Mauritania — History and Culture
Mauritania’s history, in similar fashion to that of many other African countries, is one characterized by conflict. The country is making strides toward a stable democratic society and their culture is a wonderful amalgamation of regional and international influences which are noticeable in many aspects of daily life.
The Berbers were some of the first people to inhabit the northern Saharan region which is now known as Mauritania. In fact, the country’s name comes from the Berber language. They descended on the land from north Africa in the 3rd century and the Arab population followed in the 8th century.
For the next 500 years, the country remained one of the most important trading grounds in the Sub-Saharan region. The Almoravid Empire controlled the area during the 11 and 12th centuries including the trade of slaves, gold and salt, making the dynasty extremely powerful.
The early 19th century saw the arrival of the French who had other interests in West Africa. Mauritania was treated differently than other French colonies, however, as it was not subject to direct rule, but controlled by proxy through Islamic leaders. It is this difference, many argue, that helped to preserve much of the country’s traditional culture and way of life.
The post-WWII world saw a flurry of changes, including a wave of decolonization that swept across the African continent. West African was granted independence, including Mauritania, which received full freedom from France in 1960. Independence did not bring peace, however, as a dispute between Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco came to a head during the Saharan War in 1975, when Mauritania invaded and captured one-third of the Western Saharan area. After several coup d’états, the country returned to a relatively stable democracy in 2007. Years of conflict and political turmoil have left the nation in economically troubling condition.
Mauritania’s culture is a mixture of many influences, both indigenous and external from the ancient Berber people, the Moors and the French, especially visible in both music and cuisine.
Mauritanian music is a tradition carried down by the Moors when musicians formed the lowest rung of society and performed for anyone who paid them. Today, the industry is more refined, but the use of Moor instruments such as the four-stringed lute and the kettle drum remain firmly intact.
In a similar fashion, Mauritanian cuisine can be seen as an amalgamation of several influences. While many dishes and ingredients like dried meats, grilled goat, sheep and couscous clearly highlight Berber and Moorish contributions, there are also more modern interpretations like baked goods and French pastries.