Sand in the Sandwiches – Won’t do this again

If you want to read the first post in Sand in the Sandwiches, click here

After Mauritania, I did one more trip for NRI as an employee, and two further trips as a consultant for them.  Then I moved to the Virgin Islands.  During that trip to Mauritania, I snapped.  Something inside me told me that short term consultancies like this were really not the answer, that we needed a bigger gameplan both for our own sanity and to ensure we kept our clients up with the progress.  I argued it out with both Bob and Judith one night.  I lost the argument, but only because Bob really was a client and Judith reacted to clients wishes and would do anything for anybody.  My problem was that neither of us were really computer experts, we were geographers who used computers to solve our problems.  I think we did it rather well and got a reputation in NRI as fixers of GIS.  But we never thought like computer programmers, and if you are writing complex applications which involve data, tools and interfaces, you need to plan very carefully how what the client wants before the work was done.  Although we had Ould Babah over a few months before, it was really Ba we should have talked to, and when we arrived in Mauritania with what we thought was a finished product, we found that we had to constantly make revisions and updates.  Some of these were trivial, spelling changes or new colour schemes, others were far from simple, although it was often hard to explain to the clients why.  I spent long hours during the day while Judith trained updating programs, reworking the database structures, and that work spilled over into the late afternoons and evenings back at the apartments.  When the changes were made, there would be further problems.  Occasionally they would change their minds and I would go back to previous versions (one thing I had learnt was never throw away the older versions until you were sure you had finished).  At the end of the whole trip, we still had a huge wishlist from Ba of what other changes he wanted in the database, the problem being that we had now used up the money for the project and any new changes would be under goodwill, something Judith was willing to give, but myself, with work in the Caribbean and elsewhere to get ready for, I just did not have the time or energy to do things for free.

 So my argument with Bob and Judith was that the whole project was topsy turvy and we developed the system incrementally instead of planning, and I said we had to draw the line somewhere and say no to some of these changes.  Bob in particular saw that as a refusal for a computer expert to meet the needs of the client, which happens to be my biggest complaint of software writers who would rather develop something they know instead of answering the clients needs.  My work on the RAMSES, Lake Tanganyika and Caribbean CRIS had shown I took to heart making systems useful for other people.  I was quite hurt when I heard it being used against me.  I could not get them to realise that what I was complaining about was the whole process of developing such an application; we should have iterations, there should be a prototype that is fully tested by the people who have to use the software day in day out, not the bosses, we then have a full version and then a final version and at each stage we needed to interact face to face with the clients, no matter how far away they were.  I vowed there and then that I would never work in this rather enthusiastic but haphazard way again, and I never have.

Mauritania was bloody hard work.  Most of my trips were bloody hard work, but even here, where I got very little time either to myself or out of the rigid routine, I managed to have some wonderful experiences, see marvellous sights, and above all, despite the fact I seemed to be turning into a tired old traveller, there were some incredible novelty to come to grips with in this enchanting country.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Soaking up others’ relaxation

We walked along the strand for a good half mile, joining many families from the city out doing the same. It was the first time in Africa I had really seen people out daytripping.  In most places I have been through sub-Saharan Africa, most leisure time is spent hanging round bars drinking or chilling out near the house; few people travel out into the country, go to the beach or promenade around city centres like they do in Latin America or the Caribbean.  Even in Sri Lanka, I was amazed at the number of coach trips, mainly run by religious organisations, that went round the major temples in the country.  I supposed it was the lack of spare cash in Africa that meant people were forced to relax close to their houses, but in Harare, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi I had seen sizeable middle class societies and very little of this kind of activity.

Saturday Afternoon Promenading

Saturday Afternoon Promenading

  And yet, here were many families from the city walking up and down the beach, many muttering their “Bon Après Midi’s” to us as we passed by.  Once clear of the fishing boats, there were few disturbances on the beach (except for a number of car drivers who were passing up and down along self made tracks).  I saw a large dead puffa fish with its deadly spines on the strand.  A couple of old skeletons of boats were half covered in sand.  Judith did not want to walk far, even though the air was curiously refreshing in the late afternoon.  We stopped near a small dune, which I climbed and looked out over the desert.  In the distance was a large beige tent, a cluster of Moorish families seemed to be heading that way for some event.

Tents in the desert

Tents in the desert

  It was a blast from the past, the idea of living in houses in gridirons streets in cities is still a novel one, and one which sticks in some people’s craws.  Ould Babah told me one day he felt he had to live in town with his job and all that, but he does not feel a free man unless he is out in the desert under his tent, living at one with the stars.

