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Mauritania

Mauritania is a country in the Maghreb, which is the name for the western portion of the continent of Africa. Other countries in this region include Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Western Sahara. Mauritania lies along the North Atlantic Ocean. Western Sahara lies to its north and Senegal is to the south. In terms of landmass, Mauritania is the twenty-ninth largest country in the world. Nearly seventy-five percent of that landmass is desert and it has been expanding since the 1960’s. Although much of the country is flat, there are occasional scarps, or eroded cliffs that contain occasional oases at their bases.

The official name of the country is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Its official language is Arabic, while the other languages of Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof are all considered national languages. French and Hassaniya (an Arabic dialect) are also widely spoken throughout the country. The number of languages within the country reflects Mauritania’s wide variety of people throughout its history. Much of this diversity is due to the foreign occupation of Mauritania beginning with Roman exploration, Arab conquests, and eventually French colonization.

Very little is known about Mauritania’s ancient history. Early tribes most likely led a semi-nomadic lifestyle. By the time the Roman Empire rose, there were explorations into the region’s then dry savannah regions. Evidence of their presence may be found in the Roman coins that were left behind. By the third century C.E., Berber tribes from the north began to travel southward into the area. This migration led to the displacement of the Bafour tribes that had been present in the territory for some time previously, and who many consider descendents of the original inhabitants of Mauritania. These indigenous black Africans were driven further south. Today Mauritania is considered a buffer state between the black Africans to the south and the Moorish peoples to the north.

Scarps of the Adrar region in Mauritania

The Berbers dominated the region of Mauritania for several centuries, until the arrival of the Arabs in the eighth century C.E. In comparison to many other Arabic-speaking nations, the arrival of Islam to the region was fairly later than most. This is mostly due to the geographic location of Mauritania. The Berber civilization, violently opposed the encroaching Arabs, and complete Muslim domination was not achieved until 1076, and only in the southern portion of the modern-day country. Berber civilization remained in the area and the Mauritanian Thirty-Year War, from 1644 to 1674, was the last ditch effort of the Berbers to expel the Muslim invaders. Throughout the middle ages, Mauritania served as the capital of Islamic Spain and the Almoravid movement, which propagated the spread of Islam throughout the areas surrounding Mauritania.

European interest arose with the growing export of gum arabic from the region in the fifteenth century. Gum arabic is a common ingredient that to this day is used in printing, paint production, glue, cosmetics, as well as several other products.

Gum arabic resin, from the acacia tree.

By the year 1817, France gained control of the costal region of the country. Complete French control of Mauritania was achieved by the year 1920 when the whole of modern-day Mauritania was added to what became known as French West Africa. French rule brought about much change to the country. These included the end to clan warfare, the abolition of slavery, and the immigration of many black Africans from the south, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries before.

The French protectorate that had been drafted in 1904 eventually ended as Mauritania gained its independence in 1960. It was initially opposed by Morocco to the north, due to the fact that the Moroccan king wanted to add the territory to his own country. Regardless, Mauritania became its own autonomous state with its capital at Nouakchott. Moktar Ould Daddah became the leader of the newly created country until a military coup by guerilla soldiers overthrew him in 1976. A later peace treaty with the same guerilla group once again worsened relations between Mauritania and Morocco. Mauritania has also had strained relations with another of its neighbors, Senegal, concerning rights to the Senegal River, which is shared by the two nations.

Portrait of a Mauritanian family at Lagueila, an oasis of the Adrar region of Mauritania (Photograph by Ji-Elle).

Mauritania is still considered on many levels a developing country. For example, although slavery was outlawed by the French during colonization, the state of Mauritania did not officially outlaw the practice until 1985, and many people still believe that slavery is still occurring within the country. Additionally, Mauritania is considered one of the poorest countries in the world. However, many have high hopes for the presence of oil off of the coast of the country. Recently there have been attempts to search and drill for such oil. The discovery of this valuable natural resource would undoubtedly change the financial status of the country, bringing in much more money to the state and its people.

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