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The knowledge and perception of the T environment that the Wodaabe possess, and the strategies they use for raising herds do not follow from interaction with physical realities alone. Their view of nature and pastoral work is filtered and shaped respectively through and by a screen of cultural values and orientations. These are vital to understanding how the Wodaabe relate to the Sahelian savannah and to their herds. These values and orientations concern the relationship between the Bodaado, the red Zebu cow (nagge), and the bush (ladde), which the Wodaabe perceive as being primordial. According to this optic, the Bodaado does not choose through economic calculation, to raise red Zebu cattle; he receives them in heritage from his agnatic kinsmen, only to pass them on to his children. He does not receive his heritage in one go but during a long-term process of living in the bush with his family and the herd. Over time, a close relationship of mutual confidence and responsibility develops between the Bodaado and his cattle.

The red Zebu takes care of the Bodaado in return: she provides milk, butter, bone marrow and meat; the money needed to buy millet and clothing; and the bullocks to be butchered in name-giving and marriage ceremonies. The cow accepts the Bodaado as her owner and stays with him faithfully; she always comes back to the camp and refuses, sometimes angrily, to follow anyone who tries to steal her. In return for her loyalty, the Bodaado acts as a guardian and benefactor of the cow. In practice, this means a number of things, but in principle it is clear that the Bodaado constantly tries to maximize the herd’s well-being and fertility by living where the animals feel most at home - in the bush - and facing all sorts of hardship for their sake. This motivation manifests itself in every possible aspect of Wodaabe herding knowledge and practice, as will be shown in the following chapters.


Anyone else who gets a cow just wants to roast and eat her. The Bodaado by contrast finds grass and water for her, and free bushland far away from sedentary farmers. Like this place where we are sitting now: this is the kind of place where we can park the cattle so that they can leave the camp at night to graze. There is no village, there is no farmer. The cows can spend the night grazing, and drink as much water as they want. The next morning they will already be standing in front of the calf rope to let themselves be milked; they will replete us with milk and butter. The Bodaado watches them and feels happy; this is all the Bodaado wants. And if things don’t go well for the cow, as they do when she is with the Bodaado, she will be not amused.

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