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The Wodaabe’s knowledge of plants is the result of a combination of empirical observation and the general view of things they have developed as herders of cattle. Plants are things that sprout from the soil (fuda). What breaks through the surface is first of all classified in one of two categories: If it has ‘two ears’(noppi didi), it belongs to the class of woody things (ledde); if it has one leaf it belongs to the class of grasses (geene). This classification corresponds to a certain botanical reality but also reflects a major principle of Sahelian cattle herding: grass is the real source of energy for cattle, with woody plants only complementing it.

The two life forms are further subdivided (Figure 4). Gramineae are split into annual (again: geene) and perennial (daýýe) grasses; woody things divide into trees (ledde mawde), smaller and bigger herbs (lekkon and legga), and creepers and climbers (layi).


With regard to gramineae, the Wodaabe’s representation of the vegetative cycle is of special interest to this study. When the soil is soaked with rain water, it is called kessiri. Scouts dig into the soil in order to estimate from the thickness of the soaked layer at which moment the grass will appear. The expression lesdi roondoyake describes an apparent elevation of the soil surface, the day after an abundant shower has receded. Some three days later a delicate sward covers the ground (lesdi fuufi). When the grass has grown about one inch, animals can bite it off with their front teeth. This form of biting is called happa; and the grass at this stage is called happaaru. Sheep and bovine calves can easily graze these shoots; adult cattle with large mouths however, risk taking in sand (Photo 19). As this can have fatal consequences; herders speak of grass exceeding this length as ‘escaping’(dada) from the ground. When grass is long enough for cattle to entwine it with their tongues (sowwa) the Wodaabe call it hudo. It will first develop nodes (hudo wada jokko) and then enter the tillering phase (hudo habbina). This, in the opinion of the Wodaabe, is ideal fodder, but grass with long stalks that has grown ears (geene saawta) is of low nutritional value (waawaa ‘it can not’). As will be shown later, this knowledge is of great importance to the pastoral migration of the Wodaabe.

Figure 4: Wodaabe classification of the plant world


The classification given by the Wodaabe to trees is vital to this case study (Table 4): it reflects the cultural as well as ecological orientations of the Wodaabe. To begin with, the Wodaabe most often refer to the species level itself when they talk about a particular tree. They would not say, e.g.: “Hang it on the tree over there”, but “Hang it on the Balanites aegyptiaca over there”. They first of all see the differences between single tree species, and only implicitly, rarely or on special occasions refer to the perceived similarities within larger groupings of trees. The principles that govern the formation of these groupings reveal, however, how the pastoralists perceive their environment.

Photo 20: Bushland with Cordia sinensis (dornohi)

In a dual classification, the Wodaabe distinguish between trees with and without thorns (gi’al). Thorns prick and cause hurt and injury. Trees with thorns are therefore symbolically seen as malicious (ledde kallude) even though they can be put to all sorts of practical uses. The distinction has its root in practical experience but it does not relate to practical matters. Rather, it elaborates on a symbolic theme that can be found throughout Wodaabe culture and that characterizes their pastoral preoccupations presented in this case study: the distinction between fertility and barrenness. The malicious thorns represent the exact opposite of fertility, whereas trees without thorns are seen as congenial (ledde de jam) and the prime symbol of fertility. They are used ceremonially to give blessings (barka), and to augur fertility in birth and marriage rituals. In the domain of herding, herbal herd magic (fudngo) that symbolically transfers the life force of plants to the cattle makes use to a large extent of trees without thorns (see also below). The sometimes strained relationship between practical use and symbolic value can easily be assessed by the example of Piliostigma reticulatum (barkehi). Its branches are the first choice for ceremonially inducing fertility but the presence of the tree in the bush indicates poor pasture.

Another classification of trees that partially cross-cuts the classes of trees with and without thorns is based on the ecological affiliation of trees (Table 4). Particular groupings of trees belong to different sorts of bushland and indicate their varying pastoral utility.

