One of my goals to actually see Kiffa beads in production was not to be fulfilled ... they are evidently made in a very few households by family members and groups of friends, mainly in the small villages in the
countryside around Kiffa town. The distances between these villages are so vast, that it was impossible within my time frame, to travel around in search of a possible sighting and alas, none of the market ladies knew of a
definite place to go where they would be in actual production whilst I was to be in Kiffa. I enquired in vain, for anyone with knowledge of the Co-operative Nasser ( famously accredited with much of the Kiffa production
since 1995 ) ... but no one had heard of it. Whether this means it has ceased to function, I know not.
I talked ( with a lot of sign language on both sides ) to some of the ladies who did make them and received some information. The original production methods appear to
have changed very little: Various types of bottle glass ( plus cheap imported glass beads ) are crushed and ground to a fine powder, using local stone and mixed with a binding agent ( which our French / Arabic / sign language was not sufficient to be able to identify accurately ... but which is evidently a saliva binder ) and fused together with heat. A core bead is formed and painstakingly decorated with individually coloured, wet powder glass - applied with a metal needle or small wooden stick - and re-heated to form the finished bead. See a full description from a later visit HERE
Two days in and around Kiffa Grand Market ... the second visit to "my ladies" resulted in even more frantic attempts to gain my attention, by their other competitors in the market. Showing me other
beads retrieved from their homes overnight .. plus a lot of the same beads, I had refused the previous day, now shown to me by different ladies !! A first for me was the sight of some beautiful stone tools
and hunters' weapons ... which I had heard about, but never seen in countries further South. Those people that had them, had quite a lot .. so whether there are modern "stone shaping factories" in existence or whether these are genuine stone-age items ... I knew not.
Word of prospective business always travels quickly in African towns and villages and amongst the new contacts that sought me out was a lady with the look ... that all ladies the world over have, when they
have what you want, realise its value and intend to make you pay for it! She had no words of English or French, only the local Arabic dialect .. and a superb collection of beautiful old Kiffa and Morfia, mostly in perfect condition. Her initial
prices were very high .. the eventual purchase prices were not a lot lower ... but she knew her beads and was not to be moved ... much. I bought many of her Kiffa beads and reluctantly refused the Morfia ... although
these were good examples of a rare bead, they were very expensive and, although tempted, my available budget would not allow.
We were also befriended by the local "official tourist guide" .. a helpful individual, with a fairly good command of English, who was invaluable in giving us introductions to other prospective future suppliers of old Kiffa, plenty of information about the area and in being our guide on lengthy ( mainly fruitless ) walks, in baking sunshine, around the older outlying areas of Town, to see if any of his many friends had any good beads in their houses. As with similar bead hunting exercises ... our walks yielded little of interest except some pretty decorated hair shells of the type which are still worn, by Mauritanian ladies, to this day.
Unless you live in an area or have the time to literally spends weeks touring round many small villages ... much more difficult with the vast areas between tiny encampments in Mauritania ... to find anything of interest, in the fast diminishing resources of old beads, is virtually impossible. Introductions, explanations of what you are interested in, protracted searches in long forgotten boxes under beds and runners sent off to fetch great grandma ( who remembers these things ) from neighbouring compounds, take an inordinate amount of time. Usually resulting in a mixed collection of chipped beads of different ages, better consigned to future Kiffa making, and helpful suggestions to visit another likely source .. two miles in the direction that you have just come from. If you have no interest in local life it is easier to wait for the much more experienced local dealers to bring their supplies to you ... but you then have to pay their varying commissions.
For me, much of the interest is gained from learning about the local life from all such similar cash-poor but spiritually-rich, friendly and generous people. Our new guide suggested that he accompany us on our
journey to Nouakchott that evening .. he had family there and we would be welcome to stay with them and be shown around Mauritania's capital city. He explained that most hotels earn a meagre living in Kiffa and similar places
in Mauritania ... we only saw one other French lady guest in our 12 room hotel. Having once visited an area and made friends,
Confidently ordering our transport to Nouakchott, at a very good price with the help of our friend, even with the promise to have us picked up at our hotel, sharp 4.00 pm, went as expected ... it didn't turn up. To the three young American female backpacking tourists who evidently paid three times the going rate to pinch our taxi ... thanks a bunch !!
Plan B was put into action and another much older Peugeot 504 eventually arrived complete with driver who looked strangely familiar. He recognised us, looked at our guide and smiled very sheepishly. None other
than our "friend" the rip-off merchant, from the night of our arrival. On learning of our previous treatment, our guide suitably berated him and negotiated an extremely good fare for the three of us, somewhat
below the normal one, as compensation.
Nouakchott is around 650 kilometres from Kiffa ... the first 300 kilometres used to be a good tarmac road, but is covered in large potholes for its entire length. Which meant slow and painful progress and many
excursions onto the sand. Our taxi was using the 3 - 4 - 3 + 1 seating plan. The +1 being a sheep who rode in the area behind the rear seat, partially covered in our baggage and stayed there for the two days of our journey ..
no allowance for any outside
One of our fellow passengers was a frail and sick old man, on his way for treatment in a Nouakchott hospital. How someone has the fortitude to be continually throwing-up .. mostly out of the window .. for the
entire journey was a marvel to us all !
With all the taxi windows wide open due to the heat and other noxious reasons, a strong wind and its consequential sandstorm covering us in dust, we roared into the desert. Avoiding driving on, but criss-crossing
the main road .. navigating non-evident tracks by goodness knows what method,
in pitch blackness .. we arrived hours later at the halfway "Desert Diner." Large bowls of sweetened camel milk were consumed while we waited for our meal to be served.
Already noted for their sense of humour when viewing a Toubab / Monsieur somewhat out of his depth, the local people's delight knew no bounds. Giving me torn-off "succulent" strips of cheek flesh, which
tasted like nothing on earth and slowly, but oh so slowly, went down with a lot of chewing ... enthusiastically offering the gouged-out eyes as an honoured visitor's delicacy and offering to machete its cranium for the ultimate
finalé of the brain.
Our bed for the night, at around 1.00 am, was a few kilometres up the now much better and smoother road. Concrete walled, tented accommodation, with the negotiated loan of blankets ... whose previous owners probably had humps, bad breath and four large splayed feet, judging by the aroma ... we slept peacefully until dawn.