POPULATION: 2.2 million
LANGUAGE: Hassaniyya Arabic; French; Azayr; Fulfulde; Mande-kan; Wolof
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
Mauritania is part of the west-Saharan region of West Africa. This area is known to have supported a flourishing culture in the centuries preceding Christianity. Waves of immigrants began to flow into Mauritania in the third century AD . People from North Africa entered first during the third and fourth centuries, then again during the seventh and eighth centuries. By the eleventh century AD , traders had spread the Islamic religion throughout the Western Sahara.
Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, black Africans from Ghana and-Mali immigrated to Mauritania. By the late seventeenth century, Mauritania had four social groups. The people who spoke Hassaniyya Arabic became known as the Maures.
Early in the twentieth century, French forces occupied and set up a colonial administration in Mauritania, while much of the rest of the Western Sahara was controlled by Spain. After World War II (1939–45), France granted Mauritania some administrative and political freedoms. However, the colony did not become fully independent until November 28, 1960. After independence, there were continuing divisions between the non-Maure black Africans and the Maures, who dominated the political system and armed forces.
In 1976, Spain relinquished control of the Western Sahara (which it had held as a territory), dividing the territory between Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario guerrillas, a group seeking self-determination for the region, then waged a war against Morocco. Mauritania allied itself with Morocco against the Polisario.
Growing political conflicts in Mauritania led to a coup d'état (government overthrow) by military officers in July 1978. Another coup took place in December 1984. In July 1991, Mauritania drafted a new constitution that legalized a multiparty system in place of the former one-party system. As soon as the legal restrictions were lifted, sixteen political parties were formed. The constitution makes Islam the state religion, but stresses equality and individual freedoms.
Mauritania is located in Africa at the intersection of North Africa (the Maghrib ) and West Africa. The country is roughly one and a half times the size of Texas. Its area is 398,069 square miles (1,031,000 square kilometers). About two-thirds is desert, with an occasional oasis.
Mauritania has four geographic zones: the Saharan, the Sahelian, the Senegal River Valley, and the coastal zones. The topography is generally flat, arid plains. The capital is Nouakchott.
About 40 percent of the country is covered with sand. Some of the sand sits in fixed dunes; other dunes are carried about by the wind.
As of 1995, Mauritania had a population of 2.2 million people. More than half of Mauritanians are urban-dwellers. The greatest numbers live in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. The remainder live on farms or in small towns.
The Maures are the largest ethnic group in Mauritania.
Mauritania's official languages are French and Hassaniyya Arabic. Hassaniyya is an Arabic language with many other words mixed in. Many people in the larger cities and villages speak French. The other main languages are Azayr, Fulfulde, Mande-kan, and Wolof.
Common boys' names are Ahmad, Hamadi, Muhammad, and 'Uthman . Common girls' names are Fatima, Bana, Hadia, and Safiya .
Many Mauritanians have faith in the supernatural powers of holy men called marabouts, or murabitun . It is believed that their baraka, or divine grace, allows them to perform miracles. They make and distribute amulets and talismans (objects that are thought to bring good luck). These are believed to have mystical powers that provide protection from illness and injury.
The Mauritanians are Sunni Muslims, and have adhered to Islam since the ninth century AD . Mauritania's Constitutional Charter of 1985 declared Islam to be the state religion.
Islamic Sufi brotherhoods, known as tariqas, play an important role in the religious practices of the Mauritanians. Sufism stresses mysticism and the needs of the human spirit. The Qadiriyya brotherhood stresses Islamic learning, humility, generosity, and respect for one's neighbors. The Tijaniyya brotherhood is largely a missionary order that denounces theft, lying, cheating, and killing, and emphasizes continual reflection on God.
Mauritania's major national holiday is Independence Day (November 28). It is celebrated with a military parade that passes in front of a stage on which the president and his advisors are seated. The president addresses the nation in a speech.
Young people celebrate New Year's with parties that include a New Year's Eve countdown.
There are two major Islamic holidays observed in Mauritania. One is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of the month of fasting called Ramadan. It is celebrated for three days. The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of the Prophet Abraham to obey God's command, even when it meant sacrificing his own son. Traditionally, Islamic holidays are celebrated by wearing new clothes and cooking grilled meat. Girls color their hands with henna (a natural dye).
Every Mauritanian is expected to marry and have children. In the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom pledge themselves to the marriage with an Islamic marriage contract called an aqd. There are also two parties, beginning with the aqd party. Next comes the marwah party, a reception to send the bride off to her new family.
A practice known as essahwa requires the young to treat the elderly with respect. For example, a young Mauritanian would not smoke in front of an elderly one. Also, the young are careful to use appropriate language in the presence of their elders. They also avoid displays of affection and loud conversation.
In the desert valleys of the countryside, or badiya, people live in cotton tents. These are light-colored on the outside, so as not to absorb the sunlight. They are draped with brightly colored fabrics inside. The ground inside the tent is covered with large woven mats known as hasira s.
