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The life of nomads in turbulent times

In recent years, the Walad Djifir from Chad found themselves in a turbulent environment due to the unrest in Nigeria, Libya and the Central African Republic. How did they adapt? Inge Butter explored their situation in her PhD thesis. PhD defence will take place on 2 July.

The past few years have witnessed widespread unrest in the African Sahel and surrounding areas; a civil war broke out in Libya after the downfall of the authoritarian leader Moammar al-Qadhafi, parts of Nigeria were ravaged by attacks and abductions committed by Boko Haram, and in the Central African Republic (CAR) a political coup resulted in prolonged violence. 

In the midst of all these hotspots live the Walad Djifir, a nomadic group from central Chad. Those family members who are spread across the region experienced the most acute danger. Their lives and sources of income were turned upside down. In Chad, too, the life of the nomads was regularly affected by conflicts; for many years they clashed with the local government about land rights, for example. 

For her PhD thesis, Leiden anthropologist Inge Butter investigated how this group adapted to the changing circumstances. In particular, she observed that the nomadic camp (ferikh) continues to play an incredibly important role. New circumstances, such as violence, drought and new methods of communication, often affect the way in which the Walad Djifir organise their lives, but are often adapted, as it were, to the blueprint that already exists: old structures and family networks that are part of everyday life in the ferikh, where trust and distrust play a fundamental role.

Inge Butter visiting Nagah in a refugee camp in N’Djamena, February 2014. Nagah fled the Central African Republic to Chad at the end of 2013. Photo by Bachar Saad.

Butter gives Libya as an example. While the country is plagued by civil war, for some members of the Walad Djifir it is actually generating new work opportunities. In 2011 family members fled the country with their children, yet in 2012 the young men returned to earn money working as guards or herders. But how can they make sure that their salaries safely reach their relatives on the remote plains of Chad, far away from the nearest Western Union office? Butter: ‘Family networks and trusted relationships play a crucial role in this. They send the money to relatives in the Chadian capital N'Djaména, after which a reliable trader passes it on in the form of credit to a fellow trader in the countryside. In exchange for this credit, the rural trader can buy goods from his colleague in the capital. So the money itself doesn't actually move, which is a journey that often involves many risks.’

In that sense, the Walad Djifir were never really uprooted, says Butter. The family bond remains intact, regardless of where the group members are. This bond can also be quite restrictive, as family expectations are not necessarily in everyone's interest. However, the ferikh blueprint provides structure and guidance when faced with challenges – whether they are pirates in Nigeria or group members who are forced to flee the CAR due to the violence. 

Photo above: copyright James Chama Tabi.

‘The desert has always fascinated me’

Butter moved a lot when she was young; her parents – a water engineer and a physiotherapist – worked in many different countries. And that’s how she came to live in Egypt, where the family regularly went camping under the stars in the desert. ‘It sounds idyllic, but of course it wasn’t always the case. It’s very cold early in the morning! And the days are incredibly dry and hot. And every two weeks we had to go back for fresh drinking water. But I wasn’t put off by the thought of having to do fieldwork in the open air. I felt more at ease in the middle of the camps than in the city.’ Butter more or less stumbled upon the Walad Djifir, when her driver and guide wanted to visit his family. ‘A typical Walad Djifir camp consists of about five or six tents set up in a circle. The entrance to the tents faces outwards to create some privacy. They usually make an enclosure in the middle of the circle for the small cattle, to protect the animals from the hyenas during the night.’

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