Mobilizing Family Relationships against Marginality. The Case of the FulaaBe of Mauritania

This paper was presented at the European Conference of African Studies of AEGIS, in Leiden, July 2007. A longer version of the paper has been published in Italian: Ciavolella, Riccardo. 2009. “I Fulaabe della Mauritania e i loro tentativi di integrazione allo stato”. In Alice Bellagamba, ed., Inclusi/Esclusi. Prospettive africane sulla cittadinanza. pp. 62-85. Torino: UTET. Please, also refer, for a longer discussion in French, to my PhD dissertation Le pouvoir aux marges. Les Fulaaɓe et l’État mauritanien. Ph.D. diss., Università di Milano Bicocca, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2008; and to the monograph Les Peuls et l’Etat en Mauritanie. Une anthropologie des marges. Paris: Karthala, 2010.

Nowadays, the majority of the Fulaabe of Mauritania lives in a condition of profound political, economic and social marginality. In the 80s, they were still partly autonomous from the Mauritanian state, living in remote regions of the country and surviving out of their pastoral activities. In 1989, the Fulaabe were among the principal victims of the so-called “événements”, in which anonymous armed groups persecuted or expelled dozens of village communities to Senegal and Mali, with the complicity of the military and of government authorities. Since then, those Fulaabe who have continued to live in Mauritania are one of the most marginal groups in terms of access to administrative positions and economic opportunities. However, they haven’t been inactive when confronted with such a marginalization. This paper shows the use that this fulbe group has made of family connections to cope with their marginal position and integrate into the Mauritanian state system. My argument develops into three steps. First, I comment on the historical and ethnographic background. Secondly, I describe the relationships between the Fulaabe and the state. In the end, I describe their efforts for integrating the Mauritanian political machinery.

1. In order to understand the political meaning of the fulaabe extended families and their shifting meanings and functions in time, I have privileged a diachronic perspective. Historicizing ethnography is a difficult task in the case of a society, such as the Fulaabe, which has never produced any written document about its history, which has been spared by anthropological and historical analysis and which has always escaped from administrative control. In the 19th century, they were scattered in the Senegalese Ferlo, an area of relative freedom in between the centralized polities of the region, such as the Fuuta Tooro in the north, Bundu in the East, Fuladu in the South, Sine Saloum and wolof states in the West. At the beginning of the 20th century, they flew French occupation, regional political disruption, and ecologic crises. They directed themselves towards “le Pays des Maures”, as the French were calling it. In this new frontier region, they found conditions for basically continuing their nomadic life in a regime of relative autonomy even from the colonial state.

By adopting the Fulaabe’s point of view on their own history, we come across a distinction between two main periods. The Fulaabe mark out an historical rupture in the 80s. The earlier period is referred to as the uncounted years, a time that becomes simply hanki – the past that predates the present. For the Fulaabe, this is the time of aji or traditions, i.e. of a genuine pastoral life based on honour and stability.

This vision seems an idealized opposite of the contemporary urban life. But the shift from an idealized past to a present where everything appears to have changed – a time that the Fulaabe now call “modernité” – has taken place within the lifetime of the adult generations. Thus, they are able to narrate how they saw their society before and after the advent of “modernité”.

Family relations are among those elements that the Fulaabe consider as traditional and stable. In a context of nomadic life and political autonomy, they have historically developed a social organization mainly based on kin relationships. The term leñol generally defines the maximal descent group within which its members recognize themselves as part of an independent social unit. Fulaabe is the specific name given to the leñol which I studied.

Leñol actually refers to a wide semantic field. It can cover a plurality of meanings when defining specific typologies of human groups. For example, in the Halpulaar’en society of the Senegal river Valley, studied by Olivier Leservoisier, the leñol is a group whose solidarity stems from the sharing of the same territorial space. This territorial reference is related to the specific historical trajectory of the Halpulaar’en society and of the Fuuta Tooro region, where some pastoral Fulbe groups took power at the beginning of the 16th century, settling down and converting their pastoral economy into agricultural production and building up a centralized political entity, based on land control.

Nevertheless, pastoral Fulbe groups such as the Fulaabe may not necessarily abide to this territorial notion of leñol. In their case, the term evokes the idea of an ascending or descending genealogical continuity. All the Fulaabe are convinced to share the same genealogy and thus the same ancestors, even if this can be hardly demonstrated.