We headed back to town, trying to persuade the taxi driver to take us a different route proved futile; he was paid to go there and back, even a few more Ougiya’s would not sway him.  But he did stop for us on the very edge of the city where a couple of young daredevils were showing off motorbike tricks to a gathering crowd.  Nearby a bunch of youths were playing football; women and men mixed in the crowd that watched nearby.  Despite all the differences between Mauritanian society and my own, it was still clear we shared so much; they laughed, they cried, they hurt, they loved, they lived and died like anyone.  And here, on a Saturday afternoon, they were relaxing and enjoying all sorts of aspects of life like the world over.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Trip to the Port Au Peche

We had little time to explore the country outside of work.  With just two short weeks we had to hit the ground running.  Additionally we got our weekends confused.  Mauritania, being Muslim, had Friday and Saturday off, but the Government decided to switch it to Saturday and Sunday during our stay.  We ended up working an extra day on the Friday to keep up, but then have to be back at work on Sunday and missing another day of the weekend the next weekend as well.  We only had about two days off in the 16 days, and on one of those we worked at the apartment.  On the other, we took the afternoon off and went to the coast.  Nouakchott is inland by about four miles, and the sprawl of the city has not quite reached the coast.  We had been recommended to go to the fishing landing site on the Atlantic coast to see what happened there and a taxi man snaked his way through the better suburbs of the north of the city to the road to the coast.  Where the city gave out the tarmacced road headed out across a sandy scrubland.  The most bountiful thing out here was no plant or animal, but plastic.  Millions and millions of plastic bags had been blown out here from the city.  I knew it was desecrating the natural environment the world over, but here where there was little vegetation, the bags were stark, and with few rain showers only the sun would eventually break them down, and while the older ones looked decayed, the quantity of new bags was increasing exponentially.

 The topography around Nouakchott was flat and repetitive, and only a few small sand dunes to the west marked the coastline, that and a number of superstructures on the skyline.  To the south was the port, and a set of silos that seemed to be connected to a concrete factory.  Immediately in front a bunch of concrete eggshells marked the roof of Port de Pêche, the fishing port.  It was hectic on this Saturday afternoon, but the taxi driver insisted on forcing his way to the centre of the throng by the ramps.  We got out of the vehicle and told him to wait for about forty minutes and started to explore.  Like the world over, fish were being sold by a bunch of women on the hard, the men were mainly smoking and arguing in little groups.  We worked ourselves past the plastic trays and basketry, large thick bloody pelagic fish in piles, their severed heads in a bucket nearby.  We walked towards the seaward side, passing traders, customers and loads of little kids trying to see what they could cadge.  To get to the beach itself, we had to weave our way through hundreds of boats, long wooden structures tapering upwards at both ends to ride the harsh Atlantic rollers, cross beams for a bunch of hardy fishermen to sit – up to twelve in a crew.  Most of the boats on the beach were unseaworthy, years of neglect leaving them to the mercy of the sand, the salt and the spray.  All the others were brightly coloured.  Out to sea too about a hundred boats buffeted by a high surf.  We could not quite work out how the fishermen got out there, whether they hitched lifts on the other boats launched form the beach or had little boats stashed away somewhere.  We saws why some were anchored, to haul these huge cumbersome boats up and down the beach took a Herculean effort.  Judith and I watched seven or eight guys manhandling one of the boats. Rather than try to bring them up bow first, they took them parallel to the shore and wiggled them first to the left, then up to the right and they zig-zagged up about a dozen or more times to get it beyond the high tide..  These guys were huge, most well over six feet and built as broad, but they still struggled manfully to move the boats.  The beach was full of these zig zag trails.  Most were wearing huge yellow mackintoshes and floppy sou’westers.  I was amazed they needed this so close to the heat of the desert, but when I tested the water, it was extremely cold, and there was a stiff cool breeze blowing onshore.  The cold water meant the fisheries here are very rich, upwellings were bringing vital nutrients to the surface and attracting large numbers of fish.  To get the fish from the boat to market, several ass stood by harnessed into two wheeled carts.  They would haul it back to the huge superstructure we had arrived at.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Email and Computers

Ghana was the first place I sent emails for work, from Nina Chachu’s British Council office.  It was a couple of years later before I sent  personal messages out.  But here in Mauritania, underneath the apartments was an Internet café.  Each evening, Judith who was an expectant grandmother, would head down there, get a little slip of paper with a password on it and get typing away.  There was a bank of about ten machines and mainly young teenagers were typing away on chatrooms and bulletin boards like kids across the world.  A few were doing research through the search machines.  Judith would get on her hotmail account in a few seconds and read her messages.  Typing was a problem.  Although the keyboard had the English QWERTY layout, it was connected to the computer using the French system.  About a third of the letters are in different positions on their keyboards and so when she typed a Q she got an A.  I would sit next to her, waiting so we could go to dinner and be sniggering away at her attempts at being coherent.

