Nema to Oulata

Trip Start Jun 29, 2007
Trip End Jun 31, 2007

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Flag of Mauritania  ,
Friday, July 6, 2007

These are site reports for Nema and Oulata that I did for Peace Corps.  They're more informational than travelogue, but I don't have time to write anything more.  The pictures should give a better sense of the place.

Site Report:

Jeremy Miller
03 July 07
Until this year, Nema has loomed as an unknown for recent Peace Corps volunteers, a place unimaginable, remote, and lonely.  Undoubtedly, you've heard the whispers.  In February, however, Brooke Olster cracked its opaque image, which inspired me to follow up in late June.  Happily, I can give this advice:  Don't fear Nema!  While I can't argue against its obvious disadvantage, its distance from Nouakchott, I can attest to its advantages.

Cradled by opposing plateaus and separated by a wadi, which boasts palmeries that shape the eastern horizon, Nema is an attractive site.  As I walked from the Road of Hope through the administrative district toward the wadi, first the bustling garage and then the old, market district opened before me, and I felt as if I'd forgotten my camel.  More than any other regional capital in Mauritania, Nema feels like a Saharan market town.  Its diverse, international population reinforces this impression.  It has a significant Malian population ("It's 200km from Mali and 1200km from Nouakchott," one man reminded me), and I met people Ghana and Niger.  Germans, French, and Chinese also work in town.

The international (as Mauritania goes) atmosphere extends to the market where one finds a wide variety of goods and produce, even during the hot season.  It also contributes to a friendlier attitude among Nema's residents.  I didn't receive quite as much attention walking through Nema's market as I have in some regional capitals, and people were often inviting when I approached them.  This encouraged me to explore its serpentine lanes, squeezed by ancient, walled compounds.  I quickly felt like an anachronism in an atavistic time.

Nema compliments its ambiance with sufficient amenities.  Although more expensive than in other parts of the country, Nema has most of Mauritania's offerings.  Electricity works well, so the drinks are cold. The lycee and college are west of the market about 2km not far from the hospital.  The government buildings, BMCI bank, the post office, and House of Books are all near the Road of Hope in the administrative district next to the city pool (just kidding).  Apparently, Nema also has a Mattal cyber commune with 15 computers (I didn't actually see this, but a polite college student assured me it exists).  I also recommend the Malian Restaurant de Paix (their sign, not I, left out la).  It's on the right, on the hill heading toward the Road of Hope.

Work hard, learn Hassaniya, meet people, and Nema could be great. 
Here are a few prices I collected while I was there:
Aioun Nema:  3000 Mercedes, 2000-2500 Peugeot
 Food:  onions - 300/kg, potatoes - 400/kg, tomatoes - 400/kg
Water:  This is important.  Most people have water brought to their houses and store it in a cistern.  They sell water by the beriga, or metal drum.  Water from a well costs 400 and water from a son dash, or deep well with a motorized or mechanical pump, costs 500.  Water from a son dash probably has less floaties but not significantly.

Site Report:

Jeremy Miller 03 July 07  

One hundred and twenty kilometers north of Nema, Oulata, at its height, rivaled Timbuktu and Djenne, Mali, as the transit capital for Trans-Saharan trade.  In its present state, I found that difficult to imagine.  Tucked in a dry-river bend against a rocky plateau, its Sonike style, colorfully (I'm not kidding) decorated houses seem hardly enough to house its 6000 residents (as quoted to me).  The market was very small and lacking at the time of my visit in July.

Nevertheless, it is fully equipped with a college and lycee, famous Koranic school, House of Books, hospital/dispenser (I'm not sure which), and computer center.  A military installation, once political prison, commands the opposing hill (I don't recommend visiting or even approaching it).  Electricity runs during the day.  Water, however, doesn't.  It's a problem during the hot season because the primary water source dries up.  As in Nema, people have water delivered.  They bring it from the Spanish Cooperation well (the only garden I saw in town), outfitted with a solar pump, for 100 OU/20L bidon.

The primarily Moor population relies on tourism and animal husbandry for income.  Artisan women's cooperatives also make and sell crafts, particularly clay replicas Oulata's unique houses.  Apparently a lot of gardening happens in the Spanish Cooperation during the cold season, but in July it was empty.

Cars leave daily from Nema, although I had to spend the night there because the car didn't fill, and return in the morning from Oulata.  The trip takes about 2.5-3 hours.  A seat in the front is 3000 and 1500 for the back.  The road is gravel except for the final 20km.  One important note, the gendarme commandant refused to accept my Peace Corps ID.  He wanted my passport and visa.  He only let me through after I suggested we visit the hakim and call the embassy the next day.  I don't think he was just looking for a bribe. 

In general I found the people very nice.  They let me look around their houses.  I drank tea at the gendarme compound.  They invited me to lunch.  I received more attention than I did in Nema, but children weren't too bad.  Mohamed Lemine, the driver between Nema and Oulata is nice despite his strict appearance.  He even offered to let me drive on the return trip.  Few people knew Peace Corps but seemed open to the idea.  Some wanted me to move to Oulata and teach English.  I'm not sure what possibilities are open to other sectors.
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