Nomads Vital for North Africa to Flourish
“The life of nomads is nearly finished.”
Often the gloomy assessment of NGOs and anthropologists, in this case the words come from Mohammed Taher Ould Elhadj, a chief of the Arabic-speaking Berabish nomads of northern Mali. ‘People are dying,’ he told me, ‘not only from the lack of food and medicine, but also from the lack of hope.’ But why does this matter? Beyond the cultural heritage, even beyond the economic value of pastoral herding in landscapes too arid for sedentary grazing, there is another pertinent reason to fight for the survival of North African nomadism: because without the nomads, there can never be security in the Sahara.
The decline of nomadism in North Africa goes back to the nineteenth century. When French forces starting making inroads in the region, it was nomadic chiefs who led the insurgency against them. Subdued by the superiority of French artillery, they would be squeezed by the policies the French introduced. Drawing on the agricultural policies of their homeland, French officers tipped the scales in favor of Africa’s sedentary communities. There are numerous examples of mass killings perpetrated against rural populations (the Voulet-Chanoine mission from Dakar to Lake Chad, which exterminated thousands, is the most notorious), but the French colonial attitude to nomadic life is best reflected in the borders they left behind.
The Sahara straddles ten countries (and one occupied territory). In every single one, the areas inhabited by nomadic tribes are peripheral. Along with the catastrophe of colonialism were climate-related disasters. There have been terrible droughts throughout Saharan history (a drought in 1913 led to the abandonment of several colonial outposts and thousands of deaths), but few have registered as devastating an impact as the Great Sahel Drought of 1968-74, which destroyed around a third of the country’s herds. Before numbers could recover, another major drought struck the region, in the 1980s. Water tables sank, soil moisture was reduced, plant cover thinned, trees died and more than 100,000 people are thought to have been killed by famines and diseases. One elder I met in central Mali listed seven different grasses that no longer grow, exterminated by the droughts.