CHOUM, Mauritania (Reuters) - Kneeling beneath glittering desert stars, two men pray toward the east as their turbans flutter in the wind atop a giant iron ore train snaking slowly across the Sahara.
“La ilaha illal lahou, la ilaha illal lahou,” chants the shorter of the two, a teenage boy, smiling despite the storm of iron ore dust which stains his white headscarf: “Allah is great, we owe devotion to him alone.”
He and his companion, Hassan, are traveling from the town of Choum in Mauritania’s barren interior to the port of Nouadhibou, on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, to visit relatives. They bring a few bundles of possessions, wrapped in sheets.
“Now you can say you have been on the world’s longest train,” said Hassan, nursing a cigarette against the wind.
More than four decades in service, the train stretches more than 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) but is no longer the world’s longest: iron ore trains in Western Australia can be three times as long. But Mauritanians, proud of their Islamic state, still call it that.
The railway is a lifeline for one of the world’s poorest and most sparsely populated countries, which straddles black and Arab Africa. Now some Mauritanians hope recent political change and new oil production are taking them to a better life.
Too poor to pay 2,500 ouguiya ($9.21) for a seat in the passenger compartment, the men have climbed on top of one of the scores of wagons carrying ore from the iron mines at Zouerat to the coast: an arduous journey of more than 640 km (400 miles).
Other figures also dot the tops of the wagons as the train stretches across the Sahara. A few are poor migrants from Africa’s interior heading for the port with the dream of reaching Spain’s Canary Islands.
Huddled under a single blanket with three strangers, Hassan seeks shelter from the bitter cold and the soot. When the train slows, the heavy wagons collide with a sound like rolling thunder, jolting the men from fitful sleep.
Traveling at a maximum of 50 kilometres (30 miles) per hour, the trip takes around 14 hours and the black iron ore dust works its way into their clothing, eyes and mouths.
“The train carries illegal migrants or people transporting wares to sell,” said Baba Ould Sidi Lamine, sitting outside his shop in Choum’s sandy square before the train’s departure. “But if you do not have 2,500 ouguiya to travel in the passenger wagon, you have nothing at all.”
The railway entered service in 1961, just a year after the vast desert country gained independence from France. Then newly discovered ore mines embodied the new republic’s hopes for prosperity, but fluctuating world prices, economic mismanagement and a series of coups left Mauritania mired in poverty.
Iron accounted for over 50 percent of exports last year, from a country twice the size of France but with just 3 million people.
“We Mauritanians are too used to hunger and thirst,” said Hassan, after finishing his third cup of sweet tea, brewed over a gas stove in a corner of the wagon. “Now, Allah willing, things will change.”
After two decades of dictatorship under ex-president Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, Mauritanians cautiously hope for democracy: a military junta seized power in August 2005 promising a transition to civilian rule by March next year.
“Mauritania is a potentially rich country: it has oil ... fishing and agriculture,” the head of the military junta, Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, told Reuters in an interview. “But it has the same problem as other developing countries: how to exploit those riches?”
Hopes were boosted when offshore oil production began in February. But many fear democracy could unleash other forces in Mauritania society: many black Africans seethe with resentment against the ruling Moorish elite. Islamists also won parliamentary seats in December’s polls.
“We are Arabs ... Here people are proud of Hezbollah, of its leader Sayyed Hassan al Nasrallah, because they have shown that Israel is weak,” said Hassan, lounging on a bundle of possessions on the train, referring to the month-long war in Lebanon which began in July.
“Tony Blair and George Bush, they are bad men ... Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but they just wanted his oil.”
An ally of the United States’ war on terror in the Sahara, Mauritania is also one of few Arab countries to recognize the state of Israel. Politicians say it will fall to a new president, to be elected in March, to review these ties.
The train’s colossal diesel locomotives haul it between dunes and rocky hills, where camels stroll among the scrub. The dusty town of Choum, close to Mauritania’s northern border with Western Sahara, is literally built upon the railway.
Founded in 1960 by navvies building the rail link, Choum’s squat mud houses have railway tracks for roof beams. Railway sleepers divide up the plots between some houses; sections of tracks are used as a roundabout in the dusty square.
The nearest town, Atar, is a hard four-hour drive along a rocky, rutted road.
“The tourists pass through here to catch the train, they do not stay in Choum. Here there is nothing,” said Lamine, watching football inside his shop on a solar-powered television. “We have no mains electricity ... The water tastes of salt.”
A voice blares from a bullhorn at the window of an old jalopy, plastered in electoral posters, which trundles through the afternoon heat campaigning for the parliamentary polls.
“Everyone is leaving this town ... There is no work here,” said Lamine. “The elections here are going to change nothing. Politicians make promises but they have no money.”