 This was development in its truest form, a technology that not only had transferred quickly to the African world (in 1995 even I was amongst the sceptics who thought it would be another ten years before email hit it off), but had become such an enabler to a new generation.  Communication had been disastrously poor in Africa for so many years, but the connection of the Internet had made it work at almost the same speed as the rest of the world.

 Computers themselves had been a relatively novel idea in Africa when I first started travelling there.  I remember walking in on the Technical Contractors working for DFID in long term posts and seeing a gleaming IBM 286 with this amazing new package called Windows on it that meant you did not have to type every command in from scratch.  In the whole outfit that worker was in, it would be the only computer.  The boss had nothing like that – if he needed typing done there was a secretary in the corner of the room or behind a door that could type out any dictate on an old Remington.  Memos were hand written.  Data were stored on large logs bound in leather, growing dusty and brown with age and susceptible to any local termites.  Calendars were on desks or on walls.  Pictures and files were stored in huge filing cabinets.  Most of all in those offices in Africa, the rooms were almost always Spartan and sometimes near empty.  A desk with a drawer would sit in the middle, a couple of wooden chairs were around, a picture of a president on a wall and the odd map crumbling away to join the dust.  A white shiny box that hummed was completely out of place here.

On so many projects, I would have to install a computer when I arrived.  Most of my time waiting to go on a trip was waiting to confirm that a machine shipped from UK had arrived in the country and had cleared the weighty bureaucracy.  When I got there I would usually be knee deep in plastic bags and polystyrene trying to fix wire A in socket B and plug X3 into gap N34, making sure that it did not get twisted with part N33 (usually an odd shaped piece of plastic that looked best suited for garrotting a chicken) and so on.  It was always the most nervous part of a trip.  If the machine had become damaged in transit, or something had been missed off the order, then the rest of the trip could be completely screwed.  In Ghana, the two machines were left in an open-sided customs shed at Accra airport, which meant that during the heavy rainstorms of the two weeks before my arrival, the cardboard container had more or less disintegrated.  Despite the fact the computer itself was sealed in plastic bags, some damp had seeped in and I had great difficulty making those terminal s boot up properly all the time I was there.  Once the machine worked, I had to load all the software I had brought with me and the data.  The first machines I worked on overseas had no CD driver and I had to spend hour after hour dumping large zipped up files on floppy disk over to the machine.  When CD’s came along, the data could be transferred in one go, as long as the CD had written properly at the other end and the machine was compatible with the type of CD I was using.  The pitfalls were endless and I was never completely happy until the application I had written showed up on the screen in a similar way to how it had appeared in the UK.  I always scheduled two days when setting up machines.  People were amazed, and indeed it was no problem if the machine was assembled without a hitch – it took nor more than two hours.  But if there was a glitch, I could spend days trying to get things going, and when you are only on a short term trip it is extremely difficult to justify big chunks of time to being an amateur electrician.  The fear stemmed from the fact that if there was anything seriously wrong with the machine, there was no way of fixing it.  For many years, for one set of software, the local representative was based in Cairo; great if you were in Harare.  There was no such thing as a computer repair shop and even if there was, it was no guarantee that they could repair the workshop. There is always that anxiety that if you went up to the store to fix a memory problem, you would see a man walk across to your beloved box with a welding tool.

 Which is why it was amazing when I was in Mauritania that there was a computer workshop.  When we had a problem with the machine (some noxious electrical smoke came out of the modem when we tried to connect it to the Internet), we just drove to the centre of the city and were able to fix it.  A rather smart shop frontage had all the paper, printers boxes and razzmatazz that you could find in a computer superstore back home.  Ba had friends in this company, so we were taken through to the workshop behind.  In a dimly lit room, with the slightest of  air conditioning and no dust control, computers were being opened up all over the place.  There were pieces of memory, hard disk, fans and half opened keyboards all over the place.  Ba’s friend took our machine and roughly opened it up and took a good look at the modem.  He could see no problem and he booted it up, plugged in a bit of Ethernet cable and was able to show a website up on the screen.  So at least we knew it was not a hardware problem.  He sorted us out with new numbers to plug in for setting up and closed the machine up.  We were back in the office within two hours.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Changes in Communication

