blood on the sand
The mailman has worn a path through the grass in my front yard. It’s a part of the yard that lacks direct sunlight, so the grass is thin and fragile to begin with. Six days a week, the mailman walks exactly the same path, trampling what grows and wearing it down to the dirt. Even in the winter when snow and ice cover the ground, he walks with his Sno-Trackers, which are like sandpaper on the frozen turf. It pisses me off.
I’m not upset with the mailman, himself. It is US Postal Service policy that he take the shortest route from my mailbox to my neighbor’s. He’s just doing his job. But the policy is going to force me to do some expensive landscaping and put pavers in a place I’d rather have grass. It makes me ask if I have any say in this - if I, as the property owner, have the right to say who does what on my land.
In all of human history has anything incited more fighting than the ownership and control of territory? At any given time around the globe, there are probably a thousand armed conflicts going on over land. Crimea has been annexed and Ukraine destabilized by Vladimir Putin as he pushes for greater Russian control of the Black Sea. In bloody fighting, IS seized huge tracts of Syria and Iraq for their caliphate … and then lost it all again in even more bloody fighting. There’s the whole Israel / Palestine thing.
And then there’s this: the farmers versus the Fulani in West Africa. It’s the kind of news story that you won’t find in the US media unless you’re looking for it - the kind of conflict that is characterized as “low-level” and “local” and it hardly makes the news here, but it isn’t low-level at all for the folks living and dying at ground-zero.
I was drawn to the story by the byline - I recognized the writer as someone I have met, and I recognized the location as a place that I have been. Violence has erupted between the Fulani, semi-nomadic, mostly Muslim herders of livestock, and the local farmers and villagers who tend to be Christian.
The article that I read came from a Christian media outlet, so it tended to be a bit one-sided, but as I looked a little deeper, it seemed that both sides could be characterized as aggressors and victims.
The farmers get understandably upset when the Fulani come through with their herds. The Fulani erect temporary dwellings and the cattle eat and trample everything in their path - including the crops that the farmers have planted and tended. That pisses them off.
The Fulani, for their part, are trying to live the life that their people have for centuries, moving with their herds of cattle and goats to lands which are suitable for grazing. Those lands, however, are shrinking as the Sahara desert is pushing down from the North and greater areas of bushland are converted to crops. They feel as if they have nowhere to go, in a place they have always been. That pisses them off.
Flashpoints are reached and January, 2018 was a particularly violent month in the Lau Local Government Area in Taraba State, Nigeria. According to the article, at least a hundred people are dead or missing as Fulani have attacked with guns and machetes and burned farming villages to the ground. The article doesn’t say how many Fulani the farmers have killed, but if you dig into the story a bit, you find hints that the violence is not one-sided.
As I said, I was attracted to the story because I’ve been there. I’ve been to Lau - it’s where we crossed the Benue River on the rickety ferry boats. (read crossing) Our drive from Jalingo to Lau was over a dirt trail through a vast plain of sandy soil and miscellaneous-looking scrubland. There were occasional small villages surrounded by farm fields, and we even saw some Fulani, with their herds and their small dome-dwellings.
It had the appearance of a very hard place to make a living either herding or farming. Weather patterns in the area are monsoon-like: sometimes flooded and sometimes bone-dry. It is always oppressively hot and humid. The soil doesn’t appear to be particularly fertile. A farmer might be able to pay the local rich guy to bring his tractor and till the soil, but most of the work is done the back-breaking way - bent-over at the waist, pulling weeds and harvesting by hand. And the same is true for the Fulani, the ones we saw walked everywhere. They weren’t herding their animals with ATVs or Jeeps. They used their young children the way a Scottish sheep herder would use well-trained dogs - to patrol the periphery of the heard and ensure that no single animal strayed too far from the group.
The thing that stood out the most as we drove through the Lau area was how quiet it was. You could hear the birds and the bugs, but that was about it. It was too hot for a warm-blooded animal to expend the energy to make a sound. It was, at the time, peaceful.
Here are a few pictures:
But, I imagine some of those villages we drove through are smoking ruins now, and some of the Fulani and the cattle are dead. It is a conflict that is not totally like, but not totally unlike the one in our American history, where the European immigrants pushed into the territory already occupied by the native people and forced them to the margins, or killed them.
I don’t claim to have any wisdom, any solution for the Fulani vs. farmer situation. Even if I did, it is probably inappropriate for me to weigh in on a situation that is likely more complex than I realize.
Desperate people will do what they think they have to do to survive. It just gives me pause that a place I have passed through in the past, and fully intend to again . . . a place I was able to pass through peacefully . . . is now dangerous and tense.
I don’t really have a solution for my situation with the mailman, either. I resent that the US Postal Service assumes such authority to damage my lawn, but I appreciate that the letter carrier comes by every day with a stack of things for me pile on the dining room table. I don’t have a solution, but I don't think, at this point, we’ll resort to bloodshed.