We left on that trip on a Saturday morning. As we were pulling out of town, we saw people spreading out enormous white tents in the sand along all the major streets. Certain houses in each neighbourhood had already been chosen as campaign headquarters for all the different candidates.

Yesterday, March 11th, saw what are being touted as Mauritania’s first real democratic presidential elections. The last 2 weeks have been full of music, speeches, tents with people lounging in the shade, reclining on plush, colourful matlas, or sitting on carpets spread directly on the sand. In the night, green and purple laser lights stab the sky, and traditionally-built women in bright muluffas warble the candidate’s praises into speakers which blast their voice for miles around.

It was illegal to begin campaigning early, or to campaign late—campaigning ended on Friday, leaving Saturday free and Sunday for voting. Two weeks only. Isn’t that brilliant? I love this idea and wish America would adopt it, because, to be quite frank, I am already sick of the 2008 Presidential Campaign and it’s not for another 20 months. I think something is wrong there. Campaigning for only 2 weeks means that the process is actually more democratic—you don’t need millions of dollars to run. Of course lots of money was still spent. Many people were seen wearing clothes printed with the candidate’s face, cars were plastered with posters, tent poles were wrapped in shiny satiny fabric. One of the main candidates, whose fabric was printed in alternate pictures—him in traditional robe, him in modern suit, showing both  his sides—chose purple as his signature colour, so we could tell whose tent it was from far away. Another took a key as his motto. Purple Candidate also blasted rap music (his modern side), and we had fun making up raps for him. “I’m a 1/3 less greedy; I’m in touch with the needy.”

As we drove through the tiny villages of the desert, we saw tents and heard music and speeches blaring, distorted, through huge speakers. Each town had at least 2 candidates who had made the effort to set up a tent. I don’t think the candidates visited all these towns themselves, but volunteers visited and made speeches and blared music for them. This week, my class at Oasis was tiny—only 2 students. Everyone else is out in the countryside.

I didn’t follow it as much as I should have, and I’m not going to get into politics on my blog. For me, it was all about the billboards, and who had the best picture. I wasn’t alone in this. One young man told Donn, “I’m voting for Y. His picture is the best, and after the election, all you will see is the picture.” I read the slogans. “The president who reassures.” Somehow, that wasn’t reassuring.” Most were boring, traditional politics: “A Future for the Youth.” “Taking Mauritania to the Future.” “Behind us, isolation. Before us, your vote.”

My favorite, though, was a billboard in a poorer area of town, near the port. “The fisherman are voting for X! Even the fish are voting for X!” I have to wonder about this. It seems to me that someone is not being completely honest here. Surely the fish would not be on the same side as the fisherman. And are fish allowed to vote? I wouldn’t have thought so.

The traffic has been more horrific than usual. Arabs tend to be late-night people; when we arrived back from our trip at 12:30 a.m., we were amazed at how awake and alive the city was. Everyone was out—partying in the tents, eating in restaurants, hanging out on the streets, driving up the wrong side of the road. But Sunday, all was calm in the city. The tents were down, the distorting loudspeakers mercifully quiet. A few scraps of torn posters flapped forlornly in the breeze.

Results are trickling in. Right now, the president who reassures is ahead; the guy leaving isolation behind is in second. There may have to be a second round. I haven’t really talked to any of my friends to get their impressions yet. Soon.