Customs and Cuisine of Mauritania
By Vinola V. Munyon
What’s in a Name?
For the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, its name is a homage to the dominant religion of the country (Islam), its location (Latin, Mauretania = West of North Africa/Magreb), and its people (the Maures). Located on the Atlantic coast of Africa, to the Northwest, Mauritania is the eleventh largest sovereign state in the continent. Independent from France since 1960, Mauritania is now considered the bridge between the Arab Magreb region and the Sub Saharan region of West Africa.
The dominant ethnic group among the Mauritanians are the Maures (or Moors), constituting almost three-fourths of the population. Within the Maures, about one-third self-identify as Bidan or White Maures of Arabic and Berber descent, while the rest identify as Ḥarāṭīn or Black Maures of Sudanic African origins. Tukulor, Fulani, Soninke and Wolof are the other major ethnic groups. The inhabitants of the northern regions of Mauritania, which is predominantly within the Sahara Desert, are as the climate and biome might dictate, followers of a nomadic lifestyle. This region is arid, the climate is hot, the vegetation is sparse, and sandstorms are frequent. Consequently, populations here are restricted to oases and vast swathes remain uninhabited, the so-called “Empty Quarter.” The inhabitants of the southern region which is Sahelian steppe land, follow a more settled lifestyle, engaging in farming and livestock-raising aided by large-scale irrigation projects along the Senegal River. The mining of ores has further contributed to development of urban centers with estimates of about 53.7 percent of the population now being urban dwellers.
Mauritania has four national languages, a product of its colonial legacy and an attempt to provide representation for the different ethnic groups. Arabic is the official language, however, it is more accurate to call it Hassaniya, as it is a Mauritanian dialect that utilizes a large number of Berber words and is distinct from the Arabic that is used in other parts of the World. Other languages spoken are Pulani (along the Atlantic coast and Sahel regions), Soninke, Wolof, and French.
The percentage of Mauritanians who do not practice Islam (Sunni) as their religion is such an insignificant number that the CIA World Fact Book records 100 percent of the population as Muslims. There is considerable pride associated with this identity, that of being the most Islamic society in the continent. It is the tie that binds the different ethnic groups (which have had considerable strife in the past) establishing a common identity. Some sources estimate that about 1 percent of Mauritanians are Christians, however, they are also likely to be transplants to the country rather than native inhabitants.
The Family Unit
The multigenerational extended family/clan/tribe continues to be the traditional family unit in Mauritania. The family unit is patriarchal, with a male head of household, his son(s), daughters-in-law, and grandchildren occupying a dwelling. Daughters become members of the family they marry into and move in with the in-laws. The use of clan names rather than family names was the norm (although this is changing). As is with most traditional Islamic cultures, polygamy is practiced in Mauritania however, polyandry is not. Children are cared for by the extended family and the style of child-rearing is very attachment-oriented. Historically, a rigid caste system that dictated what occupation an individual was born into, shaped the social structure. Rapid urbanization has led to changes in this social stratification. Castes and lineage are more fluid, and division of labor is no longer a function of one’s caste.
Similarly, the role of women in this patriarchal society has evolved from being exclusively homemakers who could occasionally lend a hand tending to the fields to being a part of the workforce. Since the 80s, more Mauritanian women work in professions formerly forbidden to them. Education is based on three philosophies: 1. indigenous education that focuses on learning the values that Mauritanians deem necessary to be good members of the community, 2. Islamic/Quranic education that focuses on learning religious tenets that govern good living, and 3. Western education. Education of the girl child was predominantly carried out by the mother (indigenous education) and the skills taught were those that would enable her to tend to home and hearth and that which would make her “a good wife and mother.” Formal education was gained through attending the Quranic schools that were run by marabouts but even then, their instruction was restricted to studying the Quran and only in gaining minimal literacy skills. Formal education began at the age of eight and lasted, on average, for 2 years for girls and 7 years for boys. Consequently, females tend to have lower rates of literacy and employment.
