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#31: The Desertification of Mali

By Alex Shoumatoff

January 10, 2006.  A somewhat different version of this appeared in the winter 2006 Onearth magazine.

Five of the ten days I was in Mali last March, I never saw the sun.  It was blotted out by an epic dust cloud that spread hundreds of miles in every direction, borne by the harmattan, the southwesterly gale that blows down from the Sahara during the dry season. Sandstorms have always been a part of life here. They can be so thick you can’t even see your hand.

Historically, the harmattan blows in December through February.  But since l968 Mali and the rest of the Sahel (the semi-arid band below the Sahara and above the humid savannas and forests to the south, that stretches from Senegal to Eritrea) have been experiencing a prolonged, devastating drought. Precipitation has dropped 30 percent — the most dramatic decline on earth—and the rainy season has been truncated to two months, July and August.

At the same time, the population of the Sahel (“shore” in Arabic) has been exploding, compounding the demand for firewood, the main source of cooking fuel. A million acres of trees a year are being cleared and burned in Mali alone. Both these things— the drought, amplified by the deforestation — have brought catastrophic desertification to the Sahel. The sandstorms have increased tenfold since l968. They pick up an estimated two to three billion tons of Sahara sand and dust a year and now can come any time from September to June. The finest red particles are whipped up into the upper atmosphere, to 12,000 feet and higher, and are transported across oceans by the prevailing winds. In January 2004, cars in Florida and South Texas were coated with Sahara dust.

In June a similar “blood rain” fell in England. In February the sun was blotted out in Austria. NASA satellite photos showed a cloud larger than Spain off the coast of Morocco. Sahara dust travels to Toronto and even Greenland. It is snuffing coral reefs and sea urchins in the Caribbean. So the Sahel’s desertification is not just a matter of local concern.

During the first five years of the drought, until l973, 250,000 people and 3.5 million head of cattle in the Sahel died. In l984-5 rural Mali (a parched, land-locked country nearly twice the size of Texas whose top two thirds—from Timbuctu north—are in the Sahara, and whose bottom third is in the Sahel) again became uninhabitable, and many of the villages, where three-quarters of the population live, were vacated. Most of the environmental refugees poured into Bamako, the capital, whose population has grown from 800,000 to two million in the last 20 years.

In 2003, the first good rains in 50 years fell, and 2004 was also a relatively wet year. But the rains triggered the emergence of billions of pink African desert locusts, which skeletonized whatever vegetation they landed on. In Niger, the next country to the east, where the rural population was already at the edge after three decades of drought, the scourge last summer produced a famine of Ethiopian direness.  This year, too, the rains would be good, but there were still these epic sandstorms before they came. The drought may have subsided for now, but most scientists are in agreement that the processes that are desertifying the Sahel have reached the point where they are unstoppable.

Bamako, where my quest to understand these processes began, sprawls unprepossessingly on both sides of the Niger River.  Few houses are more than one story. The city seems more like a big village, an anarchic collection of bougous, or neighborhoods, where Mali’s various ethnic groups live in vast extended families—the Bamana with the Bamana, the Songhai with the Songhai, the Peulh with the Peulh. The women cook on charcoal braziers in the courtyards. The charcoal smoke mingles with the diesel fumes and the Sahara dust, so the pall over Bamako was particularly thick.

The latest United Nations Human Development Report (released in 2003) ranks Mali as the 184th worst country in the world out of 187 to be living in terms of its annual per capita income ($350), mean education level (fourth grade), average lifespan (49), and infant mortality rate (119 out of 1000 live births). Yet Mali’s art—particularly its music and wood sculpture—ranks high among the world’s cultural treasures. And perhaps because there is so little to steal, there is very little crime in the country’s Sahel region (although there are Islamist terrorists and bandits in the north). Its government, though cash-strapped, is one of Africa’s most promising new democracies. Many families have a member in New York or Paris who wires home money,
which bolsters the actual economic picture. But many villages are barely surviving.

