Travel: Of humans and horses on the African Sahel

Across the parched grassland, russet with Sahara dust, lies a timeless sun-swept African village of hardened sand-clay huts, which once a year throngs with extravagantly outfitted equestrians and exotically adorned masses from a vibrant tribal culture wholly unlike anything else in the world.

For the past 16 years, over one long weekend in late February or early March, the semi-nomadic Fulani people of northern Burkina Faso and southern Mail have gathered in Barani, a small village about 25 kilometers south of Burkina Faso’s northern border, for a horse-centered festival known by the acronym FECHIBA, or Festival Culturel et Hippique de Barani.

According to the Burkina Faso-based newspaper Le Faso, in the days of African kingdoms, the Fulani of the same area held a similar event called Haaro, designed to show allegiance to the local leader and salute his efforts for social peace and stability. FECHIBA has a similar political aspect today, drawing various government ministers from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital in the center of the country, to the hinterlands. At least as important, FECHIBA is a spectacular social event for the Fulani people: they dress to impress and catch up with friends, the herders leave children to watch the cattle to graze at the outskirts of the village, they trade horses and sell other goods, the horsemen showcase their horses’ training and elaborate hand-crafted tack, they watch and bet on horse races and wrestling, artisans sell their crafts, and they eat and drink and listen to music and watch dancers perform. For the tourist, immersion in such a unique environment presents a one-of-a-kind opportunity.

Barani sits near the southern edge of the hot, dry grassland between the Sahara and Sudanian Savanna known as the Sahel region. In February and March, temperatures range from about 70 degrees Fahrenheit at night to close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and a persistent wind sweeps fine Sahara sand across the flat land, covering everything in powdery rust-red grit.

FECHIBA organizers hold the festival at the end of the harvest season, but because agriculture requires flexible timing, the date for the event can remain a moving target well into February, complicating planning for visitors. However, decent highways connect Barani to the capital city, Ouagadougou, and the 350-mile drive can be made in a little more than five hours. Although Barani is not a spot for a comfortable holiday, it is well worth the journey for FECHIBA.

Modibo Traore, the Burkinabè owner of the Ouagadougou-based riding school Oasis du Cheval, has organized many group trips to Barani for the festival. Those traveling with Oasis du Cheval bring their own camping gear, but Traore’s crew wrangles horses, prepares meals, packs drinks, and provides a working toilet surrounded by a woven straw screen and a sink at the campsite at the edge of Barani. Traore acts as the tour guide throughout the weekend, making sure his group sees the best events at FECHIBA and arranging for special diversions, like musicians to stroll through camp in the evening.

After setting up camp at the 2012 edition of FECHIBA, the first stop with Traore was a visit with the chief of the village, El Hadji Amirou Sidibé. Sidibé sat in a cushioned wooden chair with his head turbaned in green fabric, and his pale yellow polished-cotton boubou, the long tunic favored by men in the Sahel, billowed out around his legs. He could have been anywhere between 60 and 90 years old, with his gray beard, heavy eyelids and finely lined face. He greeted Traore warmly, smiled benignly at the group and welcomed everyone to FECHIBA. Sidibé ran the town in the way a mayor would, but he had not been elected. He was a chief who came to his role through rank and family ancestry that could be traced back to the founding of Barani in the 19th century.

Fulani culture has complex rules, castes and structures that have endured almost unchanged for millennia. Semi-nomadic cattle herders, they move among seasonal water supplies, grazing land, and beef and leather markets across specific ranges. Regional variations mean different groups of Fulani have different customs and celebrations. Yet their core practices inform their identity and create a cohesive bond among the scattered population of 20 to 25 million Fulani, whose vast range covers the entire latitude of the African Sahel, from coast to coast. They are Muslim, but almost independently of their religion, they are a people with a stringent cultural moral code, fully expecting individuals to demonstrate strength, courage, intelligence, self-discipline, respect for others, hospitality, and hard work. Weakness and self-indulgence bring shame and shame is taken very seriously in Fulani culture.

Respects paid to the chief, Traore walked the group through the small village, looking at horses, the big new mosque, the market square prepared for the vendors that would occupy it for the weekend. Men, wearing bright yellow Fulani leather boots and characteristic conical woven hats, rode into town on horses with showy red and yellow hand-crafted Fulani leather saddles and bridles that fluttered with fringe and flashed with metallic adornments. Despite the spectacle of the riders, Traore’s group of white Europeans and Americans fascinated the local people. Throughout the weekend, young men would use their phones to snap pictures of the tourists as often as the tourists took pictures of the Fulani people in their vibrant costumes, both sides good natured in their interest.

