Kiffa Town

Days 5 & 6

Our dust-covered and tail-sore arrival into Kiffa was at around 7.00 pm as darkness was falling. Dropped off at the first taxi-garage, hasty goodbyes were said to all our new-found friends and travelling companions. When you are constantly thrown together in a confined space, over two gruelling days of travel, a camaraderie soon builds up between fellow sufferers. They were the source of invaluable information in answer to all my questions and poked a good deal of good-natured fun at our getting to grips with the "Mauritanian way" and our language differences had seemed to melt away. Our driver quickly filled up with fuel and roared off into the night to take them to another part of town .. and then, perhaps .. to enter the Paris - Dakar Rally, which he would surely win.

Our first ... er, "slight disagreement" with anyone up to then, occurred when we hired a local town taxi to take us to a hotel .. any hotel .. we were too tired to care by then !!

Even when new to an area and a currency, one gets a sixth sense when one is being ripped off .. and sure enough, like lambs to the slaughter ... the driver did. "Two minutes up the road does not equal your price," I told the driver .. in slightly more colourful language. Leaping up and down like a whirling dervish .. throwing the money offered as a fair price ( which, by exceedingly good judgement or a lucky guess, I later found out was the correct fare ) into the sand at my feet, calling on all the curses he could think up and threatening police intervention with long-term  incarceration etc. etc. ... fatigue took over, I gave in and paid up.
My eventual "revenge" was to be very sweet .... but more of that later.

Our hotel, the Hotel El Ghal Ghami, at first sight was hardly awe-inspiring ... but it was NEAR,  it was OPEN it probably had PROPER BEDS and it WASN'T A TENT !!

To our great delight, first appearances can be deceiving, this little hotel proved to be full of pleasant surprises. Warmly welcomed by the night manager and his assistant, whose duties combined being chef / waiter and general "gopher" ( gopher this and gopher that ) a meal was ordered and hastily prepared whilst we were shown to our room, which was in a secure courtyard to the rear. Lo and behold .. not only did we have two very narrow but comfortable beds, the luxury of a hot water shower and air conditioning but also, would you believe ...
a large Satellite Colour TV !

Experienced bush travellers normally do without these 5 star luxuries ... expecting to have to pay 100s of dollars for similar comforts in large modern European-style hotels which are rarely found outside capital cities. This tiny hotel had it all .... albeit that the bedroom was minute .. but the bathroom was large enough, with a spare tap, so that much needed clothes' washing could be done. After a tasty meal of lukewarm steak and cold chips ( most Mauritanian food is served tepid at best ), gallons of cold water from an American-style water cooler and the usual Nescafés ... we retired to our beds, to sleep  the sleep of the dead.

Breakfast over, we headed into Kiffa to try and find the Grand Market. Enquiries the night before had revealed that it opened at 10.30 am and was only a short distance from our hotel. Which was lucky, because it is approximately 7 kilometres from one side of Kiffa to the other.

Walking along very wide streets, passing by a small tented markets with very meagre selections of tiny vegetables ... probably populated by outside farming traders ... we noticed that there were many more horse-drawn flat carts than cars. Expecting to see an open market, we walked straight past the actual Grand Market which, to us at first, was just a few long rows of concrete sheds, closely packed together with many closed, multicoloured metal doors and no signs of it being a market at all. It was 10.15 am .. and on being redirected back to these buildings we found that the market did indeed start to open at 10.30 am sharp.

Gradually doors were unlocked and a colourful display of goods flooded into the tiny alleys between the buildings, leaving very little room to manoeuvre past without stepping on the wide variety of goods on display, or the vendors sitting on their low wooden seats. Vivid colours were all around .. leather goods with garish patterns, bright yellow leather camel saddles, a lot of fresh meat, no wood carvings ( no trees ! ), few vegetables and virtually no fruit, thousands of cheap plastic goods from the Far East ... but not a single bead in sight.

The typical British idea of "let's have a nice cup of tea and wait for developments" was rather stymied by the fact that there weren't any restaurants or coffee bars. We managed to scrounge some water from a small eatery which was not really open .. and thus refreshed,
set off to hunt the elusive Kiffa bead once more.

Seeking refuge from the, by now, very hot sun ... we entered a large shop full to the ceiling with Mauritanian Silverware and beautifully decorated mattresses and found a superb shop owner who couldn't do enough to help us. A comfortable seat in range of an electric fan was provided, whilst he sent his assistant to find out where the "Bead Ladies" were hiding.

He soon returned and guided us through the maze of crowded alleyways to an area looking exactly the same as all the rest .. which we had already passed through. A few words in Arabic to one of the ladies .. and from their previous quiet and shy demeanour, broad smiles erupted. Ouguiya signs flashed in their eyes ... Kiffa beads were produced from boxes under boxes and the mêlée began !

 As word spread quickly up and down the rows of ladies sitting in front of their shops, cries of
"Monsieur, monsieur, show, show !!" came thick and fast. Two different things here: Firstly, in The Gambia and Senegal, white people are known and politely addressed as Toubabs. This term, I believe, derivatives from the Two Shilling piece ( Two Bob Bit ) in British pre-decimal currency, when The Gambia was a British Colony. The French influence in Mauritania does not use this term .. nor "look, look," common everywhere else in West Africa. Secondly, sometime in the past, the English phrase "show me" seems to have been reversed from the buyer to the seller's use.

 Most of the ladies each came up with between one and 50 Kiffa beads, unfortunately all new production and of a predominantly orange colour and similar design .. probably produced in the same Cooperative. None of these lades, to their credit and unlike traders found elsewhere, tried to convince me that the beads were old. Great bartering fun and games were engaged in.

By tradition, no physical contact of any sort is allowed between "strangers" and Mauritanian ladies, but this in no way obstructed the wheeling and dealing.

By contrast, however, Mauritanian men shake hands at every available opportunity and many walk around hand-in-hand, which has no connotation other than friendship.

Beads were carefully dropped into my hand for inspection and passed back in the same manner. Smiles were much in evidence from these calm and gentle, round-faced ladies .. who are as sharp as any market trader anywhere in the world .. and many strategies were employed on both sides to achieve a mutually satisfactory deal.

Prices were reasonable compared to those in Senegal and The Gambia, but most of these beads were in very garish colours and .. at the time .. of a not too finely decorated construction. Nowadays their quality is much improved. Others, in very short supply, found later outside the market, were really beautiful with  unusual colours, shapes and patterns ... where some considerable time must have been taken in their decoration. The old style Kiffas are rightly considered to be highly collectible, but in not too many years to come, as Kiffa styles change, those modern production beads will probably be equally as collectible and difficult to find in good condition, as the older ones are now.