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Shifting sands for the herders of the Sahel

Story by Jonathon Collins May 14th, 2017

Everything is engulfed in darkness by nightfall. The dappled light from the endless sea of stars is just enough to make out the shapes of sleeping bodies, joined together under rugs and blankets. A family of nine herders, now completely still. Their hut is too warm to sleep inside, and the late night winds help to cut the heat outside, despite carrying thick layers of dust. Colourful prayer mats stitched with patterns of fruit, mosques and their favourite football teams lay underneath them, but do little to stop the the warm earth beneath. A pile of charcoal burns to its last breath, a relic of the last pot of tea boiled and the final exchanges before bed. As the moon crosses the sky and the horizon begins to glow, the horned beasts awake. It is a chain reaction; a sound which ruffles feathers and rouses hooves. In an instant, one blanket unfolds and the towering shape of a father tiptoes over his sleeping family. He walks into the horizon with more than fifty cattle following every footstep. In the light of dawn, the sleeping family awaken one by one. A new days begins in Togel Kours.


Across the desolate landscape, temperatures soar well above 40°C and the sky is a constant haze of unsettled dust. The horizon line is barren, with only a handful of scattered trees and mud huts providing salvation from the harsh sun. The Sahel is one of the harshest places to live on Earth. The narrow strip of land stretches across fourteen countries in northern Africa, where communities from a number of different ethnic groups have adapted to its extreme living conditions over time.

During the year, rain falls for two or three months, but in some years and in some areas, there can be none whatsoever. Over the last half a century, the Sahel has faced the most severe and long enduring drought events than anywhere else on the planet. Now, the region faces its greatest challenge to date; erratic rainfall and increasing desertification at the onset of climate change, where the Sahara is advancing in many cases by 10km every year. For pastoral, agricultural and nomadic communities in the Sahel, the risk of resource scarcity is one which also brings a likelihood of severe famine, instability, conflict and forced migration.


The Fulani live entirely from the land and the animals they rear on it. As echoed in a Fulani proverb; if the cows die, so too will the Fulani people. While the Fulani are known to be the largest nomadic pastoralists in the world; many over time have shifted their livelihoods and settled in semi-permanent village camps as farmers and merchants. Throughout time, they have adapted to significant change in the Sahel region because of their flexibility, mobility and preparedness in times of uncertainty. However, as temperatures continue to soar and the rains of the wet season become increasingly erratic, it poses a great risk to the productivity and single livelihood activity that the Fulani have practiced for generations.

'After the drought in 1985, our area became dry and barren. Many people left Togel Kours because there was no food to keep the cows alive, and the people starved as well. We never used to get worried because the rain came when it was meant to, the grass would grow tall and the cows always had enough food. Now, in the rainy season we can have two weeks with no rain, or we get too much rain, and the crops are destroyed. Life is difficult for us now, and every year our situation is dependent on luck...Togel Kours is our home. We could never leave, but if the situation gets worse, I know that our children must go. Very soon there won't be a choice.'

On adjoined prayer mats the three elders of Togel Kours, a Fulani camp 5km from Djenné in central Mali, sit around a small pot of bubbling, gunpowder tea. Mahamadou Sankari is thin and frail, his spectacles sliding to the edge of his nose as he delicately pours from the piping hot teapot to a small glass, back into the pot, to the glass and so on, in a therapeutic cycle. His generation were key to challenging the historic Fulani tradition of being primarily nomadic, by settling in semi-permanent camps. Every two months, his family would pack their belongings onto carts and walk hours with their sheep, goats and cattle along dirt roads; from Hayre in the rainy season, to bush over the border of Burkina Faso, and back to the outskirts of Djenne in the dry season. Togel Kours was a name that meant ‘when the rain comes, it stays’, as a slight depression in the landscape meant pools of water stayed for months after the rainy season. Two generations later, there is no water where it should be. The soil is dry and barren; a legacy of extended periods of drought, over-farming and deforestation. Herders walk further to find new grass. Farmers no longer farm in areas they once could. New challenges have arisen in the last sixty years that Mahamadou could never have anticipated when he first settled at Togel Kours.


The end of the dry season brings stifling temperatures and endless dust clouds which carry whispers through every mud hut, every thatch roof, every marketplace. The wait is the one thing that unites every ethnic group of the Sahel. In some regions, there is talk that animist Fulani still sacrifice a human as a benediction to the spirits; a prayer for rainfall to keep their cows and crops alive. Some even believe that if the rain would come for longer, that all wars in Africa would suddenly end. Water is on everyone’s mind, for it is the most integral part of their survival.


Aisatta’s thin frame is drowned in her patched clothing, a characteristic her father, Hassan, says is customary towards the end of dry season. When the animals do not eat, neither do the Fulani. It has been nine months of waiting, storing, preserving every grain while anticipating the sky to erupt with rain. For every member of the Sankari family, the wet season brings immense relief, but for no one more than Aisatta. As the eldest daughter still living in the camp, it is her responsibility to herd the sheep and goats and find new pastures to feed every day. Her elder sisters were sent to school in the nearest township of Diabolo, and now her younger siblings spend a few days per week in a mud hut on the outskirts of the camp; a remote school initiative set up by local government for nomadic groups. Aisatta attends a very different schooling each day. Her watchful eyes don't wander for a single second, cautious not to lose any sheep. She studies and understands their group dynamic; alpha males and packs, mothers ready to be milked and those that are too sick or not eating properly. Strung on her shoulder is a rounded calabash tied to a piece of cloth, carrying no more than half a litre of water to outlive the hottest part of the day. At this time of year, it is impossible to imagine the emerald sea that the Fulani talk so fondly of during August to October once the rains have passed. Now, her feet cross a cracked and seemingly infertile earth for more than six kilometres before finding a small patch of bramble and bush. Here, Aisatta settles under the shade of an acacia tree while the animals feed. The waiting game begins once more.


