I just finished two books on Africa that were really interesting. The first, The Sword and the Cross: Two Men and an Empire of Sand by Fergus Fleming, is a history of the creation of the French colonies in Africa told through the biography of Charles de Foucald and Henri Laperrine. What is most striking about this story is how haphazard the entire thing was. There was almost no control and little support in Paris for the expanding French empire in Africa. The majority of French citizens wanted nothing to do with the vast Saharan desert and the politicians knew they could not afford to control such a huge and desolate wasteland.
Ultimately, the campaigns that created French Saharan Africa were the work of military men too far from Paris to control. Almost every single one of these men had a few strings loose and most were frightening meglomaniacs--think Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
The second book is Sahara Unveiled by William Langewiesche. It recounts the author's overland trip from Algiers to Dakar, mostly via taxi, truck, and bus. It presents a very even handed portrait of good and awful parts of touring northern Africa. Oddly enough, in a book that is basically a list of worst vacation horror stories ever, including a unforeseen episode of gun running into Libya and an attempt on the author's life in the Algerian desert, the brief chapter on Mauritania struck me as the most negative in the entire book. Mr. Langewiesche didn't like anything about Mauritania and felt nothing but pity for the Peace Corps volunteer he stayed with here.
He visited in 1990, just after the les eventements de '89 (a euphemism for racial conflict culminating in attempted genocide) so it was still a pretty tense place. But the book made me think that I'm either one tough as nails soldier of fortune (which is certainly not the case) or this place has improved a lot in the last two decades. In fact, I would like to extend an open invitation to Mr. Langewiesche to return to Nouakchott where he can sleep on my floor, eat a hamburger with an egg on top, and enjoy the more harmonious race relations.