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Photo 30: Early rainy season. Packing up the homestead to “follow the rains”

In the light of the environmental and pastoral knowledge of the Wodaabe presented so far, we will now take a look at their pastoral trajectory.


When, after the long dry season the rains are on their way, the Wodaabe leave the clayey plains in order to move in seasonal migration (baartol), towards the sandy dune areas in the west. By now their cattle have finished the last residues of pasture and are in urgent need of fresh fodder. This will sprout earlier and faster (fudlaway) on sandy than on clayey soil, with Tribulus terrestris and other herbs just relieving the animals from hunger, and young shoots of Cenchrus biflorus helping them to recover (Table 3, Photo 17).

Moving is arduous work now: the animals are weak and long distances must be covered. Moreover, the herders will not accept that their cattle stay where there is nothing to eat. If necessary herd and family migrate well into the night or do not even set up camp and only take a little rest before moving on. Or again, the herd led by a herder sets off during the night with the family following the next morning. Seasonal migration, however, is not only motivated by the fact that what the animals need is to cover a certain distance. Rather, the nomads use spatial mobility as a tool for timing an ecological process - this is the meaning of pastoral mobility that was intimated but not yet elaborated in the chapter on patterns of movement. The Wodaabe want their cattle to stay for as long a period as possible within a state they call the ‘midst of the fresh matter period’ (saka ndunngu). Therefore they migrate towards what they call the ‘head of the fresh matter period’ (hoore ndunngu), i.e. a place where rain transforms itself relatively early into fresh fodder. It will be shown that this technique of lengthening the fresh matter period by spatial mobility leads the herders to move back later on to the clayey plains.

There is yet another reason for the choice of sandy soil at the beginning of the rainy season: the grass on this soil does not only sprout earlier within the yearly cycle but also faster after each shower of rain. Given that in the Sahel rainfall is highly erratic - particularly at the beginning of the rainy season - the nomads turn both these features into an advantage. If it receives enough rain, grass will run through its vegetative cycle. As the rains are spatially and temporarily distributed, grass reaches the state of optimal nutritional value in different places at different times. In middle range moves (goonsol), the Wodaabe ‘follow the rains’ (tokka duule) and thus guarantee that their herds always have access to the best grass available. The general choice of sandy soils with fast shooting grass species Cenchrus biflorus (hebbere) continuously and immediately provides new patches of grass at an optimal stage of development. Thus, the erratic nature of rainfall is not necessarily a constraint in a marginal region. On the contrary, if rainfall were distributed equally in time and space, grass would develop beyond the state of optimal nutritive value everywhere at the same time and herders could exploit it only for a relatively short period.


At the height of the rainy season (about the beginning of August), the advantage of sandy soil turns into a disadvantage. Most grass is beyond the tillering phase and Cenchrus biflorus carries spiky fruits that disturb cattle while grazing. The Wodaabe now turn their seasonal migration back towards the eastern plains of Kawlaa. Here they find the flooded plains and ponds where cattle graze Panicum laetum (kaasiyaari) and Echinochloa colona (sabeeri ngonngorsa), with corn that has by now become ripe (gawri benndi). On the elevated plains they find Chloris prieurii (geenal dimal) that is short and without ears. Since the grass now absorbs enough salts and minerals from the clayey soil, herders can stop feeding their cattle with natron.

The nomads are driven by the wish to find untouched rangelands (geene de njaabaaka), and move in a succession of short or middle range moves (sottol and goonsol) in an easterly direction from flooded plain to flooded plain. By moving frequently, i.e. about every two days - sometimes even the day following a move - they avoid that the cattle become disturbed by the herd’s droppings (welaande) and the stench of dirty grass (fufo), particularly after a light rain. This would make the already satiated animals feel uncomfortable (nefa), and keep them from grazing. A strong rain shower by contrast ‘washes the bush’ (ladde lootoo) and makes it again attractive for the cattle.

