Planet Sahel, a borderline territory

The Sahel is a land of transition between the desert and the savannah that precedes the jungles of the south. It is a horizontal strip of land spread across more than 10 countries. It crosses the entire African continent from east to west at its widest point, and as a borderland it marks the character of its people, cultures, history, landscapes, fauna and flora.

Forbidden by zones and times, the Sahel fascinates us. That’s why we don’t want to give up this harsh, inhospitable, yet tremendously beautiful land. Cities of mud, nomads, music, oral tradition, remains of ancient civilisations, markets, wildlife, huge mountains, the presence of Islam and animism. There’s so much to explore in this borderland…

The character of the Sahel

The Sahel stretches some 6,000 km from coast to coast and covers more than three million square kilometres. Geographically, it crosses the territories of 12 to 13 countries, with no clearly delimited borders.

Politically it is recognised in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and Senegal, which are present in the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS) programme. This programme aims to work towards a more prosperous and secure Sahel for its inhabitants.

Sahel is an Arabic word meaning “coast” or “edge”, describing very graphically the terrain it occupies.

sahel map
Sahel territory

The Sahel may be the largest semi-desert territory in the world. In recent years it is estimated to have widened by 50-200 km southwards due to climate change.

Droughts are more frequent, land and resources have become poorer. Rainy seasons are shorter, average temperatures have risen.

A hostile environment for humans, but not so hostile compared to the Sahara desert that stretches immediately to the north.

Its frontier character can be transferred to the cultures that have developed and are developing there. The Sahel is home to some 400 million people of diverse cultures, but there are aspects common to all or almost all of them. Ways of doing things, of living, of feeling.

Subsistence farming and pastoralism are the norm in the Sahel. So is hospitality. Generosity is a vital issue because everyone knows that life hangs in the balance.

nomads of lake chad
Nomads of Lake Chad – Sahel

Forbidden territory

At the same time that this hospitality exists in almost every corner of the Sahel, it has always been, is, and will probably continue to be, a place where banditry thrives as an “alternative response” to the precariousness of life. It is also a land contested for its great geostrategic value and, above all, for the natural wealth it holds.

The Sahel is home to oil, uranium, gold and other minerals of great value to modern life. For the rich in other latitudes. A wealth that arouses the greed of many governments and other aspirants to power.

Terrorist groups have settled in and, sadly, are already part of the “planet Sahel”, sowing horror. Like the bandits of old, but perhaps more ruthless, or more far-reaching because weapons technology has made it easier.

Travelling to the Sahel is not easy and is not without risk, but these threats do not occupy all of its vast territory. Nor do they do so permanently.

public transport in Niger
Public transport in Niger – Sahel

Sahelian landscapes, fauna and flora

Did you know that the Sahel is home to vast ergs of dunes, grassy plains and huge ranges of magmatic rock, and that it is crossed by several of the great rivers of the African continent, including the mythical Niger River, which turned the first Western explorers upside down?

The landscapes of the Sahel are as arid as they are poetic. This transient terrain is characterised by the presence of water at certain points, and with it a life far more exuberant than we might think.

In the Niger, the Logone and a few others, hippos still live and terrorise the riverbank dwellers. Gazelles are not hard to come across, and it’s still possible to see elephants in places like Lake Chad, or giraffes in some corners of Niger and Chad.

giraffe of zakouma park
A giraffe in Zakouma N. P. in Chad
mali's green rainy plain
The green landscape in the Sahel of Mali

If you train your eyes a little, you will discover hundreds of species of birds, both migratory and permanent residents, that are brightly coloured among the vegetation. Reds, oranges and electric blues seem to flash in the landscape dominated by beige tones. It is exciting to see them so small and determined to fly, to live.

flor del baobab

Plants are also a very interesting chapter. From the typical acacias whose branches are full of spikes, to succulents that are able to store water to withstand the heat. And when it rains, oh yes, when it rains. The seeds sprout with unimaginable speed, the colourful flowers appear and, to the delight of the cattle, the pastures become green.

In the photo, baobab blossom in Dogon country (Mali).

huerto de lechugas en el sahel
Lettuce garden by the river in southern Chad

Among the wildlife there is always human life. Huge herds of camels, cows with horns rising defiantly to the sky, goats and sheep swarm across the vast plains of Chad, the fields of Niger, or the lands of Mali. They are the means of subsistence for nomads and semi-nomads, and also a reason for conflict with farmers.

The struggle for resources is no joke in the Sahel, and among these resources, water is the most precious.

Cow silouette with big horns
Cow in a camp in the vicinity of Lake Chad

The peoples and cultures of the Sahel

The Sahel was once home to some of the most advanced civilisations on the planet. The Shongai Empire, the Mandenka or Mali Empire, the Hausa Country of Nigeria and Niger, the Kanem-Bornu kingdom of Chad, the Mauritanian Mauri Empire and many more.

Mud-brick palaces in Niger

Then there are the nomadic peoples among whom our beloved Fulani and the various families such as the Wodaabe, Yayai, etc. stand out. There are also the “Arabs” (as they call themselves) and the Tubus of Chad.

The Hausas still exist with their sultanates, and the mythical Tuareg are not lacking either. The Dogon people of Mali, the Lobi of Burkina Faso… We could extend the list and mention several hundred peoples, but it would not do much good.

two Tuareg walking in a market
Tuaregs at a market in Niger
House of the word in Dogon country
House of the word or toguna in Dogon Country, Mali

Every trip to the Sahel can bring encounters not just with one people, but with many. And each has its own traditions and way of life, its own tools, aesthetics and beliefs.

