sahelby Abdikadir Ismail, Maeve Moynihan, Elmubarak Eldaw & Miriam Winkel

As we were completing this article, OXFAM announced a special Appeal for the Sahel, saying that poor harvests and water shortages caused by the current drought have left twelve million people hungry.

This paper is about the Sahel and East Africa, a region that does not make the news much; but some of its peoples and their ways of life are in danger. The Sahel is a big belt of land that lies right across Africa just south of the Sahara, stretching from Mauritania in the west to Somalia and Kenya in the east.


These are the lands of nomadic people who herd cattle, camels, goats and sheep. They live in movable houses of hides or woven grass mats. They move following a yearly seasonal pattern, stopping at perhaps two or three sites during the year. During the rainy season some may plant crops: sorghum grows in the three months of the rainy season. These groups are called nomads - which suggests that they travel in a random way. A more accurate term is "transhumants". They include many ethnic groups; examples; the Fulani (Peulh), the Bella, Tuareg, Maasai and Samburu, each group with its own very rich if portable culture. This is expressed in music, clothing, personal decoration, wood and leather portable objects, and deep-rooted codes of behaviour.

fulaniAs a way of life it has worked well for thousands of years. Humans have survived on these marginal lands. and the grazing recovers between visits. It is a culture that is similar in some ways to the hunter-gatherers of southern Africa, in that it needs big expanses of territory without many humans and without barriers. But increasingly there are police who enforce borders; there are wars, oil pipelines, big commercial farms and parks - game, safari and national parks; they all block the slow movement of animals along traditional corridors.

It is a lifestyle under serious attack today, and our children's children may only see some of these peoples in careful little pockets, preserved for tourists. Why?

Politics mixed with geography: the Sahel belt has country borders fixed by the Big Powers in the days of Empire. Countries such as Mali, Chad and Sudan do not have logical borders. Each includes two big groups of people and ways of life; in the north are the nomadic pastoral groups; these, the groups like the Taureg, identify more with the Arab world. To the south are groups which identify more with black Africa and depend on agriculture. The northern pastoral nomads are fewer in number and have less political  clout than agriculturalists; there is only one country where the pastoralists control the government and that is Mauritania. There is inevitable tension between pastoral and agricultural peoples, with competition for land, water etc. In Mali, for example, in the last decades there has been a history of Taureg revolt, with demands for their independence, clashes with government forces and over a thousand deaths. It is said that during the drought and famine of the seventies, the Government drew a line on the map and stopped food aid from going any further north.

Droughts: these occur regularly in the Sahel, but in the drought that started in 2009, temperatures went exceptionally high, with many days over 45 degrees centigrade. Since that drought, in Kenya for example a hundred thousand cattle have died from lack of water. Experts argue over the role in the drought of long-term climate cycles, deforestation and pollution from Europe. In other sectors of the economy, governments try to cushion the people from the effects of natural disasters such as drought. But for transhumants there are no policies in practice – no compensation or insurance as a cushion when such losses occur.

Population growth

In Chad, for example, the population has grown from 3.4 million in 1967 to 10.3 million in 2009.  And the life expectancy there is only 47. That statistic represents a lot of early deaths. If there are too many people, other results are overgrazing and deforestation. Almost all of the people in the Sahel cook with wood harvested from bushes and trees; some of this is first processed into charcoal. This daily cull of the vegetation had led to big shortages of firewood in countries such as Burkina Faso.

Population growth has also seen the development of towns and cities that have encroached onto pasture lands. A good example is Nairobi and the surrounding areas of Kajiado, regions traditionally used for grazing by the Maasai.

The results of drought and population growth can be seen in Dafur and Kordofan in Sudan. This is another country where nomadic pastoralists such as the Messeirya have for centuries come into competition with settled agricultural farmers such as the Fur. In Darfur, herding is with both cattle in the south and camels in the north.

In this region there is no religious conflict such as is found elsewhere – all these groups are Muslim – but with desertification and long term droughts, the total resources of land and water are no longer sufficient. Four additional factors play a role:

  • large-scale mechanised farming is becoming widespread. The law prevents the nomads from following their traditional corridors across the territory; the amount of total grazing land is reduced;
  • the official ownership of the water points is almost always in the hands of the farmers ; traditionally nomads use them only for part of the year;
  • Regional armed conflicts in neighbouring Chad had led to a ready flow of small arms and machine guns. With few other ways to survive, people turn to armed robbery or become mercenaries;
  • The competition between the two groups - nomads and farmers – has been turned into violent conflict by power struggles and politics;
  • With oil found in the South and Southern Kordofan a pipeline and oil facilities have been built, another barrier to transhumance.

