The Sahel Sang Back

By Adam McCauleySeptember 22, 2015

The Sahel Sang Back

Walking with Abel by Anna Badkhen

IN EARLY AUGUST, in the back of Community Book Store on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, Anna Badkhen sat in front of a small piano, its red paint chipped either by wear or design. As the audience sipped grocery store wine and nibbled at cubes of cheese, they listened to an introduction, offered by an editor of an esteemed literary publication, that stirred, and perhaps even embarrassed, Badkhen.

He cited her restless pursuit of life lived at the edges, and his glowing account left the audience wondering what it must be like for her to be there, 4,350 miles from the Malian Sahel — talking through her experiences with the West African Fulani family with whom she walked for nearly a calendar year. Her eyes kept dropping to the hardwood floor in front of her high-top stool.

Finally, Badkhen picked up a copy of her new book, thumbed to a marked page, and told of a specific conversation she had with these “nomads forever chasing rain in the oceanic spaces of Africa’s margin lands”:

When my turn came to tell a story Fanta told me to talk about the sky. I said the universe was very old and vast and that its origins were difficult to explain because it seemed to have appeared out of an infinitely dense and hot nothingness […] I said that compared with the unfathomable size of the universe our planet was a round blue bead so tiny it was almost invisible. That the Earth traveled on annular migrations around the sun and that its migrations coincided exactly with the yearly migrations of the Fulani and determined them. That the sun was itself a star that shone off to the side of the massive and ever-expanding group of celestial bodies and gas and debris, a galaxy called the Milky Way.

Fanta’s husband, Oumarou Diakayaté, the male head of the family, said he had heard the “stars were distant suns. He said the roundness of the Earth was news to him.” He added that it “was obvious that the world was in motion, since a Fulani proverb said, ‘Our shadows move, our animals move on the Earth that moves, so why should I myself not move?’”

He settled on a simple, but final, judgment: “Good story,” he said.


Walking with Abel is a patchwork of culture-colliding exchanges — a careful rendering of one of the world’s last remaining migratory peoples.

In Badkhen’s account, the Fulani number 20 million and represent nearly half of the remaining nomadic population in the world. For centuries, these herders have shepherded their cattle across thousands of kilometers of plains and grasslands, a territory stretching from Mali down to Nigeria, inland to Chad, and straight across the continent to their place of origin: Ethiopia.

The Fulani, a majority of which are Muslim, have many sects, but the well-heeled practice transhumance — which is not identical to nomadism — and travel with their extended families, traversing borders and barriers with the changing seasons. Their heritage is tinged with mythicism; it remains unclear just how the Fulani once domesticated their prized cow, but their tireless steps, often taken today in well-worn plastic sandals, are inspired by a simple refrain: “There is no truer wealth than milk and cattle.”

Badkhen is no stranger to remote and near-lost corners of the world. Her previous works, including two books that chart her time in Afghanistan, and another small volume, Peace Meals, featuring war reportage from Chechnya, East Africa, Eastern Europe, and Palestine, serve as compass points on a map of places infrequently visited. After the publication of The World is a Carpet, a record of life and work in the tiny Afghan village of Oka, Badkhen said, “I hope [the book] reminds my readers that we are all threads woven together.”

Her latest immersion with the Fulani allows her to “graze for stories” and “herd words,” and she uses her credentials as a war reporter with tact, reconditioning readers whose only context for West Africa — and perhaps the continent — is that of violence.

“I have written about violence up close because I believed its obscenity had to be exposed and examined so we could take collective responsibility,” she writes in Walking with Abel. And she commits to writing text in order to prompt her readers to imagine the Fulanis’s distinct way of life — not through difference but similarity, even if the particulars are stitched onto hardscrabble horizons in a forgotten corner of the world.

One of Badkhen’s talents is her ability to build narrative forward and backward in time. In doing so, she situates the Fulani in relief across centuries and physical space. Fanta’s husband Oumarou Diakayaté searches for “counsel in the stars” or for guidance in the shifting night sky, from “coordinates […] brought into existence billions of years before the Earth itself” — reminding the reader of the gravity and value of tradition even if the world is rapidly at change.

Across this landscape she wanders, harnessing the immediacy of life studied, “with your feet, with your eyes, and with your mind.” To join the clan, Badkhen learned their local language, Fulfulde, and was christened with a new name, Ana Bâ — one of oldest and revered Fulani honorifics.

She learns, one footstep at a time, the Sahel has grown hotter and drier since the 1960s, with the rains each year growing more unpredictable. These conditions have forced the Fulani closer to settled lands and increasingly into contact with the region’s pastoralists, who tend to the grasslands upon which the Fulani’s cattle rely.

“We have less grass now. The milk before and the milk now taste different, and the river doesn’t get as full. The wind is hotter and dries out the water faster,” Oumarou tells Badkhen. Spotting change requires no degree in science, as few credentials can substitute for the knowledge culled from fifteen million footsteps each year.

The book’s title, biblical in its portents of story, is also suggestive of the region’s

clawing meta-narrative. Cain, a crop farmer and the first human, kills his brother Abel, a shepherd. For the few readers who will have followed news about the Fulani, inter-communal violence between farmers and shepherds have been tallied in bodycounts for generations, growing most acute as climate change has altered the terrain.

