Did you ever think of Sahara as nothing but a vast empty space filled with sand? Or as we were to understand at school: a space in which trans-Saharan trade routes crossed the space, leaving traces of camel caravans in sand and mirage-like images in your brain?
I have always been intrigued by the desert and fascinated by its impact on me. Living very close to the desert – and having spent time in the Saharan desert many times, I have often wondered: what is Saharanness? Who adheres to such identity and what does it mean? Does it override any national sentiments? What happens when you live on the border of two countries in this region? Suddenly even the idea of cosmopolitanism is put in practice in a new context in the lives of those people who inhabit border regions in these parts of Africa. Meaning: new to me, and meaning: cosmopolitanism outside the West. Back to the question of camel caravans: based on my recent readings, it is only logical to realize that most trade in this region was always Saharan, not trans-Saharan.
To this day, there is a relative absence of Saharans themselves from historical, economic and even ecological studies of the region. Thinking of the viewpoint from which research on Sahara has usually been done one may ask: how many Africanists think it necessary to study Arabic, for instance, and how many Arabists would seriously concentrate on any West African language? Should you be interested in questions like this, I recommend you read Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa.* It’s a book about “that other Sahara, not the empty waste of romantic imagination but the vast and highly differentiated space (…) in which Saharan peoples, and, increasingly, incomers from other parts of Africa, live, work, and move.”
Saharan cities are growing fast. I recently read an interesting article on the Guardian about cities that have been built from scratch and how they have developed more or less successfully. Every time I have been to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, I have sensed strange unfamiliarity with how the urban space has developed there. You may know that the city used to be a village that was decided to become the capital of the country in 1958. It was never designed to host what today is approximately one million inhabitants; when you move around the city, especially in the commercial centre, you soon realize that it is rather hostile to pedestrians. In a country of former / current / temporary nomads you have a city in which walking is made nearly impossible: the pavements are either occupied by 4×4 cars, or trees have been planted in the middle of them and as they are not tall enough, at least not yet, you can’t walk under them.
Being pedestrian and not understanding how, when and in what parts of the town the informal public transport works, is the first impression that strikes the odd visitor. And there’s more once you pass this first threshold. There is interesting literature about the different developments of Nouakchott, its housing, neighborhoods and ethnic diversity so I am not done with Nouakchott just yet, quite the contrary! Every time I’ve been to Mauritania, I always documented sandy landscapes, but I am now more and more curious about the challenges of this city and so Nouakchott, with its nearness of the desert, falls very naturally to being part of Afropolis, my next photography project on urban space.
* McDougall & Judith Scheele: Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa, Indiana University Press, 2012.