Once in while, life here is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania echoes life in the United States of America. And so it is this month. In the US, there were elections; here, there are elections. In the US, they were mid-term; here, they are also electing new senators, and also mayors of the various “townships” or quartiers that make up the city of Nouakchott.
Campaigning started about 2 weeks ago. Suddenly, tents sprang like mushrooms out of the sandy stretches that line the main (paved) roads of this capital city. These tents were decorated with pictures of the candidate and enormous loudspeakers. The sand was spread with colourful mats, and all around the sides thick, cushy matlas and armchairs were placed, to welcome guests. The tents were fitted out with fluorescent lights, wires flapping out behind and connected to electrical poles or strung up to car batteries. Some strung coloured lights along the tied-back flaps of the opening—one even has a heart that flashes on and off.
At first the music was only heard in the nights. Beginning at around 8 or 9 p.m., we would hear the wailing sounds of Mauritanian music wafting through the still night air. Soon, though, you could hear it at any time, day or night. Trucks fitted out with loudspeakers drove slowly along the streets, snarling the traffic which needed no help in further tangling itself, blaring songs appealing for support. Various people, to show their support of their candidate, plastered the windows of their cars with photos of their candidate. The kid next door even has a picture on his bike.
The candidates’ photos reflect the fact that printing is still an undeveloped industry here. They are soft, blurry, enlarged far beyond the capability of the camera which took them. Colours are washed-out pastels. The candidates themselves, rather than smiling the huge fake smiles we associate with politicians, are often somber, sometimes almost cross. One woman looks like she was caught in a snapshot walking along the street, with sunglasses on and her purse tucked under her arm. Another woman frowns blearily like she was just rudely awakened from a nice little cat-nap and she’s not happy about it.
Around town there are billboards, too. One of my favorites shows a current picture of Nouakchott—sand, goats, small dusty buildings—juxtaposed with a large picture of Dubai or some such huge, modern place. “The Nouakchott of tomorrow?” reads the caption. “Why not?” Superimposed over both cities is the candidate in his blue boubou (robe), eyebrows and chin up, shrugging a why-not? On another billboard the same candidate is wearing a blue suit over a striped, multi-colour polo shirt. This shows his modern side, but is none-the-less a definite fashion mistake! But my friend says he is likely to win and I’m not surprised—his face is everywhere.
I ask one of my students at Oasis to translate the song we hear through the windows during class. He listens. “This person is from a good background,” he says. “He is devout and religious. He is generous and honest.” All of the songs say the same things about their candidates. Here in the nicer area of town, they say the person is from a poor background—in other words, he has not profited from corruption. I don’t know if the poorer areas say the same thing.
Dimi, the most popular singer in Mauritanian, wrote songs in support of at least four different candidates. Dimi is what’s known as a griot, although she has risen far above the ranks of most of her kind. Griots are usually present at weddings and baby-naming ceremonies. Their practice is to pick out a rich-looking person, squat in front of him or her, and sing praises. “Lots of people eat at X’s house,” they warble. “X is generous and kind, devout and honest.” They will not stop until you give them money. If you don’t give them money, they will sing insults about your stinginess. The practice of singing songs about the candidates has its roots in this tradition.
A very popular singer even put on a concert for the polo-shirt-and-suit-combo candidate. It was held at the Stadium, the biggest venue available. The place was packed. “This man is devout and honest,” sang the vocalist. “He is generous—lots of people eat at his house.”
Many many many people are running. Voters might choose from 40 names or more for one position! One friend sighs that it is random who will win, as many people are illiterate, or will simply vote for the person from their tribe. In the meantime, we’re enjoying the party atmosphere on the streets, and the refreshing lack of negative campaigning that you see in America.
Of course we can’t vote. But if we could? I’d vote for the one who is generous and from a good background, honest and devout. In fact, it turns out that not only do I know one of the candidates, but I’ve even eaten at his house. Perfect!