A Fulani Oasis

in the Sahel

A Fulani Oasis in the Sahel

Fall 2023

The teaching profession appeals to people who love to make detailed plans—but who have the good sense to know those plans will likely go awry.  Teachers take comfort in knowing that they will at least be surprised, sometimes pleasantly.

Our Dakar itinerary had been carefully planned.  Not that there weren’t marvelous surprises awaiting us each day—but before our departure from the U.S., Fulbright staff had sent us each a schedule with the names of the schools and agencies we were to visit, and whilst we were in Dakar, staff made sure we adhered to their well-laid plans.

Our time in Saint-Louis was different.  We seven Fulbright teachers were seasoned lesson planners back home, but in Saint-Louis I never saw an itinerary.  At the beginning of each day, we had only a vague idea of where we might be headed, but we quickly came to trust our host teacher-guides—three kind and knowledgeable classroom veterans who endured our ceaseless questions about their home country—and we happily awaited each day’s surprises.  Without exception, they led us on remarkable and revealing journeys during our week with them in northwestern Senegal.

“So where are we headed today?” one of us asked.

“An agricultural village and school near town,” they told us, with no further elaboration.  Their brief summary seemed to suggest that we ought to sit back and enjoy the ride, keep our eyes peeled, and await the daily surprise.

As it turned out, that eco-ag village was my favorite surprise during our Senegal sojourn.


National school systems are the proverbial “ocean-liners of education,” slow to change course because of their massive infrastructure.  Nimble kayaks they are not, and most school superintendents are relieved they don’t have to spend their tenure veering from bank to bank in the Stream of Learning, in constant fear of overturning their vessel.  But such bureaucratic inertia makes our school districts inherently conservative, and at least during my lifetime, our national system has lagged far behind important cultural changes in communication modes, gender identity, racial reckoning, and economic inequality.

Although I was educated in just such a three-story steam-powered public-school behemoth, once I graduated from high school, I spent very few hours in a conventional public-school classroom.  My last and best teaching assignment gave me an opportunity to teach in a charter school, which institution some view as a lifeboat for escaping our American educational Titanic.  Others—like me—see charters as scouting boats, lighter and more agile, crewed by a dozen dedicated oarsmen and a hardworking skipper willing to take up the oars as well as the rudder.

In my view, charters have a responsibility to experiment and to report back to traditional public (and if they’re interested, private and parochial) schools about how their educational experiments have fared.  Such a view may seem condescending, but if charters are willing to own their errors as well as their successes, then they can take their place as intrepid innovators in our national educational system.

That being claimed, let me counter with a deeper humility grounded in my daily teaching reality:  regarding my beloved charter school and my own work there, I am forced to recall playwright Samuel Beckett’s admission:   “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  So it is that my charter colleagues and I teach on, hoping to achieve more than “failing better.”


Senegal has no charter schools, but during our travels in Region Saint-Louis, I encountered a school undertaking the same mission that the best American charters devote themselves to:  responding vigorously to community needs.  In fact, said school exceeded the accomplishments of most American charters—perhaps because its founders had no other choice.

We found this remarkable school in Guélack, a village a half-hour’s drive southwest of Saint-Louis.  During the 1980s, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations partnered with Fulani climate refugees to create the Guélack Integrated Development Project.  Our particular destination was Guélack’s village school, which at present educates 700 young people in six grades and a kindergarten.  After visiting a number of bare, sometimes grim classrooms in Dakar and Saint-Louis, Guélack’s kindergarten provoked absolute jubilation among my teacher cohort; we beamed, we sighed, we cooed “aww!”, recalling the warm glow of our own early classroom memories.  To us, daily doing our best to forego judgment, this classroom at last looked like the genuine article:  colorful, child-sized, a little messy from recent play.

Guelack's kindergarten; a mural over the classroom entrance

Our guide led us next to the school’s science labs—the first we’d seen on our trip—and while not vast, the labs were equipped with scientific instruments, orderly and well-maintained.  While I’d seen multitudes of bright, inspired Senegalese students throughout our visit, here in Guélack was the first time I encountered an educational setting worthy of the students therein.

Lest I sound like another Western-style snob, let me say that I understand why Senegal’s schools are humble:  according to IMF statistics, the current per capita income in the United States is $76,000; in Senegal, it is $1600.  When daily income amounts to little more than 4 USD, choices become dire; inevitably, wages must be dedicated to the most pressing and fundamental needs:  food and shelter.  It’s easy for us in the prosperous West to insist that “education isn’t a luxury”—certainly it shouldn’t be—but our U.S. per capita income is 50 times higher than Senegal’s, so it is far easier for us to expand our list of life’s “essentials.”