     This “sense of shared membership” entailed by the word leñol marks out concretely the actual boundaries of the group of “relatives” through a set of marriage rules. One can get married only within the Fulaabe leñol. By endogamous practices, kinship becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The people I talked to confirmed that this kind of marriages was a rule, at least till the ’70s. In other words, although being imagined as genealogical, the unity of the lenol is the by-product of marriage alliances. The Fulaabe hold a metaphor to express this kinship unity: they say Fulaabe ko kine gacculi – “The Fulaabe are like a net”.

In their vision, there are two types of kinship, patri and matrilateral. The difference between the two is expressed by the metaphor of corporal substances: blood (yiiyam) indicates agnatic relations, whereas milk (endam) denotes relations of affinity and matrilateral kinship. The Fulaabe usually play down this second type of kinship, because of the predominance given to patrilineal descent. However, given the importance of marriage rules and relations, it is only by taking into account matrilateral relatedness that we can understand the idea of the leñol as an integrated kinship and unified group. The endam kinship differs from the “blood” one by evoking a more general and flexible idea of “relatedness” against the fragmentation and conflict inherent in the idea of agnatic kinship. This flexibility, as I will try to show next, will prove to be very important in the new context of urban migration and incorporation into the State.

2. The Fulaabe family cannot be understood by some inner logics; they should be rather analyzed by paying attention to their relation with the state.

In the ancient context of political autonomy, family networks represented the domain of social security against the bush (ladde), symbolically mediated by sorcery. The magic idea of the bush was defined by an ambiguous relationship. On the one hand , the bush was the place of non-human forces, the domain of danger. On the other hand, it constituted the most important resource for pastoral economy and for political autonomy, representing the possibility to escape from political centralizations or internal conflicts. Practices and images of sorcery mediated between village communities based on family relationships and the outside and dangerous realm of the bush, in a sort of regulatory process that worked by means of identifying the inner evil to be extirpated and the external danger to be avoided.

Following the incorporation into the Mauritanian modern “system”, this relationship of ambiguous intimacy seems to have moved from the bush to the state. Actually, the climatic crises of the ’70s and the ’80s and the extension of state control over the bush have definitively reduced Fulaabe’s autonomy. From their previous extraneousness, they have moved to a condition of “exclusion within incorporation” into the state.

In the fulaabe’s perception, the state represents uncontrollable powers on individuals, as the ethnic persecutions and deportations of 1989 clearly demonstrated. Since then, politicians have been metaphorically represented as “sukuñaabe”, the wicked spirits that feed on children’s souls. These visions seem to suggest a sense of impotence in front of the state. Yet, the language of witchcraft should be also understood as a mean of political criticism: with the 1989 events the state appeared as a sorcerer who “fed” directly on the Fulaabe; today politicians are considered “those who eat souls” because they have access to state resources at the expenses of ordinary people. Since the beginning of the ’90s, the Fulaabe’s attitude towards politics has shifted from a strategy of elusion of the state to a new desire of political participation and access to state resources.

3. The marginal condition of the Fulaabe is not only the result of political discrimination. Gaps in the timing of integration to state administration, and in the access to education and economic development have shaped a more profound fracture in the Mauritanian society than the often-mentioned opposition between “Arabs” and “Africans”. There is a sharp divide between the urban and cultivated elite oriented to the global economy and the mass of “broussards”, such as the Fulaabe, who remains excluded from political and economic power. However, at the end of the 90s, some young Fulaabe have begun to express concretely their will to be included in the state, influenced by what happened on the large political level.

During the 1996 elections campaign, the former president Ould Taya came among the Fulaabe with a strong promise: in exchange of electoral support, as a notable explained, the president “has asked for a list of all the Fulaabe who wanted to be recruited in the administration. He would have found a post for them”. The list was drafted, the president was elected, but the promises were not fulfilled.

In 2000, the president planned to pass from Kankossa – at the centre of fulaabe’s rural area, but controlled by a powerful Moorish tribe. The reception of the president was double:, as usual, each community organized its own. By comparing Fulaabe’s hospitality with the one offered  by the Moorish side of the town, the only Fulaabe civil servant at the moment expressed his perplexities: his community “should have done more” in welcoming the presidential entourage.

Some newly educated Fulaabe notables accepted the challenge and decided to create an association in Nouakchott. They followed the example of some experienced Moorish associations that actively participate in the economic and political competition. They wanted to create a net of mutual assistance between relatives, but also to coordinate the extended family as a whole in order to increase their influences in political negotiations.

