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According to the Wodaabe, constant and unhindered roaming through free and unpopulated bushland is of prime importance to herd development (Box 4). Therefore, Wodaabe households are physically and socially organized in a way that allows for a very high degree of herd mobility. Two dimensions of this mobility have to be considered:

1. moving between camp and pasture;
2. moving from one pasture to another.

As herd and human family move together about every two to ten days, the camp which serves both is always placed within the grazing area chosen for present use (Figure 3; Photo 9, 10). The Wodaabe conceive of their cattle as having a will that directs them to do what is good for them. The herders concede to this will by letting the animals move freely, choose the direction and timing of the daily pasture walks, and by giving them the opportunity to graze as they like during day and night. For this very reason, the nomads choose the most sparsely populated bushland, far away from cultivated fields and human aggregations, as their living space. Furthermore, they use only an indirect method to bind the herd to the human family. Cattle are not attached with ropes or driven into enclosures; there is a calf rope which separates the camp into an eastern sphere of human female family life and into a western sphere of the herds’ and male herders’ life (Photo 11). The calves are attached to the calf rope, and this ensures that the cows always return to their home camp. (The calf rope is in fact a central symbol of Wodaabe pastoral culture and not only a technical implement, cf. Schareika 2003a.)

Putting the herd out to pasture is an activity that supplies the animals with grass, browse and water, and structures their own and the herders’ daily routine (Table 1). However, it is through pastoral migration of herd and household together that the Wodaabe principally decide on how the cattle are tended. There are four types of pastoral movement:

1. Historical migration (perol) is a rare event that is politically as well as ecologically motivated. In an historical migration the Wodaabe make a general choice of a bushland that has a certain quality for their pastoral endeavour (see Schareika 2003b for details). They remain within this bushland to exploit its resources through other types of pastoral migration, and only temporarily transcend its borders to escape from droughts and other sorts of crisis. The historical migration that brought the Wodaabe to Kawlaa occurred from 1910 onwards.

2. Seasonal migration (baartol) is a regular event by which the Wodaabe choose, according to seasonal factors, between ecological zones that are particularly suitable at different stages of the yearly cycle. Seasonal migration is an undertaking that leads the nomads away from and back to the land of affiliation. The migratory route is established a) by sending out scouts to look for interesting areas, and b) by following a general predetermined direction based on knowledge and experience. Typically, seasonal migration starts with the beginning of the rains in May or June and leads towards the west. It does an about-turn when the rains are properly installed by July, and reaches its easterly point of departure with the end of the rains at the beginning of October.

3. The middle range move (goonsol) connects two pasturelands within an ecologically unitary zone: during the dry season such a pastureland is the area from which a given well is accessed. During the rainy season it is the

4. The short range camp site transfer (sottol) is a movement within one of the aforementioned pasturelands. It is used to replace a camp site that has been degraded by animal droppings.

BOX 4: FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT (Sheefu, Sept. 1996)

First [when our parents came to Kawlaa] there were no people in the bush, there were no fields, there was enough grass, and enough feed for all the cattle. You could pasture and make your camp site; you could leave your cattle to pasture far off, fill themselves and then come back. There were ponds in the bush, grass in plenty, and land with wonderful clayey plains; there were no arid spots without grass, no thieves, no discord. This is what the real bush is: your cattle filling themselves, ... you can make your camp site wherever you want, there is no [political] power, there are no fields. There is no “Do not make your camp site here!” You just put your animals out to pasture, look around for water to water your cattle and then come home.

Photo 9: Wodaabe homestead set up in midst of pasture

Figure 3: Pastoral migration and daily herding

Photo 10: Camp (wuro) in rainy season bush area that receives the same rain shower and is therefore covered with grass at the same stage of the vegetative cycle.

At no time of the year do the Wodaabe stay any longer than two (rainy season) to ten (dry season) days. They dispose of neither huts nor tents and only possess belongings that can be easily and quickly saddled to a couple of donkeys. The two largest and heaviest items belong to the married women: a wooden bead stead and a wooden platform on which the donkey carrier bags containing the household appliances are put (Photo 12, 13, 30). The household, a unit of a human family with its herd of cattle, is independent in its decisions to move. Socially it allows for a level of aggregation - organized through agnatic descent - that renders the pastoral family viable, but which does not impede it from making fast and flexible decisions.

As mentioned before, it is normally composed of a man, his wife or wives, his sons and their wives; or his brothers with their wives. A camp can easily split, e.g. an adult son setting up independently from his father, a common event when herders no longer agree on pastoral decisions.

