Drought. The Sahel is a hard clay pan the color of eggshell and just as cracked. It stretches to the ends of the world. In its scorched heart, undone by a migraine, I kneel on a black plastic tarp. In the red-hot bird’s nest of a wire brazier by my knees smolders my cure: a fragrant nugget of myrrh.
Myrrh weeps clear gum resin that hardens into rust-colored crystalline nubs. Its scientific name, Commiphora, derives from the Greek kommi (resin) and phero (to bear). “Myrrh” comes from murr, which in Arabic means “bitter.” Its wood is soft, good for carving; some of its species are called “corkwood.” South Africans call it “hairy corkwood” for the soft, short fur that covers its trifoliate aromatic leaves. Its bark is papery, flaky, and green-gray, but where you slash it it turns red, like human skin.
Encyclopedia Britannica records 190 species of Commiphora. In Mali, C. africana, African myrrh, comes into vivid green leaf at the earliest sign of humidity, sometimes twice a year if the rainy season is interrupted: it’s a survivor. Its creeping roots spread farther than the shaggy mop of its crown, cinching the topsoil in a tight web, a kind of revetment against erosion. Sometimes the soil weathers away regardless, and then the wind sculpts the exposed roots, raising them above ground in tiptoed relief. In the uninterrupted pale immensity of the Sahel, such trees look as if they are preparing to scuttle off the curvature of the earth.
Two years ago I came to Mali to herd Zebu cows with a family of nomadic Fulani cowboys. For a yearlong cycle of transhumance I walked on cattle paths that ran narrow and straight and pulverized, the texture of raw silk, and on human paths that rambled wide, pink veins of red plutonic gravel trimmed by gossamer grass. The last few rainy seasons had been so beggarly that the savannah barely sprung green; most years lately have been that way. Colorless roadside grass rustled hollow, water stood low in the wells, rice and millet withered before forming seed. This is the new normal in the Sahel. It is easy to imagine in its starkness an apocalyptic exodus of trees.
Constantly worried that my water wouldn’t last till the next well, I began to conserve, drink too little. My thirst condensed into a terrible headache.
My friend Amadou Gano—guide, farmer, cowherd, mason, translator, amateur medicine man—knew just the remedy. He arranged chunks of coal in a brazier and balanced a small piece of resin on top.
“For you, Anna,” he said.
The resin was knobbly, tormented-looking, grotesque. It made me think of a homunculus. The coals were a pyre. My head throbbed. I looked away, studied the land crazed by drought. There was something indescribably fragile about these hairline fractures, something irrevocable.
Malians call myrrh barkanté. Gano, who lives in Djenné, a medieval town in central Mali, always carries a small nub of gum resin in his pocket, wrapped in plastic torn from a shopping bag. Barkanté is a disinfectant, an anticonvulsant, a de-wormer, an aphrodisiac. It can alleviate malarial fever and migraine if you break off a small chunk and set it to smolder in a brazier and lean over it to inhale its fumes. The fumes smell like burnt clutch.
“You must breathe very deep,” Gano orders. He makes a sucking noise, to demonstrate how. “Best protection against headache.”
Gano’s faith in the curative power of a plant is common for this part of the world: according to the WHO, approximately four out of five Africans look to traditional medicine, mostly herbal, for primary care. Five thousand plant species in Africa are being used medicinally. Any Malian can pick myrrh resin in the bush, or get it from her marabout or healer, or buy it in the weekly market at the fetish stall from men who sell herbs and lichen and cowries and spooky mummified animal parts.
Growing up in the Soviet Union, I made plantain weed poultices for skinned knees, ate raspberry jam to bring down fever.
Therapeutic use of myrrh in particular extends beyond the continent. Traditional doctors in China have used myrrh for centuries to treat arthritis and fractures. India’s ayurvedic healers recognize its anti-inflammatory powers and effectiveness against coronary artery diseases. Ancient Egyptians used myrrh as an antiseptic. The self-taught American herbalist Samuel Thomson, in the nineteenth century, used a mixture of brandy, cayenne, and myrrh to “remove pain, prevent mortification, and promote a natural heat.”
Look at it this way: each time my friend reaches for his resin, he taps into a global knowledge honed over millennia, a true people’s pharmacopeia.