For Badkhen, following a Fulani family through their annual wanderings appears an attempt to create a more holistic, humane description of these communities — to introduce readers to the people who actually occupy these slivers of the world.

“The double-edged power of a narrative to devastate or strengthen extended beyond accounts of ignominy,” she writes, describing the anxiety of proscribing the Diakayatés’s lives to the page. She is a stranger in an ancient land, who knows “[a]ll storytelling was magic” and could affect lives in “profound and unpredictable ways.”

Discussing Fulani marriage, Badkhen captures what to some will seem a surprisingly modern exchange:

“People get married but their ideas about life are not the same. So they separate. Sometimes it’s the woman who decides to get divorced, sometimes the man.”

“But it’s always the woman’s fault,” added Ousman.

“Anna Bâ, Anna Bâ, don’t ask them!” Mama tossed her chin, squinted. “They don’t know anything.


She seemed to speak not only of her stepfather and stepbrother but also of all the cowboys [herders] unseen now in the night. “But I’ll tell you. All the problems in life are because of men.”

This is where attentive reporting shines — illuminating the similarities between people across space. That this conversation might have occurred in a nail salon in New York, a dinner party in London, or an art opening in Paris alters the frame through which we might view the dusted and weathered plains of the Sahel. Details like these are testament to this human condition — a testament hidden beneath contemporary literature that strains to portray difference as extraordinary, without realizing it was making the extraordinary distant.


Walking with Abel can read more like fiction or poetry than straight reportage. Her richly detailed and delivered observations are crafted with a careful ear for the rhythms of language:

[D]ay crashed into the Sahel in a crescendo of birds. A rooster crowed once and right away clouds of tiny passerines in twilit shrub let loose a delirious trill. Starlings shrieked the world’s oldest birthsong: alive, alive, alive, alive. A kingfisher warbled. The sun hurtled upward red and elliptic from beyond the sparse scrublands, grazed the low umbrella crowns of acacias, slowed down, and hung glaring in the fierce African sky.

This artistry both helps and hinders Badkhen’s work. Some readers will undoubtedly read sections as precious or romantic, evocative for their own sake. These are the complications of a stylist, Badkhen might claim, who admits grammatical errors are her greatest pet peeve. But her mode of exploration-qua-reportage, where she remains tucked away from the prying eyes of others, allows her to render the Fulani in a space unimagined and as a people largely unimaginable to the average reader. Out of this void, Badkhen’s observations can become scripture, and the reader is left without the means to adjudicate trust — a quality writers like Badkhen must earn and retain.

What we do see of the Fulani’s mode of life is rendered in crystal crispness — the “narrow plastic lace-ups made in Côte d’Ivoire” vendors called “Fulani shoes”; the “broken veterinary syringes, cracked calabashes, vials of dewormers, smashed flashlight batteries, ripped plastic shoes” that marked the “tidelines” of the Fulani’s yearly migration. Badkhen harnesses the unavoidable distance between herself and her subjects as space to identify similarity, not simply to sharpen contrast. She references the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who explained a similar dissonance while reporting in Africa. “I the Self can exist as a defined being only in relation to; in relation to the Other,” Kapuscinski said. “[H]e appears on the horizon of my existence, giving me meaning and establishing my role.” Similarly, Badkhen knows she cannot truly be the family’s “white Fulani.”

But Walking with Abel’s freshness also comes from the prose’s steady climb out of the proverbial cave, beyond the shadows cast by works of current affairs. These pulp treatises, often penned in political-ease, problematize instead of describe most places the Fulani call home. In these texts, the 2012 coup and continued insecurity in Mali become the country’s dominant references, its territory an uncertain battlefield between groups reducible to acronyms and extremist sentiment. In concert with Niger, Chad, and northern Nigeria — territories where the Fulani trespass — Mali becomes little more than dry tinder where the next spark threatens a firestorm that will reduce peace to mere ashes of conflict.

What makes Badkhen’s work valuable is how she records a world in which readers can live vicariously, and provides those viewers a chance to glimpse the “conflict” as it appears on the ground: in passing conversations with other travelers, by mention of the tragic death of a Fulani herdsmen, and in the image of French military plane on their occasional flyover. Of the latter, Badkhen writes:

Was it possible that somewhere — in Bamako? France? the United States? — uniformed men and women strained their eyes at pixelated images of us eating lunch? What did the pilots see? Motionless diners, stacks of gunnysacks, long bundles of matting. Animals. The plane was low enough for them to see the uncomprehending fear on our faces.

Badkhen never suggests the Fulani are immune to war’s consequence, and clearly mentions that the modern mode of war fighting “warped time and thrust modernity at the cowherds” and “threatened to reorganize their lives in ways they could not foresee.” But the conflict, Badkhen hints, does not forestall today, even if it begs questions of tomorrow.


“I see myself as a storyteller. I see myself as a connector of the world,” Badkhen told Nautilus magazine last year. Born in the Soviet Union, she moved to the United States in 2004. “I insert myself into the lives of people for very long stretches of time. I guess you could call it ‘slow journalism.’”

