Identification. The name of the country is derived from the Latin Mauretania, meaning "west," which corresponds to the Arab name of North Africa, Maghreb. The Romans referred to the Berber people as Maures.
The French occupied the country in 1860 in close cooperation with Maur religious leaders. Mauritania became a nation after the destruction of the kingdoms of Fouta Toro and Walo Walo and the Arab-Berber emirats of Trarza, Brakna, Taganet, and Adrar. As a result, the country has two main ethnic groups: black Africans and Arab-Berbers. The black African group includes the Fulani, Soninke, and Bambara. The Maurs include the Arab-Berbers (Beydan) and the black Maurs known as Haratin. The Haratins are black Africans who were enslaved by white Maurs. White and black Maurs consider themselves Arab, whereas black Arabs see themselves as African. The most important common denominator is Sunni Islam.
Location and Geography. Mauritania encompasses 400,385 square miles (1,037,000 square kilometers), more than three quarters of which is made up of the Sahara desert and the semiarid Sahelian zone. The remaining portion lies along the Senegal River Valley in the extreme south and southeast. The terrain consists of a plateau with vast sand dunes. The climate is hot and dry with frequent sandstorms. The country borders Senegal to the south, Mali to the southeast, Algeria to the northeast, and the Western Sahara to the north. In the southern region, most people engage in agriculture and livestock raising. The people in the south are settled black African farmers, whereas in the north the people have a nomadic lifestyle.
The capital, Nouakchott, is on the on the Atlantic coast. It was chosen a year before independence in 1960. Because the French wanted to transfer power to their Arab-Berber allies, the idea of having a major cities such as Rosso or Kaedi as the capital was ruled out.
Demography. As a result of ethnic clashes between pro-arabization groups and black Africans, the authorities have banned discussion of population issues to maintain the myth that Mauritania is the land of the Maurs with a tiny minority of black Africans. The most recent estimate of the population is 2.5 million. Because population growth in the black African communities in the south is much higher, white Arab-Berbers have become a minority. According to the latest estimates of ethnic distribution, the Haratin community accounts for 40 to 45 percent of the total population, while the white Arab-Berbers account for 25 percent and black Africans 30 percent.
Linguistic Affiliation. There are four national languages. Hassaniya is a mixture of Arabic and Berber and is the language of the white Maurs and the Haratin. Pulaar (Fulani) is spoken on the Atlantic coast and across the sahel-savannah zone. Soninke (Sarakolle) is spoken on the borders with Mali and Senegal. Wolof is widely spoken. Bambara is spoken in the southeast. At independence, French became the official language and, in 1965, the Arab-Berber regime made Arabic compulsory in primary and secondary education. This resulted in ethnic confrontation over the national language. The clashes intensified until 1999, when Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya decided to resurrect French and downgrade Arabic. Black Africans' determination to resist Arabization resulted in the official recognition of Fulani, Soninke, and Wolof as national languages in 1980 and the creation of a national institute to teach those languages in public schools. That experiment was sabotaged by a palace coup in 1984.
Symbolism. All Mauritanians self-identify themselves as Sunni Muslims of the Malkite rite and believe that their society is the most Islamic in Africa. Mauritania is an Islamic republic whose basic law is the sharia, and the flag (green with a yellow crescent and stars) symbolizes Islam. Mauritanians believe that they have a mission to promote Islam and Islamic values throughout black Africa, and most symbols are linked to Islam.
Religious leaders and people from immigrant families symbolize power, intelligence, respect, and holiness. There are three important religious brotherhoods and subsects whose leaders symbolize supernatural knowledge and insight: the Tjjaniya, Qadriya, and Hamaliya. The founders of these brotherhoods are venerated. Ancestors are honored, and cemeteries are respected and feared. There are no national monuments, museums, secular national heroes, poets, or artists. Only the few people who are educated know what the national flag, national anthem, and national day symbolize. Some black intellectuals want the national day to be observed as a day of mourning for the martyrs of ethnic cleansing in 1990 and 1991.
Emergence of the Nation. Mauritania did not exist as an independent political unit before 1960. The country was created by colonial France in close alliance with the Arab-Berber theocracy in the Trarza region. The motives for creating the country was to build a bridge between French black West African colonies and Algeria and block the expansionist aspirations of proponents of a greater Morocco.
