Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world, and 90% of this arid country in northwest Africa lies within the Sahara desert region – a region that is expanding steadily. Whereas in 1960, when the country gained its independence, roughly 85% of its population were nomadic herders, living from their herds of livestock, the desert region has been expanding since the beginning of the 1970s and many of them have lost their livestock in consequence. The result is that more and more people are migrating from the rural areas into the slum dwellings on the sprawling peripheries of the towns and cities. Meanwhile, many areas in the extreme west, on the Atlantic coast are being impacted by rising sea levels, which are now making many areas of the coastal cities uninhabitable.
Mauritania‘s population of some 4.8 million souls is almost 100% Muslim, and the mere 4000 or so Catholic Christians are virtually all foreigners. In fact the bishop himself, his priests and religious sisters of the one and only diocese in the country collectively come from around 20 different European, Asian and African countries.
The work of the Church, Much Appreciated
Nevertheless, the 27 religious sisters in the diocese still have their hands full, working in the slum areas of the cities and in the remote and undeveloped rural regions. They minister to expectant mothers, invalids, migrants, prisoners and disabled person in schools and other educational establishments and teach the women – who are not allowed to attend school – practical skills such as knitting and sewing, basic literacy. And they also care for the many malnourished children in this society.
Despite the increasing pressure from a growing Islamist tendency in the country, the work of the Catholic Church is admired and greatly appreciated by many ordinary Muslims. A Mauritanian friend of the country‘s Catholic Bishop Martin Happe, though a Muslim himself, has many happy childhood memories of the Catholic religious sisters. He recalls how he and his playmates used to invent all kinds of imaginary hurts and illnesses, just so that they could knock on the door of Saint Joseph‘s convent and ask the sisters for help. ”In addition to getting a plaster, we always used to get a glass of lemonade as well”, he explains. And to this day he still remembers the names of all the sisters in the convent.