On the Path of the Desert Nomads
By Kevin Peer
When it started to look like a rumpled dishtowel I was saved by my friend Labul, who arranged it for me as he had many times before. Labul's cousin Peroji looked at me slyly from fireside, then stood up and mimicked a confrontation that I had had with the camp dogs the night before. They had been barking and fighting during much of the moonlit night until I finally confronted them in my sweatpants and sandals, chasing and waving my herding staff at them. Peroji's imitation was brilliant and everyone laughed, knowing that this was merely the first jest of the day in a reparte between Peroji and I that had been ongoing for nearly three weeks. We were of the same age, after all, and were pretty much obligated by Wodaabe custom to good-naturedly harass each other as much as possible.
Before I could figure out a suitable comeback to Peroji's jest, the sun had seared its way through the horizon-like layer of moisture and sub-Saharan dust and streamed through the lower branches of the camp's acacia trees. I picked up my Canon XL-l and walked to the eastern side of camp where the morning routine of my Wodaabe friends was now so beautifully illuminated. I filmed many things during the next hour before the sun reasserted its harsh dominion over the landscape: Idibapey milking one of the family's elegant Zebu cows; Juuti heading out with his herd of sheep to graze them for the day; Amina fanning a small cooking fire and then heating a pot of millet gruel, framed in my viewfinder between the long horns of a resting bull.
Over much of the past month, I had been living with a family group of the Wodaabe tribe. They are a gentle and beautiful nomadic people who occupy a parched region of marginal grassland in central Niger that we know here as the Sahel. I had lived and filmed among the Wodaabe for the first time in 1987 as a director/cameraman for National Geographic EXPLORER. My film, Way of the Wodaabe, portrayed a family group of the Kassasawa lineage and a gifted photographer named Carol Beckwith who, over the years had documented, lived among them, and become their close friend and ally.
This time I was among the Wodaabe with another artist explorer named Leslie Clark. She is a remarkable painter who specializes in portraits of intact nomadic cultures, particularly the Wodaabe and the Tuareg tribes. The Tuareg are a proud and fiercely independent culture who in Niger claim allegiance to the northern reaches of the Sahel as well as the Sahara desert. I had met Leslie shortly after moving to Ojai, California in 1991, and we soon decided to join forces on her next expedition into the Niger interior. She would follow the route that she had taken for the past several years by Land Cruiser and by camelback through the encampments of her Wodaabe and Tuareg friends—sketching, painting, and photographing—and I would shoot a documentary on her and on the nomads themselves.
My hope was to create a documentary that would reflect the great wisdom and charisma of the Wodaabe, the pride and elegant nobility of the Tuareg, the harsh and serene beauty of the Sahara, and the great fortitude and extraordinary artistic talent of Leslie. On September 28, 1998 we departed for Niger, and nine weeks later we emerged with 35 hours of remarkable mini-DV footage, as well as many memories of immense challenges, deep friendships, and vast, silent landscapes of sand and stone. Preparations for the expedition began several months before our departure. The political situation in Niger was volatile. An illegitimate government had recently installed itself via military coup and a decade-long Tuareg uprising had ended only a few months previous. Heavily armed bands of Tuareg rebels, who were more interested in banditry than political and civil rights, roamed the hinterlands. To insure our safe passage as much as possible, Leslie kept in contact with her friends and allies in Niger as often as the country's archaic phone system would allow.
These friends and allies included the U.S. Ambassador, Wodaabe and Tuareg friends, and the owners of two reputable expedition tour companies (Dunes Voyages in Niger and Turtle Tours in the U.S.). This network of fine and trusted people was invaluable for letting us know where it was safe to travel and where it wasn't. Leslie made arrangements to do the expedition through Dunes Voyages, who would provide an experienced and respected driver-guide, a reliable vehicle, and all necessary camping equipment. In such a remote and unstable area, having the help of a guide who is deeply knowledgeable about the culture, the landscape, and the mechanical workings of whatever means of conveyance is being used is absolutely essential. It is more than a matter of convenience or efficiency: it can be a matter of life or death.