The Sahel remains one of the most contested regions in climate science. While some studies expect conditions to become wetter and more prone to flooding, others suggest the region will become drier due to increased evaporation from the warming of the atmosphere. In either scenario, it is the unpredictability of rainfall that will have major implications for communities like the Fulani, whose very migration, food storage and consumption patterns rely on already scarce land and water resources.

The last few decades have seen cash crops completely disappear from the market in many West African nations, and dramatic fluctuations to the production, availability and cost of staple crops like cereal and rice which all rural people rely on. By 2100, it is estimated that cereal harvests in Mali are set to decline by 30% as a direct consequence of erratic rainfall and recurring drought events. Many of these projections do not even consider the rapid rate at which land is degrading across the Sahel; whereby basins, rivers and underground water sources have dried up and farmland has become infertile. In a part of the world where agriculture and pastoralism are the primary income and consumption sources for rural people, a means to adapt to climate change is inconceivable.


Hassan is a businessman and a merchant, always thinking a step ahead. Like the furniture in a living room, bags of rice lay stacked in every corner of his mud home. Staple crop prices are about to reach their peak in lead up to the rainy season, so the bags have been carefully preserved for months since the last harvest. His wife Binta is the master of measurement, knowing exactly what’s required to feed nine mouths and outlast the peak.

Their household’s capital is spent buying and reselling animals in order to make a marginal profit (10,000 CFA or USD$7.5), which is then saved for times of uncertainty. Last year, Hassan had to buy excess hay to feed the animals, because no grass or leaves grew in nearby pastures towards the end of the dry season. Despite being short of financial capital, currency exists in many forms in the Sahel. Hassan trades dried cow dung to a Bambara farmer to be used as fertiliser, for a discount on rice in the next harvest. He trades a goat in exchange for mud bricks with a Bobo labourer, to stabilise his hut before the rainy season. Binta sells surplus sour milk and butter, to purchase fish from Bozo fishermen when the family need protein. Every part, including the bones are used in cooking. It is a cycle where the exchange of social capital between various ethnic groups help to sustain a livelihood, but ultimately, the household’s condition stays the same.


For the predominantly landlocked, low-income and rapidly growing rural populations in Sahelian countries, the extended periods of resource scarcity will undoubtedly see even greater implications for security. In Mali this prospect rings true, as it was the marginalisation of pastoral and nomadic groups which played a significant role in the Tuareg rebellion; triggering Mali’s civil war from 2012. A study by USAID in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger also indicates a clear correlation between the impacts of climate change and a country’s instability; whereby the contest for land and water paves a way forward for violent conflicts between ethnic groups. Should governments be unable to assist populations in adapting to impacts of climate change, or securing livelihoods away from agriculture and pastoralism, terrorist networks and conflict could fill that void. The UN have predicted that by 2020 both desertification and the emergence of conflicts over resources may see up to 60 million people from the Sahel migrating towards North Africa and Europe as a tactic for survival.


Just a few kilometres from Togel Kours camp, a forest regeneration program is underway to help combat the spread of the Sahara. The movement from a small environmental non-profit by the name of AVDR is growing; building a wall of infant eucalypts in its path. The non-profit specialises in adaptation by education for farmers, herders, fishermen and traders to rethink their livelihoods with more sustainable methods. Hamma Ba, the Director of AVDR and a Fulani himself, believes the solution to a changing climate rests in behaviour change, as means to unite all ethnic groups of the Sahel.

'The desert is coming closer every day. The soil is eroding, and many trees are still being chopped down to make charcoal. People are moving further than they ever have before to search for water and new pastures. They are moving across borders and territories they never used to go, encroaching on other people’s land. It is an endless cycle and there will be nothing left if we don't act now. No grass to feed the cows of the Fulani, no fish for the Bozo to catch, and no crops for the the Bambara to farm. We need to change the mindset of the people if we are to change the outcome for the Sahel region.'

While the Fulani now face their greatest challenge to date with the ongoing impacts of a changing climate; they, like many others in the Sahel region have already adapted to the most extreme living conditions in the world. This is not to say that they are more or less vulnerable to climate change, but have shown that through periods of great adversity that it is possible to overcome hardships through nothing but mobility and ingenuity to their methods. It has now been almost three decades of prolonged drought and inconsistent rain; versus a lifetime of hope, strength and resilience.

Centuries ago, the Fulani, a mix of West African, North African and Arabian blood, unsettled the dust of the Sahel with only their footsteps; moving with the seasons towards new beginnings. In this modern world of borders and boundaries, it is this same tradition that may ultimately be their only method for survival at the onset of even greater adversity.


‘The Human Tide’ is an ongoing project that focuses on local populations facing the greatest impacts of climate change. The first part of the project, ‘TRADITIONS’ was sponsored by Olympus Australia.


All images were taken on the Olympus PEN-F and OM-D E-M5 II with the 12-40mm, 25mm and 75mm lenses.