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Blood sport in the Coliseum at Thysdrus,Tunisia circa 200 AD

A Survey of Saharan Trade, gladiator sport and life in Roman colonies.......Ramdas Iyer

sunny 58 °F


Standing in the once blood splattered arena of this magnificent coliseum at El jem ( ancient Thysdrus) immediately reminded me of a glorious empire where Romans enjoyed good times in their colonies with wine, women and sport. The mosaics recovered from the villas that once dotted this rich city then known as Thysdrus was an eye-opener for me as to the reach, wealth and governance of the pro consuls and Emperors of Rome. Mosaics unearthed at the coliseum reveal a poor man prodded at spear point toward a leopard. The beast already seems to have drawn blood evident in the red tiles that embellish the lavish mosaic floor that once decorated the arena.


The Thysdrus coliseum was one of the largest in the Roman world seating over 35000. The dungeons that I descended into revealed several holding pens for men and beasts until their fated rendezvous at the arena. The place put goose bumps in Hindu skin!. Scenes from the mega hit "Gladiator" and "Life of Brian " were shot here, yet most of us are not aware of this amazing edifice. Even though incomplete, the construction of the amphitheater at Thysdrus was a remarkable feat. Unlike other coliseums/ amphitheaters that were built into hills, this was built on a plain, and it had no foundation to support its massive weight. It was an entirely freestanding structure supported by an intricate network of vaults and arches. It took an elliptical form, and researchers think that it probably had four floors.
The amphitheater, the largest such Roman monument in North Africa since it was erected, measures 138m by 114m, and it had 2 passageways beneath it for the animals, gladiators, and prisoners whose deaths were to entertain the masses.
While most estimates put the sitting capacity of the theater at 35,000, though some go as high as 60,000, which would make it virtually equal in capacity to the Coliseum in Rome. The amphitheater is ranked as the third largest Roman coliseum/ amphitheater in the world, falling behind the Coliseum in Rome, and the Coliseum in Capua (close to Naples, Italy). I was not, until doing research for this article, realize that there were around 105 coliseums built in the Roman world at the time of 100 AD.
The stones used to build the amphitheater were quarried 50km away, and they were clearly worth the distance. The amphitheater has survived for more than 17 centuries, weathering the elements and man’s numerous attempts at its destruction.
The urge to write this article about the events that lead to the building of the coliseum was paramount to me. In the process of doing research I figured that the history of this area should be partitioned into 4 sections; 1. The Carthaginian empire of Tunisia 2. The Saharan trade during Roman times 3. Life in Thysdrus in 230 AD and 4. the life of gladiators. Since there was no comprehensive source to answer these questions, I decided to assemble this article for those who may find this subject interesting.
The history of Tunisia is a catalog of conquest- The rise and fall of Carthage( Phoenicians) and later that of Rome, followed by the rise of Byzantium, coming of the vandals( Germans), spread of Arabs and the Ottoman Turks and lastly by the French. We Americans were there too. During the Allied invasion of North Africa, US GIs who crossed into Tunisia from Morocco and Algeria faced Rommel's army in Kasserine pass on February20, 1943. " On this day, German General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps launched an offensive against an Allied defensive line. The Kasserine Pass was the site of the United States’ first major battle defeat of the war. Rommel broke through Allied lines, inflicting devastating casualties on the U.S. forces. The Americans withdrew from their position, leaving behind most of their equipment. More than 1,000 American soldiers were killed by Rommel’s offensive, and hundreds were taken prisoner. "The United States had finally tasted defeat in battle." quotes a History Channel report.


1. Carthaginian Empire of Tunisia
We have all heard a lot about the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage. Who were the Phoenicians? The culture known as Phoenician was flourishing as early as 3000 B.C. in the Levant, a coastal region now divided primarily between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. But it wasn't until around 1100 B.C., after a period of general disorder and social collapse throughout the region, that they emerged as a significant cultural and political force. From the ninth to sixth centuries B.C. they dominated the Mediterranean Sea, establishing emporiums and colonies from Cyprus in the east to the Islands of the Aegean Sea, Sicily near Italy, in current day Tunisia in North Africa, and Spain in the west. They grew rich trading precious metals from abroad and products such as wine, olive oil, and most notably the timber from the famous cedars of Lebanon, which forested the mountains that rise steeply from the coast of their homeland. They also possessed the greatest fleet of sailing vessels known to ancient man.
Acting as cultural middlemen, the Phoenicians disseminated ideas, myths, and knowledge from the powerful Assyrian and Babylonian worlds in what is now Syria and Iraq to their contacts in the Aegean. Those ideas helped spark a cultural revival in Greece, one which led to the Greeks' Golden Age and hence the birth of Western civilization. The Phoenicians imported so much papyrus from Egypt that the Greeks used their name for the first great Phoenician port, Byblos, to refer to the ancient paper. The name Bible, or "the book," also derives from Byblos. The Phoenicians eventually defeated the Greeks in Sicily and set up a large empire controlling the western Mediterranean from Tunisia into Sicily, Cyprus and Lebanon. After the fall of the great Phoenician city of Tyre (Lebanon) to Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, those Tyrians who were able to escape fled to Carthage with whatever wealth they had. Since many whom Alexander spared were those rich enough to buy their lives, these refugees landed in the city with considerable means and established Carthage as the new centre of Phoenician trade. I was so fascinated by the Pheonicians that I immersed myself in museums in Malta and Tunisia where they had made their imprint.

