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The Native Perspective, Episode 11: Wodaabe

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

The Beauty of Wodaabe

Nomadic pastoralists of the Sahel region in Africa bear the name of Wodaabe. Migrating from northern Cameroon to Chad, Niger, and northeast Nigeria, they are a small branch of Fulani ethnic group; neighbouring tribes often consider Wodaabe as wild and uncivilised, labelling them Mbororo, which translates to “cattle Fulani”[1]. The Wodaabe, the only remaining nomads in the region, range in size from 160,000 to 200,000 [2].

Despite speaking Fula, they are illiterate in the language. Wodaabe in Fula stands for "people of the taboo." Reserve and semteende (modesty), munyal (patience and fortitude), hakkilo (care and thoughtfulness), and amana (loyalty) are stressed in the Wodaabe's code of ethics.

This community maintain their homestead on farming grounds, while portion of the tribe take their herd to grazing lands for half a year. The Wodaabe believe in a variety of bush spirits—some of them are said to be upset by how people have treated them—they reside in trees and wells. All spirits are entangled in taboos that primarily concern ecology. Some spirits can be harmful, even.

The Wodaabe have some understanding of Islam and invoke the name of Allah when faced with danger or death. However, it's unclear to what exactly the Wodaabe people refer to when they talk about Allah. When the scholar Al-Maghili taught the teachings of Muhammad to the elite of northern Nigeria during the 16th century, Islam started to take on prominence among the Wodaabe peoples [3]. Al-Maghili was in charge of indoctrinating the ruling classes of the local Hausa, Fulani, and Tuareg populations.

A set of ideals relating to beauty, fortitude, and patience are most important to Wodaabe. For both men and women, physical attractiveness, including a long nose, round head, pale complexion, and white teeth, is a desirable trait. This high value on beauty and charm are essential to their culture. It is the man's obligation to capture the attention of a woman when it comes to building relationships. Men will spend a lot of time, money, and effort making themselves appear beautiful.

These nomads gather for the Gerewol celebration once a year. It is the most significant rite among the Wodaabe, when males compete to be chosen as the most attractive by young ladies, who are considered ripe for marriage. The Wodaabe tribe practices polyamory. Men may have several wives, with the first wife holding the second or third wife in high regard. If a husband is infertile, he could ask a tribesman to get his wife pregnant, and occasionally, males would consent to their wives having intercourse with more attractive men in order to have more attractive children. Having several children reduces the high newborn and child death rate, since having children is viewed as a show of machismo, prosperity, and labor.

Because they seldom ever consume them, cattle also represent wealth [4]. Instead, they eat a lot of millet, milk, and occasionally manioc or cassava. Which means that they are primarily vegetarians. However, they do exchange the cattle for other products.

Food and land insecurity in this region has brought about violent conflicts, as the land has become a melting pot for cattle herders, enterprising merchants and extremist and criminal networks that traffic drugs and weapons. They have faced harassment, bandit assaults, and police assaults because of their perceived relative cattle wealth.

Unfortunate Fate of Nomadic Herders

In the wake of climate change nomadic herders such as the Wodaabe get the short end of the stick. Higher temperatures, shifting winds and moisture levels that affect rainfall patterns, sandstorms, and torrential rain may all affect the quality of pasture that migratory herders depend on, as well as its location [5]. An approximate 80% of the Sahel's farmland is thought to be damaged, according to the UN [6]. There, temperatures are rising 1.5 times more quickly than the norm worldwide. As a result, food production is being threatened by longer and more frequent droughts and floods. The Sahel is home to some 50 million people who depend on raising cattle to survive. But the amount of land that pastoralists could use is decreasing.

Wodaabe herds are in severe risk due to drought. Government regulations provide land for fields instead of open grazing areas, favouring agricultural settlements. The expansion of the desert southward squeezes the Wodaabe into smaller and more marginal territory as settlements move northward. The goal of the fixed settlement advocated by international development specialists for the Wodaabe is not to establish a manner of life that the Wodaabe will embrace, but rather to stop them from depleting resources.

In Wodaabe communities in Chad, the negative effects of climate change weighs heavily on women in particular. Wodaabe women are in charge of collecting water, food and traditional medicines to supply their family’s needs [7]. Their role is directly linked to the conservation of Wodaabe traditional knowledge. Women are the holders of water and land protection knowledge, as well as food collection knowledge. These responsibilities are crucial for the survival of the community.

Wodaabe women are well aware of what climate change is and what it does to their livelihoods. As cattle herders, Wodaabe communities are left with bitter realisation of how much less milk the cattle are producing. In addition to women’s struggles, men are gone for longer periods of time, as the search for herd’s grazing lands is becoming increasingly challenging. The region's soils are gradually deteriorating as a result of excessive grazing, noxious plant invasions of pastoral pastures, and other factors [8]. As a result, pastoral nomadism is becoming unsuitable for the whole ecosystem.

The silver lining is that passing down knowledge from generation to generation is still a prominent value among the Wodaabe. This means that elders get to teach the young the ways of their culture and livelihood in an otherwise despondent environmental forecast. Transmission of indigenous knowledge is crucial for ethnic minorities to preserve their cultural, spiritual, economic practices and to persist in the era of great change. Even if pastoralism is posing even more environmental risks, communities such as Wodaabe show resilience for staying together, even if it means adopting a more sedentary lifestyle.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. The Wodaabe Nomads of the North | Africa Geographic

  2. Wodaabe | Cultural Survival

  3. Niger, Wodaabe Tribe | Atlas of Humanity

  4. Mbororo | Minority Rights Group International

  5. Climate Change Threatens End of Trail for Niger's Nomadic Herders

  6. The Sahel is engulfed by violence. Climate change, food insecurity and extremists are largely to blame | World Economic Forum

  7. Climate Change Takes Water and Milk from Mbororo People | Indigenous Rights Radio

  8. Implications of Climatic Stressors on Agro-Pastoral Resources Among Mbororo Communities Along the Slopes of Kilum-Ijim Mountain, North West Region, Cameroon | Frontiers