Sidiyya Baba lived his entire life in the area called Trarza, which constitutes the southwestern corner of Mauritania. It is an area of steppe and desert, the beginning of the Sahara. The western border is sharply defined, by the Atlantic Ocean and its resources of fish. The southern is equally sharply drawn, at the Senegal River and the cultivable land which produced grain and animals. The south also had stands of acacia trees harvested for their gum, which was exported for its pharmaceutical and industrial uses. Much of this production was performed by slaves or harratin, darker skinned families whose origins lay to the south in "black" Africa. We have included an artist’s portrayal of the harsh labor of collecting the globules of gum.
Alongside the harratin lived free black families with their own farms and herds.
To the east Trarza gave way to another region called Brakna. To the north lay the area known as the Adrar. These boundaries were not sharp, but marked by certain wells, oases and routes through the desert. The inhabitants spoke a dialect of Arabic called Hassaniyya, and called themselves the bidan, the “whites,” in contrast to the sudan, the inferior “blacks” who lived to the south. The bidan stayed mainly in nomadic tent camps, occasionally in
more permanent villages. They raised dates in the oases as well as camels, who were used for transport, raiding, and carrying salt blocks from mines to consumers north and south. The salt trade, together with fishing, agro-pastoral production and gum, constituted the main economic activities of the area. Water was obviously a key resource, and groups fought to control wells and access to them. The men were the most visible actors in the society, but the women engaged in their own activities outside of the home, as in the case of these musicians.
These pursuits were dominated by the upper classes - politically, the emiral families who sought to reign over Trarza, and economically, the merchants who ran the caravans. These dominating classes corresponded to a social division among the bidan. The political specialists were “warriors” or hassan, equipped with firearms and trained in protection and ambush. The economic leaders were the “clerics” or zwaya, who in addition to their commercial functions were also the religious specialists, scholars and imams of Islam who went by the name of “marabouts” in local parlance. In fact the tribes of Trarza and other parts of Mauritania were labeled hassan and zwaya, but the division of labor between the two groups was not so sharp as the stereotypes suggested - all were concerned with firearms and their own protection, and all were involved in production and trade.