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Sowing seeds of new life in arid sands of Niger

1985 October 16
by Paul Vallely

The hands of a Fulani woman should be like silk, lamented the stately nomad. She held out her hand to display the roughened skin and callouses.

Her name is Guntu Mamane and for the past 50 years she has wandered the Sahara desert with her small family tribe living off the milk of her camels and goats. But last year, in the greatest drought in northern Niger this century, she lost eight camels, two donkeys, eight goats and eight sheep.

She counted them off on her blistered fingers. since then she has for the first time in her life been forced to use a hoe.

‘I had nothing to live on and I had two children to look after. I am married to an old man who has no teeth and cannot see.’ The teeth are important. They are the mark of beauty in a Fulani man and it is important for a woman to have a beautiful husband for it is the women who choose their mates at the annual dancing ceremony.

‘I have to give him food and clothes too,’ she said, with cold charity.

Last year there were more than 700,000 Tuareg and Fulani nomads who lost all their camels and cattle in Niger. As milk and cheese are almost their entire diet, the death of the livestock meant an end to their traditional way of life.

About 300,000 of them went to camp on the edges of towns in and around the Sahara but about 400,000 were taken into a new government contre-saison programme which uses purpose-drilled boreholes and hand-drawn irrigation to grow crops in the dry season in the very sands of the desert.

Guntu’s well is one of a group at Tiguerouit near the town of Agadez which sits on the flat compacted sands of the southern Sahara. It is an area of so little rainfall even at the best of times that the dry heat has commonly preserved tiny flint arrowheads from a period 20,000 years ago when the place was lush savannah.

Many times a day she draws water and pours it around the stems of the dozen rows of millet and sorghum she has planted. The crop is not a good one. In the shade the temperature in 115 degrees F In the sun the heat is penetrating and the ground soaks up the water so rapidly that within minutes it looks as though it has never been moistened at all.

But she has saved enough so far, because of the high prices of grain, to buy two new goats. She will carry on planting until the two have multiplied to three and she has bought more, enough to form a viable herd; and then she will move on.

The Tiguerouit project is run by the League of Red Cross Societies which has 21 other schemes in this part of the desert. Diane Hanson, the American volunteer who helps administer them, feels they offer a solution to a number of local problems.

‘For a start,’ she said, ‘it has kept people out in the desert which has been their home for centuries instead of congregating uselessly in towns. It is the next obvious step after straight-forward feeding of the starving; some of those now working here were people we found collapsed in the desert six months ago. It is a small contribution to the revegetation of the desert and forms the base for a return to their old life. As they make some money they can start to build up herds and send their children off with them find grazing while they remain behind to cultivate.’

But a full re-introduction of the nomadic pastoralism may never be possible. According to Niger’s President, General Kountche, the environment is continuously deteriorating here. There may never be the rain to provide any proper grazing yet there are still good underground supplies of water. ‘The solution is some sort of combination between agriculture and stockbreeding,’ he said.

It may be that the old ways of life in the Sahara desert have this year been changed for ever.

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