If you asked me to design a utopian institution, I would no doubt weigh it down with all my darlings—bike paths, a cross-country running course, a vast but discerning library and art gallery; indeed, with all the best intentions, most of us would betray our prejudices building our “dream schools.”  But what if a village was determined to fulfill the deepest mission of education by responding deliberately and robustly to community needs—not merely by holding an obligatory “community conversation” or by writing a comprehensive plan that would inspire a village for a shining moment before being shelved and forgotten—what if it actually created from scratch and good sense an educational system founded on a community’s deepest needs?

It might well look like Guélack’s.

Its school’s indoor classrooms were among the most inviting we’d seen in Senegal, but for a teacher committed to outdoor and community educational settings, it was Guélack’s outdoor classrooms that most inspired me.  The school featured a working dairy farm, with a herd of well-tended goats on hand, including a couple kids eager for human attention.  Other stalls housed cows and chickens.  Manure production was prodigious, of course, but we were impressed to learn that residents processed the manure and harvested the methane it produced to heat water for their homes.

Village workers produced mud bricks onsite; from these bricks they had built a bread oven that put me in mind of the traditional hornos used for bread-baking back home in New Mexico.  Other residents raised pigeons 

overtop a small pond; pigeon guano fell through a screen into the water below, which provided nutrition in an aquatic bed of fish and water-plants.  We nodded appreciatively at a room full of solar batteries—would that more American schools possessed the same!—then wandered into a shady courtyard where we learned that the village hosted a permaculture school for visitors who wanted to “see how it was done” in Guélack.

overtop a small pond; pigeon guano fell through a screen into the water below, which provided nutrition in an aquatic bed of fish and water-plants.  We nodded appreciatively at a room full of solar batteries—would that more American schools possessed the same!—then wandered into a shady courtyard where we learned that the village hosted a permaculture school for visitors who wanted to “see how it was done” in Guélack.

For me, though, the highlight was the village’s fabric-printing shop.  Alas, we had arrived on a day when only Guélack’s dairy was running at full capacity—unlike fabric workshops, dairies can’t take a day off—but the tools of fabric production, as well as the designers’ splendid wares, were on display.  Guélack artists used dyes brewed from local plants, carved their own printing blocks, and marketed their creations in an unpretentious retail shop.  My American teaching colleagues were much taken by the brightly colored dresses that Senegalese women wore—though we learned later that most of those dresses seemed to be made from fabrics imported from China.  But it was the fabric that I found at Guélack that appealed to me most (and to the half-dozen friends and family who received their handiwork, once I returned Stateside).

With no kindergartners hanging around, my colleague Rebecca resorted to hugging these kids.

After our tour of the village, some of us wandered into a shop to buy a jar of the delicacies produced on the farm; I settled for a jar of confiture piment, hoping to reproduce the taste of the seasoned rice I’d savored at a dozen meals.  I’d barely fished the requisite West African francs from my wallet when we were invited to the entrance of the dairy barn.

We’d hoped for a tour of the dairy, but sanitary guidelines prevented our entrance.  For consolation, a generous dairy tech presented us with a bowl of yogurt and a half-dozen spoons, and we set about sampling what was certainly the finest goat’s-milk yogurt I’ve ever tasted.


It was only after I returned home that I learned some of Guélack’s backstory.

In 1972, a severe drought began in the Sahel, the northern African ecosystem located south of the Sahara Desert and north of the Sudanian savannas.  Northern Senegal, including Guélack and my home base of Saint-Louis, lie within the Sahel.  Most Americans would consider the landscape we drove through on our way to Guélack “desert”; average annual rainfall in Saint-Louis is about 12.8 inches—similar to rainfall in my high-desert hometown in New Mexico.  When this fragile Sahel ecosystem suffered four consecutive years of suboptimal rainfall, the result was cataclysmic:  some 2 million people died during what we now call the World Food Crisis of 1972-75.

Inconsistent rainfall, soaring temperatures, and relentless winds were familiar constants in the lives of the Fulani pastoralists who lived in the Sahel, but locust invasions of grazing lands and the persistent droughts of the early 1970s—and, some would argue, an inadequate (and even downright self-serving) international response exacerbated the climate crisis.  (For a discussion of UN response to the crisis, consider this teaching resource from Smith College:  www.science.smith.edu/climatelit/the-global-food-crisis/#:~:text=What%20Happened%3F,in%20Africa%20(map%20below)).

