On December 1, I flew to Nouakchott, Mauritania to start a 4-country shoot about people who are locally active in the movement to abandon FGM, or female genital mutilation (also known as female circumcision or excision).

The first thing I noticed about the country was the amazing breadth of awesome outfits worn by both men and women, a result of the confluence of West and North African cultural influences (mostly, I think, Arab/Berber, Wolof and Fulani). As someone already conspicuous in my outsiderness, I didn’t want to take photos, but this Google image search is sort of representative.

The next morning we left for Kiffa, an eight hour drive into the Sahel desert, before dawn.

The scenery changed every hour or so, and it made me realize how many different types of desert landscapes there are.

First the white sand gave way to red dunes.

Then rock formations that reminded me of Arizona cropped up.

And then other rock formations that looked like the ones on the way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas started appearing.

We passed a bunch of tiny oasis towns filled with pastel-colored houses and palm trees, and surrounded by nothing but sand and scrub. It was all very beautiful and peaceful feeling-inducing.

We stopped for lunch in this town.

The car pulled over by what I thought at first was a butcher stand.

But then we took our seats on the carpet behind the shop and I realized that it was actually a restaurant and the big hunk of meat hanging out front was to be our lunch.

The cook hacked off a big wad of meat and grilled it, and then he passed around a washbasin and poured water over each of our hands so that we could clean them.

Lunch was lamb that turned out to be quite tasty in spite of my very low expectations, with amazing-smelling bread that I unfortunately could not eat because of my gluten intolerance.

When we got to our location we were presented with the most delicious dates I’ve ever eaten (along with a tinned cream that seemed a little too much sugar to dip already sugary dates into)…

followed by an entire second meal of lamb…

and a humongous dish of rice with vegetables and more little pieces of lamb in it. I thought teranga was a big deal, but Mauritanians take welcoming guests to a whole other level. The woman we were coming to film knew that we had already eaten, and we had told her not to bother making us anything, but she did anyway, because you show hospitality with food in this country.

You also show it with tea. Every single place we went, we were offered attayah, the same sugary green tea they make in Senegal. But here, they drink it much more frequently and their silverware is more elaborate and extensive.

The next day our host greeted us with thieboudienne, a reminder of the shared Wolof culture in Mauritania and Senegal.

Just to drive the point home… We were supposed to leave at 1pm the next day, but we weren’t allowed to get on the road without eating another huge meal, this time of chicken and salad.

Here’s a shot of the desert town of Kiffa from the highest point, the radio tower.

And those are the highlights of Mauritania. Burkina Faso next…

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