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Photo 6: Boddado driving a young bull to the market

The Wodaabe follow one of several ways available in West Africa to earn a living from pastoral work. Herders can opt for one of two basic orientations: diversify or specialize. Most Fulani in West Africa diversify production by herding cattle and cultivating fields. This combination of occupations has important consequences for herding: being tied to fields, herders and herds are restricted in their mobility. The effect of reducing mobility under Sahelian conditions is that the calving rate decreases (Amanor 1995; Wilson et al. 1984; Le Houérou 1989; Colin de Verdière 1995). Fulani who cultivate are therefore very reserved about marketing their cattle assets. In fact they see cultivation as a strategy to avoid selling animals from the herd (cf. Schareika 1994). This would either reduce the productive capital - the herd - (Bierschenk and Forster 1991), or the social capital - single beasts - that the family head needs to bind his sons as a labour force (increasingly needed for cultivation), to the household (Schareika 1994, 1998). As cash is always needed and the demand for milk on the part of neighbouring farmers offers a good commercial opportunity, the Fulani women sell fresh and sour milk in the local markets. As a consequence, the men have taken over the work of milking, fearing that their women leave too small a share to the calves.

The Wodaabe, by contrast, have opted for specialization. They only raise cattle and a few sheep, and they do not own any fields. They meet their needs in grain and other goods by selling animals from the herd. With present price ratios, this style of pastoral life requires the highest possible rate of animal production, i.e. maximum herd fertility. The Wodaabe cite five principal factors as prerequisite to harnessing high fertility: pastoral labour, constant mobility, high quality fodder resources, herbal herd magic, and the knowledge needed to combine all these correctly. Thus, the Wodaabe own no fields to distract them from taking care of their herds, and they are obliged to make use of this liberty of movement to induce fertility in their cattle.


One has to stand upright in front of one’s herd; only then will you ensure order. You must look after your cattle day and night, and never take your eyes off them; then they won’t come to harm, then they will prosper. If you go away and leave them on their own, you will find every time you come back that one or more of them has got lost, or worse, that they’ve contracted some disease or even that somebody has sold them. This is not the way to make your cattle advance. If, on the other hand, you stay with them, keeping them in order, they will be healthy and will bring you profits: your family will drink plenty of milk, and you will be sure to have calves to sell. Your cows will calve and will not come to any harm.

The work ethic (Box 2) that the Wodaabe display reflects the importance of the herders’ efforts and work input to the prosperity of the animals. It is true that in cattle husbandry, success is proportionally related to the amount of capital, i.e. sexually mature cows, invested (Schneider 1979: 84) and that each further investment of labour will not yield a proportional growth of the herd. However, pastoral production does not only depend on herd size, herd structure and natural conditions (Swift 1977: 461). There is a margin within which a greater input of pastoral labour yields higher returns in animals; it is this margin that the Wodaabe exploit.

Wodaabe pastoral labour comprises many tasks: driving animals to graze, watering animals at wells, feeding natron, checking the condition of the herd, providing for medical care, removing parasites, searching for pastureland, searching for animals that get lost, lighting a fire for the herd, tethering calves to the calve rope, milking the cows, twisting ropes, visiting a neighbour to bring home a calf given as stock loan, and many others. These, however, are not the tasks that define the particular quality of Wodaabe pastoral labour. Two things are important: first, the herders are constantly attentive to their animals, thinking and discussing whether there is something to be done to improve the well-being of the herd. Second, the energy expended in promoting the prosperity of the herd is not so much contained in single and mechanically applied acts, as in the whole Wodaabe lifestyle, which is thoroughly pastoral. What this means will become clear in the next section, on the culture of moving.

Although animals have to be sold to buy grain and other goods, the strategy of maximizing herd productivity through work effort is complemented by a strategy to minimize capital loss through plain living and sacrifice (Box 3). Household equipment and clothes are repaired again and again before they are replaced. The Wodaabe often abstain from investments that could ease the burden of daily life, e.g. buying an additional canister to avoid the family running out of water too soon, or a warm blanket to shield off the cold wind during the cold dry season.


There are two sorts of people who will never be good at keeping cattle: the first covets a shady place, turning away from his animals and towards where people gather to talk, enjoy the shade, and sleep; he will have no cattle. The second sells beast after beast in order to lead a life of extravagance. One who does not put off their sale, will not have cattle. You strive for them, to the point of exhaustion, you scare them off sale, you scare them off the market! Even if there are only three left [after a drought, for example], they will bud to become cattle. And after three or four years it will be plain to see that they have become a family herd; they have gone ahead instead of becoming less.

Photo 7: Woman discussing the price of a calabash in a local market

Photo 8: Wodaabe family on the move

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