Elena Dak

The woman who walks with the nomads

During an expedition in Niger, Elena Dak, travel guide, explorer of faraway places, expert researcher in anthropology and author, realised what she would have done from then on in her life: follow the trail of nomad populations. She chose to join them in their journey, to follow the same horizons in order to be able to understand and then narrate their lives, carved out in disadvantaged ecological niches that constantly require them to relocate to survive.

Elena, can you tell us about your work?

I am a guide and an expert in anthropolog y. I accompany tourists in their travels. The destinations I love are mainly in remote and often inhospitable areas: from the sandy eastern Sahara in Chad to the water-trodden Okavango Delta in Botswana, from the oases in southern Morocco to the steppes of Central Asia and Iran… But my duty is not simply organisational, the experience I gained through my studies enables me to provide my companions with a key to help them understand, at least in part, what they are experiencing.

Your life changed during an expedition in Niger. What happened?

You must know that Niger is one of the few countries in North Africa where instances of nomadism still exist. Among these, there are the Tuareg, herdsmen who inhabit the desert and who live raising camels and goats, chasing rains and pastures according to very ancient rhythms. At the beginning of autumn, a number of camel caravans cross the great Ténéré desert to reach the salt pans and palm groves, where they stock up on dates and salt. It so happened that I was driving a group of jeeps through the Ténéré desert and our journey crossed a salt caravan.

And that was a revelation.

Yes, an epiphany, almost a sacred apparition. You must imagine the Ténéré as a limitless empty space of fierce beauty, and although strange, you must understand that in the emptiness of the desert you only see things
at the last minute, as if the eye, used to navigating in such immense vastness and marvel, is surprised at the apparition of defined forms. You initially hear the sound, like an underlying quiet rumble, and then your eyes finally see it: hundreds and hundreds of camels guided by a few dozen men advancing in a hum of hooves and feet raising the dust. The majesty of this landscape is so overwhelming that it leaves you speechless, but I felt deep inside of me a desire to be part of that moving village, to get on that journey with those people. And I dreamt of being a note in that hum.

The majority of people have hopes and dreams, including big ones, but few are able to pursue them.

I believe that life is a set of opportunities, and when yours floats pass, you either take it immediately or lose it forever..

And when did you encounter your opportunity?

Again, during a desert crossing: one evening, when it was time for storytelling in front of a fire, the young driver who was guiding the group with me said, “I’m the son of a caravan master”. I asked him to intercede on my behalf, to ask his father to take me in.

1200 km more or less on foot, 40/50 km on average per day on the sand. How did you prepare for such a feat?

First of all, my goal was not to perform an astonishing feat, I did not want to break any record: I wanted to have an experience, I was pushed by the desire for knowledge and did not want the fatigue of the long trek to prevent me from realizing I was doing something extraordinary. I, therefore, handed in my notice, contacted a trainer, and for nine months, instead of going to the office, I did nothing else but run, swim and cycle, following the very harsh training routine of triathlon athletes.

How did your parents react to the news that you were going to leave and join a salt caravan?

They were bewildered. One day, right before I left, my father asked my mother: “Did you manage to understand what it is she’s going to do?” The truth is, I had not understood either. On the other hand, who could tell me? I had read travel stories, I technically knew where and how, I had prepared with care, I had trained strictly and regularly, but I had no idea what was waiting. Now I can say that the more the details escape you, the less you focus on detail, the richer your experience will be. There are journeys for which the less you know, the more hope you have of going far.

The only white, foreign and Christian woman with 30 camel drivers and 300 camels. How was the experience from this viewpoint?

It is true that desert spaces, nomad spaces, are strictly masculine, not because women are set aside but because women, which in Tuareg culture are held in the highest esteem, are in other ways busy. However, the fact that the caravan master had decided to welcome me ensured that I was treated like his daughter, and therefore worthy of the utmost consideration and respect. The Tuareg have a very open approach to others, they are the highest example of a tolerant Islam – except for unfortunate extremisms in Mali. Everyone was extremely kind towards me and actually taught me a form of gentleness: they spied everything I did from under their turbans and took care of me, always respecting my diversity as one of the many other
variables people can display.

As well as discovering gentleness, what other teachings did you bring home?

So many that I can’t list them all, and maybe some of them I have not even processed yet: I learned silence, the silence during the day and the silence at night, and the ability to withstand it without getting flustered. The size of emptiness, inside whose extraordinary yet essential beauty there is no room for the superfluous. I learned about the richness of relationships, and the time it takes to build them. I learned to live on the move: from morning till night you march on, and everything happens on the move, eating, the tea ritual. Even your thoughts end up fluctuating and getting into step with the march. I learned about lightness: being a nomad means owning very little, the bare minimum you can load onto the animals. Oh, but what beauty in every object they have, even the smallest!

After the Tuareg you walked with the Wodaabe, the Zebu farmers of the Sahel in Chad, an even harsher experience than the crossing of the Ténéré; and then with the Rabari, the nomads from Gujarat in India. Are you on the search for the authentic?

Authentic does not exist. All cultures are in constant transformation. What is different today is the speed at which change occurs. While once several generations led the same lives, now no child will live the life of their parents. Nomad populations, tiny communities embedded in social and political environments that would like to sedentarise them, are now on the delicate and very fragile threshold of change. I want to live in that change lag. I don’t know the deeper reason, after all, not every question needs to have an answer.

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