First, the Wodaabe put together the trees of their pastoral zone. Accordingly they call this class ‘trees of Kawlaa’ (ledde Kawlaa); ‘our trees’ (ledde meeden, because they are found in their bushland); ‘trees of the north’ (ledde woyla); or ‘trees of the bush’ (ledde ladde). The counterpart to this are the ‘trees of the south’ (ledde fommbina) also called ‘trees of Borno’. Several of these are used in herd magic; therefore some Wodaabe acknowledge an additional class of ‘herd magic trees’ (ledde fudngo). Besides the trees of the north and the south one finds trees growing at the edges of the River Komadougou Yobe (ledde maayo).

Especially interesting in this classification is the fact that it reflects an evaluation of groups of tree species as browse on the one hand, and as indicators for rangeland on the other. The species for browse are found in the class ‘trees of the north’; this class also indicates high quality range (Photo 20). What characterizes the region to which this class is affiliated is that it is arid, meaning that there is low rainfall and no extensive surfaces of water. In this classification of trees the term ‘bushland’ (ladde) as the location where cattle multiply, is opposed, in the expression ‘trees of the bush’ (ledde ladde), to zones of humidity - along the river and to the south. Wodaabe take the view that their cattle cannot prosper in non-arid regions. Although in other contexts they would call these ‘bushland’ (ladde) too, here they restrict the term to what they consider an ideal bush for cattle.





Boscia senegalensis (amjahi)
Cordia sinensis (dornohi)
Salvadora persica (kasassi)
Cadaba farinosa (karatiiyel)
Maerua crassifolia (senseni)
Grewia tenax (siibooli)
Grewia bicolor (kelli)
Leptadenia pyrotechnica (suwaalewol)
Commiphora africana (badaadi)
Calotropis procera (bamammbi)
Guiera senegalensis (furohi)
Commiphora quadricincta (luuri-badaadi)

Annona senegalensis (dukuuhi) Detarium microcarpum (konkehi)
Cassia sieberiana (koohoobi)
Securinega virosa(sambisambihi)
Sterculia setigera (bobori)
Prosopis africana (kohi)
Ceiba pentandra (riinihi)
Celtis integrifolia (aalahi)
Combretum glutinosum (dooki)
Sclerocarya birrea (eeri)
Kigelia africana (gillaarehi)
Ficus gnaphalocarpa (ibbi)
Ficus capensis (irin-bessehi)
Ficus platyphylla (kalkaldihi)
Crossopterix febrifuga (rima-jogoohi)
Stereospermum kunthianum (golommbi)
Crateva adansonii (guudehi)
uncertain (wada-wurohi)
Piliostigma reticulatum (barkehi)
Mitragyna inermis (kooli)

Tamarindus indica (japmi)
Diospyros mespiliformis (nelbi)
Mitragyna inermis (kooli)
Piliostigma reticulatum (barkehi)
Combretum glutinosum (dooki)
Stereospermum kunthianum (golommbi)


Acacia nilotica var. Adansonii (gabari)
Acacia raddiana (silluki)
Ziziphus mauritiana (jaabi)
Acacia senegal (dibeehi daneehi)
Balanites aegyptiaca (aduwaahi)

Entada africana (fada-waanduhi)

Acacia ataxacantha (koorahi)
Capparis tomentosa (gabdoodoowol)
Hyphaene thebaica (gellewol)

Table 4: Classification of trees

Through herd magic (fudngo), fertility can be acquired from the trees of the south. In particular the species of Ficus, Piliostigma reticulatum, Crossopterix febrifuga, Kigelia africana, and Bauhinia rufescens, among many others, display by their botanical characteristics a life force that herders try to transfer to their cattle. Some are constantly budding and are always green as if it were the rainy season; some have latex, looking like mother’s milk (both sorts of milk therefore carry the same name, endam); some look as if they always bear fruit; and some do bear a remarkable quantity of fruits.

Photo 21: Bull in good shape after the rainy season

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