It does not matter how exotic the location, within a couple of days everything becomes familiar and routine rules the whole day. I was not the only one. While working away at the locust centre, there was a guy whose soul job for the entire centre was to make tea and dish it out to the people in the compound. It was served in a traditional and ritualistic fashion. He had a small silver teapot on a silver tray on which were small clear glasses. He would pour hot sweet mint tea into each of these from a great height causing a sizeable froth on top. We would accept a glass with thanks and swiftly drink it down. Despite it being thickly sugary, the minty aftertaste was exceedingly refreshing. The ceremony did not stop there, usually within ten minutes or so a second brew was presented, then a third. It was the ritual that if you accepted the first glass you were obliged to finish the other two. The problem was that the tea man would start brewing another cycle straight away and in the course of the morning it was not unusual to get through three or four of these tea ceremonies. If you did not want to be kept full of sugar, you had a hard time trying to remember at what stage of the cycle you were out and when you could opt out.
Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Babah was the boss of the centre, of Moorish extraction, he was highly regarded both by his own government and in the international locust community as a major controller and a good strategic thinker. I met him first in the late part of 2000 when he visited the UK. We demonstrated a provisional version of the application we were working on as he stayed with us for a week. We tried to entertain him with the best of British cuisine; we had an Indian one night and an Italian on another.
When Judith and I were in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, Ould Babah returned the entertainment by inviting us to a traditional meal. Ould Babah wore a three piece suit in Britain, the height of sartorial elegance. In Mauritania it was too hot to wear so many clothes but he still came to work in a shirt and tie. Although the same height as me, he was broadly built, looking quite imposing even in the western clothes. But when we arrived on the roof of his house to our invited meal and saw him in his full blue robe, he looked quite magnificent, the carefully manicured beard and moustache on a big smiling face. He hosted this party with the greatest of ease and delight, it was so evident that he relished his dual position as an eminent figure in Mauritanian society as well as an International statesman in the field of locusts forecasting.
An English couple, Bob and Rose Aston, picked us up from the apartments and drove us down some darkly lit streets in what appeared to be an industrial estate. Bob was working on a long term posting out here and Rose was occasionally involved as a consultant on that project and others to ensure she could keep her hand in on her specialism. At a doorway that appeared not different from any of the others, Bob drew up and we alighted. Like so many houses in Muslim or hot countries, the outside is drab, high walls concealing the interior. We were taken up a set of dark steps to a doorway, complete with architrave and lintel but no roof. In the large flat roofspace, a series of wide sofas with no arms were placed round the edges, two enormous carpets covered a tiled floor. At the entrance to the space, we took off our shoes and walked stocking or barefoot into the room. We sat around on sofas and chatted politely. As well as Judith and I, Bob and Rose and Ould Babah himself, there was Mohammed Lemine, a charming young man, very ambitious but incredibly warm to us. There was also a delegation of people from FAO reviewing the locust situation and the response of both national and aid projects in dealing with it. Neither Lemine nor Ould Babah had fluent English but could make good conversation. It was early in the trip and my French needs several days to get oiled enough to be confident to hold idle chitchat. It had the makings of a tense polite colleague based evening but in fact the novelty of a traditional Mauritanian meal and Ould Babah’s simple way of making his guests feel at ease made it a very enjoyable time.