The Fulani are considered the largest nomadic ethnic group in the world, numbering some 20 million or more (www.worldwatchmonitor.org/who-are-the-fulani/).  Modern pastoralists—exemplified by Diné (Navajo) herders in in my native New Mexico—often supplement their livelihoods with alternative forms of work.  Kheira Tarif, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, notes that “Pastoralists use a range of migration strategies to cope with seasonal resource availability:  long-distance transhumant pastoralism, short-distance or semisedentary pastoralism, and job-seeking migration” (www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/sipriinsight2203_ccr_west_africa_0.pdf).  In an era of climate change, however, Tarif reminds us that “rising temperatures, evapotranspiration, changing seasonal rainfall patterns and diseases… affect the health of water, pastures and livestock.”

But the Fulani who had settled Guélack were clearly sedentary.  While they still tended herds of livestock, they were fenced and managed within the village.

[cow photo]

For me, the Guélack Fulanis’ transition from pastoralists to settled farmers—a fundamental change of economy, skill sets, and attitudes about land use—seemed miraculous.  But their miracle was born of necessity:  their profound adaptation was a well-reasoned response to recurrent climate stressors.  As SIPRI’s Tarif points out, “The effects of climate change on temperatures and rainfall impact groups that rely primarily or entirely on natural resources such as freshwater, crops and pastures.  The extent to which climate change leads to livelihood deterioration also depends on an individual’s capacity to adapt, for example by developing new income sources.  Where adaptation capacities are weak, or alternative income-generating opportunities are limited, there is greater risk of climate change effects fostering local resource conflicts.”  The villagers of Guélack, working with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, had demonstrated a strong “adaptation capacity” and their village was thriving.  And so far, they had avoided resource conflicts with others in the region.

My initial enthusiasm about the village’s colorful kindergarten space, its small but well-equipped labs, its tasty produce, and its striking fabric production deepened as I understood the context for the village’s renaissance.  What I learned from further research is that, as part of the Integrated Development Project, villagers had planted 50 surrounding hectares (124 acres) of Sahel “desert” with drought-resistant vegetation in order to combat soil erosion, and most impressively, profits from the women’s fabric-production enterprise had enabled workers to set up a micro-credit bank and a health-insurance program.

Perhaps it goes without saying that creating economic opportunities for women is essential for any community’s viability.  But once more I cite Kheira Tarif’s report for context:  “Climate change also affects the sustainability and productivity of traditionally women-led activities and, due to the extra time spent collecting water and firewood, can increase the domestic workload of women and girls.  Gender disparities in education, mobility, land and asset ownership, and access to financial resources affect the livelihood security of women and their households.  For example, although women make up approximately 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force across Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal, only 8 per cent of agricultural landowners are women” (www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/sipriinsight2203_ccr_west_africa_0.pdf).

Once more, I found myself heartened by the central role women were playing in Guélack’s renaissance.

All that being so, Guélack is certainly no utopia; the “delivery room” in the village health clinic was primitive by western standards, for instance, and it is still not clear to me how economically sustainable the village would be without the UN FAO’s support.  Nonetheless, I saw in the school’s centrality in village life a model for the design of other schools for other communities—both in Senegal and in the United States.  I cite here the final paragraph in the UN FAO’s summary of Guélack’s success:

“The farm project has created a strong resilience dynamic in an area destroyed by years of drought. The promotion of agroecology has led to a restoration of the vegetation cover and an improvement in the quality of the soil.  The village does not use chemicals in its production and processing, thus preserving the environment as well as the health of the people and the soil” (https://www.fao.org/agroecology/database/detail/en/c/1418103/)


My ignorance of West African politics is vast.  Somehow, somewhere, I had heard of the Fulani before my visit to Guélack.  But Senegal was coming at me fast and mostly felicitous, so it wasn’t till I returned home that I made time—in between school and family duties—to investigate the people and places I’d visited in my host country.

At first, it was hard to square what I’d seen in Guélack with what I read about Fulani-perpetrated violence in the Sahel.  When I read that Fulani herdsmen often armed themselves while plying their trade, I was disappointed; but I understood their need to protect their heads, which is many cases represented the entirety of their household wealth.  

However, when I learned that herdsmen used those same weapons to perpetrate ethnic violence in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Mali, my heart sank.  The more I read, the more disillusioned I became, eventually discovering that many journalists have linked militant Fulani to the notoriously brutal Boko Haram terrorist organization.

