By Claire Luchette
September 02, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of Penguin Random House

War has broken out in the Sahel grasslands in northern Africa, and after dinner, Oumarou Diakayaté tells his wife, “The world is very big. It is impossible to understand most of the things in it.” Diakayaté, a nomadic Fulani cow herder, is the father of the family with whom journalist Anna Badkhen lived for a year. Her fifth book, Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah recounts her year in the Sahel.

Born in the Soviet Union, Badkhen says she doesn’t really call anywhere home—not Philadelphia, where she raised her son; nor Afghanistan, where she lived for several years, writing about the lives of civilians in small villages and in Baghdad. She traveled to Mali to learn how the Fulani people lived, walking the same course for thousands of years, always setting their sights on what was ahead.

T+L spoke with Badkhen about walking with the Fulani, her rootlessness, and how doing the dishes is her secret weapon.

CLAIRE LUCHETTE: The book exhibits so much research about the history of the Fulani people and their culture. Tell me how you prepared for this journey.

ANNA BADKHEN: I read a lot. I read a lot of anthropology and fiction about the region—authors from the region, and folktales from the culture. I try to have a background, maybe some common denominators to talk with people about, so that I’m not a complete outsider when I arrive. Especially with Mali, where I had never been until I started working on this book, there was a lot of research, and then when you start working in a place you realize all that research was irrelevant, and you have to create a completely new library. The literature I read changes from project to project, but the pattern doesn’t seem to: you think you know something, and then you get there.

You’ve written multiple books about villages in Afghanistan. What drew you to Mali?

I’d read about other ways of looking at the world. I wanted to spend some time with people who walk on vast, flat surfaces where you can see very far. I find open space is my place of querencia, the metaphysical concept describing a physical place where the soul is safe, replenishing, restful. The writer Barry Lopez defines querencia as "a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn." So open space is where I can slow down and think a little deeper, or that’s what I tell myself, to fool myself. I really wanted to know what it is like when you do that for generations. What does that do to your way of looking at the world, if for ten thousand years, all you have been doing is walking in a big open space? I really wanted to spend time with nomadic people, and I also really didn’t want to be cold. It’s a combination of a somewhat poetic philosophy and a very prosaic disgust with the cold. I grew up in a very cold place [the Soviet Union], so I wanted to work someplace warmer.

The Sahel Desert was also very interesting to me—as a geography, and as a topography, and particularly culturally. I grew up listening to Malian music. In the Soviet Union, what seeped through the censors was a very bizarre mix of literature and music. Suddenly being in Mali and listening to that music I had grown up with blasting from a bus or in an outdoor market: that was head-spinning. Quite amazing.

So I knew a bit culturally about Mali, and I had read a lot of books about the Sahel, and had been interested in nomadic people for a long time. And, to be frank, my background is as a war correspondent, and this was my first non-war assignment. But probably the fact that there was a conflict within a hundred miles of where I was walking was oddly and a little darkly comforting. But, in fact, towards the end of the year, it didn’t really matter.

How was being an outsider in Afghanistan in wartime different from being an outsider among the Fulani?

Well, being an outsider is an internal state. We all create ways to other ourselves. In my life, because I don’t live where I’m from, I’ve always been an other. I think I’ve simplified my life a bit by externalizing my otherness.

Blending in in Afghanistan was much easier, as a white Semitic woman, if I covered my hair (which I had to do), no one could tell I wasn’t Afghan. In Mali, I’m a white woman. There wasn’t much I could do to not look white. Mali doesn’t have a lot of white people. There are albinos, and in the north there are Arabs, but where I was working, I was very clearly a stranger.

The way I work—these long immersive projects allow me to be as much an outsider in the end with my host in Mali as I am with my community here in Philadelphia. They know me not for my looks but for my friendship and hopefully my company. You forget that you’re an outsider when you become family. I definitely became family in Mali. So I’m an other, but it’s like how a lot of Americans have European relatives who come and swim in their underwear, or wash their hair in the kitchen sink, and you say, “What are you going to do? She’s French.” It’s like that. I’m certain I commit a lot of faux pas when I’m with my host, and they just kind of discount that. They say, “What are you going to do? She’s not from here.”

How’d you develop the trust of your family members?

The same way I develop trust to be able to have deep friendships anywhere—you have to be honest, and yourself, and that’s what people react to: honesty, and sincerity. It’s important to tell your stories, as well as ask them about theirs.

I like to participate. It’s much easier to participate physically in things, when you don’t speak the language. I think friendships happen so much more quickly over cooking or herding goats or doing things—helping carry things, helping with the children. I just act myself.

When I was young, I felt sometimes like an outsider, which I guess is how all teenagers feel at some point or another. And I complained about this to my mother, and she said, “Why don’t you just do the dishes?” And I have been using that advice ever since. Doing the dishes is great. Once you start doing the dishes after dinner, you graduate from acquaintance to friend. If you do the dishes for 30 people in Afghanistan where there is no running water, you become more than a friend: you become a sister. That’s a lot of work.

When you published The World is a Carpet, you said, “I want people who happen to own an Afghan carpet or who ... examine and admire an Afghan carpet, I want them to remember that these were woven by hand in a village, that the entire village participated.” How do you hope readers will connect to this story?

I think the reader will connect with the story through the humanity of it, through the humanness.

