The Sahel

By Marisa Larson and Emily Krieger

Photograph by: Pascal Maitre, National Geographic April 2008

The Sahel is a semiarid band of land stretching across northern Africa at roughly the 13th parallel, dividing the Sahara desert from Africa's tropical forests. The word "Sahel," which means "shore" in Arabic, connotes more than simple topology. The Sahel has always represented a meeting place of disparate religions and cultures: Muslims, Christians, and animists; nomads and farmers; Arabs and African tribes all call it home.

Today, however, the region is rife with conflict. On the surface, the fighting is over differences in culture and religion, but at the core, the disputes are over the dwindling supply of water and land. While low rainfall in the Sahel has always meant competition for good crop- and pastureland, in the past different groups found ways to share, resolving land disputes at traditional meetings of elders and offering restitution to victims of violence. But the drying trend that began in the late 1960s and plunged the region into drought in the '70s and '80s increased competition and tension. Herders and farmers became desperate as they lost their animals and used up reserves of seeds, food, and cash. At the same time governments, such as that of Sudan, manipulated disagreements to stay in power, favoring one side over the other and sometimes even arming one and not the other.


Salopek, Paul. "Lost in the Sahel." National Geographic (April 2008), 34-67.

NASA Earth Observatory

Flint, Julie, and Alex de Waal. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. Zed Books, 2006.

Page Protectors

By Marisa Larson and Emily Krieger

In the 1500s Mohammed El Mawlud began collecting manuscripts in a village on the Sahara's edge. He was one of many scholars, scribes, and saints around Timbuktu who both bought and created handwritten texts, in Arabic script, on topics from theology to astronomy. In 1591 a Moroccan army sacked the center of learning, destroying some texts, carrying off others. Families hid what they could behind walls and in caves. Fire, theft, and termites took a toll, yet 300,000 books survived. In the 1990s Western academics realized the library's extent. Grants are helping repair, protect and scan the volumes, which date from the 12th century. A research institute now houses some 30,000, but most remain with the families that long guarded them. Generations after El Mawlud, descendant Abdel Kader Haidara has built the Mamma Haidara Library, named for his father, for his 9,000 texts. "These manuscripts," says Haidara, "are our dignity." --Karen E. Lange

Lange, Karen E. "Page Protectors." National Geographic (October 2007).

Fighting Words

By Marisa Larson and Emily Krieger

Before the word janjaweed became the latest term of terror--a reference to the government-backed militiamen ravaging western Sudan's Darfur region--it was no more than a colloquial insult. Parents scolded misbehaving children by calling them janjaweed, and locals branded thuggish behavior with the term.

But words have a way of morphing with the times, and this one has. The origin of the term is now often attributed to the Arabic words jinn, "demon," and jawad, "horse," yet some linguists disagree with that explanation. Elizabeth Bergman, a scholar of Arabic dialects, says, "Arabic words aren't typically formed that way." Whether the word comes from Arabic or not, victims of Darfur's militiamen now apply it to any Arab who threatens them.

In Darfur tensions over land and water resources run high and have been exacerbated by decades of drought. This has led to further conflict between herders, who are predominantly Arab, and farmers, who are mostly African. The militia have destroyed hundreds of the farmers' towns and villages, displacing more than two million people and taking hundreds of thousands of lives.

These paramilitary bands reject the label janjaweed. Instead, they call themselves border guards, reconnaissance brigades, even mujahideen--holy warriors. --Naomi Schwarz

Schwarz, Naomi. "Fighting Words: Tracking the Janjaweed." National Geographic (February 2005).

The Desert in Retreat

By the mid-1980s the village of Ranawa in the small African nation of Burkina Faso was dwindling away. Gripped by a drought that had cut rainfall by a third throughout the Sahel--a band of fragile, arid lands south of the Sahara--Ranawa had seen a quarter of its people leave. Wells ran dry. Only two households still owned cattle. Many croplands had turned hard and barren. "It looked like the tarmac of an airport runway," says Chris Reij of Amsterdam's Free University.

Then Ranawa's remaining farmers tried something new. Now ruined brown lands are once again becoming green.

With the help of aid agencies, the farmers adopted two simple techniques: placing rows of stones along the contours of the area's gently sloping land, and digging pits in fields. The stones slowed rainfall running off slopes and let farmers plant trees and crops to secure the soil. The pits collected water and allowed it to soak into the dirt. Farmers put manure and seeds in the holes and could once again grow millet and sorghum.

The effects were dramatic. Crop yields increased 50 percent. Wells no longer went dry. Families stopped leaving and resumed raising cattle and planting crops.

Across the Sahel, from Senegal to Ethiopia, a similar transformation is occurring, though often for different reasons, says Lennart Olsson of Sweden's Lund University. The region, which since the 1960s has suffered drought and desertification, is now regaining some of its vegetation. Why? Besides soil and water conservation, more rain is falling and land in drought-ravaged places such as Sudan has been abandoned, allowing grasses, shrubs, and trees to return. Increased vegetation can mean increased rainfall, which in turn means more green--and a better life for some of the world's poorest people.
--Karen E. Lange

Lange, Karen E. "The Desert in Retreat: Farmers Help Turn Africa's Sahel Green Again." National Geographic (July 2003).

Other Resources
Human Rights Watch

NASA Earth Observatory

Natural Resource Defense Council - Nigeria - Darfur

FrontierNet - Sahel

Human Rights Watch - Sudan background

Flint, Julie, and Alex de Waal. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. Zed Books, 2006.

Saad, Elias. Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Other National Geographic Resources

Ellis, William. "Africa's Sahel: The Stricken Land." National Geographic (August 1987).

Salopek, Paul. "Shattered Sudan: Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace." National Geographic (February 2003).