Tradition and Modernity in Mauritania: The Black Sands

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Part three of a four-part series.  For part two click here

Approximately two hundred kilometers to the north of the Terjit oasis lies Choum, a dusty road stop of mud brick blocks near the border of West Sahara. Like most of Mauritania, Choum is poor. The days are spent on dirty mats, the women breastfeeding in front of TVs tuned to Egyptian soap operas, the men occasionally partaking in a glass of sweet tea or a handful of rice out of a communal platter. It is as if the entire town lives under a general malaise.

The town of Choum

Little commercial activity is visible here during the noon hours; most people are inside doing their best to escape the heat. There are no banks, no restaurants (unless you count a handful of private homes with Chez hastily scribbled across a piece of weathered cardboard). A few kiosks sell the staples of life: rice, bread, sugar, and water. Their owners tend to be asleep on the floor, grudgingly attending the occasional customer who raises them from their stupor. Choum is a place meant to be passed by. I spent nearly 24 hours here.

There is one thing, though, that makes this town special: its location. Choum lies on Mauritania’s only railway line. Opened in 1963, the 700 kilometers of track links the mining center of Zouérat with the seaport of Nouadhibou. It is the carotid artery of Mauritania, pumping out iron to the world in exchange for hard currency. It has also forever altered the lives of the people who live near its tracks.

The iron train is one of the longest in the world, often consisting of more than 200 cars

Today, the iron train is a lifeline for nomads living in the north, and Choum serves as a staging ground for herders looking to transport livestock to market cheaply while bringing previously unheard of luxuries like vegetables to some of the most remote corners of the world. But you won’t find any schedule or ticket office here. This is a freight train, and except for an occasional passenger car or two tacked on almost as an afterthought, most people ride inside the open wagons. When going to Nouadhibou, this means riding on top of mounds of iron ore, goats and camels included.

The iron train draws nomads from across Northern Mauritania

Curious about this uniquely Mauritanian experience, I had decided to make the journey from Choum to the sea and arrived in the town early. I was told that the train could show up at any time, but most likely after 5PM. So I settled down underneath a water car to the side of the main line and waited. It was a long wait.

The tracks through Choum

Around 7PM I went into town and stopped at a local “restaurant.” Sitting on the dirt floor, I was offered some rice, which I eagerly ate with my hands before washing it down with the habitual sugary tea. (How all of Mauritania isn’t diabetic by now is a mystery to me.)

I was assured by the restaurant owner that the train would come at 8PM; he offered me a mat at MRU 50 ($1.25) an hour to rest on. I accepted and promptly fell asleep outside the cement block on the side of the main road through Choum.

At 11PM, I began to have serious doubts that the train would ever arrive. It was always the same story: the train would come in another hour. So I waited; I had nowhere else to go anyway.

At a little after midnight, a low rumbling could be heard in the distance, not much different from the large trucks that occasionally passed by on the road beside my mat. I felt a hand on my shoulder; it was the owner of the restaurant. “It is here,” he told me. I quickly paid him and made my way to the line.

The moon bathed the tracks in an eerily dark blue. To my right, a pinprick of light emerged from the darkness, slowing growing in size and intensity as the thunder of the train turned into a roar of steel and diesel. The engine approached, its light nearly blinding, leaving me to gape at the ghostly locomotive, seemingly impossibly large, an apparition in the sand, followed by car after car of iron.

The iron train at midnight

It did not stop immediately but continued down the track for at least another kilometer until, finally, with an agonizing grown of steel against steel the train halted with a loud crank. I walked to the closest car and quickly found the ladder up. Hopping over the side, I found myself nearly slipping in grey sludge. The iron had been wetted to prevent it from blowing out of the wagon, but by Choum only the corners remained damp.

Wrapped in a jacket and turban, I walked towards the center of the car and lay down in the iron. It had the consistency of sand. The train rumbled back to life, and the dim lights of Choum faded into blackness. Contemplating the stars and the moon above, I smiled. I hadn’t felt this comfortable since leaving the oasis at Terjit. It wouldn’t last very long.

Sunrise on the iron train

I had taken precautions against the cool desert night, but I wasn’t prepared for just how cold things could get at 50 km an hour. While my upper body was protected against the wind, my legs were all too exposed, and it wasn’t long before I was shivering, desperately attempting to block the wind that seemed to swirl around the car in all directions with my backpack. So it was with no slight relief that I welcomed the rising sun at 6:30 in the morning.

A turban is crucial

But my reprieve was short-lived. The trembling cold was soon replaced with the scorching sun, and although, I was well protected underneath my turban, there was no respite. I was truly exposed to the elements.

To add to the misery was the iron dust, which, despite my being covered from head to toe, still invaded every crevice and orifice of my body while choking me in the very depths of my lungs. If I sneezed, I sneezed grains of iron; if my irritated eyes emitted a drop, it was a black tear of iron.

As I was soon to learn, the iron train is a lesson in trade-offs, none of them good. Stopping for an hour along the side of the tracks to let another train heading towards Zouérat by is welcomed relief from the dust made just as miserable from the unbearable sun. Likewise, when the train picks up speed, it’s as if you’re cooling in front of an industrial fan only to have someone pour a sack of sand over it.

There is no shade or shelter

The locals, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind. Indeed, one group appeared contentedly seated between a flock of goats. How the goats were faring I can only imagine.

Goats and nomads on their way to Nouadhibou

And so it went for an excruciating 17 hours until, sometime around 5PM, we pulled into the outskirts of Nouadhibou. By then, I was completely covered in iron dust, my face black, eyes red, hair stiff, my once blue turban, a dull grey. A man with a car appeared at the side of the wagon and asked if I need a ride into town. I nodded my head without even inquiring the price, and he took my backpack down while I slowly climbed off the train.

Ahead of me, some goats were being hefted up and tossed out of the ore car to the ground. One had broken its neck and lay motionless at the side of the line. The cost of doing business, I suppose.

Next week: I meet the people wedged between tradition and modernity.

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