In the southern regions, homes are built of cement. They are rectangular, with flat roofs and small windows. City homes are furnished with carpets, mattresses, and floor pillows.
The drought of the 1970s and 1980s forced northerners to migrate southward. The result was a housing crisis in the towns of southern Mauritania. Shantytowns known as kebe s went up in and around the towns. The migrants set up homes of wood and scrap metal, sun-dried bricks, or tents. In the late 1980s, half the population in Nouakchott, the capital, lived in shanty-towns and slums.
The Mauritanian extended family consists of a group of related males, with their wives, sons, and unmarried daughters. The family is part of a larger kinship unit known as the descent, or lineage, group. A group of related lineages that maintain social ties is known as a clan. Marriage within the clan is preferred. First cousins are the traditional marriage partners.
Most daughters are given much training in raising a family and taking care of the house. Often, they are educated at home instead of at school. Traditionally, girls became engaged at ages as young as eight or ten years. Today many girls wait until they graduate from high school or college.
Mauritanian men are permitted to marry more than one wife. While some choose to do so, most do not. Often, however, they have several wives in a row, divorcing one and then marrying another.
Mauritanian attire is influenced by the desert heat and Islamic norms. Women wear a malaffa, a long cloak wrapped loosely around the body from head to toe. The men wear a dara, a long, loose robe over baggy pants known as sirwal . Some men wear head-coverings, predominantly turbans or hawli, for protection from the winter cold and summer heat. Normal office attire for men is Western-style pants and shirts. In the south, women wear dresses, or skirts and blouses. They also wear long robes called boubous .
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Mauritania. Commonly, villagers eat a spicy fish-and-vegetable stew with rice for lunch. Another popular Mauritanian lunch is spicy rice mixed with tishtar, or small pieces of dried meat. A common dinner meal is couscous. This consists of semolina wheat sprinkled with oil and water and rolled into tiny grains. Couscous can be mixed with a number of sauces. In some parts of Mauritania, couscous is known as lachiri .
A favorite desert drink is zrig, a cool drink made from goat's milk, water, and sugar. And, despite the heat of the desert, tea is common throughout the country.
Elementary school lasts for six years and is followed by two stages of secondary school. The first lasts for four years, and the second for three years. It is not mandatory for children to attend school. Attendance is far from universal. Only 35 percent of young children attend elementary schools. Even fewer (less than 10 percent) attend secondary school. Once girls have completed elementary school, it is common for them to stay home.
There are also numerous traditional schools that provide an Islamic education. They often develop around a learned Islamic leader known as a marabout . Boys generally attend religious schools for seven years, and girls attend for two years. The major emphasis is placed on religious learning. However, there is also emphasis on secular academic skills.
Mauritania has one major secular university, one Islamic institute of higher education, and some vocational institutes.
Much of the literary work of Mauritanian writers focuses on Islamic affairs. There is also a love of imaginative literature, including poetry. Stories and poems are passed down through the generations in musical form, recited by storytellers known as ighyuwn . Tales are accompanied by a drum, a Mauritanian guitar (tidinit), or with a harplike instrument (ardin). Poetry is often sung by minstrels and ballad singers. At social events, poetry praising the host or the guests is commonly sung.
In the past, 80 to 90 percent of Mauritanians led nomadic lifestyles (moving from one place to another), raising cattle, sheep, and goats. Between 1983 and 1985, a devastating drought struck Mauritania. Since then tens of thousands of animals have died. By the mid-1980s, about 85 percent of herders had moved to the cities to find other employment.
The largest employers in Mauritania are the government and the mining industry. Another major employer is the fishing and fish-processing industry.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Mauritania.
Because of the desert heat, desert dwellers rest after lunch, waiting for the sun to descend. In the evenings, families gather outside of the tent, sitting on a light mat called a hasira .
Children make many of their own toys from wire and tin cans. They also play games requiring no toys or equipment. One of these is a variation of tug-of-war known as ligum .
Mauritanian craftspeople and artisans are known for their woodwork, jewelry, leather-work, pottery, weaving, tailoring, and iron-work. Handwoven rugs and handcrafted silver and gold jewelry and cutlery are popular with tourists.
Mauritania's low standards of health care constitute a serious social problem. There are shortages of medical equipment and personnel. Infectious diseases such as malaria are prevalent.
A major political problem is ethnic tension between the Maures and non-Maure black Africans. The Maures (who are both black and white) dominate the country in terms of politics, education, and land ownership. Their most visible opposition comes from the Forces de Liberation Africaine de Mauritanie (FLAM). This is an illegal anti-government organization based south of Mauritania, in Senegal. The group has been accused of trying to overthrow the Mauritanian government. Some FLAM members have been executed, resulting in demonstrations and violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the government.
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Goodsmith, Lauren. The Children of Mauritania: Days in the Desert and by the River Shore. Minneapolis, Minn.: Carolrhoda Books, 1993.
Handloff, Robert E. (ed.) Mauritania: A Country Study . Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1990.
Hudson, Peter. Travels in Mauritania. London: Virgin, 1990.
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