Lost in the Sahel

Lost in the Sahel

The Sahel desert covers a large portion of northern Africa spreading from the Northern part of Senegal all the way to Eritrea. This photo essay was created by photographer Pascal Maitre and writer Paul Salopek for the National Geographic.

For more about the Sahel, check out the full essay here..

In a blur of dust turbaned riders gather to watch a race in Abéché in eastern Chad. A thousand years ago men on horseback carried Islam and Arab culture across the vast, dry lands bordering the Sahara.

Niger: Swallowing all but the tallest trees, dunes have buried cropland near the city of Goudoumaria, where a herder follows goats in search of forage. Reduced rainfall has withered vegetation and dried up wells in parts of southern Niger, forcing villagers to move. The Sahel experienced droughts in the 1970s and ’80s, and although rainfall has increased since the 1990s, a decades-long dry spell continues.

Niger: Riding a mountain of belongings, migrants who had left Niger for Libya return home in the face of antiforeign sentiment. The Sahel was once the center of a camel-borne trade that took slaves, ivory, and gold to Europe and the Middle East, but it now lies on the margins of the world’s economy. Many of the region’s young men have gone to wealthier countries such as Libya and Algeria to find work.

Niger: Shoveling out a road near the village of Tali seems a hopeless task, but young volunteers earn tips from the few drivers who use the route—one way to get cash in this poor, mostly rural country where jobs are scarce. Despite such smothering sands, landlocked Niger is working to improve its roads, with help from Western donors and OPEC.

Senegal: The Sahel ends at the Atlantic in Dakar, where open land may become a highway to relieve congestion in the densely populated capital. On the beach, fishing boats deliver catches by day and leave by night loaded with migrants risking a crossing to the Canary Islands—way station to Europe. Hundreds die every year, and though Spain and Senegal have increased air and sea patrols, the exodus goes on.

Sudan: After a skirmish with government forces, Darfur rebels of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) regroup at a vehicle carrying weapons and a bundle of amulets for magical protection. The SLA has fractured into factions that attack civilians and each other as often as they fight the Sudanese Army.

Niger: Huddled in the morning chill, students at a Koranic school in Goudoumaria prepare to learn the Sahel’s mystical brand of Sunni Islam, mixing Sufi and African traditions. Lacking books or paper, they write verses from the Koran on wooden tablets in washable ink. When classes end, children who have come from distant villages to study with the school’s marabout, or holy man, beg for alms for food.

Nigeria: A sharia court efficiently settles a land dispute in Kano, a city on the Sahel’s southern border whose Muslim majority lives under strict Islamic law. After years of corrupt and bureaucratic secular rule, most residents welcomed Kano state’s imposition of sharia in 2000. But minority Muslim sects, human rights advocates, and Christians, especially those who could no longer sell alcohol for a living, protested.

Nigeria: Catholics celebrate Mass in Kano, where Muslims outnumber Christians ten to one. The Sahel marks the southern reach of early Muslim traders, sages, and armies, and the northernmost influence of later European missionaries. Most Christians came to Kano as merchants.

Niger: Women enlisted by the government of Niger plant shrub branches near Soubdou, securing them with grass to create grids of natural fencing that keep sand from blowing onto land used for crops and grazing.

For each acre fenced, the group of women receives $80. Since the drought years in the 1980s, Sahelians have reclaimed damaged land by stabilizing dunes, cultivating trees, building rock walls to halt erosion, and sowing seeds in pits dug to catch rain.

Niger: Bundled up against sand and sun, a migrant laborer stretches his legs during a break in the arduous journey across the Sahara from Libya to his home in southern Niger.

Chad: A sudden downpour drenches women near Abéché during the rainy season. Changing climate has already brought the Sahel not only drier weather but also rains that fall too heavily, too early, or too late: In September 2007 floods inundated the normally parched region. As they have for centuries, the Sahel’s people are finding ways to adapt in a land so uncompromising that failure means death.

Nigeria: Idling vehicles cast a pall of exhaust over the busy streets of Kano.


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