Mauritania Table of Contents
People on the street in Nouakchott
Courtesy Larry Barrie
In 1987 six ethnic groups inhabited Mauritania: one of primarily Arab-Berber (Maure) descent and the others of black African descent. In 1978 the government estimated that 70 percent of the population was of Arab or Berber descent and 30 percent of black African descent. Blacks, however, rejected the government's figures, claiming their number was much higher. In any case, the lack of reliable demographic data and a long tradition of interracial marriage had blurred ethnic boundaries and made attempts at ethnic identification imprecise.
The Arab-Berber population encompassed peoples of North African origins, most of whom were nomadic or seminomadic and who were unified primarily through the use of various dialects of Hassaniya Arabic. Hassaniya is derived from the beduin Arabic spoken by the Bani Hassan tribe, who extended their authority over most of the Mauritanian Sahara between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries (see Arab Invasions , ch. 1). Hassaniya is not closely related to other North African variants of Arabic, probably because the Arab invaders of this southwestern portion of the Sahara remained relatively isolated from the great Berber tribes of the northern Sahara. The primary differences among the numerous dialects of Hassaniya are phonetic.
The remainder of the population in 1987 comprised several groups of varied African ancestry. Most were sedentary agriculturists who spoke African languages. Family and kinship groups were the predominant social units. As elsewhere in Africa, kinship groups were preserved by interaction and social support, shared religious observances, and rituals celebrating stages of the life cycle of individuals. The sharing of rituals reinforced group solidarity and the values the kinship system embodied.
Traditionally, one of the most common kinship groups throughout Mauritania was the lineage, or descent group. Lineage organization is based on the belief that relationships traced through males differ substantially from those traced through females. The patrilineage, which traces descent through male forebears to a male ancestor, is the most common unit of social organization in Africa; matrilineages trace descent through female forebears to one female ancestor. Both types of lineages include men and women, sometimes five or six generations removed from the founding ancestor, but the linking relatives are of one gender.
Lineages generally share responsibility for socializing the young and maintaining conformity to social norms. Lineage elders often meet to settle disputes, prescribe or enforce rules of etiquette and marriage, discuss lineage concerns, and preserve the group itself.
Lineage ties emphasize the unity of living and deceased relatives by descent through ritual observances and ceremonies. At times, however, lineages break apart, either because of interpersonal rivalries or because they become too large to maintain close ties. When such fission occurs, related lineages usually maintain some ties and celebrate some occasions together. If their alliance is important enough to be preserved for several generations, the resulting confederation of lineages, usually termed a clan, often includes thousands of individuals and may become a powerful interest group in the context of a nation. In Mauritania, many aspects of lineage behavior and expectation are important, providing lineage members with a sense of history and social responsibility and defining the role of the individual in society.
Data as of June 1988