Modern technology, tourism and game parks

Governments need cash crops; Chad, for example, exports peanuts and cotton. Governments also like tourism because, like cash crops, it brings in hard currency. Tourists like parks, for safaris and for shooting pictures and animals. But if large areas of a country are put to growing crops or made into parks, this is land which pastoralists can no longer cross or graze; their traditional corridors are blocked. In Kenya, park creation has led to the evictions of groups of Maasai. In Ethiopia, the Mursi in the Omo valley have had a recent victory: the European organisation wanting to manage a big game park has withdrawn: one Mursi said “everything is well; our cattle will graze along with the dik-diks, zebra and warthogs. If our land is taken, it's like taking our lives”.

International & Tourist Aid: As the aid community works with governments all the parties seem to have a fundamental bias towards “settled is better than nomadic”. Of course “settled” is easier for governments, who want to count and tax people and deliver schools and hospitals. For many decision-makers in the West, mixed up in their thinking is a romantic view of nomads and their lifestyle – particularly with the Tuareg and Maasai and, into Asia, the Bedouin. But seeing groups as “romantic” is as prejudiced as seeing them as “primitive”. Many of these nomadic peoples now form an important part of the package that attracts tourists. They provide colour. It is argued that governments are reluctant to challenge the negative aspects of these cultures (see Samburu girls) because the whole package is such an important tool in their promotions.

Examples of “Development”:

Example: In the same Omo valley, the Ethiopian government has now got the funding from the Chinese to build the biggest dam in Africa. Tough on the groups with their animals that spend part of their lives there. The effect of the dam will also be felt in Kenya, as the Omo River is a tributary of Lake Turkana; the Elmolo, one of the smallest tribes in Kenya, are fishers and their lifestyle depends on this lake.

Example: in the western Sahel a number of organisations drilled wells with deep bore holes to help with the drought. The cattle were drawn to them in high numbers; but  grazing cannot be expanded – the area round the well could not support the numbers of livestock and each well became the centre of its own little desert.

Example: in the eastern desert of Jordan, a richer country than those in Africa, the Bedouin now receive subsidised fodder for their camels and water is trucked in. Their pastoral way of life becomes limited in movement but "safe". In consequence, is the desert turning into a place just for parking camels?

What are appropriate models of service for nomads?

If the nomadic pastoral way of life is to survive, it will require, among other things, huge, intergovernmental cooperation. And it requires a different model for services, geared to people who move around – services such as primary schooling, health and veterinary care  There have been efforts to do this by small organisations, for example taking mobile clinics to the temporary camp sites in the appropriate seasons. Mobile libraries have been tried in the Wajir, in the northern part of Kenya. In Somalia, members of nomadic groups were trained in the Nineties as Community Vets, with medicines and vaccines that they could sell and replace. In health care, one first step would be to get patient-held health records distributed more widely and across the borders.

We could look to other regions for models of delivery of services to nomads. In the U.K. some schools are making major attempts to adapt to meet the needs of the children of Travelers, Gypsies and Roma. In Sweden, health care for the Sami, the reindeer herders, is under analysis. But both these countries assume a model of static services which can be made more friendly, so that nomads stop for the services – not mobile services.

Distance Schooling has has some success. In South Africa, the Radio Learning Programme under OLSET provides radio lessons for people learning English, using community radios. The same programme was briefly tried in Northern Nigeria and Southern Sudan. A workshop was even held in Johannesburg to train Eritrean officials from the MOE in using Radio Lessons to reach the nomads.

In Mali in the eighties a programme was started between the MOA and MOH to make radio cassettes on  many health and animal care topics - in many national languages – played to groups by CHWs and CVWs – choice of subjects – some sustainability. A decade later, an NGO, CESPA, trained animators to work with HE videos. This increased knowledge - improved hygiene practices -less sustainable.

Distance primary schooling works well in Australia. One of the authors has a half-brother who worked on the roads. The family moved around, lived in camps out in the bush in two caravans, one for living and one for primary schooling for the two boys who were taught by their mother – packages of lessons by post; the School of the Air on the wireless – with personal help from the School at set times. The two boys moved on to residential secondary school and did well. The same radio networks are vital in providing Health Care to remote people. Could all this offer useful lessons for resource-poor countries?

One Example: The Samburu, a pastoral people under threat

The Samburu are one of the nomadic (transhumant) peoples found in the northern part of Kenya. Officially they number two hundred thousand – in reality it is three hundred. The children have a big share of the family tasks; boys herd the livestock, while girls help with fetching water, firewood and child care. No time for school. Education is not part of traditional Samburu life and parents do not see it as important for individual children.

Tourism and cattle

The Government of Kenya has declared that they want pastoralists to settle down. To date they have not backed this statement with much money. But indirectly their policies affect the future of the Samburu.

To the north of the Region is the Samburu National Reserve together with a second adjoining park. They were created in1948 and together form 464 sq. kilometres of land. The Samburu themselves are not allowed to graze their animals there nor follow their traditional corridors in transit. On the positive side, the parks bring tourists and also protect the wild animals of Kenya. It is said that tourism employs ten local people for every tourist, and some of the smaller tourist companies pay a community levy of five to ten dollars a day per person. However, most of the money generated goes back to the West or to Nairobi; the local people are described by the tour organisers on their website like this: “The Samburu, dressed in their regalia, provide entertainment in the form of song and dance” (!)

