Like all the great rivers of Africa, the Niger passes through several countries before flowing home to the ocean. Though its delta, in Nigeria, is less than 2000 kilometers (1200 miles) from its source, the river curves in a huge arc through four countries and forms the border of a fifth in its 4200-kilometer (2600-mile) journey.
Rising in the Fouta Djallon highlands on the border of Sierra Leone and Guinea, the river first flows northeast to reach Mali. In this landlocked country of the Sahel, the Niger, grandly flowing through the dry and dusty savannah landscape, is a critically important source of water. In a good year, only 20 to 50 centimeters (eight to 20 inches) of rain falls here, and not all years are good ones.
Between two of the major cities of Mali, Segou and Timbuktu, the terrain falls hardly at all, and the river divides into multiple braided branches, a network of interconnected watercourses that includes some large lakes. Here - if the rains do not fail - the river overflows its banks every year, and during the rainy season the bush changes into swampland traversed by many streams and creeks. This is the Inner Niger Delta, or, as the local people call it, the Pondo.
For many centuries, people have lived in this potentially rich and prosperous region. As early as the third century BC small Iron-Age settlements existed here, and some of the villages developed into wealthy cities around the end of the first millennium. The best known of these are Djenne and Timbuktu.
The florescence of these commercial towns was related to the Islamization of the Pondo. Berber merchants and Moroccan traders from the north had brought the Qur'an with them well before the 13th century, and spread its message among the inhabitants of the cities. In the late 14th century, traders of the Mali Empire opened up routes to the Begho gold fields, on the borders of modern-day Ghana and Cote d'lvoire, and both Djenne and Timbuktu became important centers of the gold and salt trade between that area and North Africa. Prosperous Timbuktu, especially, was able to support a population of Muslim scholars and theologians that gave it a great reputation as a center of Islamic learning in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Nonetheless, traditional beliefs held out much longer in the surrounding countryside. Not until the 19th century, when a local leader of the Peul herdsmen proclaimed a religious campaign against paganism, did the majority of the Pondo peoples embrace Islam. Today between 70 and 90 percent of Mali's population as a whole is Muslim.
Because of the annual inundation of the Pondo from June until October, every village and town in the area is situated on a small hill, an island in a flat landscape. From a distance, the settlements all look alike: a mound on which the mud buildings form a skyline that is dominated by the towers of the mosque, pointing into the air like fingers. The origin of one such island, a small one near the village of Gomitogo, is explained this way by local legend.
During the construction of the Great Mosque of Djenne, they say, a jinni, or supernatural being, was on its way to the town, carrying mud for the new building. But another jinni, returning from the site, reported that the mosque was already finished. Since the mud was not needed anymore, the first jinni tossed it out of the basket he had been carrying on his head. Fallen to the ground, the mud formed the Gomitogo island.
The smaller villages in the Pondo are mainly inhabited by farmers, herdsmen and fishermen. Each of these professions is more or less the exclusive domain of one particular ethnic group.
For the Peul, or Fulani, herdsmen, the Pondo is the pasture where, for part of the year, they graze their herds of cows and flocks of goats. During the growing season, however, they must leave the Inner Delta and are forbidden to return until the cultivators, mostly Bambara, have safely harvested their crops of millet and rice. The fishermen, the Bozo, are the oldest inhabitants of the Pondo - indeed, the word pondo derives from their language. Like the Bambara, they rely on the river, for the annual Niger flood not only brings in fertile soil for the farmers but also carries large quantities of fish.
Sirimou is a fine example of a Bozo fishing village. Located six kilometers (nearly four miles) northwest of Djenne, it has about 800 inhabitants and, according to oral tradition, is one of the oldest villages in the Pondo. Though the Bozo of Sirimou are outnumbered by another ethnic group - the Nono, who are farmers like the Bambara - Sirimou is nonetheless considered a Bozo village, because fishing is an essential means of subsistence for the whole population of the place.
From the south, Sirimou looks like a fortress. The mosque, whose architecture is clearly inspired by that of the Great Mosque of Djenne, strengthens this impression with its high, crenelated walls. Because it is built on a small hill, the village is very compact: Small houses, built of loam, abut each other and border the narrow streets, which open into three small squares. Each square has its own function: One is the market place, another serves as the forecourt of the mosque, and the third is the social center of the village, where meetings and festivals take place.
A typical house here consists of several adjoining rooms clustered around a small courtyard that is separated from the street by a man-high wall. A doorway in the wall, often closed by a hanging mat, connects the courtyard to the street. Each bedroom is accessible only from its adjoining living room, which in turn opens on the courtyard. One room, smaller and blackened by the smoke of cooking fires, is the kitchen -but only the actual cooking of meals is done here. All food preparation, such as the pounding of rice and millet, takes place in the courtyard or in public places: in the streets or under a large tree on the edge of the village. The courtyard also contains the staircase to the flat roof of the house, where laundry is dried and millet stalks - fodder for the dry season - are stored. For this latter purpose, the narrow streets are sometimes spanned by beams to increase the storage area.