      There are two schools of thought about the desertification, I discovered. The “degradation narrative,” as it is referred to by one of its critics, was first proposed during the Ethiopian famine of l972-4, which actually gripped the entire Sahel and was run with by the media. It attributed the desertification to rampant deforestation, which is still going on: When the trees go, the grass below them dies; then the ground dries up, the soil blows away (adding to the dust in the atmosphere) and any remaining condensation in the soil  is evaporated or runs off  immediately. The other school, drawing on  recent studies of climate data, attributes desertification primarily to “the remote influence”— a cyclical shift in the world’s climate,  exacerbated by the accumulation of greenhouse gases warming the earth’s atmosphere. In fact both factors are involved.  The remote influence is the main cause, but it is enhanced by deforestation. 

One morning, I went to the Institute of the Sahel, which was founded in l973, after the first famine took a quarter of a million lives.  Its members consist of the eight Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegel) and Cabo Verde, the island out in the Atlantic, which is desertifying because the Sahara’s dust clouds are suppressing the winds that bring it rain. I was taken down a dark, empty corridor the length of a football field to the office of Dr. Bouboucar Diallo, the institute’s economist and coordinator of food security, who laid out the degradation narrative.

“Malians have always had droughts to contend with,” he explained in such calm, measured tones that a listener could be forgiven for not grasping the gravity of the situation. “There were droughts 10,000 years ago and in the 13th century that made the Sahel uninhabitable. But now there is also the problem of overpopulation.

The Sahel’s population is currently 50 million and is growing by 2.7 percent a year.  By 2050 it will conservatively hit 100 million. This is because the  women continue to have seven children. Before there was  equilibrium because of infant mortality and sickness, but now, with the availability of modern medicine, demographic growth is unchecked.

“For the people in the villages,” he went on, “wood is the only fuel and the only source of income, and the forest also provides traditional plant medicines, the first line of defense against disease.

So there is a lot of harvesting. And in Bamako almost everybody cooks with charcoal, which produces only one third of the energy that raw wood does [though it is lighter and more portable, and easier to ignite]. So abandoning the countryside doesn’t alleviate the deforestation. It actually accelerates it.”

The institute tried to “politicize” the villagers: “We showed them pictures of what it was like 30 years ago and now, so they could see the degradation,” Dr. Diallo explained. “But it hasn’t worked. They keep cutting and having lots of children.  The same piece of land that used to feed five people now has to feed 20, and it has deteriorated, so the farmers”—pretty much every village grows its own food—“are venturing into more and more marginal, waterless land.” The institute was now concentrating on raising the productivity of the land already under cultivation, by introducing new, improved strains of millet and other crops, fertilizers, and anti-erosion and water-retention techniques.  This slowed down the clearing for farming, but it didn’t stop the clearing for firewood.

“Stopping the desertification is impossible,” Dr. Diallo concluded. “All we can do is try to slow it down.

It isn’t caused only by local deforestation. Global climate patterns are implicated. The whole world is slowly becoming a desert. That is why everyone should be concerned about what is happening here. This is the future.”

According to the United Nations Environment Program,  half of the world’s land surface—28  million of its 57 million square miles—is “dryland”:  plains, grasslands, savannas,steppes, or pampas with a modest water supply compared to the world’s forests.

Four million square miles are hyperarid desert, and another 19 million are becoming desert or are threatened with desertification.  Desertification is proceeding  worldwide at a faster rate than any other time in recorded  history, with disastrous effects for vegetative cover, biodiversity,  and the existence  of 1.5 billion people in more than 100 countries.  Twenty-seven percent of China is desert, and the country’s  Gobi and Taklimakan deserts are expanding at a rate of 2,800  square miles a year, despite the most massive tree-planting campaign ever undertaken (42 billion trees have been planted by 560 million people since l982). And so what is happening in the Sahel is a frightening model, an advanced case of what much of the earth’s surface is going to turn into.

I have hired a Land Cruiser with a driver named Shek Koulibali, and we are heading upcountry with two young Peace Corps volunteers, Alison Trafton and Thomas Betjeman. The niece of an old friend, Alison has been living in a Bamana village for 14 months. The Bamana are the largest ethnic group, almost half Mali’s population. Thomas has been doing the same in a Dogon village. The Dogon have one of the most idiosyncratic traditional societies left. Many of them live under a 125-mile-long escarpment, like the Anasazi cliff dwellers in the American Southwest a thousand years ago.

