During our most recent Saharan Odyssey tour, we had the chance to meet captivating people with life completely out of the ordinary. Living in Atar, managing her own guesthouse – Hotel Desert et Mer – is a French lady named Selma.
How to move to Mauritania
Selma moved to Mauritania in 2009, after doing a few treks here and loving the country. She met a man, converted to Islam, and got married. They together started the guesthouse but the relationship didn’t work out so, as she put it, she kept the guesthouse but left the man.
Since then divorced, Madame Selma had to work hard to be part of the community and keep the guesthouse when the local authorities mustered all the paperwork they could to get the land away from her. Being Muslim helped, but she had to prove that she could not only integrate the community, but also be a positive influence. She has done so by not only bringing medicine and first care to the community, but also working on social issues.
Infection, tradition and other dirty words
Selma was telling us that there is a lot of need for basic care in Mauritania. For example, many women and children suffer from multiple kinds of infections due to taboos concerning hygiene. It is against the local tradition for a woman to wash herself during her period or up to 40 days after giving birth.
The neighbourhood toubab — the local word for ‘foreigner’ made up of a corruption of the arabic word for doctor, Toubib, very suiting in this case — therefore has a lot of work on her hands educating the local people. For example, she has been taking in newborn daughters who were about to be abandoned or killed by their families for traditional reasons. She says that if she takes care of the financial burden a daughter brings for the first few months, the family grows attached to her and finally decides to keep her.
The Fountain of Youth
Talking with her was truly a great opportunity to learn about the country. We were told that the tribal structure is still very strong and that people still tend to turn to their tribe for help much more than to the government. Mauritania is also a matriarchy, with the grandmother making the final decision on anything concerning the household.
The chain-smoking 70-year-old lady doesn’t look her age. She is still walking around waving at all the locals, and says that caring for others keep young. When asked if she would leave Mauritania, she said: ‘not as long as I am healthy’.