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An African Surf Documentary

The ambivalent life in Mauritania

Photos by Judith Recher / Lupi Spuma
Text by Vanessa Kröll

Things have turned out well for Cristina, the down-to-earth Spanish surfer we met in Nouadhibou. The most-northern and second largest city of Mauritania, she ended up here by accident. “Gracefully,” she says.

Ever since arriving in the Islamic Republic she’s led a happy life. Living in the capital Nouakchott for almost five years, she sought out an even more quiet life in Nouadhibou, the urbanized peninsula right across the border of Western Sahara. Meeting a Spanish woman living on her own in a country like Mauritania–and being one of the very few surfers of the region–left a big impression.

 
 
 
 
 

The country is the crossing point between the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. It enjoys a subtle cosmopolitan touch, but still it is a Third World Muslim country that struggles with poverty, patriarchy, a low educated local society and the burden of ex- and neocolonialism. Expats and foreigners can bring this ambivalences to a head.

We had so many preconceptions about the country before we even arrived, which Cristina understands. We had many questions for her as we sat on the rooftop of her house while regular “Allah akbar” shouts emanated from the surrounding mosques.

Cristina on living a life as foreigner in Mauritania…

“We all have wrong ideas about this place. There really is no information, and all the information that exists is negative. All I can say is that I lead a super healthy life, super quiet. There are many Europeans who want to raise their kids here because they think it’s a good place. What better than a person who thinks it is a perfect place to raise children? You can live a life similar to your country of origin. People will respect you the same.
You ask how come that I like this country? When you see the poverty, the health, the education. You see so many problems. Sometimes you feel even guilty of having it so easy. You see families next to you living in only one jaima, having absolutely nothing. You start questioning about what you really need. You see poor people and they are not angry, but content themselves with what little they have. Therefore, on a personal level, you try to simplify your life. You try not to waste money or resources. Or you try to help people close to you and contribute a little.”

On being a foreign woman in Mauritania…

“In one sense, it’s true that I was a bit scared of how it will affect my life. You don’t know if you will be free to live your life like you want, but after a while you figure it out. In that sense they have a lot of respect for foreigners. For a woman, well, there are a lot of men who actually shake your hand to salute you. On the streets it is almost obligatory to salute. If you come across somebody you salute and say, ‘Ca va.’ You don’t look at somebody and just pass by. Many men shake my hand, but others don’t. With the women it’s a different story, but I have never felt bad. I have always felt very free as a woman in this country.”

On friendship…

“Friendship is created by the time you spend with people. You can get to know somebody through work like I got to know Awa because we were learning French together, or it is for whatever reason, but you don’t build up a friendship within one day. You make a friendship out of shared acts, don’t you? And well, in my case with Awa it was because of meeting numerous times. I invited her to my house. I was going to her house. She took me to the beach. And finally we made a studio together and now the friendship will last forever. Everybody is handling friendship his or her own way. But it’s clear that it is about sharing moments. If you don’t share moments, you won’t make friends.”

On what she likes most about this place…

“The way of how they deal with time. A watch does not exist. It’s like time is standing still. There is time for everything. There is no stress. It’s tranquil. That means that things will happen when they happen. Once they told me, ‘You have the watch. We have the time.’ And it’s true. It’s all over the place: People are waiting. You have to wait. In time things will develop by themselves.”

On the fact that surfers are a minority in Mauritania…

“I feel like the majority does not like the ocean. They have the sea right next to them and spend their whole life with the sea, but it’s not a thing they like. The majority can’t swim and they belong more to the desert and the sand than to the sea. The ones who like fishing like the sea, but it’s not that they enjoy swimming or other water sports. As a matter of fact, the sport they do best is probably football. Women don’t do a lot of sports at all. There is no gym, for example. It hasn’t attracted their attention or I don’t know. Compared to the Mauritanians, the Senegalese are sportspeople and they like to do sports at the beach. But Mauritanians are not very active in that sense. They almost never go to the beach.

I think if more people would start watching, or if young people started to practice surfing, in the future it could be like in Senegal. Senegal is full of local people who surf. Here it’s something that hasn’t arrived yet, but maybe one day it will change. Kite surfing is more visible because of the camp, the hostel, where I am working. It’s located at the entrance of the city. It’s an obligatory place to pass by for those who come to Nouadhibou. And you can see the kites high up in the sky from the highway. Mauritanians know more about kite than surf. Additionally, here in Nouadhibou the waves are on the other side of town, which is at the end of the peninsula. Very few people go there and don’t have the opportunity to see it.

The ones that are a bit curious are the fishermen, but they don’t ask you. They don’t tell you, ‘I want to try!’ They don’t say anything like that. The kids yes, they watch, they enjoy it and when you are coming out of the water they are all jumping on your board, but none of them goes one step further.”

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