National Identity. Ethnic conflict has sharpened ethnic, tribal, and caste identities. Because the French conspired to keep political power exclusively in the hands of the Arab-Berber aristocracy, a sense of national identity has not developed.
Ethnic Relations. In the past, ethnic relations were characterized by conflicts, shifting alliances, and some cooperation. The more settled black Africans dominated in the south, whereas the nomadic Arab-Berbers controlled the desert north. The different communities were able to function without contact with each other. Gradually, drought and the ensuing environmental degradation pushed the nomads toward the south, and conflicts over decreasing resources arose. With the creation of the state, competition over political power and access to public funds, jobs, and privileges aggravated this situation. In 1989, when ethnic conflict reached a violent level, West African and black citizens became the target of government pogroms. Mauritania then was drawn into the ethnic conflict between the government in Mali and the Maur and Tuareg tribes. Thus, while Mauritania was deporting its black citizens to Mali and Senegal, it was welcoming Maur and Tuareg refugees from Mali. The main political groups and parties are divided along cultural and ethnic lines. The Arab population is sponsored by Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, and FLAM, the black political party, is based in Senegal.
Without coherent national planning policies, construction in modern towns and cities is anarchic. Thus, architecture in Nouakchott is a mixture of traditional French concrete building with Spanish and Asian influences. Because of the fragile and sandy terrain, buildings are low.
As a result of drought and the attraction of urban centers, most residents have become totally or party urbanized. Colonization, rapid urbanization, modern education, technology, and mass communication have led to the emergence of two cultures. The modern elite live in Western-style houses, which have replaced thatched-roof houses and tents. Houses are used to shelter extended families and guests. Even in modern houses, there is little furniture and few wall decorations. Many houses have colorful traditional pillows and mats, teapots, trays, and carpets. Mattresses are placed along the walls with traditional pillows. Houses are crowded because of strong family bonds. An urban house normally is open to relatives and friends.
Apart from mosques, government buildings follow Western styles. Some Arab-Berbers put up tents in the courtyards of their villas. Normally, there are no plants inside the house.
Food in Daily Life. Food has important social and psychological functions. People eat together in groups from a large bowl or calabash, using the right hand. People eat first and then drink cold water or sour milk mixed with cold water, juice from the hibiscus flower, or baobab juice. After lunch and dinner, it is customary to drink small glasses of green tea with sugar and mint. The tea is served by younger persons, women, and slaves.
The diet consists mostly of meat, millet, rice, fish, and sweet potatoes and potatoes. The main
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. People are expected to slaughter an animal according to the number of wives and the wealth of the husband. At the end of Ramadan and at the sacrificial feast that ends the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a married man is expected to offer a lamb. The meat must be eaten up within three days or it is thrown away. It is customary to offer an animal in connection with name-giving, initiation, marriage, and funeral ceremonies and when people return from Mecca or other important places. Only circumcised adult men are allowed to slaughter animals.
Basic Economy. While the public and private sectors depend on foreign sources such as development aid and the exportation of iron ore and fish, the vast majority of citizens engage in traditional subsistence agriculture. The informal economic sector is increasing in importance. People do not expect much from the government and rarely pay taxes. Mauritania is one of the largest recipients of foreign aid in the world and is deeply in debt. Despite abundant livestock, one of the world's richest fishing zones, and a huge agriculture potential, the country is not self-sufficient in food and other basic necessities.
Land Tenure and Property. Traditionally, individuals could not own land, which was owned collectively by the community. The head of the clan or community was responsible for the allocation and leasing of communal land. In a society organized according to hierarchical caste, land was controlled by the aristocracy, and the lower classes rented, borrowed, or worked the land according to a sharecropping system. A land ordinance of 1983 stipulated that land belongs to the state and abolished traditional ownership. Black citizens were quick to label the ordinance racist.
Commercial Activities. Animals, meat, and hides are exported to neighboring countries, and iron ore, copper, gypsum, and fish are sent to the European Union nations and Japan. White residents dominate retail trade with the West, and black Africans trade with Central Africa.
Major Industries. Mauritania is one of the least industrialized countries in the world. The few industries involve the production and partial processing of iron ore. There is a fish processing plant and an oil refinery in Nouadhibou and a sugar refinery in Nouakchott as well as a meat processing factory in Kaedi. Traditional crafts are produced in Nouakchott. There is a textile factory in Rosso.