Roaming through the ruins of Carthage, just outside Tunis, I witnessed the terrible destruction wrought by Rome on Carthage.The Romans chose not to reoccupy this beautiful port city on the Mediterranean but instead bent on razing it to the ground and out of the history books. The Carthage museum, The Bardo Museum in Tunis and the Museum of Archeology in Valetta, Malta gave me a full account of Phoenician cultural sophistication garnered from artifacts displayed from their trade with Egypt, Greece, Iberia and the Levant.
The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 BC to 146 BC. At the time, they were some of the largest wars that had ever taken place. The term Punic comes from the Latin word Punicus (or Poenicus), meaning "Carthaginian", with reference to the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestry.
The main cause of the Punic Wars was the conflicts of interest between the existing Carthaginian Empire and the expanding Roman Republic. The Romans were initially interested in expansion via Sicily part of which lay under Carthaginian control. At the start of the First Punic War (264-241 BC), Carthage was the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean, with an extensive maritime empire. Rome was a rapidly ascending power in Italy, but it lacked the naval power of Carthage. The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) witnessed Hannibal's crossing of the Alps in 218 BC, followed by a prolonged but ultimately failed campaign of Carthage's Hannibal in mainland Italy. By the end of the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), after more than a hundred years and the loss of many hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both sides, Rome had conquered Carthage's empire, completely destroyed the city, and became the most powerful state of the Western Mediterranean.
With the end of the Macedonian Wars ( Greece) – which ran concurrently with the Punic Wars – and the defeat of the Seleucid King Antiochus III ( Persia) in the Great Roman–Seleucid War (Treaty of Apamea, 188 BC) in the eastern sea, Rome emerged as the dominant Mediterranean power and one of the most powerful cities in classical antiquity. The Roman victories over Carthage in these wars gave Rome a preeminent status it would retain until the 5th century AD. This ascendance of Rome over its Mediterranean neighbors were made possible by their glorious victory in the third Punic war.
This sets the stage for the rest of my article.

2. The Saharan Trade Routes.
Gold has been the most important and enduring element that has shaped West Africa and its interactions with the wider world for nearly 2000 years. The Garamantes were Berber semi-pastoralists who lived almost directly south of what would become Carthage and controlled the trade going into and coming out of the Sahara from West Africa. It has been suggested that the Garamantians traded directly with the Bambuk around the headwaters of the Senegal and Niger rivers. The Phoenician settlement of Carthage, was fabled for its gold, where many coins were minted for six centuries. It is probable that by the time of the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC trade across the Sahara had come to a standstill. It would be at least another two hundred years before any form of regular trade came to be established across the Sahara again. The camel was introduced from Arabia into North Africa by the Romans around 100 AD making it possible for people to regularly and reliably traverse the Sahara. From at least 400 AD onwards camel mounted Berber established trade routes across the Sahara to West Africa. The camel and the caravans it enabled came to dominate the trans-Saharan trade until the second half of the twentieth century.
The introduction of the camel allowed for constant communication to be maintained between the Berbers on both shores of the Sahara. With their camels these people, bridged the desert, and carried an ever-growing trade, in which southbound salt was exchanged for northbound gold. There were four principal routes across the Sahara: – The Salima trail from Cyrenacia to Wadai ( Chad to Libyan coast); – The Bilma Trail from Tripoli to Kawar ( Western Sudan to Tripoli); – The Gadames Road from Ghat to the Hausa country ( Niger River to Southern Libya); – The Sijilmassa – Walata Road from Morocco to the Middle Niger and Upper Senegal. Each of these routes represented a two month journey, with long waterless stretches between oases. The most important of these routes, Sijilmasa to Walata, was founded on the gold of the Upper Niger that was exchanged for the salt of the Saharan oases of Tagaza and Taodeni. The first Berber traders to reach the southern shores of the Sahel found an already long established and extensive trading system within West Africa. The trans Saharan trade and outside influence did not initiate the initial establishment of West African trading systems; instead the Berber allowed for the intermeshing of two previously wholly separate trading systems, that of the Mediterranean and that of West Africa..
As the nomads learned to know the great value of gold in the Roman world, they started bartering it from the peoples of West Africa for salt and copper. The gold was carried to the north, where it was probably used for payment of dates, corn and such handicrafts which the nomads could not produce themselves. The nomads may have bought also some luxury objects made in the Roman world, which they bartered for gold in the south. The Berbers also controlled the salt mines of the southern Sahara along with providing caravan security and route guidance.
All this gold ended up as coinage minted by the Carthaginians and Romans. There was a constant need for gold and the African colonies supplied it intermittently. Thysdrus lying in the cross roads of these caravan routes enjoyed great prosperity, both through trade, providing sanctuary for caravans and becoming one of the leading exporters of olive oil for the Roma Empire.

3. Life in Thysdrus in 230 AD
The origins of Thysdrus remain obscure. The recent discoveries cast little light on the pre-Roman period. Traces of occupation before the 300 B.C. are rare. From its name the city seems to have Berber rather than Punic origins. The name appeared for the first time in the period of Caesar's African campaign when the city, although closely involved with the events which shook the country, seems to have been no more than a small town. Towards the end of the 200 AD it became a municipium, competing with Hadrumetum ( another Phoenician city 100 miles south of Carthage and a few miles north of Thysdrus, for the second place in the province. Thysdrus lay amid a large olive-growing region, and since olive oil was in great demand in Rome during that period, the town prospered rapidly to become the leading olive-growing center of North Africa. With a population of between 20,000 and 30,000, the town accumulated enormous wealth, much of which - as in other Roman towns - was spent on the erection of both public buildings and private houses
In A.D. 238, its opulence, almost isolated in the midst of the empire in crisis, attracted the covetousness of the Emperor Maximianus. Under severe pressure, Thysdrus initiated a revolt which led to the assassination of a procurator of the treasury and the proclamation of the proconsul of Africa, Gordian I, as emperor. Thysdrus owed its fortune in ancient times to commerce. Its situation made it a market town at a crossroads of the communication routes of Central Tunisia. It served as intermediary between the ports and the hinterland as much for imports as for exports. The merchants of Thysdrus were active as far as the distant regions of the Orient. Yet Thysdrus owed the great part of its fortune to the spread, from the end of the 200AD of its olive plantations and its trade in oil. Today with its remains spread over 150 to 200 ha, it is classed among the most extensive archeological sites in Tunisia. Although an important part of its remains is yet to be explored and other parts are covered over again by modern structures, there are existing or recently excavated monuments in a good state of preservation.
The large amphitheater is the most celebrated and the best preserved of all the Roman monuments in this category in Africa. With a capacity of 35,000 spectators, it is classed among the largest amphitheaters of antiquity. The spectacles on show were fairly bloody but rather than gladiatorial contests, the fashion was to watch slaves, Christians, and criminals being executed. It is thought that lions were used as there were what looked like claw marks gouged in what was left of the marble around the arena. In the absence of an inscription, the exact date of the construction of the building is not known. Some attribute it to Gordian III who, towards the middle of the 200 AD might have built it for the glorification of the town which had brought his grandfather Gordian I to the throne.
Thysdrus also had a Hippodrome or circus maximus , an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium and mass entertainment venue ( It is scarcely visible on the terrain. Its existence was revealed with remarkable clarity by aerial photography.)
At its peak in the second and third centuries AD, the Roman Empire stretched across most of northern Europe and around much of the Mediterranean ( see Roman Empire Map provided). In North Africa the Romans built towns and cities from Alexandria (Egypt) in the East to Lixus and Volubilis (Morocco) in the West ( visited in 2008 by me and can be found in my website). Everywhere, the Romans built on the same general pattern, leaving behind the familiar elements of Roman urban planning and civic life that characterize the archaeological sites that remain today. Roman towns typically had many grand public buildings including a Capitol, Basilica, Amphitheatre and Public Baths, a triumphal arch and Forum (central square), with wide streets laid out on a grid. Water was brought into town via elaborately built aqueducts and the towns were usually surrounded by a defensive wall with grand entrance gates and sentry posts along their length. The houses of the wealthy classes were opulent, with colonnaded courtyards and lavish mosaics in many of the rooms.

