Posts Tagged With: Villages

The Horse Of The Sahel

A young Sahel stallion with his owner, a wealthy horse breeder and trader

In the cercle de Nara the most beautiful horses can be found. After a short while I became the owner of two.

The horses of the Sahel are small in frame with slender and long legs. They are extremely robust and resistant and adapted to the harsh and unforgiving climate of the Sahel belt. Their lineage can be traced back to the Sahelian kingdoms.

The Sahelian kingdoms were kingdoms or empires that were all centered on the Sahel belt, the area of grasslands south of the Sahara, spanning 1000km across Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

The wealth of the states came from controlling the trade routes across the desert. Their power came from having large pack animals like camels and beautiful horses that were fast enough to keep a large empire under central control and were also useful in battle. The first kingdom was the Empire of Ghana founded 2500 BCE. All these kingdoms had substantial and significant towns but still each empire had a great deal of autonomy.

In every village the beautiful small and slender Sahel horses can be found

In most of the villages in the Nara region these beautiful horses could be seen. Horses were treated  extremely well and cared for which stood in strong contrast to countries further down South, such as South Africa, Namibia and Bostwana, where horses were seen as mere means of transportation for many and can be ridden up to exhaustion.

In Nara, the value of a horse was well understood and the long history that the Sahel horse has in this region made them precious companions for their owners. Horses belong to the life of the sahel.

Categories: Africa, Animals, Horses, Mali, Mali Villages, Nara, People, Sahel, Transport, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Make Me Whole Again!

The Holistic School of Thought

Traditional fencing in a village in the Cercle de Nara

From 1994 to 2001 the LAG – Malihilfe supported 17 villages in the Cercle de Nara. The Project LAG ‘s interventions followed the approach of a “holistic multisectorial village development”. This approach was based on the assumption that all the basic, elementary and unsatisfied needs of the population, as food security, availability of drinking water, sanitation and education to name just a few, had to be taken into consideration during the planning of the project’s activities. This approach also assumed that if basic living conditions could be improved in a holistic way, in other words by attending to the problem areas simultaneously through integrating them into an annual project plan in form of well defined and researched activities, things would eventually get better in the villages of the Sahel.

Mali had been classified as the fifth poorest country in the world when I started working in the Sahel in 1996. Things had to get better.

The LAG was the first organization to set up a project infrastructure in Nara. It worked in close cooperation with two other foreign donor organizations that supported the project in terms of finances, knowledge, logistics and personel. Many projects at this time fancied the “holistic” approach. It did make a lot of sense because of its participatory and patient nature compared to development strategies of the 1970’s and it had all the potential to turn projects into success stories instead of white elelphants.

But the north and north west of Mali englobes a wide a variety of life-styles with many of the communities in the Cercle de Nara being of a pastoralist and nomadic nature. One of these lifestyles is called ” The Transhumance”.

Traditional home in a village in the Cercle de Nara

The Transhumance can be described a pastoral strategy practised since thousands of years in the Sahel, especially in the north of Mali. It relies for migration for one part of the year and village residence during the other part. Seasonal migration patterns differ and they depend on a variety of factors ranging from the size of the herds to socio-economic status and family clan. There exists what we called the ” big and small transhumance”.

The small transhumace is also sometimes called a ” dry season transhumance ” that entails staying in the villages during the rainy season and then migrating south for the dry season. The dry season begins in November and ends at the beginning of July. Migrants consist of small family groups or male herders without any women.

The big transhumace is intensive in nature but the migrants move north towards Mauritania and they move during the rainy season. The migrants return only to their villages for a couple of weeks when the harvest time comes which is around October. After that they continue to migrate south with their herds for the long dry season lasting several months.

Migratory and pastoralist patterns have been overlooked for decades in project planning in the Sahel. During the last years more attention is given to them.

But for us soon the question arose: Whom can we make whole again if there is no continued presence, no male presence in the villages for several month every year ? Who is going to do the follow up on the implemenattion of the “holistic village development activities”?

Categories: Animals, Labor Migration, Landscapes, Livestock, Mali, Nara, Tradition, Transhumance, West Africa, women | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Baobab – The Trees of The Spirits

Where the ancestors gather!

A Legend from Africa

In the mystical land Africa grew a beautiful tree called Baobab. Although tall and mighty, the Baobab was not satisfied with what it was and it complained to the Great Spirit who ruled the land, the wild open plains and the animals. The Baobab still wanted to be taller, have blossoms and fruits. At first the Great Spirit ignored the tree, but when the complaining continued the Great Spirit got tired, reached down from the heavens, yanked the tree out of the earth and stuffed it back into the ground with force upside down. All the animals on the great plains noticed this and were reminded of the power and omnipresence of the Great Spirit. After that the Baobab grew only leaves once a year. For nine months of the year it stayed leafless and it seemed like as if its roots are growing into the air. And this is how it still is today.

This is an African legend of the Baobab tree. There are many more legends from other countries. The Baobab – Adansonia Digitata – grows on the savannahs of Africa and India, mostly around the equator. It can get up to 25 meters in height and it lives for thousands of years.

Each product of the Baobab is used. From the bark clothes and ropes are made, the leaves can be cooked into a sauce or used as traditional medicine and the fruit often called ” monkey bread ” is eaten as well. Apart from being one of the most beneficial and wondrous trees on this earth it is a mystical tree that attracts spirits.

