Goats in the desert in Mauritania

Mauritania, The Land of a Thousand Poets - in a Nutshell

Author: Sue
Date: 8th March 2020

Two-thirds of Mauritania is covered by desert, which expands southward every year, so desert is pretty well all you get to see. But in this case, for much of the time, it really is the sort of desert you think of when you say the word: myriad yellow dunes, Moorish castles, nomads, oases and wandering camels. Stunning.

A Brief History of Mauritania

  • French sovereignty over the Senegal River and the Mauritanian coast was recognised by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. However, European "pacification" of the entire country did not begin until 1900, closely tied to the development of the other French possessions in West Africa, particularly Senegal, on which Mauritania was economically, politically, and administratively dependent until independence.
  • Unusually, however, the French in Mauritania adopted a system which corresponded more to Britain's colonial policies of indirect rule, relying extensively on Islamic religious leaders. The French referred to the country as 'The Great Void'.
  • After World War II, Mauritania, along with the rest of French West Africa, was involved in a series of reforms of the French colonial system, culminating in independence in 1960. 

Mauritania - Facts and Factoids

  • Mauritania was one of the last countries to abolish slavery - in 1981. The media reports that tens of thousands of people – mostly from the minority Haratine or Afro-Mauritanian groups – still live there as bonded labourers, domestic servants or child brides.
  • The Majority of Mauritanians are Moslems and belong to the Sunni sect.
  • Arabic is the official and national language.
  • Mauritania remains a Francophile country – nearly everyone still speaks French and baguettes spill out of wheelbarrows along the streets.
  • Mauritania has been called the Land of a Thousand Poets, referring to traditions in Mauritanian culture.

Is Mauritania a Poor Country?

Mauritania is cripplingly poor; about 21 percent of children under five are chronically malnourished and recent climatic changes have worsened the situation. The nation has experienced a dramatic 20-year drought, which has caused widespread desertification. Approximately 90 percent of the country is now considered desert land, 40% of the population still exist below the poverty line.  Mauritania depends heavily on iron ore exports, fishing and offshore oil wells.

Is Mauritania Safe to Visit?

Mauritania is reported on the Internet as one of the safest countries in Africa, particularly the coastal region from Senegal to Morocco and all very calm to me. However, the FCO advise against travel to much of it and against all but essential travel to the Nouakchott - Nouadhibou corridor. So this is generally where I'm visiting, with time in the south at the desert towns of Chinguetti and Oudane, the 'tourist hotspots' of Mauritania. Through Diawling National Park and into Senegal.

Getting into Mauritania

The northern border, with Western Sahara. Three hours after we started border formalities I’m still waiting at a cafe while driver and guide, Naji, buys car insurance. I’ve been standing outside one battered door or another all afternoon waiting for officials to eat their lunch and watch videos on their phones.

The careful redevelopment, officialdom and uniforms of Morocco’s occupation in Western Sahara have given way to the comparative chaos of Mauritania. Outfits are no clue to anyone’s role. Army personnel seem for the most part to be wearing the same shade of green, but there the similarities end and there’s a diversity of headgear from flowing turbans to beanies to huge brimmed fluffy berets.

Nevertheless, their equipment is relatively modern. No laborious writing by hand in logbooks here. I have an on-arrival visa printed out on and stuck into my passport. And I have a new guide, introduced as Ahmed. We head for Nouadhibou.

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2 comments on “Mauritania, The Land of a Thousand Poets - in a Nutshell”

  1. Hi Sue..

    Just visited Mauritania and did the gruelling Iron Ore Train ride ..Phew !!

    And managed to get to the Richat Structure ...the Eye of Africa


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