Courtship by the river as cows return home
The Mali cattle crossing festival is not your ordinary December event. Part of the colourful event is courtship in the open as hundreds cheer on; a display of strength and ability to provide for family plus reunions after several months on the go.
The traditional festival that has been going on for hundreds of years remains one of the most anticipated year enders in Mali, especially in the the town of Diafarabe, some 350km north-east of the capital, Bamako.
Impressed by the cultural significance attached to the annual event, Unesco included it on the list of world Cultural Heritage events.
There is plenty of music, the best of Mali fashion on display because everyone is expected to show up in best attire and a range of traditional feasts that go on for days along the River Niger stretch.
The new season
After months in the fields with the cattle, December offers the Fulani cattle herders a chance to return to their homes, in anticipation for the new season.
The spectacle bringing together hundreds from across the world, opens in Diafarabé. Young herders arrive with their herds and organise them into small groups that can swim together across the river into their homes. Crowds, mostly the older segments of the society, plus girls in their puberty, cheer the young men.
When prompted, the cows swim across in what appears like a floating spectacle. To keep the herd in harmony, the herders keep yelling to them, even whipping when necessary.
On the other hand, calves are transported by boat to avoid them drowning.
As recognition of focused herding, those who deliver the fattest cows are rewarded handsomely. The worst herdsman also takes home an award: One peanut and plenty of embarrassment.
Traditionally, herders are boys. Each family that owns cattle herd picks their young men to go grazing as far as the Sahel. A hard task that requires survival skills and a lot of team work, the assignment is also meant to test the men's readiness for marriage.
On return, at the crossing festival that is usually attended by locals and even tourists, the men use their herds to impress the young ladies, even court them. Girls on the other hand arrive at the event dressed in their best, just in case there is someone who has done some impressive work.
Living across West Africa, the Fulani have a way of life that revolves around cattle. They are not like the Mandigo group (Malinké, Khasonké, Soninké and Bambara), whose main economic activity is agriculture and trade.
Interestingly, the two groups live cordially: Farmers allow the Fulani's animals graze on their land.