Late Friday afternoon the crowd of many hundreds formed a large circle, at least six people deep, to watch La Lutte, generations-old traditional African wrestling in which two wrestlers grapple and shove, each trying to force the other to his knees or back or out of a ring drawn in the sand. Many guests of Oasis du Cheval sat on the racks atop the riding school’s SUVs and in the backs of trucks parked a few yards beyond the crowds to watch the sport. Later, after La Lutte, riders from Oasis du Cheval hosted an exhibition at the campsite for anyone who cared to watch. A small crowd from the village came to see the Oasis riders navigate their horses over jumps.

As the sun set, the Oasis du Cheval campers gathered around the campfire for a simple dinner of rice and chicken stewed with tomatoes and onions. With the fire crackling, full bellies, and cold beers in hand, the adults in the group sat and told funny stories while the children played. But the next day would be busy and soon everyone found their tents and went to sleep.

Saturday morning, spectators gathered in the town square for the main events. Many in the group from Oasis du Cheval took seats atop vehicles again. Some local people climbed into the trees bordering the square to watch. At least 30 horsemen, man and animal alike all wearing their festival best, lined up by the old mosque to wait their turn and watch the acrobatic dances of young men wearing rope-fringe belts and anklets, and straps on their legs strung with metal pieces that jingled with each movement. Musicians played at every event through the weekend on traditional African instruments such as the guitar-like kora, the finger piano called a kalimba, the xylophone-like balafon, and a variety of percussion instruments such as the djembe.

Men called les chasseurs, the hunters, carried very old flintlock-style muzzle-loaders, which they fired loudly, but harmlessly (without shot or slugs), into the air continually. They wore heavy loose tunics of leather or homespun cloth layered over lighter-weight shirts, and shorts layered over pants, all in the rusts and browns of the Sahel earth. Some of their hats had small antlers mounted on the tops. They carried the local axe-hoes called adzes, mysteriously heavy-looking shoulder bags, cattle horns and water bottles full of gunpowder, and their wide leather belts held their knives and shotgun shells. Ostensibly they helped provide security at the event, though there were police on the job as well.

After the dancers, the horsemen took turns demonstrating their horses’ training with dressage maneuvers and dances in time with music. One horseman cued his horse to lie down while he was astride, then he got out of the saddle and reclined across the horse’s body while the horse lay completely still, playing dead, as the crowd cheered. The Fulani revere horses as status symbols and as essential tools for their cattle industry. They draw from hardy breeds well adapted to the hot, dry Sahel environment, such as the Barb and the Dongola. These are not breeds known for their aesthetic beauty, but the Fulani outfit their horses extravagantly with handcrafted bridles and saddlery. The Fulani tan the leather from their cattle and create everything from leather pillowcases and shoes to horse tack and key fobs, all decorated with intricate geometric designs in bright natural dyes of yellow, red, black, purple, blue and green.

The Fulani people value beauty. It’s evident in the leather goods they produce, in the fashions they prize, and in their personal appearance. Their expressions of beauty do not necessarily match American ideals, but both are rooted in the universal desire to enhance one’s best features according to cultural standards. Toward that end, many Fulani women will tattoo their lips and faces with blue-black indigo, for a dark contrast to make their teeth look whiter and their skin appear lighter. They may wear their hair extravagantly beaded and adorned with amber, silver coins, and cowrie shells, and braided away from their faces so that dramatically drawn eyebrows can’t be missed. Some apply henna to their skin and fingernails. Women and men alike wear vividly colored and boldly patterned clothes, often with beading, embroidery and sequins. All of this is on full display at FECHIBA, as much in the official events as on the periphery of the town square and in the market, where people meet, mingle, preen, strut, flirt, and revel in the festival atmosphere.

In the market, near the new mosque, vendors arranged their wares on blankets and hung them inside the market’s wooden shelters, which were made from tree branches and milled lumber and topped with woven straw roofs. They brought plenty of necessities and niceties to sell at the festival: coils of rope, Fulani leather goods and traditional hats, leather belts, bags, clothing, fabric, jewelry, household goods, cosmetics, shoes, toys, and more. Refreshment stands in the market sold fried balls of millet dough and fried yucca, fresh fruit, bowls of millet cakes called topped with stewed meats or vegetables, sachets of water and a variety of other beverages, and sugar-roasted peanuts. Many of the food stands were run by local women who prepared food in their homes for the market and sent children back to the houses throughout the day to resupply the stands. Small bars, called maquis, opposite the market stalls served beer, tea, peanuts, and grilled marinated beef on skewers.

After a siesta during the hottest part of the day, the crowds re-emerged at the site of Thursday’s wrestling match to watch the horse races. There were several races of two different types. In the first type, teams of two chiefs on their own fully decked-out horses clasped arms or each grabbed a shoulder of the other, and had to maintain physical contact while running their horses the entire length of the track. It required perfectly coordinated speed and movement, balance, some nerve and a bit of luck to pull it off. In the second type of race, young men rode young horses bareback, minimally bridled, flat out for speed. After several heats of each type of race, the winners lined up in front of the grand stand for their trophies, then all the riders, hunters and musicians paraded down the racecourse, signaling the end of another FECHIBA.

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