Traveling to Mauritania

Well! This might be the fastest turnaround time between trips I’ve ever had. Less than two weeks after my return to the US, I’m heading back out again, this time to an entirely different sector of the globe.

sahelMauritania is located on the northwest coast of Africa. The southern portion of the country is part of the Sahel region, a transitional zone or band of semi-arid land between the Sahara desert to the north and the belt of humid savannas to the south. Despite being rich in natural resources, Mauritania has a very low GDP and its population is suffering from a number of issues. The country is currently experiencing severe food shortages and high rates of malnutrition in addition to a number of health and economic problems. (Note: the lack of access to reliable, stable, and affordable sources of food that can sustain healthy nutrition levels is referred to as “food insecurity.”) These issues have been exacerbated by a prolonged, multi-year drought, rising food prices, and high rates of unemployment and migration.

Why Go to Mauritania?

I’m traveling to the capital city of Nouakchott to work with staff from Counterpart’s Barkeol Nutrition and Economic Recovery (BANER) program. The BANER program aims to strengthen human capabilities in health and nutrition in order to mitigate the effects of food insecurity, improve households’ nutritional status, and improve communities’ ability to withstand economic and social shocks like droughts and other crises. The BANER program will be conducting activities in three southern regions of Mauritania, working with communities to improve household nutrition and health practices, to reduce the spread of waterborne diseases, and to promote access to financial services and income generating activities, particularly for women.

What Will I Be Doing While I’m There?

At the beginning of every program, we must assess various aspects of the context and communities where we are conducting the project in order to help us understand the specific needs and priorities of the groups with which we will be working and to be able to identify the impact our project is having. This initial assessment is called a baseline because it provides us with a starting point we can measure against; when we conduct the assessment again later (at a mid-point or end of the project) we can analyze what activities have been done and determine what changes or impacts have resulted.

I am traveling to the capital city of Nouakchott to work with the baseline team for a few reasons. The first is to help the team integrate gender awareness into the baseline assessment. We want to make sure that the assessment process is inclusive so that all members of a community are fairly represented (and, for example, that the data collectors are able to access different community groups and don’t rely on men to speak for women’s needs and practices). We also want to ensure that we do not assume that needs and priorities are the same for men, women, boys, and girls but that we are able to identify gender-based differences in access, needs, priorities, and practices.

Second, I will be working with the team to incorporate a gender assessment into the baseline methodology. This means that some of the data we will be collecting will be information about gender gaps in rights, roles, responsibilities, and access to resources as well as gender-specific challenges and opportunities related to nutrition, health, and livelihoods. This information will help us modify our activities to best meet community needs, to address gender-specific challenges, and to address gender equality gaps.

Finally, I will be working with the program team to increase their inclusive community outreach and education methods. Counterpart has been working in Mauritania since 2006, and we are fortunate to have staff with a lot of experience in these sectors. We’ll be reviewing methods for increasing attention to gender dynamics in program activities as well as promoting women’s participation and leadership as well as men’s engagement and support.

A Little About Mauritania

  • map_of_mauritaniaOfficial Country Name: Islamic Republic of Mauritania
  • Capital: Nouakchott
  • Official Languages: Arabic but French is widely spoken (also Pulaar, Soninke, Wolof, Zenaga Berber)
  • Population: 3,359,185 (as of 2012)
  • Currency: Ouguiya (MRO)
  • Time Difference: 4 hours ahead of Washington, DC

Mauritania is mostly desert or semi-desert, with up to three-quarters of the country covered by the Sahara desert. Further, the desert has been expanding southward because of a drought that has been going on since the 1960s. The climate is hot and dry, and I’ll be arriving just as the hottest season begins.

Mauritania has an interesting colonial history. It lies across a major trans-Saharan trade route, and for over 500 years the Almoravid Dynasty controlled the trade in gold, slaves and salt until they were defeated by the Arabs in 1674. Later, various European explorers made sporadic contact, but the French didn’t come to control the area until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mauritania achieved full independence in 1960.

This mixture of conflict, trade, and rule has resulted in a complex cultural legacy, and Mauritania is known for its mixture of Arab, African, French, and other cultural influences in its food, music, art, and more.

The population of Mauritania is made up of four main ethnic groups: Moors (white and black from Arab-Berber origins), Soninke, Wolof and Poular (black of African origin). The majority population of Mauritania were desert nomads, but prolonged drought has resulted in massive migration to cities.

Not only is the official religion Islam, but Muslim identity is reportedly a central part of Mauritanian culture and very present in their everyday life. However, Mauritania is not known for religious extremism, and they have a reputation for being welcoming and kind.

One thing you may have heard about Mauritania is their beauty standards in relation to weight — women are considered beautiful if they are moderately to extremely obese. There have been reports about a cultural practice of force-feeding girls to put on weight and make them more marriageable (called leblouh).

On Staying in Touch

This trip should be much briefer than my trip to PNG, and again I don’t know what my free time or Internet access will be like once I’m there. If I have any free time, I don’t know whether I’ll be able to do much sightseeing in Nouakchott because of the security situation as well as the incredible heat, not to mention that Ramadan starts next week. But we shall see! I will post if and when I can as well as take pictures.