In the same year that we relocated from Kenya to Senegal, my mother died after a short illness. She was about the same age as I am now. My father was devastated. They had been married for just over 50 years. I had recently taken up my new job in Dakar and had to fly back for the funeral, leaving Linda in a completely new country, knowing hardly anyone and in charge of our two children who were about five and seven at the time. Immediately following the funeral my father and I spent a week or so in the Lake District in the north west of England, just to walk the healing hills and talk. Then I had to take my leave and fly back to Dakar.
Christmas loomed and for my father, the deadening prospect of being at home without my mother as the festivities went on around him. We invited him to come and spend Christmas with us in Dakar, knowing that, as Senegal was a Muslim country with only a very small Catholic minority, the worst excesses of a Western, commercial Christmas could be avoided.
Now, I think I have mentioned elsewhere in my blog that my father’s career had been quite a conventional one. He trained as a draughtsman and worked all his life in industry. When I was three years old he got a job working for an aluminium factory in the splendidly named village of Waunarlwydd, just outside Swansea in South Wales. He hated it more and more as the years rolled on towards his eventual retirement.
I can remember when I was about seventeen and had recently passed my driving test. I drove my Dad to work one day. I think my Mum must have wanted the car during the day. As we pulled up at the factory gates my Dad gave a deep sigh and said “Oh Lord, I’ve got to go into this god-awful place again.” This was at a time when the trade unions were very powerful throughout British industry and industrial relations were, to put it mildly, somewhat strained. Being in what might now be called ‘middle-management’, my father found himself as the meat in the sandwich between the aggressive trade unions fighting for their members and the obdurate senior managers fighting for their shareholders. He got minced.
Despite all of aggravation and other tribulations that he suffered at work on a daily basis, when I got my first job working for an industrial company, my father thought that I had made a good and sensible choice. I spent five years working for the Metal Box Company, Britain’s leading manufacturer of all sorts of packaging ranging from baked-bean tins to Coca Cola cans, from decorated boxes for biscuits to bottle tops, which was the part of the company where I ultimately ended up.
The first two years, I must admit, were quite useful. I worked as a back-up man to the sales team, those brave foot-soldiers who spent their lives driving around the country selling bottle tops to drinks manufacturers. I learned a lot about office administration during that time, how to organise paperwork to ensure that orders were efficiently processed and tracked, how to liaise with the factory’s manufacturing department to ensure that promises to customers could be kept and generally how to keep customers happy in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of our competitors.
I also learned a lot about the gentle art of ‘bullshit’, as, for example, when I got a call from the frantic Manufacturing Manager from Helmann’s Mayonnaise, complaining that he had five tonnes of mayonnaise bubbling away in his vats waiting to be put into jars and the jar caps from our company had not arrived. (Unbeknown to him, the caps had not arrived because, owing to an administrative error – and we needn’t dwell on whose error it was – the wretched caps had not even been manufactured, let alone dispatched.) My response to the customer was a classic example of the power of insincere sympathy, masterful obfuscation, outright lying and blatant blame shifting.
After two years in the back office of the Metal Box factory in Carlisle, I went out on the road as, yes, a bottle-top salesman, a job that I loathed from Day 1, but which my father saw as a ‘proper job’ and definitely a ‘step-up’ on the corporate ladder.
The trouble was that I was in a money trap. I was earning more than could ever have dreamed of. I had a company car with unlimited company petrol and I spent my time travelling around Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Scotland, staying in fancy hotels and desperately trying to sell bottle-tops to grumpy company buyers who thought that visiting salesmen were, at best, an unwelcome interruption to their daily routine and at worst something akin to fetid pond-life.
Eventually, I plucked up the courage to leave the company and took a 30% pay cut to join OXFAM. My father thought I had completely taken leave of my senses giving up a well-paid job within a stable and respected industrial company to work for a charity with its sprawling head office above a laundry and a row of shops in the Banbury Road in Oxford. For me, however, life started to have some meaning once again.
But I digress – “Not for the first time!”, I hear you say!. I was talking about my father’s visit to Senegal.
One of the villages where OXFAM was supporting a number of different projects was Koulouck about three hours drive from Dakar. The people of Koulouck had really got themselves organised, had formed a development committee and identified a number of projects that they believed would improve life in the village. These included a vegetable growing scheme that required the digging of a well, a revolving loan fund to enable the women of the village to buy the vegetables to sell in the local market, and the building of a two-room health post to encourage the government to bring health services to the village.
My deputy, Abdou, had visited the group on many occasions to help with the organisation of the group and the planning of the activities, so it was decided that our honoured guest, i.e my dad, would attend a group meeting, tour the vegetable gardens and end up at the brand new Case de Sante, the health post.
My father had never had such a position of high honour nor such an in-depth introduction to the challenges faced by rural people in a developing country and he was, not surprisingly, hugely impressed by the energy, determination and spirit of what he had witnessed.
After that he never again asked me when I was planning to get a ‘proper job’.
My job, as Regional Representative for OXFAM in West Africa was, with the help of my excellent team of locally recruited development specialists, to spend OXFAM’s money is as productive a way as possible. It was a responsibility that I took very seriously, not least because I had spent the previous seven years of my life in the UK raising the funds that I was now had the privilege of spending.
When I arrived in Dakar, OXFAM had its bank account with the BIAO, the Banque Internationale de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, which was housed in a large barn of a building in the centre of Dakar. Getting money out of the BIAO was not a task for the faint-hearted! The bank was very chaotic and customers all had to stand, and sweat, in long queues before they reached the cashier who might, or might not, be able to provide some service. It was rare that I was able to get money out of the bank in less that two hours.
Then life improved, markedly.
A new bank, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) opened a branch in Dakar. (Apparently, BCCI, which had been founded in Karachi in 1972, had around 170 branches worldwide and three of these were dotted around West Africa.)
The BCCI was a very different kettle of fish. They concentrated on business customers, which I think just meant people with plenty of money to keep in their accounts, and OXFAM fell into that category. Instead of a sprawling, sweaty hall full of irritable people, the BCCI office was air-conditioned, comfortable and run by polite, relaxed, competent staff, most of whom came from Pakistan. The bank was reported to have had assets of over $4billion worldwide!
With a huge sigh of relief, I moved OXFAM’s account, and the Nicholls’ personal account, to the BCCI. Every time I had to go to the bank to get money to pay staff or fund projects, I would sit down at a desk as the air conditioner whirred and be offered coffee while I waited for the paperwork to be done. It was wonderful.
Meanwhile the work in the field went on.
