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Lassarga

On the far edge of the Sahara lies the windswept, salt encrusted city of Dakhla, the official capital of the disputed territory of Western Sahara.  This city is best known for being one of the hottest places in Africa for Kite Surfing, and indeed most visitors to Dakhla are there for that very reason.  Most of them never venture into town, preferring to stay ensconced in their all inclusive kite surfing resorts on the outskirts of town.

Dakhla is surprisingly clean.  Annexed by Morocco, the principality of Dakhla introduced a plastic bag ban and the amount of rubbish found around the city plummeted.

The people living there are a mix of mostly Moroccan people with a scattering of Saharawi people, the original inhabitants of Western Sahara before it was annexed by Morocco in 1963.

The Dakhla Saharawi people live on a knife edge, eeking out an existence in an ever-changing city that is in conflict with their traditionally nomadic and subsistence lifestyles.  Most of them don’t live in the city.  The great majority of Saharawi people are ensconced in a large refugee camp over the border in Algeria at Tindouf.  Refugee camp is probably now a loose term.  Tindouf is home to several generations of Saharawi people, many of whom only know Tindouf as their home.  They have given birth and raised children there as part of a community that is disenfranchised from their native lands.

Finding Saharawi people in Dakhla was more of a challenge than I thought it would be.  We had been working in the Sahara directly east of Dakhla looking for small nocturnal mammals.  When our searches stretched in to daylight hours, we would occasionally meet nomadic Saharawis watering their camels at bore-fed pools.

We were a few days into our trip when I visited Lassarga.

Perched on a peninsula at the southern edge of Dakhla, Lassarga would be an eyesore to many.  After all it looked like a series of rough hewn fishing shacks that had been fashioned from flotsam and nestled in the dunes to avoid the relentless Harmattan wind.

It was actually the smell of Lassarga that led me there.  I grew up on a fishing trawler in Australia with my family.  We were a part of a small group of people who had children and took them to sea.  I spent my life on the Great Barrier Reef in eastern Australia.

One day, when the wind changed direction, I smelled that age-old smell of fishing, the smell of rotting detritus, of fresh fish and salt.  I followed the aroma and found Lassarga, complete with its sky blue and white boats, shacks, rubbish, nets and floats.  I approached it carefully.  After all, I doubted this community saw many people like me.  A younger fisherman saw me arrive.  I smiled and motioned to him that I’d like to walk through.  He smiled back and nodded his head in agreement.  I then motioned about wearing a hijab.  He waved and said no.

I started to wander the sandy, litter strewn streets of Lassarga on my own.  Occasionally I disturbed a stray cat from its slumber.  Around narrow corners I spotted men mending nets, store owners setting up shop for the day and young fishermen swaggering around between the buildings, making their way down to their fishing boats on the peninsula south of the community.

Following their trail I found myself surrounded by numerous pretty blue and white boats dragged up on to the sand.  Each lay in wait for when they would be taken out on their next fishing trip.

Lassarga was devoid of women.  It is perhaps because of this I was a bit of a novelty.  As I wandered around photographing the boats and the fishing detritus on the sand, I heard a voice yell out “Hey!” .  Thinking I’d done something wrong I looked up to see where the voice was coming from.  It was from a fisherman called Haj (pictured here in a charcoal grey turban).  He spoke to me in Saharawi which I didn’t understand.  I motioned that I was here taking pictures but during our exchange I realised he had a very warm, welcoming face.  I asked him if I could take his photo and thankfully he said yes as my photos of Haj are actually my favourites from my visit.

I loved Lassarga so much that I actually went back for a second visit during our stay in Dakhla.  I ran into Haj again, but this time I was kindly invited to an impromptu breakfast of freshly grilled fish and hot mint tea by Ahmed (pictured here with a green turban).  On both occasions I was humbled by the unexpected hospitality of people.

Sadly Lassarga has been earmarked for destruction.  A company that builds kite surfing lodges hopes to demolish this community (which it considers an eyesore) to build a new kite surfing resort.

All the world over small fishing communities like Lassarga are disappearing in ‘death by a thousand cuts’ type scenarios.  The Lassarga fishermen face a huge challenge with large trawlers operating off the coast and robbing them of their small catch.  Now they may lose their community forever due to the construction of a resort.

The nature of its location and a general lack of interest in Lassarga has made it hard for me to get any updates on the community.  As I write (January 2019) I am unsure if it is still even there.  We have another group going back to the Sahara in March so I’ve asked to see if they can check.

In many ways I wish I could join that group and take a chance that I’d run into Haj and Ahmed there again.  At the very least I would like to take them prints of these photos.  It’s a shame that I can not make it.

Over two days I followed their footsteps through the sandy alleys between their boats. Footsteps that have long since been blown flat by the relentless Harmattan wind.  While their footsteps may have disappeared my memory of these people will last forever.  They were a bastion of friendliness and warmth at the edge of the world’s greatest desert.