Navel Gazing in Africa: Bartle Bull book review

August 04, 2015

Navel Gazing in Africa
This book is not really about the Fulani. If it were, it would be written in plain English and wouldn’t focus on the author’s ex-lover.
Aug. 4, 2015 7:13 p.m. ET

The Fulani are a people, some 15 million strong, who inhabit 20 countries in West Africa. Like their northern neighbors the Tuaregs, or the Kurds, they are a sizable group in their own right but are everywhere a minority. Fairer-skinned than black Africans, with straighter hair and more slender features, the Fulani are traditionally cattle-herders and slave owners. Today half of them live in towns. Their herds make the pastoral Fulani relatively wealthy. Former wagers of jihad who long ago subjected much of West Africa to Islam, since at least the early 1800s they have considered themselves the noblemen among the many peoples with whom they share the southern Sahel.

The Fulanis’ landscape—green wetlands in the dry season, red savanna in the rainy season—is wide and dramatic. They now practice a mellow, reformed Islam. They ignore borders where they can, their women are beautiful, and their men wear indigo robes. It is high time there was some good travel writing about them.

Anna Badkhen’s “Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah” does little to break the drought. The author is a Philadelphia-based writer who, having longed for years to live with nomads and “join a walk that spans seasons, years, a history,” spent parts of 2013 in and around the town of Djenné, with what she rightly calls its “tourist-based” economy, in south-central Mali. The first part of her book’s title is apt. In this corner of West Africa, as everywhere else, settled man—Cain—is in all the familiar ways doing what he can to crowd out, degrade, swindle and tempt his wandering brother.

The book’s troubles begin with the subtitle: “Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah.” The Fulani are not nomads at all but practitioners of transhumance: seasonal movement with herds between relatively fixed places, rarely very far apart. Nor are the Fulani, or anyone else, “the” anything of Africa, a place far too huge for stereotypes.

The use of the word “journeys” in the title is a more serious exaggeration. Close reading reveals that, a consistent tone of portentous hyperbole notwithstanding, these journeys never take us more than a few miles from Djenné. The Fulani family who took the author in for parts of 2013 spend their years as they have for generations. During the eight dry months, November through June, they tend their cattle in a marsh of sweet hippo grass a few hours’ walk from Djenné. (In town, the author stays in a house and studies the Fulani language.) Then, with the deluges of late June or early July, the family makes its way about 10 miles east, over two days, to their rainy-season camp.

What we do learn in “Walking With Abel” about the history, husbandry, religion, neighbors and customs of the Fulani is fascinating. So is their relationship to the modern world, and their ability to take from it, adapt to it, and survive, even as their ways are threatened by agriculture and growing towns. They love their cellphones and flashlights, but are baffled by government IDs. Many things have not changed in their society. Their cattle belong to the men, but the milk belongs to the women. The author understands that people who travel with the seasons do so not because it is pure or worthy, but because they must.

But the book is not really about the Fulani. If it were, it would be written in plain English and might take us along with some of its characters, who from time to time disappear by foot or bus over horizons and borders. Instead “Walking With Abel” is about the author. “Every footfall contains the kernel of our becoming,” we are told, “the meganarrative of our timeless hejiras.”

The meganarrative of this particular timeless hejira concerns the author’s love life. Just before she left for Africa, she writes, “my beloved had left me.” She invokes the unfortunate fellow repeatedly: “my missing, missed lover . . . my lover . . . my beloved,” and so on and on. All the while there are the poor Fulani. In the nobility of their savageness, we are told, they too know what it is like “To anchor your heart next to the next campsite and move on. To have your heart broken and reset like a bone.”

These non-sentences are at least intelligible. Much of Ms. Badkhen’s prose is not. Are you annular, gracile, eldritch or polypous? Do you want to learn what thurls, anabranches and alkahests are, or how to adumbrate or anastomose? Fear not: You don’t have to go all the way to Mali. Just send someone there to learn the local language and then write back in English. Presto: everyone will think you’ve learned Fulani, but you are actually still speaking the mother tongue.

Frequently, when the Scrabble dictionary fails to provide a word of sufficient obscurity, the author will simply invent one, each more pretentious and unnecessary than the last. Something that is gray-blue in color is “grayblue”; a cooking fire is a “cookingfire”; herding at night is “nightherd.” English is blessed with more words than any other language. There is no need to borrow from our German friends the horrors of compound wordmacht.

Travel writing is usually about things of such interest, and often such beauty or ugliness, that one really does not have to write too hard. It is enough to stand aside and let things tell it like it is, or to appear to. We know the authors are brave and curious; otherwise they would not have gone where they did. We know they are clever and literate, because otherwise they would not be writers. We understand all that. What we are looking for is not a linguistic Livingston or a yoga-lounge philosopher but rather a good companion, ideally one with a sense of humor. The closest this author gets to the latter is when she writes of her hapless beloved that she shares with him a “supreme reverence for wordsmanship.” This is such a low blow that one can only admire it.

Mr. Bull is the author of “Around the Sacred Sea: Mongolia and Lake Baikal on Horseback.”