Fulani Cattle Nomads, National Geographic, Al-Qaeda, and Me


I can relate to the Fulani people, a little.  Like humanitarian development workers I get the impression that life for the herding Fulani men and boys, who live as nomads for the next 6-8 months, is far less idyllic than it seems.

The Fulani people’s herders are moving their cattle south off the shriveled up Sahel in search of grass. They are in a race for their lives, and livelihood, as they try to outrun the effects of the Sahara Desert on their only family resource. Cattle.

Fulani men and boys right now are walking 600 – 700 even 1000 km with their cattle, and they do this every year. Walking at first south, down obscure trails in the bush or parallel with roads. Then, back to the north again, as rainy season approaches in their homeland. At this dry time of year the Fulani spread out over eight or more countries looking for grass for their cattle. The men and boys carry only a small sack, from which they eat, sleep, and migrate for half a year or more. Buying what little they need in small villages on the way.  We bitch about carry-on luggage restrictions? These Fulani herders carry no ten kilograms, and live on it half of each year, for half their life.

Most Fulani have no documentation papers. Borders meaning nothing to them, and the authorities generally leave them alone as they cross borders at freewill unrestricted in any way, though, at times, heated disputes arise as cows enter gardens, properties, or fields, on the way south.

The Fulani are a warm people, but the herders carry these stark serious expressions at all times, which successfully communicates the intended message. Don’t mess with me or my cattle.  Fulani herders can be, and indeed are warriors also. We should have no doubts in our mind of the depths to which these Fulani men and boys will go to protect their only family resource. If you want to be beaten, or become a corpse in the sand, go ahead and cause them trouble. Machetes, the batons in their hands, and the odd pistol in their bags will come out as protective weapons, and they will be wielded at anyone giving a them or their cattle a threat.

I have never seen so many cattle and Fulani in one place. Thousands and thousands of cattle, as many as thirty, if not forty herds being taken south in just this small corner I happened to be in today. How many millions of cattle are being moved all over west Africa right now?

Amidst this Fulani migration my motorcycle and I passed, but mostly had to drive through the middle of these massive herds blocking the narrow “Cow Paths” to my villages up north. This Fulani migration spread out over 80 km north to south in the bush today. Unbelievable to see so many in one day.
It was a National Geographic moment….  I will remember it for life.

I was actually standing in the middle of hundreds of Fulani cattle, completely surrounded in the waves of their livelihood, and as I look over the heads of their cattle, i see scenes of the Sahel,  dark serious gazes, stick and hand gestures being waved by the Fulani herders to keep their cattle moving, or out of my way.  Sounds fun, until several years ago, one Fulani bull wanted to try and gore us with his horns as we passed on the motorcycle. 

I am grateful for the experiences I have, even the not so easy to accept ones too. Here I am, going on about driving my motorcycle through the middle of idyllic little Fulani cattle herders, and we just watched people nearby get butchered by Al-Qaeda (AQIM) attacks, some kidnapped, while my bush guide and partner at first refused to guide and help me in the bush today, because he feared I would be a target too. He was going over the top on me today.

Do you understand, sir, do you understand what it means when you have absolutely nowhere to turn?” Marmeladov’s question came suddenly into his mind “for every man must have somewhere to turn…     (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment)

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