The name of the association is somehow emblematic: fedde jokkete endam, “the association for the strengthening of family ties”. As we can see, these Fulaabe intellectuals made use of the notion of endam to explain their relations, a notion describing the extended family that goes beyond agnatic divisions. So, any fulaabe coming to Nouakchott from whatever village has the chance of integrating into the association for the simple reason of belonging to the leñol.

         However, this doesn’t imply that mobility to urban areas brought along some natural tribalism. Two different perspectives determined the participation in the association. For a limited number of young Fulaabe men with political ambitions, the association represented an attempt of strategic mobilization. As John Lonsdale would put it, they have made use of the “moral ethnicity” of the group as “political tribalism”. On the contrary, the majority of the Fulaabe joined the association tactically, considering that they could draw some immediate advantage from this experience. They did not associate out of natural feelings of belonging. They’ve been rather captured by the comprehensible language of kinship, suitable to provoke in them that sense of partial inclusion against a threatening “modern life”.

Behind the strategic operation of young Fulaabe in fact, there is not only an instrumental logic. In order to mobilize the whole community, they made use of the idiom of kinship as a readily accessible language to the rural elders. Despite its poverty, the bush still represents both a source of legitimacy and a viable refuge in case of failure in their social and political careers. There is “a structural” tie between villages and urban areas, which is consolidated by the high mobility between Nouakchott and the countryside. There is also “a symbolic” tie, being the village imagined by these internal migrants as the source of their tradition, the locus of the family.

But the strategy has not been really successful. First, the state has continued to ignore the Fulaabe even if “associated”: the educated youth has withdrawn in the urban informal economy or, in the best case, they work for NGOs or as teachers in village primary schools. Secondly, the majority of the association members has cut down its financial contribution, downhearted by the manifest impossibility of the association to turn into an effective lobby group.

An important exception to this failure is represented by the association’s women branch. The name of this subgroup is majaal to damminaare: “the light that announces the rainy season”, an expression that exemplifies the idea of prosperity anchored to a “rural” imagination. The group is organized as a typical women tontine, with a small mutual financial aid. The key to its partial success is the lack of alternatives offered to women in town. At the same time, the authentic interest in providing a mutual aid, without some political implication, produces greater confidence in the women association’s actions.

With the coup d’état of August 2005, a military committee set off a new transition to a “more effective” democracy. The former presidential party split into several new formations, led by notables mobilising both tribal affiliations and political-commercial cliques. The plurality of these formations allowed new forms of mobilization. The former general secretary of the presidential party – one of the richest men of the country – got in touch with the president of the Fulaabe association in order to fund a new party called Alternance. For the first time, a Fulaabe took part in of the executive committee of a party.

Preparing for the 2006 municipal elections, the Fulaabe executives collected money in Nouakchott in order to finance a campaign in the villages. There, they asked for electoral support, presenting the party as defending the Fulaabe’s interests “as others have made for other tribes”: “this is the Fulaabe’s party”, they said, even if anywhere else they presented the party as promoting the national unity.

The Alternance party managed to place a Fulaabe as mayor in a rural municipality, close to the Malian border. But a more nuanced analysis of how electoral alliances were formed locally shows that the success of the party ethnic strategy was only partial. In the same district where the Alternance won, many villagers expressed often ironic comments about the slogan of “Fulaabe’s party ” by saying wunde fof ko politik: “everything is politics”.

The strategy to mobilize the extended family as a group has failed for two principal reasons. The first one is the general mistrust in politics and politicians. Even within the “democratic transition”, electoral campaigning has been carried out through promises of resources distribution. Secondly, this distributive proposal met local claims going in the same direction: given the dramatic social and economic conditions of the rural villages, the Fulaabe preferred to vote in accordance with the satisfaction of their immediate needs rather than to be guided by any feeling of belonging. Their extreme marginality entails an extremely weak bargaining power vis-à-vis the ruling classes. In these conditions, the satisfaction of immediate necessities remains their priority.

Anyway, concrete family relations still have some relevance. Small-scale family networks offer the Fulaabe the minimal, but essential support that allows them to survive between rural villages and the capital’s suburbs. Informal economy and negotiation with institutions are at the core of their art of living “in the margins”. Thus, the political meanings and practices of Fulaabe family networks are intimately bound to the relationship the Fulaabe have kept with the state. To a certain extent, these relationships are in some way schizophrenic. On the one hand, the Fulaabe perception of political power and administration is split between a sense of repulsion and an aspiration to be included in it. On the other, family relationships are alternatively seen as the way to be integrated into the state and as the refuge when escaping from it.


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