Alhassan and Sadouan with daughter, Madian.
I met Sadouan in early September 2005 when I first travelled to the Azawak. She was the first person to greet me as we arrived at our host camp. Without hesitation, she invited me to live with her in her tent and quickly went about setting up a traditional bed made of large wooden poles laid upon spool-shaped legs, the whole covered with two woven mats made of plant stalks. She then presented me with a mosquito net and elaborately designed leather pillows to use as armrests.
Late into the night we received visits from Sadouan’s neighboring family members, who brought me cups of camel milk that they set by my side. While sipping the frothy liquid and sitting cross-legged on a pillow, I chitchatted with Sadouan’s husband, Alhassan. The camp recently returned from the North where they had taken their animals to the salt licks of Ingal.
Alhassan lamented having lost eighty percent of his herd due to the past year’s drought: “Around a hundred of my camels died because they didn’t have enough food and water. When we ourselves had no more food, we also had to eat some of them. I sold others to buy millet for Sadouan and the kids.”
“Our animals are a source of great pride and our only capital,” he recounted, “as they are inherited from father to son. Ten years ago, only the poorest families in our camp owned fewer than 300 animals. With only 20 animals left, what can I count on to survive? Maybe if I can grow enough millet this year, we’ll have enough to eat. It is not sure that I can.”
Everyone in Sadouan’s camp suffered from comparable dramatic livestock losses this year. For the first time in her population’s history, her people are becoming sedentary for a portion of the year in order to grow crops for sustenance. The nomads are ill prepared for this complete lifestyle adjustment from centuries of nomadism, where they relied on pastures and livestock to survive, to depending on seasonal agriculture and small-scale commerce to be able to feed their families.
After putting her children to bed, Sadouan sat near me and gently ran her fingers through my hair, “why haven’t you braided your hair?” she asked, implying that she would never leave her hair uncovered and unbraided, “if you want, I can wash it with ochre for you, and then we can give you the festivity braids. Afterwards, we will decorate your hands and feet with henna.” I had been warned that Tuareg women are coquettish, hence the name of the capital city of the district, Tchintabaraden, which translates into, “the place of the beautiful women”. I smiled at her attempts to beautify me, and admired her ability to set aside her daily worries to make me feel welcome and at ease with her family.