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Day 30: Nouakchott

Michael Palin - SaharaStrange weather. A warm wind blows from a brooding, hazy sky. The air is heavy, as if it might rain, which in a city that receives only 4 inches a year (London has nearer 30) would be quite an occasion. I feel a little disoriented by Mauritania. Having passed through an enormous country, I find myself in this wide, flat, shapeless capital feeling that I could be anywhere. I remember my colleague Graham Chapman on a Python tour of Canada being asked by a local tourist guide what he thought of Regina, Saskatchewan. Graham looked around at the flat expanse of prairie stretching away in every direction and then enquired, with winning politeness, 'Why didn't they put it over there?'.

Guidebook information is scarce, only fifty pages in my Rough Guide, half that for neighbouring and much smaller Senegal, so for on-the-spot information I seek out the honorary British consul, Nancy Abeiderrahmane MBE, or Nancy Jones from Essex, as she was before she married a Mauritanian in the late 1960s. I found her at work in a spotlessly clean compound off an unmade, sand-strewn road, from which she runs the highly successful Tiviski dairy business. Beneath the shade of two spreading neem trees and between an unloading tanker and a refrigerated delivery van, I'm welcomed by a small, vivacious, middle-aged woman in a white sari, obviously treated with respect by her workforce. The yard and the unloading bays, where milk is brought in from farms and from hundreds of small producers, many of them desert nomads, is constantly being hosed down. 'Portez Le Turban SVP' (Please Wear a Turban), says the sign on the door of the plant, and Nancy calls someone over to help me tie a length of black cotton into a howli, the Moorish head-wrap. It isn't easy. My nose keeps getting in the way. The man is dismissed and another more senior member of Nancy's 180-strong workforce takes over. He doesn't fare much better. It's a bit like tying a bow tie, easier to do for yourself than someone else. Nancy notices I have some hair showing, which is hygienically impermissible, and yet another man, who for all I know could be the chairman of the board, is summonsed. He does the trick, and, looking like a passable imitation of Lawrence of Arabia, I step, not into the desert, but into the bottling plant. It's the coldest place in Africa; a gleaming world of stainless steel and streamlined automation. Milk from cows, goats and camels is poured into cartons at the rate of 2000 an hour. The plant works seven days a week and sells product to over 2000 shops. The water they use is recycled to irrigate a garden on a nearby roundabout.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 30
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Nouakchott
  • Book page no: 100

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