Our plan is to make a five-day tour of the Sahel, up as far north as Douenza, where the escarpment ends, talking along the way with villagers and foreign aid workers who are combating the desertification. Above Douenza, the Sahel begins to give way to the desert, and there is danger of being set upon by Islamist rebels or bandits. On the way back to the capital, Shek and I will drop off Alison and Thomas at their villages.    We soon leave the smog of Bamako, but the visibility  is  still only a few hundred yards. The sun, when it appears, is a pale disc, more like a full moon behind the dirty reddish-grey cloud of dust, which Shek says is called the kungoforoko, the fog of the bush. One unobtrusive, flat-roofed Bamana mud town passes after another, each with its multi-spired mud mosque. Processions of women are balancing large clay jars of water or huge loads of firewood on their heads. Stacks of firewood line the road. Some villages are entirely devoted to the production of firewood and charcoal. We pass pick-up trucks, long caravans of donkey-drawn carts, all manner of conveyances piled with towering, teetering stacks of firewood, minivans bulging with faggots—all headed for Bamako.

“There are stiff fines for cutting and slash-and-burn clearing without a permit, but the people do it anyway, because they have no alternative,” Thomas explains. “Malians see so little money, and they’re so focused on where the next meal is coming from, they don’t have the luxury of long-term thinking. So the forest is going fast.”

Most of the Sahel was originally acacia forest, scruffy and dense in places, once extremely diverse in species of flora and fauna, but very fragile. The greater part of what is left of the acacia forest, as we can dimly see, has been thinned out, trampled, overgrazed, or converted to agriculture. The wildlife that once thrived in it is now scarce. We will see no antelopes or gazelles, warthogs, leopards, or tortoises, none of the three species of monitor lizard, one of which gets seven feet long. “The animals have all been shot and eaten,” Shek says. “There are none left to kill.” The only wildlife we see are long-tailed starlings coasting saucily over the road right in front of us, and assorted birds of prey circling high above.

  We pass fields of cotton—a thirsty crop that requires the pumping of ground water and is bleeding down the already drought-stressed water table—and other fields with gigantic white calabashes lying in them, mango groves, commercial plantations of neem, tamarind, and kalia tea. One hundred and fifty miles northeast of Bamako, cultivation gives way to rock desert. The rock strata have been eroded into stacks of brown wafers—curious artifacts known as torres, or towers. In the crevices between the torres stand big baobab trees, with bloated trunks and stubby, bristle-tipped branches. The baobab is a very useful tree for the people here. Its inner bark is twisted into rope; its fruit is ground into a cereal and made into candy. Wherever we stop, children run up with plastic bags of white baobab candy, their eyelashes and lids coated with red dust from the kungoforoko.

  Goats have penetrated every corner of the landscape. Every reachable plant not protected by thorns or toxic alkaloids has been clipped by their teeth. I wonder how many species have been chewed to extinction. The Sahel is hardly a “natural” landscape any more. It belongs to the goats.
  We stop at Alison’s village, near the trading center of San, 180 miles northeast of Bamako. It is called Koroguelenbougu and is down to 300 permanent residents, less than half of what it
 once had. Most of the young adults have gone to try their luck in Bamako or one of the other cities. They have chosen the path of education, of trying to break into the modern world,
 over the increasingly marginal viability of traditional agriculture and only come back at harvest time. It is bone dry here and baking hot, but nothing like what it will be like in two months, when he dry season climaxes with ground temperatures of 110 degrees F and higher.

   “The forest is pretty much gone,” Alison says as we motor through a flat, desiccated landscape devoid of plant life except for a few tall trees along what appear to be property lines. It is hard to conceive how anyone could manage to eke out a living here. “Each family has a piece of land, and takes care of what trees and medicinal plants remain on it, and they don’t poach each other’s, so private ownership offers some protection for the vegetation that is left,” Alison explains.

