Afoot in Mauritania by Jason Peirce

Afoot in Mauritania

by Jason Peirce, SOAS

Dealing with unexpected setbacks is one of the challenges of fieldwork, and here the author describes an encounter in which he became the subject of scandal and ostracism. Whilst such negative experiences can be unsettling, they can be put to good anthropological use and serve as a source of insight. However, it is argued that a greater element of practical training would be helpful if research students are to be equipped to think on their feet should difficulties arise.

Convinced as I once was that both research methods and ethics are inseparable from context and cannot therefore be discussed in the abstract, I paid very little attention to those few opportunities that were given to me during my training at SOAS to ponder these questions. To return from the field with the hope that some of my experiences may be of use to future researchers is therefore ironic – or revealing of the conversion process that seems to accompany fieldwork. Here, I want therefore to recount a story of my fieldwork, to work through some of the implications of one disturbing incident I faced while in Mauritania, and to consider a few means by which such negative experiences may be counteracted.

Mauritania is approximately three times the size of the UK but has only two million inhabitants. The vast majority of the population lives in the capital, Nouakchott, in Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast and along the southern border. Mauritania shares borders with Western Sahara and Algeria to the North, Senegal to the South and Mali to the South and East. Until a prolonged drought in the late 1970s, most of the population was nomadic. Trade, animal husbandry (cattle and camels) and flood plain cultivation were the mainstays of the economy. Mauritania achieved independence from France in 1960. The entire population are Muslims, and Islam is the official religion.

I went to Mauritania with a straightforward research plan and overly complicated interests and ideas concocted the previous year. My primary interest was with the pedagogical methods used in Qur’anic education. I was particularly interested in the role of memory in Qur’anic education and had established a dubious linkage between mnemonic training and the constitution of intentionality. To frame these interests, I put a simple question to myself: the students in these schools memorise line upon line of the Qur’an without understanding nor being expected to understand their meaning. What then is being imparted to the students, what are they doing? To address this question, I proposed to ‘enrol’ in such a school in the eastern region of the Hodh el-Gharbi and to ‘sit it out’ for a few months. There was a little more to my methodology, but nothing worthy of particular attention.

As it happens, I was never invited or authorised to join a Qur’anic school. To have first approached the Chorfa mosque in Nouakchott was not my best move: I was sent about my business with very little ceremony. This mosque, I discovered later, is a ‘fundamentalist’ haunt. There were to be other, similar encounters. In Arafat, a village in the Hodh el-Gharbi, I was offered a camel ride back to the regional capital, not a place in the local Qur’anic school. In Selem, I was harangued by forty children yelling ‘yehud, yehud, yehud.’ While few Mauritanians have the faintest idea who or what a "Jew" is, it is not an uncommon insult. I thus approached a good half dozen Qur’anic school teachers with very much the same result.

My supervisors did point out that such experiences could be put to good use. At the time however, the prospect of spending the following twelve months being expelled from various schools was none too appealing. Instead I made for the National Archives in Nouakchott and turned my attention to more comfortable, historical questions. A good third of the way through my year-in-the-field I had thus done a fairly thorough job in the archives but little or no ‘fieldwork’.

Thankfully, I re-emerged from this dark and dusty haunt with an altogether more realistic and down-to-earth approach to the whole thing. I decided against exploring the connection between memory and intentionality and proceeded instead to carry out a ‘sociological’ investigation of Qur’anic education in the same region. In substance, this meant visiting a sample of schools and gathering for each a range of data including the number of students, their age and place of origin, the texts they studied, the methods used, the teachers’ own training, their motivation for so doing and their other activities. I designed a questionnaire, ensured my tape recorder was in good working order and went to visit some twenty five schools in the Hodh el-Gharbi.