In a remarkably balanced report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, I read that “Fulani individuals and militias have also been responsible for numerous incidents of violence against civilians in recent years.  In Mali, the United Nations recorded that armed elements from Fulani communities were responsible for 47 attacks in the first half of 2020, claiming the lives of 162 civilians.  In Nigeria, suspected Fulani gunmen staged an 11-day attack in Benue State in January 2018 that killed at least 80 people.  In Cameroon, Fulani individuals were alleged to be the perpetrators of the Ngarbuh massacre that killed 22 people” (www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Factsheet%20-%20Fulani%20Communities_FINAL_0.pdf).  To the report’s credit, it also mentioned many instances where the Fulani had been victims of ethnic and religious violence (page 3), and more significantly, where the Fulani had functioned as regional peacemakers (page 4).

Let me confess that I’ve often been taken up short for my (fortunately fading) habit of sorting cultures into “good guys and bad guys.”  As it is, my enthusiasm for what I saw in Guélack exists alongside a deeply troubling Fulani presence in the central Sahel.  In the old days, I might ask, “Are the Fulani a noble people?”  The answer is Of course.  But after peering more deeply into West African politics, I must also ask, “Have the Fulani perpetrated violence and supported inequity among their rivals and even among members of their own community?”  Alas, like most cultural groups, they have.  In my enthusiasm for Guélack, I am not extolling the Fulani people generally, but rather the work of people who happen to be Fulani.

Certainly my linguistic barriers prevented a thorough understanding of what I witnessed during my brief visit to GuéIack.  But recalling my inspiring stroll through its pleasant grounds, I couldn’t help finding support for my pet hypothesis:  that when communities have their basic needs met, conflicts abate.

Unfortunately, we live in a time of resource shortages, of environmental degradation, and of ever more inconsistent climatic patterns.  As the International Committee of the Red Cross points out, “In the Sahel, an unpredictable climate and a degraded environment are, increasingly, endangering the lives of people in remote and impoverished communities, whose coping mechanisms are being radically eroded by violence and instability….  In many cases, conflict also directly harms the very ecosystems on which people rely for their survival.  These communities live under extreme stress.  They are ill-equipped to absorb any new shocks.  The fact that people affected by armed conflict should not put them on the frontlines of climate change, but it does – sixty per cent of the twenty countries considered to be most vulnerable to climate change, by the ND-Gain Index, are sites of armed conflict.  This is partly because of their geographical location, but mostly because conflicts sharply increase the fragility of the institutions, essential services, infrastructure and governance that are critical for strengthening people’s resilience to a changing climate and environment” (www.icrc.org/sites/default/files/topic/file_plus_list/rain_turns_to_dust_climate_change_conflict.pdf).

As my fellow American teachers toured Guélack’s classrooms, as we sampled the goat cheese and yogurt, as we admired (and purchased) the vibrant fabrics from the textile workshop, as we bought jars of preserves to bring the taste of Guelack back home, we felt hopeful about this oasis in the Sahel and what it signifies for our future.  May it become a model for climate adaptation and educational transformation in West Africa and in every homeland, including our own.


For further images of Guélack (and explanatory text in French), see: https://avaclim.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Avaclim_Factsheet_Guelack_VF.pdf.

For context regarding militant Fulani herdsmen and their link to Boko Haram, consider the following observations from Hudson Institute writer Michael Nwankapa:  www.hudson.org/national-security-defense/the-north-south-divide-nigerian-discourses-on-boko-haram-the-fulani-and-islamization.

For compassionate perspective on the vulnerability of Senegal’s pastoralists, read “How climate change is plunging Senegal’s herders into poverty,” at www.thenewhumanitarian.org/special-report/2018/10/10/Senegal-climate-change-Fulani-herders-drought-Sahel.

A rainbow of fabric finishes from the workshop

Sewing mural on the workshop wall

 The Guélack fabric workers use only natural dyes.

Block-printing mural on the workshop wall; apparently men perform this job as well.

Carved wooden blocks used for fabric printing

Fabric dying mural on the workshop wall

Longsuffering Fulbright wife Chris McIntosh models a gift from Guélack.

Chickens are notorious (but very valuable) farm omnivores.

A bread oven not unlike the hornos found throughout New Mexico

The only members of the yogurt-production team we were allowed to meet

Maybe curiosity killed the cat, but it also milked the goat.

Unlike the goats and sheep I saw elsewhere in Senegal, this goat gang had company & a little elbow room.

Onsite mud-brick production, with the village boulangerie (bakery) in the background

We’re likely to see more schools & villages go solar as battery efficiency rises and cost declines.

Beneath these permaculture pigeons swim fish who consume their guano.