Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

Mandatory Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or people, the Mauritanian government or people, or the Peace Corps.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


July 18th 2009 was the date of Mauritania’s most recent round of elections. If you spend 5 minutes doing a google news search about Mauritania you can be better informed than I am about the parties and candidates. Additionally Peace Corps prohibits me from taking a political stance However it was exciting to see the similarities and differences between American and Mauritanian campaigns as well as to be around for a (I hope) transition from a military dictatorship to a peaceful democratic government.

Every weeknight before the elections most of the major candidates held parties in Tidjikja. This meant that they set up big tents and blasted music (including one place directly in front of my house) until late in the night in a manner very similar to the party part of a Mauritanian wedding. Many of my friends would just go to the parties for candidates they did not even support just as a place to hang out for the evening. Also each candidate opened up as many voting offices as they could which again secured places for Mauritanians to drink tea.

The elections were originally scheduled to be held June 6th, but were moved to July 18th to allow more candidates to run legitimate campaigns. This strategy worked as before June 6th only one candidate had a visible campaign or was talked about. This time around before July 18th there are about a dozen candidates and several of them seem to be serious contenders. School closed early this year to make room for the July 6th elections and with the change to July18th I didn’t hear anyone talking about adding more school days.

Last month I spent some time working in rural Senegal, Mauritania’s southern neighbor on the project “one laptop per child.” It was an interesting experience seeing the stark differences between two countries who share a border, several languages and a common colonial legacy.

The divide between the Wolof speaking groups in Senegal and Southern Mauritania and the Arabic/Hassaniya speakers is vast. While everyone in Mauritania is Muslim and most people in Senegal are Muslim as well Mauritania and Senegal are at the frontier of the divide between the Arab world and the African world. The Senegal River is the political boundary between Senegal and Mauritania. African’s (people who speak the languages of Wolof, Soninke and Pulaar) live on both sides of the Senegal River while northern Mauritania, where I live, is home to Arabic speaking people. Both groups are in constant contact with each other with Arabic speaking shopkeepers throughout Senegal and African, artisans, cab drivers, and teachers throughout Mauritania.

The relationship between the two groups is not friendly although as an outsider who has spent some time with both groups I think that both sides have more in common culturally than either group would care to admit. Their commonalities range from cultural similarities, to making similar jokes, to similar styles of eating, drinking and just living their lives. Both groups tend to regard me as an innocent and empathetic outsider so neither group hesitates in telling me about their dislike for the other.

Whenever I told Senegalese people that I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania they looked at me with horror and without fail said to me, “How can you live with the Nar.” Nar is a pejorative word in the Wolof language for Mauritanians. After expressing their horror at my living in Mauritania, then offering to have me live with them in Senegal they would speak to me about the events of 1989. In 1989 this divide between African and Arab culture erupted in a huge outbreak of violence and leaves with it a lingering tension that is rarely talked about in Mauritania (although people are certainly not shy about their contempt for “Africans”) but was brought up without hesitation in Senegal.


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