Walking With Abel: Journeys With The Nomads Of The African Savannah by Anna BadkhenWalking With Abel: Journeys With The Nomads Of The African Savannah by Anna Badkhen

Walking With Abel: Journeys With The Nomads Of The African Savannah

byAnna Badkhen

Paperback | August 2, 2016

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Look out for Anna Badkhen's new book, Fisherman's Blues: A West African Community at Sea, on sale March 2018

An intrepid journalist joins the planet’s largest group of nomads on an annual migration that, like them, has endured for centuries.

Anna Badkhen has forged a career chronicling life in extremis around the world, from war-torn Afghanistan to the border regions of the American Southwest. In Walking with Abel, she embeds herself with a family of Fulani cowboys—nomadic herders in Mali’s Sahel grasslands—as they embark on their annual migration across the savanna. It’s a cycle that connects the Fulani to their past even as their present is increasingly under threat—from Islamic militants, climate change, and the ever-encroaching urbanization that lures away their young. The Fulani, though, are no strangers to uncertainty—brilliantly resourceful and resilient, they’ve contended with famines, droughts, and wars for centuries.
Dubbed “Anna Ba” by the nomads, who embrace her as one of theirs, Badkhen narrates the Fulani’s journeys and her own with compassion and keen observation, transporting us from the Neolithic Sahara crisscrossed by rivers and abundant with wildlife to obelisk forests where the Fulani’s Stone Age ancestors painted tributes to cattle. As they cross the Sahel, the savanna belt that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, they accompany themselves with Fulani music they download to their cell phones and tales of herders and hustlers, griots and holy men, infused with the myths the Fulani tell themselves to ground their past, make sense of their identity, and safeguard their—our—future.
Anna Badkhen has written about wars on four continents, including the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Chechnya. Her reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and other publications. She is the author, most recently, of The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village and Walkin...
Title:Walking With Abel: Journeys With The Nomads Of The African SavannahFormat:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 8.2 × 5.4 × 0.8 inPublished:August 2, 2016Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0399576010

ISBN - 13:9780399576010


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Visit http://bit.ly/1AKu9Jy for a printable version of this map.THE HOPINGIf you set out on a journey pray that the road is long—ZBIGNIEW HERBERTYou could hear them from miles away. They went tprrr! tprrr! and they went jet jet jet! and they went jot jot jot! and they went ay, shht, shht, oy, trrrrrr, ’uh, ’uh! Repeating with proprietary virtuosity the calls their ancestors had used to talk to their own herds since the dawn of time. As if they journeyed not simply across distance but across eras and dragged with them through the land grooved with prehistoric cow paths all the cattle and all the herders who had laid tracks here before. You could almost make out all of them in the low scarf of shifting laterite dust, cowboys and ghosts of cowboys driving true and phantom herds on an ageless migration that stretched forever.The Fulani and their cows tramped along the edge of the bone-white savannah, restless slatribbed wayfarers weaving among slow cattle just as slatribbed. Nomads chasing rain in the oceanic tracts of the Sahel. The cowboys wore soiled blue robes that luffed in the wind like sails, and their gait flowed smooth and footsure. Each step stitched the waking earth with a sound smoothed by millennia of repetition, a sound of sorrow and hope and loss and desire: the sound of walking.They whistled and laughed and hurled their clubbed staffs underhand at the cows that were too hesitant or too distracted or out of step and they called “Girl! Shht!” and “Die! Die, bitch!” to such cows, but never in anger. They filled the soundscape with the chink of hooves and staffs upon filaments of shale, with yips and ululations, with incessant banter about cows and women and pontifications about God and swagger about migrations past. They moved in tinny bubbles of bootleg music that rasped from the cellphones they dangled on lanyards from their necks. Some had strapped to their chests boomboxes they had decorated with small mirrors, like disco balls. Their music said go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, in the same iambic beat as the songs of the Kel Tamashek camel riders of the Sahara, the Turkoman goatherds of the Khorasan, the horsemen of the Kazakh steppes. Music made for walking and cowbells. Music made out of walking and cowbells.Their herds fell together and drifted apart and even when the cattle drive swelled to many thousand head, the Fulani always knew which cows belonged to whom. They seared lines and dots and crosses into the hides of their cattle with sickle-shaped branding irons, but these hieroglyphics mostly were of no need to them because they recognized their livestock and the livestock of others from the serrated silhouette of the herd, from the way dust billowed in its wake, from the particular gait of the bulls. You learned such knowledge somehow.“Those are Afo’s cows, Papa.”“No they aren’t.”“How can you tell?”“That’s just how it is.”“But how can you tell?”“When I see cattle, I know.”