North to Shifting Sands*

One day, I will ride through the desert.

Well, it will likely take more than a day, so I’m using the phrase “one day” in a figurative sense. Let’s try this again: At some future and unascertained time, I will ride through the desert. There, that’s better. Which desert? you ask. (or did you?) The same one that has captured my imagination and has been the subject of many a daydream. The same one that has inspired fascinating myths and really bad Hollywood movies, seen kingdoms and empires built and destroyed, witnessed wars, and has housed nomads  as well as bandits, slave merchants, and guerrillas.

The Great Desert (or Sahara in Arabic) covers roughly ten percent of the African continent. I learned in Geography class in secondary school that the reason most of Nigeria is without rain, covered in dust and noticeably dry between December and February is because of the North-East winds that blow down from the desert, that bring dust and sap whatever moisture we have; in essence Harmattan – the season of quick-drying laundry and cracked lips. I was fascinated by this. Instead of us going into the desert, the desert comes to us, once a year, every year. On a January morning in Abuja, when I walk out of the house and I cannot see more than a few metres in front of me because of the thick dusty haze, I cannot help but wonder how big this place is where all the sand comes from. 9,400,000km2 according to Wikipedia. But that number (though quite large) means little to me. I don’t think it’s possible to fully grasp the immensity of this place – it would be like trying to swallow a river.

It has not been a lifelong dream to visit the Sahara. Not surprising considering that its climate is severe and at times uninhabitable, with virtually no vegetation and water a luxury. At present If I stay thirsty for over an hour, my body goes into a sort of panic mode. So the thought of possibly being stranded in a place where water may not be available for kilometres is at best a frightening one. Still there are people who live there. Most of Niger, Mali, Tchad, Mauritania, Libya, Algeria and Egypt are in the Sahara. The majority of these countries’ inhabitants live on the fringes of the desert, but there are people who live right inside the desert, and have no qualms about traversing it. I am referring to the Touareg.

Tinariwen, a musical group from and based in the Sahara

I first heard the word ‘Touareg’ in a Hausa class in secondary school. Our teacher told us that the Touareg are the people who wear turbans and cover their faces and ride horses (when they’re out of the desert) and camels (when they’re in the desert). Until recently, I didn’t know much about the Touareg except that they wore linen turbans that covered most of their faces and rode on camels. I knew that they lived somewhere “north” of Nigeria, but I had nothing specific. Then I came across this book: Wind Sand and Science: Travels with Africa’s Last Nomads  by  Victor Engelbert. Through photography and writing he brought to me a world that was hitherto a mystery. It would be presumptuous to say that after reading his book I know all there is to know about the Touareg (or the Fulani or any of the nomadic peoples whose stories he documents in his book). But at least now I have something almost tangible. I know what they look like. I know where to find them. I know they are resilient. And I know that they are beautiful.

I find nomadism a brave thing. I find nomadism in a desert an even braver thing. It is far from an easy life. And you cannot accumulate much in terms of material possessions… unless camels count as material possessions.  After reading Mr Engelbert’s book, I was mesmerized and further intrigued by these people who live in places where people see no prospects. I admit, even I find the desert bleak and unforgiving. Essentially, all you have is sand, the occasional mass of rocks, and horizon. Then I read Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and realized stories happen in the desert, fictional and factual. History happened in the desert, and I know very little of it (yes, I chose to write about things I don’t know). So now, my curiosity has been piqued, even more so after I discovered the badass Sahara blues2 group, Tinariwen  (this is my subtle way of hinting that you should listen to a few of their songs. I think they’re really good ). I want to learn about these people and the place they live in, and while I can read books3, nothing beats going and seeing for yourself.

Therefore, one day, I will ride through the desert.


*Borrowed from the title of a book I read when I was younger called East to Shifting Sands. I re-read it recently and it must be said: it was extremely unremarkable.

2I made up this genre name. Their music is a fusion of assouf guitar music, soul, blues and traditional Tamashek music. In any case, it’s awesome.

 3Les Touaregs by Jean-Marc Durou and Edmond Bernus. It is the heaviest book I have ever carried. I haven’t read it yet – I found it in someone’s library while visiting their house. Once I have a fairly fixed address (I’m currently a bit of a nomad myself), I will order it.

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