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‘Life in Nouakchott is not true liberty, not at all’: living the legacies of slavery in Nouakchott, Mauritania

In Nouakchott, former slaves live invisible lives in ‘niche settlements’ between the villas of the rich and powerful. Their continued intimacy with their former masters makes their experiences of ‘freedom’ unique.

Photo by author, all rights reserved.

Some years ago, the mayor of Tevragh Zeina (TZ), the largest and most prosperous neighborhood in Mauritania’s capital city Nouakchott, proudly announced that “only rich people live here”. Visitors are likely to have the same first impression, given the prominence of foreign embassies, international hotels and luxury villas. Yet there is an underside to its beauty and wealth. Niched into vacant lots and partially-constructed houses are tiny settlements of wooden shacks and hangars – cement-based ‘tent equivalents’ with wooden frames and cloth roofs. Alongside supermarkets, upscale-restaurants and imported car dealers you see ‘hole-in-the-wall’ boutiques selling car parts, clothes, tea and anything else you might need. Often partially hidden in the back by a threadbare curtain are mattresses, cooking utensils and a spare boubou (man’s robe) or two.

Who actually lives here, hidden in plain sight? Most are haratinefreed slaves and their descendants. French colonialism repeatedly and ineffectually made slavery illegal. The newly-independent Islamic Republic of Mauritania signed the UN Declaration of Human Rights decrying slavery in 1961. But it was only in 1980-81 that the nation officially abolished the institution, and the struggle continues to remove its ‘vestiges’ (the government’s term). Yet haratine are by definition exactly that: their identity is tied by tradition to their former masters (bidan – literally ‘whites’ in Arabic, the upper-class nobility). The rhetoric of current politics notwithstanding, they live in the uncomfortable ambivalence of slavery’s legacy.

What is life like for those who live the legacies of Mauritanian slavery in its capital city?

What does that mean for those who live the legacies of Mauritanian slavery in its capital city? While Nouakchott is a creation of independent Mauritania, various forms of interdependency between masters and slaves (or ‘clients’) have long and deep historical foundations in the region. Below, we meet five real people (with ‘unreal’ names), their families and neighbours. Each story is different, but they collectively show us how and why coming to grips with ‘slavery’s vestiges’ is not a simple task.

Haratine histories

At TZ’s central intersection and main gas station, Fatma and her daughters sell couscous every day. She is from Brackna Region, where her family herded animals in the dry season and harvested grain in the wet season. She moved to Nouakchott in the 1970s to work as a domestic servant. She left her first job after three months of not being paid. She was treated better in her second job, and in her third she had a room she shared with her new husband. Fatma was living in TZ, ‘the best neighbourhood’ for opportunities, and her children (who had been in the village) came to live with her. Then her husband died. She moved into a ‘niche-settlement’ of the kind described above. A fellow hartaniyya (sing. female; hratani sing. male) apprenticed her in preparing couscous; she eventually set up her own business. Her memory of Mauritania’s first coup d’état of 1978 is framed in terms of her daily couscous routine and being stopped by soldiers. But the next day, everything was ‘normal’: “the road was open and I went to the market. I bought flour and finished preparing [couscous] at around 2 pm. Then I left to sell [it]”. Today the only difference is that her daughters do the work.

Elsewhere in TZ, Ahmed washes cars outside a medium-sized business building. He also makes tea and ‘fetches’ for its occupants: he is a planton. He is 29, the son of a truck driver from the Senegal River delta in Trarza Region. Most people there cultivate, raise livestock and fish, but Ahmed says his father only drove trucks. Ahmed left school when young to apprentice with his father, but never acquired his license. Instead, he became a fisherman in Nouakchott’s port, where he was the only hratani among black African Wolofs (an ethnic group also found in Senegal and Gambia). He went home after three years, then returned to Nouakchott with his whole family, becoming a guardian in a building near his brother. It was then that he became planton and car-washer in TZ. The location is “good” and he now supports a wife.

Ahmedou is located on the outskirts of TZ where the rent on his boutique is cheap. He left his home in Gorgol Region to join his uncle, a domestic worker in Nouakchott, at the age of 10. Together, they moved to Mauritania’s second largest city, Nouadhibou, where his uncle dried fish and Ahmadou worked first as a domestic and then as a launderer. He returned home after his father developed a serious illness. When his father later died, Ahmedou decided to go back to Nouakchott to open a laundry in an ‘out-of-the-way-room’. His brother provided the 10,000UM (about $32) to buy two tables and an iron. “I started with one, two boubous to wash and iron”, he explained, but over time the business grew. By 2006, he was able to rent his present location and employ his brothers. He lives with his wife and children in a curtained-off space in the back of the shop.