OXFAM’s mission in Senegal was to find community groups that were trying to address some of the most pressing problems that beset them, and to identify strategies to help these groups to tackle their challenges. This often involved us in protracted discussions at village level, during which we helped the groups to develop their projects, be it in local food production, animal rearing, petty commerce or clean water provision.
Often, the discussions leading to us making a grant, or more usually a loan, could stretch over many months, and so it was with a well-established rural development organisation called Maisons Familiales Rurales, based in Thies, just outside of Dakar. We had worked with Maisons Familiales for several years, usually funding small projects in various rural settings. Then a major proposal came up that planned to bring together dozens of village groups throughout central Senegal, all working towards their own development goals, but coordinated and supported by Maisons Familiales. Many months of detailed planning and negotiation, carried out mainly by my very able deputy, Abdou Sarr, resulted in our making the biggest grant in the history of the OXFAM West Africa programme, an impressive £137,000! The figure is etched into my memory.
I had one more year to work before the end of my contract in West Africa and Linda and I had planned some long-overdue home leave back in the UK. We booked a holiday cottage just outside the city of York. On the day before we left, I telexed OXFAM Head Office and asked them to transfer the princely sum of £137,000 to our BCCI account in Dakar. Then clutching all of our hard-earned holiday money, in the form of BCCI travellers’ cheques, we made our way to Yorkshire.
Then the bombshell dropped! As we watched the evening news on the BBC, I learned, to my horror, that the BCCI bank, all over the world, had had its assets seized and its branches closed on suspicion of massive fraud and money laundering on behalf of such international luminaries as Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega, not to mention being the bankers to the Medellin Cartel in Colombia !
From our holiday flat in Yorkshire the following morning I phoned Abdou Sarr to tell him to get down to the bank and withdraw as much money as he could. As I should have realised, he was way ahead of me. He had already jumped into the OXFAM Landrover and rushed into the centre of Dakar to find the BCCI ringed with tanks! He couldn’t get anywhere near it!
I had to phone OXFAM House and tell them that I had lost £137,000! They were not impressed!
What I didn’t tell my bosses in Oxford was that I also had money in my BCCI account in Dakar and that, more to the point, I was in danger of losing all of the money I had brought home with me in BCCI travellers’ cheques, to fund my three-week holiday with two small children in the wilds of Yorkshire! This amounted to about something in excess $800. My guess was that OXFAM would not have been over-sympathetic!
I drove into York that morning just as the banks began to open at 10.00am. I started to do the rounds. This not an episode of my life that I am particularly proud of, but I took the view that the banks could afford to take a hit more easily than I could. I went from bank to bank, HSBC, Natwest, Thomas Cook, anywhere that accepted travellers’ cheques and cashed a cheque for either $100 or $200. I felt dirty!
At just after 11.00am I walked into Barclays Bank and handed over a cheque. The cashier looked at me sympathetically and told me that, regrettably, she was unable to cash my cheque because they had just heard that the BCCI bank had gone into liquidation! I looked suitable horrified and left!
A lots of people lost a lot of money when BCCI went down, but that was no comfort to me when I contemplated the enormous amount of OXFAM’s money that I had lost. To their credit, OXFAM did not instantly dismiss me, but rather let me go back to work the final year of my contract in West Africa.
I didn’t know what had caused the collapse of the BCCI banking empire and had no idea about the level of corruption that lay behind it. However, once the dust had settled, it transpired the the four BCCI bank branches in West Africa had had nothing to do with the various ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ that had been occurring elsewhere. They were four well-run and independently profitable banks and they were eventually sold on to another financial institution. Almost a year after my instruction to OXFAM to send the ill-fated funds destined for Maisons Familiales, we were able to gain access to the £137,000 blocked in our account and transfer it to our project partners so that the work in the villages could go ahead.
My deep distrust of banks and bankers continues to this day!
I am interrupting this gallop through memories of West Africa to mark something of an occasion.
In 1961, when I was eleven years old, I managed to pass the infamous ’11-Plus’ examination and gained a place at the Bishop Gore Grammar School in Swansea. So at the beginning of September 1961, in my new short trousers, school blazer and cap, I was ready for my first day in big school. I packed my brand new geometry set into my squeaky new satchel, straightened my smart red and yellow striped school tie and set off on my new adventure.
I had forgotten that we had a sixteen year old German kid staying with us at the time. His name was Winfried.
The 1960 and 70s were the heyday of town twinning all over Europe. Twinning arrangements often started as alcohol-fuelled official junkets for civic dignitaries from the respective countries but many of them also resulted links being established between schools. Thousands of school children took part in exchange visits with kids in various European countries, particularly in Germany and France. Swansea, where I spent most of my childhood, was twinned with Mannheim and my elder brother, Andrew, had already spent a couple of weeks with Winfried’s family. That’s why Winfried was at my house the day I started secondary school.
To say that Winfried and my brother were ill-matched would be an understatement. Winfried was studious and serious and already had a good idea about the career he wanted to pursue. He studied hard at school and at the end of his secondary education, went on to medical school and became a gynaecologist. My brother played bass guitar in a pop group called the Strollers, to the eventual detriment of his A-levels and went into chain-store management. The two boys had very little in common and, as soon as the exchange visits were over, they both lost interest in keeping in touch with each other. Fortunately, Winfried kept alive his contact with our family.
Fast forward four years. My school also took part in the Mannheim exchange and since I had chosen German as one of my GCE subjects, I signed up for the exchange. By this time I had only been learning German for a couple of months and therefore I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t understand much of what was going on around me.
The first thing I saw, as our train pulled into Mannheim station at about 4.00am on our first day, was a big red neon sign that said “Trink Coca Cola.” I began to think that German wasn’t quite as complicated as I had imagined. I was met on the platform by my host student, Wolfgang Schlicker, and his father, who drove us back to their apartment in Mannheim. I was soon to be disabused of the notion that learning German was going to be easy!
Wolfgang’s mother had got up early to welcome me and give me some breakfast and, realising that I did not have any usable German, she tried her hardest to dredge up from her memory the English that she had learned at school. By now it was about 5am and I had spent the night sitting in a railway carriage with a bunch of teenagers getting very little sleep. I will never forget her opening words to me. They were “Welcome in Mannheim, Robert. Did you have a good …..”
At this point it was clear that she couldn’t remember the English word ‘journey’, so she just substituted the German word in its place. The German word for ‘journey’ is ‘Fahrt’! That was a lot to cope with at 5 o’clock in the morning after a sleepless night!
