Mauritania is home to the second largest camel market in Africa (the largest is located at Sudan). Fourteen kilometers from Nouakchott, along the N3 road to the east, the hustle and bustle of the city begins to die down. The buildings quickly lighten up and the atmosphere becomes undeniably more rural. It is in this liminal urban/rural space that the camel market is located.
The site is easily recognizable. The gnarled branches form uneven but effective pens that extend beyond what the eye can see. A layer of dust persists permanently, and it revels and hides simultaneously at irregular intervals. And thousands of camels are lying on the ground, fighting for dominance, pushing and shoving at feeding time, moving slowly, or quickly, or not moving at all, just staring at you.
Unfortunately, there is no vintage point that can offer an overall view of the market. The only way to see it is by walking among the livestock – mostly camels, but no shortage of cows, goats or donkeys. The sea of camels are carefully (but not obviously, in the eyes of the unfamiliar) divided into herds, each belonging to one of the many shepherds who can be seen roaming around the expanse in their blue boubou (traditional tunic).
Finding out how much a camel costs can be a challenge. First, breeders may think you’re interested in buying one, leading to inflated offers. And second, it can invite herders to brag and share with you the highest price they’ve ever managed to collect for a camel. To compound the mystery, the price of a camel varies depending on factors such as age, sex, height, weight and aesthetic beauty. And that, of course, depends on what the camel is bought for: breeding, racing or slaughter. After a long investigation, it turned out that a healthy camel that is usually bought as a gift (a common tradition in Mauritania) and does not excel in any of the aforementioned variables would cost around $850 (as of 2023).