Savanna, Sahel, Sahara: Then What?

Near Barkoissi, Togo, West Africa. Late 1980s.
Near Barkoissi, Togo, West Africa. Late 1980s.

On market days in the late 1980s, women carried bundles of wood alongside the national road, the one paved road in much of northern Togo. They might be going to the village of Barkoissi or to Tambaong where I lived or to any other of the dozens of towns and villages in the Savannes, the region of Togo just under Burkina Faso and between, like the rest of the country, Ghana and Benin.

There weren’t many trees left that could be used for wood for cooking, so women walked for hours with bundles of wood on their heads to sell at the local markets.

There was no wood at all for carpentry, so I helped another Peace Corps Volunteer, one  stationed in Barkoissi, help a group of local carpenters start a new business importing wood from further south, where the slow process of desertification had not reached.

Barlow's compound in Tambaong, Togo. Late 1980s.
Barlow’s compound in Tambaong, Togo. Late 1980s.

In Nassiett, the village next to Tambaong, a couple of young men and I started a tree nursery with the aim of creating new hedgerows that might help retain the topsoil and keep the desert away.

These were small projects not unlike hundreds of others scattered across West Africa. We believed in the future and thought there was time to reverse the desertification that was threatening the region. Small didn’t matter, for small could grow.

Most Togolese knew that trees were getting harder and harder to find and that the soil they tilled was getting worse and worse each year. But they had a difficult time believing that anything could be done about it.  The Sahara has always been expanding, and its “beach,” the Sahel that already covered at least the northern half of Burkina Faso, was moving, too. We wanted to show that something could be done to counter what did seem a deteriorating situation, both for the short and long hauls.

We actually believed that.

Northern Burkina Faso
Barlow’s truck on the road from Djibo to Dori, northern Burkina Faso, rainy season, 1986.

I had seen what was happening West Africa already. For two years before Peace Corps, I had lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city. I had a truck and traveled as much of the country as I could. I had seen huge sand-dunes appear across the Djibo/Dori road and a rainy season getting shorter each year.

Even then, it was hardly long enough for a successful millet crop.

We didn’t call what was happening to West Africa “climate change” in those days, just “desertification.” We didn’t see it as global, but a problem Africa had and one that could be solved if everybody there just worked together, planted more trees and considered sustainability in choice of crops (less cotton, more peanuts, for example).

We were right, of course, but it wasn’t enough. No one was alarmed enough.

I haven’t been back to West Africa for more than a decade and only twice since my Peace Corps Close of Service in 1990, but I would bet that things have not gotten better. Women are probably walking more miles to find wood, there are surely fewer trees of any sort, and the rains are probably no longer falling over a period long enough for the maturation of sorghum in any part of Burkina Faso and likely in northern Togo, too. Or hardly long enough.

Alarm bells for the entire planet concerning climate change should have been ringing thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Yes, some people were shouting their fears, but few were listening. Most of us went about our lives as best we could–even if we were living in places already feeling the brunt of climate change. There didn’t seem much point in doing anything else. And, anyway, things could always change for the better.

We are quickly reaching the point, though, where they won’t. The Sahara Desert has been expanding at about one percent per decade over the past century. That’s likely to increase and probably is increasing. Even if that expansion seems slow, consider that it is also pushing back the Sahel–which isn’t shrinking but is expanding, too, taking over the savanna at an even faster rate, with the savanna doing the same (and more) to the forests it abuts. Change is coming quickly, now.

Changes of the nature we are seeing around the globe started gradually but pick up speed over the last decades–which is why scientists watching what is happening are beginning to become more concerned than ever: what they have feared is coming is here now instead.

Donald Trump likes to call the countries suffering most from climate change “shithole countries,” but they are so as the result, in good part, of what the rest of us had done so we could live so nicely. Savanna, Sahel, Sahara, Shithole: that may be what humans are doing to Africa, all humans. All of the planet.  To the planet. We make shitholes. They don’t just appear.

This process may be what we are doing to ourselves, no matter where we live. The deterioration of our living spaces has reached the point where we likely will never be able to counter it. And there will be no place to go, like those women carrying wood, to get what we need.

Unless we start doing something about it, ah, yesterday, the whole earth will soon be no more than the “antique land” (our civilization) of the last lines of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

…Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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