4 mins

Fish Head Men on the Mauritanian coast

A daily ritual among the fisherman in Nouakchott, Mauritania leaves Marie speechless


The woman sitting next to me in the Nouadhibou-to-Nouakchott van nudged me and pointed.

"The train," she whispered.

Mauritania's legendary iron ore train—almost certainly the longest train in the world—was chugging into Nouadhibou as we pulled out, passing goats, dust, and lots of free-range plastic bags en route to our first police checkpoint.

The train was bound for the port, right where I'd been last night when I'd arrived in town and rushed to the shipwreck graveyard. I'd been disappointed that only a few ships were left—most had been salvaged. And once the train's cargo was off-loaded, the train would go back into the desert, its cars empty on the return trip save the dozens of Mauritanians who'd hitch a free ride in the cargo bays. One train a day carried paying passengers in a crowded car, but word was that freeloading—while dusty and cold—was a lot more fun.

I'd decided to give the Mauritanian interior a miss for now—heading instead along the coast to Nouakchott, though I wondered what there could be to see in the capital—but my penance was that I had to show my passport and hand over a photocopy of my details page at police checkpoints at least nine times over the course of the six-hour van journey.

At least the road was smooth and the ride was comfortable. If I'd undertaken this trip on my last around-the-world trip before this new highway had been built, I'd have had to wait for low tide to catch a lift in a shared taxi along the beach.

The woman next to me—Hadya, who lives in London and was traveling with her French-speaking mother—spoke again.

"My mother says that when she was a child, this journey could only be done by foot and took fifteen days. Sometimes people would get lost and die."

Looking at the vast desert around us, I could see why. The only sane approach would have been to hug the coast, where the Atlantic Ocean was the only landmark. I was grateful for the new road, and also surprised. I'd been expecting something rougher.

In time, we reached Nouakchott, which was every bit as hospitable, beige and dusty as Nouadhibou had been. I checked into a lodge, fell asleep to the single Bob Marley CD that the lodge played over and over, and wondered what to do with myself on my free day in Nouakchott, Mauritania. What could there be to see in this friendly town of dust?

I headed out to the sandy streets late the next afternoon, when the lodge internet fizzled. I walked past young, hip men in jeans—who looked like their New York counterparts aside from their filthy trouser hems and shoes, which dragged in the sand all day—to the corner to flag down a taxi.

But the first "taxi" took me aback. A well-dressed businessman in a suit pulling over in his nice new car to offer me a ride?

No. Too weird. Risky. I shook my head. He motioned to the passenger seat.  I bolted for the safety of a shop before trying again.

The next taxi was the real thing, and the driver dropped me off on a giant city block full of mobile phone dealers. I waded in, passing kiosks of cases, used phones, power adapters, smartphones, and ancient bricks. Crowds of young Mauritanian men followed me; we all compared my old iPhone and their new iPhones (mine was rated poorly, meaning—uh—laughed at) until I started to get nervous from too many people crowding around. I hailed another cab. Now, how to explain where I wanted to go? The guidebook rated one Nouakchott sight high enough that my curiosity had been piqued.

Place d'un pecheur. Had I said that right? I'd looked up "place of the fishermen" on Google Translate. But when I spoke to the taxi driver, it sounded more like this:

Port de pesh.

No wonder the taxi driver looked at me with horror.

"The fish," said the other passenger after a pause followed by a flash of comprehension.

Ah, now the driver got it. He left me at the fishermen's port.

I walked through a gate, past a pavilion with people selling fish, and out to the beach. Standard stuff so far, I thought.

That's when I noticed all the moving specks in the ocean, looming larger and larger by the minute, until I could see that they were dozens of boats full of fishermen coming in—like an invading armada—all wrestling the uncooperative waves while heading to shore. When a boat got close enough that its occupants could touch land, the fishermen would jump out and pull it in above the surf line.

But what was up with the guys racing down to meet the boats? They were carrying plastic crates. I watched and wondered—clearly, they were in charge of helping and collecting the fish. But how were they going about this? What procedure was I about to witness?

And that's when I saw something I'd never seen before. 

Young men raced to the boats, loaded up crates full of fish, PUT THE CRATES ON THEIR HEAD, and ran to empty the crates into wheelbarrows or boxes up on the beach. 

Stunned, I stood and stared in amazement. I tried to get a closer look, but people would wag their fingers at me when they saw my camera. "No photo." 

But...but...this was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen! I wanted to show people what I'd seen, put it on my blog, show photos to my mother. Men racing up and down the beach with fish on their heads! I wished I had a fish on my head. It could be my ticket to—well, having a fish on my head.

The crates had holes cut in their middles, and the holes were covered with canvas. That's where the crates sat on the men's heads. The men wore raincoats. I guess I would too if I were about to be slathered with fish guts.

Back and forth, back and forth.

There appeared to be many teams, each team affiliated with a boat. Or maybe with several boats. There were still dozens of little ships out at sea, fighting the waves for their chance to come ashore. 

Fantastic, I thought.

I surreptitiously shot photos and video until my camera battery gave out, then retreated to a shady spot near some kids playing fussball. They were also wearing rubber boots—ah, so these kids were there to work. I looked back out to sea, past the beach.

Dozens if not hundreds of boats were still in the ocean, waiting their turn to fight past the surf to the shore. The kids were part of those teams, ready to work when their families or employers found their way to dry land. Time stood still for them as long as the ships were out to sea, and once the fish arrived, the work and the payoff arrived.

We were all, at the moment, just waiting for our ships to come in.

Marie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.

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