NOMADIC BY NATURE. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is an environmental activist. She is a Mbororo woman from pastoralist people in Chad and Founder and President of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), a community-based organization focused on promoting the rights of girls and women in the Mbororo community and inspiring leadership and advocacy in environmental protection.

Ibrahim is an advocate for the greater inclusion of indigenous peoples and their knowledge and traditions in the global movement to fight the effects of climate change. On September 1st 2022 she received the International DVF Award in Venice, along with Christine Lagarde, Zoya Lylvyn, Ava DuVernay and the Women of Afghanistan. Ibrahim previously received the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award and was appointed as a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Advocate.

You can listen to a podcast of this interview here.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, hw many people are the Mbororo, your indigenous community in the north-central African Republic of Chad?

We are nomadic people, and around Chad we are about 400,000, depending on the season. But when we talk about all the Fulani peoples around Africa, it’s more than 30 million. When I take the example of myself and my own family as Mbororo people, from my father’s side and my mother’s side my people are living across six countries in Africa – Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, Central African Republic and now even Sudan. Before colonization it used to be our land, without calling it Chad or Cameroon.

Why do you migrate?  

To follow the rain in the ecosystem that we depend on. During the rainy season people are very far from a wet area, for example Lake Chad, but then in the dry season people come and camp around the Lake Chad. The community camp around Lake Chad for between one and two months – and they are not settling in one place, they are moving around the lake in the wet area.

What kind of work do your people do, how do they survive?

We are cattle herders, so we have our main food, our economy from milk and from the milk products that we are selling to exchange with cereals. As we depend on the milk from the cows we cannot stay in one place and finish the natural resources. This is one of the reasons that we have to move from one place to another one, in order to keep the balance in the ecosystem. Then that can help us to continue to look for the milk and so continuously, when we come back around the place, we find the pastures again and we do our self-circle. People do not have a house. They have the house that they build in every step that they stop and also depending on the season.

“We must build the future leaders today and on a bigger scale of young women and men that care about diversity, justice, equity and environmental protection.”

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, briefs the Security Council at its meeting on “Peace and security in Africa: Challenges in the Sahel Region. 26 May 2016. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Manuel Elias 

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, how can the children go to school or study?

The model of the school is not adapted to our way of living, because it is for people who are sitting in one place. We are nomadic people, so the kids cannot just stop in the place and go to school, but we have the best school: nature. We learn every single day from nature – from our grandfathers, from our grandmothers, from our own mum, from our brothers and sisters, from our own cattle and animals – so we have our own way of education that is helping us to live. But to come back to Western education, I did in a study in 2010 with the government of Chad around the education of nomadic children and we created a direction of study for the nomadic kids, and this is very particular because the community say they want to do schooling that can adapt to their way of living, not that they have to adapt to the school.

Do you use new technologies like Zoom or the Internet?  

No, we don’t have that. We don’t have electricity, so we cannot have Zoom or have the internet at all. But for the formal school the teachers can move with the community, they can settle under the tree and give some classes to the children.

How did your own major concern with environmental activities develop?

In school I studied various background subjects. It is not in my culture to go to school so it was thanks to my mum, because she sent me and my sister to school, and, when I was going to school, in every break I would go back home to my community. That means I grew up between two cultures. When I finished secondary school I wanted to do some study to get money to help my community and then I did accounting and finance but this was not the way that I wanted to do it, because when you add accounts you have to be in the office yourself. So then I went back to do project management, and from the project management I wanted to see how I can combine the traditional knowledge of my community with science and technology, to help them to build a mapping of their natural resources. Then I decided to do an environment project, so that’s how I became a geographer, and how I love the map. As a nomadic it is normal that I love the map because we are always travelling around. I decided to have the knowledge of my people and the best technology that can come from satellite images or from geographical information and the technology from the cell phone, from the applications, and to put it together and build a new community.

Your people keep domesticated animals, but in Africa there are many dangerous wild animals, so do you have to defend yourselves not only from the climate but also from the environment as a whole?

Yes, but for us it is about the balance of nature, how we can live and share natural resources. In my community you can find a boy who is seven years old who can take hundreds of cattle, all the cows, and they can go around and graze all the day. They can drink in the same lake that the lion can come to and drink, the elephant can come to and drink, the giraffe can come to and drink, and then the cattle can come and the little boy is there with them. We know exactly how to manage and share these resources because the time for drinking for each species is aligned, it is different.

You know the different timing of the animals very well?

Of course, we have to know, that’s how we can live in harmony and share the resources.

“You have to mitigate the food insecurity, and get the people access to the education that they want, not imposed education.”

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, how does the changing weather affect Lake Chad?

When my mom was born around 1960, Lake Chad used to be 25,000 square kilometres. When I was born, 30 years ago, the lake was around 10,000 square kilometres. And right now it is – depending on the rainy season – between 1,500 to 3,000 square kilometres. 90% of the lake disappears and the reason is simple: because the seasons changed a lot.

Is nature now out of balance?

Exactly. You grow your crops and you are happy that they are growing up and then you get two weeks or three weeks of no rain, and everything dries up. You end up with food insecurity. Either you have a lot of rain or less rain, so it’s impacting production.

How can we solve this imbalance?

I think we must solve this imbalance which is also coming from developed countries. That’s why I have to travel. I have to tell them through the U.N., through many organizations, that the developed countries are not developed, they are overdeveloping.

The developed countries have a lot of problems nowadays. Climate change is everywhere. There is no water in the rivers, fires. What is the solution?