   We pull into the village. A crowd gathers around the car and she and the villagers exchange long, traditional greetings: Has there been peace in the day? Is your family healthy? How
 is your mother, your father, your children and relatives?   How’s the wife? How were the people in Bamako? I am growing impatient because I am having the runs. A boy is sent off
 to collect some leaves that are brewed into a bitter tea, which works.

 The Malian herbal pharmacopoeia can be highly efficacious, as Western researchers have discovered. Alison, a 23-year-old blonde in a sun bonnet, has won the villagers’ hearts with her selfless dedication and beautiful manners but is finding it a “huge challenge” learning the language and how the villagers see things and what they need. Water, of course, is the biggest issue.

 “The three village wells are filling with sand because the water table is sinking,” she explains, “so I’m helping repair their walls and line their bottoms with rocks.” Any day she is expecting a pump from World Vision, an American Christian organization that has an office in San, 25 miles away. “It’s going to be huge for women,” she continues. “They spend two hours in the morning and another two in the evening hauling up buckets from the wells.”  Last year before the rains, the village ran out of food, as it had repeatedly since l968. But this time the villagers had stored millet, their main crop, from the previous year’s harvest in a bank that Alison’s predecessor had started, so they could borrow enough to get through the worst of it, and when the new crop came in they restocked it.

We find several elders in the one-room school, relearning their ABC’s, which they were taught in the French colonial schools in the late 1950s but have forgotten. The literacy rate in Mali is shocking: 79 percent of the men and 85 percent of the women can’t read. The old men, sitting at tiny desks in their frizzy grey beards and skullcaps, beam the imperturbable good cheer that I often encounter in Africa, even in the most horrible circumstances. Sacks of millet take up half the room. The school doubles as the grain bank.

 One of the elders reminisces about the terrible drought in the early 1970’s. Alison translates his Bambara (the language of the Bamana). “The first year we were reduced to eating roots and leaves, but we stayed. The next year we finally gave up and abandoned the village and went to the cities.”

 Why has everything been drying up? I ask. “We don’t know,” he says. “It is the will of Allah. You can resist what men want you to do, but you can’t fight your destiny.”

 Overpopulation, deforestation, overgrazing—do these have anything to do with it ? I ask. 
“No,” says another man. “When we were growing up in the forties and fifties, we cut a lot of wood, but still the rains came. When the rains stopped, the trees died. The cutting of trees did not stop the rain. Allah gives rain. He is so old. He knows better than us.” 

“Last year we planted 1,500 Acacia senegalensis trees around the village,” Alison says.  “They’re good for the soil, and PDO  a French organization, says it will buy the wood. But the problem is that a tree crop takes longer to come in than an annual food crop, and a big drought can wipe it out. These people don’t have the luxury of waiting 10 years to be rewarded with the fruit of their labor, of investing time and energy in something that they may get a return on in the distant future but that every year they have a chance of losing. So not enough trees are being planted.”

  “When the rains come, we have to plant millet and other crops every day, from sunup to sunset, for four months. We don’t have time to plant trees,” a third elder says.

  This explains why none of the reforestation programs in Mali have been catching on in the villages. And the first man’s contention that the desertification has more to do with the lack of rain than the lack of trees is borne out by the most recent scientific findings, that the remote influence is a more important factor than the degradation narrative.

 The drought in the Sahel clearly correlates with El Niño, a cyclical warming in the Pacific Ocean that causes a disruption in global climate conditions.  During an  El Niño year,  a complex, non-linear system of “teleconnections,” or atmospheric feedback loops,  interacting over vast distances causes the harmattan to blow hard, suppressing the moisture-laden winds that come up
 to the Sahel from the Atlantic during the summer monsoon season and bring rain. (The southwestern U.S. is on a similar El Niño-driven drought cycle.) There is consensus among 
climate scientists that the current global warming trend, the almost vertical rise in the world’s mean temperature since l970, has a distinct human “fingerprint.” (See the previous
Dispatch on Dr. Camille Parmesan). 

