Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Cattle Breeding, Complexity and Mobility in a Structurally Unpredictable Environment: The WoDaaBe Herders of Niger

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Cattle Breeding, Complexity and Mobility in a Structurally Unpredictable Environment: The WoDaaBe Herders of Niger

Article excerpt


This paper explores the production strategy of a group of full-time mobile pastoralists from the perspective of their cattle-breeding system. The system is geared towards high reliability of good performance rather than towards maximizing peak productivity. At the core of the system is the organization of the cattle population along matriarchal lineages, for structuring animal diversity and ensuring the transmission of economically crucial functionality. The paper argues for a more sophisticated notion of pastoral mobility, capable of reflecting the herders' understanding of mobility and its role in enhancing the standard productivity of the bush, transforming unpredictable variability into a key resource.

Keywords: non-equilibrium, pastoralism, Bororo, livestock diversity, selective feeding


In a Sahelian ecosystem, with temperatures up and above 50 [degrees]C at the peak of a nine-month-long dry season, where it is difficult to feed even sheep and goats, the WoDaaBe herders produce the largest cattle breed in West Africa. The rare colonial veterinarians who looked closely at these animals did not conceal their astonishment at such an achievement, recording that the WoDaaBe '[thanks to their mobility] win every year, despite the unforgiving nature, this challenge of breeding animals whose feeding requirements (given their size) are out of proportion with the capacity of the pastures' (Mornet and Kone 1941: 179). Today, despite the major droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, and decades of unfavourable rural development policies, the WoDaaBe are still very much in business. Their Bororo zebu (2) has not only a significant presence on the internal beef market in Niger, but remains the most appreciated cattle on the export market (Djariri, Saley and Dahiru 2003).

The well of Idinghiri is almost exactly 100 kilometres north of Tchin Tabaraden, Niger. Jiima's camp is another five kilometres away. In mid-June 2008, at ten o'clock, the sky is bright, with a temperature of 47[degrees]C. The family herd, mainly of Bororo zebus, is 'out' for the morning graze, a few hundred metres in the opposite direction to the well. Jiima's elder son, Medji, is with them. He walks slowly, the herding stick across his shoulders, now and again saying smooth 'cattle-words' in a low voice. The mahogany cattle, with long, lyre-shaped horns, are scattered in groups of two or three. A few seem to forage more on their own. There are six young calves, mostly keeping close to their mothers, as yet unweaned but sometimes trying a bit of straw. The last rainy season, nine months ago, was a good one. Jiima's camp has been here for a bit more than a week, but the bush around, and as far as one can see, is covered with straw 20-30 centimetres tall. Most of it is geenal dimal (Schonefeldia gracilis) and saaBeewal (Echinochloa colona). The cattle also feed on tree leaves and bushes. The young leaves and branches of the Bamammbi (Calotropis procera) are very popular, particularly during the break at the well, after watering. Some cattle are well rehearsed in bending the long vertical branches of this shrub with their head in order to reach its most tender part. They bite off half a metre of woody plant and chew it skilfully, without letting it drop, like a stick of liquorice. Despite being the end of the dry season, pasture is excellent and the animals are in relatively good shape. With a herd about thirty head strong (Jiima sold six in the last ten months), the family has milk twice a day and in the evening we struggle to finish it. In Idinghiri, Jiima is way out of his habitual dry-season territory. He is from the WoDaaBe Gojanko'en but Idinghiri is mainly used by WoDaaBe Bii Korony'en. After the death of his father, when Jiima was a young child, his mother married within the Bii Korony'en group. Jiima's wife is from the same Bii Korony'en family on her mother's side. In 1996, Jiima gave her maternal uncle a heifer under habbana. …

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