Another vital aspect of preparation for the trip was knowing the risks that would be posed from the microscopic realm of life and taking the necessary precautions. Although yellow fever was the only disease we were required to be immunized against: the Center for Disease Control and the State Department suggested preparations against other interesting maladies, including polio, tetanus, hepatitis, typhoid fever, and malaria.
This vaccination process proved to be a rather costly and not painless process, and I recommend that it be done well in advance of departure time. We also got a travel insurance plan with medical evacuation included since in the event of a bad injury or illness, we wanted to be able to get to a country with modern and safe medical facilities ASAP. And finally, we brought a very capable first aid kit and plenty of antibiotics, geared to address as many of the mishaps (including scorpions stings) that we might possibly encounter.
Camera equipment prep also involved a good deal of research to insure that I would be able to render the kinds of images I was hoping for while working in the brutal heat and dust of the Sahel and Sahara. I decided to shoot on mini-DV for several reasons: I was to be a one-man crew and so I needed to keep the equipment as light and simple as possible; I wanted to minimize my visibility to draw as little attention to myself as possible; and, last but certainly not least, I wanted to keep the production costs to a minimum.
I chose as my primary camera the Canon XL-1 and as my second/backup camera a Sony VX-1000. Accessories included a Kenko wide-angle adapter (for the Sony), a Canon video light, a Flex-Fill portable reflector, a Sennheiser ME-66 short shotgun mic with Zeppelin and "fuzzy cat" windscreen, plenty of batteries, a car battery adapter to recharge batteries, and a number of long-life "expedition batteries" for our camel trek into the Sahara. I designed and had made a dust cover for each of the cameras, and packed miscellaneous items such as large Ziplock bags, a durable space blanket, gaffer's tape, epoxy glue, and canned air. I packed the equipment so that both cameras and 30 hours worth of batteries and tape could be included in my carry-on luggage, just in case lhe rest of the baggage was tragically lost en route to Niger.
October 27, 1998, 9:40 PM, at the site of a traditional Wodaabe Geerewol celebration. I was sitting inside of our Toyota Land Cruiser with the windows rolled up, seeking refuge from the relentless wind and dust so that I could clean the grit that had made its way into the viewfinder optics of the XL-I. The temperature was still well into the 90s and I was drenched in sweat. A cacophony of now-familiar sounds emerged from the darkness around me: groups of young men chanting and clapping as they performed the circular Ruune dance; the gurgling roar of camels complaining as their riders mounted or dismounted; the musical voices of young Wodaabe women as they walked by on their way to the courting grounds, children laughing, donkeys braying, a boom box with blown-out speakers blasting forth the latest in Tuareg revolutionary songs...
For the past few days Leslie and I had been at a remote outpost of mud huts and market stalls which had been transformed into an immense celebration of courtship, marriage, and recent births. Well over a thousand nomads were gathered here, and we were the only "outsiders" present. During this particular day I had focused mostly on a colorful dance called the Yaake, a dance of charisma and seductive charm that the men performed before the watchful gaze of many dozens of available women. They danced in long lines facing the afternoon sun, bedecked in finely embroidered tunics accented by many talismans of copper, silver and leather. I was given permission to walk and film freely among the dancers and observers, and at one point was even given a ride on the back of a camel to get overhead shots.
The cooperation and warmth that I experienced from the Wodaabe provided an affirmation that my hope of being a comfortable presence among them was being fulfilled. Part of this was because I had such a low profile: one man crew, smallish DV camera, no boom pole hoisted aloft to record sound, or mysterious groping in a black bag to change film. The most noticeable feature of my equipment profile was the "fuzzy cat"—covered zeppelin that I had mounted on top of my XL-I to protect the shotgun mike from the Sahel's fierce winds. The Wodaabe called the rig my "dog" and were constantly coming up and stroking its fur.
