The Sahel, the desert, and Tuareg refugees in Burkina Faso

Notes from a visit to West Africa in January 2015. Third in a series of six articles

North of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, we entered the Sahel region, the dry plain which becomes the Sahara desert at its northern extremity. The appearance of the Sahel reminds me of the dry pasturelands of Australia –  the land broken only by stream beds and shallow lakes that fill with water in three month rainy season, then gradually dry up over the next three months or so, going from lakes, to brief green pastures, to dust bowls. Occasionally you pass a low outcrop of sandstone boulders, but otherwise it is flat.

Fulani village near Dori, Burkina Faso

Fulani village near Dori, Burkina Faso

We spent our first night in the house of the chief of a mud-brick village on the edge of a patch of desert just north of the town of Dori, after eating couscous and drinking tea around the fire in a small area of sand dunes, under a clear sky. The tea was prepared desert-style, boiled for half an hour over the embers, then endlessly tipped back and forth, from a great height, between the tiny teapot and an equally tiny glass, before being served to you, bitter, strong, sweet, and frothy, like a double-shot espresso only made with tea instead of coffee.

Dunes advancing right to the edge of the village. Hay store fenced off in distance

Dunes advancing right to the edge of the village. Hay store fenced off in distance

I checked the night sky for familiar stars. For years I have listened to comments from visitors from the northern hemisphere that the Orion we see in the southern hemisphere is upside down, so now that I was in the northern hemisphere, I wanted to see what it looked like from their point of view. Orion was not co-operating – he was lying flat on his back – I guess we were still too close to the equator. Matariki (Pleiades) was right up near the zenith (it never rises far above the horizon in New Zealand) and for the first time in my life I identified the North polar star.

Cattle for sale at livestock market in Dori

Cattle for sale at livestock market in Dori

Couscous was an atypical meal for the region, our guide (and cook) pointed out. As the savannah region becomes progressively drier as you head north, it becomes all but impossible to raise crops in the short rainy season. Cropping gives way to stock-herding on the region’s meagre pastures, and the diet of the people changes accordingly. In Dori, vegetables and grains are far more expensive than in Ouagadougou, but meat is cheaper.

Dori  livestock market.

Sheep at Dori livestock market.

There was a huge market in livestock once a week – sheep, goats, and especially cattle. According to our guide, the Fulani people in the Sahel live on a diet of meat and milk, with very little cereals.

Tree with roots exposed by the vanishing soil as the desert advances

Tree with roots exposed by the vanishing soil as the desert advances (near Dori)

The little 2 or 3km-square patch of dunes outside of Dori where we stayed is the kind of thing that is appearing in the Sahel as the desert advances southwards. When I had a look around in the morning, the signs of change were evident: the dunes had small trees amongst them that were established in times of greater moisture, but many of these had their roots exposed to the air by the vanishing soil. When the roots are loosened further, the tree falls and dies, and is not replaced. This dune area was developing at least 60 kilometres from the actual edge of the desert.

The goats, sheep and cattle of the village were nibbling the last bits of grass stubble around the edges of the dunes, but mainly they were being fed on reserves of hay stored from the last period of rains. As I was sitting under an acacia, a sudden gust of wind brought some seed pods to the ground. Instantly about twenty goats ran over and gobbled them up. It rains from June to August in this region, and for those three months the land is green. By now, it already looks very dry. The trees, such as they are, (mostly acacias with very small leaves and large thorns) were all but devoid of foliage. But the most trying months, I was told, are from February to May, when a warm dry wind blows down from the Sahara.  The stocks of stored hay usually run out before the rain returns, and farmers must buy in fodder grains from the south. The last year’s rainy season started late and finished early.

The advance of the desert is an urgent political issue in Burkinabe politics, especially in the Sahel region. It is a naturally dry region, but measures can be taken to conserve and make the best use of the water resources that do exist, and to increase rainfall by planting trees. The measures required are too big for individual farmers or villages to take on their own.  It requires the mobilisation and organisation of the toilers, such as began to happen during the Burkinabe revolution led by Thomas Sankara in the 1980s.   During the Sankara years funds were made available to sink hundreds of wells, and the workers and farmers were mobilised to undertake tree-planting on a massive scale. These measures largely petered out with the overthrow of that revolution by Blaise Compaoré in 1987.

Donkey carts bringing the produce of the desert to market in Gorom Gorom

Donkey carts bringing the produce of the desert to market in Gorom Gorom

Further north we came to the market town of Gorom Gorom at the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Villages of livestock herders are scattered throughout the desert north of Gorom, but they are not just a long way from the nearest town, but even from the nearest road. Only a network of tracks in the sandy soil connect them. Motorcycles are the main means of transport for people, donkey carts for  goods. On the weekly market day in Gorom Gorom, a caravan of donkey carts, camels, and heavily-laden motorcycles trails across the desert, converging on the town. I was told that Gorom is one of the few places in the world that you still see transactions by barter, without money.

On our last night at Gorom Gorom, a wind got up in the night. It continued to strengthen during the morning, whipping up swirling clouds of dust and plastic bags.  By mid-morning the sky was white and outside of the town a misty dust reduced visibility to no more than a few hundred meters. The only thing in my experience I can liken it to is following behind a cattle truck on a dusty unpaved road – forever! Within minutes everything is covered in dust, even inside houses and cars – chairs that you are about to sit on, tables and plates that you are about to eat off – and your hair feels like a steel-wool pot scrubber. This is what it’s like for several months of the year, it seems. I am grateful I got to see the town and the desert before that wind started up. By the time we got back to Ouagadougou, a hundred kilometres away, the dust cloud had beaten us there. Visibility was not quite as limited as in Gorom, but it was unpleasant enough all the same.

