For starters, this is Chotters (aka Nouakchott, Mauritania) not Doha or Dubai or even Nairobi. There are no Tim Horton’s Coffeeshops (a blessing for some readers and a curse for others), no Starbucks (thank god), no Arby’s (although I did see a faded sign for one), MacDonald’s, Mugg & Bean, KFC, nor are there supermarches called Carrefour (although every intersection is rightfully called that en Française), no MonoPrix (MonoPricks as we call it in Doha), nor Uber—pity!
We do have shitboxes that are “shared taxis”—these vehicles would be off the road everywhere else, except maybe Nairobi. They are Mauritania’s version of a matatu, because, here they are often full of more than 4 passengers in both front and rear seats. There are no seatbelts, no law for them either, no airbags either, but there are cops directing traffic at busy intersections.
Safe driving, as your driving instructor would tell you, should have your left hand at 10:00 and the right hand at 2:00 on the wheel. Here it is, cell phone to the left ear with the right hand busily dialing.
Driving is a combination of a Mad Max movie race and a demolition derby with a Mexican standoff thrown in for good measure. There are lanes, but not everybody obeys them, and not unusual to see three cars driving down what otherwise would be a two- way street.
We do have our friendly Lebanese shwarma/pizza joint run by Samir who gave me a free sample of lahemagine whilst I waited for my chicken shwarma the other night. He gave me that out of an order or 16 of them because I was probably the only one, apart from his Lebanese cook, who knew the name in Arabic.
We also have supermarches called Gallerie Tata (but no relation to Indian icon TATA), Sky Rim, and MauriCenter, plus Carrefour Blancopain, many boulangeries, patisseries and tiny corner shops that sell everything including fresh baguettes. Off to the side, are covered women lying on carpets in flimsy mu-mus hawking fruits and vegs.
Today’s quest is to find an elusive Western Union/MoneyGram agent.
Well it started out innocently enough. Checking out Google for Western Union (WU) offices which seemed to be linked with MoneyGram offices. For those unwashed, these are FOREX (foreign exchange places) that I have been a member of since my Kuwait days. I even have a couple of cards from WU and UAE Exchange that also doubles as a WU agent.
My Scotiabank has WU linked into it, so I do most money sending by that, but sometimes I am over my weekly or monthly allotment, hence the search for WU.
Curiously, I had read that WU is responsible, or more likely controls 40% of remittances sent home by Africans. You would think one would have no problem finding said office in Mauritania. Well, think again dammit!
At any rate, after locating a number of offices online (and you can check that out to prove me wrong) I enlisted the help of Major Sidi Mohammed #1 not to be confused with our erudite driver Sidi Mohammed #2.
In agreement with acting boss, Gerry (Adams) McKeown, I was allowed to leave work after teaching my WHO students, Fatimah and Aliooun. Our other student, Yakoub, was on an extended Eid holiday as are some of our Maur staff. Many have driven back to their traditional homeland, one guy, my officemate, Abdullah Beina’s family is a two days drive away—almost in Mali.
But I digress, Sidi 2 would be driving me to some WU office downtown.
I jumped into the Toyota Hilux and then 4-5 other guys in military garb also jumped in, I suppose they were bumming a ride too as our facilities are out in the boonies.
On Google, there were no street addresses given or roads given just landmarks like some place called BMS opposite the Palais and near the Ministre d’Affaires Etranger (Foreign Affairs). I had drawn a map so I could keep my bearings which Sidi and I plus the guys in the back often referred to it throughout this adventure.
Chotters is like that song from U2, Joshua Tree LP—“Where the Streets Have No Names”.
We drove by the said buildings and I was busy looking for a huge WU or Moneygram sign but naught. There were some pokey shops with all sorts of French about changing money and whatnot but they did not look like the real thing. So, we drove around the Palais and hailed some securite guys for info—naturally they gave Sidi direction but to no avail. Back down various roads to nowhere that looked like a WU office.
Sidi and I looked at the map again and went back to where I thought the place was but no luck. BMS, was, in fact, not a bank but an ATM machine.
At one point, the army guys in the back grabbed my map and shouted instructions to Sidi and we were off again like something out of a Keystone Cops movie. All that was missing was Fatty Arbuckle yelling at everyone.
We did see WU and MoneyGram signs on the outside of banks so Sidi and I went in—brand new bank buildings in fact, this looked promising, but as soon as we would ask the tellers, they would either say “No”, not available.
Luckily, one Maur gal spoke English and wrote down what she thought was a sure bet. Strange, inside here, they had posted signs up for WU but no WU.
We went to Attijara Bank, with 3 new buildings and WU/MoneyGram signs plastered everywhere. Guards instructed Sidi and me to go next door—I thought this was it.
We went in and asked the teller, but she apologized and said it was coming but they did not have it yet—pity. This was the same story at other banks and offices.
Last resort, I told Sidi to go back to the huge bank– Société General Banque on Rue de Charles de Gaulle downtown near where I live. Driving by it, there were no WU/MoneyGram signs, so I decided to throw in the towel.
We drove back close to where I live, told Sidi “Khalas”, immediately 3 army guys jumped into the cab and they buggered off.
I bought a fresh baguette from the small duka/shop near Bill’s place and sauntered up my road to my abode.
As the old colonials would say in Charles Allen’s book, Tales from the “Dark Continent”,
WAWA—West Africa Wins Again!