Lake Chad, a stunning natural and cultural ecosystem

Lake Chad is a mythical place in Central Africa. It is one of the great symbols of the continent, like Kilimanjaro or the Sahara Desert. Divided between Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon since 1880, for a long time it was a great inland sea that watered the life of the Sahel. In this article we share some knowledge and experiences of an environment that we will soon be exploring from Kumakonda.

A brief history of Lake Chad

What is Lake Chad, where does it come from and where is it going? These are the typical questions you ask yourself when you start reading or, even better, thinking about travelling there.

As we were told during the Kumakonda expedition in February 2022, Lac Chad is the name by which western explorers Hugh Clapperton and Dixon Denham christened it when they reached its shores in 1823. According to this source and oral tradition, the explorers asked the nomadic tribes inhabiting its waters what they called the place. Their answer was “Chad”.

Lake Chad is an endorheic lake, i.e. it does not lose water either by infiltration into the subsoil or by surface evacuation. Only by evaporation. Fed by the waters of the Chari river, which in turn receives the waters of the Logone, Lake Chad is not what it used to be. Just take a look at the satellite images from then and now.

Scientists cannot agree on what has happened to cause the surface of Lake Chad to shrink by 90% in just 25 years (1960-1985) – climate change? Natural cycles of its own?

image depicting the recession of Lake Chad between 1963 and 2001
Photo by Javier del Valle / Source: ResearchGate.

There are two theories to explain the regression of the last decades

1️⃣ Human pressure

The large increase in population (and livestock) in the Lake Chad regions, coupled with massive water abstraction for irrigated crops in the south, has led to perhaps unprecedented water stress. It is said that between 13 and 15 million people currently depend on the waters of Lake Chad. Other sources speak of 40 million.

This can be added to prolonged droughts due to climate change, and the fact that as water mass decreases, evaporation is faster and more efficient.

2️⃣ The natural cycles of Lake Chad

Some experts argue that these changes are not new. They have occurred long before. For example, in the 15th century Lake Chad even disappeared, while in the 1950s it recovered to peak levels. These are just two examples, but it is now known that over the course of several millennia the lake has waxed and waned.

The big question is whether the demographic and agricultural variables are powerful enough to make the current situation irreversible. Or if, on the contrary, in a few decades it will return to being the sea that it was.

However, it is clear that to travel to Lake Chad is to enter a very special place even today. We are in a region made up of thousands of islands and canals that form an unfathomable labyrinth, a refuge for terrorists but also for nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes for centuries. There are safe zones, precisely in Chad, so it is possible to go. And it is well worth it. Let’s take a closer look at what you can see in Lake Chad.

Fisherman in his boat in front of an island covered in papyrus
Lake Chad fisherman in front of a papyrus-covered island

Isseirom: walking with the fifth generation of sultans

Isseirom is a village of mud houses located a few dozen kilometres from the first waters of Lake Chad. At least in the dry season. Probably a few years ago it was on the shores of the lake, but we have already seen that things have changed a lot in these landscapes.

There we met Mustafa, who turned out to be an excellent conversationalist on the history of the region. One of those African “libraries” if the Malian Amadou Hampate Ba’s saying goes: “In Africa, when an old man dies, a library burns”.

It also happened to be Friday. The day of the weekly market. Mustapha invited us to go with him as he had some errands to run (basically to buy food to entertain us), and of course we didn’t hesitate to accept the offer

It was a harmattan day, which did not help us to think that we were “near” Lake Chad. The atmosphere was heavy with dust or suspended sand and gave an air of an old sepia-toned film. As if we were immersed in a strange dream, we made our way through the quiet streets to the large square where the market was set up.

Mustafa, dressed in an elegant traditional white suit with a matching turban, was a few steps ahead of us. His image was imposing. People greeted him in a very respectful manner and we did not hesitate to understand that we were walking in the company of an authority figure.

Isseirom street with old woman in blue on donkey back near chad lake
Walking towards Isseirom market with Mustafa a few steps ahead of us.

The Isseirom market has been held since 1940 and little seems to have changed since then.