In the “Cercle de Nara” the Baobab was highly valued by the people. Every year a group of young men left their villages and traveled with donkey carts to areas in the Sahel where the Baobab grew to gather the leaves and bark. Sometimes they would stay away from home for two or three weeks. But with every new year the journey became longer and harder and the harvest less. The Baobab leaves had become scarce. This “mini migration movement” for the beneficial products of the Baobab tree took place every year and the scarcity of the trees and the adventures encountered by the men on the trip were a topic in many a conversation.

In Narai, I was told the spirits of the ancestors visit the trees often and stay a while if it pleases them. In the branches of a Baobab one can feel the ancestors.

As part of our “multisectoral holistic village development programme” that supported self-help initiatives in the Cercle of Nara we had started researching the history of the Baobab ( Adansonia Digitata) on a local level. Under the framework of our agroforestry programme that aimed at planting, growing and re-introducing indigenous trees, we suggested to the people in the village to plant and grow the Adansonia Digitata close-by. This would eventually with time lead to the availability of Baobab leaves, bark and fruits, contribute to re-forestation in the Sahel and reduce the necessity of traveling to remote areas to collect the products. It was an idea that had been well thought through and reflected on from a point of planning and organization. And it was possible to grow the Baobab. I had done several test at my house.

But during several hot afternoon meetings in different villages the men listened to the projects suggestions with great secptism. There was great reluctance.

One afternoon I received the visit of a village chief who had come to the market in Nara to do business.

” Why is it difficult to grow the Baobab” ? I asked him over tea.

” You can live close to a Baobab tree, but you should not plant a new Baobab tree in your yard. You will die before you see it grow big and it is absolutely not sure how the spirits of the ancestors would react to such an action.”

I believe that in most things that are said in Africa, there is truth!

Categories: Adansonia Digitata, Africa, Baobab, Landscapes, Mali, Nara, Nature, People, Sahel, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When All The Men Are Gone

When The Men Are Gone


” When the time has come again and our men go to look for work, we stay with children and the old. It can be months or years before we see the men again. “

Categories: Labor Migration, People, Sahel, women | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sudano – Sahelian Architecture


Store room for sorghum and maize built from mud

If you do not visibly succeed with your development and project activities in ” building better communities or making a real difference to local comunities in your host country ” ( this statement would probably be part of your job description or of your Development organization’s mission statement when you sign up) – you still have the invaluable opportunity to develop yourself. There is no amount of money that could pay for this opportunity.

This may sound very harsh but this statement bears a lot of truth. There is a high probability that you would not succeed in building better communities and you will not even make a tiny difference sometimes. The communities are just fine without you.  And that is ok.

The really beneficial thing of doing volunteer work is the impact it has on the volunteer. The seven years in Mali were a never ending personal journey of discovery and learning in terms of culture, tradition, art, language, social norms and personal relations, etc. This jouney would have continued had I stayed. Gradually and slowly one becomes less judgemental, less racist, less sure about one’s owns convictions, less superficial and less proud. In fact the local community can teach you a lot of things your own culture would never do.

My first contact with Sudanese Sahelian architecture in Mali left me speechless. I will write more about it at a later stage. But this style of architecture and the way of building is entirely adapted to the ecological and environmental condition of the region.

French-Sudanais or the newer term Sudano (Sudanese) Sahelian Architecture covers a variety of similar architectural styles that prevail in the Sahel and in other regions of  West-Africa. These styles can be found south of and within the Sahara. The Sudano Sahelian architecture can be found only above the Savanna and the forest regions of the African coast line.

WIndow Shutter

This style is characterized by the use of mudbricks  and an adobe plaster, with large wooden-log support beams that stick out from the wall face for large buildings such as mosques or palaces.

At the same time the beams also act as scaffolding for reworking or repairing the building if necessary after heavy rains.  Reworking is done at regular intervals, and involves the local community.

Categories: Nara, Sahel, Sudano Sahelian, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nara, The Fire

When I applied for a position with an  International Organizations in the 1990’s, I applied for a job vacancy in the South of Namibia. I wanted to help disabled children and children with learning abilities to develop their potential.

I had grown up  and been living in Namibia for several years. I spoke three of the local languages, Africans and English as well. I was very young then, but I thought I had what it takes to assist at least some of the Namibian population to have a better life. I definitely had passion and a deep love for the African continent.  A very deep love. Still today I do not want to live in any other place.

I was invited for a job interview in Berlin, Germany. I did well and was asked if I would go to Tanzania instead. I said yes, wondering why, and thinking I have to speak to my boyfriend first. He never wanted leave Europe, where I was living since a year and a half. But I did. I was home-sick.

I said yes, when asked. After three days of  being assessed by the Development and Donor Organization I was judged suitable and capable for work in Africa. I went home in an overnight train. Riding the whole night, while I heard the noise the wheels made on rails, I thought: Will I like Tanzania ?  Will he ? I did not sleep. He bought a map for Tanzania when I was home with him.

Two days later I got a job offer for Nara, in Mali. Nara is in the Sahel. French is spoken. My French was mediocre at the time. I was a child of the South of Africa. But I was home-sick and I said yes again to Nara.

I was told later by some of the elders of Nara:  Nara comes from Noara and is an Arab name. There goes the saying that the first woman ever to settle in that region, was called Noara. A woman of beauty and strength. A stubborn woman. The village Nara was named after her. Nobody knows if this is really true. It is just a saying.

And Nara means THE FIRE as well. Nara is the fire and the heat of the Sahel.

Categories: Africa, Landscapes, Nara, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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