Read Walking with Abel Online

Authors: Anna Badkhen

Walking with Abel


The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village

Afghanistan by Donkey: One Year in a War Zone

Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories

Waiting for the Taliban: A Journey Through Northern Afghanistan


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Copyright © 2015 by Anna Badkhen

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The author gratefully acknowledges permission to quote from the following:

“Cuckoo your footprints,” by Yosa Buson, translated by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento, from
Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson.
Translation copyright © 2013 by W. S. Merwin and Takako U. Lento. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, “Cymatics (Frequencies)” by Hassen Saker, from the film-poem triptych
terra lingua: three aspects
. Used by permission of the author.
by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, translated by Daniel Whitman. Copyright © 1988 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher. “Reality Demands,” from
Miracle Fair:
Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska
by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak. Copyright © 2001 by Joanna Trzeciak. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. “Sometimes Pleasing, Sometimes Not” by Jenn McCreary, from
& now my feet are maps
. Used by permission of the author. “We Travel Like Other People,” by Mahmoud Darwish, from
Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry
, edited by Abdullah al-Udhari (London, Saqi Books, 1984). Reprinted with permission of Saqi Books.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Badkhen, Anna, date.

Walking with Abel : journeys with the nomads of the African savannah / Anna Badkhen.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-0-698-14271-8

1. Fula (African people)—Sahel. 2. Fula (African people)—Mali. 3. Fula (African people)—Migrations. 4. Badkhen, Anna—Travel—Sahel. 5. Badkhen, Anna—Travel—Mali. I. Title.

DT530.5.F84B34 2015 2015004476


Maps by Jeffrey L. Ward

Illustrations by Anna Badkhen

Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.



Also by Anna Badkhen
Title Page
Map of Bourgou
No matter how far the town, there is another behind it.


I walked on knives
to get here & now
my feet are maps.


for a printable version of this map.


If you set out on a journey pray that the road is long


ou could hear them from miles away. They went
tprrr! tprrr!
and they went
jet jet jet!
and they went
jot jot jot!
and they went
ay, shht, shht, oy, trrrrrr, ’uh, ’uh!
Repeating with proprietary virtuosity the calls their ancestors had used to talk to their own herds since the dawn of time. As if they journeyed not simply across distance but across eras and dragged with them through the land grooved with prehistoric cow paths all the cattle and all the herders who had laid tracks here before. You could almost make out all of them in the low scarf of shifting laterite dust, cowboys and ghosts of cowboys driving true and phantom herds on an ageless migration that stretched forever.

The Fulani and their cows tramped along the edge of the bone-white savannah, restless slatribbed wayfarers weaving among slow cattle just as slatribbed. Nomads chasing rain in the oceanic tracts of the Sahel. The cowboys wore soiled blue robes that luffed in the wind like sails, and their gait flowed smooth and footsure. Each step stitched the waking earth with a sound smoothed by millennia of repetition, a sound of sorrow and hope and loss and desire: the sound of walking.

They whistled and laughed and hurled their clubbed staffs underhand at the cows that were too hesitant or too distracted or out of step and they called “Girl!
” and “Die! Die, bitch!” to such cows, but never in anger. They filled the soundscape with the chink of hooves and staffs upon filaments of shale, with yips and ululations, with incessant banter about cows and women and pontifications about God and swagger about migrations past. They moved in tinny bubbles of bootleg music that rasped from the cellphones they dangled on lanyards from their necks. Some had strapped to their chests boomboxes they had decorated with small mirrors, like disco balls. Their music said go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, in the same iambic beat as the songs of the Kel Tamashek camel riders of the Sahara, the Turkoman goatherds of the Khorasan, the horsemen of the Kazakh steppes. Music made for walking and cowbells. Music made out of walking and cowbells.

Their herds fell together and drifted apart and even when the cattle drive swelled to many thousand head, the Fulani always knew which cows belonged to whom. They seared lines and dots and crosses into the hides of their cattle with sickle-shaped branding irons, but these hieroglyphics mostly were of no need to them because they recognized their livestock and the livestock of others from the serrated silhouette of the herd, from the way dust billowed in its wake, from the particular gait of the bulls. You learned such knowledge somehow.

“Those are Afo’s cows, Papa.”

“No they aren’t.”

“How can you tell?”

“That’s just how it is.”

“But how can you tell?”

“When I see cattle, I know.”

Oumarou Diakayaté squinted at the procession of cattle and cattle drivers filing into the sunrise. He had risen in the cool blue predawn from the wide reed pallet he shared with his wife, Fanta, their youngest son and daughter, and two small grandchildren, and washed from a small plastic kettle and prayed while most of the camp still slept. In the modest manner of his generation he had wrapped his indigo turban three times around his head and under the gray stubble on his narrow chin and across his thin mouth, in which a few teeth still remained, and dragged his millet-straw mat out of the cold shadows of the hut.

Then day crashed into the Sahel in a crescendo of birds. A rooster crowed once and right away clouds of tiny passerines in twilit shrub let loose a delirious trill. Starlings shrieked the world’s oldest birthsong: alive, alive, alive, alive. A kingfisher warbled. The sun hurtled upward red and elliptic from beyond the sparse scrublands, grazed the low umbrella crowns of acacias, slowed down, and hung glaring in the fierce African sky.

Oumarou sat attentive and quite like a bird himself in the canted light of that July morning, with his knees drawn and a blue-checkered fleece blanket wrapped shoulder to toe around his tall and rawboned frame, and watched the herds pass. By the time the sun rose a palm above the treeline, his family would roll up their mats, pilfer the best thatch and rope from their shelters, pile calabashes and gunnysacks of blankets and clothes onto donkey carts, and join the other pilgrims ambling off from the Sahel’s most coveted pasturage to allow farmers a turn with the land.

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