 The current desertification of the Sahel may therefore be doubly anthropogenic—caused not only by the physical removal of its vegetative cover, but by far-away emissions from smokestacks and cars that, according to a growing number El Niño of climate scientists, are acting on the El Ninos.

  We continue to Djenne, in its heyday the biggest city in West Africa, as big as medieval London until 800 years ago, when a big drought drove everyone out (the population at the time was not large enough for deforestation to have played a role). It is still recovering from the l983-4 drought, when all the herds that sustained the city were lost and there was nothing to eat. Most of the buildings are made of mud and are hundreds of years old, including its mosque—the largest adobe structure on earth and one of the wonders of Africa.  Its imam is like the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there are some 60 Koranic schools in the city, which is visually
 little changed from the 13th century. A colorful cornucopia of ethnic groups in turbans and boubous is bartering in its numerous bazaars. Camels saunter down its dusty streets. Djenne’s fortunes depend on the annual flooding of the Niger’s inland delta. From here on up to Timbuctu, the northeast-flowing Niger spills its banks during the rainy season, forming the world’s second-largest inland delta (after the Okavango River’s in Angola), becoming a labyrinth of lakes and one of the most fecund freshwater fisheries in Africa, with raucous nesting colonies of water birds. There are 359 bird species, 147 of them endemic to the Sahel, in the delta. But the 1969-73 peak of the drought destroyed almost all the nesting colonies, and half a dozen species disappeared. In the old days flood-recession agriculture, a simple but ingenious practice, enabled Djenne, and later Timbuctu, to flourish. After the delta had flooded, as soon as the water seeped into the ground and the soil was gleaming with a rich new layer of sediment, the people sowed their crops. There was enough residual moisture in the soil to produce prodigious harvests without a drop of rain. The American organization World Vision revived the practice on eight square miles up near Gao, the port of Timbuctu, and grew bumper crops of sorghum, but the project was phased out in 2003 because of security problems, like the danger of being kidnapped, and because World Vision decided to  focus on drilling wells and providing each village in Sahelia Mali with a dependable source of clean water.  With the recent rains, flood-recession agriculture is returning to the delta.  It may save the day for Mali, or at least buy it some time, although parts of the  country where it hasn’t rained are still in trouble.

The next morning, after spending the night in a nice little whitewashed adobe hotel run by the cranky son of someAmerican missionaries,  we reach Sévaré, which is on the edge of Dogon country, where 300,000 of these small, pygmoid people live in villages of mud scattered over 5,000 square miles (about the size of the Navajo Reservation) of mostly bare rock.  The ones who live under La Falaise, the Cliff—as the escarpment is called—mummify their dead up on its ledges and believe that they reincarnate as the little children playing on the valley floor. They dance with masks and stilts like the Zuni of New Mexico   and are extraordinary wood
 sculptors. An old Dogon piece can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in Paris.

Several hours later, we reach Thomas’s village, which he prefers not be named to protect it against intrusion from outsiders; The three of us constitute the great number of   toubab, or whites, who have ever visited there at one time.  We sit with the chief and several elders on sisal mats in front of his house, in a narrow alley lined with cylindrical adobe granaries with rakishly tilting conical thatch roofs. The men are swathed in turbans that can be quickly rewrapped around their entire heads, except for the eyes, when the sand is flying.  “It has always been dry here,” says the only one of the men who speaks French. “C’est un pays désertique.  This is desert land. But in the 70’s and 80’s things weren’t going well at all. There was a drastic reduction in the number of trees. The water table sank below their root systems and they just shriveled up and died in place.” Thomas is helping the villagers build stone retention walls around
 the 100-foot-high knolls where the millet fields are, to keep the soil from blowing off and going down into the crevices between them, where it has to be brought back up by mules. “Life is harder because there used to be a lot of fruit trees,” says another, Thomas translating his Dogon. “Munju with little fruits. Lemon trees, mangos. Sa berries, which are like grapes. Add a little sugar, it’s good.” 

