Whole Earth Review

Traditional drought and uncommon famine in the Sahel

Traditional drought and uncommon famine in the Sahel

David Tenenbaum



I DON’T KNOW THE NAME of the Fulani cattleherder, so I will call him Musa. Bending over his well, Musa knots together the two pieces of well rope and straightens. The new rope joins a dozen other pieces that hold a bucket 100 feet below. His well is now twice as deep as usual.

It is June, 1984. The annual rains, lifeblood of the Sahel region in West Africa, should be coming north with green rebirth for the dusty, flat rangeland. Musa spends his days watering his herd, raising buckets of the muddy water that seeps so slowly into his well. Again the rains are late, and he fears this year will repeat the year before, when the rains failed, the crops and pasture shriveled, and people went hungry.

The Fulani herd their cattle in northern Burkina Faso, one of six sub-Saharan countries of the Sahel, the arid savannah that extends 2,000 miles from Senegal on the Atlantic Coast to Chad in the interior of the continent. The term “sahel’ is Arabic in origin and means “border of the desert.’ Musa might not know about Ethiopia’s famine, 2,000 miles east, but he does know drought. He knows the signs the Ethiopians see as their land parches and fails to feed them. He understands the foreboding they feel as they watch their crops wither, as they search the sky for rain clouds, as they push their herds further to vanishing pasture.

The Fulani, an ethnic group of about nine million in West Africa, conquered their present land by “jihad,’ or Muslim holy war, during the 19th century. They herd the great majority of the cattle, sheep and goats in the Sahel and are typical of Sahelian peoples. One third of the Fulani are semi-sedentary; they raise millet and corn to supplement their meat and dairy food. One hundred thousand Fulani are true nomads, following the rain and pasture, subsisting entirely from their herds.

Of necessity, the Fulani are experts in extracting a living from the harsh Sahel. Their cattle herding customs take advantage of the lush northerly pastures fed by summer rains and use the wetter areas for grazing during the dry season, when the Sahel might be mistaken for the desert itself. During the dry season, the sun scorches the earth and daily temperatures regularly push past 100| F. Relative humidity is predictably low. The vast plains do nothing to deflect a desiccating wind, the cold harmattan, that blows off the Sahara. In a good year, eight to ten consecutive months are rainless. The rains come between May and September, but they are often torrential downpours, sluicing off rather than soothing the arid soil. “Average’ years bring eight to twenty-four inches of rain to the Sahel, but as with many drylands, average rainfall is exceptional, and many years the peoples of the Sahel endure destructive floods or drought.

Two years later, in 1986, the drought shows signs of abating, though it is inevitable that it will return. It is less certain whether the return of the drought will mean famine to the Sahel. According to Dr. Paul Stoller, an anthropologist studying in Niger, people in their 50s and 60s said they had never seen it so bad. In 1984 people had been reduced to eating millet stumps, pounding the stumps to make a gruel. Even the cows would not eat it.

Stoller’s report brings a disquieting sense of deja vu. The Sahel first made headlines during a drought and famine that lasted from 1968 to 1972, when a 40 percent reduction in “normal’ rainfall brought six million livestock herders and farmers to the brink of starvation. At least one hundred thousand Africans died.

The equation is not simply: The Sahelian drought equals famine. A raft of other factors determine how well the Sahelian peoples and their cultures stand the withering strees of drought, not the least of which is the failure of well-intentioned Western experts and the solutions they have proposed.

The world’s leading authorities on surviving the drought in the Sahel don’t come from Indiana or Texas. They come from places like Mancoulicounda in Senegal, a village in the dusty, hungry rangeland of the Sahel.

The true experts are the Sahelian peoples. Their cultures are storehouses of wisdom for surviving in the drylands, where they have lived for centuries.

Despite its harshness, the Sahel has been home to humans for millenia. It hosted great trading empires such as Mali in the 13th century and Songhai in the 15th and 16th centuries. Major trade cities grew on the borders between the ecological zones. Legendary Tombouctoo (Timbuktu), on the Niger River in Mali, arose in the 11th century as a center of Islamic learning and became a headquarters for the trans-Sahara caravan trade. As recently as 1950, camel caravans hauled goods north from Tombouctoo across 1,500 miles of desert to the Mediterranean coast and south on the shorter trip to the Gulf of Guinea.

