A Difficult Time: Migrant work and the WoDaaBe in NigerA Difficult Time: Migrant work and the WoDaaBe in Niger

"Tell your people that WoDaaBe are going through a very difficult time," says an elderly WoDaaBe man. His eyes are old but his hand holds mine firmly, a sign of strength. I have heard similar words many times before; words that reflect WoDaaBe nomads' concern for their present situation. Repeated droughts in the Sahel area of Niger have led to losses of livestock and reduced the possibility of maintaining a nomadic way of life. This problem has caused many WoDaaBe, especially younger people, to leave the pastoral economy for work in cities. Their situation is not unique; studies have shown a general increase in migrant work among pastoral nomads and indicate that they, like other minorities, have been increasingly uprooted from their lands. (Mohammed Salih, 1995; Galaty, 1999)(1)

Migration to the City

The period of the late 1960s to early 1970s was characterized by massive losses of livestock in Niger, and was followed by famine and human suffering. Historically, WoDaaBe have retreated temporarily to agriculture to reconstruct their herds, but Niger's growing population at this time had made good agricultural land less available. (Bonfiglioli, 1988; Stenning, 1959; Dupire, 1962) Many WoDaaBe became hired herders and sought work in urban centers. After another drought in the mid-1980s, a growing number of individuals turned to migrant labor in Niger's cities and in the neighboring countries.

WoDaaBe migrant workers send money to their extended families and generally express hope of earning enough to reconstitute their herds, making possible a return to their life in the bush. Studies have shown, however, that migrant work is not, in the long run, an effective way of reconstituting livestock. (Swift et al., 1984) A migrant worker's meager income is spent traveling back and forth between the bush and the city and goes into basic subsistence in the city. Some migrant workers also adopt more expensive consumption patterns in the city. On the other hand, the stay in the city reduces the number of people subsisting on a small number of animals, which allows pastoralists to reduce sales of animals for corn -- referred to by herders as "eating the cows" -- during the dry season. Dry season food shortages are acute; extended families are often unable to feed themselves. When migrant workers leave their herds with their extended families, remaining family members have a more livable herd, and the animals will gradually increase in number.

Migrant workers in Niamey are engaged in various kinds of activities: men labor manually, sell tea, carry water to people's houses, make and sell ropes, engage in tourist-related activities, and work as night watchmen for companies or individuals. Women gain income by dressing hair, pounding millet, selling medicines, or repairing calabashes (large gourd bowls). Most migrant workers stay in Niamey during the year, returning to the bush during the end of the rainy season when food is most plentiful. They often stay for several weeks, maintaining their ties to the pastoral economy and reaffirming their membership in a larger WoDaaBe community. (Loftsdóttir, 2000)

WoDaaBe migrant workers generally describe their stay in the city as difficult and demanding, emphasizing especially the absence of family and kin and the longing for the pastoral life in the bush. Some people, having spent a long time in the city without earning enough money to buy animals, express despair.

The Dying Animals

"My father took the strongest cows south in order to try to save them. He left those that were too weak with my brother. [When they lay down] they could only stand up with the assistance of people. In the end, more animals died that were in the care of my father; there was simply no pasture." (Interview with Akali(2))

In 1998, Akali, who had been a migrant worker for many years, was pleased that he finally had a small herd. His increased number of animals was not the result of his labor in the city, but of many years of reproduction. But rain was late during the spring of 1998. The delayed rains made pastures dry up, and by September 1999, Akali had only a few animals left.

Yet reduction in rainfall cannot be the sole cause of herd depletion; variation in rainfall is a normal feature of this area, and drought exists in combination with various historical and political factors. During the last century, agriculture has been moving further north. Oral stories have it that in the early 1960s, herders moved north to the Tchin-Tabaraden area because their grazing land was being limited by the advance of agriculture. "The bush had died in Chadawonka," said older people; it was no longer good grazing land. At this time, rain was unusually favorable in the Tchin-Tabaraden area, and conditions were ideal for pastoral production. (République du Niger, 1993) Yet as the recent droughts demonstrate, Tchin-Tabaraden is in a more marginal area; droughts are more likely to occur there than in areas farther south.

The increase in cultivation that led to the herders' move was prompted by several factors. One was the French colonial government's heavy emphasis on peanut production. Various campaigns, such as guaranteed prices, were conducted during the colonial period to encourage and increase peanut production. These policies resulted in increasing areas of land taken under peanut cultivation. New varieties of peanuts facilitated expansion into new areas where cultivation had not previously been possible. Because the cultivation of peanuts is risky due to unstable rainfall patterns, farmers began, in the 1950s and 1960s, to cultivate peanuts in the fallow areas between villages and more stable crops in their fields. This practice reduced the availability of dry season pasture for herders and decreased soil fertility because fallow periods work to restore the necessary nutrients. (Franke & Chasin, 1980) A World Bank document shows that Niger more than doubled its surface under cultivation from 1.86 million hectares in 1960 to 3.86 million in 1985. (World Bank, 1991)