“There is less rain,” says a third, “because there are more people now, and they are doing things that Amba [the supreme deity in the Dogon’s animist pantheon, who has been merged with Allah] doesn’t like, and it is Amba who brings rain. 

The people are not obeying the unifying principles. You tell them they can’t burn their fields and they go ahead and do it anyway. The young people aren’t listening to the old people any more.
 They just want to go to Bamako. 

“It used to rain before,” the old man continues, “because everybody did what they were supposed to do. They prayed for rain and it was in their hearts. But not everybody’s heart is
 in their prayers now, so Amba doesn’t listen to them.” 

The elders have stopped giving initiations to the young men because they don’t think they’re worthy to receive them, so in another generation, if not sooner, the traditional Dogon belief system will only exist in the ethnographies of the early anthropologists. 

At least 59 organizations have anti-desertification programs in Mali, each with a different approach to the problem. We visit ALCOP, a Canada-backed Malian group in Douenza, and talk to its chef de projet, Modibo Goita.

  ALCOP, he tells us, is growing and distributing saplings of Boscia senegalensis, a tree that sets fruit just during the most stressful weeks of April and May, when the temperature hits 110 and the villages run out of millet and money. It is also combating “genetic erosion,” the loss of traditional varieties of millet and other food plants, by collecting seeds from the villages and growing them in experimental plots to see which do best in the drought-shortened growing season. It is collaborating with Israeli arid-land specialists from Ben Gurion University of the Negev on techniques for getting the most out of each drop of water, like waffle gardens. In this strategy, each plant grows in its own little water-retaining box of mud. In others, the sprouts are covered with a moisture-retaining layer of straw, or with a plastic sheet with holes that they can grow up through; or hoses with holes poked in them at intervals are placed so that only the immediate area around each plant will be watered.

  The Traditional Medicine Center in Bandiagara, which we visit on the way back down, was started by the Italian government’s international aid agency in l984 and is now entirely run by Malians.  The center prepares and packages 20 species of native plants that Dr. Pakay Pierre Mounkouro, its director, tells us work in some cases better than Western drugs for such ailments as hemorrhoids, hypertension, malaria, constipation, dysentery, and hepatitis.  

“These plants are in big demand all over the country, and are a major cause of deforestation,” Dr. Mounkouro explains.  “We are training the women in 40 villages to grow them and to make cuttings of the trees in the forest without killing them: If the bark is stripped, cover the gash with mud; if it is a root that you want, don’t take the biggest one. 

There are 300 species of medicinal plants in this forest, but we have already lost 20 to 25 of them because of deforestation, lack of rainfall, and la récolte inconsciente, heedless harvesting.

 And once a plant is gone, the knowledge goes. C’est fini. The old people die, the young don’t get it. So our botanists are in a race against time.”

  “The medicinal-plant initiative is a win-win situation,” Alison observes.  “It protects the forest and reinforces the people culturally, so they are not so dependent on pharmaceutical products from the outside.” 

Another strategy is to reduce population growth. The New York-based Population Council, which has centers in Bamako and Mopti, is trying to persuade Malian women not to marry so young. “Those who stay in the villages often become by the age of 14 the last wife of someone 30 years older,” its director, Judith Bruce, told me. “If their parents can be persuaded not to marry their daughters off right away, but to send them to work in one of the cities until they are 18, the girls are able to build a trousseau and develop savoir vivre and acquire some bargaining power, which will serve them well when they become wives and mothers, and this four-year delay has a staggering effect on demographic growth. It lengthens the span between generations, and the later a woman has her first child, the fewer she will have down the line.”

  There is some effort to make more efficient cooking stoves and ovens available, but not enough. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization had just given a grant to a community of 100 fishermen on the island of Woyowayanka, three miles down the Niger from Bamako that enabled the women to buy four Chorken [a traditional design whose origin I haven’t been able to find out] of fish-smoking ovens, which have double burners that circulate the fumes, and they are using much less firewood to smoke the fish the men bring in.

 Efficient stoves, if widely utilized, could be 25 times more effective than tree planting in taking the pressure off the native forest, according to the traditional agroforester David Farrelly.  But they are not out in the villages.