This format, the questionnaire, is one the Qur’anic school teachers accepted far more readily. Indeed, having changed my approach, I was treated to some quite privileged encounters with many kind teachers. Some, I believe, positively enjoyed being recorded and photographed. In one village, I thus interviewed the senior teacher before an audience of six other Qur’anic school teachers. Later, I was invited by several of these other teachers to put very much the same questions to them. I benefited also from the fact that all Qur’anic school teachers in the Hodh feel they have been ignored by the powers that be. Since many teachers regarded this questionnaire as the core of my research, I had to delay ‘administering’ it to spend some time in each school. I could not delay doing so for weeks on end.

While this questionnaire did allow me to access various Qur’anic schools and to establish a corpus of views regarding Qur’anic education, its role and its significance in contemporary Mauritania, it was not the end of my difficulties. On four further occasions, I was met with marked hostility by several Qur’anic school teachers. I want here to describe one such encounter.


A quiet and sagacious old taxi driver dropped me off in this village in mid May 1998. By all standards, Zem-Zem is a strange village. It is home to a large group of znaga (tributaries) of the Mechdouf (a large tribe spread over much of the Hodh). In the Hodh, the znaga care for their patrons’livestock. With the rains still a month away, most of the men were away with these animals looking for water and pasture land. Only a few elders, women and young children were left behind. The village has no centre. It spreads several hundred metres along the ‘Road of Hope’. It boasts no hard constructions, its inhabitants all living in makeshift shacks and ragged tents. These are distributed around a small number of shallow wells that only yield up slightly saline water. A school was built nearby in 1996 but is chronically understaffed. As far as I could determine, there were no plans for future projects to sink deeper wells. A pump long promised for extracting water was never delivered. The small water tower that stands in the village has never been used and is rusting away. This is a village that has not only been ignored by the powers that be; it is one also that has never benefited from the patronage of a wealthy businessman in Nouakchott or abroad. While mosques were a rare sight in Mauritania twenty years ago, they have become a good index of such patronage. Zem-Zem has no mosque.

From Zem-Zem, I made my way to a Kunta (another prominent tribe) settlement, which I wanted to reach before dusk. With only a few miles to walk, I was in no particular hurry and stopped to chat with two young men, Mohamed and Brahmin, on the road-side. After explaining my purpose to them and exchanging notes on the local countryside, they urged me to visit their teacher in Zem-Zem. We walked to the easternmost extremity of the village and there I was introduced to the marabout (in this context, teacher), my purpose explained and my invitation to spend the night in the school formalised.

Mohamed went his way after he introduced me to his marabout. The marabout, who I’ll call Abdallahi, invited me to be seated on a mattress outside his tent. A noisy group of kids soon flocked around me, followed closely by his wife, daughters and a neighbour busy skinning a goat’s head, our evening fare. It made for a rather noisy congregation and I had some difficulty following the old man’s speech. However, he seemed friendly enough and we conversed for a while with the help of one of his younger students who translated my faltering Hassaniyya and his rather muffled speech into something we could both understand. As prayer time approached, the kids were sent away, the students and the women busied themselves with their ablutions and Abdallahi excused himself to go and perform his ritual ablutions. On his return, he met me with a look of consternation: why had I not performed my ablutions? Candidly, I explained to him that as I was not a Muslim, I could not pray with them. While I did make myself out as a Christian during my stay in Mauritania, there was never any question of my pretending to be a Muslim for the purposes of my research. Upon divulging this precious piece of information, his wife and daughters began crying and shouting, the kids joined in, the older students moved a safe distance away from me and a mask of such intense puzzlement and grief came over the marabout’s face that I knew not where to hide. This show of grief lasted for what seemed an eternity, time enough for me to begin considering my next move. Unfortunate as this turn of events was, I felt vindicated by the fact that I had made no secret of my religious identity, that I had discussed this with Mohamed and assumed therefore that he would have shared this information with the marabout. Besides all Europeans in Mauritania are regularly heckled with cries of ‘nasrani, nasrani’ (Christian, Christian). I assumed, wrongly, that they understood all Europeans to be Christians, not Muslims.