Wanting to further investigate the mosaics of Thysdrus, I spent a couple of hours in the museum which contained many architectonic elements that belonged to the decoration of the city’s superb villas and public buildings and in particular, the sumptuous mosaic pavements, undoubtedly amongst the finest of Roman antiquity. The museum was built on the site of a roman villa and reproduces its layout: a central courtyard with a peristyle leading into the rooms where sculptures, mosaics, ceramics etc are displayed. These originate from the excavation campaigns carried out in Thysdrus as well as in the vicinity. It houses an exceptional collection of mosaics, most of them in much better condition than those at the famous Bardo in Tunis. An entire street of Roman villas has been excavated next to the museum; there are still some mosaics in situ, and I could easily make out the layout as I walked around.
4. The life of gladiators
While this article is written around the coliseum at Thysdrus, I have thus far only given the reader a glimpse of the Roman conquest of Carthage, the Saharan trade that made Thysdrus rich and a brief history of Thysdrus. The life of the gladiator as seen in movies like Spartacus and The Gladiator is very different than the reality on the ground. I will venture here to elaborate on the role of gladiators and games in Roman society, which ties in well with the tenor of this article.
Of Romans, the famous Christian theologian (150-240AD), Tertullian exclaims, "Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection....The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace" (De Spectaculus, XXII).
Adopted from the earlier Etruscans(of Tuscany) predecessors of Romans, gladiatorial games (munera) originated in the rites of sacrifice due the spirits of the dead and the need to propitiate them with offerings of blood. They were introduced to Rome in 264 BC, Traditionally as an obligatory funerary offerings owed aristocratic men at their death. Elected in 65 BC, Julius Caesar commemorated his father, who had died twenty years before, with a display of 320 pairs of gladiators in silvered armor. In 46 BC, after recent victories in Gaul and Egypt, Caesar again hosted elaborate games at the tomb of his daughter Julia, who had died in childbirth eight years earlier (together with stage plays and beast fights, they included the first appearance of a giraffe). The display was criticized, however, for its extravagance and the number slain, including several of Caesar's own soldiers, who protested that none of the money was being allotted to them .
After the slave revolt of Spartacus in 73 BC, a nervous Senate limited the number of gladiators allowed in Rome. The State assumed greater control of public games and large numbers of gladiators were trained in imperial schools. Most gladiators were prisoners of war, slaves bought for the purpose, or criminals condemned to serve in the schools. (At a time when three of every five persons did not survive until their twentieth birthday, the odds of a professional gladiator being killed in any particular bout, at least during the first century AD, were perhaps one in ten)
Free men also volunteered to be gladiators and, by the end of the Republic, comprised half the number who fought. Often, they were social outcasts, freed slaves, discharged soldiers, or former gladiators who had been liberated on retirement but chose to return for a period of service. Commodus (AD 180-192) enthusiastically participated as a gladiator ( The movie The Gladiator draws on this fact).

The bestiarii were not gladiators, as such, but fought for their lives in the arena against wild beasts. The venatores were specialists of wild animal hunts (venationes). The popularity of these cruel spectacles was such that, by the time they were abolished in AD 523 during the consulship of Flavius Anicius Maximus, tens of thousands of animals had died, and entire species were no longer to be found in their native habitat, all having been captured or driven away. There were no more hippopotamuses in Nubia or elephants in northern Africa; the lions which once had been represented in Assyrian reliefs were gone. Either five thousand or ten thousand animals were reported to have died in the dedication of the Coliseum; eleven thousand died in the celebration of Trajan's conquest of Dacia; and Augustus boasted that, in the twenty-six venationes presented in his reign, thirty-five hundred animals had been killed. When Pompey presented elephants (and the first rhinoceros) at the Circus Maximus, he did so in part to demonstrate his power over even the strongest of beasts.
The day of the games, the gladiators were ceremoniously led in and paraded around the arena before presenting themselves at the emperor's podium .Preliminary events included bloodless, sometimes farcical, duels who likely fought with wooden weapons. Those to be used by the gladiators were demonstrated to be sharp and lethal, lots were drawn, and the war trumpet sounded. Then the games began. If the emperor was not in attendance, the producer of the games decided the fate of the victim. Even if defeated, a gladiator might be granted a reprieve if he fought well. But a gladiator also could be forced to fight again the same day, although that was considered bad form, and there were contests in which no reprieve was granted the loser. Victors were awarded crowns or a palm branch and the prize money stipulated in their contracts, as well as any money awarded by the crowd, which was collected on a silver tray. If a gladiator repeatedly survived the arena and lived long enough to retire, a symbolic wooden sword was awarded as a token of discharge from service.
The gladiator held a morbid fascination for the ancient Romans. Their blood was considered a remedy against impotence, and the bride whose hair had been parted by the spear of a defeated gladiator was thought to enjoy a fertile married life. Although their lives were brutal and short, gladiators often were admired for their bravery, endurance, and willingness to die. In forfeiting their lives in the arena, the gladiator was thought to honor the audience, and glory was what it could offer in return. They remained outcasts of society and were regarded no differently than criminals or members of other shameful professions. And yet, as the blood lust of the spectators, and emperors alike, the brutality of the combat, and the callous deaths of men and animals still disturb modern sensibilities. Certainly, Rome was cruel. Defeated enemies and criminals forfeited any right to a place within society, although they still might be saved from the death they deserved and be made slaves Because the life of the slave was forfeit, there was no question but that it could be claimed at any time. The gladiatorial shows were part of this culture of war, discipline, and death.
The public execution of those who did not submit to Rome, betrayed their country, or were convicted of heinous crimes vividly demonstrated the consequences of those actions. In a society that was deeply stratified (including seating in the Coliseum), the usurpation of undeserved rights could be rectified only by public degradation and death. In publicly witnessing such punishment, citizens were reassured that the proper social order has been restored and they, themselves, deterred from such actions. In this display, the games reaffirmed the moral and political order of things, and the death of criminals and wild animals, the real and symbolic re-establishment of a society under threat. In the arena, civilization triumphed over the wild and untamed, over the outlaw, the barbarian, the enemy.
At the time, only Seneca, the stoic Roman philosopher Statesman protested the carnage of the arena; most other Roman authors were silent or approving. Ostensibly, gladiatorial games were prohibited by the Byzantine emperor Constantine in AD 325 and the remaining schools closed by Honorius in AD 399. But they continued, in one form or another, until AD 404, when Honorius finally abolished munera altogether, prompted by the death of a Christian monk, Telemachus, who had entered the arena, endeavoring to stop the fight, and was stoned to death by the indignant crowd.- a monk, Gibbon observes (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), "whose death was more useful to mankind than his life."
Conclusive remarks.
Visiting the fabled arena had raised several questions in my mind. The answers given by my guide was at best sketchy. Upon return to the US I decided to research the life in Thysdrus, the life of gladiators and the audience at the coliseum who included citizens and caravan merchants seeking entertainment from their arduous journey across the Sahara. The Romano-Berber queen Kahina in her final attempt to stop the Arab invasion around 695 AD destroyed most of the olive trees of the Thysdrus area and used the amphitheater as a last defense, but was defeated. In the next centuries Thysdrus simply "disappeared" with the worsening arid climate that damaged the olive oil production, and by the tenth century many of the Thysdrus buildings were dismantled and used as stones for the Arab Kairouan. In the nineteenth century the French colonists found only a small village, named El Djem, with a few hundred inhabitants living around the remains of the amphitheater and surviving in very poor subsistence conditions.
Drifting sand is preserving the market city of Thysdrus and the refined suburban villas that once surrounded it. The amphitheatre occupies archaeologists’ attention despite no digging required. Some floor mosaics have been found and published, but field archaeology has scarcely been attempted. In the world of writing materials, Thysdrus lay in the Empire of Papyrus, which preserves remarkably well if kept as dry as at El Jem.

