At Port de Pêche, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Nouakchott, fishermen rest in the midday shade to sear sardines on makeshift barbeques, smoking cigarettes kept dry in Ziploc bags. Lining this stretch of beach are hundreds of Senegalese-style Pirogues: long and thin wooden boats, colorfully painted and decorated with ornate spires and streaming ribbons. At dusk, thousands of locals descend on the beach to haggle or simply to watch the boats arrive with the day’s catch. Once on land, the fishermen create chains, emptying bucket after bucket of sardines and squid into the corroded beds of pick-up trucks that supply the city’s fish markets. This bustling, hectic business is essential to everyday life in Mauritania – especially the coastal cities where fish is a culinary staple. Yet much of the workforce consists of migrants: Senegalese, Malians, Gambians, Nigerians and Guinea Bissauans and many other cultures flock to Nouakchott to make a living off the lucrative fishing grounds that lie just off the city’s coast.

A fisherman unloads buckets of sardines at the Port-de-Pêche neighborhood in the outskirts of Nouakchott.
A fisherman unloads buckets of sardines at the Port de Pêche neighborhood in the outskirts of Nouakchott.

A small village back in the 1950s, today’s Nouakchott is a sprawling, hectic African metropolis that continues to encroach on the nearby open desert. A decade of drought and endemic rural poverty have spurred a massive rural-to-urban migration, driving more than half of Mauritania’s population to the growing capital.

While most of Africa’s metropolises are marked by colonial relics, Nouakchott has relatively few. Its architecture is a mix of traditional dun-colored mud houses – popular in rural areas – and blocky concrete structures synonymous with urban areas in the Sahel Zone. By some estimates, the city has grown to around two million residents today, a far cry from the few coastal shacks stringing the shoreline during colonial times.

A view from a rooftop of one of Nouakchott's main arteries.
A view from a rooftop of one of Nouakchott’s main arteries.

For the city’s most intriguing architectural features, look to its two main mosques, donated by fellow North African nations Morocco and Saudi Arabia. The rather obviously named Saudi Mosque, found in the center of Nouakchott, is an elaborate structure with a massive, chandelier-lined hall boasting elaborate blue columns; a place where worshippers can rest or chat quietly. A few blocks away, the Moroccan-funded mosque is equally stunning: Its traditional, Moroccan-style rectangular minaret is offset by remarkable tile work across the tranquil courtyards. Meanwhile, in the city center, the delightfully confusing Marché Capitale (Capital Market) twists and winds through the tight alleys that divide a row of low-rise apartment blocks. The place is thronged with traders selling everything from counterfeit football jerseys to the classic blue robe worn by most Mauritanian men.

A man arrives in the Saudi Mosque in the center of Nouakchott for evening prayers. The Mosque is the city's largest.
A man arrives in the Saudi Mosque in the center of Nouakchott for evening prayers. The Mosque is the city’s largest.

Nouakchott exudes a welcoming friendliness. Droves of polite students are eager to engage with foreigners and use widely popular social networking platforms; sites that barely made a blip five years ago, i. e. when access to the internet was still relatively rare. Young people make up a vast majority of the country’s population, with the median age hovering around nineteen. I met Ahmed, a friendly seventeen-year-old Mauritanian student, on the fringes of the Marché Capitale where vendors rest beneath their stands to find shelter from the sun. Like many teenage boys in Nouakchott, he loves to spend his free time driving motorbikes to the beautiful beaches west of the city or playing pick-up football with friends. “I hope more people come to visit Nouakchott,” he told me. “It is a nice place to be and it is where I can get the best education. It has changed a lot over the past five years, in very good ways. You are always welcome here.”

Teens gather at a stretch of beach outside Nouakchott to play in the waves
Teens gather at a stretch of beach outside Nouakchott to play in the waves

Nouakchott represents the transformation of Mauritania. Years of oppressive autocratic rule and the debilitating remnants of the colonial era had choked progress for decades, leaving Mauritania a largely lawless state that lacked the most basic infrastructure. Nowadays, Mauritania seems to be progressing, albeit slowly. Here, widespread poverty in the extensive shantytowns that ring the city rubs shoulders with glitzy SUVs and gated communities, underscoring the glaring wealth disparity. At the same time, more and more schools and language centers are popping up and women are widely represented in parliament. Highways connect the coastal economic centers and far-flung desert outposts, attracting traders from the entire region and giving tourists access to the fascinating ancient cities of Chinguetti and Atar. Meanwhile, government has set up a commission to stem the country’s notorious slave trade, which continues to thrive in some pockets of society.

During my time in Nouakchott, I also met a Lebanese/British man named Ibrahim who grew up in England before moving to Mauritania in the early 2000s to study Arabic. He splits his time between rural madrasas and language centers in the capital where he teaches English to young Mauritanians. Ibrahim invited me to the roof of his apartment complex, built along one of the city’s main arteries. “This tarmac is all new,” he said, tracing the bustling street below with his finger. “It was paved in 2006 and now every time I return, the city seems different.” He paused. “I think good things are happening here. It all just takes time. Mauritania is so young.”

A scene at dawn among the makeshift stables at Camel and Cattle Market in the southern outskirts of Nouakchott.
A scene at dawn among the makeshift stables at Camel and Cattle Market in the southern outskirts of Nouakchott.

In the evenings, a sense of calm descends on Nouakchott. Traffic thins and the Atlantic churns up cool winds that sweep down the boulevards, curbing the blistering heat. Men in blue robes gather in smoky cafes; women meet in bodegas under soft grey light. At the port, fishermen share pots of spicy rice topped with grilled fish and squeezed lemons. On the southern outskirts of the city, cattle and camel traders maneuver through the myriad of stables set among spiny acacia trees. Streetlights flicker on and off, peepers peep, and Nouakchott, once again, feels more like a collection of villages than the sprawling metropolis that it is.

Text and all pictures, incl. the header image: Max C. Strong