Ethnographic Interventions: Waking Up and Walking With Abel

The French surrealist Antonin Artaud liked to claim that we journey through life in an open-eyed sleep that condemns us to the deadening realities of routine life. In the Artaudian world routine narrows our vision and dulls our thoughts, transforming the world into a place in which most of us lack the imagination to think a new thought or feel a new feeling. Artaud sought to combat the dead zones of routine with his Theater of Cruelty in which he presented images so shocking that they jolted audiences into visceral confrontations with the repressed inner dimensions of their being.

Such open-eyed sleep is ever-present in the theater of contemporary American politics, a theater that has little, if any, connection to the real world. In the current political climate, history is ignored, scientific fact is transformed into scientific fiction as presidential candidates, who claim they are not "scientists," evoke the holy grail of a non-existent "settled" science. American politicians have little idea of how average Americans live -- let alone how people in other parts of world confront their social realities. As Artaud would argue, the absurdity of this mythic public discourse puts us to sleep, a sleep that saps our vitality, limits our curiosity and narrows our imagination. Our zoned-out routines, in turn, promote a whole host of social ills: ignorance, intolerance, xenophobia, and bigotry, all of which reinforce our sense of helplessness, apathy, and anger. In this benumbed land of fantasy, the boundaries of which are extended by a media-promoted culture of celebrity, we are faced with profound educational challenges.

In a destructive climate how do we open the eyes of our students to the complexities of the human condition? How do we ignite their curiosity about the natural and social world? How do we teach them to think critically and respect human difference? How can we convince them to become engaged citizens of the world?

These are the profound trials of contemporary higher education. Alas, there are no facile ways to approach these challenges. I, for one, try to convince my students to learn foreign languages, suggesting that if they can speak French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese or Swahili or Hausa, they'll enter whole new worlds filled with surprises and delights. Sadly, in the US most people don't speak a second language. As Janelle Ross wrote in the September 23 edition of The Washington Post:

America today ranks far behind many of the world's other countries -- those with advanced economies, those which are developing and even some that only wish to be -- in the share of the population which can speak more than one language. In 2014, just fewer than 79 percent of Americans spoke no other language than English, according to the Census.

There is, however, another way to wake up our students -- expose them the ethnography, the description of how people live in the world. If an ethnographic representation (in prose or in film) is well constructed, well produced, and recounts a compelling story, it can compel students to imagine the unimaginable. It can wake them up to other lives, other environments, and other ways of doing things. It can exponentially broaden their perspectives, which, in turn, develops a healthy respect for human difference and dignity.

One such ethnography is Anna Badkhen's recently published work, Walking With Abel: Journeys With the Nomads of the African Savannah (Riverhead). Badkhen is a journalist who has grown into a writer of books that have all the earmarks of great ethnography. Her previous works are about social life in war-torn Afghanistan, including The World is a Carpet, which describes with poetic eloquence the whys and wherefores of family life in a distant corner of the world. In Walking with Abel Badkhen brings her poetically contoured ethnographic gaze to the West African Sahel. Her book chronicles the author's one-year journey -- on foot -- with Fulani nomads who continue to herd their cattle in the Bourgou, a region named for the hippo grass that grows abundantly on the vast flood plain of the Inner Niger River Delta in northeastern Mali. It is a land and a life few of us will ever know directly. Even so, Badkhen takes us on a fascinating journey to this mesmerizing place.

Oumarou Diakayate squinted at the procession of cattle and cattle drivers filing into the sunrise. He had risen in the cool blue predawn fro the wide reed pallet he shard with his wife, Fanta, their youngest son and daughter, and two small grandchildren, and washed from a small plastic kettle and prayed while most of the camp still slept. In the modest manner of his generation he had wrapped his indigo turban three times around his head and under the gray stubble of his narrow chin and across his thin mouth, in which a few teeth still remained, and dragged his millet-straw mat out of the cold shadows of the hut.

Then day crashed into the Sahel in a crescendo of birds...

This short description, found early in a book of many such breathtakingly poetic passages, captures the texture and pace of life in this far-removed part of West Africa, a region in which I spent many years waking to similarly memorable early morning sights and sounds. By the end of Badkhen's sumptuously written book the reader has vicariously experienced the sights, sounds and smells of an isolated land. What's more, the reader comes to know how the Diakayate family confronts a changing world that threatens but does not undermine their way of life.

... When the sun was a palm above the horizon it was time to head back to camp for milking. Hassan stood up from the bare impress his body had made in the grass and wove through the animals, separating out his father's cows one by one. He worked quickly, surely, almost without looking.

"How can you tell which cows are your father's?"

"I can tell."

"But how?"

"These cows were born into my hands. I know."

This work is ethnography at its very best. The text ignites our imagination and expands our horizons. It sensuously describes place, space, character and family relations It is also a tale about the resilience of the human spirit in a poor, war-ravaged land. It is a model of how to live well in difficult circumstances.

As my students turn the pages of this wonderful ethnographic intervention, I am confident that they will wake from their sleep and go walking with Abel -- and learn many important life lessons along the path.