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"A Path Too Far"

The Niger River is the river of West Africa. A 2,600-mile-long water source for the tens of millions of West Africans subsisting in five West African countries, more if you count tributaries. It drains into the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. You can probably see it from the moon.

In 2009, we were on the banks of the Niger, a wee bit north of Niamey, Niger’s capital city, staring at the listless, brown water keeping us from our destination. The Land Rover carried us to this point and now this stupid river was blocking us from continuing our journey. No bridges in the desert.

We were ground truthing the Sahel and southern Maghreb to help the U.S. Government understand what was happening and what, if anything, the U.S. Government could do to help. Terrorist militias, offshoots of al-Qa’ida and Boko Haram, began to infest the rural populations and the nomadic Tuareg throughout this geographical band of earth stretching from Senegal to the eastern shores of the Sudan. Combine that threat with persistent drought and, boom, all kind of bad can happen.

We weren’t considering firewood loads. Or female workdays. Or climate change. That wasn’t a thing at the time. At this moment, I was only monitoring the time it would take to find a raft to carry the vehicle and the team across the river. I wasn’t thinking much about firewood.

Then this happened.

I’m leaning back against the grill of the Land Rover, arms crossed, legs crossed, head bowed looking at my boots. The perfect marketing image of American impatience. From the corner of my right eye, come these three. As you note from the long shadows, it was late in another hot, dry, dusty Sahelian afternoon.

Not sure how much wood weighs. I know different woods have different densities, thus different weights. I don’t think this was balsa or oak. Somewhere in between. Maybe it wasn’t wood, but brush. Don’t know if brush is any lighter than wood.

For many African visitors, the head load is very familiar. Long ago, nomads understood the neck would outlast the arms and shoulders in bearing loads. And that is what African women do mostly, bear loads. Everything, on the head. I have a photo of a Senegalese woman packing a swordfish on her head, arms at her sides, the points of the sword and tail tapping the ground on either side.

Head loading has a concerted rhythm to it. As the legs drive the body forward, the neck and body core muscles counter the forward energy with resistance by contracting to keep the load balanced. The African women I know have done this type of work since early childhood. With time, the movement becomes natural. Reminds one of a camel striding slowly across the sand. Very purposeful, slow, steady, rhythmic. A steady rocking motion that keeps the head and load centered, the primary body muscles controlling and compensating for all the forces against it. This is a pure core workout. No sit-ups or plank exercises required. Bring on the Tough Mudder.

They were only three. Not part of a wood-packing party. I looked around and they were it. Just three women, two girls and a woman to be fair, hauling their loads home and home was nowhere near this place. Not sure if this is a thing but look closely; they are in step.


No secret to this photo. The Nikon was nearby and though I had to switch lenses as the trio was a bit distant, I had time for two shots; the first with the subjects centered, the second was this one. I know, shameless artistic license.

According to “Africa Factbook,” most African countries rely on wood as their primary energy supply and African women spend more than 20 hours per week collecting it. Let’s unpack that.

Simple math. Let’s say they get the weekends off. A ridiculous statement, but simple math. On a good day, that’s five hours a day; two hours walking each way, one hour on site. But there are no good days. Think about the competition and the danger. There are other wood hunters out and about. West Africa is under persistent civil or cross-border conflicts. Harassing soldiers, random thieves, brutal rapists. What if one falls ill or cuts a heel. Messes up the simple math.

The younger two look school age. No school when your day is spent packing wood. Simple opportunity cost accounting. They will be doing this the rest of their lives, not school. When the wood supply is out of reach, they will move closer to wood. You get the “picture.” There is no school.

I watched them walk away. Their sandled feet puffing out faint, dusty wisps with each burdened step until I could see them no more.

There are great moments doing this work. A rare career in which you sometimes see and feel the positive results of your efforts. Today was not a great moment. More of a reality check, which also happens. You must be careful of these reality check moments. It is easy to dwell and do simple math and dwell some more. You become a bit hardened, I suppose. You see it, feel it, then digest it for another day.

The raft floated around the bend of the mighty Niger and drifted to the bank. The crew loaded the vehicle and we soon disembarked to continue on the roadless desert at a speed probably 40, 50 times faster than the three females I just met. The sun would set, and we would carry on to another day of new everything, not bothered by wood packing, wood fires, or wood dangers.

We were focused on the region’s food insecurity and the population’s conflict resilience. Very complex subjects not measured easily. We were not studying firewood consumption or female wood gathering.

Maybe our focus was less complex. Maybe we needed an adjustment to the simple math right in front of us.

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