Leaving Tunisia behind was bitter sweet for I knew that it may be a long while before I would be able to visit its ancient sites on a truly intimate basis again.


The sources from which this article was extracted were many. Since this is not a for profit venture and serves as an advancement for learning, besides being already available to the general public, I am assuming copyright conditions do not apply.

Ramdas Iyer can be reached at Riyerr@aol.com

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:13 Archived in Tunisia Tagged theatre museum north africa circus roman tunisia el war coliseum colony carthage trade thysdrus maximus bardo gladiators saharan rommel punic ceaser djem amphi sahar Comments (0)

Tracking Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda

Observing our nearest relatives in close proximity........................Ramdas Iyer

Chimpanzees, our nearest primate relatives have been a fascination for most of us. These amazing creatures were studied by Jane Goodall in the 60's at the insistence of Louis Leakey, who had unearthed the first hominid fossils, as a path to understanding the development and evolution of man. I had recently visited the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the first erect hominids, Homo habilis (1.9 million years ago) were unearthed by the Leakeys, Mary and Richard in the 1930s. Her pioneering work on the behaviour of chimpanzees have enabled us to appreciate the human like qualities of our closest DNA relative at 99% similarity. Goodall’s work was in the Gombe stream area of western Tanzania, even today a remote corner bordering Uganda. As a National Geographic subscriber since 1971 and a follower of Jane Goodall’s work, I desperately wanted to visit Gombe during my trip to TZ in 2013. But one had to take a chartered plane which only flew twice a week making it both very expensive and time consuming.

Instead I chose Kibale in Uganda which is a vast tropical rainforest over 700 sq.km in area at an altitude ranging from 3000-4500 ft. which runs into Queen Elizabeth National park, Uganda ( creating a 180 Km long Wildlife corridor) a much celebrated but much poached national park. Why Kibale?
Kibale National Forest has one of the highest diversity and concentration of primates in Africa. It is home to a large number of endangered chimpanzees, as well as the red colobus monkey and the rare L'Hoest’s monkey. The park is also home to over 325 species of birds, 13 species of primates, a total of a[/left]t least 60 other species of mammals, and over 250 tree species. The predominant ecosystem in Kibale is moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.)
Since the 1960s a team of Japanese scientists have been habituating chimpanzees to human presence at Kibale national park. In Serengeti, the animals are used to the safari vehicles and are as such “habituated” to their presence. In the tropical rain forest it is not possible. So scientists spend time and in the case of Kibale, up to 6 years to make some of the chimpanzee groups get accustomed to the presence of human beings. Jane Goodall was the first to do so (except if you think Tarzan was real) in Gombe stream and Diane Fossey with the Gorillas in Volcanoes Park, Rwanda. Akin to the gorillas in Bwindi, one can track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. For 600usd per day one can spend 12 hrs. : From the time they wake up till the time they build new nests and sleep. For $150 one can insert himself into the forest and catch them for an hour, either at 8:00AM or 2:00PM. Since chimps can be found in 19 African countries, they are not as exclusive as the gorillas. But this is the only place that I know of where there is a formal wildlife tracking program available, in a classical moist hardwood equatorial rainforest.


Kibale is 325 KM/ 6 hrs. from Kampala with the last hour on dirt roads leading to one of the most lush and beautiful forests in central Uganda. The community, Batooroo and Balinga tribes surrounding the park were once notorious for killing chimps for bush meat, but today
readily endorse international Eco tourism that supports local infrastructure. We, Pushpa and I, arrived at Chimps nest lodge by 6:00 pm and heard loud chattering noises from chimpanzees in the forest around us along with the sounds of grey cheeked Mangabeys and red Colobus monkeys. The air was cool, the surroundings forested and the noises classical Africa. Each cottage had solar lights, Eco toilets and a wood burning stove for hot water.We did night walks to spot Bush babies and Ganet cats and day walks around the camp for photographing primates. This gave me a chance to photograph non chimpanzee primates which I would otherwise not be doing once inside the national park.


