By Anna Badkhen, from Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah, out this month from Riverhead Books. Badkhen is the author of several previous books, including The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village.
To join the nomads I needed an introduction, and I went looking in the unpaved bezel of Djenné’s market square, in the shadow of the Grande Mosquée’s soaring clay minarets. It was Sunday; the Africa Cup of Nations blared from television sets propped on crates outside the shops. South Africa was playing Morocco. Halftime news delivered dispatches of death from the north of Mali, where a latter-day jihad was converting traditional nomadic routes into battle lines. Al Qaeda was chopping off hands in Gao and blowing up old Islamic shrines in Timbuktu. French troops had arrived in Mali a week earlier and now rumbled into the Sahara in armored personnel vehicles. Half a century after their country had gained independence from France, Malians gathered by the side of the road to wave at the soldiers.
Afo Bocoum sat under the thatched awning of a shabby mercantile on a long backless wooden bench. Afo’s father had forsaken a nomadic life to serve as a translator for French colonists, and Afo had grown up in Djenné. To satisfy his nomadic yearnings he rode his motorcycle twice daily to the pastures where hired cowboys herded his many hundreds of cows. He would lean the bike against a tree, talk to his cattle, and feed them cottonseed by hand.
Afo was a diawando, a member of a Fulani caste of mediators who settled disputes among the nomads. The Fulani despised and feared government in all its incomprehensible forms, and they hated the bureaucracy, which considered the nomads arrogant, rich, and obsolete, and took advantage of their illiteracy by fleecing them recklessly. Diawandos advised their clients on matters legal, formal, veterinary, and financial. The relationship was passed down from father to son, and the loyalty between the diawandos and the pastoralists was nonpareil.
Afo picked at his teeth with a match and considered my request to join the Fulani on their trek. At last he announced: “We’ll go to the bush tomorrow.”
On the other end of the square, two elders stopped me. Babourou Koïta, a diawando like Afo, held court each day in a chair made of bamboo and goatskin, while in the secrecy of his compound, cowboys in his employ raised gigantic crossbreeds of zebus and Holsteins. Next to Babourou, in an identical chair sat his best friend, Ali the Griot.
Griots dumbfounded the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta. “Each one of them has got inside a costume made of feathers to look like a thrush with a wooden head made for it and a red beak as if it were the head of a bird. They stand before the sultan in that ridiculous attire and recite their poetry,” he wrote in the chronicle of his journey through the Malian kingdom. “It was mentioned to me that their poetry is a kind of preaching.”
Modern griots no longer dress in feathers. They are court jesters in a world without kings. Some cut records and perform in front of African, European, and American crowds. Most dispense wisdom at weddings, at political rallies, and in public squares. Ali was one of those.
Ali had a two-pack-a-day habit, and he looked like my grandfather, who had died when I was a girl. I told him that. He nodded and informed me that he was broke. “That makes two of us,” I said. He laughed and nodded again. I told him that my grandfather had been an orchestra conductor, an entertainer, and that my grandfather’s name — my name, Badkhen — meant “fiddler,” an irreverent jester-rhymer who ad-libbed at Jewish weddings. I came from a long line of Yiddish griots, I said. Ali stubbed out a Dunhill in the dust, motioned to Babourou for another, and told me that to walk in the Sahel I needed a different name, a Fulani name. He looked at Babourou. Babourou looked at the sky, presumably for instruction.
“Bâ!” he said. “Your name will be Anna Bâ.”
Ali nodded once more. “Good name. Noble name. One of the oldest Fulani names.” He grabbed my hand and yanked it up in the air and sang me my new ancient family history. It began in no remembered time with the arrival of four Fulani progenitor families — the Diallos, the spiritual leaders; the Sows, the logisticians; the Bâs, the largest cattle owners; and the Barris, their helpers — from a faraway desert. It ended like this: “Anna Bâ, Bâ the owner of cattle, Bâ the owner of white cattle, white is the color of milk, Bâ the owner of the color white. First came the Diallos, the Sows, the Bâs, the Barris. Bâ is the owner of many animals, Bâ is the owner of butter, Bâ smells of butter, Bâ the sweetestsmelling Fulani. Bâ. Bâ. Bâ. Bâ.”
We held an official naming ceremony the next day at a bar on the outskirts of town. Inside, a small television set was tuned to a channel that showed dancers in bikinis and hot pants grinding to hip-hop. The bar’s owner was a settled Fulani who spoke seven or eight languages and went by the nickname Pygmée. “Peul moderne,” Afo called him: the modern Fulani. Out of respect for the Muslim sensibilities of my elder guests, Pygmée turned off the television. His friend Allaye the Butcher had roasted a goat in town and delivered it to the bar that evening.
My three godfathers arrived on motorcycles, wearing robes. Afo wore a white boubou and had two helpings of goat, which he pronounced very good. Babourou, in a handwoven mantle of black and turquoise wool embroidered with gold thread, told me that to be a hundred percent Fulani I needed a Fulani man, and that he and the other elders would assist me in any manner possible. Ali the Griot promised that my new name would protect me from evil.
“Anna Bâ! Fulani Bâ! Général de Gaulle! Bienvenue, bienvenue.” We toasted with orange Fanta.
I walked up to the flat roof and watched the white guinea fowl that was perched in a nearby eucalyptus grove. In a thin web of orange streetlights Djenné’s oblique adobes crowded narrow, asymmetrical, and surreal. The floodplains around the town reflected the blue and crimson of the dying sky. The town seemed suspended in air. Beyond spread the thorny and flat Sahelian wilderness that belonged to the cows and their cowboys. I would be joining them in the morning.