Irina and Houleye talk inspiration for the fight for race rights in Mauritania

Editorial | Republic Underground 

March 29, 2021 

This Women’s Month, Irina Tsukerman hosted a roundtable with Mauritanian human rights activist Houleye Thiam to discuss racial equality and the effort for race relations in Mauritania.

“Our guest today is Houleye Thiam, who is a human rights activist in bringing justice to human rights issues in Mauritania.” 

“It’s wonderful to see you. You’ve come a long, long way since we’ve first discussed, your organization that is, since many, many moons ago before the pandemic,” said Tsukerman. 

She then asked Thiam to describe her background, her family, where she was born, and her inspirations growing up, and the roots of her discovery of the things central to her current work. 

“Thank you, it’s definitely always good to see you, Irina. I appreciate everything you do to support our cause. My name is Houleye and I live in the U.S., in Columbus, Ohio. I was originally from Mauritania, that’s where I was born. I came to the U.S when I was 19 and I’ve been here since, about 19 years now.” 

She then described how her father became her inspiration. While she was growing up in Mauritania, her father and his colleagues were arrested for writing a book on the racial justice issues going on in Mauritania at that time. Mauritanians are comprised of four Indigenous groups as well as Arabs-Amazigh’s, who are referred to as Berbers. Mauritania serves as a regional “bridge” between the North African Maghrib and westernmost Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Get a full replay of our event below. 

 

Britannica records the groups of Mauritania as being predominately Moors. Moors are the people groups he lives in the Sudanic African zone, and are composed of both “Black Moors” and “White Moors”. All Moors are collectively known as Ḥarāṭīn. White Moors self-identify as Bīḍān and are Moors who are also Berber. The mingling of the Moorish groups may result in a visual misidentification between those groups called Haratin collectively and those self-entitled Bidan. This is due to the capture of Africans by Berbers who are raised as Arabs, with the same culture as “whites” in Mauritania but are originally “Afro-Mauritanian” or belonging to the Indigenous people groups of the Sudanic African region. “Sudanic” refers to dark-skinned Africans, as the word “Sudan” comes from an Arabic name for the region originally meaning “the land of Blacks.” 

The remaining ethnic large groups of Mauritania are the Tukulor, who live near Senegal River Valley, Fulani, who live throughout the south, Soninke, who live in the far south, and the Wolof, who live on the coast near Rosso. 

Among these social classes is likewise a hierarchy of “birth status” between “nobles” and others. See Britannica for more background on Mauritania’s ethnic groups. 

“My inspiration for the work I do is the fact that, when I was growing up in Mauritania, my Dad was arrested because he and other intellectuals in Mauritania wrote a book describing the racial issues, “said Thiam, stating that the racial injustices of the 1980s are still going on today. 

She described how her father was arrested in 1986. As a little girl, she didn’t understand what was going on, but a part of her, even at that tender age, knew that it was not right. 

“It was from that point that I started to look at things really closely as far as racial justice issues in my country,” she said. Then, she noted that Mauritania’s inter-ethnic racial issues include slavery that still exists today. 

“It’s not easy to fight governments,” said Thiam, with a smile. 

“We all have to try to do what we can.” 

“I am so terribly sorry, once again, about your family’s experiences,” said Tsukerman, as she then turned the conversation to a little bit more of the background of Mauritania, as Tsukerman noted that many westerns were unlikely to have even have heard of the northwestern African country. 

“It’s in northwest Africa, often I say between Senegal and Morocco, which are very known African countries. That’s where it is. It was colonized by the French. We got our independence in the 1960s. It has lighter-skinned Arabs, and then the Africans,” she then described the different tribes of Mauritania. 

She then described the Mauritanians who have black skin but are identified as cultural Arabs.

“They are former slaves and some of them are still slaves today. Most of them are former slaves that were children that were caught within African communities by the Berbers that were transformed into slaves. They speak the language, they hold the culture, but when you look at them they look like me, or any other African person, because originally that’s what they were,” said Thiam. 

We will soon follow up with more discussion of the race-relations issues in Mauritania and Thiam’s powerful story.