Dust clouds such as these remove millions of tons of topsoil from this region every year. Where does it end up (apart from the sprinkling on your dinner plate?) Much of it passes high into the atmosphere and blows across the Atlantic Ocean, returning to earth with the heavy rains of the Amazon basin. Sahel’s loss, Amazon’s gain.

Entrance to UN camp for Tuareg refugees from Mali at Goudebou, northern Burkina Faso

Entrance to UN camp for Tuareg refugees from Mali at Goudebou, northern Burkina Faso

This was the day we had organised to visit the refugee camp at Goudebou that we had passed on the road between Gorom Gorom and Dori. This camp is one of several in the north of Burkina that were opened to accommodate the thousands of refugees displaced by the Islamist takeover of northern Mali. Among the camp residents are also some people who have fled the insurgency in Niger.  Gorom Gorom is only a short distance from both the Mali and Niger borders. Most but not all of the residents of the camps are Tuaregs, who have long fought for an independent homeland in the desert regions of Mali and other countries.

Tents for Malian refugees, Goudebou

Tents for Malian refugees, Goudebou

We were staying in Gorom Gorom with a man who spoke Tuareg language (along with eight other languages!) and he assured us that with his help translating, the Tuareg residents of the camp would be quite willing to discuss their situation with us without fear. The refugees are not required to stay in the camps, and are free to move around as they wish (in fact a few of them had shared our bush-taxi to Gorom. We also came across one or two in Ouagadougou hawking leather crafts – one showed us his refugee status letter as part of his sales pitch). But cut off from their normal means of livelihood, most need to stay in the camps to receive the United Nations and European Union-supplied aid – inadequate as that aid is. (A refugee resident in a camp near Ouagadougou told us that the camp ration consisted of 6 kg of rice and 3500 CFA – about $7 – per month for an adult. Most had to supplement this by raising livestock or selling handicrafts).

Administration building Goudebou camp

Administration building Goudebou camp in dusty atmosphere

Our friend had phoned ahead to the camp administration the night before to check that it would be OK for us to visit, and gained approval. But when we arrived the next day, it was a different matter. Instead of the usual two or three security men, there were about twenty (soldiers of the Burkinabè army, as far as I could tell). The chief was very nervous – when he was reminded that he had already given approval for the visit, he said he needed to check with his superiors in Ouagadougou. And that superior said no.

That was how we heard about the rightist attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, which was one of the reasons for the heightened security at the camp and heightened nervousness generally. There had also been a further incident in Mali itself the previous day, in which seven Senegalese troops stationed there as part of a UN peacekeeping mission had been injured, although the details of this were sketchy (apparently it involved a roadside bomb or land mine). This was one of several attacks in Mali in the past week, including one which killed seven Malian soldiers near the Mauritanian border, and another which injured six peacekeepers from Niger. Some of the forces carrying out these attacks are linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Our friend said that the camp officials told him that several hundred Tuaregs had left the camp the previous day and crossed back into Mali, for reasons unknown. The northern Mali border crossing was now closed, and he said the security was watching the camp residents closely. At any rate, our discussion was not going to happen.

Tuareg refugee at a camp near Ouagadougou

Tuareg refugee at a camp near Ouagadougou

It is clear that the Islamist insurgency in northern Mali is a major political issue in Burkina Faso as well as Mali. So is the question of the Tuareg struggle for an independent territory in the Sahel region of Mali and neighbouring countries. It was frustrating that we were not able to visit the camp and talk to these Tuareg refugees directly.

Burkina Faso has so far avoided being torn apart by the Islamist insurgency, and it would be interesting to consider the reasons why. Burkina, no less than its neighbours, is made up of a large number of peoples with distinct languages, religions (variously Christian, Muslim, and animist) and identities. Our guide in the northern region (who is an ethnic Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Ouagadougou) commented that Burkina, although landlocked, has sat astride many trade routes, and between the other landlocked countries and the coast, and he attributed its relatively peaceful relations between the different peoples to the mixing that this had brought about over the centuries. I am not in a position to judge that claim.

I came across no expressions of resentment towards the Tuaregs among the people we spoke to. However, the reaction of the authorities to the exodus from the camp indicates that they are viewed with some suspicion, by the authorities at least. And I was surprised when a leader of the Parti Sankariste seemed to view the Tuareg question and the Islamist insurgency as essentially the same question.

(In 2012, both the Islamists and the Tuaregs were fighting to establish as separate territory in the north of Mali, a region called the Azawad. Although the Tuareg MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) favoured a secular and multi-ethnic state, they formed a temporary alliance with the Islamists. Having defeated the Malian army and taken control over the northern region, including the cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, the MNLA came under attack from its Islamist allies. Soon the Islamists had driven the MNLA out and taken control of the northern cities. An offensive by French and Malian troops re-took control of the main cities, but much of the countryside remains under the control of the Islamists.)

It seems to me (and this is, or course, based on little more than the superficial observations of a tourist) that a clear stance in favour of self-determination for the desert peoples, especially the Tuaregs, would be a key part of a working class programme in this part of the world. Self-determination encompasses the right to form separate state – although Tuaregs we spoke to near Ouagadougou made it clear that not all Tuaregs favour separation. In the absence of a broad fight for such a working class programme, the Islamists could make further gains, including in Burkina Faso.


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