A book arrived the other day. I’d ordered it months ago, and waited, patiently. It is penned by the author of my favourite book of 2013, and events take place in one of my favourite literary locations of that same year. So we have Anna Badkhen, in the Sahel. Whilst Alistair Carr wandered with the nomads of Niger, Anna is a bit further west, with the Fulani of Mali.
As we often find with the best travel books the writer is on an escape. Anna was missing her long-term lover, a parting several months before she set off for Africa. She is a bit of nomad herself, raised a Soviet Jew and now living in Philadelphia, having worked in parts of the world the rest of us only get to read about, as a war correspondent. And reading about them through Anna Badkhen’s eyes and with her words, is sheer immeasurable pleasure.
Her latest work, Walking with Abel, takes us to the desert lands, south of Timbuktu, near the border lands with Burkino Faso. There are no calendars, no dates, no clocks and no hours; there are only seasons, and cycles. So with Anna and the Diakayate family we see the shooting stars as the canopy above changes through the night; we move our herds as the rainy season arrives late, the dry season early.
These are ancient pathways, and the modern world is beginning to creep in. Warplanes pass overhead as jihadists cause havoc to the north. Motor-bikes and guns see goats stolen from herds. But the biggest danger is from the changing climate; as harvests fail herds are decimated with insufficient pasture or dry rivers.
A good hump, the choicest of cuts reserved for the owner himself, becomes scarce as the cattle become slat-ribbed again. Where once the herd numbered thousands now the children take only a fraction to the night grazing. Cellphones and bright lights, names on football shirts, draw the next generation of nomads to the towns and cities. But the family walks on, through the cycles, camping where they camped decades before, muttering prayers where infants were buried in previous cycles. And in the modern world the climate change is felt more in the Savannah than in the cities where our behaviour accelerates the changes.
Anna Badkhen has the ability to take us there, to lead us gently through the moving of camps, the crossing of rivers, and the way of life. Perhaps her own pain adds to the clarity. The Fulani though are experts at resilience, in dealing with famine and drought. Their lifestyle may be alien to us, but no less magical, the rhythms being filled with griots and mystics and myths, of stories passed down from one generation to the next.
Several times my mind turned to that great admirer of the nomadic life, Bruce Chatwin. He’d have loved this book, as did I.