‘I have no phone’, Sahelian communication networks; First steps in a research project

I met the elder Fulani man from Niger in Chad, a few kilometers south of Ndjaména in Koundol, on 23 February 2023. He was wearing a woolen hat and long sleeved clothes, plus an extra jacket. As if it was very cold. The hot period is starting in Chad and temperatures will soon go up to 45 degrees. I greeted him in front of the house of the ‘chef de race peule’ of Koundol. When we exchanged in Fulfulde he reacted very surprised and excited. He took us in the courtyard, assuring us that he would find the chef de race. The women of the house took out a small bench and rolled out a mat, inviting us to choose a seat. I preferred to sit on the mat, Firmin who accompanied me choose for the bench. Our man (Idrissa) sat beside him. A little later another man came and sat next to me on the mat. He appeared to be the chef de race peul. We exchanged, and they allowed me to do a small interview on the history of the Fulani in this part of Chad. We were served sweet tea. In between we were chatting about news from the region, and also about if and how we know each other. The chef de race had heard my name, Mariamma Diallo, we happen to be participating in the same WhatsApp group, Pinal Pulaaku (which means the youth of the Fulbe). I participate in this group on invitation of friends in Mali. The distance between Mali and Chad is 3057 Kilometers (google maps). Amazing. Why he remembered me? Because I was asked to say some greetings in Fulfulde to proof my sincerity. That was already a few years ago (I do not really remember when I started to participate). The chef had lost his phone and was no longer participating in the WhatsApp group.

I asked if they knew what is happening in Mali. The Malian Fulani social media contain loads of messages about the killings in central Mali and in Burkina Faso, that are mounting in numbers since the Wagner group joined the Malian army, and in Burkina since the villagers were allowed to weaponize. The chef answered, that yes he saw the pictures, ‘it is very bad’. Idrissa has no phone, instead he travels. He is visiting his family here in Chad, one of his nephews studies in a franco-arab school (Madrassa) and has become a Muslim scholar (Mallam). His appearance, beard and Jelaba (long dress that is typically seen as a Muslim dress for men), shows him a pious Muslim. Somewhere in 2013 Idrissa visited Mali, Tenenkou in the Inner Delta of the Niger, where he went to see an uncle. Upon his arrival he discovered that his uncle had died. Idrissa is a traveler. He gains his information by travelling and exchanging with fellow travelers, and family he meets on his travels. In a nutshell he summarized what was happening in Mali and Burkina. He was shaking his head. The killings and stealing is too much.

During the interview Idrissa would keep quiet, making the gesture with his hand in front of his mouth, indicating his silence and also that he would not know better than the chef. In fact he did know better, about the history and about the names of the lineages, etc. Also about the actualities of the Sahel. He is a ‘savant’, but not speaking out loudly as expected in Fulani mores.

Idrissa represents the old communication model of the Fulani for who travelling is communication and the way to be informed about their family members. One person travelling would be enough for the lineage or the family group to know the latest developments in the region, recent developments for the wider region where lineage members make use of pasture areas, or live their semi-sedentary life. In such a communication ecology the mobile phone has spread rapidly. Today also the smartphone is a regular company of many Fulani. The comparison of modes of communication and acquirement of knowledge between the chef de race and Idrissa shows how the mobile phone is a continuation of the travelling communication of the Fulani in the Sahel.

This anecdote is a representative story for the way our research will develop in the coming years. The central question is; How do Fulani networks interfere with violence in the region? What is the role of identity politics in national, regional, local networks? We will both try to unravel these puzzles through detailed ethnographic multi sited research and through the computational (Natural Language Processing and Social Network Analysis) and digital ethnographic research of social networks both online and offline.

The programme will run till the end of 2027. And is funded by NWO (project number: 406.21.SW.009)


3 thoughts on “‘I have no phone’, Sahelian communication networks; First steps in a research project

  1. Bonjour Mirjam Je suis fasciné par ton énergie créatrice mise au service de la recherche et du partage de ses résultats!!! Merci pour cet échantillon. Amitiés Jean-Pierre

  2. Merci pour ces mots gentiles! Il est important que nous nous mettons dans les débats qui se déroulent autour du Sahel et qui m’effrayent!

  3. Bonjour Mirjam, c’est un très bon début de recherche, il montre déjà les perspectives qu’une ethnographie détaillée est possible. Je souhaite un très bon avenir à ce projet et qu’il ouvre les portes d’une vraie discussion . Merci pour le travail accompli.

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