Bafur, Imrawgen or Imraguen, and Nem-adi represent what are most likely some of the most ancient populations in the Sahara, and their language may belong to the Niger-Congo group. What little of their language is left seems to be similar to Azer, a form of Soninke (Mande).
To-day they all speak Hassaniyah Arabic, the Arabic of the dominant Arabs of Maurita-nia, the Azwad region of Mali, and the Western Sahara, but the Imrawgen and Nemadi still maintain a few words related to ﬁshing, hunting, and houses as well as other grammatical features of their origi-nal language when speaking Hassaniyah. Depending on the sources, some 1,000 Imrawgen still speak their form of Azer.
In total, all three groups number only in the few thousands; the Imrawgen number around 5,000 found along the Atlantic coast of the Western Sahara and Maurita-nia. Most live in and around the Banc d’Arguin National Park in Mauritania. The Nemadi number perhaps no more than 200 in the Tagant and Hawdh of Maurita-nia either as nomadic hunters or settled in towns such as Tishit and Walata, where they make up 20 percent of the population. The Bafur exist in small numbers in the Adrar, Trarza, and Senegal River valley and are dominated by the Hassani Awlad Banyug. The Mauritanian scholar Wuld Hamidun notes that the Hajjah people, a minority group in Senegal, is Bafur.
Very little is known of the origins of the three groups, though it can be speculated that they are descendants of the Neolithic populations of Mauritania. During the Neolithic period, the Sahara was a lush savanna and the population in Mauritania produced rock art illustrating hunting, ﬁshing, and the beginnings of domestica-tion of cattle, sheep, and goats.
The Bafur are mentioned in early Islamic geogra-phies and histories as occupying the Adrar region of central Mauritania south to the Senegal River. They were ﬁerce adversa-ries of the pastoral nomadic Berber Sanhajah and at ﬁrst resisted Islam. The Murabatin eventually defeated the Bafur, took their capital Madiat al-Kilab (City of Dogs, named for their use of trained dogs in combat), and forced them to re-treat south of the Adrar.
All three groups have been subjugated ﬁrst by Berber-speaking Sanhajah and later by Arabic-speaking Awlad Hassan. Imrawgen is a Berber term meaning ﬁsh-ermen, and nemadi is a Berber word meaning master of dogs. The Imrawgen were dominated by the Awlad Ahmad bin Daman and the Awlad Dulaym, to whom they paid a form of tribute into the 20th century.
The Nemadi lived from hunting and once roamed the vast region from Wadaninthe northtoKiffa inthesouth and N‘imah in the east. They still raise and use dogs to hunt today, thus their Ber-ber name meaning “master of dogs.” Stud-ies by Jean Gabus, such as “Contribution a` l’etude des Nemadis,” remain the most complete studies to date.
The Imrawgen’s traditional ﬁshing grounds became a national park in 1976, and in 1989, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park has split the com-munity between those who wish to main-tain their traditional ﬁshing methods and those who have “modernized.” Competi-tion from international ﬁshing ﬂeets has created a major problem for them. In conjunction with the World Wildlife Federation, the Mauritanian government integrated the Imrawgen into the park by ofﬁcially making them guards. Other international organizations have come to assist, and in 2007, traditional Imrawgen-preserved ﬁsh was introduced to the market.
John A. Shoup
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