Mauritania was one of the last trips I did with NRI, and I found it incredible how my work had changed since that first trip to Harare in 1993.  In those days a new technology was just becoming available to workers overseas.  It was called email and entailed a hugely complicated set of instructions to make the modem work, obtain the dial tone, ring a number, find your mailbox, check for messages and then wait ages to download those messages, and if you made a mistake you had to type in every instruction again from scratch.  An email address at work was shared by everyone at NRI, through a JANET connection with the University of Kent.  The password could not change and was something like “Jhn3k4jHJLr0Iib135”.  Memorable or what.  If you typed something wrong then the system would bump you out and you had to logon again.  Every message had to be written on screen as you went; there was a delay before what you typed appeared on the screen and you could not see if you had spelt things wrong or not.  And I remember if you accidentally typed the GB Pound symbol, it automatically stopped the connection and again….if you still had any patience left within you, had to start again.  It was incredible that you could send messages across the world, but so frustrating that it took so much effort and accuracy to get it right.  We really are spoilt these days.

 That was in the relative sophistication of the UK.  When out in the field, email hardly existed or was a hallowed shrine to which only a few of the most persistent computer buffs worshipped.  For the rest of us, a messy fax machine was the most powerful form of communication.  A telephone conversation, if the national system was good enough, could be made but it was hugely expensive.  In the Bundu of Zimbabwe we had a radio that we could use.  It was a massive affair stored in two large wooden boxes, and Knowledge had to unwrap forty feet of aerial and string it between two trees before he could make it work, and even then it gave out more static than message.  If I was on a short trip the only communication with UK I would have was to send a few postcards, usually on the first day.  It meant that the message home would be misleading and inadequate, more about the flight over than anything I was about to do.  The card would more than likely get back to the UK after I returned.  On longer trips I did write letters, great long rambling ones, but again, unless I found a colleague or expat who could courier it back fast, they would not reach in less than four weeks.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Vignettes and Logjams

All the buildings had little to merit them architecturally, they were simple square concrete flat roofed blocks.  Some were three storeys, most were one.  Apart from the Europcar rental place opposite, there was a little pizza store, and a whole block of shops on a ground floor, with fronts so small there was no room for window shopping.  From above, I could see that they went back a long way.

 Mauritania is one of the most devoutly muslim countries in the world,  the republic is administered as an Islamic State.  And yet with all the restrictions and heavy morality that one would perceive exists, it was a very surprising experience to see the people living their ordinary lives.  Many of the men, from boys through to old men, would walk around in their full blue smocks, vivid blues from pale to deep but always striking.  But many of the men wore trousers, shirts, suits, t shirts, occasionally shorts.  And although many women wore full dress with yashmaks, there were many in full brightly coloured African dress, others in western style suits and yet more who were dressed rather daringly.  Both Judith and I were amazed at the woman we saw regularly up and down the street dressed in a simple white shoulderless T-shirt and tight blue jeans showing every curve of her shapely body,

 As an aside, I must say that on my flight down to Nouakchott via Conakry, the passengers I got on with were not the ones I got off with.  In Paris, most of the people were dressed in smart suits with gold watches and expensive diamond necklaces , chic haute couture dripping from every torso.  During the flight, every west African on the plane got up, went to the bathroom and disappeared.  Coming back from the bathroom was a procession of people dressed in their rainbow coloured wraps, blue robes and veiled dresses.  I could not believe they were the same people, but whether in Paris or Nouakchott, they had to be seen to be fitting in.

 The traffic was generally calm on our street, despite being a wide boulevard (most of the streets in this desert Milton Keynes were), it was not a major thoroughfare.  We took two or three routes to work past the centre of town, but inevitably had to turn onto the main southern highway to get to where locust control was.  The gridiron pattern of streets meant it did not matter which way we went, but our driver wanted to keep us out of the terrible Mauritanian traffic jams.  A few times we were caught and saw why we needed to keep away.  Although there were white gloved policemen at many street corners during the rush hour, they had little control over the traffic.  It was move forward or die.  At junctions cars would come from all four directions and try to get past the poor man in the centre.  They would come together in a gridlock, and not only keeping to the right, but trying to inch past the policeman on all sides.  If the merest gap opened up in front of us it would be filled by the bumper of a car, which could come from any of the other three directions.  Around this central knot, newcomers were trying to enter the fray, and would go for a second tactic, trying to circumvent the hiatus by going up on the pavement.  The policeman would go irate at this and almost swallow his whistle trying to stop the car.  Taking his attention off the central throng made it give way to anarchy and more pushing would go on.  I was amazed I never saw an accident in this melee.  Although it was mainly rusting old Mercedes and decaying minibuses, there were a few scattered donkey carts and hand carts, several cyclists.

