MAURITANIA'S NINETEENTH-CENTURY French colonizers envisioned the country as a geographic and cultural bridge linking North Africa and West Africa. In the late 1980s, however, Mauritania bore little resemblance to this vision. Instead, it was a society undergoing profound transformation, torn between two cultural and linguistic traditions. The process of compelling nomads to settle that was begun by the colonial government earlier in the twentieth century was accelerated by the severe drought that began in the mid-1960s. For the next two decades, the rate of urbanization was unprecedented; Mauritania was transformed from a nomadic pastoral society to a predominantly urban one. Large pastoral populations were forced to leave land that could no longer support them. The already-overpopulated cities, almost all of which were located in the far south, were unprepared to receive these displaced populations.
Although partially offset by continuing high infant mortality rates, population growth during the 1970s and 1980s exacerbated problems of urbanization. Combined with a depressed economy, urbanization and overpopulation contributed to a generally low standard of living. In the 1980s, the government used its meager resources to increase investment in education, housing, and health care services, hoping to reduce the effects of widespread poverty.
In the late 1980s, Mauritania's population continued to be divided along ethnic and regional lines. Maures from the north-- whites and black descendants of former slaves who identified with Maure values--made up a traditional elite. The other major group was composed of people of black African ancestry, most of whom lived in the south and identified with African cultural and social values. The legacy of Maure domination and enslavement of blacks had been blurred by intermarriage and assimilation into Maure culture; still, the gap between these two groups remained wide, reflecting the weak basis for social cohesion or national consciousness. Social tensions were evident in frequent clashes over state policy, political appointments, and charges of domination, all based on deep-seated cultural antipathies.
In the late 1980s, ethnic tensions further contributed to an unstable social environment. Even the similarities that linked Maures with peoples of African descent were relatively superficial. Religious unity within Islam, for example, masked wide differences in religious observances among Maures and blacks. Government officials hoped that the nation's rapid urbanization might increase social and cultural interaction and reduce prejudices, but most admitted that the task of developing a true national identity and a unified society promised to be long and difficult.
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