33 Dunes in the Ténéré Desert

by Simon Goland, May 25, 2011

Today’s Reflection is about indigenous wisdom. And future.

The Ténéré desert in Niger is a stretch of dunes on the south side of the Sahara that is so immense it’s been dubbed a “sand sea.” The Ténéré is renowned for its ferocious sandstorms. Even experienced nomads can lose their way, and losing your way can mean missing a water hole. If you miss a water hole, that’s the end of your trip. You simply die of thirst.

One part of the second chapter of the stunning BBC series, the Human Planet, follows a group of nomads crossing this desert. The Tubu women. They make the journey northwards to the oasis of Dirkou once a year to buy dates. They carry the dates back down south to trade for their annual household needs: clothes, soap, and millet to supplement their diet of meat and milk. Each year in late August, the time of the date harvest in the oases north of the Ténéré, the Tubu women saddle up their camels and set out to make a round trip of more than 600 miles across the desert. The women are, apparently, better navigators than men. They are also renowned for their exceptional powers of endurance and courage. It is told that when food is short, a Tubu can make a date last for three days. On day one, she nibbles off the skin and sucks it. On day two, she eats the flesh; and on day three, she sucks the stone.

The first leg of the journey was of about 80 kilometers, until the first water hole. 3 days across dunes that look alike, and shift constantly, depending on the winds and the storms. Yet, not for the Tubu women, who know how to find this water hole. “Count 33 dunes,” said the leader woman, “and then you will see a single tree.” On the third day, with 20 km left to the water hole, she lets a young 10-year old girl lead the caravan and find the water hole. And the girl finds it.

“Nature imposes limits on all things, causing energy to build up from within. In fact, without limitations it is impossible to maximize our potential. When we understand, accept, and apply limitations it can be very effective in bringing about a transformation. Water unchecked has a tendency to spread and lose itself into the ground. When it is restrained by a dam it becomes tremendous source of energy.” – Tao

As I watched this incredible journey, I kept thinking of the ancient indigenous knowledge we are losing at an incredibly rapid pace, because of our continual and escalating drive to rely on technology, instead of the human skills. Every indigenous group or tribe that fades into history, takes with them a vast amount of precious knowledge about their lives, habits, traditions, healing practices, stories, ways to live in alignment with the natural world, and a whole lot more. Knowledge we all could have used today and learned from.

I am thinking about my parents, medical doctors, who started their professional career in various remote villages in Russia. There was no sophisticated equipment in the so-called hospitals, beyond the absolute basic. How would they diagnose, for instance, diabetes? Simple – taste the urine of the patient, somehow knowing exactly the level of sweetness that would indicate a problem. Necessity was indeed the mother of skill.

I am thinking of a story I read, a long while back, about a Tibetan doctor who was invited to lecture at the Harvard Medical School. He did a demonstration during his lecture, whereby he diagnosed over 460 (!) different diseases using only the 12 pulses in the patients’ hands. Later on, this story was confirmed to me by one of my current students, who apparently was a medical student then and witnessed the demonstration.

“Yes, it is important to see the world as full of possibilities – to shift our world view from one of resignation to one of possibility. But if we are to participate in the unfolding process of the universe, we must let life flow through us, rather than attempt to control life.”

I am thinking of the many possible future scenarios that humankind is heading towards. With the rapid pace of change in the world around us, future is a hard thing to predict. We can only look at options and possibilities, envisioning and imagining scenarios – that may or may not happen. In at least a few of those possible options, knowing how to find water in the desert might be a lot more useful and valuable than, say, how to do a Google search, or use the latest GPS app on an iPhone to find one’s way.

A sunny week to you all, inside and out.