Will we ever get out of this traffic jam?

Will we ever get out of this traffic jam?

Sand in the Sandwiches – the Mosque and the Apartment

 The most beautiful building in Nouakchott was outside my bedroom window.  The Central Mosque, one of two major mosques in the city, was not made out of the nearly ubiquitous concrete, but a warm red brick.  From three octagonal sections which made up the main praying area, two thin tall spinnerets rose to small bulging parts, topped by crescent moons.  Every morning as the sun burst through my open window, the tower was silhouetted against the horizon.  If the architecture was not enough to stir me, the sound of the prayer caller at 5 a.m. was more than enough.  “Allah Akbah” pierced the air.  It was not the words or the time of the call that was the problem though, it was the sound system.  Modern day Muslims seem unable to cope with the loud voice alone, probably since the call to prayer must extend out to the city limits and not to the local village as in days of yore.  But the microphones did not work well at all – first I could hear the fumbling as he switched the microphone on.  Then he decided to clear his throat, the phlegm sounds resounding across the city.  He would knock his hand against the stand, the echoing bangs causing feedback in the speakers. And then, and only then would he get round to the call to prayer.  I would lie on my bed, staring up at the blank white walls and ceiling and go through this day after day after day after day.

 The apartments were enough for us – it was only for a couple of weeks and we were saving the project and ourselves a lot of money by just having this place.  Set along a dual carriageway a few blocks from the heart of the city, there were a number of shops on the bottom floor; not food or hardware stores but an Internet Café, a laundry and a couple of offices.  In the centre a few steps led up to the caretakers office.  He was a kindly man, spoke not a word of English but just a few Ouguiyas would make him understand anything you wanted.  Two staircases led up on either side, past some cracks in the wall that were down to either earthquakes or dodgy foundations.  A series of apartments led off a central corridor, guarded by heacvy wooden doors.  I took a back apartment, Judith had a front one.  In mine, there was a bathroom as soon as you entered, then a kitchen on the opposite side.  Beyond this a large lounge area and a small terrace which I hardly used as it was usually too hot there with all the reflecting concrete.  Another corridor led to my left to a larger bathroom which was the one I mainly used, a small enclosed bedroom which I ignored as it was far too hot, and then finally the bedroom I used, right at the back of the house.  Considering we would not even get a hotel room for this kind of price, this was a good deal.  Despite it being generally clean there were a few faults.  The plaster was flaking everywhere and there were several cracks.  The plumbing in the bathrooms led from one thing to another – the water came into the shower head, the toilet and basin, and the sewers led away, but only a few places were they actually tied down to anything else in the room.  The toilet was a big surprise to me the first time I sat on it.  The bowl was balanced on the sewer pipe and not fixed to the floor, so it perched at a ten degree angle in the air, the front being a good three inches off the ground.  When I sat, the whole unit sploshed to the ground and I got an impromptu irrigation.

 I worked out that I had to switch the boiler on and off to make hot water arrive, the big red switch underneath illuminated when turned on and hissing and steaming would come from the big metal tank perched on the wall.  But did any of that action get to the showerhead.  No, the usual cool dribble of water came down across my head and petered out somewhere on my chest.

 Then there were the cockroaches.  Now many other places I have seen cockroaches but I have never seen so much reproduction in one place – they seemed to go through about four generations in two weeks.  Jude and I had little metal primus stoves over which we would boil our water for coffee in the morning.  We tended to eat just a few biscuits with the mixture of Nido, Nescafe and water, that was our breakfasts.  While waiting those few minutes for the water to boil, I would take some of our bottled water from the fridge and mix up a small glass full of powdered milk.  A swarm of baby cockroaches would be disturbed by the activity and come crawling out of the gaps in the tiling.  I would have to squish a few with the flat end of a butter knife, or splash some boiling water over the surfaces to keep their numbers down.  The adults would emerge from beneath the bin and a I would have to deftly stamp on them with my sandal.  Although mine was the better apartment, Jude has the kitchen stuff, so while supping the coffee, I would go through to her balcony and watch the city wake up.  Although it was a dual carriageway, the sand had distributed itself over the inside lane.  A few scrubby thorn trees and lampposts were all that adorned the central reservation, unless someone had dumped their rubbish in the street and a bunch of itinerant goats were picking away at it.