Among the beliefs, we must highlight the different forms of “animism” or traditional religions that converge in the veneration of spirits and the ceremonies surrounding them. A powerful attraction that we in Kumakonda value highly.

It is no exaggeration to say that there are animist ceremonies and rituals that can justify a trip to the Sahel, such as the Bori ceremony in Niger or the Gerewol festival.

bori ceremony
Participant in a Bori ceremony in Niger – Sahel
Celebrating Gerewol in Chad – Sahel

The aesthetics of the Sahel

The aesthetics of the Sahel are a marvel for amateur and professional photographers alike. It offers a minimalism that allows you to focus on what matters.

The contrast of the dominant colours is of a beauty that rarely disappoints. Yellow and ochre tones battle with the bright blue of the sky. Sandstorms or harmattan bring a strange homogeneity, as if from another planet. The colours of some of the costumes are bursts of light and life.

boy with cows in chad
Image of Chad – Sahel

The silhouettes silhouetted in the orange sunsets by the presence of dust in the atmosphere, the burnt soils, the mud cities, the mountains, the great rivers, the markets.

In these lands, whether we are in one country or another, it is possible to find medieval scenes and even some that could be straight out of Neolithic times, such as women grinding grain on large stones. Or the scenes of shepherding and the transit of nomads with their belongings. Unforgettable images.

south chad
South of Djamena – Sahel
musgum village in chad
Nightfall in a musgum village – Sahel

The music of the Sahel

Music is one of the most important arts for the backbone of the human being. In the Sahel, the griots, highly respected figures in the rural world who transmit the memory of their people through songs and stories, live on.

In Africa, words have been the element that sustains the transmission of epics, tales, legends, the history of ancient kingdoms and family memories.

Attending one of their performances and conversing with these “walking libraries” can always be enriching. The simple instruments offer very powerful sounds.

griot from the south of chad in the sahel
Griot from the South of Chad – Sahel
griot del sahel
Griot from the Mandinga region (Mali, Burkina Faso) – Sahel

But the musical panorama of the Sahel does not end with griots and traditional instruments. Especially in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria, where great percussionists, guitarists and singers have made a name for themselves at the top of the international music scene.

We cannot forget that in the restless Lagos the Afrobeat musical style was born, or that artists such as Salif Keita have developed in Bamako.

They have developed their own music that draws from all possible sources. From reggae, blues, jazz… even disco music. With this music, they claim, they express their lives and the will for change of the people who have seen them born. The result ranges from poetic and evocative to strident.

The sahelian countries visited by Kumakonda

As mentioned above, this region is one of Kumakonda’s favourite destinations. It is one of the few places we don’t mind coming back to again and again to discover it for new travellers.

Chad

Chad is a country we already consider a brother country and you know that we return every year not once, but several times. The spectacular deserts of the north are pure adventure, but no less so are the communities of Lake Chad and the south of the country along the Logone River.

women dancing in chad
Chad – Sahel

Western Africa

The February 2024 African Deep Routes expedition to Mali, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Gambia in search of the music and oral tradition of the Sahel is a dream that we have finally been able to realise. A cultural journey with which we want to get closer to the cultural and social roots of this part of the continent. We hope to repeat in 2025 😉.

Nigeria

Another example is northern Nigeria, where one of the most important festivals in the area takes place: the Durbar Festival in Kano, a cultural, political and religious celebration in which the subjects pay homage to the Emir.

Kano was a crossroads of caravans and the whole region promises much joy, so we are convinced that we will continue to explore this Sahelian country with new proposals.

nigeria
Emir from the north of Nigeria – Sahel

Niger

Niger, a forbidden territory until recently, is another country we have explored and offer travel programmes focused on discovering its architectural and ethnic richness. A country of friendly people and a diamond in the rough for lovers of the Sahel.

niger architecture
Niger, Sahel

Hopefully one day the northern Mali routes will be reopened and we will be able to see Mopti, Gao or Timbuktu, the Sahel bordering the Sahara. In Shah Allah.

    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.

    Trips that may interest you

    Salt Caravan Sahara

    4250€ / Person

    Salt Caravan Expedition in Chad, the initiatory journey – Nov 2024

    24 November -
    14 December 2024

    3900€ / Person

    Niger: Gerewol Festival, Agadez Hausa territory, sultanates and animist ceremonies

    24 September -
    5 October 2024

    1650€ / Person

    Nigeria, Durbar Festival of Kano in April 2024 – 7 days

    8 April -
    14 April 2024

    3900€ / Person

    DR Congo, cultural immersion / 18 days – July 2024

    14 July -
    31 July 2024

    3800€ / Person

    African Culture & Music Expedition “Deep Roots” – Exclusive trip – Febr 2024

    1 February -
    22 February 2024

    1700€ / Person

    Chad Gerewol Festival, 6 days in October 2024

    7 October -
    12 October 2024

    2750€ / Person

    Congo (DRC) – Mukanda , Pende tradition, urban culture / August 2024

    2 August -
    14 August 2024

    3750€ / Person

    Gerewol Festival, Ennedi and Ounianga (Oct 2024)

    7 October -
    25 October 2024

    3350€ / Person

    Chad – Lake Chad, Ennedi & Ounianga / 19 days in January 2025

    8 January -
    26 January 2025