Volume 11, Issue 1
Fall 2009

Kristin Loftsdottir. The Bush is Sweet: Identity, Power and Development among WoDaaBe Fulani in Niger. Uppsala: Nordiska Africainstitutet, 2008.

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The WoDaabe of Niger are relatively understudied, but due to the region's recent international export of crafts, metalwork, clothing, and traditional music, anthropological and ethnological studies these people are growing in popularity. Based on having lived among her “subject's of study” for several months from August 1996 to June 1998, Iceland's Kristin Loftsdottir’s ethnographic research provides an introspective analysis of rural and urban WoDaabe.

Loftsdottir covers historical connections between the WoDaabe and their land through exploring issues of land use, urban development, pastoralism, and adaptations to such severe meteorological events as floods and droughts. In addition, Loftsdottir explains how western depictions of WoDaabe are mostly incorrect, since WoDaabe culture is more intricate and complicated than the simplistic and exotic images of global “otherness” conveyed through folkoric or tourist-catered dances.

The Bush is Sweet builds upon Loftsdottir's personal observations and contact with WoDaabe, as well as many years studying globalization, race, gender, indigenous people, pastoralism, and ethnicity as a professor at the Department of Social and Human Sciences, University of Iceland. The dilemma for ethnographic research stems from several shortcomings, including phenomenology of perception from the point of the researcher and inability to construct an analytical conclusion without the subjects significantly changing their behavior. Loftsdottir's poignant analysis and critical observational eye, however, provides a candid and introspective journey of the WoDaabe culture. One of the book’s primary purposes is to investigate the role of and lessen the effect of globally cut-off groups of indigenous peoples and illustrate how they play a larger part in the affairs of the greater local and regional communities.

Loftsdottir's observations of the WoDaabe's close relationship with their natural surroundings illustrate a way of life inherently tied to the “bush.” Of particular concern, Loftsdottir discusses the effects of wind, sand, drought, and rain on agriculture and livestock. Ultimately, the pastoralist nature of the WoDaabe allows for survival through adaptability to varying conditions. The younger generation of WoDaabe, however, feels torn between working in the city and leaving their elders or working in the bush tending animals and crops, while letting the globalization of industry and technology pass them by. It is in this latter disjuncture that Loftsdottir pays particularly close attention, and she succeeds.

In interviews with two WoDaabe friends, Loftsdottir finds a contrast between city and rural living as binary oppositions. For instance, "[T]he bush is sweet as sugar, while Niamey [the capital of Niger] is the place of corruption; the bush is a place of freedom for individuals while in Niamey they are constantly observed; in the bush people eat food that makes them strong and healthy, while in Niamey they eat food that lacks power and its unhealthy; in the bush people are surrounded by family while in Niamey they are without their closest kin…life is better in the bush" (p. 139).

In order to sum up Loftsdottir's experiences living in the bush, a WoDaabe friend's observation offers a few, comforting words of acclamation, "…something you [Loftsdottir] never knew before, you know hunger, you know thirst, you know hot, you know cold…you know how it is to not being able to bathe properly, how to sit down by yourself all alone…I think that now you know the bush" (p. 92).

All in all, Loftsdottir offers an in-depth observational critique of Niger's WoDaabe in both their rural and urban settings. The Bush is Sweet is actually an extension of Loftsdottir's dissertation, and thus, incorporates a plethora of reputable references covering all aspects of WoDaabe culture. Parts of the book take on a diary-like narrative, which at times, seems a little overdone. Of course, Loftsdottir's astute observations and verbal clarity are essential elements that showcase a deep knowledge of WoDaabe living. Nonetheless, this ethnographic work should be applauded for its authenticity and a personal commitment to the field of anthropology at large. Likewise, this would be an ideal text for undergraduate and graduate students interested in West African studies, anthropology, WoDaabe culture, pastoralism, and Saharan studies.

Matthew J. Forss
Independent Scholar