Trade. Iron ore, copper, and fish are sent to the European Union and Japan, and animals are sold to Senegal. Imports consist of food, machinery, and weapons. There is much informal trade with neighboring African countries. Gum arabic and salt also are sold abroad.
Division of Labor. Most people work as farmers, cattle herders, and traders. Regulations regarding child labor are not enforced, and most school-age children work.
Classes and Castes. Society is organized along strict ethnic lines, with a rigid system of castes; every caste has its own internal hierarchy. In both ethnic groups, the division of labor is clear. At the top are the religious and warrior caste, followed by the skilled caste, which consists of smiths, carpenters, weavers, fisherfolk, and leather workers. Historians or court bards, musicians, and court advisers form a lower caste, followed by the theoretically freed slaves and current slaves at the bottom of the social order.
Symbols of Social Stratification. Dress style, comportment, and speech are dictated by the climate and ethnic heritage. Putting on one's best clothing is important in black African communities to express one's social status. Women decorate themselves with gold, silver, and amber to display their wealth and change clothes several times during a party. People in the higher castes to tend to be quiet and generous toward those below them, whereas the lower castes tend to be talkative, outgoing, and "greedy," with less concern about shame. Generally people are kind and hospitable to foreigners.
Government. Mauritania is an Islamic republic with a highly centralized government in which power is vested in the executive president as head of state, aided by a prime minister who acts as the head of government and a council of ministers. Since 1992, direct presidential elections have been scheduled every six years. Universal suffrage occurs at age eighteen years. The legal system is derived from Islamic sharia law and modern Western law. The legislative branch includes a bicameral legislature consisting of the fifty-six-seat Senate elected by municipal mayors for six-year terms and a seventy-nine-seat National Assembly elected by popular vote for five-year terms. The judicial branch has lower courts, appeals courts, and a supreme court. Administratively, the country is divided into twelve regions.
A multiparty system functioned from independence until 1965, followed by a one-party civilian regime that was overthrown by the army in 1978. Between 1978 and 1991, the country was ruled by decree, with no citizen participation. With the end of the Cold War and after Mauritania's alliance with Iraq in the Gulf War, the government was forced to transform the military committee into a political party.
There are twenty-two political parties, including the Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS), the Union of Democratic Forces–New Era (UFD/EN), and Action for Change (AC). The PRDS is a continuation of the military committee. Parties are tribal and personal rather than ideological. Action for Change is closely linked with the antislavery movement El Hor. Forces de Liberation Africain des Mauritania (FLAM) is illegal and operates from exile in Senegal. Founded in 1983, FLAM works for ethnic equality, social justice, democracy, and development. It has called for federalism and regional autonomy.
Leadership and Political Officials. Ethnicity and caste membership have caused political positions to be monopolized by religious warrior upper-caste clans and families. Gender, age, wealth, and region also are important factors in attaining and maintaining power. No ruling party has ever lost power to the opposition. Individuals are expected to vote for leaders from their ethnic group, clan, family, and region. Ideology and political programs have minimal relevance and people who cross ethnic and tribal lines are considered traitors. People are afraid of government representatives, especially those in uniform.
Social Problems and Control. Apart from Arab-Berber slave raids, Mauritania was relatively free of crime. With the creation of a neocolonial state, formal mechanisms for dealing with crime have been based on the violent colonial system. Crime management is now provided by repressive police forces in the cities and towns and a gendarmerie in the countryside and a national guard in remote areas. People fear men in uniform, who harass, rape, confiscate cattle, and terrorize the population. Informal social control mechanisms are effective because of strong family and kinship ties and the collective shame associated with committing a crime; people tend to punish criminals on the spot. In the past, the most common crimes were kidnapping children from the south for slavery in the north, stealing cattle, and illegal grazing. Today the most common crimes are official corruption, stealing, political murder, and rape.