Chimpanzees are members of the family Hominidae, along with gorillas, humans, and orangutans. Chimpanzees split from the human branch of the family about four to six million years ago. Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans, being members of the tribe Hominini (along with extinct species of subtribe Hominina). The male common chimp stands up to 5.6 ft high and weighs as much as 150lbs; the female is somewhat smaller.They typically live 40 years in the wild and about 60 in captivity. The common chimp’s long arms, when extended, span one and a half times the body’s height. A chimpanzee's arms are longer than its legs. Chimpanzees usually knuckle-walk, or walk on all fours, clenching their fists and supporting themselves on the knuckles thereof. Both the common chimpanzee and bonobo can walk upright on two legs when carrying objects with their hands and arms. The coat is dark; the face, fingers, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet, hairless; the chimp, tailless. The exposed skin of the face, hands and feet varies from pink to very dark in both species but is generally lighter in younger individuals, darkening as maturity is reached. Chimpanzee testicles are unusually large for their body size, with a combined weight of about 4 oz. (110 g) compared to a gorilla's 1 oz. (28 g) or a human's 1.5 ounces (43 g). This relatively great size is generally attributed to sperm competition due to the polyandrous nature of their mating behavior.

Our group of 4, led by an UWA( Ugandan Wildlife Authority) tracker started trekking into the forest crossing small streams, gigantic root systems, thick shrubbery and enormous old growth trees with moss on them. Within 45 min of trekking we came upon a large group of chimps, about 16 in all scattered in high branches on several trees. They are not calm animals, but constantly swing, jump, chatter and create a pandemonium especially after spotting us. The photographer in me was completely flabbergasted by multiple imagery, obstructions by foliage, poor lighting, loud sounds and fast movements. While my eyes caught them all around finding them in my scope was impossible. The chimps started moving and our tracker led us further into the forest where finally some of the members had settled on the ground. I soon determined that the only way to photograph them in such low light is to focus on just one animal at a time. As you can see in my images soon to be presented, they were squatting like humans looking at the sky , pondering over their next meal, sometime arms folded in deep reservation and at other times seriously concentrating on chewing fig fruits and other hard seeds. This group according to our tracker had over 150 members which broke up at day break into 5 or 6 extended troops in order to avoid competition for food. Occasionally these groups intersect with other foraging groups often resulting in loud attacks, scare tactics and sometimes maiming and killing rival members.


After an exciting first day (one hour of observation only) we asked to enroll in the next day’s trek. With great difficulty we arranged for an overflow trek at noon, just the two of us with a tracker. This day the offerings were fantastic. By now skilled at low light Chimpanzee photography, I found opportunities to approach them at very close quarters. 25 feet is recommended, 6 feet was all that separated an adult chimpanzee and us, which could easily maim and injure an onlooker in a horrible fashion. In one situation we observed a 30 year old male chewing fruit and leaves, spitting the pulp in its palms and rubbing it on a deep cut in its leg. Several minutes later we were blessed with a scene that even our tracker claimed to be rare. A serene looking young mother holding her 2 month old baby in its arms was sitting on a log with the right amount of light streaking on her. I snapped 20 plus pictures with every movement of the baby in its arms with the session culminating with with the mother and baby directly at me. It was a Hallelujah! moment.

After spending slightly more than an hour with these magnificent animals and while on the way out of the forest we were treated by a chimpanzee drumming the buttress of a strangler fig tree. Chimpanzees are extremely expressive in their communications with each other. They use hand gestures, facial expressions, they touch, hold hands and kiss. They drum on trees, make pant-hoots and loud calls often heard 3km away to indicate their presence and inform of ample food sources.


In conclusion, I wish to discuss the future of these lovely animals. There are thought to be about 175,000 chimpanzees remaining in the wild. Even though this sounds like a large number, many of these animals live in fragmented remnant populations that are separated from other chimpanzees by areas that are heavily cultivated. The chimpanzee is officially classified as an endangered species and protected by international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Habitat loss and commercial hunting for bush meat has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of chimpanzees in the wild. The demand from consumers in wealthy countries for tropical hardwoods means the west and central African forest habitat, that is home to wild chimpanzees is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Often whole chimpanzee families are butchered, leaving behind infants that are later exported to zoos and medical institutions or sold as exotic pets. Heavily traumatized, these infants are occasionally intercepted in transit by government authorities, whereupon sanctuaries are called upon to provide refuge. It is estimated that only one in four chimpanzees survive being taken from the wild as most die from disease, malnutrition and dehydration.
The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Sources: The Godall Institute, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Wikipedia, National Geographic Society

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:12 Archived in Uganda Tagged park africa national endangered species uganda chimpanzees goodall kibale Comments (1)

With the Maasai People of Tanzania


The Maasai: A Great people trapped in a changing world.

If one thinks of Tanzania or Kenya, two things come to mind; safari and the Maasai people. Anywhere you go in towns or countryside in the above mentioned countries you will meet the Maasai people. In northern Tanzania where I was traveling recently, the Maasai people can be seen everywhere. These famous warriors and herders of East-central Africa who once dominated the plains of East Africa are now confined to a fraction of their former land and their total population is estimated between 900,000 and 1,000,000 both in Tanzania and Kenya. It is believed that the Maasai population is in decline. While still a pastoral nomadic people they have increasingly been forced to settle, and many take jobs in towns. So you would find them working in the safari lodges as guards or porters.


In the nineteenth century, the Masaai dominated East Africa, controlling a broad swath of territory that extended 500 miles from the Laikipia Plateau in northern Kenya to the Masaai Steppe in Tanzania. They were cattle rustlers and warriors, and their raids, "which spread from Lake Victoria to the Indian Coast, were feared by Bantu, Arab, and European alike," Peter Matthiessen wrote in The Tree Where Man Was Born, his classic account of his 1960s odyssey through the Serengeti wilderness of Tanzania
After 3 weeks in Tanzania I became very curious about the real history and background of these people who originally migrated from Southern Sudan. The Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers of Africa (people of the Nile valleys) and their homeland includes the range lands of the Boma Plateau of South Sudan (near the infamous Darfur region). The reason for my curiosity and fascination for these people is because of several factors including 1. They have managed to preserve their traditional ways despite the impact of western civilization. They have continued to practice their ancient customs and ceremonies including the retention of their age-set structure with its warrior ranks of proud and brave warriors. 2. Their presence on the savannahs of East Africa has either protected the open wildlife filled range lands that is and has been their domain as pastoral guardians of the natural estate (an alternate view taken by wild life conservationists is quite the contrary blaming them for living amidst the last great mammalian assemblages of the East African Pleistocene.) 3. Their fierce presence prevented slavery amongst related pastoral tribes from the Arab slavers, along the Sahel coastline of 1000 km from current day Northern Kenya to Southern Tanzania.


