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Ilsa arrived home at lunchtime yesterday, happy, exhausted, and truly filthy. Playing in the dirt for 3 days can do that for a girl. She’s still talking about it. “…and we built a sink out of mud bricks and it had a drain!…and we got to ride on top of the Land Cruiser when we visited other villages!…and we named the baby sheep and we had a rule: if you caught it you got to name it!…etc. etc.” I had to take a pumice stone to her feet to get them back to their normal colour.

Mauritania can be divided roughly in two, although of course in real life it’s not this simple. The people from the north are the Maures. They usually have some kind of Arabic background; they were traditionally nomadic camel herders, who live in fixed houses only during the gaytna, or date harvest. Their language is a dialect of Arabic called Hassiniya. To the South live the Pulaar people. In culture and language, they are more typically African, and are in fact a sub-group of a large West African tribe. Although we have some Pulaar friends, we have ended up knowing more Maures, which is why I have stories about camel’s milk and baking bread in the sand and the rustly spikes of the date palms against the desert stars. I haven’t had a lot of experience with the Pulaar villages of the south, so I was glad that Ilsa got to experience it.

No dates, she reports (they are a more northern thing) but she drank zrig every single day without complaining! She won’t do this for me, of course. She slept in a mud hut with a straw roof—her dream come true. One night there was a sandstorm and they had to move inside, but she was lucky to still  be in front of the low window, she reports. “But didn’t the sand blow on you?” I asked. I’ve had experience of the stifling air, the grit silting into noses, ears and mouths, when one sleeps near these windows which have only poorly-fitted wooden shutters, no glass. But no, she slept just fine. And she’s so happy to have had some excitement in her life at last!

October 2006

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