The significance of pastoral mobility is often evidenced by the pastoral importance of the locations occupied during the moves. However, the example of the Wodaabe shows that for them moving has its own merits, regardless of the exact location chosen. This becomes clear when seen from a relativist point of view.



Just before sunrise

Inspecting the herd

(tiima pinde na’i)

After sunrise

Milking the cows freeing calves from calf rope

(bira na’i);
(yoofa nyalbi)

Morning hours

Morning pasture

(wammunde, maajunde)


Cattle rest calves separated from herd

(nyalbi kodaama)

Afternoon hours

Afternoon pasture, sometimes without herder


Late afternoon

Calves tethered to the calf rope

(habba nyalbi)

Early evening

Herd comes back from pasture lighting herd fire

(na’i njaa’oo);
(dudana na’i)

Before sunset

Milking the cows

(bira na’i)

Before sleep

Tethering older calves to the calf rope

(habba nyalbi)

During the night

Night pasture, only supervised when in the vicinity of fields


Table 1: Structure of a herding day

Photo 11: Milking in front of the calf rope (daangol)

Photo 12: Camp (wuro) seen from the east


The Wodaabe are primarily concerned with maximizing herd fertility. This means that they are not so much interested in the mere possession of animals as in herd performance. This seems to be the fundamental reason why herders do not count their animals: It has little to do with any traditional or magical fear that by counting one “fixes” the number of beasts, which is meant to augment ad infinitum. It is, rather, that static herd size is not the appropriate and relevant unit of analysis to a herder; what matters is the number of cows mated, and these, in fact, the Wodaabe do count.

Nourishing and abundant grass is needed to prepare the cows for conception. But the Wodaabe do not only follow absolute standards in order to determine what a good pasture is; their judgement is further guided by a strict sense of relativity. Comparison and competition are always operative stimuli to the refinement of pastoral performance. The comparison of herd performance in the joking battles of words among herders (a praxis called mbeefi) is one manifestation of this attitude. Another is the permanent moving of herd and household, the leitmotif of which is the search for something better. The Wodaabe use several indicators to establish whether a given piece of bushland is good range or not. In their final judgement, however, they apply an experimental approach to find an answer to the question. The herders must put their animals out to pasture to see how they react with respect to the range formerly used: proper animal behaviour and breathing, brightness of the coat, indention of the rumen, weight gain and milk production are at the same time the result and confirmation of good pasture. Restlessness of the herder and frequent moving of herd and household are therefore instrumental to understanding what stimulates the herd and what refines the herding scheme.

The importance of pastoral mobility, however, is balanced by the concept of habit (woowa ‘to become used to’). Animals and men gradually become used to their environment and the rhythm of life exercised therein. The Wodaabe see that there is no absolute standard for choosing good range; what makes the cattle of other herders prosper in some region may be detrimental to theirs. Thus, the choice must always be made in accordance with what the animals have become accustomed to. In addition to this, herders have an intimate knowledge about regions familiar to them, while they know little about the regions frequented by other herdsmen. They often cite this lack of knowledge as preventing them from going into some particular region where others graze successfully.


These cattle that he keeps are unable to stay in one place for any length of time. He would find it very hard work to try to get them accustomed to staying put. And he himself cannot manage either. As for me I have to admit that if I thought I would have to stay for three months at this place, kaay, even if I was given whatever number of cattle to do so, I could not do it. If one of us settles down, we say he’s a good-for-nothing, a layabout. ... if drought kills his cattle or some disease, he will not find anybody to replace them. People will only say: what is he good for, he’s still there where we left him at our used up camp sites. He is no good, he is no herder, he is not equal to the job, he is not one of us.


Thus, to the Wodaabe, pastoral mobility is not simply a technique by which resources are appropriated; it is the very source of success in the pursuit of herding. In fact, while promoting the image of a primordial relation of mutual trust between themselves and the cows, the Wodaabe represent the impetus to move as the inner disposition not only of the beasts but also of themselves: They are always on the move, not because their animals compel them to be, but because they simply do not feel comfortable otherwise. Pastoral mobility has thus become a socially relevant marker of attitude of those who ‘keep the cows under surveillance’(reena na’i): to qualify for membership in the community of herders - which is crucial to getting animals on stock loan (habbaye) - one has to prove oneself mobile. Moving has yet another very important meaning apart from reaching a chosen destination, which will become apparent when the environmental and pastoral knowledge of the Wodaabe is illustrated throughout the following sections.

Photo 13: Woman packing up her homestead

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