—Oumarou Diakayaté squinted at the procession of cattle and cattle drivers filing into the sunrise. He had risen in the cool blue predawn from the wide reed pallet he shared with his wife, Fanta, their youngest son and daughter, and two small grandchildren, and washed from a small plastic kettle and prayed while most of the camp still slept. In the modest manner of his generation he had wrapped his indigo turban three times around his head and under the gray stubble on his narrow chin and across his thin mouth, in which a few teeth still remained, and dragged his millet-straw mat out of the cold shadows of the hut.Then day crashed into the Sahel in a crescendo of birds. A rooster crowed once and right away clouds of tiny passerines in twilit shrub let loose a delirious trill. Starlings shrieked the world’s oldest birthsong: alive, alive, alive, alive. A kingfisher warbled. The sun hurtled upward red and elliptic from beyond the sparse scrublands, grazed the low umbrella crowns of acacias, slowed down, and hung glaring in the fierce African sky.Oumarou sat attentive and quite like a bird himself in the canted light of that July morning, with his knees drawn and a blue-checkered fleece blanket wrapped shoulder to toe around his tall and rawboned frame, and watched the herds pass. By the time the sun rose a palm above the treeline, his family would roll up their mats, pilfer the best thatch and rope from their shelters, pile calabashes and gunnysacks of blankets and clothes onto donkey carts, and join the other pilgrims ambling off from the Sahel’s most coveted pasturage to allow farmers a turn with the land.—Oumarou’s dry-season grazing grounds lay in the fecund seasonal swamplands in the crook of the Niger’s bend, in central Mali. The Fulani called the region the bourgou. Bourgou was hippo grass, Echinochloa stagnina, the sweet perennial semiaquatic species of barnyard grass that grew on the plains from late summer till winter’s end, when the anastomosing stream of the Bani River flooded the Inner Niger Delta. Hippo grass shot its spongy blades up to nine feet out of the wetlands. Its rhizomes floated. It was a drifter, like the Fulani. Cows went wild for it.The Diakayatés had arrived in the bourgou in January, after the rice harvest. Oumarou and his sons and nephews and grandnephews had raised their domed grass huts in a slightly swerving line of six beneath a few contorted thorn trees on a strip of dry land that bulged out of a fen so deep that the cows had to swim to return to camp from pasture. The thorn trees had fingered the soft wind of early winter with feathery peagreen leaves.By July the island was a cowtrodden knuckle barely manifest on an enormous spent plateau. The fen was a foul sike, fragmented and not ankle-deep. All about, the oldest continental crust in the world lay bare, its brittle rusted skin ground to red talc by cattle and the dry harmattan winds of February and the cruel spring heat. The three thorn trees that flanked Oumarou’s hut had no more leaves, and in the dusty naked branches agama lizards with orange heads rotated their eyes and pressed up and up in a laborious Triassic mating dance. To the northeast, the millet fields of slash-and-burn farmers smoked white against dark gray rainclouds that refused to break. The rain was late.Oumarou had not heard the planetary-scale metastory of the most recent global warming. He had not heard much about the planet at all. He had not even heard about Africa. He could not read, did not listen to the radio. He took bearings by other coordinates calibrated in other ways, brought into existence billions of years before the Earth itself. He sought counsel from the stars.For centuries the Fulani had aligned the annual movement of their livestock from rainy-season to dry-season pasture and back again with the orderly procession across the sky of twenty-six sequential constellations. Each signified the advent of a windy season, of weeks of drizzle or days of downpour, of merciless heat or relentless malarial mosquitoes that danced in humid nights. But for decades now the weather had been chaotic, out of whack with the stars. The rainy season had been starting early or late or not arriving at all. Oumarou was searching for the promise of rain conveyed across millions of light-years, and he could not reconcile the cycle.In this part of the Sahel, the first week of June was the brief season the Fulani called the Hoping, when people looked at the sky expecting rain any day. This year the Hoping had stretched into two excruciating weeks, then three, then four. Oumarou’s cows hung deflated humps to the side and let down little milk. Milk made up most of the old man’s diet. He was nauseous with hunger.“Three things make a man live a long and healthy life,” he would repeat over a succession of disappointing dinners of bland millet-flour porridge with sauce of pounded fish bones. “Milk, honey, and the meat of a cow that has never been sick.” Honey was a rare treat in the bush. As for beef, that was a conjecture, a hypothesis. The Fulani very seldom ate meat, and when they did, it usually was goat or lamb. No Fulani would readily slaughter a healthy cow.—Oumarou freed an arm from his blanket and paced off the sky to the sun with a narrow hand. Half a palm’s width. A flock of birds burst out of a low shrub, chirped, circled, settled again. The uninterrupted horizon quivered with birdsong, lizards’ click-tongue, the whimper of goats, the hoof-falls and lowing of moving cows. Eternal sounds. Ephemeral sounds. Three more fingers and the cows would be gone. Time to pack.Oumarou looked at Fanta, his wife, his fellow rambler, who now stood by his side listening to the faraway herds also.