Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Documenting African nomads

By Meg Hibbert

WEST AFRICA – Probably few people outside West Africa know about the Fulani people and even fewer white people – except Salemite Christoph Herby – can speak Fulfulde.

In January, Herby and his Fulani friend will begin wandering across the bulge of Africa to document the lives of nomadic Fulani herders. He and his project partner, Guida Belco, intend to share the stories of some of the 27 million Fulani through a documentary project.

A young Fulani herds African cattle in Benin. Photo courtesy Christoph Herby

A young Fulani herds African cattle in Benin. Photo courtesy Christoph Herby

Herby is finishing up two years as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Benin, which borders Togo, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. The young man classmates knew as Chris Herby when he graduated from Salem High School in 2001 became fascinated with the Fulani and learned their language from Belco.

“He was born in a small camp in the bush,” Herby wrote in an e-mail about their project, “and is incredibly smart and motivated.”

They met in the small village of Goumori where Herby spent his first year in the Peace Corps. Now Herby, who is the son of Judy Marlow of Salem, lives in the larger city of Parakou where he works on a nutrition project, promoting the use of a local plant called moringa “that is full of vitamins and can help enrich vitamin-poor diets,” he explained.

Salemite Christoph Herby, left, learned Fulfulde, the language of the Fulani, from Guida Belco while Herby was serving in the Peace Corps in the village of Goumori in West Africa.

Salemite Christoph Herby, left, learned Fulfulde, the language of the Fulani, from Guida Belco while Herby was serving in the Peace Corps in the village of Goumori in West Africa.

He and Belco have begun photographing the herders at Fulani cultural events in Benin. They intend finance their project by offering prints of photographs they take and which can be seen on the project website, www.pulaku.com.

They intend to get around by motorcycle, “travelling modestly,” as he put it, and staying in Fulani encampments to “give voice to a culture facing a diminishing frontier for survival.”

Their tentative route will traverse Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, the Gambia, and Senegal. They plan to visit community leaders in remote camps and sleep among the nomadic people. The two are certain the Fulani people will act as hosts and guides throughout their journey.

Herby explained Fulani herders survive with their herd animals in the scrubby vegetation of the Sahel like their ancestors have done for more than a thousand years.

The nomads are squeezed between the desert and agricultural development, he said, threatening their way of life and future.

The origin of the Fulani remains a mystery, he said, and their traditions vary widely from region to region. What links them are a strong sense of self “and firm adhesion to tradition.”

He and Belco named their project “pulaku” because “it represents the pride, stoicism and cultural identity of the Fulani people.”

Herby said the Pulaku Project has been endorsed by the Comité Fulfulde, a council of Fulani elders in Benin.

He joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2005 with a major in environmental science and a minor in urban planning, founding a bicycle taxi – rickshaw – company in Charlottesville that he named Happy Rickshaw, and working for Environmental Health News.

To see more of Herby’s images and videos of the Fulani people and to purchase prints to help finance the project, go to www.pulaku.com.

Editor’s note: Second in a series about young people from Salem and Glenvar who are volunteering in West Africa. See the Sept. 23 issue of the Salem Times-Register for the feature on Gregory Irby’s mission to Mali.

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