The complex problem of slavery in Mauritania, a response

This is a guest post by Mauritania (and the broader Sahel) expert and  friend of the blog Erin Pettigrew (PhD Candidate, Stanford University)

A response to John D. Sutter over at CNN.com

I’ve been working in Mauritania on and off for the past eight years and this issue of ‘slavery’ is still one I am struggling to fully understand. I certainly cringe every time I see a young black child working in someone’s home, whether they be Black or Arab, in Mauritania and these relationships of work and pay are rarely clear to me. Likewise, one’s clan and lineage affiliations are sometimes difficult to sort out and this is what people use most to justify the history and current reality of exploitative labor practices. The extreme economic inequalities in Mauritania play a large part in the preservation of these relationships. And the role of government and then outside intervention in all of this? Here, I am very hesitant to comment.
The article itself reminded me a lot of Fabien’s critique of how Africanists tend to deny any sense of coevalness to their objects of study. The overly-dramatic descriptions of a “Mauritania [that] feels stuck in time in ways both quaint and sinister” and an “isolated environment” were, to me, problematic. Mauritania is neither isolated from the world, nor stuck in time. These relationships of labor, race, religion, and gender continue to change and are very much tied to developments in the Middle East and the rest of NW Africa. There are prominent Hratine politicians (take the current Vice-President or a long-time diplomat/journalist whose family has become very wealthy in their region through trade and land sales), academics, and activists, a sign of some kind of social shifting. Yet, I’ve also talked to Mauritanians who have visited these villages inhabited by those of slave origin and the conditions they describe and neglect by the over-arching tribal structures are dismal.

While it is true that notions of race do dominate the political, economic, and cultural landscape here and this article, perhaps more than others recently published in the American media (see recent articles in the Atlanta Constitution and Atlantic Monthly), attempts to address some of the complexity of this history, I still found it lacking some nuance and historical depth. I can’t really expect otherwise, since 8 days in Mauritania is hardly enough time to really engage in deep conversation about the issue. Is it really that “incredible” that the “nuances of a person’s skin color and family history determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved?” Skin color and lineage have been and are powerful markers of identity in West Africa (see Bruce Hall’s recent book on this topic) so it’s not surprising that these would persist as important means of discrimination.

In its attempts to simplify these markers, the article glosses over the fact that Hratine (Black Moors…these terms are actually synonymous) came from (Black) Halpulaar, Soninke, Wolof (who also had their own slave practices, raiding, and castes), but mostly Bambara linguistic groups before they existed as this distinct group with a history of labor and unclear lineage. And it’s very clear that Wolof and Soninke still discriminate strongly against those of slave origin in their own communities. The article also argues that the reason the French abolition of slavery didn’t hold was due to the vastness of the desert but, if one looks at colonial-era documents, it’s very clear that the French did very little to enforce their 1905 law abolishing slavery in West Africa. They feared upsetting their relationship with powerful Bidan (White Moor) leaders if they enforced these laws and, in most cases, they allowed these exploitative relationships and the trade itself to continue. This was not because of the geography of the region since they certainly established new tax and educational systems, but because they were too concerned with the political consequences of disciplining their ‘allies’ in the region.

As a researcher in Mauritania, I must say that I and another researcher here were both deeply troubled by the “hidden” agenda of these reporters. Conducting research in Mauritania is already difficult enough, with government officials very worried about the political nature of any American’s presence, but reporting like this only adds to Mauritanians’ fears about the “real” agenda of Americans roaming around in their country. And the question of what one can do? Here, I’m really at a loss. There are many local organizations working on this issue (SOS, l’IRA, etc.) so the best answer would be to get in touch with them and see what they advocate for action. The reality is that exploitative labor with inadequate pay, however one wants to call it, does exist in Mauritania and most often relies upon this group of Arabophone black Africans called “Hratine”.

The complex problem of slavery in Mauritania

Over winter break I was in Mauritania, a vast country slightly bigger than Egypt but with a population 24 times smaller than Egypt’s. Whenever I told people where I was going they usually paused to ask where Mauritania was. I was a little more disturbed when Mauritanian gendarmes had no idea where Kenya was.

The country of 3.4 million has a serious identity crisis. The ruling elite has Bedouin ancestry and styles itself, and the country, as Arab. About two thirds of the country is black -  divided between Arabized blacks (blacks Moors or Hratines; mostly comprised of *former* slaves) and Africans; in proportions of 40% and 30% respectively.

I can attest to the fact that racism is very much alive in the country.

Another old evil, slavery, is also still refusing to go away in Mauritania. As John D. Sutter reports on CNN.com, about a fifth of Mauritanians live in slavery. I last wrote on the subject myself back in 2007.

In the next post, friend of the blog Erin Pettigrew (PhD Candidate in History, Stanford) responds to the CNN piece. Erin is an expert on the Sahel in general and Mauritania in particular.