Culture

Mauritanian society is changing fast. A growing tourism industry, the internet, and mobile phones have all played a crucial role leading to profound social changes in the last decades. However, the extended family, clan or tribe still remains the cornerstone of Mauritanian society, especially with the Moors.

As in many Muslim countries, religion continues to mark the important events of life. Although slavery was declared illegal in 1980, it is reported to still exist and the caste system permeates society's mentality.

The iconic image of nomadic Moors sipping a cup of tea under a tent in the desert belongs to the past. Over the past three decades, drought has resulted in a mass exodus of traditionally nomadic Moors from the desert to Nouakchott.

Women are in a fairly disadvantaged position. Only a third as many women as men are literate and few are involved in commercial activities. Female genital mutilation and forced feeding of young brides are still practised in rural communities. However, Mauritanian women do have the right to divorce and exert it routinely.

Arts & Crafts

Mauritania has a strong tradition of arts and craftwork, especially silverwork. Most prized are wooden chests with silver inlays, but there are also silver daggers, silver and amber jewellery, earthtone rugs of camel hair, and hand-dyed leatherwork, including colourful leather cushions and leather pipe pouches, camel saddles and sandals.

The traditional music of Mauritania is mostly Arabic in origin, although along its southern border there are influences from the Wolof, Tukulor and Bambara. One of the most popular Mauritanian musicians is Malouma. She has created what is called the 'Saharan blues' and is to Mauritania what Cesária Évora, is to Cape Verde. One of the country's few other internationally known artists was Dimi Mint Abba, who passed away in 2011. Her 1990 album, Khalifa Ould Eide & Dimi Mint Abba: Moorish Music from Mauritania (Eide was her husband) can be found online. Weddings, raucous and lively affairs, are the best venues to experience Mauritanian music in all its microtonal and often very loud glory. Otherwise, most taxi drivers are happy to pop in a cassette of their favourite tracks.

There's some superb traditional architecture in the ancient Saharan towns in the Adrar as well as in Oualâta.

People

Of Mauritania's estimated three million inhabitants, about 60% are Moors of Arab and Berber descent. The Moors of purely Arab descent, called 'Bidan', account for 40% of the population, and hold the levers of political power. The other major group is black Africans, ethnically split into two groups. The Haratin (black Moors), the descendants of people enslaved by the Moors, have assimilated the Moorish culture and speak Hassaniyya, an Arabic dialect. Black Mauritanians living in the south along the Senegal River constitute 40% of the total population and are mostly Fulani or the closely related Tukulor. These groups speak Pulaar (Fula). There are also Soninke and Wolof minorities.

Islam links the country's disparate peoples – more than 99% of the population are Sunni Muslims.

Slavery in Mauritania

Mauritania has one of the most stratified caste systems in Africa. The system is based on lineage, occupation and access to power, but colour has always been a major determinant of status, splitting the population into Bidan and Haratin – White and Black Moors. At the bottom of the social pile are slaves and ex-slaves. Slavery has long been part of Mauritanian culture, with the owning of slaves was seen as a sign of social status. It was only in 1980 that the government finally declared slavery illegal.

The term can be problematic and in some cases refers to situations devoid of actual 'physical' enslavement, but rather economic and psychological. Others refer to conditions similar to share-cropping, in which for all practical purposes there were no alternatives.

Activists and human rights groups have said that anti-slavery laws are rarely enforced, despite tougher punishments legislated in 2007 and again in 2015 with the creation of special tribunals and lengthy prison sentences. The fact that the government usually talks about 'vestiges' of slavery, however, to some indicates its deliberate denial of reality. Estimates vary, but Global Slavery Index, an organization that tracks slavery worldwide, estimated that as of 2016, upwards of 43,000 Mauritanians were still enslaved. The Mauritanian anti-slavery organisation SOS-Esclaves (‘SOS-Slaves’; www.sosesclaves.com) works with runaway slaves.

Environment

Mauritania is about twice the size of France. About 75%, including Nouakchott, is desert, with huge expanses of flat plains broken by occasional ridges, sand dunes and rocky plateaus, including the Adrar (about 500m high).

The highest peak is Kediet Ijill (915m) near Zouérat. Mauritania has some 700km of shoreline, including the Parc National du Banc d'Arguin, one of the world's major bird-breeding grounds and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The south is mostly flat scrubland.

Major environmental issues are the usual suspects of desertification, overgrazing and pollution. As drought, depleted soil fertility and dusty sandstorms diminish harvests, such as for dates in the Adrar, the rural exodus continues. Overfishing is another concern, with hundreds of tonnes of fish caught every day off the Mauritanian coastline.

Crocodiles in the Desert

Under normal circumstances you wouldn't take a dip in a pond knowing Nile crocodiles are about. For villagers in southern Mauritania near where these isolated and rare pockets of 'desert crocs' exist, however, they believe there's an almost mythical bond of trust with the creatures, whom they consider sacred. The same immunity from attacks seems to apply to domestic animals as well, who reportedly sip from the water unimpeded.

Smaller in size – nearly a third the length of the average Nile crocodile – these crocs they live far from any permanent water source, essentially on the edge of the Sahara. The less it rains, the more they estivate, basically a reptilian version of hibernation. Numbers are difficult to come by, in part because of the area's remoteness, and in part because they possibly move from one wetland to another. Over sandy dunes. That, no doubt would seem like a legitimate full-on desert mirage.