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
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”.