A post-covid face lift

This is a short update to what has bee going on in my neighborhood in Saint-Louis since November 2020. The island has become one massive construction site with new canalization and soon-to-be paved streets and cemented sidewalks. It feels as if everybody were preparing for the better day, including the town planners – a new post-covid face lift in the making? Apart from this, life goes on more or less the usual way except for small businesses, many of which are still in an extended waiting mode for the borders to be opened to non-residents or European tourists. When the day comes, we will all be able to walk the streets with a little less sand in our sandals!

Once a bedouine

The Mauritanian tent has found its way to contemporary architecture in Nouakchott. If you stroll the streets of Ksar, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, you will not miss the tent shape in practically every other house. It’s a symbol of a lifestyle in which the movable home is now built in cement and bricks and glass and functions as a fixed space to welcome guests. It’s also a very visible statement telling that the owner of the house has roots in the desert. 

Anyone who has been to the desert knows the soothing effect a tent can provide against the scorching sun and hot winds, and how it allows you to feel the evening breeze on your skin when the walls of the tent have been rolled up. You can now find that same effect also in the city: some restaurants and cafés such as the famous La Palmeraie has made their own modern interpretation of the tent part of the attraction in their already very inviting garden and terrace. Some designs – usually it’s the simple and practical ones – are just meant to last and in Mauritania the tent is definitely one of them.

On the road

You can consider yourself lucky if you get a seat in these small and often crowded Tata city buses. Packed they may be but they are a very cost effective way of transport and often fairly fast too. In some parts of the town they are my favorite choice, simply because I like people watching and you get a good view of the streets on a window seat. 

I keep admiring the collaborative nature of the fellow passengers in situations in which the bus seems like it can no longer take more people and yet you can still squeeze in. When the bus is packed, you just find a corner or sometimes a seat that is offered to you, and hand out the money for the bus fare to someone next to you. The money then travels from hand to hand in order to reach the cashier at the back of the bus and similarly, the bus ticket then finds its way back to you. 

Long distance Senegal Dem Dikk buses operate between major cities in Senegal and although there usually is some hassle just before everyone finds their appointed seat, the rest of the trip goes very smoothly. The buses leave for Dakar twice daily and last time it took me less than four hours from Saint-Louis to Dakar and to Ngor. You can hop off the bus at a couple of stops before its final destination in Liberté 5. These days you can reserve your ticked with an app – booking in advance is obligatory – and pay it with Orange Money, in which case there is no need to even go to their office before your trip. Bon voyage!

Corniche – Live Your Dream

You may know that Dakar is a peninsula surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean in the north, west and south, which gives the city much needed winds from the sea. The winds bring advantages: they keep the air clean for breathing and they also keep the mosquitoes at bay outside of the rainy season, or at least they used to. There also used to be an easy access to the sea but these days it is more and more difficult to even catch a glimpse of the ocean because the land has been taken over by private companies, ex-ministers and judges.

I would be curious to meet city planners and environmentalists and learn to understand if there are real mechanisms in place that could still save the coastline from being further exploited for private gain. Who do the coastline and the beaches belong to? Are they not a national treasure and heritage to be guarded and included in sustainable urban planning as such? Every time I am in Dakar I wonder: What will this city look like in 50 years from now and who will then have access to the sea?

Moctar Bâ,* architect and president of PERL (Plateforme pour l’Environnement et la Réappropriation du Littoral) has some answers. He is saying that the land grabbing by the private sector is destroying the coastline in Dakar and that filling the coastline with buildings will imperatively make the inland air more polluted when the winds cannot clear the air any more. He also asserts that national politics with a vision is needed urgently, with a stipulation that the land that has already been lost to private sector should be heavily taxed. Other practical measures introduced by Bâ and his associates suggest that Senegal should adapt a coastline management system similar to the Canadian and Australian models to exercise urban planning with sustainable solutions for the coastline.

One of the many posters that have been sprinkled by the roadside in Mamelles advertize: Vivez le rêve ! But whose dream are they talking about? 

* Jeune Afrique: Sénégal : sur la corniche de Dakar, c’est le far west

It’s all about sand

Varess is a small oasis village close to Mhairith (أمحيرث) and hardly available for a virtual visit on Google Maps. As a prelude to the urban Nouakchott, where you see signs of nomadic lifestyle even in contemporary housing, I wanted to share a couple of photographs from this region where dates are produced and where the housing is amazingly practical and ecological. Here the buildings are designed either for a permanent occupation or more often for temporary shelter for the workers who live here during the harvest season. Everything is build from what you get from the surroundings and with very basic purpose: to provide shelter from sun, wind and sand. This is a very rocky environment, and yet there is also sand that moves and it does so constantly. You don’t necessarily want to fight it and so you build stone walls with holes in it that allow the sand pass through rather than make the sand pile up against the wall and eventually break it.

Then of course you have the traditional Mauritanian tents, another very practical invention for people on the move. Even tents have found their way to the city environment in various ways – more about that next!