At one point or another, we all knew such things about our landscape, at least somewhat. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I made plantain weed poultices for skinned knees, ate raspberry jam to bring down fever, brewed linden tea as an expectorant.
But now, in the Global North, we have relegated this kind of intelligence to laboratories. (Medical researches recently investigated, in studies on mice, C. africana’s anti-seizure properties for the purpose of possible treatment of epilepsy. The FDA, so far, only approves myrrh for food use and as an additive to cosmetic products. Check your mouthwash: it may contain myrrh.) Even the linden tea memory is fading. I remember picking the sweet-smelling blossoms and drying them on newspaper in the sun as a child, for example, but I had forgotten what they were for. When I was writing this, I had to look it up.
Gano is not a sensitive custodian of his environment. He is its active participant. Mostly, he applies his deep knowledge of his geography to determine stuff’s usefulness. He goes crashing through the bush on nearly indiscernible paths he alone knows to visit a familiar jackalberry grove so he can indulge his sweet tooth. (His teeth are black, rotten from too much sweet tea.) He steeps kinkeliba leaves to quiet upset stomach. After one long day of travel he revs the engine and steers our scooter straight for a five-foot-long monitor lizard crossing the road. Riding pillion, I shriek. The massive reptile skedaddles. Gano seethes for the rest of the day: he was hoping to run it over and cook it for dinner, and I doomed him to another Lenten meal of rice and cabbage.
In his environmental manifesto The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez eulogizes such synergy: “To memorize and remember the land, walk it, eat from its soils and from the animals that ate its plants…. To be intimate with the land like this is to enclose it in the same moral universe we occupy, to include it in the meaning of the word community.” Conversely, our divested attitude toward our surroundings may be our undoing: it is a distancing that enables the avarice and abuse of the Anthropocene.
It is also true that the bonds that once existed between all humans and the rest of the natural world were born of scarcity, which dictates need. The gradual fraying of such bonds is a symptom of a world that is more prosperous and healthier than ever. The 2014 UN Human Development Report says that “most people in most countries have been doing steadily better.” Who needs myrrh resin when there is aspirin?
But we are in the bush and there is no aspirin and the nearest pharmacy is half a day’s walk away.
To get the full benefit of the myrrh fumes, Gano instructs, I must cover my head and the brazier with a cotton blanket. This makeshift tent will keep the smoke from escaping. I draw the cloth over me, and suddenly, all is sealed off: the enormous low sky that quivers in the heat and teases and brings no rain; the punishing sandpaper wind that grows hotter and stronger each year; the wasted land that fades to magenta, fades to blue; the distant call to prayer, solitary plumes of sound that seem tailored for just such a melancholy terrain—and beyond it all a world disoriented, out of kilter.
Under my blanket I can pretend that this deteriorating, erratic landscape is extraneous to me; that nature has boundaries; that I am outside them.
If Gano were better off, maybe he, too, would draw a shroud between himself and the Sahel, forget the remedial properties of plants, ignore the weather. But he cannot afford drugs from a pharmacy. He cannot afford to stop divining the sky for rain. Like most Malians, he is at its mercy, cobbling from a small farm, a handful of cattle, and occasional menial jobs just enough to support an elderly widowed mother, two younger sisters, a wife, and three small children, and he has nothing to fall back on in case his crops fail or animals die. The weather here is becoming hotter, drier. Meteorologists predict that it will keep getting worse.
At some point in the future myrrh trees probably will be gone from the Sahel.
Once I passed a baobab that lay on its side. There was an immense vulnerability to it. Baobabs live up to two thousand years. They grow big as houses; the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta wrote about a weaver who had turned a baobab into a loom room. I didn’t know why this one had died but it was difficult to rationalize such a fall and it elicited a greater sorrow than I had imagined a tree could merit. Like a cooled meteorite that never again would be of the sky. The irreparable chasm in its wake. Seeing that baobab I felt guilty, as if I had arrived too late to avert some monumental loss.
I breathe deep, as if the fumes can help me hold the myrrh trees down by their roots.