Wolfgang and I were about as well-matched as Winfried and my brother had been. Wolfgang was tall, muscular and an ardent and committed sportsman. during my first week in Mannheim he took me along to attend one of his hockey matches. Now up until that moment I had never even seen a hockey match and just knew that it was a sport that girls played. I imagined it was going to be something like a gentle game of croquet. What I witnessed on that pitch that afternoon was an education for me. The game was fast, furious, merciless and bloody. Wolfgang staggered off the field exhausted, covered in cuts and bruises but triumphant about his team’s victory.
As part of his training for hockey and to build up his upper arm strength, Wolfgang would spend hours rowing in what I can only describe as a concrete rowing boat, built in several feet of water in an old shed. Apparently, this was fun.
I was into amateur theatre and singing. Not exactly a close skill match.
The exchange visit to Mannheim was to last two weeks an, despite their kindness, because my German was so minimal, I found being ‘en famille’ with the Schlickers very tiring. Week 1 was going very slowly.
Then Winfried turned up! Even though he had lost contact with my elder brother, he had remained in touch with my parents and had visited them on several occasions. He contacted the Schlicker family and asked if he could take me out for the day at the weekend. I was delighted! Not only did Winfried speak excellent English, which was a great relief, he also offered to take me to the cinema to see ‘My Fair Lady’, which was being shown in Mannheim in English! I can still remember the joy of sitting in that cinema luxuriating in Julie Andrews’ shaky cockney accent and Rex Harrison’s impeccable upper class English, as my own language just flowed over me!
Two years later, I took it into my head to plan a hitch-hiking trip to Germany with my schoolfriend, Peter James. We were seventeen years old at the time and, at the last minute, Peter’s parents, perhaps wisely, decided that the whole idea of two young teenagers hitchhiking through Europe was just fraught with danger, so Peter dropped out of the venture. My parents had no such misgivings, or, if they did, they didn’t express them. My planning for the trip went ahead. I decided that I would hitch through Germany to Lucerne in Switzerland. (Thinking about this now, more than 50 years later, it seems unbelievable that I could contemplate such a mad-cap escapade and even more incredible that my parents would have allowed me to go ahead with it, but the 1960s were different times.)
At that time I was already going out with Linda and I had an after-school job in a local chemist shop. If there were any medicines to deliver to elderly customers, I would deliver them, and then, if time allowed, I would work in the stock room with Ieuan Jones. When he heard about myplan to hitch to Lucerne, Ieuan gave me a five pound note and told me that, if I ever reached Lucerne, – which he doubted – I could spend his £5.00 on the cable car up Mount Pilatus. The deal was that if I failed to get there, or abandoned the trip, I would have to return his £5.00. That cemented my resolve. There was no way he was going to get his £5 note back!
The day of my departure arrived and a neighbour had arranged my first lift in a large lorry as far as Croydon, just outside London, leaving at about 10.00 pm. I can remember kissing Linda farewell on the doorstep of our house in Swansea. I was so full of the excitement about my impending adventure, that it never even crossed my mind that she might have wanted to come with me!
To cut a very long story short, I did succeed in ensuring that Ieuan did not get his £5 back. The journies to and from Lucerne were not without their adventures. Just outside of Ostende I found that I had inadvertently wandered onto the motorway. A lorry driver spotted me on the side of the road, brought his truck to a screeching halt and urgently gestured to me up to get into his cab before I either got arrested by the police or killed by the traffic. And then, on the return journey I got a lift in a shiny, two-seater Mercedes sportscar, with a driver wearing dark glasses and leather gloves. We hurtled down the Autobahn at 230 km per hour. I eventually calculated that to be just over 140 mph!
I reached Lucerne, pitched my little tent on a campsite next to a very friendly British family, spent Ieuan’s fiver on a trip to the top of Mt Pilatus and started to plan my return trip. The British family couldn’t quite believe that I had hitched all the way from Swansea on my own and, despite having very little space in their estate car, they offered me a lift, sitting cross-legged on top of their camping equipment, back onto the German Autobahn network.
Next stop Würzburg in Bavaria, where guess who was working as a newly qualified doctor? Yes, you guessed it -Winfried! It was just as well that he was a doctor, because by this time I had picked up a sore throat and was feeling very sorry for myself.
After a few days R&R at Winfried’s house, he drove me to Aschaffenburg just outside Frankfurt and dropped me off on a motorway slip road, where I stood for most of the day before someone picked me up and I was able to continue my journey homewards.
Eventually, I made my tortuous way home to what must have been a mightily relieved couple of parents.
Fast forward another year and Winfried once again turns up unexpectedly in Swansea, this time with his wife, Gisela, who spoke reasonable English, but was quite reluctant to use it, and his parents, who spoke no English at all. He invited us all, my Mum and Dad, my seven year old sister, Jane, and Linda to have dinner with them at the very posh Osbourne Hotel on the Gower Peninsular just outside Swansea. This was in the days before most people had a telephone at home, so I had to get the bus down to Linda’s house to warn her that she had an unexpected dinner engagement that evening. She had been out all day playing, ironically, hockey for the school and had only just enough time to get dressed up in her finery before Winfried turned up at her gate in his Mercedes to whisk her away.
I should point out that Linda’s parents’ house was in a part of Swansea, between the gasworks and the prison, where only the brave or the foolhardy dared to venture. Certainly not many Mercedes were seen in the area and if they were, they would be unlikely to stop for fear of losing their hubcaps!
By way of contrast, when I described the Osbourne Hotel as ‘posh’, I was not exaggerating. We didn’t just have a waiter attending our table, we had the ‘Head Waiter’! He picked up on the fact that my little sister was getting bored sitting at the grown-ups table and was making conversation between the adults even more difficult than it was already. He quietly took her off to the residents’ lounge, sat her in a big leather armchair in front of a huge TV screen and kept her supplied with snacks and orange juice for the rest of the evening. Part of the reason why my sister was happy to sit on her own for the next couple of hours was that the hotel boasted an actual colour television – one of the very first to be installed in Britain!
We sat around one large table, Winfried, Gisela and my parents at one end of the table and Linda and myself with Winfried’s mother and father at the other. For Winfried this was a comfortable arrangement. He spoke excellent English and by now regarded my parents as old friends. However, at the other end of the table, things were very different. I was stretching my two years of school German to the absolute limit trying to make conversation with Winfried’s parents. All I can remember now is that by the end of the evening, I was absolutely brain-dead!
Over the years that followed, the links with Winfried continued to develop. When our son, Tom, was one year old we planned a camping holiday in Germany and a visit to Winfried was, of course, part of the trip. Subsequent years saw us in Germany on many occasions and touching base with Winfried and his family was almost always part of the itinerary. We watched each others’ children arrive on this earth, go to school, grow up and quit their respective familial nests as the years rolled on.
Fast forward again, this time through the decades, to the present day.
