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Pascal Maitre: The Beauty and Tragedy of the Fulani of the Sahel

The Fulani people are at the heart of the tensions that threaten the balance of a swath of the African continent. Winner of the 2020 Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière Photography Award, photojournalist Pascal Maitre, a specialist in Africa, paints a portrait of a now-endangered ancestral way of life.

A traditionally nomadic people, whose history goes back over a thousand years, the Fulani represent 35 million people, scattered across fifteen African countries, mostly in the Sahel region. 

Pascal Maitre, a specialist in the African continent and a seasoned photographer (he started out in 1979 as a photojournalist for Jeune Afrique) has been working with these populations for many years. Winner of the 2020 Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière—Académie des Beaux-Arts Photography Award, Maitre spent two years among the Fulani of the Sahel, criscrossing Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Benin. He exhibits some forty photographs from this project in Paris.

This work was made possible thanks to a 30,000-euro endowment and exhibition funding. “This award is well worth discovering. In some countries, such as Niger, I was obliged to have an escort. It cost me 650 euros per day … So we need serious funding to do this kind of work,” Maitre noted. 

Centered around three themes—celebrations, daily life, and the consequences of tensions between communities—Maitre’s photos offer a profound testimony about men and women facing the “terrible upheavals” unsettling the Sahel region

Koglwegos of the commune of Comcilga village of Kenfangé. These self-defense militias solve problems, robberies, conflicts and replace the police in many places. With the galloping insecurity these militias have developed enormously and are beginning to pose a problem as they are out of control. © Pascal Maitre / MYOP / Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière—Academy of Fine Arts Award.

Stigmatized population

“ ‘Kill the Fulani, kill the Fulani, kill the Fulani…’ In Burkina Faso, messages like this have been sent out on WhatsApp by the thousand. The situation is very serious,” said the photojournalist. 

Where does this tension come from? The Fulani have watched their traditional, nomadic way of life be eroded through population growth and global warming. Historically Muslim, some Fulani have also answered the call of jihadist radicalization. This has led to an intensification of existing conflicts between nomadic Fulani communities and sedentary Dogon, Bambara, and Mossi farmers. “The population is slowly beginning to be stigmatized again. Because a majority of jihadists are Fulani, other communities are taking revenge on the civilian Fulani population. The fighting has left thousands dead and millions displaced every year.”

The exacerbation of inter-ethnic clashes has made the photographer’s job even more complicated: “The last time I went to Mali was last January. I was the only white person there. My contacts made it possible for me to work, but between the submission of the project proposal—a little more than two years ago—and today, everything has gone downhill.”

Mopti, TaÏkiri, Koranic school, his Fulani children have fled the rural commune of Soye (28 km from Mopti) which is in the red zone and has been controlled by jihadists for 6 years. © Pascal Maitre / MYOP / Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière—Academy of Fine Arts Award.

“Africa has often been compartmentalized, even among photographers”

Represented by the MYOP Agency in France, and by Panos Pictures internationally, and published in major magazines and international newspapers (Paris Match, Figaro Magazine, National Geographic, Stern…), Maitre focuses on long-term reporting, geopolitical investigation, and exploring every facet of the issue. “Africa has often compartmentalized, even among photographers: there are war photographers, animal photographers, those who cover traditions… But it is a whole; everything is connected.”

With the last light of day, a Fulani herdsman corrals his flock back in town for the night. “Insecurity is extreme, and the animals are their whole life,” explains Maitre. Peuls du Sahel [The Fulani of the Sahel] is a record of the traditions and the very particular way of life of these populations which have long been victimized by the authorities. “Nomadic peoples have always been feared, because they are difficult to control.” Quoted in the exhibition, Dr. Bréma Ely Dicko, sociologist and lecturer at the University of Letters and Sciences in Bamako, confirms: “As the [Mali writer] Amadou Hampâté Bâ says, ‘A Fulani without a herd is like a prince without a crown.’ ”

Another photo, another place: two young men with their faces covered in paint—a bright red that spills out of the frame. They are celebrating Guérewol in the village of Tamaya, Niger. At the end of the rainy season in September, the Wodaabe Fulani gather for this traditional festival after a year of transhumance. “It is splendid,” recounts Maitre. “It is a beauty contest in which women choose a man either for the night or as a husband. It is also a time when people can get vaccinated, take care of paperwork. It’s an essential gathering, it structures their lives.

Woodabe Fulani village of Tamaya Kouldbadé. 2000 Fulani live in the village Fulani from the surroundings during the Guérowol. © Pascal Maitre / MYOP / Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière—Academy of Fine Arts Award.

As a photographer deeply attached to color, a journalist and storyteller, Maitre documents, always with precision, a community that has survived millennia and today finds itself confronted with the suffering that afflicts a region of Africa that Maitre himself describes as a “time bomb.” Accompanied by texts and detailed captions and maps, this exhibition was intended to be as complete and educational as possible. “This is our role as a whistleblowers, especially in a period like now, when we are talking almost exclusively about Ukraine, when the spotlight is on one part of the world and leaves the rest in darkness.”

Pascal Maitre, “Peuls du Sahel”, Académie des Beaux-Arts, Pavillon Comtesse de Caen – 27 quai de Conti – Paris 6e, October 20 to December 4, 2022. 

In Mopti, Fulani herders bring their herds back to town at nightfall because they do not want to risk having their animals stolen. © Pascal Maitre / MYOP / Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière—Academy of Fine Arts Award.

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