Leslie Clark, a California artist, creates 'fixed points' along
nomads' routes to bring health care and education to Niger.
At the Doli school for nomads, the teacher pounds on a hubcap
each morning to summon children. Many don't hear it because they are
too far out in the bush, scouring the scorched land for pastures to
nourish their herds.
Supplying education and health care to nomads in northern Niger
is no easy task. But it is essential to a strategy hatched by Leslie
Clark, a California artist and founder of the Nomad Foundation,
which helps nomads hang onto their lifestyle in the world's poorest
In northern Niger, tribes of Tuareg and Wodaabe nomads shuttle
herds around the flat, semiarid grasslands of the Sahel, a belt of
land across Africa that divides the uninhabitable Saharan dunes from
fertile farmland farther south. It is starkly beautiful land, where
stripped acacia trees stand out like lightning bolts against a vast
Life is barely sustainable in the parched Sahel. Nevertheless,
pastoral nomads cling fiercely to traditions that are 1,000 years
But now they face new risks: desertification - the encroachment
of the Sahara on pasturelands - and infiltration by the North
African branch of Al Qaeda into their lawless territory.
"With changing environmental and political situations," Ms. Clark
says, "there are adaptations that have to be made. We're trying to
help them adapt."
Clark's first contact with nomads came when she was a young
artist traveling through Africa 20 years ago. Transfixed, she began
guiding tours to finance her extended periods living among tribes,
during which she would spend countless hours painting and learning
how to sound out and throat-cluck local dialects.
In the past five years, Clark has steered the Nomad Foundation,
the small nonprofit she founded and presides over with support from
Rotary Club grants and private donations, into increasingly
ambitious humanitarian ventures.
Most aid groups are deterred by the difficulties of working with
nomads - "very dispersed, small populations in the middle of
nowhere," Clark says. But she believes that the rising poverty and
insecurity among nomads will require increased aid.
A breakthrough came in 2005, Clark says, when she teamed up with
Muhammad "Sidi" Mamane, a gifted and widely connected elected
representative of the nomads, whom she tapped to serve as her
foundation's on-the-ground representative. Sidi fought in the Tuareg
rebellion of the early 1990s but later decided to turn to democratic
channels to make changes.
"I realized the best way to fight," he says, "is within a
democratic framework that allows social and economic development of
Helping nomads is a unique challenge: How do you provide health
care and education without requiring that nomads settle down? Their
solution is to build up a "fixed point" within range of the
migratory routes used by the nomads.
At Doli, for example, the Nomad Foundation dug a well, set up a
cereal bank, built a two-room school, and hired a teacher to manage