Military Activity. The military has become a prestigious institution. The army is huge relative to the population and the nation's poverty. The armed forces number 18,500 men divided into an infantry, a navy, an air force, paramilitary forces, border guards, and auxiliary troops of the Interior Ministry. At independence, the army had fewer than one hundred black officers who had served in the colonial army. Arab-Berbers were exempted from military service by the French, who considered them superior to black Africans. After the Saharan war the army mushroomed in size, staffed mainly by black Africans and Harantin abandoned by their white masters, but most of the commanders were white. After the 1978 coup, ethnic and tribal competition plagued the armed forces. A campaign of ethnic purging of black armed personnel, whom the regime accused of belonging to FLAM and plotting a coup began in 1986. The government then passed a blanket amnesty for the armed forces for any crimes committed in the period 1989–1993. As a result, the national army has become an ethnic army of racist repression.
Social welfare is provided for within the family and kinship system. Government-supported welfare is nearly nonexistent because of a lack of funds, nepotism, and corruption.
A few nongovernment organizations (NGOs) work on human rights issues. One of the most important is the Association Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (AMDH), which was created in 1991 after a government massacre of more than five hundred black army officers and civilians in custody. Comité de Solidarité avec les Victimes de la Répression en Mauritanie (Solidarity Committee of with Victims of Repression in Mauritania, or CSVRM) was created by the widows, mothers, and sisters of victims of racist extrajudicial killings in 1990 and 1991.
SOS-Esclaves (SOS Slaves) was founded in 1992 by a former slave. SOS fights for the emancipation of the nearly one million former and current slaves of the ruling white Maurs. Ligue Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (Mauritanian Human Rights League, or LMDH) was created when political parties and NGOs were not allowed in the country after the campaign of terror against black intellectuals in 1986. It is considered a front for the government.
Division of Labor by Gender. Culturally, women's importance is recognized, but men dominate in the economic, political, social, and religious spheres. In the south, men provide for the family and women process and cook food and take care of children. In the Arab-Berber north, women are not
The Relative Status of Women and Men. Although people honor and obey their mothers, women suffer on the account of their gender. In Islamic-run courts two women count as one witness, polygamy is widespread in the black communities, and female circumcision is practiced by all the ethnic groups except the Wolof. Women inherit half the share that their brothers receive. Children take the father's clan name. When women marry, they tend to join the husband's household. Many marriages are forced or arranged. During racial pogroms, women are targets for rape and terror. There is more illiteracy and unemployment among women than men. Female slaves are sexually exploited. Forced feeding to fatten young girls for marriage is common among the Maurs and Haratin.
Marriage. Marriages usually are arranged, especially the first marriage. Illiterate rural individuals have less choice than do people with a modern education. People tend to marry for the sake of their parents and community and usually marry within their community and clan. There is a lot of marriage between cousins, but it is not permissible to marry someone with whom a person has shared breast milk. When it is discovered that a husband and wife shared milk earlier in life, they are obliged to divorce even if they have children. Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, but Muslim men can marry Christian or Jewish women. Polygyny is allowed, but polyandry is forbidden. According to the prevailing value system, all adults must marry and have many children but it is not unusual to find unmarried women, particularly among the white Maurs.
Economic aspects of marriage are very important. Men are responsible for the economic sustenance of their wives and for brideprice, along with lavish gifts to the parents, relatives, friends, and associates of their wives. Divorce is not common, especially in the black communities. Couples are allowed to divorce twice, and the third divorce is final. If divorce is the fault of the man, the wife keeps the brideprice. According to tradition, children follow the father, but small ones remain with the mother and the husband is obliged to support her and the children until they grow up.
Domestic Unit. The basic household unit consists of a husband and his wife or wives plus their children and the family of the husband, but household units in urban centers are getting more compact. The man has authority in the household because the couple lives with his kin and he is normally older and richer than the wife. Even though the household is an extended family, tasks are sharply divided according to gender and age.
Inheritance. Inheritance is based on Islamic law and local "economic calculation." When male and female relatives are equally close to the deceased, the male relatives gets a double portion. Because the woman joins her husband's family, she often is pressured to renounce her inheritance, especially if it consists of land. All kinds of property including slaves are inheritable by relatives. Sometimes a man inherits the wife or wives of his brother because the family wants to keep the children and property within the household.
Kin Groups. In this extremely traditional society, belonging to a group is very important, and the larger the group, the better. People use clan names rather than family names. When the climate and economic conditions allow it, larger kin groups form a village or neighborhood. Clan members interact by sharing land and engaging in interclan marriage. The male leader, normally the oldest and "most competent" man, manages communal property and affairs.