As everywhere in the Pondo, Sirimou's mosque dominates the village. It was built about 30 years ago on the site of the former mosque, and it is completely integrated into Sirimou's compact mass of buildings.
After each year of exposure to the elements, the rain-washed, sun-cracked building needs replastering. Near the end of the cold season, in February or March, its mud walls are given a fresh coating of loam. This is a festive occasion for the entire community, and everyone is present when the masons of the village do the work, spreading the mud with their hands.
In the hot season, the Pondo looks dry, dusty and desolate. There is no water in the river beds. For a few months, the sun beats down on the arid fields, where sheep and goats eat the left-over stubble of the last harvest. But when - or if - the first rains come in June or July, the yellowish-brown vegetation turns green and crops start to grow in the sown fields. Near the end of July, the water in the Niger begins to rise and the dry watercourses fill up. Along with the water, fish come to the Pondo.
When the water level in the Inner Niger Delta has reached its highest, most fish have reached their greatest weight and are ready to spawn, turning the inundated area into rich fishing grounds. At the end of November, when the water begins to retreat, the actual fishing season starts.
The Bozo fishermen of the Pondo are very skilled. Specialized in their trade, they know the secrets of the water and its creatures. Almost every species of fish, of the rich variety found there, has its own characteristics, exhibits its own behavior and occupies its own biotope; the fishermen's knowledge of where to find which fish and how to catch it is equally various. This knowledge has been controlled by the Bozo since the Pondo was first settled and, within their ethnic group, is handed down from one generation to the next.
Sardine-like tincui (Alcstes leuciscus) are an important species to Bozo fishermen because of the excellent oil they contain, but considerable skill is needed to catch them. Tineni migrate in large schools through the Pondo during the fall and winter, but live in the flooded rice fields during the high-water season. When the water starts to retreat, the farmers enclose their fields in small dikes to hold back the water for their growing rice plants. Before the harvest, though, they break openings in the dikes to let the water stream out, and it is there that the fishermen wait with their nets to catch the small silvery fish.
Others, meanwhile, start to fish on the rivers and creeks. Standing in their narrow pirogues, they punt to the places where they know they can expect the best haul. Slowly, they maneuver to certain spots. To the untrained eye, nothing indicates the presence of fish there: All that can be seen is water, the surface of the river flat as a mirror. Then suddenly, a fisherman casts his net. A few seconds later, as it is drawn in, thrashing and sparkling fish roil the water. The fisherman shakes out his net above the boat, and a cascade of wriggling silver covers his feet ankle-deep.
Later in the year, the tineni gather in the rivers of the Pondo to form dense schools. Now is the time to make large catches. But since the fish are migratory, the Bozo fishermen must migrate too. Camping beside the river in temporary brush huts thatched with straw mats, the fishermen and part of their families spend months at a time away from the villages. As the fish move, the fishermen follow in boats equipped with outboard motors. Carrying a few belongings with them, they move along the river to pitch another camp and continue to fish the schools of tineni.
The catch can be sold either fresh or dried, and since it coincides with the harvest time of most crops, the fish are an excellent means of exchange for the staple foods of the region: rice and millet. However, a fisherman does not trade his tineni with just any farmer: The barter in fish and fish-oil is subject to certain rules and traditions, and is carried out with regard to trade relationships consolidated long ago between a fisherman's family and a particular farmer's family or village.
Naturally, the fish must be preserved, since a catch spoils within a day and becomes valueless. While the Bozo men do the fishing, the women preserve the catches ashore, either by drying, smoking or scorching the fish. Dried in the sun, after having been salted, or smoked over a fire under thick layers of straw mats, the fish retain their size and taste and may be kept for approximately six months; dried or smoked fish is an important ingredient in local dishes. Scorched fish, on the other hand, which has been laid in a smoldering fire of dried grasses for several hours, loses most of its nutritional value and is only used as seasoning.
Near the end of the fishing season, about the month of April, the river near the village of Sirimou has shrunk to a stream. Large areas of the Pondo are dried up, and the professional fishermen, their year's work done, have brought home their catches. Now it is time to find the last few fish still in the river - a cooperative project that many of the villagers take part in. Like beaters in a game drive, men, women and children wade through the water with triangular nets in their hands. The small fish are caught in the hand nets, and the big ones are driven upstream into a large net spread across the river.
Soon, no fish are left in this part of the Inner Niger Delta and, as everywhere in the Pondo, the Bozo fishermen of Sirimou must wait about four months until their river rises again and brings a new supply of fish - if the river does rise.
After all, this is the Sahel, and the rains are ever uncertain. And even when they do fall, say the old people of Sirimou, and the Niger floods its Inner Delta, it will never be as it was during the first decades of this century. The days before the great droughts of the early 1970's and mid-1980's are gone forever.
Those were the times, they say, when the Pondo was the granary of a large part of West Africa, when the harvests were abundant and, especially, when the waters were full of fish.
Pierre Maas, an architect, is a researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Geert Mommersteeg is an anthropologist at the University of Utrecht.
Additional information on the lives of the Bozo fishermen was provided by Paul de Bruin.