Mauritania blew away so many of my preconceptions. Before my arrival, I had always had some concerns about visiting a devoutly Muslim country. Although I know how to check myself, I am prone to forgetting certain protocols, and it seemed like there were so many in this country compared to others I had been in. I wore shorts only on a few occasions, had to wear proper shirts (a good tip anyway since the sun was so burning), avoid religious discussions, don’t do this, don’t do that. It all seemed rather daunting as I stepped on the plane at Heathrow. And the preconceptions of Mauritania were that it was a harsh bureaucratic country where the police ruled with an iron fist. Once there, you were aware of the differences but they were never overt. There was some difficulty getting used to certain aspects, the eating with the right hand and wiping with the other. I almost made the mistake of shaking hands with Mohammed Lemine’s wife when he also invited us round for another fabulous Mauritanian meal. He grinned at me and explained that it was not permitted, and I saw at once the key to my education of Muslim ways; you were allowed to make the mistake….. once. After that you were expected to fit in. It came, and was not particularly problematic for me, but whereas Caribbean, Sub-Saharan and Asian countries I had visited had so much English rubbed off on them from years of colonialism, here the maturity and extent of their own culture overrode the French influences. There were some elements – French was the main language of business and conversation, there were French restaurants, French clothes were worn in many places, and both the connections to the outside world and the majority of expatriate came from France or their former colonies in West Africa.
Locusts was my purpose for being in Mauritania. On and off, I worked on locust projects for NRI for over ten years. Up to the early 1970’s, a forerunner of NRI, the Anti-Locust Research Centre was the world centre for maintaining a record of every single desert locust seen in the world. The responsibility passed to the Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome in 1973, but NRI still maintained its massive paper archive. Many eminent researchers from the locust world would pass through our doors wanting to consult the archive. Along the corridor from my office in Chatham was a pair of double doors which led into the archive. Along one wall, there was a curtain which hid hundreds of brown manila files. Divided into each country in the whole of the locust region, from Mauritania in the west to Bangladesh in the east, from the southern shores of Europe right down to Tanzania as well. In each folder, in chronological order, were the original records that were sent to the old ALRC in Kensington, long hand letters, typewritten notes, telexes, faxes and phone messages. Reports from lorry drivers, from nomads in the desert, farmers from India and Morocco, airports closed by swarms, ships spotting locusts at sea. Some of the most extreme reports still stick in my mind. A few locusts were caught up in a storm off the north coast of Africa and ended up in the Scilly Isles, there was a case of an exhausted but alive locust turning up in the Caribbean after being blown off the Sahara coast in a depression which turned into a hurricane. To reach into one of these folders was to step back into history, and showed how an almost military force was put up against these tiny but destructive creatures. The locust centre evolved in the 1930’ and 40’s as a reaction to a set of plagues, but the records went back further. I remember opening a hardback notebook, navy blue with a red binder, the pages yellowed with age, and read the reports from the 19th century, either from newspapers, some from explorers accounts, right back to the biblical plagues, approximately dated to 4000 BC. Alongside the archive there were all the Phd’s, Msc’s and reports conducted by various staff into locust geography. Copies of the Locust Handbook, in several editions, which told you all about the biology, habits, ecology and biogeography, particularly their distribution. Then there were the forecasting handbooks, because although the ALRC was there to archive every record, a more important function was to forecast what would happen to populations. For locusts are fickle things, but can to a certain extent be predicted. If you knew their current population and status, using weather forecasts, particularly wind, rain and ground temperature readings, you could predict how their populations would evolve; would they expand or die out and whether they would move on to other countries, perhaps where food sources were more plentiful.