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History & Background

Early public schools in Mauritania were established when the west African nation was colonized by the French. A particularly nomadic people, the Mauritanians quite often ignored these new schools and continued to send their children to the existing Islamic schools, which favored religious instruction based on the teaching of the Koran. Boys typically received seven years of education, beginning at age eight, while girls remained in school for a much shorter duration.

When World War II ended in 1945, the French colonial administration began setting up mobile "tent" schools as a means of reaching these nomadic communities. However, in the mid-1960s, only 14 percent of all school-age children had enrolled in the public schools. It wasn't until the Mauritanians themselves began to view traditional religious education as inadequate to prepare their children for the future that enrollment levels at secular schools began to climb, reaching roughly 35 percent by the mid-1980s. At that time, 878 primary schools—employing 2,900 teachers—and 44 secondary schools—employing 1,563 teachers, more than one-fourth of whom were from other countries—were in operation.

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