What makes you remember a street? Is there an area in town to which you return often? Why? We all know how specific areas within any given city have their own feel and pace, depending on the time of the day. I was always a walker and in whatever town I lived, I always developed a fast understanding of my own favorite neighborhoods. In the case of Saint-Louis, it’s the northern part of the island, or the sandy stretch of land further north by the Mauritanian border in Goxum Bacc and Sal Sal.
During the Covid-19 pandemic I started my days by walking around the island very early in the morning, and the first thing I do is check the surface of the river as some sort of a fortune teller or weather forecast. I would also choose my first walk or bicycle route of the day always by the river even in the non-pandemic times.
With Covid-19 the pace of life has changed and even more so with the Ramadan in full swing. This change will – I hope – manifest also in my video installations for Afropolis. I have chatted with friends and listened to them talk about their hometown and it has been very interesting to hear what they like about this town and how they would change it if they could. I chose to shoot on the streets with a mini DV camcorder on purpose as I have come to realize that digital does not always convey so well what I am hoping to show. I like this extra-economical boundary of 60 minute-cassettes because that puts me in a completely different mood with planning my work. Additionally, it has been my interviewees who gave me ideas for locations to shoot.
The difference between the desert and the city of Nouakchott is striking, but on a second thought there is something about the city that marks the visitor with strangeness and resemblance of the desert, like vague echoes from just outside the city where the vast space of sand and quietness hits you on the face. I made a video installation for one of the upcoming exhibitions on Afropolis and in this work-in-progress you can see images shot in Nouakchott in one day during one walk. As such, the film attempts to show one omnipresent aspect that strikes me the most in this city: privacy. Everything seems hidden, private, behind walls. In comparison to cars, edestrians are a rare sight. While shooting, I was also interrupted by guards on every second street corner and got momentarily interrogated by a police officer. Public space in Nouakchott seems more private than anywhere I have ever been. I call this short film a prelude to the documentary that I am going to make later on. It has footage also from the desert, shot in a very improvised way on a couple of short and very windy moments, during a trek between Chinquetti and Terjit.
The one thing hard to live without is the gift that Ethiopia gave to the world: good coffee. In Addis and throughout the country you can sip freshly roasted and brewed coffee just about anywhere, any time of the day. From temporary coffee tents to old Italian espresso machines to local coffee chains and trademarks to fancy venues with the latest innovations, there is something for all tastes. Coffee culture is thriving with probably millions of cups brewed daily.
Raw coffee might still be the biggest export of the country but a good sign is that coffee beans are increasingly finding their way to both local and international market also in processed form, roasted and packed and thus keeping a bigger profit in the country.
If there is one thing I would really like to export from Ethiopia to Senegal – or anywhere – it’s that ease with which you can spot a venue and sit down, not for a bitter nescafé or chemical nespresso but for a genuinely good coffee!
I hope to be able to return to Nouakchott soon for further research on some of its suburbs. If there is a city that started from scratch, well this is it! My impression of Nouakchott is a curious sense of intermediary space, although this is not based on knowing much about what it is like to actually live there. So far my visits to the city have been very short and my impressions were based on observations of that somewhat surprising balance between private and public life. In comparison to some other cities: there is a lot of private and not much public.
Nouakchott is easily considered a place where a city dweller would come from neighboring countries to work on a temporary basis. Transit migrants and immigrants leave their own imprint to certain neighbourhoods such as the Fifth District and produce interesting transnational connections not only to Nouadhibou – a cosmopolitan Saharan city in Northern Mauritania – but also to Dakar, Saint-Louis, Bamako and other Sahelian cities. Such districts show that Saharan cities are not simple stepping stones for a migratory flux to the north but a fundamental element in the development of regional economies. There is a lot to look into here so I think I will start my journey even before entering Mauritania by chatting more with people who are in one way or another connected to Nouakcott here in Saint-Louis.
If you need a break from the buzz from Addis and its high rising buildings and construction sites, go to Zoma Museum in Mekanisa. It’s a very relaxing haven of interesting vernacular and ecological architecture with a garden and a restaurant, all in one package.
When I visited the place there were a lot of men chiseling stone so it felt that we were in a sound piece, surrounded by false banana plants and ginger. These dizzying forms of housing made out of mud, cow dung, straw and other organic materials in very detaled patterns added to the lovely strangeness of the experience. There were even cows! Well, naturally.
Zoma Museum is open every day except Mondays and has a gallery, library, children’s center, “edible garden”, restaurand & café, elementary school, art and vernacular school, amphitheatre and a museum shop.