“Ready?” he said.Oumarou’s restlessness dated back to the Neolithic, to the time when a man first took a cow out to graze.It was an outsize brown cow that stood six feet front hoof to shoulder and bore a pair of forward-pointing, inward-curved horns such as the ones that eventually would gore tigers and bears in the coliseums of Rome. The last of her undomesticated tribe, a female wild aurochs, would die of disease or old age or hunger or loneliness in the Jaktorów forest in Poland in 1627. Around 10,000 BC, ancient humans began to encourage the Bos primigenius to stay close. How? Maybe they used salt to entice the massive ruminants, as people did in the twenty-first century with the wild mithans of the Assam hills, with northern reindeer. Or maybe, like the Diakayatés did on cattle drives, they simply sweet-talked the aurochs into sticking around. “Ay, ay, girl!” One way or another, sometime in the early Holocene a colossal proto-cow felt trusting enough around people that she allowed herself to be milked. Milking would become like walking: essential, innate. It was why God gave man opposable thumbs.In Africa, herders preceded farmers by some three thousand years. In Asia, pastoralism evolved after agriculture. Anthropologists disagree whether people domesticated cattle on these two continents independently or whether itinerant Asian traders brought the cow to Africa, though DNA studies indicate that all taurine cattle came from eighty female wild aurochs. In any event, during the Agricultural Revolution, Cain and Abel parted ways, and from then on, “the nomadic alternative,” as the writer-wanderer Bruce Chatwin called it, developed parallel to, and in symbiosis with, the settled culture.Antecedent herders grazed their kine in the lush pastures of East Africa. Around 8000 BC, people at Nabta Playa, an interglacial oasis in the Nubian Desert, littered their primeval hearths with pottery and bones of ovicaprids and cattle. Ten thousand years from now, archaeologists of the future will scrape the same refuse from the midden of Oumarou’s campsite—cow bone and goat crania and cracked bowls, plus some empty glass vials of commercially manufactured vermicide.Around 6000 BC, some bands of nomads hit the road. Perhaps, as sedentary farmers carved pasturage into millet and sorghum fields, they had run out of country. They drove before them lyre-horned zebu cows: much smaller than the wild aurochs, requiring little water, able to withstand high temperatures, docile, and partially resistant to rinderpest. The herders were tolerant to lactose and lived mostly on milk. Their limbs were stretched by protein. Their bones were strong enough to chase clouds. Like Hollywood cowboys, they hooved it west.Today the unlettered Fulani in the bourgou without effort can trace the beginning of their passage to the very birthplace of mankind. I don’t know how they know. Western anthropologists, linguists, and ethnographers have puzzled over Fulani origins for more than a hundred years, measuring skulls, divining cadences of language. But ask a cowherd in Mali where his people came from, and he will reply: “Ethiopia.”—The nomads marched their cattle through a Neolithic Sahara. The land was lush, sodden with the subpluvial that had followed the last glaciation. Herds of hippopotamus and giraffe and ostrich and zebra grazed along mighty rivers. The rivers were full of fish. You can still see their dry courses from space.Around 4000 BC they stopped at the Paleozoic obelisk forest of Tassili n’Ajjer, the Plateau of the Rivers, a migrants’ oasis in what today is Algeria. There, on sandstone, the nomads painted and engraved Bovidian odes to cattle. Herds on the run. At pasture. Humped. Unhumped. Longhorned. Piebald. One painting shows a person milking a cow as a calf stands by, probably to encourage the cow to let down her milk. Someone picked into a rock a cow weeping rock tears. What was the artist’s dolor? The beautiful stones of Tassili are silent.By 2000 BC a great drought had returned. The desert—in Arabic sahra, the Sahara—pushed the herders south. Perhaps for the first time these land-use innovators had to adapt to climate change. They hooked down toward the westernmost edge of the region that Arab traders and conquerors later would call sahel, the shore: the savannah belt that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, linking the Sahara and the tropics roughly along the thirteenth parallel.Trapped between the lethal tsetse forests of the south and the northern desert, Fulani cattle herders ambulated the semiarid grasslands of western Sahel. They plodded toward the Atlantic, into the coastal reaches of modern-day Senegal, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana. But just south of the town walls of modern Djenné, less than a day’s walk from the Diakayatés’ dry-season camp, one of the oldest known urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa, Djenné-Djenno, pokes its ruins out of the earth. Excavations at Djenné-Djenno have revealed bones of domesticated cattle and goats and sheep that date back to the beginning of the first millennium AD. Oumarou’s forefathers may have passed through already then.The Fulani thrust inland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Many of them were Muslim. “Generally of a tolerant disposition,” the Nigerian scholar Akin L. Mabogunje wrote in his essay “The Land and Peoples of West Africa,” the Fulani were embraced “for the manure their cattle provided on the fields and for the milk and butter which could be exchanged for agricultural products.” That arrangement never has changed. When I met them, the Diakayatés lived on the millet and rice and fish Oumarou’s wife, Fanta, swapped for butter and buttermilk, and villagers welcomed his cow dung on their fields as long as it was not at the time of planting, during the rainy season, or at the time of harvest, right after. As the Fulani had been doing for thousands of years, the family notched and notched the routes of ancient transhumance deeper into the continent’s bone, driven by a neverending quest for pasturage, a near worship of cattle, and the belief that God created the Earth, all of it, for the cows.In the early nineteenth century, a Fulani scholar, cleric, and trilingual poet named Uthman dan Fodio launched one of West Africa’s earliest jihads. Hurtling camelback and horseback, dan Fodio and his followers delivered Sufi Islam to the mostly animist rural savannah on the tips of their spears and broadswords. In the floodplains of the Inner Niger Delta, one of dan Fodio’s disciples, a Fulani orphan named Ahmad bin Muhammad Boubou bin Abi Bakr bin Sa’id al Fulani Lobbo, led an Islamic uprising and created the theocratic empire of Massina. Twenty-first-century Fulani remember and revere him by his preacher sobriquet, Sekou Amadou: Sheikh Muhammad.Sekou Amadou made his first capital at the village of Senossa, a sparse oasis of low adobes and doum palms above a swale that separates the village from Djenné. Then he set out to purify what he saw as his subjects’ corrupt mores. He banned tobacco and alcohol, established purdah, set up social welfare for widows and orphans, and regularized land use, drawing up seasonal timetables that distributed pastures and rivers among Bozo fishermen, Songhai traders, Mandinka and Bambara farmers, and Fulani herders. He favored the cattlemen; the nomads thrived. Almost two hundred years later the amplitudes of Oumarou’s migration still abided by the transhumance schedules Sekou Amadou had drawn in 1818.