However, currently there is political tension in the region, close as it is to Somalia, which means that there are not many tourists.

In Sweden, a research paper on the health of the Sami reindeer herders stated that there was a big mental dimension to their well-being; to improve their health, the best starting place would be to improve the condition of their reindeer through strengthening their animal husbandry skills, and through supporting their lifestyle. This sounds a good policy for the whole Sahel/East Africa. In Northern Kenya the Samburu are being encouraged to switch from beef cattle to cattle for milk production. This will keep them nearer the towns where there are markets for milk and yoghurt. The animals may get better husbandry but there are risks of over-grazing. And it further settles the people.

Samburu girls

Growing up a Samburu Girl

A traditional culture can have a dark side. This may be linked to the fact that with a nomadic life style the values of the bigger culture have less influence. The situation of Samburu (and Maasai) girl children represent this dark side. They traditionally have little control over their own lives. As soon as they are born, “warriors” - adult males - can “bead” them, making a claim for the girl when she reaches sexual maturity. The beads are for her to wear and to ward off other suitors. The intention is not necessarily marriage; sometimes she is booked as a sexual partner. The girls may be still very young. Each finds herself in the middle of a tangle of issues that includes child marriage/rape, female genital mutilation(FGM), the risk of  a dangerous pregnancy because her body is too young, and/or an HIV infection. There is growing protest against these practices by Samburu girls and women. Some girls – and boys too – run away from a planned early marriage and, with girls, a planned FGM. One Children's Department Office in one month received ten girls aged four to twelve. But there are few Rescue Homes in Kenya. The nearest to the Samburu lands is for girls only. All are occupied to capacity.


One strategy for getting people to settle is better access to education. It is also, for the girls, a route to a different life. Only about a quarter of the children follow any formal schooling. Out of these, only 58% of the boys and 63% of the girls complete Primary School. Currently 3,664 Samburu children are in Secondary School, (63% boys and 37% girls). And only 56 young Samburu have made it to the Polytechnic level, 501 to Tertiary Education and 184 to University. With the opening up of a University Branch in Maralal, these numbers may increase.  There have been a number of interventions, mainly by NGOs, to improve access to schooling. An example is the Lchekuti (Shepherd) School. It is for children, teenagers and even adults who work in the daytime. School is during the late afternoon and evening hours. It has been restarted by a CBO (Community Based Organisation) – SEED Samburu. Right now, non-formal schools have 566 children, 287 girls and 284 boys, in basic literacy and numeracy classes, skills necessary to transfer to the normal schools.

Samburu school

The Lchekuti (Shepherd) school - studying at night.

As an incentive to come to school and to stay, as well as for better nutrition, primary schools provide meals for all pupils – maize and beans mixed in ratio 5:1. The Pre-schools for the under fives provide Uji mix: enriched porridge which includes maize flour, sugar and ground peanuts – energy and protein.

An aspect of the work of SEED in making the schools more acceptable to the Samburu  has been involving the parents from the start. They are mainly non-literate, with no experience of schooling. The work started by building good relationships. Then parents were trained to follow the performance of their children in schools and to support them. They were taught very basic things like the meaning of a tick (√) and an (X). To these skills is added some understanding of management. 1,357 parents have been reached and Parents & School Committees created. These have now developed three-year school improvement plans in nineteen schools.

Boarding schools area also necessary since families continue moving. Though this helps,  when holidays come, students may have lost track of their family's whereabouts. During one mid-term break at the Boys' High School in Samburu, five boys could not go ""home" because they did not know where home was.

The Future

The larger issue remains, that if the Samburu have access to good static schools, they are more likely to stay put – to camp nearby. This is not the best thing for their animals and ultimately, for their pastoral way of life. If their children get a good education they will be able to have a choice in their own future – but how many will return to life as a herder now they could be a computer technologist? Will all the smart kids leave the province?

All the pastoral groups across the Sahel face serious attacks on their way of life. With one more drought or game reserve, their cattle will die and they will be assumed into the wider settled population. Or careful small pockets of them may be preserved for tourists.

Some of these peoples are quite numerous, like the Samburu, who number a quarter of a million and the Fulani (Peulh), estimated as over 25 million spread across ten countries. With these numbers it seems that they are not counted as “tribes”. Survival International defines tribes as “relatively small in number” but tribes have a protective International law to secure land rights - the International Labour Organization Convention 169. which sets a series of minimum UN standards regarding consultation and consent. ILO 169 has been around since 1989, but only twenty-two countries have ratified it so far. See But the bigger groups of the Sahel and East Africa have no International Law to protect them.

> SEED Website