Anthropologist Thomas Painter points out that development projects have encouraged the expansion of cultivated land. Self-sufficiency in stable food grains became a national goal of the Niger government after 1974. This effort, backed up by large amounts of development assistance, was supposed to be initiated through promoting more intensive rainfed agriculture. Projects that had earlier introduced new agricultural techniques to increase rainfed agricultural productivity in yields per hectare were considered sufficient to accomplish these goals. The expenditures for these projects were more than $50 million in 1982. In 1984, the Ministry of Planning in Niger concluded that the increased aggregate production of rainfed crops was not the result of greater yields per hectare but the result of larger and larger areas being cultivated. (Painter, 1987) This increased overtake of land for cultivation practices reduced the overall reach of the pastoral economy and pushed the pastoralists farther north, where the more arid environment increases risk.

A report on the conditions in the pastoral area of Niger by Breman et al. indicates that ownership of livestock in remaining pastoral areas has itself changed hands: sedentary people are increasingly taking over the control of herds. During droughts, herders are often forced to sell their animals at very low prices. With the end of drought periods, these animals increase in value, and those who bought them cheap make a profit selling them back to herders at much higher prices. Sometimes herders are hired to take care of herds they once owned for meager pay. After the 1968-1974 drought period, Niger's tax laws were changed, abolishing taxes on individual animals and making investment in animals a desirable option. Even though the number of animals has since been reconstructed to pre-drought levels, animals are increasingly owned by non-pastoralists. (see Breman et al., 1986)


The situation of WoDaaBe nomads in Niger is characterized by looming insecurity of livelihood and future. Both young and old try to rebuild their herds, only to lose animals in the next rain reduction. Since 1984 the government has been formulating new laws for land entitlements, making access and rights to land vital issues in contemporary Nigerien politics. The Rural Code, enacted in 1993, aims to create a coherent land policy for all land use in Niger, including land utilization by pastoral peoples. For the nomads, the acknowledgement of "area of attachment" (terroir d'attache) is probably the most important aspect of these laws, as it recognizes communal property and nomadic lifestyles. (Lund, 1998) The implementation of the Rural Code is, however, a difficult task; Niger is classified on the human development indexes as one of the poorest countries in the world, suffering from scarce resources and an enormous debt burden. (World Bank, 1991) It will also prove complicated to determine what groups should be recognized as having legitimate claims to particular areas. It remains to be seen how effective these laws will be in protecting the rights of Niger's pastoral people.

References & further reading:

Breman, H., et al. (1986). Analyse des Conditions de l'Élevage et Propositions de Politiques et de Programmes. République du Niger. CABO, Wageningen Pays-Bas.

Bonfiglioli, A.M. (1988). DuDal: Histoire de Famille et Histoire de Troupeau chez un Groupe de WoDaaBe du Niger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dupire, M. (1962). Peuls Nomades: Étude descriptive des WoDaaBe du Sahel Nigérien. Paris: Institut d'Ethnoglogie.

Franke, R.W. & Chasin, B.H. (1980). Seeds of Famine: Ecological Destruction and the Development Dilemma in the West African Sahel. New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld Publishers.

Galaty, J.G. (1999). Losing Ground: Indigneous Rights and Recourse Across Africa. Cultural Survival Quarterly 23:4.

Mohamed Salih, M.A. (1995). Pastoralist Migration to Small Towns in Africa. In The Migration Experience in Africa. Jonathan Baker & Tade Akin Aina, Eds. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

Loftsdóttir, K. (2000). The Bush is Sweet: Identity and Desire among the WoDaaBe in Niger. Ph.D. dissertation. Arizona: The University of Arizona.

Painter, T.M. (1987). Bringing land Back In: Changing Strategies to Improve Agricultural Production in the West African Sahel. Land at Risk in the Third World: Local-Level Perspecitve. Peter D. Little, Michael M. Horowitz, & A. Endre Nyerges, Eds. Boulder and London: Westview Press.

République du Niger. (1993). Schema Directeur de Mise en Valeur et de Gestion des Resources en Eau. Niamey: Ministère de l'Hydraulique et de l'Environnement.

Stenning, D.J. (1959). Savannah Nomads: A Study of the WoDaaBe Pastoral Fulani of Western Bornu Province, Northern Region, Nigeria. London: Oxford University Press.

Swift, J. et al. (1984). Pastoral Development in Central Niger. Jeremy Swift, Ed. Niamey, Niger: USAID.

World Bank. (1991, November 25). Niger Country Strategy Paper (CESP).

(1). My ethnographic fieldwork was conducted among a group of WoDaaBe in the Tchin-Tabaraden area in the northwestern part of Niger, as well as among migrant workers from the same lineage group, working in Niamey, Niger's capital. Even though individuals from most families worked as migrant workers, a few families had gained livable herds, and some of the migrant laborers had returned to their families.

(2). Not his real name.

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