—By the beginning of the twenty-first century an estimated thirty to forty million nomads roved the world, herding cattle, deer, goats, sheep, yak, camel, horses. Some twenty million of them were Fulani. Their ruinously swelling herds, confined by state borders, frontlines, and megalopolises that were recharting the Sahel, competed with expanding farmsteads for depleted and dwindling resources. Demographers in the West predicted that the next big extinction would be theirs. That in a hundred years, we all would be settled, and living in cities.When I relayed this to Oumarou he was distressed. For more than seventy years, since the first year he could remember, he had spent the dry season on the narrow island right here, in the middle of the sweetgrass marsh an hour’s walk northwest of Senossa.“How will we keep cows in the city?” he asked.Nomad, vouac, nomas: a vagabond for pasture.—To enter such a culture. Not an imperiled life or a life enchanted but an altogether different method to life’s meaning, a divergent sense of the world. To tap into a slower knowledge that could come only from taking a very, very long walk with a people who have been walking always. To join a walk that spans seasons, years, a history; to synchronize my own pace with a meter fine-tuned over millennia. For years I had wanted to learn from such immutable movement. In January of 2013—a number meaningless to the nomads, who ignored man-drawn borders and man-defined time—I came to the bourgou to follow a Fulani family on a yearlong cycle of transhumance, to learn from their journey lessons of adaptation and survival. “Solvitur ambulando,” Diogenes promised: “It is solved by walking.”Long walks in open spaces are like ujjayi breath for the mind. Human feet evolved to measure out steady steps on hot, dry, flat land, and the human brain evolved to absorb boundless geology at the speed of three miles an hour. The sheer volume of lucid air fills the mind, the distant skyline paces off a spirit level of peace. The expanse around you unburdens the space within.To join the nomads I needed an introduction, a benediction, consent. I needed advisors. I went looking in the unpaved bezel of Djenné’s market square.The town’s Sudanic skyline jabbed at the early-evening sky and in the faded air over the three soaring clay minarets of the Grande Mosquée swallows dashed among pale stars. Dust mixed with the potent scent of strong green gunpowder tea that was boiled and reboiled with sugar and sometimes mint and then poured, bubbling and syrupy, from great heights into small shotglasses sticky from hours of tea ceremonies previous. Women floated past in single-file columns and quarreled and chaffed and balanced on their heads trays of fresh Nile perch, calabashes of buttermilk, plastic bags of peanuts, baskets of smoked catfish, lozenges of sugared sesame, baguettes, papayas, hot peppers, laundry, water, the world.A small boy on a bicycle dragged a donkey on a rope at a gallop. Teenagers strolled importantly between shops carrying redhot birds’ nests of wire braziers with lit coal for tea. Itinerants with goatskin bags and short broadswords in tooled leather scabbards shuffled through hot dust. Two young Fulani men walked arm in arm, their fingers clasped in huge silver rings. The broad brims of their spiked burgundy cowhide-and-canvas hats touched as they gossiped. Rimaibe girls, descendants of the slaves who once grew their Fulani masters’ millet and rice, who grew and spun and wove their cotton, unloaded from their heads tall stacks of firewood for the townswomen to cook the day’s dinner, then stood fanning themselves. They wore cotton pagnes printed with giddy M.C. Escher designs of fish and pineapples and flowers, and nylon soccer jerseys: Mali, Manchester, Liverpool, Barcelona, Brazil. Elders passed in lace boubous of incredible neon hues. The color screamed like some heat-induced delirium in the antique clay monochrome of the town. A three-legged goat pulled on the rope that tethered it to a thorn tree, bleated miserably, pulled again.It was Sunday. Africa Cup of Nations blared from television sets propped on crates outside shops. South Africa was playing Morocco. Halftime news delivered dispatches of death from Mali’s north, where a latter-day jihad was converting traditional nomadic routes into the newest frontline of the global war on terror. Al Qaeda fanatics were chopping off hands in Gao, blowing up old Islamic shrines in Timbuktu. French troops had arrived in Mali a week earlier and now rumbled in armored personnel vehicles into the Sahara. Half a century after gaining independence from France, Malians gathered roadside to wave at her soldiers with blue-white-and-red tricolors.—Afo Bocoum sat under the thatched awning of a shabby mercantile on a long backless wooden bench varnished with years of sweat. Afo’s father had forsaken transhumance to serve as a translator for French colonists, and Afo had grown up in Djenné. A settled Fulani, a homesick Fulani. To satisfy his nomadic yearnings he rode his motorcycle twice daily to the pastures where hired cowboys herded his many hundreds of cows. He would lean the bike against a tree and talk to his cattle and feed them cottonseed by hand.