World Bank President Doubles as a Rapping Spaceman

Just in case you haven not seen this yet:


H/T Erin.

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

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, 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.

Projects Without Development

Guest Post by Erin Pettigrew (PhD Candidate, Stanford University)

       Naked Palm Trees and Other Failed Development Projects in Senegal

La Pointe des Almadies is Dakar’s wealthiest neighborhood and it teems with expat NGO workers and the palaces of government officials. Recently, the construction of an immense statue, “The African Renaissance Monument”, a 27 million dollar project commissioned by Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, has transformed the neighborhood’s landscape. The imposing bronze figure of a muscled man, one arm protectively wrapped around a woman, the other triumphantly holding up his infant child, sits atop a hill overlooking the city.

Source: Wikipedia

The statue and Wade’s current projects for the construction of the “Seven Wonders of Dakar” (a section of the capital which will include a  new National Theater, Museum of Black Civilization, National Library; the School of Fine Arts and the School of Architecture and Music Palace) are seen as wastes of government money spent to satiate the President’s desire for a legacy rivaling Senghor or even the grand public projects of France under past presidents Chirac and Mitterand.  Growing discontent with Wade’s attempts to stay in power past the current two-term limit and with what is perceived to be his inability to ensure reliable infrastructure to his country’s population has culminated at times with criticism of “The African Renaissance Monument”.

Most of Dakar’s neighborhoods experience daily power outages and terrible traffic due to poorly maintained and inadequate roads. However, Wade has somehow scraped together enough money to build bronze statues and to build a second national theater to replace the centrally-located and historical Théâtre Daniel Sorano in downtown Dakar.

I am not an expert in development. I am a historian whose interest in West Africa began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in neighboring Mauritania but I have found myself progressively less optimistic about prospects for change in the daily lives of most West Africans I know. On a recent research trip to the northern Senegalese city of Saint-Louis, I was struck with how much more run-down the city seemed to me than it had my first time there in 2003. While Saint-Louis can be picturesque from afar, with its 350 year-old colonial facades built on its central island, the reality is that its infrastructure is disintegrating.

A government building in Saint-Louis (picture by Erin)

Despite the presence of NGOs (visible by the many white SUVs and walled compounds marked by their painted slogans of “Espoir” and “Aide”), it’s hard to see signs of successful projects.  As I walked through the city, I couldn’t help but notice numerous failed plans. I passed dead trees protected by reed fencing where someone had thought plantings along the streets of a popular neighborhood would be a good idea. Talibés (students, or little boys sent out to beg for money and food by some unscrupulous marabouts) are an ever-present part of Saint-Louis streets despite heavy investment by NGOs to provide the boys with reliable food and housing. The shores of the city are lined with old tires, plastic bags, and fish remains.

As I looked in at a dark closet where thousands of colonial documents sit waiting to be organized and made accessible to the public, the regional archivist also told me that plans to build a much needed space to securely house the country’s archives had been shelved years ago in favor of the construction of the Piscine Olympique, Dakar’s largest swimming pool.

Riding in a crowded bush taxi and hitting the crawl of traffic on the way back to Dakar, I couldn’t help but wonder what prevents these initial investments in tree plantings, child welfare protection and road construction from being maintained. From this perspective, much of the failure of such development projects seems to be explained by a lack of investment in the maintenance of current projects.  Perhaps this can be explained by the framework of funding and the reluctance on the part of donors to provide for anything other than new projects. (After all, it’s much more exciting to say that Dakar will benefit from a new, state-of-the-art performance space than the rehabilitation of its old theater space.) Or maybe funding agencies and donors find it difficult to collaborate on projects such that one agency might undertake an initial trash clean-up while another would ensure that a second clean-up is planned a month later.

Possibly there is also a lack of coordination between funding agencies and local governments who, once the preliminary heavy investment has been made by development agencies, could then continue the programs with less funding but with longer term results. Projects initiated by African governments also need to consist of more than an initial flood of money but should also include funding to be set aside for the continued and regular maintenance of such projects so that they remain relevant and useful.

Dakar (picture by Erin)

To emphasize this point and to return to my original starting point of La Pointe des Almadies, one only need to look at the pathetically barren palm tree trunks lining Dakar’s prettiest drive from downtown to the “Renaissance” statue that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.  Abdoulaye Wade requested the planting of hundreds of palm trees along this drive to welcome delegates of the Organization of the Islamic Conference who met in Dakar in 2008. Now, three years later, the majority of these tress are simply reminders of another failed project. Inadequately or never maintained, the trunks stick out of the ground, their tops bare and exposed, they stand isolated and quivering no longer serving a purpose.

I’m sure they looked beautiful in the first weeks they were planted but have become symbols of the emptiness of similar endeavors. I know that there are successfully sustained projects out there but it’s difficult not to feel disheartened by the many visibly failing projects aimed to satisfy a short-term goal or donor stipulations rather than the actual needs of a struggling population.

Erin Pettigrew is currently conducting dissertation research in Senegal and Mauritania.