In all honesty, I was a little awe-struck by this demonstration of grief and feared that I would be expelled from the village manu militari. Pre-empting such an outcome, I prepared to leave. Had the marabout allowed me to leave, he would have been in direct contravention with custom. Custom, or ‘adah’, in Mauritania as in much of the Sahara and North Africa still makes for the rule of law in many instances. Extending hospitality to strangers and travellers is customary. It is commended in Islam, and most Mauritanians will spontaneously quote different hadith (traditions) to explicate this. Indeed, they pride themselves on their hospitality. One of Abdallahi’s students therefore asked me to stay and spend the night with them. With few other options, I accepted, unaware as I was of what they had in store for me.

After sundown, our gathering moved to the front of the tent. The marabout, still agitated, paced around and had a vociferous discussion with some of his older neighbours. Aided by some of the students, his daughters set about preparing the evening meal. Meanwhile, I was ordered onto a mattress strategically placed on the outside of their living space. To oppose inside and out in such a semi-nomadic setting as Mauritania is difficult. People spend most of their time ‘outside’ and in this particular village, animals roamed more or less freely in and out of the tents. It remains possible however to distinguish a living space and an outside. In this case, living space is made up of the tent itself, used above all to store food stuffs, blankets, mattresses and books, and the perimeter upon which the tent casts its shade. Thus in the morning, people gather on the West side of the tent, and in the afternoon on the East side. To the West of the tent, Abdallahi had built a raised platform upon which he and his family spent the night.

In this case, the mattress I was allocated was placed just outside this living space. Thus placed, I was also isolated socially as most people were keen to share in the weak light provided by a petrol lantern. As is customary, food was preceded and followed by tea. To drink tea in Mauritania is to drink three small glasses of green tea mixed with mint and sugar. Glasses are passed around, the tea gulped down and returned. The same glass may therefore be served to different people. My religious identity problematic, I was allocated a glass that was only ever brought to me by one of several small children still milling around. Because of their age, they cannot be soiled by contact with the infidel that, to them, I was. Later, rather than be invited to share in a common bowl of food, I was given my own bowl and left to eat in the dark.

Later in the evening, Mohamed returned to see how I was getting on. I think he was rather amused by the small scandal I had caused. Later still, a few of his peers arrived, curious no doubt about my presence and to see how I was faring in this hostile environment. These young men proved keen to explain that their marabout should be excused for his conduct for he had never left the village. He believes, they added, that the entire world is Muslim. Several of them had travelled, two of them to the Ivory Coast, and clearly thought themselves more in tune with the world and better informed than their marabout and elder. Later, I had a further word with Abdallahi. This time, he urged me to convert to Islam, to pronounce the shahada or declaration of faith. All foreigners in Mauritania have to contend with such missionary endeavours on an almost daily basis. Interested as I am in the formality of this procedure (which technically requires only the pronunciation of a formula), I had grown into the habit of systematically highlighting the formality of the gesture, explaining that for me to pronounce these words was pointless as I knew not what lay behind them, what their true meaning was. As had occurred several times before, my line of argument was not taken up. Abdallahi quietly asserted that the shahada is ‘the key to the door of Islam,’ and that conversion is a prerequisite to knowledge of Islam. I left Zem-Zem at sunrise the following morning.

It must be emphasised that this was by no means a typical encounter. Indeed, Abdallahi was the only marabout to be so scandalised by my not being a Muslim; the only one also who urged me to convert to Islam. More generally, I was never so blatantly excluded and generally treated as subhuman as in this particular village. As unpleasant as these few hours were, they were interesting insofar as I, the proverbial ‘white-middle-class-male’, had never been on the receiving end of such ostracism. This experiential dimension aside, the encounter was valuable in that it brought to my attention some of the salient features of Mauritanian society: the organisation of space, the importance of commensality, generational differences, even the distribution of labour were all brought into sharp focus during my brief stay in Zem-Zem. Such negative encounters can therefore be put to good anthropological use. What they say about the practice of Islam in Mauritania, or Qur’anic education, is less obvious. The different rebuffs I suffered in the field never fitted into any pattern nor did they account for all, nor even a majority, of my experiences in Mauritania. I was able to spend some time with several teachers who were quite happy to show me around, discuss their methods and their students. In several other cases, I found that a little time was enough to bring people round. On two further occasions, I had to spend some considerable time convincing teachers that I was not a spy. That done, most doors were open to me. Clearly, it is my status as a non-Muslim interested in things Islamic that caused people such concern.

