Racism, Mauritania style



I have just finished reading Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery by Samuel Cotton (who died just a few months ago of brain cancer). Cotton paints a dismal picture of slavery and racism in Mauritania and Sudan. In the book, he pays a visit to Mauritania (in 1995) and writes about his observations firsthand.

Cotton describes the class and race structure of society in Mauritania. The ruling class is known as white Moors, who are descendents of the intermingling of two groups of people: the indigenous Berbers and the Arabs who moved into the territory centuries ago. Historically, the Arabs have always had slaves. Owning other people as property is evidently not a foreign or repulsive concept to them. While this may not be true for every white Moor, they generally look down on black Africans.

This part of Africa has been home to several different racial groups for quite some time. When the colony became independent in 1960, Mauritania was one of nine republics carved out of the area that had been French West Africa. The Senegal River became the border between Mauritania and Senegal. This is an area where the black population was concentrated; those living north of the river became countrymen of the Moors.

The Mauritanian government has officially banned slavery on at least two occasions. Their black slaves had for generations been speaking Arabic or Hassaniya, the local derivation of Arabic. Officially, they are free, and some have been able to live independently. Over the generations, they have lost all vestiges of their black African roots, so that their culture now is the same as their former oppressors. These people are called Haratines or black Moors.

The most visually obvious distinctions made between the white Moors and the black Africans is in the division of labor. Walk into almost any enterprise, and you can see that it is owned and operated by white Moors. Look at anyone doing physical labor and it will always be a black African.

The president of the republic is a white Moor, as are most of the ministers of the various departments. There are some black Africans in these positions, however. Social stratification is built into the society here. People seem complacent about having their places in society.

During the week, I was walking home from work, when a car pulled over to the side of the road. It was our Country Director, who offered me a ride home. When I got into the car, she was just asking the driver, a black, about the racism that he experiences. He agreed that it is very subtle, in that the service he receives in official institutions such as banks is equal to that of the white Moors next to him. But he did say that the racism is there nonetheless.

Last week, when I told Babah and Ismail about the possibility of working at the supermarket, the first thing they wanted to know was whether or not the owners were Mauritanian. I asked why that would matter. They were not very specific, but they did tell me that it was important. His wages, 15,000 UM per month ($50), are comparable to what other workers earn for similar unskilled work.

After Babah's first day of work (8:00 AM to 4:00 PM), he stopped by my house to talk about it. "It's hard," he said. All right, I told him, you are 23 years old and you're just finding out that work is hard. In point of fact, he had some legitimate complaints. First of all, his crew worked their eight hours without any sort of break. Secondly, the management was served a lunchtime meal, eating in front of the staff, while the staff - surrounded as they are all day by food - was not given anything to eat. Babah told me, "The owners are not Mauritanian. A Mauritanian would give his employees food." And then he mixed one of his few English phrases into his French: "Ca, c'est no good."

He has a point there. The owners of the supermarket are Lebanese. There are many Lebanese-owned businesses here in Nouakchott. In talking with one of the other Volunteers, I found out that the reputation that most Lebanese have is that they are very interested in making money, to the point of being exploiting their employees. Then I came to find out that the owners of this store are among the worst offenders. Had I known this earlier, I never would have suggested that Babah work there!

The next morning, I was looking out my kitchen window, preparing oatmeal for breakfast, when I saw Babah walking by on his way to work. I opened the window, called him, and he came up to have some oatmeal, too. Fortunately for him, he was running early so he had some time to eat. Since he didn't have any lunch, I gave him an apple, an orange, a piece of whole-grain bread, and a bottle of water. Of course, he continued to complain about his job. I was starting to see that maybe I was dealing with a 23-year-old teenager.

The next day, I hatched an idea for Babah. I was wondering if he would be interested in working for me. As it is, I am paying 10,000 UM a month to Ami to clean my house and do laundry. An additional 5,000 would match Babah's current salary. If he personally bought my produce at one of the markets that the Mauritanians use, it would save me more than 5,000 UM per month, which would make it financially reasonable for me to hire him. I asked him if he would like to do that. His eyes brightened as he said yes.

I told him that there were two things I needed to happen before he started to work for me. First of all, Ami's work has been excellent. I would not feel comfortable in firing her for no reason, but if there is a possibility that I could find another person who needs her services, then I would at least be sure that she continues to earn the same income.

Secondly, I am going on vacation for three weeks early in April, during which time I do not need anyone to work for me. So when I get back, if Babah is still employed at the supermarket, I would be willing to consider his working for me, as long as I can find another job for Ami. I emphasized the importance of his hanging in there at the supermarket.

Babah said that that sounded fine. He continued all week to stop by for breakfast, and to pick up a sack lunch. Every Friday, the two teams of workers at the market change their hours, which meant that he switched to the shift that works from 4:00 PM to midnight. Instead of coming by for breakfast, he came by before work to say hello - and his sack lunch became a sack dinner.

Saturday was his second day on the night shift. After I ate dinner and finished reading a book, I decided to go back to the PC bureau to write e-mails. On the way home, I stopped at the supermarket just to say hello to Babah. I walked up and down the aisles and couldn't find him. Adel, who gave him the job, saw me and motioned me into an office.

Babah had just left. He was sitting on a counter next to the cash register, when his immediate supervisor told him to get down. He took offense at this and quit. Adel said that he intervened and wanted to give Babah another chance, but Babah refused that.

Babah is calling this action on the part of his supervisor "racist," saying that the black supervisor had it in for him because he is white Moor. While Babah's mother was a white Moor, his father is black. It has been apparent to me in our conversations that he is much more closely associated with his black Bambara heritage than with that of the white Moor society. This claim on his behalf is puzzling and does not seem to deserve being called racist - rather a young employee not wanting to do what his supervisor told him to do.

There are four Chinese restaurants in Nouakchott. A few years ago, a PCV negotiated a special Peace Corps menu at Qin Huong, which is the closest one to the bureau. The menu is not expensive by typical American standards, but it can be costly for our visiting village Volunteers who receive the lowest living allowances because their cost of living is lower than those of us in the cities or regional capitals.

The PC menu made a meal there a bargain for all. Everyone was happy with the arrangement. Then Shelagh, who arranged the discount, closed service, which prompted the owner of the restaurant to cancel the PC menu. There was widespread disappointment among the ranks of the Volunteers. People stopped going to Qin Huong.

Just before the recent weekend, the owner of the restaurant came to the bureau and dropped off copies of the new PC menu. We were being welcomed back. I got a kick out of the e-mail that one of the Nouakchott Volunteers sent us to tell the news:


Even without the Great Leader, Shelagh, we have managed to topple the ruthless owners of Qin Huong Chinese restaurant and reclaim our discounted menu. Although our choices are not as wide as they once were, and some items are, in fact, not truly "half price," the tasty preparation combined with low prices once again put this establishment within reach of the Peace Corps proletariat. Oh glorious and triumphant day! I look forward to breaking bread with you soon.

Comrade V

I joined "Comrade V" and four others for dinner at Qin Huong on Friday night. Not only had our discount been restored, but there was another innovation: tofu! The owner has started making his own tofu! I asked him if he would be willing to sell me some and he said yes. The next day I stopped by and bought a kilo of it. It is excellent: tasty and firm. Now I have the one food item that I have missed the most while here. Life is good!

(P. S. to my omnivore friends: I can understand your not sharing my ecstasy in this discovery.)