Little has changed, except for the little things that indicate that we are in the 21st century: a stand with a generator to charge mobile phones, the sale of small solar panels to provide a little electricity in the home …

As in so many markets in the Sahel, the stalls are set up under awnings supported by thick poles. The goods are piled on mats on the ground, but always neatly presented. The whole is a labyrinth of streets through which people, camels and carts move in a joyful chaos.

dried fish stall in Isseirom with smiling saleswoman squatting down.
Sale of dried fish in Isseirom

The market is well organised. Onions, potatoes, dried fish, millet, dates and other foodstuffs take up the most space. A little further on are the meat stalls and grills, to be prepared on the spot if the customers want it. The plastic pots and pans, as well as kitchen utensils, are stacked in another area.

Kanembou women are in charge of sales except in the meat area. They attract customers by shouting out what they are selling, a gesture that is as old as it is modern. Suddenly we see a stall with plates of spirulina, the green algae that is considered a “superfood” in the West. This is a very clear sign that we are close to Lake Chad, as it is in its waters that it is harvested.

spirulina stall at isseirom market near chad lake
Spirulina in the form of slabs for sale at Isseirom market

After walking up and down the market looking for ingredients for dinner, interacting with the people and enjoying the atmosphere, we go back the way we came and take refuge in Mustafa’s house, our improvised place to spend the night to avoid the harmattan.

Isseirom market with a seated camel, goats and men in turbans
Fantastic atmosphere at the Isseirom market, near Lake Chad.

Sitting in the guest room furnished with cushions and mats, it’s time for conversation.

Host in white suit and turban sitting on the carpet
Mustafa in the guest house

Mustapha tells us in his excellent French that he belongs to the fifth generation of sultans in the area. That is why, we think, he is such an educated man.

He talks about his family’s history, the role of sultanates, the origin of Lake Chad’s name and how it was always an untamed place because there was never a sultanate to rule its waters.

Unlike the rest of Chad, there was never a sultanate in “the great lake” because everyone was afraid of the water.

All except the Buduma and Kanembou (originaries of Lake Chad), who have occupied its waters since at least the 16th century.

Approaching Lake Chad

We drive in our 4×4 through a desert that does not anticipate any lake. Dunes, sandy tracks, dust and harmattan in the atmosphere, acacias crowned with spikes, some goats, some nomads riding their dromedaries. Until groups of palm trees, reeds and vegetation more typical of the banks of a river or lake begin to appear.

Some palm trees are about to be swallowed up by the dunes, but others are growing strong around lake beds that are now dry. Dry for a short time now, as you can see that the soil is still damp in its dark tones. Perhaps a few weeks earlier it would have been different.

landscape near Lake Chad with palm trees and dunes

The plasticity of the landscape depending on whether there is water or not has always fascinated me. From yellow, brown or white, it can change to green and the colours of flowers in just a few days. It is the miracle of life.

Suddenly a large herd of cows bursts onto the track. It is driven by a couple of boys in turbans who look sideways at us. The cows are huge and sport arching horns that can reach a metre in length. Could they be the kuri cows of Lake Chad?

boy with a turban and a stick carrying a herd of big-horned cows
Are they kouri cows?

The kuri or kauri cows, also called buduma, dongolé or kuburi, are a breed endemic to Lake Chad and fully adapted to the aquatic environment. Their difference is that they are able to swim long distances to go from island to island in search of food. They are the most precious asset of their owners, the Bouduma or Buduma, who herd them from their dugout canoes. We will talk about these people in another article.

As we approach Lake Chad, life announces itself more decisively. We spot a few gazelles that startle as we pass and small birds in bright reds and oranges. The harmattan unifies the atmosphere but does not detract from the excitement. The emotion that begins to invade us in the knowledge that we will soon see Lake Chad.

thompson gazelle among acacias
A Thompson’s gazelle surprises us near Lake Chad

In front of Lake Chad, a Paradise in the Desert

The expanse of blue water, populated by islands laden with vegetation and birds soaring through the skies, is incredible. Coming from the desert, there is no better expression for paradise.

canoe fisherman on the Lake Chad
Fisherman on Lake Chad

One of the best experiences of this small expedition to Lake Chad was sailing with the Buduma to an island and getting to know the kauri cows first hand. On the way we were told that the depth of the lake is not very deep. Between 2 and 4 metres on average, and it can reach up to seven metres in its deepest parts during the rainy season. When the wind blows, waves rise up. It is like a sea, no doubt about it. .

kuri cows swimming in chad lake
Kuri cows swimming in Lake Chad

Over our heads and on the shores we observe many different birds. This is another of Lake Chad’s natural riches, as at least 70 different species of birds have been catalogued as migrating from Europe and Asia each year, choosing this place as a stopover point. Ibis, ospreys and other birds of prey, herons, cormorants and more. A true paradise for ornithologists and birdwatchers.