While each of these encounters was revealing of different facets of Mauritanian society, they also had a rather deleterious impact upon my morale and, especially in the first few months of my fieldwork, upon my ability to think on my feet. For this, I must carry most of the blame. However, I think also that I was not adequately prepared to deal with such incidents. As I was trained at SOAS, this forum seems an apt place to put a few suggestions regarding the training we receive in the department. The specifics of my fieldwork aside, I’m still baffled by the time it took me to read my situation, to revise my ambitions, methods and ideas. Maintaining a critical distance vis-à-vis our work is not easy in the context of field research. However, for it to have taken me three to six months to accept that my original plan was unworkable and devise an alternative is just not good enough. It seems to me that there are ways in which our efficiency as researchers may be heightened.

Part of the problem lies with the way in which we think of fieldwork. I assumed, as I think do many SOAS-trained anthropologists, that come what may, I would imbibe knowledge of one kind or another while in Mauritania. I now feel as though this attitude can breed a passivity largely detrimental to research. Had I reasoned in economic terms rather than rested upon this mystique, I certainly would have revised my plans earlier. As unpopular as the analogy may be it is worth following through, if only for a short while: we invest a considerable amount of time, energy, effort and money into our research. As do all financiers, we expect some kind of return upon these investments: knowledge, experiences, degrees, capital of one kind or another. Were a financier to take six months to realise that a twelve month investment is not going to yield the expected return, he or she would be sacked within the hour – and broke within a year. Anthropologists pull through.

Thinking of fieldwork in a different manner may therefore be part of the solution. However, fieldwork is a stressful activity and running on-the-spot appraisals are not always possible. I certainly did not always have my wits about me while in the field. As a result, I was often unable to take that salutary step back. In such circumstances, habit is a precious ally. Had I learnt to run such appraisals as a matter of course, I would certainly have better employed the year I spent in Mauritania. Such habits however cannot be instilled through classroom discussions of research methods and ethics. They can only be acquired through practice – and SOAStrained anthropologists are severely lacking in practice. Would it not be possible to build into the BA programme a few practical assignments, projects that would take no more than a day or two to research but that would require students to exercise a range of practical skills? Problems encountered during these assignments would have to be overcome in minimum time. Such assignments would assist in the development of an ability to think on one’s feet – rather than at a desk.

If such a modification of the BA programme cannot be achieved (or in addition to this modification), perhaps supervisors should be encouraged to take a more directive stance towards their students’ field research. This remark is targeted at no one person. Letting us get on with it does however seem to be the most common attitude towards the supervision of research students. If there is some virtue in this, it is also singularly wasteful of SOAS’ main ‘resource’. If our supervisors’ brief is to transmit their knowledge and experience to us, then there is no reason for this process/contract to be breached during fieldwork. For supervisors to take a more directive stance v i s - à - v i s our research would not impair our freedom either: it would still be up to us to take the advice or suggestions proffered or to ignore them.

On a lighter note, it would be helpful if the department issued all prospective fieldworkers with SOAS business cards – as do many American universities. They are in wide use in much of the world, and few are the anthropologists who do not have to deal with officialdom in one form or another. They would also serve to bolster our status as SOAS research students. Our current status (students on study leave) suggests that the institution has little interest in our work and is prepared to condone none of it. It certainly lends no authority to our research projects and is of little use while dealing with foreign administrations. This is all the more unfortunate as SOAS enjoys a good reputation in much of Africa and Asia.

About the author

Jason Peirce is a post-fieldwork PhD student at SOAS.

Anthropology Matters Journal ISSN: 17586453 Publisher: Anthropology Matters url: