Nouakchott, Mauritania – “The Place of the Winds”

Nouakchott, Mauritania

Achieved Capitalhood – 1958


1958 – a small fishing village of around 200 people; plans were put in place to expand the city so that it could accommodate 15,000

Present – with an official estimate of just under 1,000,000 and unofficial estimates of 2,000,000, Nouakchott is the largest city in Mauritania and one of the largest cities in the Sahara

A brief history of Mauritania

Traditionally, the tribes and people in the Sahara are nomadic and large, well organized kingdoms do not play a big role in its history. Islam was brought in by the Moors and took about 500 years to fully take root. During the partition of Africa in the late 1800s, the French Republic claimed the area and it became part of French West Africa. The capital at this time was Saint Louis, located in what is today Senegal. The French viewed the land as a strategic link between their territories in North and Western Africa. They didn’t try to develop the area economically and didn’t rule directly – they left that to Islamic leaders and local tribal groups. Following WWII, the French began to revise their colonial system, which would eventually lead to the independence of their African colonies. Mauritania first became an autonomous republic within French West Africa in 1958 and achieved independent statehood in 1960.

Why Nouakchott?

The Sahara Desert covers most of Mauritania. When the country began preparing for independence in the late 1950s, Nouakchott was chosen for its moderate climate, central location and proximity to an important trade route to West Africa. But there was also another reason. Beneath Nouakchott lies Trarza Lake which holds vast amounts of fresh water, a precious resource in a desert country.

Nouakchott today:

Nouakchott has seen a population explosion since its debut as a capital city in 1958. In 1960, 90% of Mauritania’s population was still living a nomadic lifestyle. During the 1970s and 80s, drought and desertification destroyed their pastoral lands, forcing them to move into the cities. Many came to Nouakchott. This has led to several serious issues.

  • Slums in Nouakchott are called kebbe, and are located on the outskirts of the city. Most buildings in the kebbe are built over night and are made out of whatever materials can be found. In 1999 it was estimated that over half of Nouakchott’s population lived and conducted business in the kebbe. The people here live on an estimated $1 a day for families and live without running water or electricity.
  • In 2009, the Mauritanian government began a project to relocate people from the slums into planned city housing. By 2013, just over 181,000 people had been moved or had access to improved services.
  • Trarza Lake is not a rain-fed lake, so while it did hold a vast amount of water in 1958, that water source was not renewable. The huge population boom has placed an extraordinary burden on this water supply, and the city has had to start looking elsewhere for fresh water. While the middle and upper class residents of Nouakchott have running water, residents living in the kebbe do not and are forced to buy their water from street vendors at prices that often exceed their daily income.  The WHO recommends consuming 50 litres of water a day; the average Nouakchott resident drinks less than 20.
  • Nouakchott also faces the threat of desertification, especially on its eastern side, where the battle is fought against the sand dunes daily. The government has planted 250,000 palm trees along the city to create a barrier, but it’s unclear how long man can hold off the expansion of the Sahara.
NASA image of sand dunes looming over Nouakchott


Visiting Nouakchott?

Despite its difficulties, Nouakchott is a vibrant city brimming with culture.

The city is home to several mosques, including the Grand Mosque, the Friday Mosque and the Mosquee Marocaine.

It is also known for its markets, including the Port de Peche, a fish market along the beach where Wolof and Fula men drag in heavy fishing nets daily, and the Silver Market.

The Musee National hosts a large collection of Moorish arts and cultural artifacts.

Nouakchott is also one of the principal locations in Africa for the distribution of Saharan meteorites. These are some of the oldest and rarest rocks on Earth. The Saharan climate preserves them well and they are found throughout North Africa.

Port de Peche

2 thoughts on “Nouakchott, Mauritania – “The Place of the Winds”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! I was especially intrigued by Nouakchott’s meteorites. As a former geologist and lifetime science nerd, I’ve long been fascinated with meteorites. I own a small meteorite (and now I’m wondering where I stored it!) and hunted, without success, for meteorites at an impact crater in Australia. Thanks for helping me learn more about the world!

    Liked by 1 person

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