After a tough week reporting under the beating Saharan sun in Mauritania, all I wanted was a simple, cold beer. But I had a problem. Mauritania is an extremely conservative country. Along with Somalia and Sudan, it is one of the few places in Africa where alcohol is banned. The posh hotels and restaurants serve only fruit smoothies and mocktails. After a while your teeth start to hurt from the sickly sweetness.
I had been quizzing people I met about what they did in the evening for entertainment. Their general replies – “not much” and “marijuana” – didn’t fill me with much hope for quenching my thirst. But I managed to pick up a few leads.
Mauritania banned alcohol in the 1980s, in keeping with its Islamic legal code. Since then, some contraband has started flowing over the borders from neighbouring Senegal, but the supply isn’t reliable. Once a year embassies in Mauritania are allowed to ship in a cargo container full of alcohol. Someone from the United Nations told me she once went into a diplomat’s house for an aperitif to find a huge wall of fine wines and craft beers.
I was told that some diplomats from poorer countries now play a role in the country’s alcohol trade. Following the shipments, booze sometimes mysteriously appears at restaurants near the embassies. Clearly, I had pitched up at the wrong time of year.
Just when I thought I’d have to make do with an evening smoothie, I finally got a tip-off from a fellow Brit who I met touring a fish factory. He had heard rumours of a speakeasy where you could get actual pints. I wrote down the suspected location on a napkin and the following evening I set off from my hotel with a group of parched hacks.
We bumbled through some dusty back streets before we eventually managed to find the secret bar. A gated garden filled with plastic deckchairs and pot plants. It didn’t look like much. But a single burly Texan oil worker sitting in the corner, drinking several beers, gave the game away. On the other side, a local woman with a headscarf sipped at a glass of red wine with a male companion, possibly on a secret date (a couple drinking wine together is a rare sight in Mauritania).
We asked the hostess for the “special menu”. There was a moment of silence while she looked us up and down. Clearly we passed the test: “We have wine, beer and vodka,” she said. Someone asked her what kind of wine she had. There was only one – a bitter, sulphite-laden red. At $10, the cost of a pint of beer was steep, and it tasted as if it’d been left out in the desert sun for days (it probably had). But our rag-tag group was relieved.
As the evening went on, the empty bar slowly filled with chattering and increasingly merry locals. Places like this don’t remain secret for long and the owners probably had to pay costly bribes to keep it running.
To start with our Mauritanian friends were cautious about being seen with a drink. They looked around before reaching for their glass, taking one sip before quickly returning it to the table. But before long they were eagerly asking the hostess for refills.
Despite Mauritania’s strict laws, its leaders do a poor job of enforcing them. Mauritania’s president, Abdul Aziz, has led not one, but two military coups. Today the country still has some of the highest rates of slavery in the world, yet Aziz’s government denies the practice exists and arrests those who say it does.
In that context, an expensive but illegal beer seemed like an acceptable and rather small transgression. The locals at the bar certainly agreed.