Cattle keepers in Africa had fully specialized pastoral cultures along the Upper Nile in Egypt and Sudan for more than 6000 years at a time when the savannahs in what is now the Sahara had just begun their trend towards extreme desiccation. The greatest survival tool and adaptation of all cattle keeping people is the high mobility of the human population and the cattle on which they depend. While they might lay claim to and defend range lands with great ferocity against non allied pastoralists, successful pastoral people must also be masters at keeping the peace that their livestock needs to grow and prosper.
The desertification of the vast Saharan ranges along the length of the Nile has pushed the ancient cattle keepers south into both Ethiopia and the southern Sudan as well as into northern Uganda and Kenya. We know from scenes on the dynastic carvings of ancient Egyptian monuments that cattle keepers of southern Sudan were amongst those people whose involuntary labor was used to move and work these monumental stones.
The Maasai (meaning speakers of the Nilotic Maa language) do not recall just when they left their Nilotic homeland in the Sudan. This suggests that their exodus was not a single event but a very long process of north to south movement that took place over more than 2000 years. Once they arrived into the Kenyan Highlands where they pushed aside other pastoralists, they also cultivated long lasting exchange relationships with neighboring agricultural people. This rescued them to a great extent from the periodic famines that are such a very great challenge to cattle keepers without reliable agricultural neighbors.
In exchange, all of these agricultural neighbors were insulated and protected by the Maasai from repeated attacks by Swahili and Arab slavers in the thousand kilometer coastal Sahel that extended in a long chain of at least a dozen independent trading city states from Lamu in the north through to Zanzibar. Thus during the height of the Swahili and Omani city states, a vast area of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, the populations adjacent to Maasailand in central Kenya through to northern Tanzania were protected from the scourge of slavery by the Maasai who had fled from the ravages of slavery in the Sudan and forged their very culture in that prolonged escape.


The Maasai people are two distinguished groups and both groups speak one language known as Maa. The first group is identified as "pastoral Maasai" who are basically headers and keepers of livestock. It should be clear that Maasai have a deep love for their livestock because to them cattle are not only food and source of income, but also a religious symbol of God's favor. When the Maasai people pray they always ask for two things namely children and cattle. The Maasai prayer runs as follows: May God (Enkai the"Creator) give us children and cattle." In short, for the Maasai "a cow is life." Raised as a Hindu, this sacrosanct concept of the importance of cow as a life giver is very similar to me. Unlike the Maasai pastoralists, the Agrarian Hindus used milk and butter as our main source of protein. The bullocks helped in ploughing the fields and later moving the grain to the markets on carts. The cow was also a non-violent grass eater and fitted nicely with the mostly vegetarian Hindu culture. The Vedic Hindus were nomadic cow herding Aryans who settled in India around 1500. Readers who are familiar with Krishna, one of the main Hindu gods was an avatar in the form of a cow herd. The second group is the "agricultural Maasai" known as Ilarusa or Warusha. The Ilarusa occupy the southern slopes of Mount Meru in Arusha region where the land is fertile and the rainfall is sufficient for raising maize, bananas, beans, coffee, and other crops.
The Maasai have no chiefs, although each clan has a spiritual leader who also plays the role of a political leader. As spiritual leaders, the Maasai diviners are consulted whenever misfortunes arise in the community. They also served as physicians, dispensing their herbal remedies to treat diseases and absolve social and moral transgressions. As political leaders their role includes settling disputes on land issues, to resolve conflicts between Maasai communities and other tribal groups, and the government.


Circumcision for the Maasai is the most significant event. It is a sacred ritual through which the warrior groups of the Maasai are designated. The four age groups are junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders, and senior elders. The junior warriors do not engage in any political affairs or cultural rituals. Their main responsibility at this stage is to learn warfare under the tutelage of their senior warriors. They also learn their customs and traditions and are not allowed to marry. The senior warriors assume a tremendous responsibility to defend the land from all sorts of enemies such as lions who come and invade livestock etc. The senior warriors, therefore, are equivalent to military commandos who serve to protect the welfare of the people and to stabilize and maintain peace. Each of these age groups serves a twenty-year term, after which another age group is circumcised and takes over the duty of defending the land.
Maasai marriage is a bit unique. When a man loves a girl he gives her a beaded chain. He then sends milk and honey through his clanswomen to the girl’s parents (from another clan). This honey is brewed into beer. The father invites his relatives and other distinguished elders of his age-group to drink the beer. At this point, the man who had declared to marry the girl is summoned and their decision regarding the marriage meted out. If the union is not agreeable, the man is never to talk to the girl.
Maasai women play a significant role in the community. Women's roles include collecting firewood, drawing water, taking care of children, and building huts. Since it is the woman who builds the house, she also becomes the owner and the manager of the household. When a Maasai man takes delight to introduce his wife, he would say honorably, "This is the woman (wife) who shelters me in her house." Women have a strong voice in their culture. They function as educators and religious leaders. In short, they are the keepers and sustainers of the Maasai community. On the other hand, Masaai women are minors in their culture and have to be always represented by their father or husband in sensitive matters and in decision making on those issues. A Maasai woman is by birth a member of her father's family line, which means she cannot own land etc. It is one of Women’s affairs projects taken on by NGOs.

Throughout Masailand, which covers some 8,000 square miles in northern Tanzania, Masaai pastoralists are under siege, their future endangered by three powerful forces: the Tanzanian government, the safari industry, and wildlife advocates, who often have both the cash and the political clout to make their voices heard over the Masaai. "The Masaai always come in third, behind tourism and conservation," said Damian Bell, the head of the Honeyguide Foundation in Tanzania, which is trying to help indigenous people gain an equitable share of tourism profits while preserving their traditional culture.

