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As outlined above, maximizing the herd’s reproduction rate is the principal economic strategy of the Wodaabe. They focus this strategy on one particular point: they struggle all year through to prepare the cows for mating (nagge ho’osa). And struggling in fact means that the nomads do all they can to optimally nourish the animals. They know that if a cow is not well fed, it will not become fertile again soon after calving. The goal is to make cows mate as often as possible, i.e. every year, with a calf born at the beginning of the rainy season, the cow physically rehabilitated with the fresh green fodder available during the months to come and covered by the end of the rainy season. Thus a very simple and fundamental rule guides the nomads: optimizing nutrition raises the reproduction rate!


Optimizing nutrition can follow from some simple rules but must also respond to some intricate corporeal processes. To start with, a simple Wodaabe proposition: cattle get energy feed (nyaamdu) from gramineae (geene) only. Herbs and some tree fruits are only considered a food supplement, or when temporarily overcoming a shortage of grass. In order to be nourishing, energy feed must either contain salts and minerals or it must be complemented by some tasty titbit (dahatordum), that provides for them (Box 6). The leaves of some trees, particularly Salvadora persica (kasassi), which cattle browse during the dry season are tasty, or natron (kawwa), which herders buy regularly to feed to their cattle when grazing on sand. The Wodaabe therefore compare the relation between grass and browse to the relation between their own staple food, millet porridge (nyiiri) and its accompanying sauce (li’o). The greater the feed intake, the greater weight gains can be expected. This means that cattle should be stimulated to graze as much as possible; something they will never do of their own accord. They graze better and more when they find what they like - soft, delicious grass (geene delemde) - and when they are given the opportunity to range any time during day and night. They graze badly when disturbed, e.g. by the bad smell of droppings, by pasture infested with grasshoppers, by the smell of a carcass, by grass that is brittle or spiky. Especially during the period when fodder is abundant and animals are already full, herders should anticipate the cows’ needs and keep their appetites high.


Grass feeds the cow. ... But trees should only supplement grass. If the cow does not eat grass but only trees, it will not prevent her from starving to death. ... trees are a supplement but only during the dry season: there is grass but then you wish [the tree] Salvadora persica was also there. When the cattle browse Salvadora persica we call that a tasty titbit. When cattle browse they feel very good, but when a place has no Salvadora persica ... it has no power for the cattle, they do not produce milk. They will not even stay; the cattle will not graze properly in this place.

Fresh matter (fudo hesso, geene kesse) is better fodder (geene jo’orude) than dry matter and cattle should feed on it for as long a period of the year as possible. This simple Wodaabe truth is confirmed by chemical analyses according to which the crude protein content of rainy season grass is 8 - 14% against 1.8 - 3.5% with dry season grass (Le Houérou 1989: 110). The amount of digestible protein however is crucial for weight gain (Le Houérou 1989: 147).


The alternation between a short fresh matter period and a long dry matter period in the West African Sahel causes a cyclical process in the cattle’s physical development. The herders have to deal with two aspects of this development:

1. the animals’ digestive system adjusts once a year from processing dry and fresh matter respectively;

2. the animals’ physical condition varies within every year from well-fed, in shape, and strong, to seriously emaciated.

The first means that the cattle’s rumen has to adapt itself from digesting poor dry grass to rich green grass. For this task it needs bacteria that decompose the now greater quantities of cellulose. The bacteria depend on nitrogen, and it appears that the Wodaabe bolster their cattle’s development by searching for leguminous herbs notably Zornia glochidiata (dengeere) and Alysicarpus ovalifolius (gadaji’irehi) at the beginning of the rainy season. They attribute to these two herbs the quality of arranging (moýýina) the beasts after the privation of the dry season. Moreover, the Wodaabe see the need for animals to excrete the remains of dry matter (itta seedu ‘take out the dry’) before they can recover with the young shoots of grass. They therefore welcome the laxative effect of the natron they feed.

The second aspect means that the Wodaabe differentiate the stages of the animals’ nutritional development and adjust the herding scheme to the following factors:

At the end of the dry season cattle are normally emaciated (fooýa, Photo 22) and hungry (dola). They give little milk (kosam walaa). Some are so weak that they cannot stand up by themselves (wofoo), and some may even die. When fresh pasture finally becomes available the animals change from dry to fresh fodder (see above) and begin to recover (horsina). They gradually fill themselves up (haara), and gain their former weight (faya, Photo 21), putting on flesh (wada teewu). Only then do the cows produce plenty of milk (Photo 23).

When all this has been achieved there is a good chance that the cows are ready for mating (nagge ho’osa). The herders now eagerly look for any telltale signs and register each covered cow as a gain. Sooner or later at the end of the rainy season the cattle have to subsist on dry grass of ever poorer quality and quantity. Consequently they lose weight (fooýa). The cold wind of the cold dry season has an analogous effect. The Wodaabe say that animals exposed to the cold will lose weight and give only little milk. This is confirmed by Western (1982: 187) who states that cold temperatures lead to “the channelling of a greater proportion of energy into the maintenance of body temperature and less into growth and milk production”. Zebu cattle are particularly sensitive to cold temperatures. At 20°C they already have to raise their metabolism in order to compensate for loss of body temperature. There is yet another reason why the cold reduces milk yields: it prevents the cows from grazing at night.

Photo 22: Meagre cow at beginning rainy season

Photo 23: Milking a rebellious cow

The Wodaabe accord special importance to the nutritional effects of the watering scheme. With the beginning of the cold in November, the Wodaabe change from watering the herd every day to every two days only - a practice they call degol e koorka. They give three reasons for this:

1. During the cold dry season too much water intake would endanger the animals, which could be ‘seized by the cold’ (peewol nannga nagge). Their stomachs would distend and the rumen would no longer show the healthy indentation that indicates a proper metabolism (nagge lokoo). The coat would become long, and further indicate that the cattle are not well looked after. They would also lose weight.

2. When, after the rainy and the early dry season, good grass is no longer available and cattle have to feed on what remains, they must still not (according to the Wodaabe), drink too much water. This would lead to a loss in weight. Therefore, the scheme of watering only every two days is also maintained during the hot dry season.

3. With the appearance of fresh fodder at the beginning of the rainy season, cattle that were watered only every two days during the preceding dry season will gain weight faster than cattle that were watered every day.

This watering scheme points once more towards the pastoral specialization of the Wodaabe outlined above. They organize the watering with respect to the animals’ weight development and not with respect to milk production. By watering only every two days they accept lower milk yields, knowing that other Fulani water their cattle every day to get more milk. It is noteworthy that Wodaabe women are not allowed to sell fresh milk in the markets but only butter (Photo 24). There is no record of how this prohibition came to be within Wodaabe culture but it has some interesting effects within the pastoral family.

Butter is made from milk that has a high fat content. This milk comes according to the Wodaabe from cows with two- or three-year-old calves but not from those with one-year-old calves. Thus, dairy women would not personally gain more money either by taking saleable milk from the young calves’ share or by having the cows drink more water during the dry season. Accepting the general prohibition of selling fresh milk, they gain personally by following their husbands’ herding scheme, i.e. doing everything to fatten the cows, and to yield richer milk.

Photo 24: Making butter by swinging the calabash

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