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Day 29: Nouakchott

Michael Palin - SaharaLocated at the collision point of Sahara Desert and Atlantic Ocean, the city of Nouakchott feels a bit like a lifeboat, tossed between two seas - one sand, one salt - with new people scrambling on board all the time. It has had neither the time nor the resources to create an identity or shape a character. It is just a place full of people.

There are some grandiose government buildings and a quarter where diplomats and foreign businessmen live in well-fenced comfort, but the heart of the city, down by the Grand Marché is a steaming, jostling mass of on-street commerce. The buildings that line the Avenue Abdul El Nasser lack any distinction, but in a sense
that's not the point. They are just spaces to be filled, emptied, leaned against and sheltered beneath by the throng of buyers, sellers, hawkers, beggars and all the other players on this congested stage: smooth young men in dark glasses, exuding unspecified threat, blind old men being led about by young companions, venerable, bearded figures swathed in veils, and poised young girls in deep blue robes balancing on their heads trays of soft drinks the colour of dentist's mouthwash. Around them a ragged army of street sweepers, with faces wrapped like mummies, carry out the Sisyphean task of keeping the capital clean.

The crowd is fed by a cruising stream of green and yellow minibuses, setting down and picking up constantly. Weaving amongst them are all shades of the transport spectrum, from donkey-drawn carts to Mercedes 200s, with missing fenders, sightless headlamps and window-cracks like spider's webs.

The children beg blatantly and cheerfully.

'Donnez-moi quelque chose!'

I see no-one buying, selling or reading a newspaper.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 29
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Nouakchott
  • Book page no: 99

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