Mezein Terchitt/Nouakchott — For decades in the Sahel, working-age men have left their rural villages to find work in regional towns or capital cities, returning to plant or harvest crops when possible.
Mauritania is no exception, but the phenomenon is particularly pronounced here, say several aid agencies, with village after village devoid of working-age men, a dynamic that is starting to have other social implications.
NGOs Caritas and Action Against Hunger (ACF) estimate over 75 percent of working-age men in villages across Guidimakha and Gorgol regions have left for towns in the region or for Nouakchott, the capital.
They pick up work on construction sites or at the ports in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, take up labour in agricultural hubs such as Rosso, Kaédi or Selibaby, becoming horse-and-cart drivers, or take up petty trading.
The rural exodus in these regions as well as Hodh El Gharbi or Hodh el Chargui has been "rampant" over the past 40 years, said Secretary General of the Ministry of Rural Development Mohamed Ould Aida.
Jouheida Mint Mahmoud, who lives in Ould Rami Boudizem village in Guidimakha region, told IRIN the worst period for the village came four years ago, during the 2008-2009 drought. "Then, even the women were leaving to find work in Senegal ... I went to Tiyabou [in Sengal] to send back food and money or whatever I could find, to the young women and adolescents who stayed," she said, showing IRIN her callused hands and scarred feet from her time there working as a farm-hand.
She now receives regular aid from ACF, which has enabled her to stay.
Disrupting social order
Successive food crises and the subsequent waves of rural exodus have started to disrupt social cohesion in some villages, said Yobou Ould El Id, chief of Wompou Village in Guidimakha Region. The village is home to about 100 people - just a dozen of them men.
Among those who have stayed are young boys and adolescents who have dropped out of school - they often fight among themselves, said El Id. "But there are no brothers, fathers, uncles to manage these tensions; and the elders cannot be present in all the households to deal with them," he told IRIN.
While women are used to doing heavy agricultural labour, and have always dominated market gardening, they would benefit from having men around to help sow some crops, such as rice, said El Id.
Maty Mint Boide, secretary general of the Department of Family and Children in Nouakchott, says the exodus has had a "detrimental impact on education attendance". Because so few women attended school, they are less likely to prioritize it, she said.
"Many children are just left to themselves, with their mothers or grandmothers, and do not get enough guidance," she told IRIN, saying the department is trying to raise awareness of education among women in vulnerable villages.
While mothers are often the first to prioritize education, those who are wholly unfamiliar with schooling are an exception, said Boubacar Ould Messaoud, president of rights group SOS Esclaves, who links the problem to slavery, which remains prevalent throughout Mauritania and which leaves adults "unprepared" to fully manage their own or their children's lives.
Divorce rates rise
While rural exodus should, in theory, boost household income - and several families IRIN spoke to noted they received up to US$80 per month in urban remittances - it does not always work out this way, Mint Boide said.
Some men set themselves up with work in the city and abandon their families. "It is not uncommon to see them taking on a second or third wife," she told IRIN.
As such, divorce rates have spiked in certain communities of Guidimakha and Gorgol, particularly, says Mohammed Ould Boulla, an animator at ACF, among the Harratine community.
Twenty-four-year-old Zeinabou Mint Waly, in Mezein Terchitt in Gorgol, lives alone with her three children. Her husband came home to divorce her, and then returned to Nouakchott. One-third of the male working population has left the village, estimates ACF's Boulla.
In addition to using the money sent home to cover basic needs, a phenomenon has taken hold in this and other villages, he said, whereby even the poorest families feel pressure to show off the material wealth they have accrued through urban remittances.
Thus a significant part of the money received is spent on mobile phones, cloth and baptisms, sending families into debt despite the remittances.
It is against the backdrop of these financial pressures that divorce rates and abandonment rates are high, said Boulla.
Boosting rural incomes
The government and aid agencies are trying to boost rural incomes and food security, and with that to encourage men to stay at home.
For instance, the rural development ministry has distributed small plots of land and some livestock to particularly vulnerable families in Trarza, Gorgol and Guidimakha, which together are known as the triangle of poverty.
In Brakna Region, the same ministry has been running a project with the African Development Bank since 2010, training rural farmers in irrigated farming. It is hoped this will increase the use of sustainable irrigated land and boost rural food security.
Thus far, 5,200 hectares of crops have been grown under this scheme, according to Dagha Missa Abadallahi, director of agriculture in the African Development Bank in Mauritania.
Head of the rural development ministry, Mohamed Ould Aida, says that since 2010 some 1,500 men have returned to their villages because of the project.
Targeted households are showing improved living conditions, better sanitation, increased incomes and better nutritional status for their children.
Aid agency support is usually not enough to keep men at home, but when it addresses multiple problems - water access, agricultural equipment, seeds and cash support - it is more likely to, said an observer.
Ethmane Ould Sidi Ali is one of the few to stay back in his village of Ould Rami Boudizem during the 2011-2012 lean period. His family has received cash transfers as well as seeds and tools from ACF to help look after their corn and millet fields.
"Before we started getting help from international organizations, my husband often used to leave the village to look for work," said Jouheida Mint Mahmoud, Ali's wife. "Now ... it is a bit more reliable. Among the men who stayed, all are now farming. This year, they've not all left to look for work."
But progress remains fragile, said European Union consultant Aart van Den Heide. Government help "has improved [the] resilience of some households to external shocks ... but given just one more drought year ... the coping mechanisms will disintegrate, leading men once again to abandon their villages," he told IRIN.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]