discussed the strategic importance of the country. He was like a man on dry ground pretending to row a boat. The room had not been swept, and sand was accumulating in the corners.
INSHALLAH: God willing. You hear it again and again in conversation, a sort of cultural reflex, a constant reminder of faith. We will meet for tea, God willing. The weather will change, the rains will come, and our herds will survive, inshallah. And if none of it happens, that, too, is God's will.
Westerners accuse Islam of excessive fatalism -- but fatalism is just the ingredient necessary to function in the Sahara. I talked to the director of the Peace Corps in Mauritania, who said that the American way is to take action today for a better life tomorrow -- which is equally a statement of faith. In Mauritania the Peace Corps has proved largely impotent. The desert twitches, and sweeps aside good intentions. If nature has been subdued in the industrial West, in the Sahara it, or God, remains the primordial power. You live here as a guest. Soon you learn to think like others, and find yourself even in your most private thoughts saying inshallah.
KIFFA is the capital of a region called the Assaba, 350 miles to the east of Nouakchott, on the paved road that crosses southern Mauritania. The road is interrupted by frequent security checkpoints. Immediately to the south there is trouble on the river; to the north there is desert. The law is as capricious as the weather. The soldiers are uncertain. I went by air to Kiffa, and overflew their scrutiny.
Once a fertile savanna, the Assaba has come under full assault by the Sahara. The airport at Kiffa is a dirt runway scraped through the brown scrubland outside town. I waited to disembark while an old woman tried to descend the stairs. She was a back-country Moor, a nomad from the open desert. For minutes she hesitated in the doorway. She gripped the rails and surveyed the angle. Her problem was not physical inability but understanding. These were her first stairs: she had climbed them to get on the airplane, and now she had to figure a way down. A crowd at the bottom shouted advice. She turned one way, then the other, and finally started down backward. Halfway down she ran out of ideas and froze. Her expression was anguished. A group of men came from below and lifted her to the ground.
It was summer, the end of the rainy season. A cumulus cloud towered in the haze and humidity. No one dared hope for a storm; for months the sky had been full of false promise. The land was sparse. The people at the airport looked idle and unhealthy.
I do not know the population of Kiffa, and I am not sure anyone does. It looks like a town of 10,000; I would guess that because of drought the number is triple that. Still, it is dispersed and uncrowded. Stone houses line empty dirt streets. The place is brown and tan, like the desert dust that settles on it. Groups of young Moorish men in white and pale-blue robes walk abreast. They are haughty and unwelcoming. Here, too, relations between the races are difficult. There is a market, run by African women, where the heat is magnified by the confines of airless alleys. Elsewhere there are a few small grocery stores with butane refrigerators to keep bottled drinks cool. There is no electricity. People dig individual wells and drink tainted water. There is no sewage system. Cholera, polio, measles, tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid, hepatitis, a host of parasites, and probably AIDS exist here. One death is hardly distinguished from another
I stayed in Kiffa with a Peace Corps worker named John Stingley. At age forty he was a wizened, balding man with a full beard and a cautious expression -- not the poster image of an enthusiastic volunteer. Stingley was a sometime rock musician and forester from coastal Oregon. His last job there had been as a low-paid technician, trudging the rainy slopes and counting saplings. He told me he joined the Peace Corps out of curiosity. He said he wanted to dry out his boots.
He was idealistic, too. With three years of forestry school behind him, and a lot of practical experience he thought he could do the world some good. The Peace Corps had sent him to the front lines to plant trees and fight the Sahara. He was a better soldier than most. Near the completion of the two-year tour only fifteen of his original group of forty-one volunteers remained. The others had quit owing to sickness and discouragement. Stingley himself had lost thirty pounds and gained back only fifteen. He lived in Kiffa utterly alone, with little backup. His relations with the local authorities were poisoned by corruption, mistrust, and racial politics. Stingley stayed on, but he no longer believed he could help. He had grown his trees and watched them die. He blamed Mauritanian neglect and the weather. Now he was only counting the days until the end. It is not easy to fight a hopeless war.