But I have spoken about this book with American ranchers and cowboys in the southwest and Texas, and the conversation changes immediately. The room spins around. You’re talking about cows with people who live with cows, or live for cows. The conversation inevitably turns to “So how do they keep their cows? How do they milk them? Do they go to pasture twice a day? Why do they keep the horns on the cows? Why don’t they neuter their bulls?” It’s a professional subject! In that way, the book will connect to people who work with animals.

I really think the story is so simple: it’s a quest to move through a year of hardship and beauty, and I imagine it will resonate with people regardless of their background or familiarity with cattle. It’s not a book about cows, though of course it is. It’s a book about love, and holding on and letting go, and that, for me, was the most significant part of my work: trying to understand and learn how to say goodbye all the time, and how to say hello all the time.

Those were some of my favorite passages in the book, in which walking means looking ahead to the next destination but also preparing to move on as soon as you get there.

If you are leaving your loved ones over and over again—which we do in this society more often than in old Europe, where people live in the same place for generations—when you do that every three or four months and then arrive in a new place where other relatives are waiting for you, and then some time passes and you have to say goodbye again, how do you reconcile that?

For me, it’s interesting, because I travel a lot, and I do move a lot, and I have loved ones on every continent, and I don’t see them enough and miss them very much. How do you live like that? How do you live, missing all the time?

Right—and you touch on, in the book, how when you first got to Mali you were working through heartbreak. What do you think travel, or walking, taught you about those hard feelings?

Nothing. You can’t walk away from grief.

How did you keep track of conversations and events that happened while you were walking? Did you record and take notes as you went, or write it down later?

I take meticulous notes in a reporter's notebook (years and years of foreign corresponding). Some notes are complete paragraphs transcribed into the book. I also take photographs, and sketch.

I loved the scene where you try to explain snow to your host family, and they laugh at you. What other ideas couldn’t be translated?

Yeah, they didn’t believe me! They pretty much thought I was lying.

My hosts were illiterate, and they knew very little about the world—for example, that Africa’s a continent: what’s a continent? What’s Africa? They placed themselves in the world in a very different way than an educated Westerner because they knew their geography intimately but can’t conceive that there was some other geography. But some of their relatives had been to Mecca, for example, on a pilgrimage. So people who had been to Mecca would’ve had to take a bus, a plane, and then travel through time zones and to a different continent. So there are points of departure that are common and you can make references to them, but it’s difficult to share—I love my hosts, without exoticizing them. I love them for their flaws. I’m very close to them. But I find it very frustrating that I can’t say “France” and they can’t think of a place with the Eiffel Tower, or cheese, or whatever. Because to them, France is white people, and that’s it. They can’t imagine it as a place. So I spent a lot of time trying to describe my reality. But they spent so much time with such generosity, showing me their reality, that my little frustrations are nothing compared to how painstakingly they taught me the different kinds of grass and how to cook and how to milk animals and herd goats. I wonder what it would have been like to explain in abstract how to milk a cow, what it feels like on your fingers, what it smells like. But we talked about family: I talked about my parents, and they’d talk about theirs. They learned about my son, and they ask about him now when we speak. I ask about their children, and it’s very normal.

How do you stay in touch?

I studied Fulfulde so was able to speak to them when I was there, but of course I had not practiced, so I was able to make very basic inquiries. But now I have to speak to them with someone present, because they don’t have cell phones. I have to call my friend who was my translator, who now comes to visit them, and when they’re together they call me.

That’s actually amazing because they’ve become very close. My friend who is a translator is a city boy, and now he’s invited to every wedding, and naming ceremony, and he reminds me of it, of how they wouldn’t know each other if it had not been for me. He tells me, “I’m so grateful that you’ve made us friends.” It’s such a joy to recognize I’ve connected the world in a small and unexpected way.

Were there challenges to readjusting to life in the States? What habits did you adopt in Africa that have stayed with you?

I don’t really readjust—I’m temporary here. I move back to Africa in a couple months, and I’ve always been temporary because I’ve always been traveling. There’s not a great sense of home, culturally. There is a great sense of home because until a month ago I was raising a son, who’s now grown up and went to school. But the adjustment was always logistical. Suddenly, instead of just doing my research and writing, I have to make sure there’s food in the fridge. But other than that, I’m not very rooted anywhere, which makes me an ideal body for this kind of work. I can be very comfortable in the bush, and I can be very comfortable in Baghdad, and in Philadelphia. The philosopher Georges Perec said, “To feel at home nowhere but at ease almost everywhere.”

It’s nice to have a flush toilet, but I try not to get used to it. There are things I miss: I miss walking to the market for meat, and getting a kabob and knowing the animal was killed just hours ago, and was raised without antibiotics. But these regional specialties are everywhere: if you’re from South Carolina, you miss hush puppies if you move to New York.

In terms of customs, I’ve become very aware of using my left hand. The left hand is unclean [it’s used for personal hygiene] and it’s not used for anything public. You never pass anything with your left hand, which can be kind of awkward to exchange money and produce in a market—you’re supposed to hand over the money with the same hand you use to take the bag of tomatoes. So it’s very cumbersome. But it’s much worse to commit the very rude act of handing over money or something with your left hand. You become mindful of that, and it becomes ingrained.

But I also learned how to make amazing foods and sauces, and I make them from time to time. That’s what I collect, I guess, when I travel: tastes. They go with you. You don’t have to lug them around from place to place.