Last week I reached the grand old age of 71. My phone rang. It was Winfried wishing me a happy birthday!
This has been a friendship that has endured for sixty years! A friendship that, though the medium of the school exchange, brought together two families from two countries that had been at war with each other twice within the space of 40 years.
These days school exchanges are almost a thing of the past. When I was a teacher I did organise an exchange with a school in Hannover, and I know that several long-standing friendships resulted from it, but it was against a background that, on all levels, was very hostile to the idea of taking school students to foreign countries and letting them stay with foreign families. And that was long before Brexit began to spread its xenophobic poison into our national psyche.
Now, of course, the covid pandemic has made any such exchanges impossible. My fear is, however, that even if we do eventually succeed in taming the covid monster and relegating it to the same status as yellow fever or flu, the days of young teenagers going abroad, spending time out of their personal comfort zones, experiencing different cultures and ways of looking at the world are probably gone for ever.
And I think we will be immeasurably poorer for it.
I mentioned in the previous blog essay that our main project in Mauritania involved a twelve hour road journey from Nouakchott to the Affolé. Once you had got over marvelling at the grandeur of the massive Saharan sand dunes on either side of the road, shaken your head in sorrow at the sight of entire villages engulfed by the shifting sand and come to terms with the interminable road blocks and police checks along the way, the trip from the Capital to the project was pretty tedious and any kind of distraction was welcome.
On one occasion I was travelling with two colleagues, my deputy, Abdou, and our Mauritanian project officer, Aliou, when we came across a large herd of camels walking slowly alongside the road in the care of a solitary camel driver. My inestimable colleagues sensed an opportunity for a little entertainment to alleviate the boredom of the journey, so they stopped the vehicle and engaged the camel driver in conversation.
For the camel driver, this must have been a strange experience in itself, having two random city folk stop their shiny Land Cruiser just to pass the time of day, but he was even more surprised when I climbed out of the vehicle and joined the group.
Abdou and Aliou asked me if I had ever ridden a camel. I replied that in all my years, first as a bottle top salesman for the Metal Box Company and subsequently my previous experience of running OXFAM’s fundraising operations in the North of England and Scotland, camel riding had never featured as one of the essential skills so, no, I had not up until that moment, ridden a camel. They decided that this was too good an opportunity to miss. They negotiated with the camel drive to allow their ‘Toubab’, the local word for someone of European descent, to ride one of his camels. I don’t know if any money changed hands, but the next thing I knew was that I was being helped up into the substantial saddle of this enormous beast.
Having settled myself into the saddle I felt quite confident as the camel driver, smiling from ear to ear, led me around in a large circle, so that I could view the endless dunes of Mauritania from a different, and rather higher, perspective. I think that this was the best entertainment he had enjoyed for a long time.
So there I was, like Lawrence of Arabia, astride this enormous ‘ship of the desert’, at ease, confident and feeling very proud of myself. I even think the camel driver was impressed with the dignity with which I had accomplished this part of the experiment. I was clearly a natural!
Until, that is, it came to the descent! No-one had warned me about how suddenly a camel can kneel down to let its rider get off. A experienced camel rider will lean right back in preparation for this part of the operation. I didn’t!
I pitched forward and came into sudden and unwelcome contact with the front part of the saddle. (See above)
I staggered away from the snorting beast with my dignity in tatters and my ability to father any further children in some doubt.
As soon as the camel driver and my two colleagues had stopped laughing and regained their normal composure, we climbed back onto the welcome soft seats of our OXFAM Land Cruiser and gently continued our journey.
Taking two pre-school age children to Africa might have seemed like a reckless act to some people, but we just saw it as part of the adventure. There were a few downsides, certainly, like the fact that our son came back to the UK with a faultless American accent, much to the consternation of his grandfather, but on balance we firmly believed that our kids were getting an experience that was far richer and more varied than they would ever have had if we had stayed in sleepy Oxford with its dreaming spires.
One of the inevitable side-effects of expatriate life is that people come and go. Postings come to an end and people move on to new jobs, in different countries and sometimes even on different continents. Usually, the adults involved had months of warning that a new horizon was opening up, so that there was plenty of time for farewell parties – and unwise assurances that “Of course we’ll keep in touch”. However, the fact that the family was on the move was often kept away from children until the last minute in order to reduce the stress of goodbyes.
The effect of this on our children was that their best friends today could easily find themselves transported the other side of the world by tomorrow and so Tom and Kate became quite used to the fact that playmates could disappear, often without warning. The one constant in both of their lives was each other and many of the experiences that they had were experiences shared.
I mentioned in a previous blog essay that we took both of them to Mauritania to visit OXFAM’s big project in the Affolé mountains. We spent a few days in Nouakchott at the beginning of our trip and we were lucky enough to be able to stay at the home of an OXFAM colleague called Patrick, who, for reasons known only to himself, kept a large and rather overfed, pet rabbit. This was a source of great entertainment and comfort to our six-year old and our eight year old as they started to come to terms with the strangeness of their surroundings, to say nothing of the previously mentioned incident of being held at gunpoint on a beach outside of the capital.
The road journey to the project took about eleven hours in an OXFAM LandRover. The first section of the journey was an eight hour drive from the capital, Nouakchott, to the town of Kiffa. Then there was a further three hours or so of travel, much of it off-road, to reach the project itself.
Although our project was in a very remote part of eastern Mauritania, we were lucky that two thirds of the journey was on tarmac. In the early 1990s, properly surfaced roads were indeed a luxury in Mauritania. At that time, there were only two tarmac roads in the entire country, and bear in mind that Mauritania is bigger than Germany and France combined! One road led from Rosso on the northern border of Senegal where a ferry took you across the Senegal River before continuing the 150 miles to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. The other road took you about 800 miles due east from Nouakchott as far as the Malian border. This was the road that we had to take with our two young children.
Apart from the length of the journey and the extreme heat, any trip to the Affolé had to contend with road blocks that seemed to crop up every thirty miles or so. I had become accustomed to these irritations over my years of visiting Mauritania. Every time I was stopped, a weary policeman, army officer or customs official would saunter over to our vehicle, ask for documentation, walk slowly back to his hut, eventually returning with our documents and allowing us to continue your journey.
We soon learned that the best time to travel was in the heat of the day because most of the officials were not prepared to leave their huts in the blistering heat to check our papers and so we were waved through.
There wasn’t much to see between Nouakchott and Kiffa. There were no towns, no roadside places to get a drink or anything to eat, but there was an awful lot of sand! Indeed, one major hazard of travelling in this area was that high winds overnight could whip up large tonnages of sand and deposit it across the road. Sometimes entire dunes could shift during a single night, effectively cutting off large sections of the country from its capital. Bulldozers were positioned in depots along the road, like snowploughs in Scotland, in an unending struggle to keep vulnerable sections of the road from disappearing under the encroaching desert.
