I have just
finished reading Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary
African Slavery by Samuel Cotton (who died just a few months
ago of brain cancer). Cotton paints a dismal picture of slavery
and racism in Mauritania and Sudan. In the book, he pays a visit
to Mauritania (in 1995) and writes about his observations firsthand.
describes the class and race structure of society in Mauritania.
The ruling class is known as white Moors, who are descendents
of the intermingling of two groups of people: the indigenous
Berbers and the Arabs who moved into the territory centuries
ago. Historically, the Arabs have always had slaves. Owning
other people as property is evidently not a foreign or repulsive
concept to them. While this may not be true for every white
Moor, they generally look down on black Africans.
of Africa has been home to several different racial groups for
quite some time. When the colony became independent in 1960,
Mauritania was one of nine republics carved out of the area
that had been French West Africa. The Senegal River became the
border between Mauritania and Senegal. This is an area where
the black population was concentrated; those living north of
the river became countrymen of the Moors.
government has officially banned slavery on at least two occasions.
Their black slaves had for generations been speaking Arabic
or Hassaniya, the local derivation of Arabic. Officially, they
are free, and some have been able to live independently. Over
the generations, they have lost all vestiges of their black
African roots, so that their culture now is the same as their
former oppressors. These people are called Haratines or black
visually obvious distinctions made between the white Moors and
the black Africans is in the division of labor. Walk into almost
any enterprise, and you can see that it is owned and operated
by white Moors. Look at anyone doing physical labor and it will
always be a black African.
of the republic is a white Moor, as are most of the ministers
of the various departments. There are some black Africans in
these positions, however. Social stratification is built into
the society here. People seem complacent about having their
places in society.
the week, I was walking home from work, when a car pulled over
to the side of the road. It was our Country Director, who offered
me a ride home. When I got into the car, she was just asking
the driver, a black, about the racism that he experiences. He
agreed that it is very subtle, in that the service he receives
in official institutions such as banks is equal to that of the
white Moors next to him. But he did say that the racism is there
Last week, when I told Babah and Ismail about the possibility
of working at the supermarket, the first thing they wanted to
know was whether or not the owners were Mauritanian. I asked
why that would matter. They were not very specific, but they
did tell me that it was important. His wages, 15,000 UM per
month ($50), are comparable to what other workers earn for similar
first day of work (8:00 AM to 4:00 PM), he stopped by my house
to talk about it. "It's hard," he said. All right,
I told him, you are 23 years old and you're just finding out
that work is hard. In point of fact, he had some legitimate
complaints. First of all, his crew worked their eight hours
without any sort of break. Secondly, the management was served
a lunchtime meal, eating in front of the staff, while the staff
- surrounded as they are all day by food - was not given anything
to eat. Babah told me, "The owners are not Mauritanian.
A Mauritanian would give his employees food." And then
he mixed one of his few English phrases into his French: "Ca,
c'est no good."
a point there. The owners of the supermarket are Lebanese. There
are many Lebanese-owned businesses here in Nouakchott. In talking
with one of the other Volunteers, I found out that the reputation
that most Lebanese have is that they are very interested in
making money, to the point of being exploiting their employees.
Then I came to find out that the owners of this store are among
the worst offenders. Had I known this earlier, I never would
have suggested that Babah work there!
morning, I was looking out my kitchen window, preparing oatmeal
for breakfast, when I saw Babah walking by on his way to work.
I opened the window, called him, and he came up to have some
oatmeal, too. Fortunately for him, he was running early so he
had some time to eat. Since he didn't have any lunch, I gave
him an apple, an orange, a piece of whole-grain bread, and a
bottle of water. Of course, he continued to complain about his
job. I was starting to see that maybe I was dealing with a 23-year-old
day, I hatched an idea for Babah. I was wondering if he would
be interested in working for me. As it is, I am paying 10,000
UM a month to Ami to clean my house and do laundry. An additional
5,000 would match Babah's current salary. If he personally bought
my produce at one of the markets that the Mauritanians use,
it would save me more than 5,000 UM per month, which would make
it financially reasonable for me to hire him. I asked him if
he would like to do that. His eyes brightened as he said yes.
I told him
that there were two things I needed to happen before he started
to work for me. First of all, Ami's work has been excellent.
I would not feel comfortable in firing her for no reason, but
if there is a possibility that I could find another person who
needs her services, then I would at least be sure that she continues
to earn the same income.
I am going on vacation for three weeks early in April, during
which time I do not need anyone to work for me. So when I get
back, if Babah is still employed at the supermarket, I would
be willing to consider his working for me, as long as I can
find another job for Ami. I emphasized the importance of his
hanging in there at the supermarket.
that that sounded fine. He continued all week to stop by for
breakfast, and to pick up a sack lunch. Every Friday, the two
teams of workers at the market change their hours, which meant
that he switched to the shift that works from 4:00 PM to midnight.
Instead of coming by for breakfast, he came by before work to
say hello - and his sack lunch became a sack dinner.
was his second day on the night shift. After I ate dinner and
finished reading a book, I decided to go back to the PC bureau
to write e-mails. On the way home, I stopped at the supermarket
just to say hello to Babah. I walked up and down the aisles
and couldn't find him. Adel, who gave him the job, saw me and
motioned me into an office.
just left. He was sitting on a counter next to the cash register,
when his immediate supervisor told him to get down. He took
offense at this and quit. Adel said that he intervened and wanted
to give Babah another chance, but Babah refused that.
calling this action on the part of his supervisor "racist,"
saying that the black supervisor had it in for him because he
is white Moor. While Babah's mother was a white Moor, his father
is black. It has been apparent to me in our conversations that
he is much more closely associated with his black Bambara heritage
than with that of the white Moor society. This claim on his
behalf is puzzling and does not seem to deserve being called
racist - rather a young employee not wanting to do what his
supervisor told him to do.
There are four Chinese restaurants in Nouakchott. A few years
ago, a PCV negotiated a special Peace Corps menu at Qin Huong,
which is the closest one to the bureau. The menu is not expensive
by typical American standards, but it can be costly for our
visiting village Volunteers who receive the lowest living allowances
because their cost of living is lower than those of us in the
cities or regional capitals.
menu made a meal there a bargain for all. Everyone was happy
with the arrangement. Then Shelagh, who arranged the discount,
closed service, which prompted the owner of the restaurant to
cancel the PC menu. There was widespread disappointment among
the ranks of the Volunteers. People stopped going to Qin Huong.
the recent weekend, the owner of the restaurant came to the
bureau and dropped off copies of the new PC menu. We were being
welcomed back. I got a kick out of the e-mail that one of the
Nouakchott Volunteers sent us to tell the news:
Even without the Great Leader, Shelagh, we have managed to topple
the ruthless owners of Qin Huong Chinese restaurant and reclaim
our discounted menu. Although our choices are not as wide as
they once were, and some items are, in fact, not truly "half
price," the tasty preparation combined with low prices
once again put this establishment within reach of the Peace
Corps proletariat. Oh glorious and triumphant day! I look forward
to breaking bread with you soon.
"Comrade V" and four others for dinner at Qin Huong
on Friday night. Not only had our discount been restored, but
there was another innovation: tofu! The owner has started making
his own tofu! I asked him if he would be willing to sell me
some and he said yes. The next day I stopped by and bought a
kilo of it. It is excellent: tasty and firm. Now I have the
one food item that I have missed the most while here. Life is
to my omnivore friends: I can understand your not sharing my
ecstasy in this discovery.)