Marriages are arranged and sometimes forcefully so, for girls as young as eight or ten. A father’s duty to his daughters is seen as being fulfilled when he procures a match for them. Unmarried women are viewed as not fulfilling the roles their gender destined them for (wife and mother) and can be socially ostracized. A father’s responsibility to get his daughters married becomes more pressing when viewed using those lenses. In a culture where full-bodied, overweight women are celebrated as the beauty ideal, preparing daughters to be viewed as desirable can, in some ethnic groups, involve the practice of leblouh, a form of forceful feeding. The force used in this instance, being less physical and more psychological. Families set aside substantially greater quantities of calorie-dense food for the daughters and cajole them into eating as much of it as possible. Some families send the girls to “camps”, for a fee, where a matron oversees the “fattening” of the girls. In these cases, physical force and corporal punishments are not uncommon means used to induce overeating. To place this in perspective, in camps such as these, the girls are force-fed upwards of 16,000 calories per day. With the exposure to Western media, there has been a decline, albeit a rather small one, in this particular beauty ideal.
The Food of Mauritania
Eating is not just a way to gain sustenance but a social activity. Food is eaten “family style” from a large serving bowl known as a “calabash.” Utensils are eschewed (rarely used only in urban areas when consuming “western” food) in favor of the right hand. The left hand is reserved for sanitary purposes and is not to be used to serve food, feed or eat.
The cuisine of Mauritania is not very expansive, partly as a function of its geography, resources and the lifestyle of the inhabitants. With a large proportion of its land area being arid and people being nomadic, the cuisine in the north especially, has been adapted to dishes that “travel well” and do not rely on lots of fresh ingredients.
Couscous, rice, millet, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are staple starches. With its long coastline and plentiful fishing yields, fish is the main source of protein among the inhabitants along the coast. Dried fish appears to be preferred, possibly to prevent spoilage in the high temperatures that the region experiences. Among the nomadic tribes of the north, lamb and camel meat are the main sources of protein. Milk from camels is the primary source of dairy. Fruits and vegetables are a part of the diet in the South where agriculture is made possible. Among the Sudanic Maures, lunch is the main meal of the day while among the Arab-Berber Maures, dinner is the main meal of the day.
Chubbagin is a Senegalese dish that is popular in the Southern part of Mauritania. It is a dish made of meat/fish, eggplant, carrots, sweet potato, and hibiscus leaves and served over couscous. Yassa, a dish made of rice and onion sauce is another popular dish. Dinner is typically couscous with meat.
Plentiful in availability and a good source of nutrition, dates are eaten as snacks and dessert. Much as in other parts of North Africa, in Mauritania, minty sweet tea is consumed throughout the day. As in Niger, a similar ritual of drinking progressively sweeter and weaker tea is followed in Mauritania as well.
The Mauritanian Way of Life
As practicing Muslims, the teachings of Islam inform some of the day-to-day habits of Mauritanians, dietary and otherwise, from consuming halal meat to not consuming alcohol. A peaceful group of people, they are welcoming but restrained. It is customary to salute (greet, “Salaam alaykum”) others in passing, however, men do not shake the hands of women. On saluting one would usually respond with “Ca va.” For visitors, while covering one’s head is not required, it is considered the polite thing to do.
In the Southern regions, a trip to the market is made everyday to procure the groceries for the day as refrigeration is scarce. Despite living by the coast, the Mauritanians in the South consider themselves people of the land/desert and see the ocean merely as a source of fish and not as a source of recreation. Unlike some neighboring African countries, the locals do not appear to have taken to swimming or surfing.
Illness is believed to be simply a product of one’s fate or a result of breaking taboos or due to bad magic. Islamic healers are the common recourse to treat illnesses and they practice traditional and Western medicine. The public health care system that was set up failed quickly and has been replaced by some private practices that are accessible to those with the means to do so.
Mauritania has the dubious distinction of being the last country to abolish slavery, having done so only in 1981. Slavery would be declared illegal, even later, only in 2007. Observers contend that slavery still exists, with about 2 percent of the population still living in what would be considered enslavement conditions. A myriad of complex factors makes this an unfortunate reality: poverty, illiteracy, lack of employment opportunity, and the belief in social hierarchy, being but a few. These same factors are also why Mauritanian children lack access to education, a statistic that our grantee for this month, Mindleaps is working to improve.
Annie Goldberg, 2011. “Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia” Ken Albala ,(Ed) Greenwood- (An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC), Santa Barbara, California U.S.A, Volume I, p.115-118.
View Recipes from Mauritania