There are other factors important to this leg of rainy season migration. Range touched by other herds or infested with grasshoppers is to be avoided. It would not provide for the soft, tasty, leafy grass that the cattle now like. Herds that have caught a contagious disease like the foot-and-mouth disease (mbooru) have to be kept at distance even if this means that interesting pastures cannot be accessed. With their moves the herders are not only going from pasture to pasture, rather, they already head for their land of affiliation where they wish to spend the dry season. Therefore the Wodaabe do not turn back to the west but keep an eastern course. The general behaviour the nomads display becomes itself a factor to their moving. Hundreds of herds are drawn towards untouched bushland. Being ahead of the others means that one has a better chance of finding them. Therefore, the Wodaabe sometimes present their eastern migration as a kind of running (nyaara) competition where being in the lead means being in the most rewarding and at the same time most prestigious position.

Photo 31: First step of pastoral migration: tethering the calf rope to an ox

When, by the end of the rainy season, the grass of the sandy dunes has already become dry and brittle, the Wodaabe exploit the still fresh grass of the clayey plains. Moving to these plains is thus their way of lengthening the fresh matter period. They conceptualize this idea by stating that through their migration they find several instances of ndunngu ‘fresh matter period’ that their animals eat up.


As the clayey soil stores the rainwater for a while it is a location where some herbs sprout by, or even after, the end of the rainy season. Although they cannot generally replace grass and represent only a supplement to it (wiitiri) - ‘something that helps the grass’ (ballirdum geene) -, these herbs add to the strategy of lengthening the fresh matter period. They provide green fodder when grass is already drying up. This is especially interesting when Panicum laetum and Echinochloa colona have become scarce and grass comes into a state of being half-fresh-half-dry (siifaaru) - a state that cattle dislike and to which they react by only fussily picking out the fresh leaves, leaving the rest of the plant untouched (na’i siifoo).

Photo 32: Herd on the move (sottol)

An outstanding herbal plant species is Indigofera hochstetteri (jaa’oomaahi), to which the Wodaabe attribute the quality of producing good milk and fattening the cattle. It is a plant that may help cattle to tide over a period when good grass becomes scarce, and can even affect the planning of the late rainy and early dry season migration. Other highly valued herbs are Cucumis melo (yamburuuwol), Heliotropium ovalifolium (yaharehi), Ipomoea verticillata (amaseekel), Ipomoea spec. (yagalawol) and Ipomoea spec. (buluuwol).

A special place is accorded to Colocynthis citrullus (layol gunaaru rimru) that bears melon-like fruits with a high water content. Cattle like these fruits very much. They add something fresh to their dry grass diet and even provide for water, thus releasing the animals from the ponds for a while.

The most precious resource of the clayey plains, however, is the protein rich short grass kundeeri. During the early dry season the herders eagerly look out for this kind of grass, and in general for any pasture that is yet untouched by cattle. They are ready to deploy middle range moves to get to it. Although the Wodaabe like all Sahelian people hope for abundant rains, they appreciate the fact that a relatively low precipitation in their pastoral zone results in partial shortcomings of rain, prerequisite to the development of kundeeri on the somewhat elevated argillaceous plains. They say that, generally, with too much water they get only grass that is long and therefore of poor quality (Box 9).


When there is too much water you get grass of poor quality; when there is only a small quantity of water, the vegetative development of grass breaks off early, then you have kundeeri, which is the best fodder.

This (here) is a kind of long unsightly grass. When you come across it, grown long and ugly, you know what’s up, you don’t want to use it during the early dry season. You go away and leave it for the late, hot, dry season. When you find short grass like the kind over there you know its value and you make for it (Mbohori, Sept. 1996).

Photo 33: Early dry season. Herd leaving camp for short range move (sottol)


Some weeks after the last rains the ponds drain and the Wodaabe have to get water for their cattle from wells (Photo 34, 35). Their expression nanngita bunndu ‘catch anew a well’ refers to two related ideas. First, by resuming the work of watering at the wells the herders close the cycle of seasonal migration baartol they opened when starting their move to the west. Second, choosing a well means being relatively fixed. A herder either has to register and pay for access to one particular state-owned well or he is to construct or pay for his own well. The latter only applies in some zones but in either case the pragmatic change of pastureland, viz. during the rainy season, becomes costly because:

Photo 34: Well made of wood

Photo 35: Well made of cement

The last point marks an important shift of strategy in Wodaabe herding. During the rainy season their thinking and talk revolve around the idea of getting the cows into shape and thereby ready for mating (nagge ho’osa). Now they are very concerned with the idea of ‘getting the cows through the dry period’ (feýýina na’i). Therefore the herders choose a well to stay with as long as possible. They make short range moves (sottol) by which they gradually drift away from the well as the range in its vicinity becomes more and more degraded. When the range from which a particular well can be accessed has completely deteriorated (meheri), the nomads are ready for a middle range move (goonsol) to reach a new well and its surrounding pastureland.

