World Culture

A Look at Mauritania

Our foreign desk e-mailed a week or so ago to say there were some visitors coming to town. They asked if we would like to meet them. They had been working in Mauritania on political reconciliation efforts there. We did a little reporting and said, yes, we would.

(My only connection to Mauritania had been a friend, a former Peace Corp volunteer, who brought back some of the loveliest brilliantly colored tie-dyed cloth. That, and the campaign of forced expulsions by former President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, who had seized power in a coup in 1984 and ruled with a heavy fist for the next 20 years.)

This is a story we have seen many times throughout history — a group decided, for whatever reason, to expel fellow citizens; those they consider the "other," or rivals, for power or resources. But unusually, in the case of Mauritania, a new regime has tried to reverse that trend.

Independent candidate Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was inaugurated in April 2007 as Mauritania's first freely and fairly elected president. One of the goals of his administration is to overcome the legacy of past ethnic divisions, including the forced banishment of tens of thousands of so-called Afro-Mauritanians and the continuation of the tradition of enslavement. This is a story I don't think we have heard a great deal about, and in the context of so many recent clashes over ethnic division, I think an important one.

There are a number of other international stories that caught our eye today.

And ...

Sorry, we can't help ourselves, FASHION. You know you want to know the latest styles. You know you do, ok? The great thing about radio: no one needs to see you listen. So it's okay to be interested in hearing a conversation about fashion.

Key tip for the day: boat shoes.

Ladies, we have you covered next week. I promise.

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I have lived in and studied Mauritania off and on for some years, so was very interested in your coverage of the race question there. I think you chose two quite reasonable persons to interview, though the situation is still a bit more nuanced than they made clear.

Anyone not already acquainted with the country might have gone away from the program with the impression that only two groups of people are at issue -- Arabs and Blacks -- and that the ex-slaves and the N??gro-Mauritaniens are perhaps overlapping or the same. In fact, they are very distinct and generally not socially or politically allied.

Persons of slave descent are a historically subordinate category, "Black Moors," while the N??gro-Mauritaniens are African in language and culture, from such historically autonomous tribes such as the Soninke, Halpulaar, and Wolof. The elites of these groups were also slave-holders, historically, and have certainly been no kinder to slaves and ex-slaves than were the White Moors.

It was the Pulaar, particularly, who were thought to be contesting (White) Moor hegemony in the 80s, and who were especially targeted with violence and expulsions. It is alleged that Black Moors sometimes profited from the situation, taking over (perhaps with White Moor sponsorship) the abandoned lands.

The exiled Afro-Mauritanians have been free to return to Mauritania for many years, but have been holding out for reparations. I think that M. Suleimans claim, that returnees would risk re-expulsion or torture, has not been true for at least a decade or more.

Over the same period, the Black Moors, somewhat like post-Reconstruction Black Americans, have found themselves in very diverse situations, ranging from dependent unpaid servants to prime ministers and ambassadors. Unlike Black Americans, they often enjoy continuing political and economic support and close social ties with their ex-masters (or with the relevant Moor tribal fraction). Even under the previous regime, thanks in part to UN and World Bank pressures for anti-poverty programs, they were the major beneficiaries of measures to expand education and economic opportunity.

In any case, it is true that both groups continue to suffer from social discrimination -- somewhat like the U.S. of a generation ago, lets say. Let us hope that the new government will, indeed, proceed with further improvements.

Sent by Kay M. | 9:23 AM | 3-11-2008

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