Fada came bouncing towards me one day — adorned with his round feather topped hat, a Tuareg saber, little charm talismans, and a walking stick — as I was battling my way through prickly burrs walking from Fulani camp to camp.
“Hey, follow me, I’ll show you where it’s best to step”. I was clearly a novice choosing the best route, as my pants were completely covered in the unpleasant prickly stuff. I explained to him that I was hoping to speak with some Fulani men and women for my research. “Come to my camp”, he urged, “it’s just over that dune.”
This was my first lesson never to trust a Fulani when time and distance is concerned: two hours and about two thousand prickly burrs later, with a large herd of long-horned cows following us, we arrived at his family home: one short wood bed and a tall table covered with calabashes.
On our two hour walk to his camp, I questioned Fada about his life as a herder. He was young, probably around 14 or so. Had he ever been to school? At first he laughed and then gravely answered that the Fulani have traditionally rejected formal education because they believe that schools “steal” their children from their pastoral lifestyle. In fact, to the most traditional Fulani, a child that attends school is considered “dead” because he or she no longer understands the art of herding and magic. This is how Fada’s uncle, Ali, came to go to school 35 years ago.
Ali was the grandson of a greatly respected Fulani chief. One day, a group of French colonists came to his camp and demanded that the chief force all children under his command to attend school in Tchintabaradène, the capital of the Azawak. Ali’s grandfather, a very wise and kindhearted man, refused to send any children but his own to their “death”. He therefore sent his own grandchildren – among them, Ali. But Ali, wanting to escape “death”, ran away into the deep bush of the Azawak and spent three weeks hiding, traveling by foot through unknown prairies, where he knew the white man would not find him.
To his dismay, when he reached his camp, the white men were there waiting for him and he was immediately sent back to school, this time to the more distant city of Tahoua. He ran away from school five more times, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, before giving in and accepting his fate at the hands of the white educators. Ali never returned to his life as a herder in the Azawak. Instead, he traveled to Morocco and France to obtain a degree in sustainable agriculture.
Before I could question Fada more on the subject, we arrived at his camp. It was deserted. “Oh, I forgot, everyone has left to prepare for the Guerwul taking place tomorrow”. I had heard of Guerwuls, or beauty competitions held by the Woodabe people, a sub-group of the Fulani, notorious for their veneration of “beauty”. “Can you come?” Fada asked me enthusiastically.
While I was preparing to leave, after having refreshed myself with a large bowl of curdled cow milk and a promise to see him at the Guerwul, Fada admitted, “I’d like to go to school someday and become like my uncle Ali. Maybe when I have children, there will be schools in the Azawak for them to attend”.