Mauritania is a beautiful and remote country on the northern Atlantic coastline of Africa. Cultural influences, from nomadic tribes to French colonial influence, make it a fascinating place to experience a cross-section of African cultures, all with an Islamic flavor. Historical treasures include an ancient oasis, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the seventh holiest city in Islam. Wind swept plains of the Sahara, lush green fields along the Senegal River, and millions of migrating birds nesting along the coast exemplify Mauritania's natural beauty. Unspoiled natural beauty makes the easiest and fastest way to experience this mysterious African nation is through a cruise.
Tribes & Nomads
Originally occupied by tribal Africans, what is now Mauritania was conquered by nomadic Berber tribes beginning in the third century A.D. The original tribal Africans were displaced to the south or enslaved. After the Berbers established their hold on the area, it was again conquered, this time by Arab Islamic warrior monks beginning in the eleventh century A.D. They increased the spread of Islam in this area and eventually throughout the surrounding areas. Throughout the Middle Ages, Islam spread from the area throughout Northern Africa and into southern Spain in a movement called Almoravid.
For five hundred years, the Arabs and Berbers continued to battle for dominance of this section of Africa. Although the Arabs eventually triumphed militarily in 1674, the Berbers continued to have cultural influence as community leaders and storytellers. European interest in the area also began to grow in the 15th century.
Colonial Era and Independence
The coastal area of Mauritania was controlled by France by 1817, while France controlled over the whole territory by 1904 with a protectorate. Shortly before Mauritania gained its independence from France on November 28, 1960, the capital was moved north to the coastal city of Nouakchott. This once again gave the Arab culture and language precedence in the new government, even as the original African residents were again moving north of the Senegal in Mauritania.
Following independence, Mauritania has been ruled by several different governments. The first leader, President Daddah, was replaced by a military government following a 1978 coup. The first multi-party elections were held following the approval of a new constitution in 1992. A military coup in 2005 led to the first free elections in Mauritania's history in 2007. Unfortunately, the elected president, President Abdallahi, was deposed in yet another bloodless military coup in 2008. He has been under house arrest ever since while a military council rules the country.
Three Influences, One Culture
The culture of Mauritania is based on the cultures of the original African tribal inhabitants, the Berber nomads, and the Arab invaders. The northern part of the country is primarily occupied by the Berber & Arab cultures, which share similarities in nomadic history, but differ in skin tone. Twenty five percent of the country's residents still pursue a nomadic lifestyle, which can be experienced with a meal in the desert as a trip from a cruise ship. However, for those former nomads who have moved into Western-style buildings, the nomadic culture is still seen through the use of colorful pillows, mats, and carpets without much furniture in the house. The original African tribes live mostly in the south, along the Senegal River valley, where they pursue farming as an occupation.
However, all three groups are tied together through their adherence to Sunni Islam. Rites of Islam, including the daily prayers, sacrifice of animals, and the observance of the Ramadan fast, are widely practiced, sometimes alongside older animistic religious traditions. Because of the almost universal adherence to Islam, the Mauritanian flag uses the crescent, star, and green color, all of which represent Islam. Due to the dominance of Islam, extremely modest dress is expected for all women.
Map of Mauritania
Mauritania, with an area about three times the size of New Mexico, is located in Northwestern Africa, along the Atlantic Coast. The Atlantic coastline features 500 miles of sandy beaches, a great feature for any small ship cruise. Inland from the coast, the terrain is dominated by the mysterious windswept plains of the Sahara Desert. To the south, the Senegal River and its tributaries allow for green plains along the border with Senegal.
One of the least industrialized nations in the world, Mauritania faces few industrial threats to its environment. However, the methods used for farming have led to arable land turning into desert at an ever-increasing rate. Mauritania boasts one of the world's best fishing grounds off the coast. It provides food and a livelihood for many traditional fishermen. Overfishing, however, by foreign fishing boats threatens the ecosystem here due to overfishing.
The World Wildlife Fund has also been working in concert with the Mauritanian government to protect animals & habitat in Mauritania. They were instrumental in helping the government to designate the coastal Banc d'Arguin National Park. This park protects one of Africa's most productive ecosystems, which includes sanctuary for migrating birds, protection spawning fish, and a monk seal reserve. The World Wildlife Fund is also helping to protect the African Elephant, which ranges through Mauritania. Due to their efforts it is now under lower threat due to hunting, but still faces challenges due to loss of sustainable habitat.
Coastal Wildlife and Southern Animals
Along the coast, especially in the Banc d'Arguin National Park, Mauritania boasts a wide variety of wildlife. Two hundred fifty-nine species of migrating birds take to the skies annually and come to rest along the Mauritanian coast as they fly from Africa to Europe. The waters teem with fish, dolphins, sharks, and stingrays. Traditional fishermen fish alongside dolphins in an eco-friendly manner.
The southern region along the Senegal River also supports a variety of wildlife. The Guinea Baboon, the smallest of baboons, ranges throughout this area. The small, nocturnal four-toed hedgehog has the northern edge of its habitat in Mauritania.
Eating and Food: Mauritania Cuisine
Food occupies an important place in Mauritanian culture. Eating is usually done communally, eating from a common dish with the right hand (never the left!). Interestingly, the culture finds it inappropriate to eat in the presence of one's in-laws. Common dishes are made from meat, millet, rice, fish, sweet potatoes, and potatoes. Eating is followed by drinking cold water, sour milk, juice from the hibiscus flower, or green tea with sugar and mint. French bread is still used as a breakfast food, and oil and sugar are common ingredients in cooking.
The weather in Mauritania is a hot and dry climate, consistent with its Saharan location. There is a rainy season, lasting from July to September, which is accompanied by higher temperatures. However, from October to March, the climate can be quite pleasant, with average temperatures ranging between 65 and 75, making it an excellent time to experience an expedition cruise.
General Aziz, who deposed the democratically elected president in 2008, is currently the chief of state. He is assisted by Prime Minister Laghdaf, and a council of ministers. The Senate and National Assembly also have governing responsibilities in Mauritania. The country is also divided into 13 regions, each of which have a limited power of government for local affairs.