Considering that Mauritania is a big country—twice the size of France, two-thirds the size of Alaska—it has a small population, around 2 ½ million. It is a country with billions of rocks and trillions of sand particles, but, on paper at least, not a lot of people.

In fact, the desert is full of people, they are just incredibly spread out. Every time we go camping, we pull off the road and find a spot in the middle of nowhere, and before long the inquisitive, the polite, the helpful will converge upon us. Do we need anything? Why are we here?

It is a curious fact that you can stop in a place that appears totally deserted, and almost before your feet touch the ground someone will appear. Where do they come from? Do they emerge from the sand—are they real?

I first noticed this when we visited the Guelb Richat, an enormous crater which is visible from space. Nobody knows for certain how it was formed. We stopped the car briefly, near a deserted old fort, and were immediately swarmed by people who appeared out of thin air, and tried to sell us trinkets. Seriously, as we approached we saw no signs of habitation, no tents or buildings, yet the people appeared from behind our car. From where? (Twilight Zone music here) A few miles further on, we stopped near some thorn trees and a woman ran out of a tent barely visible in the distance, arms full of a bowl with zrig sloshing around in it, to serve us a drink.

I wrote earlier about deciding where the road is during desert travels, deciding which rocks to bump over, or which set of wind-blown tire tracks to follow. This sounds daunting but it’s really not—you will eventually find someone from whom to ask directions, a camel herder or a shepherd, with a face wrinkled as a date from last year’s harvest and bright, shrewd eyes and only about 3 teeth, all of them discoloured. His robe will be stained and sun-bleached and tucked around his waist; he will gesture with his staff. “Shofe! Shofe!” (Look! Look!) he will say, pointing in the direction you should go. This has happened several times, but it’s always marvelous—you feel like you’re meeting Moses or John the Baptist or some other ancient desert personage.


Tim asking directions from a camel driver.


Something that is odd for us is how people remember us. Once I got in a taxi, and the driver remembered me—and my children, who weren’t with me the second time—from a year earlier, from an uneventful, unmemorable ride he’d given us from the school to our house. Admittedly we’re in the minority here, but there are enough other Americans, blondish, children in tow, that I shouldn’t stand out that much. 

On our recent trip, Donn took along a copy of the picture of the man making tea in the riverbed. He took this picture 3 years ago, but hadn’t been back to the region since. When we stopped for lunch in N’Beka, he showed the picture to some people walking down the street. “Yes, we know him, but he’s dead,” they said. “He went to visit another village and didn’t take water with him, and he died in the desert. He died of thirst.” We were stunned, disbelieving. Obviously such things happen, but are rare amongst people who are born and raised in the desert. We talked about it soberly over lunch.

After lunch, we walked out into the bright dusty street, and a man came up to us. Donn looked from him to the photo and back again. It was he. He remembered our cars (which are very typical of cars here) from 3 years ago, and came to greet Tim and Donn. “You look great!” said Donn, and gave him the photo.

Sometimes it’s hard for us, with our view of ourselves as normal, as people with rights to things like privacy, respect, etc.,  to deal with the crowds of people who treat us like walking zoo exhibits, creatures at whom it is perfectly acceptable to stare and touch and discuss. When we stop in a village, the children come up to the car, and they stare and stare. They put grubby fingerprints all over the window. They ask for everything in my car, “Give me that! (pointing) Give me that!” and when I say no, they ask me to give them a pen, a gift, 100 ougiyas. If I leave my windows open, they will reach in and stroke my hair, help themselves to small items, etc. When we were walking around Rachid, we were swarmed by a crowd of high-school students. We were suddenly in a crowd of people, all there to see us. Did I feel a bit like Paul McCartney? Not really. I didn’t like it at all, which is probably why I chose to never become a famous rock star adored by millions. Yeah. Fortunately, my life as a star has been going on at intervals for several years now, and I can ignore my fans better than I could at first. But it’s not pleasant.

As our car approaches a small settlement, the children run to greet us. At first it seems heart-warming, until you realize that every tiny grubby hand is held out. Donne-moi cadeau! Donne-moi cadeau! they chant. (Give me a gift! Give me a gift !) Often, they demand pens. Some people travel with piles of pens, stacks of “beecs” (bic pens), to pass out to waiting palms. I don’t. These constant demands bother me. I realize that they are poor and have probably never even been in a car as nice as mine, but I don’t think encouraging them to think of me as a sort of Santa Claus will solve anything. Especially because, when they see that I am not forthcoming with the coins, they sometimes throw rocks at my car, or curse me.

“May God shorten your life!” said a child to me once, because I didn’t give him the pen I was using at the time. And I was angry. I didn’t think I deserved to be cursed just because I wasn’t giving him my only pen, which I needed, and which I liked. (I am fussy about my pens)

Really, it’s what I call Reverse Exploitation. Just as it would be wrong for me, a rich person, to view the village children as resources for my use, in that same way I feel it is wrong for them to view me as a resource instead of a person.

You can argue with me on this, say I should be more generous and that I’m putting way too much weight on it, that kids will be kids (although do you teach your children to beg from the rich? Why not?). But the fact remains that I don’t give out pens or money, that I don’t scatter largesse from my chariot as I drive along for them to dig for in the dust beneath my wheels. I don’t want to be the patron. I just want to be a person. There are other ways for me to be generous.

Sometimes, when we’re parked along the road while Donn runs into a boutique for a tepid Coke or some bread, women will approach the car, attracted by the fair heads of the children in the backseat. I usually greet them in Hassiniya. Their response is always gratifying. They didn’t know white people could speak Hassiniya! They call their friends to see me, they shout, “She speaks Hassiniya!” to the neighbourhood. In vain I protest “Schway, schway” (only a little!) “Hottah!” (a lot!) they tell me politely, and shake my hand. They are friendly and joke about me giving them my children, preferably my daughter. I always silently vow to work on my Hassiniya when I return to the city so that I can get beyond surface pleasantries with these women, but I never do. Donn returns and we drive off, and with a sigh of relief I return to my book.