“Cattle,” he would say, in a mix of English and French, “c’est pas business, c’est l’amour.”When he was home and there was electricity in the house, he watched nature channels in French. Discovery Channel France, National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild, Planète+. He sought out shows about herders.“Texas! I’ve seen it on television. They have a lot of cowherds there. They ride horses. And they have hats like the Fulani, only bigger.”Afo was a diawando, a member of a Fulani caste of mediators between the nomads, who despised and feared government in all its incomprehensible forms, and the officialdom, which considered the nomads arrogant, rich, and obsolete, and took advantage of their illiteracy by fleecing them recklessly: in the modern world, God seemed to favor Cain. A diawando advised his clients on all matters legal, formal, veterinary, and financial. The relationship was passed down from father to son and the loyalty between a diawando and the pastoralists was nonpareil. The Diakayatés were Afo’s clients and they worshipped him.Afo picked at bad teeth with a match and considered my request.“In this life you have to feel love for what you do. If you don’t feel love for what you’re doing you won’t do it well.”He fell silent. Late January heat made everything lazy, moved listlessly through legs, slowed circulation. A small boy slouched by, swallowing hard some insult or injury, tears running down his pouting face. A teenager with wandering eyes came under the awning and drooled and stood fingering his green stone prayer beads. The gloaming softened all color. An old muezzin in a dusty blue boubou limped up to his post at the southeastern corner of the mosque wall, stopped, spat a sizable ball of phlegm over the rampart, put his bony hands to his ears. The mosque loudspeaker crackled like bursts of distant gunfire and the muezzin began his first summons to evening prayer. The quarter tones ricocheted gently off banco walls, spilled into the immense famished horizons beyond.The French adventurer René Caillié, the first European to return from Timbuktu, stopped in Djenné in 1828. The massive mosque built of daub and wattle in the twelfth or thirteenth century, during Islam’s early and erratic years in the Niger Delta, stood mostly in ruins by then: Sekou Amadou had disapproved of its ostentatiousness and allowed it to fall into disrepair, while he built his own, smaller, simpler mosque a block away. The Grande Mosquée, Caillié wrote, was “rudely constructed, though very large. It is abandoned to thousands of swallows, which build their nests in it.” The modern mosque, the largest mudbrick building in the world, was a replica, built at the order of French colonists in 1907. The swallows remained.I waited. Swallows chirred. At last Afo pronounced:“Bon! Your work is good. We’ll go to the bush tomorrow.”—On the other end of the square two elders stopped me. Babourou Koïta, a diawando like Afo, held court each day next to a pharmacy in a chair made of bamboo and goatskin, while in the secrecy of his compound, cowboys in his employ raised gigantic interbreeds of zebus and Holsteins. In an identical chair next to Babourou sat his best friend, Ali the Griot.A griot: a bard, an entertainer. An ambulatory madman spewing blessings and augury. An oracle for the powers that shaped the universe, as feared as the blacksmith who transforms the Earth’s elements. A hereditary oral chronicler of the land who alone knows all the secret iniquities and virtues of its gentry.Griots dumbfounded the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta. “Each of them has got inside a costume made of feathers to look like a thrush with a wooden head made for it and a red beak as if it were the head of a bird. They stand before the sultan in that ridiculous attire and recite their poetry,” he wrote in the chronicle of his journey through the Malian kingdom. “It was mentioned to me that their poetry is a kind of preaching.” Ibn Battuta didn’t understand: you submitted to the griot and feared his judgment because how he pronounced you to be was how you would be. His words tweaked destiny. He was the keeper and twister of history who castigated and flattered and who from his praise and reprimands molded prophecies and delivered such news and advice as he saw fit so he could stoke or resolve conflicts, forge or disband unions, bestow or retract fame.“In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning,” said Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Mali’s most renowned writer. When a griot died, histories of entire families and empires dissolved underfoot. The world lost gravity.Modern griots no longer dressed in feathers. They were court jesters set loose in a new world, a world without kings. Some cut records and performed in front of African and European and American crowds. Most dispensed wisdoms at weddings, at political rallies, in public squares. They were ronin. Ali was one of those.Ali had a two-packs-a-day habit and looked like my grandfather who had died when I was a girl. I told him that. He nodded and informed me he was broke. “That makes two of us,” I said. He giggled and nodded again. I told him my grandfather had been an orchestra conductor, an entertainer, and that my grandfather’s name—my name, badkhen—meant a fiddler, an irreverent jester-rhymer who ad-libbed at Jewish weddings. I came from a long line of Yiddish griots, I said. That wasn’t good enough. Ali stubbed out a Dunhill in the dust and motioned to Babourou for another and said that to walk in the Sahel I needed a different name, a Fulani name.He looked at Babourou. Babourou looked at the sky, presumably for instruction.