There are three critical problems faced by the Maasai people today. First, the Maasai people are facing the reduction of land. For example, since 1959, part of Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority which was formerly occupied by the Maasai people has been taken away from them for wildlife parks. The second is drought which is intensified by the fact that they live in arid parts of the land where rain is insufficient for grazing. Third, the Maasai people face another crucial problem, that is, illiteracy. Some Masaai have managed to straddle the traditional and modern worlds, working, for instance, as guides at safari camps, where they use their salaries to buy cows and procure additional wives. And many of the rituals and customs—the morani circumcisions, arranged marriages, elaborate wedding ceremonies—have survived. But growing numbers of Masaai have taken up farming or moved to towns and cities, where they have become estranged from pastoral life.

Having traveled to many countries with ancient cultures, I have found that “modernity” has destroyed and impoverished traditional peoples. Such traditional cultures have long been destroyed in the west due to illiteracy, greed and wars during the past 300 years. Today such cultures only remain in the “third world” countries where corruption and poverty is rampant. The traditional peoples much like us are attracted to modern amenities. A rapid change in their lifestyles does not sustain their cultures since illiteracy never gets eradicated for at least two generations. First goes the beautiful village houses replaced by a concrete base and a tin roof, next comes litter and sewage strewn around and lastly the sale of traditional lands for a few dollars, which destroys many future generations ability to maintain the old ways. As an amateur anthropologist I painfully observe every day the wars and oppressive regimes of South Sudan, Central African Republic, Congo, Ecuadorian Amazon, Syria, Xinjiang province, Tibet, northern Burma etc destroy indigenous cultures, languages and unique ways of life with a great sense of loss.


There is no simple solution to this problem. Tourism helps in stemming some of the decay. The Maasai in the Ngorongoro area refuse to modernize which is a great contribution to the survival of their culture. The question remains if one tribe should hold out against the survival of many animal species which cannot adapt as easily as humans to changes in their environment. The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Material from Joshua Hammer of Conde Naste magazine, UNESCO .org, Mbango expeditions and Mike Rainy’s MasaiMara.com have been incorporated herein.
Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:38 Archived in Tanzania Tagged culture africa tanzania kenya crater maasai mara nomads serengeti ngorongoro boma samburu maasai. Comments (5)

The Funeral Masquerade Dance of the Dogon, Mali

A vanishing tradition of a fascinating people by Ramdas Iyer


Any visitor to our house will appreciate my large collection of African art: especially that of the Dogon people. West Africa is such a rich cultural place that rapid Islamization, past Christian conversions and pressures of a modern world, I imagine, will soon dilute this richness. Self ordained as a world traveler I was searching hard to find an untouched part of Africa to travel to and decided on Mali, home to the Bambara, Dogon, Bobo, Bozo, Songhai and Arabic tribes like the Tuaregs. My biggest fear was to obtain permission for Arjuna to miss school for 2 weeks in order undertake this adventure: the Principal at Randolph High acquiesced.

The Dogon live on the Bandigara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff up to 1640 ft high stretching 90 miles on the Sahel desert. A world heritage site for its unique cultural achievements, the escarpment is 500 miles from Bamako, the capital. These villages were established around 900 AD as a result of the collective refusal of the Dogon people to convert to Islam. The escarpment gave protection from frequent Islamic slave raids common in West Africa until the late 17th Century.

The 4X4 Toyota land Cruiser was well suited for the rough sandy tracks that led us to the escarpments. The scenery was absolutely stunning with semi arid grasslands, sandy desert, Baobab trees, rocky out crops with small villages amidst. Over the years the Dogon had descended from the escarpment and set up villages 50 miles around it. While they were still the Dogon, the real deal was awaiting us a few miles ahead. Mali is perhaps one of the poorest countries on Earth, yet the people express their joy of life through art found in everyday objects like knives, catapults, combs, seats, hoes, pots and pans. While my birth place India is culturally rich I do not see art in day to day implements and tools. I often wondered why this was the case and my conclusion is this: The Dogon has no centralized Government but live in villages composed of patrilineages and extended families whose head is the senior male descendent of the common ancestor. Having no kings or local warlords to hold the villagers in servitude and render them extremely poor like the villagers in India, social art blossomed to unparalleled levels. In fact cubism and modernism in art “invented” by Picasso, Kandinsky et al have been attributed to their exposure to West African art.
I can keep going on and on and will now come to the point of the “Funeral masquerade dance of the Dogon”. We were approaching the village of Yuga-Piri, set at about 500 feet above the ground. We were welcomed by the head man and a meal of goat and millets was arranged by our guide Mama Kona. Most of the masks in our home are those from this funeral dance. So I asked the headman if one such dance could be arranged. It was about 11:00 AM and he negotiated a price of $150 to be paid to the village and that it could only happen around 2:00 PM since all the dancers were working the fields below. So we had our meal and reed mats with dirty pillows were laid out under a makeshift roof for us to rest till the dance. This village was spectacular in beauty and cascaded down the cliff like a fairy tale land. Around 1:00 PM drummers stood in various corners of the cliff and started drumming to summon the field hands to the head mans hut. Within a matter of 45 minutes we could see all the elders wearing Indigo cloth come out of their abodes and stand in the “Navel”of the village, an area cleared for dance with a central rockpile built conically surrounded by trees with the high cliffs on one side and the endless Sahel desert below. (The Sahel is scrub desert that slowly becomes white sandy desert another 200 miles out. The Sahel supports more than 90% of the sub-Saharan people because of its ability to support some plants, trees and grass for livestock.). The drummers and the bell bearers started their unique trance inducing beat.
Soon the dancers numbering over 35 poured out on all sides. It was simply unbelievable that these great people would perform one of their sacred funeral rite dances for Arjuna and me. The village Ogon-shaman, blessed the site and blessed the dancers. A jury of a dozen elders stood in a straight line to ensure correctness of protocol and dance proceedings, with long sticks in hand. They could correct any errors made during the dance with a gentle tap of their sticks on the dancer. The dance began with ritual storytelling and more and more characters entering the arena. They were walking, shaking, hopping, swaying rhythmically that I was running around trying to photograph one of the greatest events I have ever witnessed. Arjuna was perched on a high rock enjoying with utter fascination. Men on stilts wearing wooden breasts, hunters, animals, spirits and forebears were all in the story. This Dama ritual essentially leads the souls of the departed to their final resting place. During a real funeral the masqueraders would dance on the deceased rooftops, throughout the village and the areas around the village to settle the spirits of the dead. Sometimes there are mock battles with the spirits who come to disturb the proceedings.
I cannot explain the joy I felt to be a part of this great ritual which was unfortunately being performed for a tourist. These dances are performed annually and the headman thanked me for giving them an opportunity to practice. The privilege of dancing is granted by a headman only if the dancer exhibits certain moral values. So becoming a dancer is one of the great social achievements of a Dogon Male. (There is a BBC documentary about a young man trying hard to be a Dogon dancer).
All the masks used were actually carved by each dancer. I wondered how they could fit snugly on their head during all their gyrations, but found out that they secured them with their teeth while dancing. These ritual masks are kept in caves located on the cliffs high above the village where their ancestors are placed. I also found out that prior to the dance, between11:00 AM and 2:00 PM the ritual ground was prepared for the dance with sacrifices and requests made to the spirits for their consent of this dance for Arjuna and me.
I was so taken by the whole event that I purchased a dance mask worn by one of them for $200, a large sum of money in Mali. The mask was so big that it would not fit in any of our soft duffels. That evening I had someone hacksaw it in half which I reassembled back home.