The Peace Corps rented his house from the biggest landlord in town. It was a two-room bungalow at the center of a walled dirt yard. With the exception of a scraggly tree by the porch, the yard was bare. This embarrassed Stingley, who said he would have planted it except for the herds of neighborhood goats. They were the bane of his existence. They bounded over the walls and wandered the yard at will. Goats are among the worst culprits in desertification. They eat even spined plants, and destroy young trees by cropping them down to their roots. Stingley hated them with professional vigor, but he might have missed them if they were gone. Together he and the animals danced a mad ballet. When he spotted them in his yard, he stepped threateningly off the porch and waved his arms. They watched and pretended not to care. He started after them, and they thundered around the house in mock fright. He was nimble and sly, and doubled back to catch them by surprise. They thundered the other way, just out of reach. He threw stones; they pranced. If he cornered them, they escaped over the wall and returned later to test his vigilance.
We drew water from a deep well at the front of the yard. It was a laborious job of hauling up buckets hand over hand and filling plastic jerricans. Stingley did not mind. He filtered and sterilized the water with the patience of a man living alone. His housekeeping was immaculate. He cooked on a camp stove and ate simply. He kept a daily journal in tight handwriting. He was proud that he had not been sick for months.
IN brilliant sunlight the next morning we went to the nursery, where a crew of Africans cared for seedlings under Stingley's direction. The laborers were employees of the Mauritanian forestry department, to which Stingley was attached as a sort of extension agent. They had not been paid in months, and were growing weak from malnourishment. Stingley claimed that the bosses were keeping the wages. He could not bear the suffering of his men and had lent them money from his own meager salary. In return they treated him as their friend and protector. He had protested on their behalf, to no avail. He was frustrated by his inability to help.
Still, he brightened up among his seedlings. There were some 40,000 of them in the nursery, grown in sacks for transplantation. He led me through, bending over them, cupping the fragile leaves in his hands, discussing the attributes of the different species. Mostly he raised mesquite, which roots well in difficult soils, finds water, grows fast, and can be cut to the ground and survive. The other seedlings were acacias, desert bushes, and a local tree called the neem, which was his favorite, because of its resistance to goats.
Within the confines of the nursery the project was successful: after several reseedings Stingley had achieved a 90 percent germination rate. I asked about the longer-term prospects of survival. He shook his head, In the United States the survival rate is roughly 80 percent; he guessed survival in Mauritania to be at most eight percent, depending on the project. He blamed livestock, lack of care and watering, and the weather. He described walking through old projects in which every sapling was dead. He described watching his own saplings die.
We discussed the current crop. Most of the trees were intended for planting along the roads leading out of town. The idea was to fight drifting sand. But there were no trucks or crews available, and already the planting season was ending. Stingley had heard rumors that in fact many of the trees were destined for the yards of the governor and the chief of police. He shrugged. "At least they might get watered."
Other trees were being given away on the street. One afternoon, as we watched, the nursery crew handed 15,000 seedlings over a fence to crowds of women. The women seemed delighted. Stingley was skeptical. He had wanted to sell them for.a token fee and include instructions on how to plant them. I asked him if he thought any would survive. He smiled quizzically and answered, Inshallah.
We went to see recent plantings at the northern edge of town. They were mesquite bushes, regularly spaced across the upwind slope of a long, powdery dune. A group of children from nearby houses followed us across a fence and along the crest. The land to the northeast was a vast eroded plain, a desert shadow of earlier savanna. A few sturdy trees remained, but the grass was gone, turned to dirt and sand. The land was harsh but not lifeless. Spiny bushes had taken root along the washes and in the shelter of rocks. A car track led across the plain and disappeared into the distance. Out there the main mass of the Sahara stretched in eternal buttes and sand seas. The sunlight was relentless; it pushed away even the memory of rain.
Here on the dune the mesquite plantation had failed. The sand had kept moving, exposing the roots of the bushes, slowly killing them. The fence sagged where we and others had climbed over it. Soon it would let in the goats. I asked the children which way the dune was drifting. They pointed here and there. But I could see for myself that it threatened their houses. The sand was slipping into town.
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Copyright © 1991 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1991; The World in Its Extreme; Volume 268, No. 5; pages 105-140.