“Bâ!” he said. “Your name will be Anna Bâ.”Ali nodded once more. “Good name. Noble name. One of the oldest Fulani names.” And he grabbed my hand and yanked it up in the air and sang me my new ancient family history. It began in no remembered time with the arrival from a faraway desert of four Fulani progenitor families—the spiritual leaders the Diallos, the logisticians the Sows, the largest cattle owners the Bâs, their helpers the Barris—and it ended like this:“Anna Bâ, Bâ the owner of cattle, Bâ the owner of white cattle, white is the color of milk, Bâ the owner of the color white. First came the Diallos the Sows the Bâs the Barris. Bâ is the owner of many animals, Bâ is the owner of butter, Bâ smells of butter, Bâ the sweetest-smelling Fulani. Bâ. Bâ. Bâ. Bâ.”He did not let go of my hand the whole time.The naming ceremony would be held the next day. I was to buy a sacrificial goat. On television screens around the square, South Africa and Morocco tied, two–two.—A friend hosted the ceremony at his bar, an eyesore of poured concrete on the outskirts of town. Its courtyard had a bandstand under a leaky cabana. It served Malian beer and lukewarm soft drinks and inside it had low benches upholstered with artificial leather and mirrored disco balls and a small television set tuned to a channel that showed Ivorian and Senegalese dancers in bikinis and hot pants grinding to hiphop. The bar owner was a settled Fulani wheeler-dealer who wore copious perfume, spoke seven or eight languages, including French, Spanish, and English, was afraid of cows, and went by the nickname Pygmée. “Peul moderne,” Afo called him: the modern Fulani. Out of respect for the Muslim sensibilities of my elder guests Pygmée turned off the television. His friend Allaye the Butcher had roasted a goat in town and delivered it to the bar in the evening and carved it in the yard.My three godfathers, my three magi, arrived on three motorcycles in flowing robes. Afo wore a boubou white as an egret’s wing and had two helpings of roast goat and pronounced it very good. Babourou, in a handwoven mantle of black and turquoise wool embroidered with gold thread, told me that to be one hundred percent Fulani I needed a Fulani man, and that—this was a segue—he and the other elders would assist me in any manner possible. Ali the Griot promised that my new name would protect me from evil.“Anna Bâ! Fulani Bâ! General de Gaulle! Bienvenue, bienvenue.” We toasted with orange Fanta.I walked up to the flat roof. Effervescent dusk. White guineafowl perched in a eucalyptus grove. The town’s sole generator droned. In a thin web of orange streetlights Djenné’s oblique adobes crowded narrow and asymmetrical and surreal. The floodplains around the town reflected the mauve and blue and crimson of the dying sky and the town seemed suspended in air. Beyond spread the thorny and flat Sahelian wilderness that belonged to the cows and their cowboys. I would be joining them in the morning.Then the generator quieted and the lights went out, the town disappeared, and a full moon rang into the sky like a bell.Early the next day, Afo, Pygmée, and I sat in the freckled shade of a windtwisted thorn tree with Oumarou Diakayaté and Fanta and their many kin and watched cattle egrets float down from the sky into hippo grass thickets that scissored in the wind. The white birds parted the grass and puckered the fen’s glossy surface with their long legs. A low northbound warplane thundered overhead. A few days’ walk away from the camp the French air force was bombing the Sahara. In the fen terrified cattle jolted and tripped and bawled. On the other side of the thorn tree a cow calved quietly and licked the calf to life. The Diakayatés had been in the bourgou a week.“This is Anna Bâ,” Afo said and the Diakayatés laughed. “Bâ? Anna Bâ? A Fulani? Good, good. Welcome, Anna Bâ.”Oumarou asked me if I had any cows, and whether it had rained where I came from. Was America in France? Afo said it was on the other side of Mecca, which meant very far. One of Oumarou’s nephews said: “In your land don’t you also have a city that loves cattle, named Kentucky?”I had no cows. But I, too, went on pendular journeys in the world’s margin lands. I grazed for stories, I explained. I herded words.Oumarou laughed again and said I could tag along as far as I wished. The women laughed as well and said I would have to take turns pounding their millet. They showed with their arms—and down! and down! and down!—in case I didn’t understand.One of Oumarou’s nieces said, “There are three ways to study, Anna Bâ: with your feet, with your eyes, and with your mind. Now I know you study with your feet because you have come here to live and walk with us.”I had come to study, it was true. I also was pursuing something, a measure of healing. I was not on a pilgrimage—that would have been fatuous, a folly. But secretly I hoped that all the old pathways of my hosts somehow could triangulate into an inarticulable and uncharted solace, because just four months earlier, as I was readying, in cold autumn, to travel to West Africa, my beloved had left me.We passed around a calabash with foamy buttermilk that Fanta had churned that morning. A communion, a nomad’s toast. From the northeast the harmattan blew minuscule particles of the Sahara. Sand granules. Tiny travelers. Each speck a capsule delivering to the Sahel echoes of drought, of war, of a space vast and arid and pitiless. The cow had licked her calf dry and clean and had eaten the afterbirth and the calf was trying to push away the ground with its new legs. Oumarou sent a grandnephew to take a look. It was a male calf, the boy reported. More likely to be sold in case of emergency: the females were valued for their milk. The old man said that he would name it Anna Bâ, in my honor, and everybody laughed some more.Only Mama, his stepdaughter, was worried. She was thirty-two, and she lay on a mat feverish and curled up with a migraine and a bad sinus infection.