Hope the Dogon keeps their traditions. Islamic leaders want to rid them of their Pagan rituals. More Dogons are converting to Islam every day and these dances will soon only be found on the stages of Paris and New York. Arjuna and I are blessed.


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 08:58 Archived in Mali Tagged africa mali dogon ramdas iyer Comments (7)

Nomads of the Sahel Desert of Mali

Observations while travelling from Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............... Ramdas Iyer, Author


“My father was a nomad, his father was a nomad, I am a nomad, my children will be nomads,” said Inaka*, who was not sure of his age but looked to be in his fifties. “This is the life of my ancestors. This is the life that we know. We like it.”
Thousands of nomads pepper this western tip of the Sahara desert and most share Inaka’s perspective. For centuries, they have subjected themselves to the oft-bitter whims of nature, without real connections to society. They have lived off their camels, goats and sheep, depending upon them for everything from food to transportation. And they have survived!!.
While visiting Mali in 2007, I was a budding photojournalist, trying to see Saharan Africa and its people from behind the lens. However time and further investigation has proven that the nomads I met and photographed during my brief sojourn were within the past 5 years facing the worst drought to hit Saharan Africa thereby making this write up, from a time when life was more stable for them The Tuaregs of the Timbuktu region and the Bobo of the Burkina Faso/ Northern Mali region are the most affected. While my pictures illustrate their typical way of life, my write-up along with information culled from various sources will truly show the impact of weather on a distinct culture lost to most of us in the west. I saw a similar situation in the Thar desert region of India earlier this year, but the Indian sense of fatality seems to keep the nomads of India in a much higher spiritual place when compared to their African bretheren.
The Fulani of Mali almost have 850,000 to 1,000,000 people in their tribe. The Fulani tribe is the largest nomadic community in the world scattered in six nations of West Africa. Arjuna and I had the pleasure of visiting one such family, where the women folk were left behind in Mopti by their wealthier spouses pursuing their herding techniques and creating a semi-nomadic lifestyle often found with rise in income.
The Tuareg tribe are more commonly called the ‘blue men of the desert, which is derived from their attire of indigo robes and turbans. I am sure you have noticed Arjuna in his Indigo costume whilst visiting the nomads. They are an ancient migratory group still known for their pure desert existence. The Tuareg tribe with their camel-caravans inhabits the desert regions of Mali.

The Sahel is a belt of land which runs for 5,000 KM through six mainly French-speaking West African countries; Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Niger and Chad. Situated between the 10 and 50 cm annual rainfall lines, it is a region of semi-arid steppe country bordering the Sahara desert and is inhabited largely by nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, a group of stockbreeders who have dominated much of the Sahara and the Sahel for some 800 years.
One survey gives the total population of the Sahel as six million of whom two-thirds are nomadic, but all figures need to be treated with caution, especially after the effects of drought, famine, local wars and large-scale migration.
The traditional Sahelian economy is based entirely upon nomadic pastoralism. Herd numbers are normally limited by the extent of grazing areas: cattle are concentrated around wells during the dry season and move out to the Sahel grassland once the harshest conditions have abated.
One interesting fact I learnt was that the Fulani herders drove cattle for every other cattle owner. Which meant that a non-nomad would, for a fee, release his cattle to the Fulani for fattening and returning after a few months. This way, the Fulani were better off than most nomads and were famous for their blankets and their beaten gold earrings (See Photo)
Traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic life involves living in a delicate balance with the land and with water, a balance quite removed from the concepts of commercial cropping, stock marketing and taxation. Even so, famine and drought have always been a recurring problem in the Sahel and until recently nomads have reared as much stock as could be supported in order to protect themselves against a bad year. In good years when stock numbers were high the nomads loaned animals to farmers, reclaiming them in times of hardship.
Colonial rule led to the growth of the coastal towns in West Africa and this in turn led to a rising demand for meat, which was supplied by the pastoralists; however colonial policy also altered the ecological balance of the Sahel by introducing a money economy and also veterinary and medical facilities.

Survived. As the photographs of my travel illustrate these nomads with a ratio of 2:1 livestock to human roam around sparse green belts looking for grazing ground. Our encounters with them were always very educational. The ones that walked or rode in mules were more impoverished than the ones on camels and driving heads of cattle.
While in Timbuktu we received camel trains arriving from Taoudenne, 500 KM from there, carrying huge 40 kg slabs of salt, we also saw the same salt loaded on to mules further inland in Dogon Country, completing the supply chain: another nomadic pursuit.
At each nomadic camp, the women would set out for hours looking for water with their gourd pots: a sight that seemed destined for African photo journalism. Their brightly printed clothing and their colorful bead necklaces contrasted with the stark background of the Sahel. (See photos)
But they have paid a price for their conscious disconnection from the modern world. They are among the world’s poorest people, unable to educate and provide health care for their children, continually scratching to make it through one more day, always one drought away from seeing their animals and families wiped out.
In many ways, their lives mirror those of Africans who live in the villages, towns and cities of the world’s poorest continent. The difference is that many of those Africans long for an economic escape from a torturous existence. Most nomads say they do not.

They are content in this land of thorn trees and murderous heat, where the ground is sprinkled with the bones of burros. Brutal sandstorms rise up in seconds. Squealing children, hungry for play, tumble over sand dunes at sunset.
They follow water and grass, sometimes travel with another family member, and generally move every couple of weeks. A month in one area is an eternity.

The End
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:33 Archived in Mali Tagged africa sahara mali nomads tuareg tribes bobo Comments (2)

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