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The Sahelians


We emerged from the ridiculous luxury of air-conditioned 4-wheel vehicles at the beginning of a patchwork of sandy trails and the thin speckles of Acacia shadows, many hundreds of kilometers from the coast and even farther from home. This was truly the Sahel, and I've never experienced anything like it. Perhaps I never will.

It's easy to dismiss the far-flung corners of earth, the difficult places where you'd never in a million years ever want to live, where you can't imagine how people get by, where it seems life is too hard to be worth living. But that discounts the fact that people already live there, and they're there today, and it's hard. This is the Sahel.

The word itself comes from the Arabic for 'the coast,' a reminder that if you've just emerged from the Sahara with a camel-train full of salt, those first acacias and perhaps even the green grass of verdant hillsides must look like everlasting luxury. But if you've come from anywhere better off, the Sahel reeks of desperation and the absolute limits of human civilization, the boundary beyond which not even the hardiest of living things - plants, humans - can eke out an existence. That the Sahel has boasted some of Africa's strongest and most vibrant kingdoms speaks not to the possibility of better living but to the fact that climate and ecological change have wreaked havoc on this transition zone and made a once more temperature pastoral area into the fringes of unbearable heat and uncultivatable sand.

The Sahelians call it home, though, and that says something important too about the importance of a sense of geographical place to the human psyche. Yes, this place is hard, but I know its wrinkled sandy features like my own, and I associate it with the same joys of life that make life worth living anywhere: the warmth of family, the joy of community and of love, and the charm of shared moments as the Acacia shadows lengthen and the dunes darken, the glitter of evening stars floating above a horizon unlittered by anything at all, the rustle of the goats' feet in the shrubland.

I took these pictures to remind myself that the Sahel isn't just a name on a map, a grid on which geopolitical battles against Islamic extremism and narcotic routes are waged. People live in this nearly inhospitable place, and they live the same lives that I do – that any of us does: we are born, we grow, we live, we die. Along that road we laugh, we fight, we struggle, we relax, we learn, we wonder. If we're lucky we have enough to eat; if we're not we grow thin. Maybe it rains, maybe the goats are stricken by disease. Maybe there's enough shadow under the noonday sun to offer some respite; maybe there isn't. People of the Sahel, Senegal

The Sahel is worsening: it has experienced famine and drought more frequently in the past thirty years than at any other recorded time. Climatologists are undivided in their opinion that the Sahel is warming up yet more. Most of these states of nearly broken, recognizable in name but not in their unity of purpose or even broad agreement of international boundaries. These people will thin, move out, or struggle to eke out even more precarious existences. And yet the sun will rise each day over the red and gold of the sandy hillsides, pass overhead, and dissolve into night. And they - as we - will be born, grow, live, and die. How strange to be reminded of it only by visiting a place that, by being so far removed from the modern luxuries that shield us from nature and help us forget our own mortality, understands the cycle of those multiply-spinning wheels so much better than we do.


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