Desert Storm

Back in March of this year, I spent a couple of weeks in the far north of Burkina Faso. I slept under the stars on the edge of the Sahara, was offered a live goat at Dori’s spectacular weekly livestock market, and discussed the upcoming hunger season with nomadic Fulani herders. I also spent money (although not on the goat) and contributed a little to the local economy.

Today I could do none of these things. The whole northern half of this beautiful, welcoming country has been declared off limits by the British, American and French governments. Last month, the US evacuated dozens of its citizens from north-western Burkina. Last week, France withdrew twenty-five students from the city of Fada N’Gourma, near the Niger border, and sent them back to Europe. Across that border, in southern Niger, NGO workers helping to deal with that country’s hunger crisis (a crisis which my Fulani interlocutors had foreseen) have been recalled to the capital, Niamey, for unspecified ‘reasons of security.’

Were I to go back to northern Burkina and fall sick or have a traffic accident (statistically by far the greatest dangers to my person), my insurance would not cover the costs of recovery. Were I to be kidnapped by elements linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), which the European governments see as the greatest threat to my safety, nobody would pay my ransom and, like the tragic Briton Edwin Dyer last year, I might well be murdered.

My first reaction to this expansion of the already large map of forbidden West African territories was one of anger. So far, two of the dozens captured by Al Qaeda have died. Edwin Dyer was executed because his government refuses to negotiate with terrorists, and earlier this month the 78-year-old French humanitarian worker Michel Germaneau, whose own government normally has no such qualms, either met the same fate or died of natural causes (it is not yet clear). When I compare this figure to the annual number of deaths in car crashes on the M25, on which the Foreign Office is happy for me to drive, or stabbings in London, which I can freely visit, it seems a disproportionate response to tell all foreign visitors that they must avoid northern Burkina and most of Niger, thereby impeding the famine relief effort, hobbling the fledgling tourist industry, and deterring any foreigner thinking of doing business there.

But on reflection, I wondered whether I would be brave enough to revisit the region myself (as I plan to do next year). In March I did not feel in any danger, but if the intelligence the Europeans and Americans claim to have received is correct and AQIM is actively hunting for foreigners to kidnap, would it not be foolhardy to ignore the warnings? In my two weeks, after all, I did not see a single other white face: it would not have been difficult for a desperate local wanting to earn a fast buck to find me and sell me on to the extremists. Perhaps I was lucky not to be snatched myself, although it did not feel that way and no local people seemed concerned that there was any threat. Continue reading

Losing the Fight for Food Security

Business is slow at Dori’s spectacular weekly livestock market. The crowds of turbaned Fulani nomads and bejewelled Bella and Tuareg are as dense and colourful as ever, but although a few goats and sheep change hands, trade in cattle – for so long the stars of the show – has ground to a halt. Huge herds of powerful horned beasts led in from across the Burkinabe Sahel stand uninspected, undisturbed, unsold. Admiring Fula, whose love for cattle can be as intense as their love for their wives, look on wistfully from a distance, not daring to get involved.

‘It’s very hard to sell cows these days because people no longer have the confidence to herd them,’ says a young Fula who is trying in vain to offload some of his ten-strong brood. ‘There’s not enough rain and boreholes are drying out, so keeping a large herd is difficult. Sometimes you have to travel for three or four days to find water. Some animals don’t make it. So it’s risky to buy cattle, for both economic and emotional reasons: you don’t want to see the animals suffer.’

It is not only business that is under pressure. Hunger stalks the towns and villages of northern Burkina Faso. In 2005, a million people needed emergency food relief as the prices of maize and millet doubled. In 2008, riots protesting the high cost of food rocked the country. Poverty in Dori is Dickensian – large gangs of scrawny kids forage for food; toddlers’ stomachs are bloated by kwashiorkor. In the villages, theft from granaries has increased as the contest for food intensifies. ‘Famine has become cyclical,’ says a nurse, adding that last year’s shorter than usual rainy season has left many thousands vulnerable in the coming months as their stocks of grain run out.

Fula and Tuareg cattle herders are especially exposed – they have no tradition of growing crops as they must spend all their time finding pasture for their livestock. To obtain essential carbohydrates, they must buy them, and when crop prices rise in a drought many starve.

The main cause of food insecurity here is population growth. The population of the Dori district has tripled in the past forty years. As well as meaning that water and pasture have to be shared more thinly, this increase has also hastened deforestation and desertification. Wood is the only source of fuel, so more people means fewer trees and a clearer path for the encroaching desert. The Sahara is advancing into the Burkinabe Sahel at a rate of 10cm per year, reducing the land and water available for herding and farming. Periodic conflict breaks out between roaming herders and settled agriculturalists over access to these precious resources.

Climate change, which everyone here blames on the West (‘you caused it, we’re suffering from it,’ is a common and irrefutable accusation) could be the final nail in the coffin of the nomadic herding lifestyle. This year, the harmattan wind which deposits huge clouds of sand from the desert is still blowing, over a month after it normally stops. Rainy seasons are starting later and finishing earlier. The Sahel is expected to be one of the world regions hardest hit by climate change: rainfall could decrease by a quarter in the next eighty years.

Adapting to the increasingly challenging conditions will not be easy. As an older Fula man in the oasis village of Oursi (whose large lake has virtually dried out) explains, ‘People here don’t know how to do commerce, they only know herding.’ He himself used to have forty head of cattle, taking them north to Mali in the dry season and returning to Burkina for the rains, but many died through lack of pasture and water and he is now left with just ten cows. He has been forced to take up a menial job at a campsite to make ends meet, and spends hours sitting and staring into space, dreaming of cattle and long journeys. His peers are moving to the cities, quitting their quiet wanderings for a grim life spent hawking the roaring streets of Ouagadougou.

Back at the market in Dori, the young herder is reluctant to accept the new reality. ‘People are keeping their money in their pocket in the hope that the climate will improve,’ he says, desperation cracking his voice. It is likely to be a long wait.