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Race Relations in Dakar

By Abigail Hauslohner      

Aman is 33 years old, with tan skin, a short dark beard, and shining green eyes. His older brother with the speech impediment—also named Aman—had invited me into their small hole-in-the-wall where they crafted raw bits of silver into jewellery. When I had asked the older Aman if he was Mauritanian, he tugged emphatically at his pale blue dara and giggled, “Of course!” Then he told me to have a seat and asked if I’d like some tea. An Arabic voice from BBC Arabiya rattled off the international news in a grave monotone from the old radio in the corner. The younger Aman prepared the attaya, flavored with a handful of fresh mint, a style typical of the Moors. Across from him, his brother used to same flame to heat rods of silver that would soon be meticulously pounded and transformed into the silver bracelets that so many Muslim Senegalese wear from an early age. 
The brothers are just two members of a larger community of Mauritanian immigrants living in Dakar and throughout Senegal. A vast desert country to the north, Mauritania straddles two worlds—that of black sub-Saharan Africa, and the world of the Moors—the lighter skinned, Arabic-speaking people of the Sahara and the Maghreb region, and the dominant group in Mauritania. The Moors have had a long tradition of activity in Senegalese society, and many have spent close to a lifetime etching out a living in this country just south of their own. Like the Amans, many of them have come to set up small silver shops; others own boutiques and fabric stores; and still others have come as Qur’anic instructors.
Twenty years ago, it is estimated that as many as 500,000 Mauritanians lived in Senegal, most of them tradesmen. But in April, 1989, a minor border dispute over grazing rights along the Senegal river erupted into an international conflict between the two countries and pushed them to the brink of war. Both countries agreed to the repatriation of Mauritanian and Senegalese nationals from either side in order to quell tension, but Mauritania—which has long been characterized by ingrained racial discrimination and a caste system—exploited the agreement as an opportunity to purge its country not only of Senegalese nationals, but of black Mauritanians as well. As this racial tension came to a head, the capitals of Dakar and Nouakchott erupted into violence with pogroms and lynchings carried out against blacks in Mauritania and Moors in Senegal. The clashes left between 250 and 400 dead in both countries and caused the mass exodus of thousands, according to reports by the Associated Press. In Nouakchott, scores of black civil servants and soldiers were brutally executed, and in Dakar, Mauritanian-owned shops were set on fire and Moors were attacked.
Although the conflict was resolved before it was able to transform into an actual war, tension continued to characterize state relations for years after; expulsions of black Mauritanians continued into the early 1990s, and the fate of some 20,000 black Mauritanian refugees still living in camps within the northern border of Senegal has yet to be determined.
Nevertheless, the past ten years has seen the gradual return of Mauritanian Moors to Senegal; many of them who fled have now re-opened shops in Dakar. Meni, an old Mauritanian Moor with crinkled kohl-lined eyes, says he first came to Dakar in 1986 to open the fabric store where he sells the traditional Mauritanian malafa fabric that Moor women traditionally use as veils. He noticed the tension mounting in 1989 when other Mauritanian shopkeepers on his street were suddenly getting harassed. They went to the police but received no response, and it was then that he decided to leave. Meni sold what he could of his goods, before packing up the rest and heading back to Mauritania. He only heard of the violence that followed, once he was back in his village in southern Mauritania. He had warned his Moor friends in Dakar, he says, but they wouldn’t listen; some of them wanted to stay, thinking the conflict would blow over, and “they lost everything,” he says, “their shops, all their money.”
Five years later, Meni was back. He re-opened his shop and he started all over again. But “things are different now,” he says, “the Mauritanians and the Senegalese understand each other.” Meni’s shop in Medina has been successful. His merchandise is the same; a large assortment of malafa paignes as well as stockpiles of dara, the traditional men’s clothing. His main customers are Senegalese and tourists.
When asked if they would want to return to Mauritania in the future, many Moor traders say yes; they do consider it their home, and many of their wives and families are still there. But, as Meni says, if business is good here, he will stay. If it becomes better in Mauritania, he will go. “They come to sell,” says Abdullah, an old Moor silversmith in downtown Dakar, whose main customers are tourists: “Business is easier here than it is in Mauritania.”
Although he often misses his family and his country, Meni says he feels well-settled here. His Wolof is fluent, after learning it “bit by bit” over the years, and he seems to be well-integrated into his Senegalese community. The Wolof now flows cheerfully in and out of the doors to his shop, and a five year old Senegalese boy—the son of a friend down the street—sits behind the counter hunched over his wooden board from Qur’anic school, while Meni tutors him in Arabic in between customers.
Aman admits with a sheepish smile that he does prefer Mauritania to Senegal, and that perhaps one day, after many years of work, he will return permanently. But while he considers Mauritania his home, Aman has also found a home here in Dakar. His friends are a mix of Senegalese and fellow Mauritanians. It has been only six years since his arrival but he feels comfortable in Wolof and in his community.
Abdullah, who has lived in Dakar for 30 years, would not speak about the ‘89 conflict except to say that “others had problems.” All the same, he moves about his current environment with a similar fluidity to Meni and Aman—often lapsing into Wolof as he converses in Arabic with his Mauritanian friends.
At the same time, many Senegalese aren’t as positive about the relations between the Senegalese and the Moor Mauritanians today. Mariama, a 35-year old Senegalese resident of Dakar says “The Senegalese buy from the Mauritanian boutiques, but they are not friends.” She says that while on the surface, the relationship between the Moors and the Senegalese has been smoothed over, a tension lingers. “The Moor traders are nice to the Senegalese while they are here in Senegal,” she says, but the Senegalese are aware of an underlying Moor racism, and “they know that the Moors do not act the same towards blacks when they return to their own country.”
Time will tell whether the relations between Senegalese and Moor Mauritanians will continue to improve. Some predict that the new Mauritanian government, which rose to power through a bloodless coup in August, 2005, may give more attention to resolving the refugee issue, as well as to the problem of caste discrimination and illegal slavery within Mauritania, although that has yet to be seen. And while the past ten years have seen a gradual improvement of relations between the Senegalese and Moor Mauritanians in Senegal, many see a real future harmony as contingent on the resolution of Mauritania’s own internal race politics.

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