So there we were with two small children and hundreds of miles of open road. Every now and then you have to let them out to play. What better playground could a couple of kids ask for?
When we finally arrived at the project, the adventure for the children just got better.
They slept in a house made of mud bricks. They were able to dress up in the traditional Mauritanian ‘howli’ headdress and learned how to use a hand pump to get water.
They were also introduced to the fact that, for many people, having access to water was not just a matter of turning on a tap. Often children of their age would be sent to fetch water from one of the OXFAM-funded pumps and carry it home in a goatskin.
One of the great delights for the children was that they were allowed to eat with their hands. We had spent years trying to teach them proper table manners and encouraging them to keep their fingers out of their food. Now they were given absolute licence to eat using their right hands.
At the end of our visit to the Affolé we returned to our base in Senegal and after leaving them a little time to reflect on their experience in one of the remotest corners of the planet, we asked Tom and Kate what they thought was the best part of our family visit to Mauritania. After due deliberation and whispered consultation with each other they delivered their definitive verdict.
Without any doubt in their voices, they declared that the most exciting thing about their extended visit to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and in particular the Affolé region was …. the rabbit in Patrick’s garden!
When we let it be known that we were planning to leave the dreaming spires of Oxford and move to Nairobi with OXFAM, one of my colleagues asked if we were planning to take the children with us.
Our daughter was eighteen months old at this point and our son was three and a half!
We were somewhat flabbergasted by the question, the implication being that we had an option to farm the littl’uns out to some private kindergarten in Oxford and go off to seek our fortune in Africa untrammelled by infants. Did my colleague think we were being irresponsible planning to take two small children out to darkest Africa? I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask.
Particularly in Senegal I believe that our kids had a richer experience of growing up than we could ever have envisaged for them if we had stayed in Oxford. They both attended the International School in Dakar, where they mixed with children and were taught by teachers from all over the world.
Two memories stick in my mind.
The first was watching our daughter, Kate, aged about six, playing football against a team of other kids, captained by a delightful, ten-year old Zimbabwean boy, called Mwavi.
Despite his tender years, Mwavi was an experienced footballer and, more to the point, a very big lad. Kate had very little experience of the game other than what she had picked up from kicking a ball around with the kids on our street.
Unfortunately, she also had absolutely no sense of deadly danger!
Seeing Mwavi hurtling down the pitch towards the goal that she had been told to defend, she decided that it was her job to tackle him and take the ball off him. It was a suicide mission! I watched, wide-eyed, from the side of the pitch, helpless to prevent what I was certain was going to be a massive collision that would certainly have resulted in my daughter coming off second best, if she survived it at all.
Poor Mwavi was faced with a split second decision! Either he could plough on pressing his advantage and possibly obliterate a six year old in the process or he could allow the little girl to tackle him.
I have never seen anyone put on the brakes the way Mwavi did that day! He brought himself from full pelt to a shuddering halt within two seconds and stood stock still, towering over our fearless daughter, his body quivering with exertion, as the little red-head took the ball and ran off down the field with it. Disaster averted!
My second memory was of ‘Parents’ Evening’ at the International School when our son, Tom, was taking us from room to room where we met his teachers and could get some idea of the progress he was making. We had been to the English room and the Geography room and were telling Tom how impressed we were as we walked into the French room. Suddenly our son turned to us and very urgently said “Il faut pas parler anglais ici!”
We had unwittingly offended against one of the strictest rules in the school. Nobody speaks English in the French room, not even us!
By the time we returned to the UK, our daughter was eight and our son was ten. At the end of his first year in secondary school, Tom was entered for his GCSE in French – a full four years early! We think his teacher was mightily relieved. Having an eleven year old child in your class who has a better French accent than you do, must have been very unnerving!
As OXFAM’s Regional Representative for Coastal West Africa I was nominally responsible for all of the organisation’s activities in an impressive list of countries, Senegal, Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands.
In actual fact, our programmes in the Gambia and Guinea Bissau were pathetically small and during the entire five years of my tenure I was never able to justify the expense of travelling to the Cape Verde Islands because there were no active projects there at all. At one point I suggested that OXFAM should just accept that ‘Coastal West Africa’ actually meant Senegal and Mauritania and that we should drop the other countries from our list, because we had neither the time nor the resources to develop any kind of worthwhile programme there. My suggestion fell on deaf ears at Head Office as OXFAM was very proud of saying that it was working in more than seventy countries world wide. Apparently that sounded better than saying that we worked effectively in 67 countries, but what did I know?
In Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, OXFAM maintained a small office with a Project Officer, Aliou, whose job it was to keep an eye on the programme and to keep on the right side of the Mauritanian authorities. We only really had one significant project in Mauritania and that was a large agriculture and water project in an area known as the Affolé, about a day’s drive east of the capital – but more of that anon.
Having spent several years visiting Mauritania and being away from home for weeks at a time, I decided that it might be interesting for Linda and the children to accompany me on a visit just to see the sort of thing that Daddy had been doing on his various visits to this mysterious place called ‘the Affolé’.
Before undertaking the arduous journey to the Affolé there was some work to do in Nouakchott so our first couple of days were spent there. On our second afternoon Aliou suggested that it might be interesting for the children to see the wreck of a large cargo ship that had run aground some years previously on the beach about fifteen miles outside the city. Great idea,! So at about 4.30pm we set off with two excited children in the OXFAM Toyota Landcruiser and headed for the dunes that separated the ocean from the rest of the country.
Having viewed the wreck, we loaded our children back into the Landcruiser and tried to set off back to Nouakchott. Our wheels had other ideas! They got themselves well embedded in the sand and everything we tried just seemed to make the situation worse. Engaging the four-wheel drive achieved nothing. Getting everyone out of the vehicle to reduce the weight achieved nothing. Letting some air out of the tyres achieved nothing. We were stuck!
Eventually it was decided that Aliou would try to get back to Nouakchott, find another vehicle from somewhere and return with sand tracks to help us get out of the the holes into which our vehicle had steadfastly dug itself. He set off on foot at around five thirty, leaving Linda and me in the middle of nowhere with our five year old daughter, our seven year old son, an immobile Landcruiser and just over an hour to go before the sun was due to go down.
Anyone who has lived in the tropics will know that when the sun decides to go down, it doesn’t hesitate. The transition from broad daylight to pitch darkness is very rapid. Folklore has it that the sun is held up in the sky by an invisible string and every evening, at about 7.00pm, God cuts the string and the sun plummets down beyond the horizon. This was the scenario that we were dreading as Aliou disappeared over the dunes.
