Mauritania Zenaga

Mauritania Country Studies index

Mauritania - Zenaga


The zenaga, now the descendants of tributary vassals of the nobility, tend to be ethnically and culturally more Berber than the hassani and zawaya. They, too, are divided into warrior and religious tribes; but these traditionally were assistants to the nobles, often as slaves. The zenaga still work for the nobility, raising their livestock and looking after their families.

Traditionally, the zenaga paid both individual and group tribute to their noble patrons. Although the French colonial administration banned tribute (coutume), in some areas payment survived as late as the 1960s. Individual tribute took the form of military or educational services; group tribute was in the form of goods.

Maure Kinship and Marriage

The principal Maure kinship group is the patrilineage. Among sedentary Maures, the smallest segment of the patrilineage is a group of related males who, with their wives, sons, and unmarried daughters, constitute the extended family. Among nomadic groups, the significant unit is the camp group, consisting of several related lineage units and their extended families. The clan, the subtribe, and the tribal unit are groups of increasingly greater inclusiveness, each of which in principle is organized on the basis of patrilineal descent.

Marriage is almost always within the same clan, and lineages are endogamous as well. Islamic marriage prescriptions are generally followed, with the preferred marriage pattern between first cousins and strict prohibitions on marriage between other, specified relatives. In general, tradition emphasizes marriage within the lineage first, then within one's social level.

Polygyny is accepted among most Maure groups, but relatively few Maures actually have more than one wife at a time. Successive marriages are common, however, especially among elites. Marriage to a widow or a divorced woman entails a lower bride-price than a first marriage. Although levirate (marriage of a widow to her deceased husband's brother) is permitted, widows generally live with one of their sons rather than remarry.

Black Maures

Black Maures distinguish themselves from "black Africans" to emphasize their cultural affinities with white Maures and their cultural distance from sub-Saharan Africa. In most cases, their forebears were incorporated into Maure society as slaves. Maure society continued to accept the institution of slavery even after independence in 1960, but it customarily distinguished among three types of servile status: full slaves, part-slaves, and former slaves now freed, called harratin (sing., hartani). Conditions of servitude varied from benevolent to callous and cruel. White Maures had full rights over their slaves, including the right to sell or relocate them. Slaves sometimes earned or were granted their freedom.

Slavery has been outlawed several times, most recently in 1980. The term for slave, abd, was officially replaced with the term for freedman, hartani, but black Maures continued to be considered a slave class. Their status and role in Maure society have changed little. Many Maures continued to hold slaves and exercise their traditional prerogatives even after official decrees outlawed these practices.

Islamic law requires Muslim slaveholders to free their slaves by the fifth generation. Freedmen, however, usually remained in the camp of their former master and filled the same servile role. Whether as slaves or freedmen, black Maures tended their masters' animals, acted as household servants, worked in the palm groves or millet fields, or gathered the crop of gum arabic.

Artisans and Entertainers

The two most prominent occupational castes in Maure society are skilled craftsmen (or artisans) and entertainers (or storytellers). Artisans practice blacksmithing and ironworking, jewelrymaking, woodworking, tanning and leatherworking, potterymaking, shoemaking, weaving, and tailoring. All crafts but weaving and tailoring are performed by men. Although the hassani, zawaya, and zenaga regard artisans as their inferiors, the elite values their products and services, and craftsmen are sometimes allowed to live among the elite on a nearly equal basis.

Entertainers, poets, and musicians constitute a special group. Maure society, like most Islamic societies, places a high value on poetry and music. At the same time, some Maures fear poets and musicians, to whom they attribute occult knowledge and mystical powers that can be physically or politically threatening. Accordingly, noble families often become the patrons of entertainers; thus, the nobles are able to demonstrate their elite status while obtaining both entertainment and protection. Fishermen, salt miners, and nomadic hunters are economically and socially marginal to Mauritanian society and are generally considered outside the caste system.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

Zenaga language - Wikipedia
Zenaga in Mauritania | Joshua Project
Jabal al-Lughat: Zenaga and Mauritania
Zenaga | Ethnologue
What Languages Are Spoken in Mauritania? -

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