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Mauritania is a sovereign nation located in the Maghreb region of Western Africa.  The coastal country is bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, to the north by Western Sahara, to the northeast by Algeria, to the east and southeast by Mali and to the southwest by Senegal.  Mauritania takes its name from the ancient Berber Kingdom of Mauritania, which later became a province of the Roman Empire, despite the fact that modern Mauritania covers a territory far to the southwest of the old kingdom.  The country is very large geographically, with a total land area of just under 398,000 square miles, and its capital and largest city is Nouakchott, located on the Atlantic coast in the west of the country.
The estimated permanent population of Mauritania is just under 3.3 million and the racial breakdown of the population consists of Arabs (30%), Blacks (30%) and those of mixed Black and Arab race (40%).  The population is very ethnically diverse, and includes ethnic Moors (White or Arab); Haratins, who are black-skinned people and descendants of free slaves who are still attached to their masters’ culture; Soninke; and the Serer, Fula and Toucouleur people, who are primarily farmers or nomadic stock breeders.
The Hassaniya dialect of Modern Standard Arabic is considered the national and official language of Mauritania, but there are also several other regional languages spoken, along with French, which is used in the media and spoken among the educated classes.  Nearly the entire country practices the Sunni branch of Islam, except for roughly 5,000 residents who are members of the Roman Catholic Church.
Education in Mauritania
Education in Mauritania is under the supervision of the national Ministry of Education, and school is compulsory for eight years, beginning at age six and culminating at age fourteen.  The education system is divided between three levels:  primary education, secondary education and higher education.
Primary education in Mauritania spans eight years, beginning at age 6, and is the only compulsory stage of education under the Mauritanian system.  The curriculum in the early grades revolves primarily around instruction in reading, writing and basic arithmetic.  In the later grades the curriculum focuses on a number of areas, including mathematics; Arabic, French and some English; natural and social sciences; and practical vocational education in vital Mauritanian occupations, particularly agriculture.  Despite the government mandate, only around 65 percent of Mauritanian children attend school.  Of those, only 60 percent are likely to reach the fifth grade.  A lack of adequate school facilities and qualified teachers, especially in the country’s rural areas, contributes greatly to the poor enrollment figures in Mauritanian schools, and only a small percentage of students continue their education past the primary level.
Most students who complete the academic track in the country’s secondary schools (there is also a vocational track that is much more popular), with the goal of attending a university and pursuing a degree, do so at either the one national university in Mauritania, located in the capital city, or at universities abroad, the more popular choice among the majority of Mauritanian students, especially those from wealthy families.
Distance and poverty both play a crucial role in the low enrollment rates and poor educational attainment among Mauritanian students.  Very few schools exist in the country’s rural areas, so students living outside of the city must travel long distances to attend school.  As a result, most rural-dwelling children forgo school altogether.  Additionally, although school is free for all students, other costs, for things like books, uniforms and school lunches, become prohibitive factors for children of poor families.