A journalist records her impressions of living with a group of nomads as they travel with their herds of cows back and forth across Mali.
Badkhen, who was born in Russia and has often written from war zones (The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village, 2013, etc.), embedded herself with a Fulani family in West Africa whose members are still walking with their cows as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. On her journey, the author shared their lives, sleeping on a plastic tarp on the ground (sometimes with a child or a goat curled up next to her), cooking over a manure fire, eating millet and fish paste, churning buttermilk, bathing in a river, and learning their language. The measured pace of Fulani life, basically unchanged for millennia, served as a kind of balm for Badkhen, who was recovering from a recently ended, unhappy love affair. The Fulani cannot read the printed word, but they can read the sky, they know the seasons, and they cherish their cows. They told the author their stories and their myths, and she told them about the Big Bang and the long-ago migration of humans out of Africa. In lyrical and evocative prose, Badkhen writes of the beauty of the land and the sky and the grace and wisdom of the people. This is no Eden, however, for war planes fly overhead, climate change has brought long droughts, farms have been planted across the Fulani’s traditional travel routes, and modern technology is luring young men off to urban centers. The Fulani seem mostly unruffled by these threats to their lifestyle, however, adopting what suits them—e.g., plastic pails, flashlight batteries—keeping their faith in their cows, and synchronizing their lives with the seasons.
Readers with hectic lives may find the pace a bit slow, but the poetry in Badkhen’s prose demands that readers slow down and savor her gentle, elegant story.