I believe that my warm reception was also based on the tact that I tried (however imperfectly) to speak their language, I had arrived with and was obviously good friends with someone whom they loved and respected (Leslie), and I did my best to keep the perspective in my moment-to-moment awareness that calm, good humor, and acceptance of the nomadic pace of life were more important than always "getting the shot."
I didn't always succeed in keeping this attitude—but the Wodaabe are very generous in their compassion and my failings were readily forgiven. Another thing that helped immensely was a ritual of sorts that I always do when I meet the subjects of my films. This ritual is simply the process of explaining my purpose for being among them, the ideas and values that the film will explore, and the benefit that I hope the film will offer for them as a result of its creation. Soon after our arrival in Niger Leslie and I had met with Tambouri, the chief of the lineage with whom we were staying, and had told him that we were there hoping to learn from them—that they were the ones who had the wisdom and lifeways that could teach our people, not the other way around.
And it was our desire and hope that in return, the larger world that would see this film would help to encourage their country's government to protect the grazing lands that were vital for their way of life to continue.
In early November Leslie and I left Wodaabe territory and entered the realm of the Sahara. I shifted the focus of my filming to the harshness and beauty of the desert landscape and the challenges that it presented to Leslie for traveling, as well as for painting. I filmed her at one of our camps diligently painting in the blowing sands of 40 mph winds with her canvas lashed to the back of the Land Cruiser. By that time I had modified the dust cover for my XLI twice and it was now a Frankensteinesque composite of awning material, see-through mylar, shesh fabric, and gaffer's tape. It was mighty ugly, but it worked, I used the Sony VX- 1000 with the Kenko wide-angle adapter for travel shots that I took both inside the vehicle and while hanging out of the open window with the camera near to the ground.
November 14, 1998. 1:10 PM—at a Tuareg encampment near Kogo. I was resting under the gnarled branches of a fiercely-thorned acacia tree, digesting my lunch, doing what I had done every day at this time since entering the Sahara desert: waiting for the sun to descend, the wind and heat to dissipate, and the light to warm and soften. Swarms of immense wasps the color of volcanic rock were alighting on anything exuding the slightest hint of moisture (fortunately they were not bad-tempered). Leslie was sketching a revered Tuareg elder named Ibehra as he carefully repacked the contents of his camel saddlebag. Only his eyes and the upper bridge of his nose were visible to us, the rest of his face being veiled beneath the graceful wrappings of a long indigo shesh in the tradition of the true desert Tuareg. My XL-1 camera remained quietly tucked away beneath a reflective "space blanket," safe and yet ready to grab.
We had been in this remote camp for two days, and I had filmed various scenes of Tuareg camp life, as well as sequences of Leslie as she painted watercolor portraits of Ibehra and his extended family. I had also filmed a Tinde celebration. in which a ring of beautifully dressed Tuareg women chanted and drummed while 20 or so men circled them on their magnificent camels. At one point I was sitting on the outer periphery of the women, filming the men as they circled their camels closer and closer, when one of the camels reached back and kicked me hard in my lower back. Fortunately the foot of a camel is not hoofed and I was only bruised. A few minutes later one of the riders lost hold of the rein and his camel went berserk. I filmed through the glowing backlit Saharan dust as the camel bellowed and pitched its rider, destroyed its saddle and saddlebags, and ran into the distance.
The next day we would rise in the chill air of dawn and ride for three days by camelback to the magnificent dunes of Arakao. It would be the final leg of our expedition, a journey through landscapes of deep stillness and unspeakable beauty. It would be a time to reflect on the profound experiences that were recently behind us, and the blessings and discontents of the homeland that we would soon be returning to.
Kevin Peer is a documentary filmmaker, teacher and writer based in Santa Barbara, California. Between his projects he is editing together the footage from the Niger expedition for a 30-to-60-minute film titled, On the Path of the Desert Nomads. Kevin can be reached via email at email@example.com.