Infant Care. Child care is provided by the older members of an extended family and the first born child is looked after by the grandmother and aunts. Women, including older sisters and cousins, take care of children, and men come into the picture as a child grows up. Infants are not separated from adults and are nearly always carried.
Child Rearing and Education. Education is based on a combination of three overlapping philosophies: indigenous, Islamic, and Western. In the first system, the objective is to prepare the young to be useful members of the local community. Education is thus inward-oriented and functional and is provided by parents, elder siblings, peers, and specialized traditional teachers. The key values are belief in God, honor, respect, and service to the community, generosity, hospitality, endurance, and patience, Islamic teaching prepares Muslims to serve Allah and the community of believers by learning the Koran and practicing the five pillars of Islam. The most important qualities in a "good" child are respect and service to the parents and the community, truthfulness, learning, prayer, and politeness. Parents believe that children are what they inherit and learn from their parents. If the mother is of good character, her children will be good.
Higher Education. Before independence, there were few schools and illiteracy was close to 100 percent. Sons of the black aristocracy were sent to a special school established by the French in Senegal. After power was transferred to the Arab-Berbers, the new rulers built schools in their areas and neglected the south.
The upper castes give, and the lower castes serve and obey. Maur women do not shake hands with foreign men, and people do not eat in front of their in-laws or address older persons by name. People stare at passing strangers and greet each other with a handshake and ask about a person's health and wealth. People stand very close to each other.
Religious Beliefs. Mauritania is 100 percent Muslim. The people are Sunni Muslims who belong to the Khadria and Thiyania brotherhoods. Religion is a mixture of Islam and local African beliefs. People believe in supernatural spirits, feeling that every thing and being has life and presents potential danger. Taboos are observed, and charms and amulets are used for protection.
Religious Practitioners. Each brotherhood has a founder who acts as a spiritual medium and is venerated and considered to have healing powers. People can receive a blessing through spiritual contact with these spiritual leaders. The founders' power increases with their age. Traditional spiritual medicine men and women have an authority based on the local experience and value system.
Rituals and Holy Places. Rituals often are linked to Islamic prayers. Tombs and graveyards are seen as holy places. People avoid going to those places during certain times of the day and avoid cutting wood near a graveyard. Certain forests and trees are considered holy, and people use them for healing. Daily religious ceremonies take place in a mosque or in open fields. For more important weekly ceremonies, prayers take place in open fields or in the larger mosques in urban centers.
Death and the Afterlife. People believe that after death they will be judged and go to hell or to paradise.
People believe that disease is caused by destiny, bad magic, or breaking taboos and seek help from traditional and Islamic healers who combine modern medicine with traditional methods. Very few people have access to medical care, which is concentrated in the urban centers. The rudimentary public health care has crumbled, and the rich have set up private health units and pharmacies.
There are many tropical diseases, but there is a low incidence of psychological disorders, and AIDS is almost nonexistent. Life expectancy is low, and infant mortality is high, partly because of a lack of clean water.
Modern doctors are treated as important personalities, especially if they are white. Traditional practitioners are respected and feared. Traditional medicine men and women use herbs and touching as well as healing words.
There are very few secular celebrations with the exception of the national day on 28 November and Constitution Day on 12 July. Some of the Westernized elites celebrate Christmas and the New Year. Farmers celebrate the harvest and marry at that time. Herders' dispersed families gather and celebrate the rainy season with sumptuous meals. The returns of family members from abroad is celebrated.
Support for the Arts. There is little appreciation of and support for artists. The little support that is given is ethnically biased and oriented toward entertainment. The arts are functional and cannot be distinguished from crafts.
Literature. The oral tradition includes epics, storytelling, riddles, puzzles, and Islamic poetry and prose.
Graphic Arts. Wall drawings, paintings, some sculpture, textiles, and pottery are produced. Artists are thought to have a secret knowledge that they hand down from generation to generation.
Performance Arts. People attend popular and democratic performances held in the open air.
The state of the physical and social science is deplorable because of the lack of interest among the authorities. A university established in 1981 teaches law, literature, and economics. There are fewer than three thousand students, and the university lacks qualified teachers and researchers, books, facilities, and buildings.
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—G ARBA D IALLO