The Afrikaans word for myrrh is kanniedood, “cannot die,” yet Western civilization has forever associated myrrh with death, loss, and the otherworldly. Ancient Egyptians used it to embalm their dead; an anonymous poem composed four thousand years ago goes: “Death is before me today / like the odor of myrrh.” Rabbis in the First and Second Temples consecrated myrrh; God instructed Moses to use myrrh to anoint the Tabernacle. The Magi presented baby Jesus gifts of myrrh, which in those days was as valuable as gold; thirty-three years later, on Golgotha before crucifixion, he was offered a mixture of myrrh and wine, which he refused. Days after that, his disciples soaked the linen they would use to bind his body in a hundred pounds of myrrh mixed with aloes.
After the child dies, the owl takes her soul.
Gano promises that in addition to curing my migraine, inhaling myrrh fumes will protect me from the witchery of an owl. Like my hosts in the bush, Gano is Fulani, and the Fulani believe the owl to be a major cause of illness and child death.
In the night, the owl flies over dark camps and villages and looks for a weak adult or a child who is crying and gives them malaria or pneumonia. An adult sometimes recovers; a child never does. After the child dies, the owl takes her soul. There is no cure for the sickness sent by an owl because there is no immediate diagnosis. Only after the child is dead can traditional healers or elders determine that an owl killed her.
According to the CIA World Factbook, children in Mali die at the second-highest rate in the world. Here, one in three sedentary children under five is chronically malnourished and one in five doesn’t survive to his or her fifth birthday. The ratio is higher among nomads. Relief workers in Bamako tell me this is a habitual, workaday catastrophe.
With little access to the perfunctory healthcare offered by the country’s limited medical facilities, Malians, young and old, die of pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, diarrheal diseases. The year I worked in the bush, unexplained fever took two of my hosts’ toddler grandsons. They are buried within a day’s walk from one another. My Fulfulde teacher’s diabetes monitor broke and he could not find a replacement; unable to track his glucose, unsure what to eat, he withered, contracted malaria, and died of complications. Gano’s half-brother died of a protracted heart ailment for which doctors at the Djenné district hospital had prescribed a treatment of over-the-counter painkillers and a salt-free diet. Hundreds of people died that year in the war between Tuareg rebels, Islamist radicals, and Malian and international troops in the country’s north, and hundreds more were killed in road accidents and boat capsizes. Cognitive science explains that an excess of the neurotransmitter called dopamine tells our brain to see patterns and connections where there may be none, that belief in magic stems from the human desire to rationalize things—but, tell me, aren’t these enough ways to die in the Sahel?
“Nature is what is, everything that is, everything that has been, and everything that is possible, including human actions, inventions, creations, and imaginations,” writes the poet Pattiann Rogers. Maybe so. Maybe nature has no boundaries, but I do, and I draw the line between the natural and the supernatural. I cannot handle death by owl.
But I have seen the graves of the children said to have died this way. I know their parents. Gano is one of them.
It was his firstborn, a boy. Gano and the boy’s mother were never married. The child died in infancy; the woman is married to someone else now.
Gano’s second son died, too, from malaria. My friend keeps a photograph of him on his cellphone: a sweet gangly boy hugging his younger brother, Ali Badara. Ali Badara is six years old now, full of mischief. Gano and his wife—the boy’s mother—spoil him rotten.
My migraine is gone. I remove the blanket. In the distance a flock of cattle egrets lands on outstretched spindly legs like giant lotus blossoms descending. There is still a tiny piece of myrrh in the brazier, and Gano spits on it to cool it down, then gently rewraps it in plastic and returns it to his pocket.
We spend the following days looking for a pinto billy goat with medium-sized horns. Gano needs the goat for a sacrifice that he says would guarantee, in this lean, lean year, a harvest that would tide his family over during the dry season.
We search obsessively. Gano and I ride his scooter to pastures three, four hours away from our nomad camp. The pastures are trampled and pale, dry, and rare leafless trees stick out of them like fish bones. We scan never-ending horizons for goat flocks. At night Gano leaves again, alone, and comes back at dawn, empty-handed. He finds a white goat, a black-and-tan goat, lots of browns, but no pinto. He is losing sleep. His driving becomes reckless; my riding pillion becomes an act of faith.
He is worried: no goat, no harvest. I think: my idea of where nature ends and superstition begins is irrelevant. We keep looking.