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Map of Mauritania

Leader: Lt-Col. Mohamed Khouna ould Haidalla

Economy: GNP per capita $460 per year

Monetary unit: Mauritania Ouguiya (linked to French franc)

Main exports: Iron ore, fish, gypsum

People: 1.6 million

Health: Life expectancy 44 years

Infant mortality: 187 per 1,000 live births (1979)

Culture: 4 major ethnic groups: Moors, Toucouler, Wolof & Sonninke, Religion: Islam.

Language: French (official); Hassanya Arabic (National); Black African languages predominate in South.

Sources: World Development Report 1983, Africa South of the Sahara 1983/4, US. Dept of State Briefings 1979 (culture, infant mortality)

YOU musn’t leave before the third glass’.

One of the first things a foreigner in Mauritania learns is that they can’t leave before enjoying the third (and sweetest) glass of mint tea. Tea-making is one of Mauritania’s most celebrated rituals. With alcohol forbidden under Islamic law, it is an essential time-filler and excuse for socialising. Locals claim to suffer withdrawal symptoms if they don’t drink tea regularly throughout the day.

Mauritania is a country of deep-rooted tradition. Until as recently as ten years ago, two-thirds of the population were nomadic herders. But the fierce drought of the 1970s and the drain on the economy caused by the war in the North (which only ended in 1979) have combined to accelerate rural-urban migration and joblessness. Undeterred, many Mauritanians still aspire to be nomadic traders. If in the past the trade was across the Sahara in slaves, gold, salt and dates, today it is by air to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to bring back watches, radios and cassette recorders.

In its unique crossroads position for Arab-subsaharan contact, Mauritania has a rich history. Moorish culture extended into Southern Spain in the eleventh century and the earliest known West African Kingdom, Ghana, is said to have had its capital in the south.

Present day Nouakchott, on the other hand, has all the hallmarks of a new, if not modern city. From around 5,000 inhabitants in the early 60s, the town has mushroomed in just 20 years to its present 205,000 (and some claim higher figure). This means that one fifth of all Mauritania’s population now live in the capital. But the city was not built to cope and the vast majority live in shanty areas, many of them still in tents, where water is sold by the barrel and there is neither electricity nor sanitation.

One of Mauritania’s key problems is its inability to feed itself. Herd sizes are now greatly reduced and agriculture has only ever been possible in the extreme south. The country’s only hope lies in its iron ore industry which accounts for about 80% of its export earnings.

Hopes are that the 1980s will usher in a new era of prosperity for Mauritania, but the effects of the disasters in the 1970s are not easy to eradicate. Drought, a costly war and a fall in the export of iron ore during this period have left their toll. The delicate relationship between the country’s various ethnic groups is a further source of tension. There is a geographical as well as a cultural division between the ‘white’ Moor population who predominate in the North and the Black African population who tend to be concentrated in the South. The government’s policy of Arabisation does not help this division, nor does the practice of slavery which, although officially abolished in 1980, remains endemic throughout the country.

Sally Lyall Grant

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Rich traders earn fortunes investing in property; many former nomads and slaves are destitute.
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Heavily dependent on aid. Arab investment vital to mining industry.
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‘Freer than some Islamic states but divorce and female circumcision widespread.
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[image, unknown] Military government. Islamic republic.
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12% Arabic
2% French
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100,000 slaves till exist. ‘El Hor’ movement of ex-slaves represents them unofficially.

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44 years.
Infant mortality extremely high.

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New Internationalist issue 137 magazine cover This article is from the July 1984 issue of New Internationalist.
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