Tensions between different ethnic groups in northern Mali have long run high, but at a market in neighbouring Mauritania, people are finding a way to get along. 

Photographs and story by Mamoudou Lamine Kane

The various tribes and people of northern Mali have long been divided by fighting between government forces, Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups. Yet each week, across the border in a Mauritanian market, old enmities are forgotten and new relationships fostered as Malian refugees from different ethnic groups come together, not only to exchange goods and services, but also culture, language and traditions.

View of the M’berra refugee camp in Mauritania, 50 km from the Mali/Mauritania border

View of the M’berra refugee camp in Mauritania, 50 km from the Mali/Mauritania border

More than 50,000 Malian refugees live in the M’berra refugee camp. The majority fled from northern Mali three years ago when the latest, ongoing iteration of the Tuareg independence rebellion erupted.

A short distance away, belying the stark conditions in the camp, the desert landscape is transformed into a bustling riot of colour every Friday as stalls are erected and traders gather at one of the largest and most diverse markets in this remote part of southeastern Mauritania.

For many refugees with no employment opportunities in the camp, the M’berra market is a means of survival. It is also an important meeting place and one that has allowed tolerance, both among the refugees and with the host community, to flourish.

Moulaye Ely Ould Zein, a religious scholar, sits behind his brother Ahmed

Moulaye Ely Ould Zein, a religious scholar, sits behind his brother Ahmed

“I have six children, and help from the camp is not enough to provide for my family,” Moulaye Ely Ould Zein, a religious scholar who fled Mali last year, told IRIN.

Ould, who recharges small electronic devices like cell phones and flashlights using solar panels, said he doesn’t have to share the same language or background as his clients to do good business with them:

“In the north of Mali, no matter what other people say, communities come together, and despite language differences, they still, to some extent, understand the subtleties of each other’s culture.”
— Moulaye Ely Ould Zein

Khalifa Ould Mohamed Lemine, who sells a variety of food products, including cookies and sweets, said the fact many do now speak each other’s languages was proof of just how good relations were between the different groups.

“It’s not complicated for anyone,” he said. “On the contrary, it can be rewarding to learn a new language because, beyond communication, it can relieve tensions when you are living amongst each other.”

 Khalifa Ould Mohamed Lemine (left) sells produce with his son

 Khalifa Ould Mohamed Lemine (left) sells produce with his son

In order to sell as much merchandise as possible, Lemine said it was important for him to maintain good relations with different clients at M’berra, even people he wouldn’t normally mix with back in Mali.

“I have nine children, so you can easily understand that humanitarian assistance alone is not enough to fully take care of my family,” he told IRIN. “This market allows me, to some extent, to satisfy our needs.”

Tata Maiga, who fled the northern Malian town of Léré with her six children, now earns a living selling doughnuts, cakes and mangoes at the market.

“Everything is not always perfect between the Songhai, Fulani, Arabs and Bambara... But it’s like a family: We fight, sometimes violently, but also make up and share languages, especially when it facilitates reconciliation.”
— Tata Maiga

Each week, Mauritanian shopkeeper Baba Ahmed packs himself and his wares into a crammed mini-bus and makes the 18-kilometre journey each way to the M'berra market from his village of Bassiknou, to sell tunics, fabrics, shoes and other goods at the M’berra market. 

Like the Malian refugees, he comes not only to earn money but also to interact with people. 

“I have my shop in Bassiknou, but this market allows me to round off my profit,” he said, adding that his interactions at M’berra have also allowed him to develop his language skills and become more cultured.

Baba Ahmed at M’berra market

Baba Ahmed at M’berra market

"This market is a microcosm of how Mauritanian communities could, how they should, communicate with each other,” he told IRIN. “I can now speak Bambara, Hassanaya and some Tamaschek, which are languages hat are found mainly in Mali. I speak them because I need it in my business, but… I know many of my fellow southern Mauritanians speak no other languages.”

The ability of the Malians to mingle and get on across their ethnic and linguistic divides is a source of envy for Mauritanians like Ahmed.

"It’s lucky for Malians, and for northern Malians in particular, that whatever the gravity of the crisis that their societies face, their communities still sit down and talk,” he said.  “Perhaps this is the only way to find a lasting solution to such problems in Mauritania, where communities haven’t spoken for 25 years and racist ideologies continue.”


For more on Mali, see our ongoing coverage of the conflict and attempts at peace on IRIN:

Edited by Andrew Gully and Jennifer Lazuta with Additional work by Tamara Leigh

June 10th 2015