Just after 6.00pm I became aware of two men in the distance making their cautious way towards us. I picked up a tyre lever and kept it concealed behind me as the mysterious figures came closer. Then I noticed that our visitors were both wearing some kind of scruffy uniform and, more importantly, were armed with rifles. I quietly dropped my tyre lever and awaited their approach.
They pointed their weapons at us and asked what we were doing in the area. I explained that we had come to show our children the wrecked ship and that were were now stuck in the sand. It transpired that, between the hours of 6.00pm and 6.00am, the whole area where our Landcruiser had come to grief was a restricted military zone and that, therefore, we were there illegally. Who knew?
They were clearly suspicious of our motives for being there and ordered us to hand over our passports. I had to admit that I did not have my passport with me as I had stupidly left it with my briefcase in the OXFAM office. This made them even more suspicious.
Linda then went to take her passport out of her handbag and both rifles were quickly trained on her. Fortunately, they were less nervous of her than they were of me and allowed her to hand over her passport without being shot! They than told us that they would return to the army barracks with the passport and that we could collect it when our colleague returned to rescue us. They shuffled off over the dunes as the daylight finally faded. We felt very isolated and alone. What the children were thinking I cannot imagine. Their dinner time was long past.
We waited and waited and it got darker and darker. Then we saw headlights some distance away. Thank goodness, we thought. Aliou has returned. The headlights picked us out on the side of our sand dune, drove around in a circle to take a second look at us and then drove off. We had no idea what the occupants of the car were looking for but it clearly wasn’t a white couple and two small children and a dead Landcruiser. Things went quiet again and still no sign of Aliou.
Once again, about twenty minutes later, a car came into view, trained its headlights on us and then drove off. Things were getting quite spooky by this time.
Then, by the light of the moon, we saw two figures coming over the dunes from the direction of the sea. Both were, as far as we could tell, Mauritanians; one, an older man, was dressed in a white flowing robe while the younger man was in ordinary jeans and tee-shirt. What they had been doing in the dunes in the darkness I have no idea.
Were they smugglers? Were they traffickers? Had they been engaging in practices of a personal nature that would certainly have been illegal in the Islamic Republic Of Mauritania and, if proven, might have led to them being thrown into an uncomfortable Mauritanian prison for a considerable length of time? They told us that they had been fishing, but we saw no evidence of this, no fishing rods, no nets and certainly no fish. However, ‘Ours not to reason why…’
They were almost as surprised to see us as we were to see them, but they approached us in a friendly manner and asked us, politely, what, on earth, we were doing in the dark with two small children in the middle of the Mauritanian desert. Had our vehicle broken down?
I explained that the wheels were stuck in the sand and we had been unable to shift them. The older man was incredulous and said that it was practically impossible to get a Landcruiser stuck in sand. They were specially built to ensure that that didn’t happen. He went on to explain that,, when he was not creeping around Mauritanian sand dunes in the dark, he was the main Toyota dealer in Algiers!
He immediately took control of the situation, deflated all four tyres until it seemed that there was hardly any air left in them and simply drove our vehicle backwards out of its sandy grave. He then politely asked if we could offer him and his companion a lift back to Nouakchott, which we gladly agreed to do.
On very flat tyres, we called in at the army barracks to collect Linda’s passport, flagged down Aliou who was on his way back to meet us with a set of sand tracks and gratefully delivered our saviour and his young companion back to the capital.
It goes without saying that no account of this particular incident appeared in my monthly report back to my bosses at OXFAM in Oxford. Some things are just better left unreported!
Just off the coast of Senegal there is an uninhabited island called Ile de Madeleine in French, more ominously known as Snake Island in English.
One day, just a few weeks before we were due to finally leave Senegal at the end of my contract, we got a call from some American friends to say that they were planning to take their son and another school friend on a picnic to the island and would Tom and Kate like go along. Tom was ten at this point and Kate was eight.
Our friends worked for the American Embassy, one as a doctor and the other as a nurse and, given that our kids knew the other kids well from school, we were very happy, indeed grateful, to take up their offer.
In order to get to the island they would have to travel in a ‘pirogue’, one of the brightly coloured fishing boats that were a feature of the coastline in Dakar. Imagine that! A day on an uninhabited island without Mum and Dad! How exciting. Off they went, bubbling with expectation.
Towards the end of the afternoon we received a call from some other Americans, who had been on the island that day, to say that the intrepid party of explorers were having such a good time that they had decided to spend the night there. What larks! What could be more exciting than camping under the stars, like Robinson Crusoe, on an island in the middle of the Atlantic?
(Well, perhaps ‘middle of the Atlantic’ is a bit overstated. From one side of the island you could see Dakar, but if you looked the other way, there was nothing for thousands of miles until your gaze reached the shores of South America. Indeed the only way of gaining access to the island was through a small rocky inlet on the South American side, out of sight of Dakar.)
Either way, it meant that we were ‘child-free’ for the evening, so, to celebrate, we booked a table for dinner at a restaurant in the centre of Dakar and revelled in our unexpected ‘night off’.
We assumed that our friends had perhaps had the option of staying overnight in their minds all along, and, knowing the Americans, we were confident that they would have had all the necessary tents, equipment and provisions to make the camping out on a desert island a night to remember.
A night to remember, it certainly was!
The following morning we presented ourselves, bright and early, to collect our offspring from the small fishing village of Soumbedioune, from where the fearless adventurers had picked up their pirogue at the start of their intrepid voyage.
We saw their pirogue as soon as it emerged from behind the island and started to make its way to the shore. As it got closer, we waved excitedly to our kids and were more than a little surprised to see how subdued their response was.
Then they landed and the story could be told.
It turned out that the experienced ‘piroguier’ who was supposed to accompany the excited party to the island had been unwell the previous day and so the job of ferrying them across to the island fell to his son.
On a calm day that wouldn’t have been a problem, but on this particular day there was a heavy swell as the boat tried to make its way through the rocky inlet on the far side of the island and the boat was smashed against the rocks, tipping everyone out into the water.
The water was not too deep at this point and everyone was able to clamber ashore. However, the combination of sharp rocks, sea urchins and unpredictable waves meant that the landing was not without its consequences.
Once we had listened to our children’s account of their adventure and got them home safely, we sat them down at our computer and got them to tell us what could remember of their epic story – for posterity! Much of what follows is in their own words. Tom was ten years old at this point, Kate was eight.
