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Hitting the trail with African herders in 'Walking With Abel'

 Hitting the trail with African herders in 'Walking With Abel'
"Walking With Abel: Journeys With the Nomads of the African Savannah" and author Anna Badkhen. (From left: Riverhead Books; Kael Alford / Riverhead Books)

Journalist Anna Badkhen has reported from the war zones of Somalia and Iraq, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Smart, intrepid and curious, she chronicled her time in a tiny rural Afghan village in her 2013 book "The World Is a Carpet." In "Walking With Abel: Journeys With the Nomads of the African Savannah," she turns her considerable intellect to the Fulani herders of Africa — among the world's last surviving nomads, with a herding culture that echoes the prehistoric origins of every one of us.

"In Africa," Badkhen points out, "herders preceded farmers by some three thousand years."

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What does it mean to tell the story of a group of people so insular, so self-sufficient and yet dying out, so focused on an ancient task that speaks to the origins of everyone but whose way of life is utterly alien? What does it mean when the only point of connection between one culture and another is one of disconnect?

These are fascinating questions, and Badkhen sets out to walk with the nomads, both literally and metaphorically; to tell their story and to give the reader a sense of where we come from. It's a highly ambitious and deeply profound premise. Unfortunately for readers, the book can be hard going.

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Almost immediately, the reader is confronted with the great, almost unbridgeable gap of understanding between a group of traditional nomadic herders and a modern woman who, though an experienced war reporter whose motive in exposing violence is ethically sound — "so we could take collective responsibility, both for it and for our inherent and ruinous capacity to perpetrate or condone or even ignore it" — is still able to go home.

This is a gap that many writers have tried to describe without sounding pretentious or self-righteous, and the tone Badkhen strikes is pitch perfect. These ruminations are some of the best parts of the book.

"No matter the deference," she writes, "no matter the elusive sense of entitlement, the loftily so-called poetic license to represent before my readers the iniquities I witnessed, there existed an inherent contradiction in the purpose of my writing — to bring the world closer, to make it accountable — and my keen awareness that I was intruding upon and exposing something exceedingly private…. Maybe a writer of conscience was one who never put down a single word."

The book's main problem is not Badkhen's approach, her credibility or her ethics, but the writing, which is so earnestly poetic and densely lyrical as to occasionally feel intentionally confusing; in one paragraph alone she describes a day as crashed by "a crescendo of birds," a sun that "hurtled" and then "hung glaring" in a "fierce sky." Although one might argue that lyricism creates an atmosphere of mystery and longing, two clear themes elucidated here, I kept wishing Badkhen would dial back the poetic language and funky syntax. Both compromise narrative propulsion and detract from the important story of the Fulani "cowboys" and what readers might learn from their way of life and from their unique way of seeing the world. It also inhibits the reader from getting to know Badkhen in a way that makes us wholeheartedly root for her.

Another mistake Badkhen makes is to include her grief over a failed relationship within this story of the herders' trek across Mali. "For a while my beloved lived in the desert," she tells us from this new desert, but "he was not free to give me his love and he did not give it freely. He was a landscape of desire, and I was always trespassing."

Although the notion of yoking the author's personal heartbreak to the nomadic crossing might make some narrative sense — the reader's knowledge of the speaker might deepen as the Fulani cross this unforgiving landscape, battling threats linked to climate change, Islamic militants, and the modernization of the world that makes their lifestyle increasingly difficult and obsolete — the stakes in the two story lines present here are simply not analogous enough for the reader to buy into them. Comparing grief over a lost lover ("Don't you know, Mama? Carrying water has nothing of grief") with the effort it takes for women to carry water every day to survive feels incorrect and unsettling. And we never get a clear enough sense of the relationship to mourn it in the deep way that Badkhen does.

No doubt Badkhen is a fine reporter. Readers will learn a great deal about Fulani herders, the struggles they face and why it mattered to Badkhen and should to others as well. There are moments of real struggle — a baby dies, for example, during the trek — that she writes about with compassion and clarity.

She asks readers to engage with the act of writing about others in difficult circumstances, never afraid to implicate herself in these moral dilemmas. Out of heartbreak or for other reasons, she committed to this trek with a full heart. There is wonder, and value, in that.

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Walking With Abel: Journeys With the Nomads of the African Savannah

Anna Badkhen
Riverhead: 320 pp., $27.95

Rapp Black is the author, most recently, of "The Still Point of the Turning World."

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