- By Inga Faust
Special Guest Writer for EuroAfricaNews Magazine
Africa, a continent renowned for its kaleidoscope of cultures, natural beauty, and historical significance, boasts a multitude of captivating stories and landscapes waiting to be uncovered. Among these often-overlooked gems lies Mauritania, a country that enchants with its enthralling narratives and breathtaking vistas. In the heart of this expansive continent, Mauritania offers a unique tapestry of experiences, blending excitement and challenges, that beckons to the curious traveller seeking both enlightenment and adventure.
Intriguingly positioned at the crossroads of West Africa, Mauritania stands as an embodiment of diversity, sharing its borders with the Atlantic Ocean, Senegal, Mali, Algeria, and Western Sahara. Nouakchott, the capital, perched along the Atlantic coast, is a bustling metropolis that houses a quarter of the nation’s population, currently standing at 4.8 million and is steadily rising.
Arabic takes the mantle as the official language, reflecting the country’s deep-rooted Islamic heritage that shapes the lives of most of its inhabitants. The cultural tableau is further enriched by various ethnic groups such as the Berbers, Arabs, and Black African communities, all contributing to the nation’s rich history.
Having secured independence from French colonial rule in 1960, Mauritania emerged as a sovereign state. The democratic process continued to flourish, culminating in the election of President Ghazouani in 2019—an internationally recognised event for transparency and fairness. However, amid these achievements lies the stark reality of Mauritania’s economic condition, marked by its designation as one of the world’s poorest nations. The country’s survival hinges on sectors like agriculture, livestock, and mining, mainly focusing on resources like iron ore, gold, and copper.
While Mauritania’s arid landscape might conjure images of vast desolation, it holds within its boundaries the captivating Banc d’Arguin National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a testament to nature’s resilience. Despite being ensconced in the desert, this sanctuary boasts the world’s highest concentration of migratory birds and marine life. This dichotomy echoes in the nation’s educational landscape as well. Although the University of Nouakchott is the sole university, the thirst for knowledge is quenched by various institutes and colleges in the capital.
Delving into Mauritania’s historical tapestry reveals poignant truths; while slavery was officially abolished in 1981, it wasn’t until 2007 that it was criminalised. The echoes of the past resonate in the present, shaping the social fabric and emphasising the nation’s journey towards progress and inclusivity. Speaking of echoes, the Mauritania Railway’s thunderous passage reverberates through the landscape, stretching over 2.5 kilometres as it hauls iron ore—an indispensable lifeline for the country’s economy.
Beyond the tangible aspects of culture and landscape lie the intangible threads that weave the social fabric.
Ubiquitous in many cultures, Tea takes on a unique hue in Mauritania. Unlike the conventional brewing ritual, here tea is prepared not once but thrice—a tradition that reflects the country’s unhurried pace and its people’s warmth.
The allure of Mauritania is undeniable, yet any traveller needs to tread cautiously. Health considerations take centre stage as malaria, especially prevalent in the southern regions, poses a significant risk, exacerbated during the rainy season from July to October. The dry season ushers in the threat of meningitis epidemics, casting a shadow over the otherwise sun-soaked days. These health concerns are often compounded by poor sanitation and limited access to safe drinking water, leading to a prevalence of respiratory infections and diarrheal diseases.
Emerging from the shadows are the unsung challenges that demand attention. The spectre of terrorist activities and kidnappings lurks in the border regions shared with Mali and Algeria. These threats are often attributed to Islamist extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In addition, urban centres, including the capital Nouakchott, are not immune to gang-related crime—ranging from theft to sporadic violent incidents.
The call to venture beyond the cities unveils its hazards—poorly maintained roads, inadequate street lighting, and the haunting risk of landmines along the Western Sahara border. Solo travellers, especially women, might navigate occasional harassment, underscoring the importance of respecting local customs and dressing modestly.
Navigating Mauritania necessitates a deep appreciation for its Islamic heritage. The country’s identity as an Islamic republic infuses its customs, traditions, and laws. The tapestry of norms extends to facets such as alcohol consumption, restricted in line with religious precepts, and public displays of affection, best approached with cultural sensitivity.
In closing, our journey through the enigmatic expanse of Mauritania unravels tales of resilience, culture, and natural wonder. As we bid adieu to this captivating land, we carry memories of its landscapes and a richer understanding of its tapestry’s delicate threads. Our steps echo the pulse of a nation on the move—one that holds its history close while embracing the promise of a diverse and dynamic future.