“On our way to the island we didn’t have any trouble, but unfortunately, when we reached the inlet, the tide became too strong and our boat was swept on the rocks and we were all thrown out. The boatman kept saying “Excusez-moi, excusez-moi”, as he tried to reach the paddle to push us away from the rocks, but he wasn’t very experienced and he failed and we crashed.
The youngest, Kate, came off best with only four little cuts. The oldest, Mr C came off worst with a serious leg injury and blood streaming down his leg. Tom and J-F were injured quite badly with cuts, scrapes, (almost lacerations!), bruises and, in Tom’s case, sea-urchin spines in his foot. TC (another of the children) got crushed between the boat and the rocks and hurt his neck.
Our bag of clothes was swept away and is now on its way to Brazil. Mrs C’s camera was ruined and a few people lost their glasses. Miraculously, Kate grabbed her glasses before they got swept out to sea. Tom lost one of his black leather Clark’s shoes.
The grown-ups helped the children onto the land. Tom didn’t want his urchins pulled out. When everyone had stopped crying, we had cheese curls and crisps to keep us going. We also had some Diet-Cokes.
Mr C had spent an hour slaving over a pan making chocolate brownies before he left home, but when the boat was wrecked the brownies were soaked and looked like diarrhoea.
The waves stayed rough all afternoon, so we decided not to risk another crash going back. Some grown-ups did go back to Dakar so they telephoned our parents to tell them that we were staying the night on the island. One of them phoned the American Embassy, who said that they would send out helicopters if we were not back early in the morning.
We found a place behind some baobabs where we could stay the night, because it wasn’t too windy. We had to sleep in our towels, which was very uncomfortable.
Tom and Kate slept together and T. came to join them later. We had a hard time getting to sleep because the ground was so hard and Kate kept hogging the towels to cover her freezing feet. There were no stars but there was a brilliant moon.…
In the morning we had breakfast of crisps, so that we could get salt into us, oranges for liquid and chocolate for sugar. Mrs C took some of the liquid chocolate and we had to put our heads back and open our mouths so that she could pour the chocolate in….”
What the children didn’t know at the time was that the reason that it was decided to stay overnight on the island had nothing to do with the roughness of the waves and much more to do with the fact that ‘Mr C’ had sustained a serious injury, when the whole party had been tipped out of the boat. He had effectively taken the skin off large areas of his leg and he just could not face the idea of getting back into the pirogue for the trip home. So the whole party spent the night huddled under towels on the uninhabited island.
During the night, as the children slept under their towels, infection crept into ‘Mr C’s’ wounded leg. A few days later, he was medi-vacced out of Senegal to a hospital in London.
Our kids seemed to put the drama of their adventure behind them remarkably quickly and we turned our attention to planning our final departure from Senegal after five years. Looking back at the whole story from the perspective of 30 years, I am surprised that we were not more traumatised by the whole experience. I suppose that, despite everything, all was ‘well that ended well’ and our focus was on the our farewells and our future rather than on what might have happened on that rocky island.
Once we were finally back in the UK we were able to visit Mr C in hospital. He was still a long way from being healed. Indeed, so serious was the infection that he picked up on the island that he remained in a private hospital in London for a total six weeks, during which he needed plastic surgery on his wounded leg.
One of the features of expatriate life is that, however well you get to know people during your stay in a country, you tend not to keep in touch with them once postings come to an end and everyone moves on to the next job. I wonder if our American friends ever think back on the day they sailed to the Ile de Madeleine with a pirogue full of ten year olds – and one who was eight!
One afternoon in sunny Dakar, Linda was bringing our two children, Tom and Kate, home from school in a local taxi. Tom would have been about seven years old and Kate about five.
As she did every day, Linda was wearing around her neck a small and not very noticeable gold chain, of which she was very fond. She was sitting with the children in the back of the taxi. Now,it’s possible that things are different nowadays but at that time at certain times of the year, the temperature in Dakar, combined with the humidity, could be pretty punishing and Dakar’s taxis did not have any form of cooling other than that gained by the simple expedient of keeping the windows open.
As the taxi stopped to turn into the road where our house was located, a thief reached in through the window, grabbed the chain from around Linda’s neck and ran. Linda, acting on a powerful combination of shock and outrage, jumped out of the car and pursued the thief down a side street shouting “voleur!”
Seeing a white woman haring down the road in hot pursuit of a thief was the most exciting thing that had happened in our area of Dakar for a long time. Passers-by quickly joined in the chase and the miscreant was soon brought down. By the time Linda caught up with him, the gold chain, now broken, had been retrieved and she found herself in the bizarre position of having to intervene on the thief’s behalf to prevent him from being beaten to half to death by the exultant and over-excited crowd.
Having satisfied herself on that point, she suddenly realised that she had effectively abandoned our two children to the mercy of a random Senegalese taxi driver several streets away. She started to rush back to where she had left the taxi.
While all this drama was unfolding, the poor random taxi driver had suddenly found himself in sole charge of two bright-eyed, expatriate children, one of them, Tom, eating a kiwi fruit.
Once he had realised what had happened, he turned his taxi around and followed Linda’s tracks along the side road. By the time Linda had recovered her chain, calmed the baying mob and saved the thief’s life, the taxi was waiting for her, with two anxious faces in the back, to complete the journey home.
Tom has never eaten another kiwi fruit to this day. And this incident occurred nearly thirty years ago.
I would hate you, dear Reader, to get the impression that my work with OXFAM in West Africa was a constant round of cocktail parties at the Embassy and hob-knobbing, over intimate dinners, with Princesses and Presidents, even though, I must confess, there were moments where I was glad that I wasn’t being followed by Daily Mail journalists looking for an ‘anti-charity’ story.
There was plenty of serious work going on, day-to- day, all over Senegal and neighbouring Mauritania, none less than the day my phone rang in the office and I found myself talking, once again, to the indomitable wife of the British Ambassador, whose marmalade President Diouf had so enjoyed. No pleasantries, no chit-chat this time, just the ominous words “Robert, you’ve got to do something!”
Madame Ambassadeur had just been on an official visit to the north of Senegal and had returned along the road that ran parallel to the Fleuve Senegal, which was, and still is, the actual border between Senegal and Mauritania. What she saw, from the comfort of the ambassadorial Land Rover, had shocked her. She had witnessed a migration of hundreds of bedraggled, desperate families making the crossing from what was left of their homes on the northern bank of the Senegal River to the safety of Senegal itself. They were fleeing for their lives after a widespread and coordinated outbreak of communal violence. When Madame Ambassadeur saw them, they were literally sheltering under trees and there they were destined to remain. There was no other shelter for them.