The Wodaabe appreciate throughout the dry season that the grass Chloris prieurii and the tree Salvadora persica prevail in the bush of Kawlaa (Box 10). After Salvadora persica the Wodaabe cite Cadaba farinosa (karatiiyel) and Maerua crassifolia (senseni) as most interesting dahatordum yielding species.

Besides providing for browse, trees have another important function during the cold dry season. The Wodaabe place their camps in woody depressions (luggere) that protect man and animal from the cold and ‘striking’ eastern wind, especially to avoid its negative effects on the cattle’s body maintenance and milk production.

The reduction of milk yields has a very important economic consequence. During the rainy season the pastoral family could subsist entirely on the herd’s milk production, i.e. by drinking fresh, sour, and butter milk. Now it has to sell animals to buy millet in the market.


During the hot dry season, nobody would set up camp in a woody depression. The nomads seek rather the open plains to enjoy a cool wind at night.

The progression of the dry season means a worsening of living conditions for man and animal (Box 11), since the critical resource grass is produced only once a year during the rainy season and is then consumed bit by bit. The best parts of the range have by now been eaten up. What remains is grass of lower quality, i.e. long and hollow grass and other species than Chloris prieurii, e.g. Aristida adscensionis and A. funiculata (selbiwal). Although these are disdained because of their prickly fruits (selbol), the herders still attach some importance to them because they provide fodder when everything else is finished. The consequences of this development are:


The usefulness of Chloris prieurii, it is soft, it does not prick the cow, that is its use, it fattens the cow, it has milk ... during the early and the cool dry season the cattle feed on it (Mbohori, Sept. 1997).

During the dry season the cow likes nothing more than Chloris prieurii. And during the rainy season too she does not leave it (Bubukar, Sept. 1997).

Salvadora persica is the veritable pastoral tree.

Abush without Salvadora persica is no good for anything.


The dry season, isn’t it a time of pain? Butter milk doesn’t make it through the afternoon, and neither does fresh milk.

Additionally, some herders may paradoxically suffer from their own success. Cows that have been covered at the end of the rainy season will now, five months after conception, wean their calves and give no milk until the birth of the new calves. This again means a reduction of milk yields.

By April or May consideration of fodder quality becomes more and more irrelevant. What was once rangeland has changed into wasteland (meheri) and cattle subsist on residues of grass (furfuru) they would not touch in better times. Their weight loss can become dramatic (cf. Wylie et al. 1984: 207 - 213) and herders fear that ‘drought catches the cattle’(seedu nannga na’i). Their principal goal is to ‘get the cattle to escape from the drought’ (dadnirta na’i seedu), to prevent the animals from becoming so weak that they cannot stand up on their own (wofoo).

Here, the fact that in the Sahelian zone trees come into leaf some time before the rains set in, is of some help to the herders. As mentioned previously, trees are no substitute for grass but now they reduce the animals’ hunger (itta dolo ‘take out hunger’). The Wodaabe cite Cordia sinensis (dornohi) and Boscia senegalensis (amjahi) as useful on that score. Also interesting are the fruits of Salvadora persica and Maerua crassifolia. When the animals head once again westward into the next rainy season, the leaves of Hyphaene thebaica, Diospyros mespiliformis, the flowers of Acacia seyal and the fruits of Acacia albida that are found along the River Komadougou Yobe can be a last resort for some time. If there is still no news of rains and fresh pasture the Wodaabe will try to buy chaff from millet or hay that villagers raked together to sell it for good money when herders are in need. If they cannot afford or find this, their livestock will begin to die of hunger.

