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An African Surf Documentary

Africa does not exist

Africa doesn’t exist. Call me an existentialist. Or not. Or just see that statement above as a reminder that Europe is not Europe as Slovenia is not Spain. And certainly Mauritania is not Mauritania as expected.

Photos by Judith Recher
Text by Mario Hainzl

Week five of our trip to discover the West African coast. We had spent the night in Guerguerat, deep down the Western Sahara, some kilometres off the Mauritanian boarder. Morocco was done, a big check on the list of our shooting locations.

We had started this journey many weeks ago in the squeeze of the ferry’s rooms that displaced us from Europe to the African continent, sneaked around in the hills of Ceuta to meet a different type of voyagers – the clandestines from Sub-Saharan countries hoping to go were we so easily departed from. We had seen the charming medina of Rabat, the promenade of Casablanca where fitness obsessed hipsters run to the next green smoothie shop – reminding us of rather a Californian metropolis than a city of the Maghreb. The desert of Zagora lays behind us, the buzzling Souk of Marrakech that we explored with longboards, dodging excited American tourists. We partied with the surf locals from Taghazout and surfed its crowded breaks, well known to just about anybody who ever was into surfing magazines.

The West Sahara, the lesser-known southern part of Morocco – as we experienced it the weeks before proved to be a way less deserted place than expected. Sure enough we crossed areas in between where any breakdown of our trusted cars would have caused a problem, yet the outpost style villages in the West Sahara did not seem like places cut off from the rest of the world. You could easily imagine a farmer boy with a bunch of camels on the leash listening to a playlist on spotify, featuring the 100 most ever played tracks on popular music streaming service.

But here we were in Guerguerat in the very south end of Morocco. The cold of the desert around creeps in your bones. A different kind of cold we are used to in the north. It’s a metallic cold, lifeless cold. And this last hotel before going to Mauritania, we were pretty sure, would mark a boarder between the known, cosy proximity to Europe – the world we live in – and a total different ballgame.

With Mauritania I just couldn’t get that projective connection to people – I could not imagine the people there. I had heard of great waves there – Surf Experience, a group of professional surfers, storytellers and photographers, had published insanely cool photos some years before. But apart from that our knowledge was plainly vague. This feeling had even worsened these past weeks in Morocco – the more south we protruded, the more eager people seemed to warn us of Mauritania. «These people have empty eyes, there is no education there, they are anti-western, radicalized, conservative, dogmatic figures.» is what I’ve heard multiple times. And I asked myself how we are going to find interesting conversations there.

I remember Felix saying on the last evening in Morocco: «So, this is it. Tomorrow we go to Mauritania.»

Even Morocco might have a bitter taste to some people these days, when hearing about Ceuta and the flood of Sub-Saharan immigrants that flock around the boarder fences, eager to enter that save haven: Europe. Senegal, our next destination after Mauritania, might have a bad ring to its name when the Ebola epidemic of 2013 comes into your mind.

Let’s cook it down: Africa in general is probably not considered the safest place.

But with Mauritania for us it was just a more intense preconception than with those other countries. There is this saying of «ignorance is bliss» – that’s just as long valid as long as you are not standing on the brink of ignorance and are forced to jump right in. Which exactly describes what we intended with Mauritania.

Then the next day we reached the boarder. Hundreds of Moroccan flags, neat asphalt, police and toll buildings in surprisingly good shape. As if Morocco wanted to show their very best, neat side, increasing a contrast between this and the other side: Mauritania. After hours of waiting, getting all of our stuff through customs, showing every lense and camera filter to the Moroccan boarder police (yikes.) we were let of.

The neat asphalt ended at a half opened broken fence door. Just meters before it the last Moroccan accessory: a giant billboard with the Moroccan king waving good-bye. Behind it the Mauritanian no mans land is awaiting us. Deserted car wrecks, a sand pista, that divides into multiple different sand pistas from time to time. Even our 4×4 cars could just slowly creep through this strange place. Warnings not to leave the sand pista (which one?) if we want to avoid the land mines…

The Mauritanians obviously have never heard of the saying «The first impression counts.»

The boarder station of Mauritania seems like a half destroyed outpost in the desert. Some officials wear uniform (we counted 4 different styles), others are not distinguishable from the many people who want to offer cash exchange, help with the officials and guiding in Mauritania. «Where have we landed?» crossed my mind, only to get distracted from negotiations with a boarder official whose face, half covered with a fake Ray Ban, just screamed «corruption». I love this whole negotiating part with corrupt people – the smiling at each other, thinking something totally different than saying («yes sir») and navigating around each others stubbornness.

Once bribing our way out there we arrived in Nouadhibou and suddenly we were back in an actual country with real people. It immediately seemed different than Morocco – somewhat more African. But things were in place: Shop keepers selling stuff, kids running around the streets, men in street cafes, police patrolling the main roads, cab drivers excessively using their horns.

And our next character we met just this evening was a girl from Spain just about to discover the waves around Nouadhibou. We were back in our routine and what great stuff it was.

There I realized all preconceptions were wrong again. As it happened to everybody of you for sure: No matter if it was your first visit at the dentist, the first time you went to university, took a journey on your own or, you know, kiss a girl. Things are – once there before your eyes – not so different from what you experienced before. There might be a new colour to it, or a new smell. The world is not a big platter occurring in big phenomena, but a diverse cosmos of steps by steps done by very ordinary people.

When expecting something you don’t know jack about is just a question of a lean towards optimism or pessimism. Something that might change as moods occur. It’s a void ready to be filled by your instant moody changes.

If you’ve never been to Morocco you might have the same insecure feeling about it as we had about Mauritania, you might have the same feeling about Senegal (if you have any feeling for it at all) and some goes for Gambia.

To discover the facets in between though is a joyous adventure. It plays with your imagination; it cooks it down to the things that happen to you, to you personally as you decide to eat in that bakery and not the other one across the street. It’s pretty much a grain of luck that makes you perceive a country in a good or a bad way. And getting into a mind-set of openness with a bit of irony and nihilism surely doesn’t harm.

Let’s bring in a quote by one of my favorite writers:

»The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplication, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.«

Africa doesn’t exist. Call me an existentialist. Or not. Or just see that statement above as a reminder that Europe is not Europe as Slovenia is not Spain. And certainly Mauritania is not Mauritania as expected.

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