Drought Forces Desert Nomads to Settle Down For centuries the nomadic Tuareg have roamed across the deserts of West Africa, but severe drought is making that way of life impossible to maintain. Now they are settling down — and trying to maintain their traditions while learning a new way of life.
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Drought Forces Desert Nomads to Settle Down

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Drought Forces Desert Nomads to Settle Down

Drought Forces Desert Nomads to Settle Down

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: We go now to Climate Connections. NPR with National Geographic is spending a year following the Prime Meridian to see how climate is changing people and people are changing climate. Along the east-west divide lies West Africa, where drought is affecting the land and the culture.

Today we visit remote villages near Mali's Timbuktu, where drought has forced desert nomads to give up their way of life.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: There are still a few places in the world you can go and meet people who are living lives not to much different from the lives their ancestors lived a thousand years ago. One of those places is just south of the Sahara Desert. Here, you can still find desert nomads pouring water out of a goatskin bag and boiling it for tea on an open fire.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Not far from the city of Timbuktu in Mali, three Tuareg families have pitched their hide tents close together in the sandy shrub lands. A goat's severed head lies on a bush, drying in the sun. Mohamed Ag Mustafa is a herder with no land and no more possessions than he can carry on the back of his camel.

Mr. MOHAMED AG MUSTAFA: (Through translator) Our life is basically the animals we have. We protect them and we feed them. Whenever we need tea or grain or clothes, we take an animal to the market and sell it and buy something.

HARRIS: The Tuareg depend on their animals. They move their herds constantly from one green spot to the next, camping at each for a few days to a few months. But that way of life has been all about destroyed by droughts over the past 40 years. Most of the herds died, and that forced many Tuareg to settle down in villages.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: Traditional music greets Uwe Korus, director of programs for CARE international in Mali, as he visits the town of Er-Intedjeft.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: He's here to learn what the Tuaregs need in order to make this rapid and jarring transition to a new way of life.

Mr. UWE KORUS (Director of programs, CARE International in Mali) (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: He greets a boy wearing a Barcelona soccer team shirt.

Mr. KORUS: (Foreign language spoken) I wonder whether they know that Barcelona won this weekend.

HARRIS: One of the big questions on Korus' mind is whether the Tuareg can hang on to their ancient culture. They have been called the blue men of the desert but some have even given up wearing the blue headscarves they're known for.

The Tuareg here still play their traditional music and speak Tamacheq, but a lot has changed.

Mr. JACOB AROMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Jacob Aromar isn't a herder like his forefathers but a schoolteacher. He shows us around the town, which is full of things new to the Tuareg. For instance, their homes are no longer tents. Now they build with bricks they make by the river.

Mr. AROMAR: (Through translator) We use these bricks to build the houses. They are made of mud.

HARRIS: Their diet has also changed from one of meat and cheese to one with more grains and vegetables. But they're still learning how to grow their crops. The schoolteacher shows us a pump someone donated so the town can draw water from the nearby Niger River and irrigate their tomatoes, rice and potatoes. But the pump is not in use because nobody knows how to turn it on.

Mr. AROMAR: We've got to see the chief of the village.

(Soundbite of tea being poured)

HARRIS: The village elders still serve traditional sweetened green tea in communal cups.

Mr. MOHAMED AG MATA: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Chief Mohamed Ag Mata is in his mid-60s and pretty frail, but resolute in his decision to give up his nomadic ways.

Mr. AG MATA: (Through translator) It was very tiring, and there were many droughts. And we realized that the land is more productive if we work it.

HARRIS: Were the droughts the main reason that you made this decision?

Mr. AG MATA: (Through translator) Indeed. It was the droughts.

HARRIS: The chief tells us he himself had 200 head of cattle but they all died in the first of two killer droughts in the 1970s and '80s.

Mr. AG MATA: (Through translator) If it hadn't been for a little money I stole from my father and saved, we would have starved.

HARRIS: Once these people lost their herds, they lost the foundation of their informal economy, so they've had to start again from nothing. These days, they do have wristwatches and flashlights. Some even have cell phones, but the chief no longer has all the things that used to define his life as a nomad.

Mr. AG MATA: (Through translator) There are many things we miss - milk, butter, cheese, a nice camel with its saddle. In the past, we used to saddle the camel and put all the nice things on its back and put on our nice clothes and go. We were afraid of nothing. At that time, if you had asked me to grow millet or rice, I would have insulted you.

HARRIS: Tonight, as a prelude to discussions with Uwe Korus and his colleagues from CARE, they're putting on a feast like they used to have in the desert. It's called a mishwi.

The Tuareg build a fire in a sand pit, and when the sand got scorching hot, they buried a sheep carcass in it. Now they're digging it up and removing its paper wrapping. They blow off the sand that's still clinging to the roast and bring the meat over to straw mats that are laid out under rust-colored tents that they've put up for their guests.

Mr. AG MATA: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: As women look on, the men of the village sit around the main dish along with Uwe Korus and the other guests. We reach in and rip the succulent meat from the bone.

Mr. KORUS: Probably we'll do some gathering of other members of the community, including the women.

HARRIS: When we saw them earlier, they were squeezing the stuff out of the entrails and preparing to cook it. They said it would make a delicious sauce.

Mr. KORUS: Yes, probably the sauce that we'll get over the rice dish.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KORUS: Sorry.

HARRIS: By the time dinner is over, night is upon us. The bones are cleared away for the women and children to pick over. Now, the Tuareg sit down and talk for hours. They tell the people from CARE about their struggle to settle down.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: The nomads say they need to learn how to farm, they need clean water, health care and veterinary care for their animals and so on.

The nomadic life they're losing seems at first romantic, but some of the change is welcome. The next morning, the women are up early sifting millet and preparing breakfast. We meet Hadijatou. She's about 25. Her parents had been nomads, but she's grateful that she isn't one.

HADIJATOU: (Through translator) Before, everything was given to us by the men. When you are given what you need by other people, you are dependent on them. But when you are producing what you need, you depend on nobody. So life is far better now.

HARRIS: In fact, this life is now envied by women who still live out in the desert. Back at the nomad camp, Kasa Allad Mohammad Ali(ph) says she would much rather settle down in a village, and her companions agree.

Ms. KASA ALLAD MOHAMMAD ALI: (Through translator) We are tired of sweeping the ground and picking burrs out of our clothing, and taking care of the animals and having dirty clothes and getting dirt on us. We're tired of all those things.

HARRIS: The men don't care what the women think. Children don't count for much either. Mohamed Ag Mustafa says he sees no reason to send his children to school.

Mr. AG MUSTAFA: (Through translator) Maybe school is useful for people in the cities, but not for us. As far as we're concerned, children are only useful for getting water or keeping an eye on the cattle.

HARRIS: But Mustafa also says life is getting harder year by year. The area is getting dryer and a dusty yellow wind is blowing south from the Sahara. They may ultimately have no choice. Uwe Korus says we maybe witnessing the end of a culture.

Mr. KORUS: That would be sad. I'm optimistic that at least some of that culture will resist the change.

HARRIS: Boy, they're changing their way of life. They're changing their sexual politics. They're changing their economic structure. I mean, they're changing practically everything it seems.

Mr. KORUS: True. They are powerful people. I think they will adapt.

HARRIS: But it's evident they will need a lot of help on that journey.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, how the Nomads can sustain their new way of life. And you can see the Tuaregs in a slideshow at npr.org/climateconnections. Plus there's more on climate change in this month's National Geographic Magazine.

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