Monday, 22 March 2010

Mauritania through a fence

The road winds, tired and dusty, towards the border. The cramped car lurches over holes gouged out of the tarmac and swerves to avoid sand pits where chunks of asphalt are missing. This dismal track from St Louis on Senegal's northernmost shore hugs the river and, with it, the Mauritanian border: here, where Arab and black Africa nudge each other, there's something resembling a natural frontier, not just one of those straight colonial lines drawn up at the infamous Berlin Conference.

The djinns are out in full force: the Saharan sands swirl as we drive past bone-dry border outposts and, somewhat ironically, a Red Cross camp for flood victims from last summer's rains. At times forlorn figures appear in the haze - youngsters scattering sand over the holes in the road as we pass, hoping we'll chuck them some small change. The region's employment prospects, in a rusty bucket.

Then we finally reach our destination. In Rosso, sub-Saharan Africa ends - or begins, for intrepid European overland travellers - in a dump. Rosso reeks of garbage, roars with stationed Moroccan trucks, heaves with flies and hustlers and money-changers hungrily flogging useless ouguiya for euros or franc CFA or anything that smells of hard currency.

I love the place. It's the border, incarnate. Wooden pirogues ferret commuters, commercants and - perhaps - clandestine migrants across the deceptively blue Senegal river. People bathe next to the rubbish-ridden jetty. There's little by way of border checks amid the stacks of Spanish beauty creams and Moroccan biscuits that, for whatever reason, are a hot piece of merchandise at Rosso's manic bus terminus: they taste like caked sand. A man draped in a flowing boubou tells me he's the undercover narcotics police. Another fellow in a tattered uniform sharing a bench with a mix of Moors and Senegalese is supposedly checking people's vaccination certificates. The business of the border continues in its dirty, languid and lovely way.

That's until the returnees disembark. The frantic pace of expulsions might have subsided as of late, but the Mauritanian security forces still send luckless sub-Saharan migrants across the river in a pirogue at more or less regular intervals. Once they arrive, the Red Cross - in its Senegalese and Spanish incarnations - receives them, tired and penniless, expelled for supposedly trying to get to Europe without their documents in order. Some of them linger in Rosso, without money nor ideas of where to go next.

That's the case of three Liberians I meet. They have been here for a month now, sleeping rough or in the mosque and waiting - they say - for a money transfer from an elusive relative that will allow them to go back home. But it's hard to know if that's what they really want: the road seems to have sucked them into a vortex as dirty and indeterminate as the border zone they inhabit. "It's very difficult here with an English passport," says one of them, a woman who used to braid hair for a living in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania a few hundred kilometres up the road. Anglophones - who, together with other West Africans from far afield, are referred to as ñakk in Wolof - are not all that welcome in Senegal. Nor in Mauritania, where rumour has it that English-speaking Africans are not allowed to enter by land any longer. "In Mauritania, they say you're African - 'go back!'... Then they say they are from Europe... in Nouadhibou, they can see the lights from Europe."

The soft, comforting lights of Europe beckon here too, as I enter a hotel in the next-door hamlet Richard Toll after a long day at the border. A few steps away from the flies, the smells, the rough-sleeping migrants, a group of French pensioners on a €1,000-a-week cruise are playing boule next to a manicured riverside lawn. This is where Europe's border now lies, I sense: in this grimy parody of Senegal's riches that is Rosso and its languid river.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A field day

"Fieldwork". A word that smells earthily of soiled fingers, an anthropological incantation whose connotations of slogging it out with long-lost tribes translates oddly into most other languages. Travail sur le terrain? Trabajo de campo? What's the Wolof equivalent?

But the funniest thing with the concept is hardly its untranslatability: it's that it's neither "work" nor takes place in a "field", however much the anthropological tribe that's sprung forth from our revered founding father, Malinowski, insists on the contrary.

The field is a state of mind, and a state of utter frustration, solitude and agony at that. And it's getting to me, big time.

Today my early-morning date - a soft-spoken, boubou-draped Senegalese policeman - stood me up. It's 8am at the grimy port of Dakar: my date all gone, my brain barely awake. Like an abandoned lover I wandered aimlessly across my "field" - the cosmopolis that is the downtown Plateau district, heaving with expats, vendors, tourist guides and other People With a Purpose. Drawing comparisons between my fruitless ambles and the travails of good ol' Malinowski, sat in his Melanesian hut in the heydays of colonialism pondering the sexual life of savages is, alas, the only fun to be had for this anthropologist-in-the-unmaking. I make phonecalls - someone should write an ethnography on the perlocutionary force of dull fieldwork phone conversations, voicemails left to rot, emails painstakingly typed on French cybercafe keyboards for the sole benefit of a voracious Outlook trashcan - without success. And to top it off, the only wordly reward that my basic Wolof brings is a measly heap of beans in the downtown Sandaga market. Ah, the joys of fieldwork. Soon enough, to escape the heat, the noise, the tape-recorded sales pitches blaring out of the impromptu market stands, I desperately need to leg it back to my little suburban hideout.

Oh dear, I'm an expat. Worse: an expat without a cause and without one of those omnipresent 4x4s packing the sand hard on the sidestreets of Dakar's posher neighbourhoods.

I sweat it out on a city bus, as anthropologists enthustiastically do to get up close and personal with the natives, only to be told it's not going to my destination. Instead I'm left at the mercy of one of the minibuses roaring through Dakar's bottlenecked streets; hostage to the heat, ah, the heat, and the coughing engine, and the noise, and my funny-looking legs, jammed as they are into an impossibly contorted position. Then we stop, yet again, to wait for more passengers. The clock is ticking. Migrants, where are all the migrants, my elusive object of study? My field lies fallow and hot: I'm just a silly toubab in a packed van. In pure frustration I indulge in a simple act of passive aggression: I grind my teeth and press my head against the plastic window. Crrk, it says, and comes unhinged, the last gluey bit of rust finally giving way under the sweaty anthropologist's forehead and, as the bus hits another bump in the road, the window gladly throws itself onto the dusty tarmac with abandon. We screech to a halt, pick it up, and wait for a few long hot minutes as I do the Swede, as the Spaniards say - it wasn't my fault, was it? At least I do get the benefit of extra ventilation once the engine roars into action again.

That's my day in the field, folks. I'm inclined to blame my inner Mr Bean for all the anthropological anomie, but a frank recent AnthropologyMatters article suggests it's not all his fault. Would be happy to hear from anyone else, anthropologist or not, facing similar frustrations in that field that is the world that is the mind that is the mind helplessly locked into a world not altogether of its own choosing. Cheers.