Badhken consciously draws on the finest of travel writing, paying homage to Bruce Chatwin’s “nomadic alternative” and his sense of “perpetuum mobile” — extra human restlessness — which has colored nearly all of Badkhen’s projects over the last five years. She also seems to measure her own motivations with the Fulani against Peter Matthiessen’s motives for exploration in his cherished book, The Snow Leopard: was this her “true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart?”

In an essay in the Boston Review, writer Jessa Crispin takes pains to explore the difference between travel writers who focus on their own “interior psychodrama” — the Elizabeth Gilberts or Cheryl Strayeds, in her estimation — or those who harness their “masculine force” and “need to conquer” — a group that includes the Chatwins or the Therouxes. For Crispin, both archetypes constrain the authenticity or import of their respective conclusions.

Whether one agrees with Crispin’s schematic, there are clear consequences for these literary products: do the texts graft “others” into a personal story of the writer, or do these texts become exaggerated tales of life in extremis? The former uses the “other” as prompt, while the latter as mere ornamentation. Between these two worlds, however, Walking with Abel finds its particular niche.

Badhken tries to hunker into the background, and her assumed social position with her adopted family does limit any chance she might don the crusader’s cloak in her writing. If Crispin is worried that travel writers might “deny other people’s humanity” by supplanting the “other” with the reporter or writer themselves, Badkhen does not warrant such a charge.

She isn’t missing from the story, of course, and her personal drama surfaces throughout the text. We learn early in this volume that Badkhen has left a loved one behind; this is a person whose inability to offer her a future (he is married) leaves her raw with memories of their past. Yet even this harkens back to Montaigne, and a quote biographer Nicholas Shakespeare found scribbled into one of Chatwin’s signature notebooks: “I ordinarily reply to those who ask me the reason for my travels, that I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.”

But Badkhen’s mention of her lover, a fellow “wordsmith,” provides chance to delve into her own insecurities and sensitivities around reporting and writing:

There was no blueprint. No matter the deference, no matter the elusive sense of entitlement, the loftily so-called poetic license to represent before my readers the iniquities I witnessed, there existed an inherent contradiction in the purpose of my writing — to bring the world closer, to make it accountable — and my keen awareness that I was intruding upon and exposing something exceedingly private. It baffled me. Maybe a true writer of conscience was one who never put down a single word.

In making her anxieties visible and her limitations known, Badkhen is trying to earn our trust.

This does not mean Badhken’s work is without issue. Her “slow journalism” can make the narrative logy: there are countless nights spent curled up alongside the families in their moveable shelter, daily trips to fill containers of clean water gathered, and the selling of the Fulani’s milk and curd. She lives among strangers, who become surrogate family, and she navigates an environment without personal space and absent much privacy. But if intimacy requires time and a rendering of the quotidian — resplendent in its expectable tedium — then this record of presence will always threaten to stall the narrative.

At other times her prose can seem purposefully difficult or ornate. She describes a crude mix of scents as an “olfactory cacophony,” or the air around Fanta as smelling of some “intrinsic remembering.” These are throwaway phrases. But they seem to grow from Badkhen’s own philosophy of writing: “Try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.” This is Badkhen trying “to scrape the page with the sharp raw edges of what’s broken, to scratch sense into skin.”

If there is a mode and message in Walking with Abel, however, it is the stubborn echo of human resilience: a centuries-old compact cherished by communities who have committed, and reaffirm their commitment, to life lived at the world’s quickly fraying edges. “Stoicism was the discipline of suffering, and transhumance demanded both,” Badkhen writes of the Fulani. These pronouncements are harsh, but they do not carry the doomsday-isms that color much of the writing about the continent.

For centuries, Fulani families have traversed these lands, signposted by the graves of loved-ones now buried. There is a trauma in these steps. But there is also the sense of place and purpose. “The nomads were always leaving, leaving,” Badkhen writes. “And they also were always returning, returning.” For one year, for a finite number of strides, Badkhen’s footsteps traced theirs. Thankfully, she took us with her.


Adam McCauley is a Canadian writer, photographer, and videographer currently based in Hong Kong.

LARB Contributor

Adam McCauley is a Canadian writer, photographer, and videographer currently based in Hong Kong. McCauley graduated from the University of Toronto’s Trudeau Centre in 2011 as a specialist in peace and conflict studies, before completing his masters at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. This fall, Adam will join the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.


Adam McCauley has traveled to more than 25 countries researching issues of international politics and security. McCauley is a former multimedia intern at The New Yorker, fellow at Al Jazeera English, writer/producer for TIME magazine’s LightBox, and most recently served as Chief of Staff at The Governance Lab @ NYU.


McCauley’s journalistic work has been nominated for numerous industry awards. Most recently, his 2012 piece for The Atlantic, “Overexposed: A Photographer’s War on PTSD,” was nominated for a 2013 Dart Award (for excellence in reporting on trauma) and the 2013 Mirror Award (for excellence on reporting on the media). His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, TIME, and Al Jazeera (English / America).


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