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A woman tends a plot rented from the Women's Cooperative in Mbagne.
Courtesy UNICEF (Maggie Murray-Lee)

The massive influx of nomads into towns and cities during the 1970s and 1980s created a severe housing shortage in southern Mauritania. Kébés quickly sprang up around Nouakchott and other cities and towns and along major roadways. These kébés continued to grow as drought emptied the countryside of most of its inhabitants. By the late 1980s, according to government estimates, roughly one-half of Nouakchott's total population lived in the shantytowns.

Many of these nomads continued to live in tents, each tent normally housing five or six people. Others constructed crude dwellings of wood and scrap metal. In the south, refugees more commonly built temporary houses of sun-dried brick. In virtually all locales, kébé dwellers and permanent city residents alike had little or no access to such basic urban amenities as drinkable water or sanitary waste disposal. To emphasize that it considered the kébés temporary, the government prohibited construction of permanent housing in shantytowns, hoping to induce refugees to return to their rural homelands. Expenditures on rural and urban water supplies were set at more than 14 percent of projected public investment for the years 1985 through 1988, or US$10.4 million, an increase of almost 11 percent over the amount budgeted from 1980 through 1984.

Confronted with an urgent need for low-cost housing, the government created the Real Estate Construction and Management Corporation (Société de Construction et de Gestion Immobilière) in 1974. Relatively few housing units were built, however, and those proved too expensive for the intended occupants because of cost overruns and poor financial management. From 1977 to 1982, an experimental self-help housing scheme in the Sahara District of Rosso Region led to the construction of more than 500 housing units for 4,500 people. Employing local labor and materials and assisted by outside expertise and capital, the project succeeded until external financing and local initiative faltered. Additional international assistance was promised in 1985 when Kuwait and Saudi Arabia agreed to finance more than 1,000 lowcost dwellings.

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The best coverage of contemporary Mauritanian society is found in Introduction à la Mauritanie, published by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. The essays in this volume cover major aspects of Mauritanian society; particularly relevant is the essay by Francis de Chassey, "L'evolution des structures sociales en Mauritanie de la colonisation à nos Jours." Two other sources on social structure are Charles C. Stewart's "Political Authority and Social Stratification in Mauritania," which traces the continuity in social classes and political authority from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, and Amadou Diallo's "Réflexions sur la question nationale en Mauritanie." Diallo covers much of the same ground as Stewart, but in addition he looks at the representation of different ethnic groups in the professions and state offices.

Richard V. Weekes's Muslim Peoples contains basic ethnographic information on Mauritania's major peoples. Otherwise, information on family structure and values and on Mauritanian Islam is generally lacking in current literature, although Barbara Abeille's study of women provides information on the role of women and the family. Sources on contemporary Mauritanian slavery are Roger Sawyer's Slavery in the Twentieth Century. John Mercer's "Slavery in Mauritania Today," and the 1984 report of the United Nations Economic and Social Council's Commission on Human Rights, Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices. These studies detail the conditions of slaves in mid-twentieth-century Mauritania and also provide prima facie evidence that the Mauritanian government has acknowledged the existence of slavery and attempted to ameliorate if not to abolish it.

A number of sources deal with the current cycle of drought affecting West Africa. Michael H. Glantz, in "Drought in Africa," discusses the fundamental factors behind recurrent African droughts. William S. Ellis and Steve McCurry assess the impact of the drought upon humans, animals, and land in the mid-1980s in text and photographs in "Africa's Sahel--The Stricken Land." (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of June 1988

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