Said and Amina, like Ahmadou, come from Gorgol Region. But unlike the launderer, Said worked in the rural sector from 1974 to 2009 – first as a planton in a development project, then as ‘mayor’ of a small farming community, and finally as a local butcher. He only came to Nouakchott because Amina was pregnant and wanted to be near her sister. Her brother-in-law is official guardian of an unfinished villa; he supplements his meager wage with construction work. Both couples live in hangars they built in the courtyard. During his brother-in-law’s frequent absences, Said is de facto guardian. Amina, now mother of a toddler, hand-sews melhafas (women’s veils) and sells fresh fish that her husband buys at the port where Ahmadou used to work. They assume one day the villa will be finished and they will have to move. But Amina’s sister is optimistic: “there is always work here. As soon as one house is finished, another begins”.

Life in Nouakchott

Fatma, Ahmed, Ahmadou, Said and Amina: their stories are personal but collectively they are a mosaic of Mauritania’s post-colonial history. Since the disastrous Sahelian drought of the early 1970s, the southern regions of Trarza, Brackna and Gorgol – where limited cattle herding and grain cultivation is possible – have been subject to recurring food crises. Persistent poverty and hunger are strong motivations for migration. But in what ways has shared haratine status shaped their lives differently from others who followed similar migratory paths?

There are a number of possible answers, none definitive. It seems that guardians living in and among TZ’s villas are almost exclusively haratine. A number of people, including Amina’s sister, informed me that it was because bidan proprietors trusted them – a reflection of their traditional close relationships in rural households. Haratine predominance in businesses like couscous preparation and laundering similarly derives from a certain intimacy with the bidan household wherein traditionally slaves and freed-slaves performed domestic duties like wet-nursing babies, catering to masters’ and mistresses’ personal needs, and cooking and cleaning. To a large extent, haratine living in Nouakchott marks a contemporary, urban reinvention of historic nomadic, rural and village/oasis experiences.

Then there is the question of ‘behaviour’, interactions reflecting mutually-understood patterns of deference and patronage. Interviews revealed that many haratine accepted ‘invisibility’ in return for contemporary expressions of traditional bidan noblesse oblige. Some former masters view assisting their haratine neighbours as a religious responsibility. Haratine who choose to live in niche settlements, in spite of the precariousness that Said and Amina’s situation reflects, do so in part because they count on a sense of obligation among TZ’s wealthy, from whom they often receive water and access to electricity.

Being both hratani and in the city embodies contradictions.

Being both hratani and in the city embodies contradictions. Few want to understand their Nouakchott lives as expressions – let alone ‘vestiges’ – of ‘the slave condition’. Fatma’s affirmation that “even today, we are always together, marabouts (religious bidan) and haratine”, is in this sense unusual. She spoke openly of slaves and masters, yet even she cast memories of that past in the language of equality. She referred to her family as having “shared” grain they harvested with masters, when in all likelihood they were obliged to do so. Accordingly, “Our marabouts are generous and so are we…people who are generous with each other have no problems”.

Ahmadou and Said dealt with memory differently. Ahmadou’s clan is Berber, bidan but not marabout. He avoids speaking of masters and haratine, preferring socio-economic terms: “we have no relations with the chiefs and powerful people [of our clan]…we know only the poor”. Said substitutes ethnicity for status. When asked if he had been mayor of an adabaye – well-known as a haratine cultivating-community usually belonging to marabouts – he replied “No. We are Arabs”. His rejection was not to the idea of being hratani but to being associated with marabouts who had been dominated by Arab warriors in pre-colonial times. It is worth noting that this proclaimed Arab lineage would also distance him from Ahmadou’s traditionally inferior Berber origins. Said’s perception of himself, meanwhile, reveals the significant ways in which being of ‘warrior’ origin cross-cuts – and trumps – the class-based alliance one might expect to emerge among urban haratine.

Haratine identity in Nouakchott remains tied to negotiations between gender, class, region and clan. This ongoing struggle is the critical factor in how individuals understand ‘freedom’. Fatma celebrates freedom through her hartaniyya status. “All of the slaves in our village were given their papers [of manumission]”, she says: “[that is] the true liberty, not like that of Nouakchott, not at all. Not like someone has left their master and disappeared [into the city]. I am speaking of the true freedom”. Another harataniyya we spoke with does the same by rejecting it: “I am not the hratani of anyone, no one owns me, I am free”. Life in Nouakchott is her ‘true freedom’, irrespective of its challenges and defeats.

Research for this piece was carried out in the framework of the ERC GRANT 313737 - Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond: a Historical Anthropology (www.shadowsofslavery.org).

About the author

E. Ann McDougall received her PhD from the University of Birmingham in 1980 and has been at the University of Alberta since 1986. Her research explores Islam, slavery, and identity in the Saharan societies of Mauritania and southern Morocco.


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