Overcoming difficult challenges: the lesson of the herder’s stick

Blog March 27

It was a warm, dry afternoon in the savannah lands of West Africa in the mid-1970s. Young people were gathered just next to an outdoor market of a village not far from the main road, and they greeted each other with animation. There was a feeling of anticipation. A boy of about sixteen picked up a round pocket mirror incased in red plastic. He trembled with excitement and nervousness. With one foot slightly in front of the other, he prepared for the onslaught of blows with a wooden herding stick that he was about to endure.  These would be delivered from someone in his community; an age mate who would himself get his turn later that day. The boy stared intently into the mirror, almost as if he were in the process of hypnotizing himself. In spite of appearances, this was not an occasion of punishment.  This was the “saro” (from Saro or Sawro, in Fulfuulde, meaning herding stick).

The attending crowd, made up mostly of Fulani teenagers, were excited. People milled around, and a line of Fulani girls danced and sang a song about courage and fortitude. Both young men and women were dressed in their best, with kohl around their eyes.  They laughed and bustled around as they sought to get closer to the action. You could hear the loud but muffled sound of feet stamping on the sandy ground. The smell of the popular Sahelian aromatic oil, Bint-as-Sudan, floated through the air. At the first stroke, the boy winced at the impact while the stick went thump across his shoulders.  Everyone in his community was proud of this boy as he withstood the pain and remained focused on the small mirror.

Suddenly people started running. The saro ceremony broke up and folk scattered. Government agents had come to break up the ceremony, which had recently been prohibited by the government. Though the Fulani insisted on calling this a game, and though it played an important role in the life-cycle of Fulani young men, the government was concerned because some experienced grave wounds and debilitating outcomes. Guards from the Emir’s palace had arrived on the scene in their bright patch-work robes of red and sage green, belts tied at their waists and their red turbans wound securely around their heads. They brandished small whips and shouted at the crowd to disperse. Some people were slowly but deliberately moving to the edges of the crowd.  I was there, too, and backed up several feet to the space by the adjacent road, getting away from the crowd.

What is the meaning of saro? It seemed cruel and violent. Yet, the youth – young herders known as waynaabe – were angry that the Emir’s guards had spoiled their chance to show their bravery and self-control. This was supposed to have been their day to shine! It was a day dedicated to pulaaku – a person’s abilities of discipline, grace, and apparent nonchalance under pressure. The ceremony was performed in a demonstration of extraordinary focus. That is the lesson of the saro.

Most of us would not want to be subjected to those hard blows that often broke the skin and drew blood. Why did the Fulani – or Fulbe as they call themselves – call saro a game? It was literally a game of hard knocks! But it was also an African game of great pedagogic value.

Life is also a game of hard knocks. When we overcome difficult challenges, there is often no one there to cheer us on and to wonder at our self-control, discipline, or feigned nonchalance. There are no Emir’s guards to stop the pain and save us from our difficult moment. What we can learn from the saro is the value of focus under pressure. The ability to look at ourselves, believe in our worth, and face difficulty. It the lesson of bringing one’s internal strength into focus in the face of painful but transcending moments.

phtotograph by Wendy Wilson

Published by wendywilsonfall

Wendy Wilson Fall is Associate Professor and Program Chair of the Africana Studies Program at Lafayette College. Her research engages questions of socio-cultural change, ethnic identity, and multi-sited historical narratives. She has published numerous journal articles and book chapters addressing these themes in the context of nomads in West Africa and the African diaspora of the U.S. Wilson-Fall is from Washington, D.C. and has traveled extensively in Africa, particularly in West Africa where she lived for more than ten years. She's also traveled to Madagascar, Egypt and Morocco as well as in Europe.

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