have hired a Land Cruiser with a driver named Shek Koulibali, and we are heading up-country with two young Peace Corps volunteers, Allison Trafton and Thomas Betjeman. The niece of an old friend, Allison has been living in a Bamana village for 14 months. The Bamana are the largest ethnic group in Mali, more than half of the country's population. Thomas has been living in a Dogon village. The Dogon have one of the most idiosyncratic traditional societies in the world. Many of them live under a 125-mile-long escarpment, like the Anasazi cliff dwellers in the American Southwest a thousand years ago. Our plan is to make a five-day tour of the Sahel, traveling as far north as Douentza, where the escarpment ends, talking along the way with villagers and foreign aid workers who are combating the desertification. Above Douentza, the Sahel begins to give way to the desert, and there is danger of being set upon by bandits or Islamic rebels. On the way back to the capital, Shek and I will drop off Allison and Thomas at their villages.
We soon leave the smog of Bamako, but the visibility is at times only a few hundred yards. The sun, when it appears, is a pale disk, more like a full moon behind the dirty reddish-gray cloud of dust, which Shek says is called the kungoforoko, "the fog of the bush." One flat-roofed Bamana mud town passes after another, each with its multispired mud mosque. Processions of women balance large clay jars of water or huge loads of firewood on their heads. Stacks of firewood line the road. Some villages are devoted entirely to the production of firewood and charcoal. We pass pickup trucks, long caravans of donkey-drawn carts, all manner of conveyances piled with towering, teetering stacks of firewood, minivans bulging with faggots -- all traveling to and from Bamako.
"There are stiff fines for cutting and slash-and-burn clearing without a permit, but the people do it anyway, because they have no alternative," Thomas explains. "Malians see so little money, and they're so focused on where the next meal is coming from, they don't have the luxury of long-term thinking. So the forest is going fast."
Most of the Sahel was originally acacia forest, scruffy and dense in places, extremely diverse in flora and fauna but very fragile. The greater part of what is left of the forest, as we can dimly see, has been thinned out, trampled, overgrazed, or converted to agriculture. The wildlife that once thrived in it is now scarce. We will see no antelopes or gazelles, no warthogs, leopards, or tortoises, none of the three species of monitor lizard, one of which can grow seven feet long. "The big animals have all been shot and eaten," Shek says. "There are none left to kill." The only wildlife we see are long-tailed starlings coasting saucily over the road right in front of us, and assorted birds of prey circling high above in search of rodents and dead livestock.
We pass fields of cotton -- a thirsty crop that requires the pumping of groundwater and is bleeding down the already drought-stressed water table -- and other fields with gigantic white calabashes lying in them. We see mango groves and commercial plantations of neem, tamarind, and kalia tea. Almost 150 miles northeast of Bamako, cultivation gives way to rock desert. The rock strata have been eroded into stacks of brown wafers -- curious artifacts known as torres, or towers. In the crevices between them stand big baobab trees, with bloated trunks and stubby, bristle-tipped branches. The baobab is a very useful tree for the people here. Its inner bark can be twisted into rope; its fruit is ground into a cereal and made into candy. Wherever we stop, children run up to sell us plastic bags of white baobab candy, their eyelashes and lids coated with red dust from the kungoforoko.
Goats have penetrated every corner of the landscape. Every reachable plant not protected by thorns or toxic alkaloids has been clipped by their teeth. I wonder how many species have been chewed to extinction. The Sahel is hardly a "natural" landscape anymore. It belongs to the goats.