The last elephant herd on Lake Chad

There was a time when the wildlife in this great lake was much greater than it is today. Just as we can see many species in the Okavango Delta today, so it must have been not so long ago in Lake Chad.

Heinrich Oberjohann escribió sobre ello en su libro “Caza de elefantes en el lago Chad”, donde relata su experiencia persiguiendo a este gran mamífero, que él consideraba “elefantes acuáticos”. Afortunadamente, aún es posible ver elefantes en el lago Chad.

Alonso and the group of travellers who went with him on the December 2021 expedition encountered a herd of between 30 and 40 specimens in the vicinity of the lake. Walking freely among the acacia forests and water channels. An impressive encounter of which there are witness images. Don’t miss this video

There are an estimated 44 species of large and medium-sized mammals in the Lake Chad basin, including one last elephant population. This herd, comprising perhaps 60-80 individuals, is the second most northerly group of elephants in Africa, after the Hombori elephants in Mali. They could be considered an anachronism because of the complex region they inhabit, and it goes without saying that they are in danger of extinction.

Elephants are forced to coexist with nomadic groups and, above all, with sedentary populations. Conflicts inevitably arise, according to reports from different visits: lone elephants have attacked villages and people. The authorities have had to authorise the shooting of these animals to ensure the safety of the population. Crop destruction is also common, and when this happens, farmers face a very difficult year.

Spirulina cultivation in Lake Chad

In another section of Lake Chad, we go to meet the women who cultivate spirulina. This algae, which is now a coveted “superfood” on the markets of half the world, has become an opportunity for them. The FAO has provided funds for them to set up a cooperative and work with an improved collection and packaging system.

The cooperative brings together 145 women dedicated to cultivating spirulina. Or rather, extracting it from the waters of Lake Chad. They dive halfway down their legs, their coloured dresses rolled up, and extract the algae, which they then dry in the sun and grind up for sale.

They are Kanembou women who are open, curious and approachable. They smile, joke and try to communicate with us through gestures. I think they are proud of the work they do and of their empowerment thanks to the cooperative.

Kanembou woman with veil covering her face and smiling
Woman from the Lake Chad spirulina cooperative
alonso de kumakonda with women kanembou
Alonso and the kanembou spirulina collectors

From them we learn that the collection of spirulina has always been done by women, and that they belong to the “blacksmith” caste, one of the poorest in their society.

The day’s work begins after the household chores and childcare have been taken care of. Moreover, they do not live by the lake, so they have to travel some distance on foot or on the back of their donkeys and carry their belongings. But they don’t lose their humour. Or at least not that day, perhaps because we are a good distraction.

ribera del lago chad donde se extrae espirulina
The shores of Lake Chad where spirulina is harvested

Spirulina dihé, which is the variety found in Lake Chad, is one of the condiments that local people include in their meals in the form of a sauce. It has a strong vegetal taste and provides beta-carotene, iron and protein in abundance.

basin with green water due to the presence of spirulina
Spirulina harvesting in the waters of Lake Chad

There is no doubt that Lake Chad is a treasure trove of natural and cultural riches. All you have to do is set sail to discover it.

Tips for getting to know Lake Chad

To read more about Lake Chad (in French), we recommend you the Atlas du Lac Tchad.

✍ If you would like to travel with us to Lake Chad, you can write to us at info@kumakonda.com and we will inform you of the expeditions we are preparing. In the meantime, take a look at the wonders of Chad on our website.

We also suggest you watch this video of Alicia, the author of this article and member of the expedition to Lake Chad in February 2022 with Kumakonda. In it, she tells the story of those days full of emotion and adventure. 

    Information request

    If you prefer, you can contact us directly by writing to info@kumakonda.com and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

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