DOZENS OF DISTINCT CULTURES inhabit the Sahel. Senegal, for instance, a nation the size of South Dakota on the Atlantic Coast, contains eight ethnic groups. Depending on their location, tradition, and political and military might, those ethnic groups have exploited different niches in the delicate ecosystem of the Sahel. Farmers grow drought-resistant millet and sorghum on the wetter southern plains or near good wells further north. Pastoral peoples (some purely nomadic, others semi-sedentary) herd animals on the desert fringe.

The complexity of Sahelian life might surprise those who expect to find a few nomads and their goats. To conserve rangeland in the 19th century, a Fulani ruler named Sheik Ahmadou developed for the rich Niger River delta south of Tombouctoo a code called the Dina that classified herds and specified migration routes to avoid massing stock. The Tuareg, a fierce pastoral people who until recently held slaves and serfs, utilized at least three sites for their migrations: oases in the desert, camps in the Sahel, and villages in wetter areas for the dry seasons and years. Negotiated arrangements between landholders and herders were common. When the Tuareg moved south, they paid farmers with meat or dairy products for grazing privileges.

But the peoples of the six countries of the Sahel– Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Mali–are among the world’s poorest. In 1980 Burkina Faso had an average per capita income of $190 and a literacy rate of 10 percent. In Senegal, where 60 percent of the population could read and write, the average per capita income was $450.

The political weakness of the Sahel’s nomadic and semi-sedentary peoples reinforces their third-class status. Only in Mauritania do pastoral peoples control the government.

Between 1973 and 1980, drought- and famine-stricken sub-Saharan Africa received at least $5 billion in emergency relief and other forms of agricultural aid intended to combat the devastating effects of subsequent droughts. But has it done any good? Agricultural aid directed to the Sahel was predominantly for large projects designed by foreign “experts.’ Project planners tried to settle the nomads and feed their cattle in feedlots a la Texas; they tried to monetarize, or “rationalize,’ the traditional systems of exchange so they could offer incentives to Africans for using Western practices; and they promoted export rather than subsistence crops.

Grandiose projects dammed rivers to irrigate crops, yet cash crops got the irrigation water, and pastoral people who had used the seasonally flooded riverbanks for grazing or farming were forced out. Now, the dams have begun to silt up; in some areas the soil is too salty to grow crops.

One form of aid favored during the 1950s and 1960s was a deep, large capacity, and expensive well–a borehole. The theory was that if herds had access to water, they could graze greater pastures. According to Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins’ Food First,

Before long on average in the Sahel 6,000 head of cattle were milling about wells surrounded by grazing lands that at best could feed 600. After the cattle ate out the areas around the wells and trampled down the soil, the caked earth could no longer even absorb the scarce rains. One eyewitness reported that each well “quickly became the center of its own little desert forty or fifty miles square.’

In one now-celebrated case, Tuareg herders in Niger asked that a borehole be capped to ease the destruction of the rangeland.

Most foreign technical assistance in the 1970s, of dubious value in any case, went to develop crops for export. Almost all the grain grown in the Sahel is rain-fed and locally consumed, yet only 16 percent of foreign aid since 1975 has been used to develop rain-fed agriculture. Large-scale aid projects stress the Western style of agriculture, which is reliant upon expensive imports of fertilizer, pesticides, fuel and machines. The peoples of the Sahel simply cannot afford these imports.

The roots of these “inappropriate and destructive development programmes’ can be traced to the Treaty of Ghent in 1885, when European powers seeking greater export market, sources of raw materials and strategic advantages pinned their flags on huge tracts of West Africa. These colonial powers failed to account for the needs of the African peoples, particularly the wide-roaming, poorly understood, and powerless pastoral peoples. The result was a map of Africa that bore little relation to indigenous holdings and traditional political and ethnic relationships.

Ironically, the new national borders inhibited the nomads’ essential weather-directed migrations to good pasture. The most graphic description of the harm wrought by national borders comes from Colin Turnbull, in The Mountain People. Turnbull lived with the destitute remnants of the Ik people in Northern Uganda. According to Turnbull (who is not undisputed), the Ik were starving because they were cut off by national borders and national parks from traditional grazing grounds. Cultural disintegration among the Ik was grotesque; parents stole food from their children.

To fully exploit is holdings in West Africa, France channeled all trade through Dakar, the westernmost point in Africa. They replaced the logical north-south trade, the economic mainstay of West African life, with east-west routes to feed the port at Dakar and the coffers of French traders.

