Mauritania
Adrian Guerin

Life in an ever-shrinking Sahara settlement

The huge, empty desert expanse of Mauritania is one of the least visited countries in the world. Located in the Maghreb region of western Africa, a large section of the country lies in the Sahara Desert, while approximately half of the country is covered in desert dunes. While most of the population still largely depends on agriculture and livestock for their livelihood, their way of life is now threatened due to a combination of naturally shifting weather patterns and human actions such as overgrazing and deforestation.

A young girl on the dunes that surround Chinguetti. Once a medieval trading centre that was home to 20,000 people, the village now has only a few thousand residents, who rely mostly on tourism for their livelihood.

A man battles a sandstorm as he guides his herd of donkeys across an open expanse in Chinguetti. The Sahara is reportedly expanding southward at a rate of 30 miles per year, creating an existential threat to the tiny 260-acre settlement of Chinguetti. UNESCO, who has designated the village a World Heritage Site, warns that the seasonal flash flooding and frequent sandstorms caused by global climate change are creating devastating levels of erosion, exacerbating the threat.

Workers in Chinguetti wet the sand to prevent it from being blown about.

Environmental degradation, responsible for the dangerous displacement of sand dunes in Mauritania, has wiped out homes, livestock and livelihoods throughout the desert country.

Women in Chinguetti wear brightly coloured head scarfs and dresses. They are black Moors, nomadic Muslims who make up a large portion of Mauritania’s 3.9 million people. To the ancient Moors, an overweight wife was a symbol of a man’s wealth. Today, bigger women are not only a sign of wealth, but also of beauty. Rolling layers of fat are considered the height of sexiness.

Three semi-nomads walk with their camels in the windswept dunes of the Sahara. Until the 1980s nomadic life was prevalent in Mauritania, and while there are still a small number of nomads in the northeast of Chinguetti, about two-thirds of Mauritania’s population now live in and around urban centres.

A child of the Sahara tends to his family’s camels while his mother prepares dinner in their tent seen in the background. While the size of this camp is relatively small, sizes of nomadic encampments do vary from south to north. Historically, in the coastal southwest, encampments of up to 300 tents were found, whereas in northern Mauritania only groups of a few tents generally moved together.

As the sun sets on another day in the Sahara, camels enjoy their reward for lugging food, sleeping equipment and humans across the desert’s heavy dunes. While camels can go for days or even weeks with little or no food or water, these camels were happy to not test fate and instead gorge on the dry grains and seeds provided by their owner. A camel does not chew its food well before swallowing it, as I quickly discovered.

A boy slides down one of the mountains of sand surrounding his family’s desert encampment. The Sahara Desert is considered one of the harshest climates on the planet, due to its variable high temperatures during the day and significant cooling in the night. This shot was taken at dusk, just as temperature began to rapidly cool, hence the boy’s rather large coat.

Home sweet home. The livestock in the right of the photo supplies the nomads with milk and meat while the camels seen in the background provide transport and cargo services. The women dye sheep’s wool, with which they then braid long brown bands that are sewn together to make tents. They also use tanned goats’ skins to make guerbas (waterskins). The location of the camp is determined by the search for water and pasturage.

The long march back to Chinguetti. Camel nomads have an unerring sense of direction across the desert, skillfully able to navigate the fastest route to their destination.