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Nomads of the Sahel Desert of Mali

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

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“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)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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)

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

Amongst the Tuareg Tribesmen of Timbuktu

A Journey with the nomads of the Sahara.......Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Timbuktu sits where the Sahel meets the Sahara. The Sahel is defined as “ the biogeographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert in the North and the Savannas in the south. It stretches across the North African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. The Arabic word sāḥil literally means "shore, coast", describing the appearance of the vegetation of the Sahel as a coastline delimiting the sand of the Sahara.
While Timbuktu has scrublands and acacia trees around the city, it is only a few yards from the sand dunes of Sahara. Within 10 minutes of driving out of the town one encounters huge sand dunes and endless vista of sand, sky and scarab beetles marking their footsteps in the sand, while feasting on camel dung.
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My son Arjuna and I visited a monument, which was rather unique. A few years ago after a bitter battle between the black Malians and the Arabic Tuareg had led to a dangerous stalemate in this area. After much death and destruction, peace was declared with the burial of 500 machine guns in cement. It was a rather graphic site for us simple folks who had never seen or handled firearms. We then visited the Sankhare mosque, a World Heritage Site, the ancient library housing Islamic works (paid by Ford foundation lest anyone forgets) and the town built on sand including a tour of the house occupied by the first British (or European) explorer to ever visit Timbuktu, Gordon Laing. The legend of Timbuktu was so great in the mid- nineteenth century that its discovery by the west was a prize to be had like a moon landing envisioned by the cold war USA.
In light of this importance, in 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris announced a prize of 10,000 francs (£400) to the person who first visited the African city of Timbuktu. Timbuktu was considered an almost mythical place, a city of gold nestled in the hostile lands of Muslim North Africa. Europeans were not welcome. Several expeditions had been financed from England, but no one had yet returned alive from Timbuktu – even Mungo Park, who had set off down the Niger from Segu (the regional capital of Niger and a place of great interest for the traveller) had been murdered. Animosity between British and French Geographical Society's existed over British explorer, Gordon Laing. There was vague evidence to suggest that Laing had successfully reached Timbuktu in 1826, but had been murdered shortly after leaving. In 1828, René Auguste Caillié was the first European to return from the fabled city.
Caillié settled in a Muslim community on the Rio Nuñez, Guinea, the land made famous by another Frenchman Dominique Strauss -Kahn of the IMF, by allegedly raping a Guinean woman in NYC this summer, to learn the language and customs. After three years he felt confident enough to join a caravan heading to Timbuktu, disguised as a Muslim, and carrying a minimum of supplies: a single bag of trade goods, an umbrella, compass, medical kit, and a journal. He dismissed his poor language abilities by saying he was an Egyptian, kidnapped by Napoleon's army and taken to France to be raised amongst the heathen.
His entrance into the fabled city was a disappointment: later describing the view as "a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth." Caillié stayed in a house only one street away from that where Gordon Laing had slept the previous year, and was shown a compass said to belong to Laing.
After spending a fortnight in Timbuktu he joined a caravan crossing the Sahara to Morocco, reaching Fez in 3 months. From Tangier he returned to France. Caillié was the first to accomplish the journey in safety.
I take pride in our visit given its rich history of exploration, intrigue, murder and trade. Today with sufficient interest, money and a willingness to endure relative discomfort one can get to Timbuktu with relative ease. I will never forget some of the local restaurants along the way for the sheer grossness of the kitchen, plates and offerings. I can recollect having a sandwich in a small restaurant along the way to Timbuktu operated by a French returned Malian. While the food depending on electricity available was tolerable, the kids all around the restaurant were playing with real dead fish, real dead birds and real dead rodents.
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After truly enjoying the tourist offerings, our Tuareg guide Bebe and Malian guide Mama Kone offered to take is up to 20 km into the Saharan sands by 4X4 to visit nomadic Tuareg tents. After 30 minutes of driving we came upon a small community of about five tents who shooed us away, the heathens. While this is not new to Bebe, he was looking for a more amicable community and we found one. With Arjuna dressed like a Tuareg he was confused for an Omanian.
A small rug was spread on the shaded side of a tent and sweet tea poured by the elder. The women in purdah while curious did not approach near us. However a very bratty young man dragged his paramour near us and displayed affections like hugging and kissing while she was shy and running away from it all. (See pictures). We took pictures of them all and showed it on the digital camera display, which was a big hit that drew the rest of the women near us.
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We observed a 8 year old boy with a broken jaw and a festering wound in his face, We were told that a camel had kicked him and they had no way of treating him. Though not very smart, I gave my entire bottle of Tylenol to the father with Bebe instructing on treatment. That would have been a $15000 job with a New Jersey dental surgeon treated with a bottle of Tylenol..
The people were genuine and meeting each other was a privilege of globalization. As we moved on we stopped at a bore well for refreshing ourselves. Much to our amazement it had a stencil that said Mali- India, an Indian aid program to poor Africa, We drank to our heart’s content- Malian Saharan water through Indian largesse.

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Along our travels, we stopped at a local chief’s compound. While the poor Tuaregs move about, the rich sheep and camel owning Tuaregs stay in one compound and conduct business in Timbuktu by taking deep forays with their their camels. This chief offered us a chance to sample riding his camels, served tea in a very relaxed and informal setting while his three wives were cowering in various parts of his compound lest the evil eyes of a heathen cast his stare on their veiled beauty!
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To Be Continued…………………

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:52 Archived in Mali Tagged sahara timbuktu tuareg Comments (1)

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