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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 here.  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 now 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.