The Senegal/Mauritania border is one of the borders between the Arab north of Africa and the black-African south. The same kind of border exists right across Africa including between the Sudan and South Sudan, as readers of this blog in the early years may have realised.
For hundreds of years, the border between Senegal and Mauritania had been more of a useful conceptfor map-makers and the writers of geography books, rather than a serious reality on the ground. The availability of water from the river had encouraged the development of farming on both banks, but nomadic herdsmen had for centuries relied on the water of the Fleuve Senegal to water their animals. Many of those who engaged in farming on the Mauritanian side were not Arabs but black Africans, mainly from the Pulaar/Fulani ethnic groups. Most of the time, this mixing of ethnic groups did not cause too many problems. Then, one day, a fight broke out between a small group of black Africans and a group of Arabs in a village on the northern bank of the river. Four men were killed.
I can’t even remember which side suffered the casualties, but the impact was dramatic. Gangs of Arabs, aided and abetted by local police forces, began attacking black-African farmers and their families on the northern bank of the river. Much blood was shed and entire villages were emptied as their inhabitants fled and tried to seek sanctuary across the river. The immediate aftermath of these attacks was what Madame Ambassador had witnessed.
In times of trouble, word spreads fast and within hours a very serious situation had developed. It was a situation that was destined to occupy a lot of OXFAM’s attention in the months that followed.
It is obviously dangerous to talk in racial stereotypes, but, without oversimplifying the situation, I think it was true to say that although both countries shared the same religion, there were distinct differences between the Mauritanians and the Senegalese. And the effect of these differences soon found their way to my desk.
In the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, there were thousands of Senegalese living and working mainly as plumbers, mechanics, electricians etc, often using skills that they had learned as migrant labourers in car factories in France.
In the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and in many other Senegalese towns, there were thousands of Mauritanians who for many years had earned a living by running small shops and often lending money to their Senegalese customers when the need arose.
A Senegalese colleague once explained to me how difficult it was for a Senegalese to make a success of running a small business, particularly a food shop. Owing to the strength of family ties and loyalties, a Senegalese shopkeeper would have great difficulty in refusing credit to a relative, even a fairly distant relative, who has come upon hard times and cannot pay for the food that he needs to feed his family. That is not a good model upon which to build a successful small business. For Mauritanian shopkeepers in Dakar, on the other hand, any similar expectations to help out family members were a long way away to the north and therefore much easier to ignore.
The violence that broke out in the villages along the Fleuve soon spread to the respective capitals and other towns. Senegalese were attacked in Mauritania and Mauritanians suffered the same fate in Senegal.
I became acutely aware of this when I arrived at the OXFAM office one morning just as an angry Senegalese mob had decided to attack and ransack some small Mauritanian-owned shops just across the road.
The Mauritanian shop owners were cowering inside their shops as, in the nick of time, the Senegalese police arrived and tried to calm things down. As the situation deteriorated, the police decided to deploy tear-gas in order to disperse the growing crowd. This pernicious, invisible gas floated gently in my direction just as I arrived at the gate to my office. The effect was immediate. The stinging in my eyes was extreme and the overall effect paralysing I could hardly move.
My anxious colleagues guided me into the office, sat me down and poured water over my face to try and wash the teargas out of my eyes. Gradually the pain subsided and I could start to think again..
We turned our attention to the crisis unfolding on the Fleuve. At a hastily convened team meeting we decided that our immediate priority was to provide shelter for the people who had fled across the border. My Deputy, Abdou Sarr, was despatched to the bank to withdraw funds, with which he bought up most of the stock of black plastic sheeting that was available in Dakar. Within a few hours he was driving north with our biggest vehicle full of plastic sheeting, rope, tools and a reserve of cash with which to buy jerrycans and cooking utensils from local markets on the Fleuve.
Thanks to Madame Ambassadeur’s urgent phone call, OXFAM was the first organisation to bring any significant relief to the traumatised people who had fled across the border. More importantly, we were able to provide valuable early intelligence to feed into the relief efforts of other, larger organisations over the following days.
Inter-communal violence is a terrifying thing because it feeds on itself. There is a wise, old adage that says that “Rumour can be half way around the world before the Truth has got its boots on,” and so it proved to be. Violence against Mauritanians in Senegal and Senegalese in Mauritanian escalated to such an extent that both countries had to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the lives of the up-rooted citizens of the other country. An airlift started to be organised by the Senegalese Air Force to evacuate Mauritanians from Dakar and repatriate Senegalese being held in Mauritania.
Having lived in Senegal for several years I was reasonably confident that those Mauritanians that were being held in holding stations in Dakar would be properly treated. I did not have the same confidence about the fate of the Senegalese trapped in Nouakchott.
With some timely support from the British Embassy and a few crucial phone calls between the Embassy and the Senegalese Ministry of Defence, I got permission to hitch a ride on a Senegalese Air Force Herculese transport plane from Dakar to Nouakchott with a planeload of very anxious Mauritanians, who were very relieved to be returning to their homeland. It was a well organised and humane operation with no animosity being shown towards the departing Mauritanians, at least not in my hearing.
The flight took less than two hours and having landed at Nouakchott Airport, the ramp at the back of the plane was lowered and we were able to disembark; 120 Mauritanians and me!
As we walked across the tarmac, we were met by members of the Mauritanian Army who were handing out cartons of milk to all of the disembarking passengers. Befuddled by the whole experience, I found myself gratefully accepting the gift of the carton of milk, rather than declining it in favour of a Mauritanian fellow passenger – a really strange experience. I had absolutely no need of a carton of milk, but didn’t have the presence of mind to refuse it.
I spend two or three days in Nouakchott just acting as an impartial witness to what was going on. The Senegalese refugees had been gathered together in football stadiums and at a conference centre and as far as I could tell, they were being treated as well as could be expected under the circumstances. I certainly saw no signs of abuse or mistreatment during the hours that I was at the various sites. My guess was that the authorities in both countries were trying to dampen down tensions for fear of the impact that any further outbreaks of violence might have on their compatriots in the other country. Enough blood had been shed.
One of the worst things about this conflict was that it was so mutually damaging to both sides and seemed to bring advantages to no-one. Mauritania lost many of the skilled craftsmen that it needed to keep the place running and Senegal lost many of its shopkeepers and, more significantly, many of its sources of small scale domestic credit. Presumably someone gained somewhere, but it was not easy to identify any winners from where we were standing.
As a postscript to this story, it appeared that my name was mud with the Head of the Senegalese Air Force when I returned to Senegal because I didn’t present myself in his office to share any military intelligence that I might have gleaned as I walked through Nouakchott Airport and its surrounding streets. Apparently that had been his expectation when he gave me permission to fly!