Here, conceivably, is the end of a people, the Tuareg nomads of the Sahel--trapped, after decades of calculated subsistence, by the wells supposedly built to ease their lot. To dramatize the story behind the 1973-74 famine headlines, Clarke sets up three prototypical victims: herdsman Atakor, cast adrift by the death of his last camel; his wife Miriam, who survives one of the worst refugee camps; and dark-skinned blacksmith Sidi, the inferior whose skill and resourcefulness score in the swollen city of Niamey--where top-dog herdsmen like Atakor are marginal. As the suspect but serviceable ""plot"" unwinds, a tip from Sidi lands Atakor a job guarding a rich Belgian's house, work worthy of the warrior he still tries, incongruously, to be. Intertwined with the fortunes of these three is the complex survival strategy of the Tuareg (no ""aimless wanderers"" they); the symbiotic nature of their society, dependent on black near-slaves for manual labor; and the gradual erosion of their free-booting status--which Clarke tends to prize over the rights of their trader- and farmer-victims. He is on surer ground in pinpointing the ""environmental tampering"" that led to the Tuareg's dispossession (wells that concentrated herds beyond the land's ability to sustain them) and in detailing the tardy, often counterproductive steps taken by both foreign agencies and local officials to relieve the disaster. Though Clarke's unsubstantiated account is not that of an area specialist or an eyewitness, he has given effective, generally incontrovertible voice to his concern. There is, all told, no escaping a place and a time where nothing is useless because there is so little.