“You say you want to tell our story,” she said. “But we don’t know how the story ends.”Besides, she said, how would I walk? I didn’t know how to carry water on my head.Carrying water was woman’s work. Water for laundry and washing and cooking came mostly from the triangular hippo grass swamp west of the camp that each morning exploded in spalls of reflected sunlight.“Aren’t you worried about drinking water from that marsh?”“Oh no. Our cows drink from it, so we know it’s good. But who knows who put water in your plastic bottle? Aren’t you worried about drinking from it?”But it was true, the women conceded, that well water was less cloudy. The closest well was about half a mile away. Two or three times a day the women would balance empty jerrycans and plastic pails on their heads and slowly flipflop to it.The path to the well changed with the seasons from morass to mud to the hard corduroy of fossilized footsteps, as though each season the most recent itinerants recast out of oblivion the traces of the ancients. It linked Oumarou’s campsite to the two mostly parallel ruts that bore tracks of horsedrawn carts and pack donkeys and of feet bare and sandaled and the serpentine imprints of motorscooters and wobbly Chinese bicycles, and that meandered north deeper into the bourgou and south toward the sewage-sluiced snarl of the narrow daub alleys of Djenné.Settled people lived along that unnamed road. Nearest the camp, each less than half a mile away, sat two hamlets, Doundéré and Dakabalal.Doundéré, to the southwest, was an old outpost of compact adobes that crowded uphill toward a tiny steepled clay mosque. Doundéré’s elevation was a compression of cultural layers, of uncounted generations of mudbrick homes raised and crumbled and raised anew. Everyone knew it was very old but whether it was three hundred years old or a thousand no one could tell: years did not count, were not counted in these parts. Its residents were Bambara rice and millet farmers and rimaibe, former Fulani slaves who treated the nomads with a combination of respect and mistrust. Oumarou’s sons and grandnephews who were old enough for such things sometimes went to Doundéré to drink tea and prattle with other cowboys and for a few pennies to charge their cellphones, using a motorcycle battery one rimaibe family owned, and to buy cigarettes and small paper cubes of gunpowder green tea from China and counterfeit medicine. Married Diakayaté women avoided Doundéré. On some nights, after their parents had fallen asleep, teenage girls would sneak out to the village to flirt with young visiting cowboys in smoky rooms.Dakabalal, to the northwest, was a haphazard cluster of homes that an extended family of Bozo fishermen had tossed upon a slight rise, in Oumarou’s lifetime. The Bozo traced their ancestry to capricious man-eating water spirits and amphibians and may have been seining and trapping the Niger and the Bani since the Stone Age; their name, bo so, was an epithet given them by the Bambara that, in Bambara, meant “bamboo hut,” for the riparian dwellings they would set up when they moored. Many remained transient, floating down rivers in redwood pirogues. They were nominally Muslim but they worshipped the river, did not wash for burial the people who had died by drowning, and considered drowned animals halal to eat. Dakabalal had no mosque. I once saw Dakabalal children play with a white egret the way children elsewhere would with a cat. The women in the village kept small and silent yellow dogs and smoked fish on large gridirons day and night, and around these gridirons toddlers played with tackle. The women were heavy from lifetimes of childbirth and they often sat in front of their grills like river goddesses, naked from the waist up, knees spraddled inside colorful pagnes, a small child on the breast.Two or three miles north of Dakabalal lay Somena, a carefully swept arrangement of fifty or so tidy clay huts. Settled Fulani cattlemen had built it half a century earlier on a mound left by some previous village of some previous people no longer remembered. To the south, past Doundéré, on the way to the Massina Empire’s first capital at Senossa, tall mopped doum palms and mango trees in geometric bloom of dirty pink flanked the villages of Weraka and Wono. These villages were larger than Doundéré, and rimaibe and Bambara and settled Bozo lived and farmed behind their tall mudbrick walls, and during the dry season the Diakayaté women walked there to barter buttermilk for grain. Two fastpaced hours farther south lay Djenné, with its fabled mosque, its disorienting and overwhelming Monday market, its perfunctory district hospital, the only one around. Costly pharmacies, indifferent magistrates, extortionist gendarmerie.This was the southern tip of the bourgou. In satellite images it looked like the big toe print of a southpointing green flat foot, the foot of a nomad.Most winters each village was an island until the end of February. The swales filled with stagnant water in which small black herons slouched and cheery white-faced whistling ducks grazed on sodden leftovers of the grain harvest. By January scores of nomadic families set up camp on the low rises dry enough to sleep on, each campsite a neatly swept circle of mats, chicken, guinea hens, goats, sheep, cattle. To the black kites that wheeled over the fens in silent concentration they must have looked like salvages from a shipwrecked ark, their poultry like something to snatch up and eat. For centuries, slavers had shuttled the wetlands between the villages and camps in pirogues during the rainy season and kidnapped luckless children and young women to sell at the markets of Djenné, of Ségou, of Timbuktu. Some of their victims became rimaibe. Some were resold out and out toward the Atlantic coast and of those many ended up toiling on plantations in the West Indies, in the American South. For the most part the abductions ended when France colonized western Sahel, swapping one kind of bondage for another.