   Despite all their efforts, most of the organizations I talked too remained pessimistic. The general consensus was that the villagers will continue to multiply and cut trees until the Sahel becomes completely denuded and desiccated and uninhabitable—that nothing more can be done about the degradation narrative than about the remote influence. So the Sahel seems doomed.

       Darkness fell as Shek and I, alone now, were still 90 miles from Bamako, and the Sahel in every direction was soon ablaze with illegal fires. The degradation narrative was in full apocalyptic swing.  “The functionaries of the Service des Eaux et Forets who are supposed to control the fires only work from 7:30 AM to 4 PM, so the people clear and torch their fields and cut their firewood at night,” Shek explained as we ploughed through a thick curtain of smoke billowing across the road. “To make a field you are obliged to set fire to the forest. That is why
 the Service, when it gives you a permit to clear a field, taxes you for replanting the trees you burn. But nobody wants to pay the tax, so they do it clandestinely, and in actuality no trees are being replanted.”

  I mentioned to Shek the primatologist  Alison Joly’s remark about how the people of Madagascar are sacrificing their future so they can survive in the present, and he said, “Do you know why the people here are sacrificing their future? Because their religion says the future is uncertain. It is even uncertain that you are going to live to see it, whether it will be good or bad. The duration of your life, who can know, so you just have to live in the present, and the future belongs to God. That is how they think.”     

After this tirade against the ignorance and fatalism of his countrymen, Shek told me how the searing second peak of the drought, in l983, was “ended by the capture of a sirène [a mermaid] by some Bozo fishermen, who held her hostage until she unleashed a tremendous deluge that caused floods, then they let her go. I personally saw her,” he assured me. “She was dark brown, the color of hippo skin, and a meter long. She was covering her face, but I could see that it was somewhat elongated. She was not a god, but a génie fétishe [a luck-bringing demi-goddess] of the water.”

We stopped at a roadblock manned by the Service des Eaux et Forets. “Everyone who passes with wood must have a permit,” Shek explained. “You go to the Service and they ask what kind of trees are you going to cut, and how many? You say only Caritea trees, and if they find you with a tree that is not Caritea, you pay a fine. But in all this there is la corruption. So it is impossible to stop the desertification and the future of the Sahel is not good.”

The latest news from Mali, after three summers of good rain, seems more encouraging. Saplings have sprouted in the desertified land around Alison’s village, and in Thomas’s village only the old people can recall when it was so green. The inland delta has been flooding extensively. Dense rookeries of water birds are beginning to fill the inundated treetops again, and as the water recedes, crops are being sown in the new coating of  sediment as the water drains off.  But Dr. Bouboucar Diallo, the Institute of the Sahel’s economist, was not overly optimistic about this let-up of the drought. “The immediate picture for the Sahel is looking wetter,” he allowed, “and the food security situation is better than it has been in years. But this is only a temporary respite.” 

The long-term, overall picture is that the worldwide warming and drying trend will continue, the El Niños will become more frequent and intense, and the forest will continue to disappear, until Malians will have to find somewhere else to live.

 The Sahel will be one of the first places to go, and the rest of the earth’s desertifying land surface will follow suit.   One night, at one of Bamako’s numerous night spots, I heard a musician named Jimmi Jakob perform a song he had written called “Ghigi Chyena,” which means “all hope is gone” in the language of the Bamana. It was a haunting rendition of the degradation narrative, a Malian blues for the Sahel. “If the trees are gone, what will become of the birds, and what will become of the streams?” 

Jakob explained afterward. “And if the streams are gone, what will become of the fish? What will become of us and all that lives?  If you don’t have a mother or father, what can you do? We are the orphans of the world. When the population cuts the forest, there is no hope. Everything is spoiled. The world is going bad. That is what this song means.”

 But as if to temper his catastrophism, to remind us that the ways of nature, or Allah, are inscrutable, an unseasonable torrent of rain began to pound on the tin sheets of the little dive and to pour down through the numerous holes in them on to the dance floor, where couples were slowly gyrating in the darkness. They moved away from the splashes and kept dancing.