Carved out of the deserts of northwestern Africa lies the country of Mauritania. Not quite as well known as some of its neighbors, Internet searches for this country often pull up hits for the Mauritius islands off the western coast of Madagascar. A divided country, this is one of those countries I’m pretty sure everything I learn about it is new.
The country is named after the Berber kingdom of almost the same name, Mauretania, which was in power from about the 3rd century BC to the 7th century and located pretty much in the area of present day northern Morocco.
Mauritania is surrounded by the territory of Western Sahara to the northwest, Algeria to the northeast, Mali to the east and south, Senegal to the southwest, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The country is made of flat, arid plains and plateaus and is mostly desert or semi-desert; it has a hot, arid climate.
The earliest peoples, the Bafour, were nomadic and agriculturist peoples. The Bafour along with other Berber peoples claimed to be Yemeni in their origins. DNA tests have proven some ties between the two peoples but some scholars have remained skeptics. Mauritania once used to control the lands of Senegal as well, and France stepped in and slowly stating amassing lands that were part of Mauritania (and some from Senegal), later becoming part of French West Africa in 1920. Under French rule, the capital was moved from Saint-Louis to its current capital of Nouakchott. Although the French prohibited slavery under their rule, after the country gained its independence in 1960, it was different. The southern tribes moved in from Senegal and became clerks and administrators due to their knowledge of French and French customs. The northern tribes were denied that power and were subjugated and suppressed by the French military, upsetting the balance of power previously established in their country. Today, Mauritania has a problem with modern-day slavery even though technically slavery is outlawed on the books. The struggle between the French and Arab influences on Mauritania has caused tensions in the country since its independence. Massive droughts during the early 1970s didn’t help any, and these tensions escalated to a border war between Mauritania and Senegal in 1989. Starting in the mid-1970s, Mauritania and Morocco also had a land dispute regarding the territory known as Western Sahara. While Mauritania has stepped back in the deal, the UN is still waiting for a decision to be made about whether the territory will gain statehood or not. (And I thought I was indecisive and put things off.) Unfortunately, there have been several coups and human rights violations in Mauritania in recent history.
The capital and largest city by far is Nouakchott. This coastal city is home to about 958,400 people. The name is a French spelling based on the Berber words Nawaksut, meaning “place of the winds.” Although it’s located on the coast, the climate is hot and dry; it only averages about 3.7” of rainfall a year. The city is home to the federal government as well as the center for commerce, culture, and higher education. Because of rapid growth in the city as nomadic peoples are settling in and around the city, the city is now faced with the growing problems of not having enough fresh water and the problem with ever-growing slums.
The story of Mauritania’s economic problems is not unique. In fact, many African countries suffer the same dilemma. Mauritania has a ton of natural resources, mainly in iron ore. But demand in the type of ore it produces has declined. It also depends on agriculture and subsistence farming, which is also subject to massive droughts, and their fishing industry is becoming overfished in many areas. Oil was discovered in 2001, and since then, two oil fields have been discovered, but the environment in which these oil fields are in make extraction a difficult (and expensive) process.
By far, pretty much everyone in Mauritania is Muslim, with the majority being Sunni. The Sufi brotherhood has also had an impact in the country and neighboring countries as well. There are a small number of Roman Catholics in Nouakchott. Religion is very important in Mauritania; it’s one of the few countries in the world where atheism is punishable by death. (And I thought atheists were hated here in the US.)
Although Arabic is the official language, and French is still used in the media and among the educated peoples, there are many other languages spoken in Mauritania. The most widely spoken indigenous languages used in the country include Hassaniya, Pulaar, Imraguen, Serer, Soninke, and Wolof.
There are a few surprising things about Mauritania I learned: 1) Scenes from The Fifth Element that were supposed to depict Egypt were actually filmed in Mauritania, 2) it’s famous for its strange geological sculpture called the Eye of Africa (also known as the Richat Structure or Eye of the Sahara), a gigantic area of deep erosion in a bullseye-shape that is about 30 miles wide—so large it can be seen from space more or less, 3) they also have nice beaches; incidentally, the Bay of Nouadhibou has one of the largest ship graveyards in the world with over 300 wrecks! The great thing is that many of these wrecks have created artificial reefs and boosted the fish populations, which helps with the local fishing industry. It’s a win-win more or less, in a sort of make-the-best-of-your-situation kind of way.
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