—The well the Diakayaté women favored sat beside Dakabalal: a stack of concrete rings in a rectangular enclosure of poured concrete. Water laced with clay sloshed piss-yellow in the fourteen-foot drop. But on some days within the rings there quivered a blue disk of sky.At the well the women would remove their sandals and leave them at the enclosure’s threshold as if they were entering a hut or a house, the house of water. They would pull up hand over hand a pail of rubber or goatskin on a yellow manila rope and drink from the pail and let the water run down their chins. Luxuriously, even decadently. They would fill their containers and sometimes they would strip out of their boubous and shirts and wash their shoulders and arms and breasts and laugh at water running down their spines to tickle under their calico pagnes and between their skinny legs. And sometimes, though the Fulani women considered themselves more worthy as a race because of their lighter skin tone and almost Semitic profiles, they would condescend to joke with the Bozo laundresses in Bozo or in Bambara and the laundresses would respond, and women’s laughter and the slapping of laundry would bounce off the concrete in playful echoes.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Walking with Abel: Named a Top Summer Reading Pick by the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Esquire, Christian Science Monitor, Vol 1. Brooklyn, BBC.com, and Mental Floss“Badkhen's rich and lucid prose illustrates her journey as vividly as might a series of photographs… By the time readers put the book down, they will have done something remarkable: visited a mostly inhospitable but eminently seductive locale alongside a storyteller able to render the strange and different both familiar and engrossing. Walking With Abel not only takes us somewhere new, it viscerally reminds us that such places still exist in the world.”  –Christian Science Monitor“Fascinating…highly ambitious and deeply profound.” –Los Angeles Times “Lyrical [and] meditative…[a] tender tribute to a people deeply rooted in the land.” –Boston Globe"[D]isplays the skill of a writer accustomed to telling the stories of those living unimaginable lives.” –Ms. Magazine   “[Badkhen] who was given the Fulani name Anna Bâ, describes all in graceful prose, word paintings that approach poetry…nearly perfect.” –Minneapolis Star-Tribune"Fascinating." -The Brian Lehrer Show “Enthralling…Walking with Abel is essential reading.” –Dayton Daily News“Staggeringly vivid… poetic, and tactile...[Walking with Abel] amasses much of its strength from isolated movements taken together. It’s a subtle path, but a deeply effective one.” –Biographile"Extraordinarily poetic." -BBC.com“[The Fulani] live in the here and now in ways the modern world has lost even the memory of, and their story, told with deftly measured, evocative prose and poetically precise detail, slows the reader down to consider just what that means… Badkhen infuses her story with the kind of authenticity only a fellow traveler can know.” –BookPage"We swooned over Anna Badkhen's writing the way we did for Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers." –Shelf Awareness"Vivid, memorable nonfiction." –Playboy“A careful rendering of one of the world’s last remaining migratory peoples… [Badkhen] uses her credentials as a war reporter with tact, reconditioning readers whose only context for West Africa — and perhaps the continent — is that of violence… She situates the Fulani in relief across centuries and physical space… [and] her richly detailed and delivered observations are crafted with a careful ear for the rhythms of language.” – The Los Angeles Review of Books"An engrossing look into an alien world from the perspective of a writer with a unique story of her own.” –Philadelphia Inquirer“Lyrical … Badkhen combines journalistic observation with deep feeling…The Fulani are individuals, not archetypes. Their journey is both beautiful and difficult… tenderly render[ed]…[and] exquisitely written.” –Publisher's Weekly (starred) "In lyrical and evocative prose, Badkhen writes of the beauty of the land and the sky and the grace and wisdom of the people…readers [will] savor her gentle, elegant story.” –Kirkus Reviews“[Badken] mak[es] Fulani culture come alive as she follows the herders’ daily efforts to cope with drought, disease, and death in an often unforgiving landscape...[Walking with Abel] will appeal to anyone interested in Africa’s nomadic peoples and readers of memoirs such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.” –Library Journal“[Badkhen] vividly captures and communicates an increasingly rare and wondrous experience.” – Booklist"Walking with Abel is a rare and extraordinary book.  Anna Badkhen writes with so much precision and soul that practically every line delivers its own revelation.  This intrepid writer has given us more than a window into an ancient, and possibly doomed, way of life; she digs down to the very core of what it means to be human.” –Ben Fountain, author, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award and finalist for the National Book Award "Lucid, generous, and rugged, Badkhen has written a magisterial book which speaks to us as a species in the early twenty-first century - where have we walked from and where are we walking."–J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence “Sumptuously narrated, Badkhen’s sojourn compels you to ponder the existential centers of life—love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, courage and fear.  At the end of this riveting tale, the reader not only knows something about the fascinating particularities of Fulani being-in-the -world, but is also inspired by the indomitable resilience of the human spirit.” –Paul Stoller, author of Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World “An amazing saga among the nomadic Fulani in the African Sahel. Badkhen’s account is a wondrous tableau of survival in one of the planet’s toughest environments, threaded with history, legend, and a wealth of stories.” –Wayne White, Middle East InstituteFrom the Hardcover edition.