To profit from their new holdings, the European colonists introduced cash crops such as palm oil, peanuts and cotton. To force Africans to grow these crops, the French instituted “head’ taxes payable in French francs. To pay, Africans raised cash crops or performed wage labor. Those cash crops not only diverted labor from the production of subsistence crops, but usurped the best farmland. Subsistence farmers were pushed further north toward the Sahara, and they in turn displaced the pastoralists onto yet worse land. The conversion to cash crops continues today. While Malians starved in the 1970s, Mali’s peanut exports jumped 70 percent. Cotton exports increased by 400 percent.

Even many of the most benign-sounding development efforts went awry. The French and English administrations increased the range that herds could graze safely, but ironically reduced the amount of fallow land available for emergencies. Veterinary health campaigns improved animal health and increased herd size, yet the result was greater pressure on the fragile land, erosion and desert encroachment.

Outsiders are now beginning to realize that many West African customs insure against the vicissitudes of life near the desert. Anthropologists now interpret various African cattle distribution methods such as cattle raiding, bride prices, and cattle loans as measures that insure against want and reinforce social relationships.

Cattle raiding, often part of manhood rituals, is the widespread tradition of stealing cattle from neighboring tribes. “We walked for two days, 100 miles, to the Somalis’ camp,’ explained one youth from the shores of Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolph) in northern Kenya. “We wanted to surprise them. The older men pushed us on, but the police knew we were coming and shot at us. We got away with our own herd, but were so thirsty we had to drink their urine on the way back.’

The effect of the practice of cattle raiding is to restrict herd size to what one can guard. If one gets too rich, and is unable to watch his herd, someone poorer will steal some animals. The animals also benefit from the increased attention paid them by the owner.

Another common custom is the “bride price’ a man pays, often in cattle, to his new relations. Cattle are also loaned to relatives and friends, which reduces the hazards of disease, predation and theft. The Fulani, for example, have developed a system of cattle loans called habbanae. In habbanae, the owner of a cow loans her out while she has three calves. The calves and milk all belong to the borrower, but the owner gets his cow back.

The tradition of habbanae also reinforces relationships among the Fulani. Even rich people are considered poor unless involved in habbanae.

It has become obvious that local peoples are often the best source of innovation. In arid northern Kenya, tribespeople have apparently re-invented a method used in Biblical times to prevent rainfall from running off. In order to prevent the first millimeter of rain from clogging the clay soil so that further rain washes it away, they have formed simple V-shaped catchments to collect water and let it sink slowly into the soil.

Agricultural development programs must enhance existing, adaptive strategies of the Sahelian peoples and their cultural storehouse of knowledge. Oxfam America, an independent relief organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, succeeded in using the Fulani’s habbanae system of cattle loans to restock herds after the early 1970s drought. The plan distributed 900 cattle to herders, who tended them and kept the first three calves. The cows were then returned to the project and sold to pay for other development efforts, and the participants restarted the valuable habbanae ties among themselves.

Local peoples need to be involved, both as owners and directors. Drought and famine victims notice problems that planners cannot see from their air-conditioned hotel rooms. “In none of this (development work) are we willing to let the African producer be in charge of his or her own destiny,’ charges anthropologist James Riddell of the Land Tenure Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

Africa is not a blank slate awaiting the brainstorms of outsiders, and African governments should assess whether traditional land tenure and social systems are preferable to Western or Eastern methods. In 1969, for example, Mali abolished its short experiment with collective farms and restored traditional land tenure arrangements. They promoted simple, cheap measures such as improved seeds, greater extension services, and small-scale water control projects. Rice production per acre increased 33 percent, and in good years Mali again exports rice.

THERE IS NO QUESTION that the Sahel will undergo more droughts, and that pastoral people will bear the brunt of them. “The pastoralists are caught in a vise between increased cash cropping, population growth, political tensions with other groups, desertification and destruction of their traditions,’ observes desertification researcher Michael Glantz.

But drought does not necessarily mean famine. The solution to the Sahel’s woes is far more complex than we wish, but the insights of anthropologists, students of human culture, may point the way to some real solutions.

Photo: Members of the nomadic Tuareg tribe draw water for their flocks near the village of Nara in Mali.

Photo: Barely alive cattle are herded from one dry patch of brush to another in Abala, Niger. The drought got progressively worse for the three years following the date of this photo in July 1982.

Photo: Displaced Bella nomads near Douentza, Mali, set up home in a refugee camp after their cattle died. The fence of fringed weavings mimic the walled compounds of Islamic culture.

Photo: Opposite page: a young girl of the Samburu people in northern Kenya tends the clan’s cows.

Photo: Using a big stick for a prod, a Fulani cattleman musters his herd of zebu cattle toward a newly-bored water hole in eastern Niger.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group