Photo 36: Crossing the Komadougou Yobe at the height of the rainy season (coming from Borno)


The Wodaabe hope for abundant rains. But “abundant” to them means that moderate rainfall covers as much surface as possible. Precipitation per surface unit beyond a certain point is detrimental to the development of grass as they like it and renders more likely other sorts of trouble, e.g. grasshoppers. The problem is that bushland suitable to the Wodaabe way of herding is prone to drought.

The Wodaabe have to cope regularly with lack of pasture caused by the combination of too little rainfall and too many herding animals in their pastoral zone of Kawlaa. This has been increasingly evident since the two big droughts of 1973 - 75 and 1983 - 85 which the Wodaabe see as an important turning point in the ecological history of Kawlaa. They feel that since then they have not had the rainfall they were used to and that the bush has ecologically changed for the worse, with species of flora and fauna becoming extinct or severely reduced, and the entire grass production becoming low (see Schareika 2003a).

This is not the place to discuss the complex problems of range use and drought (but see Thébaud 1999). The point to be made is that the pastoral trajectory described above is not mechanically applied in every year. If this were so, drought would have already taken all of the Wodaabe herds. The trajectory described is followed when there is sufficient rainfall. Moreover, it contains much of the pastoral and ecological knowledge which is mainly preserved through the practice of applying it and not through giving lessons; the trajectory is a kind of default setting by which the nomads orient themselves and which they try to keep as long as the situation allows. As soon as conditions change, they deviate from the established path to escape to zones of retreat. When the situation improves, they return to their land of affiliation (ladde meeden ‘our bushland’).

Access to zones of retreat is thus an imperative complement to the preferred circuit. The most important zones of retreat are:

In the case of drought in Kawlaa, the following regions may provide for pasture: Borno to the south because of its generally higher precipitation; the Lake Chad basin Saadi because of surface-near ground water; the Lake Chad basin Kanngarje and the Dillia region because of a generally lower stocking density. However, according to the Wodaabe, pasture quality and herding conditions in these regions do not come up to those of Kawlaa.

In Borno, wells are crowded by herds, cultivation hinders the free access to pastures by cattle, and the grass is less nourishing due to poor soil quality; it does not encourage the fast weight gains they are familiar with from north of the Komadougou Yobe. The absence of Salvadora persica, Maerua crassifolia and Boscia senegalensis and the presence of Piliostigma reticulatum indicates that there is no ‘power’ (mbaawu) in this region.

The northern dune valley Dillia is a very risky zone of retreat, because if there is a grass shortage the routes of retreat which lead to the south and to rescue are too long for animals to survive.

The Kanngarje region got its name from the dominant tree species Prosopis chilensis and P. juliflora (both kanngarhi). These have rapidly developed from some introduced exemplars when the Lake Chad waters receded southwards in the early 1970s. They bear nourishing fruits that cattle like. However, the Wodaabe found that these fruits (particularly of P. juliflora) ‘demand back’ (ýamtere woodi). While providing excellent feed, when consumed to excess they cause a fatal dental decay (ga’asel) that makes itself felt some months later and prevents the animals from grazing.

The Lake Chad basin proper in northern Nigeria (Saadi) poses yet another problem. It has very nourishing fodder plants (the Wodaabe cite the yet unidentified herbs yagalawol and waralla as particularly interesting) that are worth reaching, and not only in times of shortage. Water is near the surface and a herder needs only to dig a few meters to have his own well at a short distance from his camp. However, cattle can catch dangerous diseases in the Lake Chad basin, some communicated by flies. This makes it an ambiguous destination to the Wodaabe. In the Lake Chad basin you can win a lot or lose everything (cf. Schareika 2003b) at the same time. Therefore, most of the Wodaabe only go there in the case of serious grass shortage in Kawlaa. (It should be noted though that there are other Zebu cattle herding groups, particularly the Mbororo’en, locally renowned for their wealth, that regularly pasture in the Lake Chad basin. According to the Wodaabe, the people have learned to cope with the pests of the Lake Chad basin.)

Photo 37: Calf that lost its mother is fed with goat’s milk

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