Yesterday, November 28, was Mauritanian Independence Day. The country is celebrating its 46th year as a sovereign country; 46 years since France drew some random lines on a map and united various desert tribes into a nation. Before that, the capital of the entire region was St. Louis, just across the Senegal River, but it was decided to make the river the border between the two lands, so a new city was founded—Nouakchott. I’ve heard various reasons for this choice to put a city here on the windblown salt flats in the middle of nowhere, but put it here they did, and they named it “Place of Winds” or possibly “Well of the She Camel,” depending on which book you read. Either name is appropriate.
Of course it was a holiday. There were various commemorative events, none of which were really announced. So we missed the parade, which started at 7 instead of 9, but we made it to the races, which started at 5 instead of 4.
Camel races are held 17 kilometres south of town. You drive past the first police check on your way to Rosso and then turn left. There is an edifice which for lack of a better term we will call a grandstand, consisting of 3 steep concrete bleachers and a shaded platform lined with chairs, a couch in the center for the dignitaries, and a table full of bottled water and juices, also for the dignitaries.
We arrive on time for the reported 4:00 start and there’s hardly anyone there, so we take our places on the top concrete step. The grandstand faces east into the desert and is mercifully in shade. It’s one of those rare perfect desert days—not too hot, sky blue and streaked with white clouds, pleasant breeze. We strike up a conversation with the casually-dressed American man sitting next to us and he turns out to be the interim US ambassador! Classy people go to the camel races.
There are 4 or 5 camels about 20 yards away from us, and a group of camel drivers sitting in the sand, shoes kicked off, drinking tea. Donn takes their pictures. Usually Mauritanians are resistant to being photographed, but this is a special occasion. Mauritania TV (MTV) is even there, and our kids will be on the evening’s news, just a quick pan across the crowd.
Eventually, the camel drivers get up and go to their camels. They line them up, then force them back down to their knees so that they can mount easily at the proper time. There are 7 of them now, their drivers standing proudly beside them. An officially-dressed man finds a mike, announces something. Time drags on.
Suddenly, with no signal that I’m aware of, the drivers leap into their saddles, their camels lurch up and they are off! They gallop wildly, swerving all over. We watch as they recede into the distance, tiny little dots moving across the face of the desert.
Again, time drags on. We stand up and peer north, down the track which the winner will come. The high-pitched trill, or ululation, of the women standing down by the tracks announces the first camel has been spotted. A rider appears in the distance. He rides in triumph down the last stretch, visible over the heads of the crowd. As he passes what I suppose must be the finish line, he makes a complete turn in the saddle, which is a great feat of balance.
Camels are such strange beasts. It’s fun to see them up close, although I am much less comfortable with them than Mauritanians are. They are almost serpent-like, with their flexible necks and double-jointed legs. And they are as ill-tempered in person as in legend. They hiss and spit and try to bite their driver’s legs.
The first four camels win prizes. Their drivers shuffle up to receive them and then retrieve their shoes and put them back on as they lead their camels away. We, too, gather up children and water bottles and odds and ends, and return to the city, mellow in the late-afternoon light.