The solution is we have to act globally, because the solutions may be from the private sector. They have to stop digging the resources under the ground, continuously emitting greenhouse gases, because this is the big problem that we are all having. We have to stop the greenhouse gases. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is we have to transition to clean energy because we have a lot of dirty energy that we are using all around the planet. Transport is a big issue and transport makes me sad because in my community our best transport is getting with our cattle and moving; but when you come to all the developed countries, even to the cities in Africa, everyone has to jump in a new transport that is polluting. So we are not adapting.

The third thing is our consumptions as human beings. I’m very shocked. Every single day I come to the developed countries and I go to the supermarket. You want to buy meat? You have the expression of that. You want to buy milk? You have the expression of that. Everything, even water, they put the expression of that and then they push people to overconsume and it is aspirational, you just have to try it. In my community and in my culture, nothing that we are using is aspirational. No. We are not using a lot of resources. If you eat food and some of it remains you give it to your neighbours, or you dry it up to eat it or to give to your animals. You never waste any food. I always get shocked.

The Covid19 virus killed millions of people around the world. How did it affect your people in Africa?

Generally we do not have the access to the vaccine. I have been vaccinated because I’m so privileged and lucky because I found myself in Europe and then it’s been an obligation to get vaccinated, to protect myself and to protect my family. But in my community people do not get Covid, they get the economic impact of Covid. When there is no market you cannot exchange your product, and then you have to stick with your product and the other person has to stick with his product and it’s increased food insecurity. In Africa the consequences of Covid are more huge than Covid itself.

What kind of continent is Africa today? Is there a lot of progress?

We can say that there is progress, but it is really very slow and it is very little, because there is injustice, because the capital cities get more opportunity than the rural areas. But when you take all Africa, most of the populations depend on agriculture, fishery, or are pastoralists like my people. They are doing those activities in rural areas, and those rural areas are not given the chance or the opportunities to grow up as the cities are. N’Djamena is the capital city of Chad, and sometimes you do not have electricity and sometimes you do not have clean water, but it is the place where you can have schools and hospitals, and when you go out from the city it’s completely different. There is no access to schools, no access to health care and no access to electricity. If you don’t have electricity, you cannot think about having the Internet or having communication.

What are you campaigning for? Do you want your people to change or to keep their original way of life?

It depends on what we call change. I would love my people to be continuously doing their life that they are doing, because this is the only way that we are protecting nature. We are learning more about nature and we are protecting our identity, but we also want to have more access to clean energy and then they can have light, they can better develop our milk or our products, have access to the market infrastructure and exchange with other people and feed those people. If you are producing a lot and you are self-sufficient then you don’t need to export and import from other countries. You have to mitigate the food insecurity, and get the people access to the education that they want, not imposed education. Nomadic kids are not rejecting education but don’t want an education which does not respect our culture. When they go to school and then they start telling them the history of France, they don’t care about that. They care about the history when they tell them how they can better manage our natural resources. We want schools that can tell us how you can do accounting. We want to be at a school which can help us to cope with our daily life, not things which are useless for us. This kind of progress or education is what I want for my people and that’s what they want. We are not imposing it on them, they are choosing it themselves.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is a native of Chad. Photo by Salma Khalil, Association en Terre indigène.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim’s peoples are nomadic and depend on cattle for their survival.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim with some of the children who greatly admire her. Photo by Ami Vitale.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim leading a workshop with women of her peoples.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: “As a nomadic it is normal that I love the map because we are always travelling around.”

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

(From Left) Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim; Shabnam Hassan Khan; Clarissa Ward; Alyse Nelson; Zoya Lytvyn at the International DVF Awards, held in Venice September 2022.

“My dream is the world where the people can live in harmony with nature.”

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, you also promote environmental advocacy. Where does that stand now?

I think people have got power. Politicians can impose or decide, but who elects the politicians? People. So if people elect the right politicians we can change the game about energy, about the world, about all that is happening right now. People are only seeing the solution for today, for 10 years or maybe for 30 years. We are not thinking about 100 or 200 years. In my community we have a culture that you have to learn from our seven past generations and know what they did. That can help me when I take a decision. I have to take the decision for the next seven upcoming generations. I have to talk for the seven upcoming generations. Citizens have the power. If we think continuously about elections and the winter of today or tomorrow, people are not shifting to renewable energy. Countries like Germany are rich, they have technology, they have money, they have people. Why can they not shift and go to the renewable energies.

They are trying.

Trying is not the solution. They must do. My people are not trying, my people are doing, because it is survival. They have to change. In Paris a few weeks ago when the drought came they had a solution, saying that every single person had to use a limited amount of litres of water. They are not trying, they are doing. And when there was flooding around the place, they evacuated people. They are not trying to fight it, they are doing. So Germany and all the rest of the countries must do.

What do you think about the women’s movements?

Finally there is something that’s happening, liberating the voices of the women to express their pain and to say what they’re experiencing. Still in Africa and in Chad and in my own culture women cannot say so many things, because it is shameful. Because when you say it, it is not only you, it is all the community. When women get raped, they cannot go to the justice, most of the time they say it is your fault. In addition to what she’s experiencing, they put a big ball in her head saying, “It’s your fault, you did it!”

If women are reaching slowly some degree of improvement, do you feel the same progress in the racial prejudice?

It is not the same. The women getting recognition, it is like the general woman. You can have a white woman. You can have an Asian woman, an African woman and all, but when you talk about the white and black and around racism you continuously have some who are very racist. And then you have some people who are fighting against racism.

You still have to fight against racial prejudice?

Continuously. And this is the tiring part. Because you have to prove yourself. When you talk about the white and black and around racism you continuously have some who are very racist. And then you have some people who are fighting against racism. This one will win because we are the majority who are standing up for the equity and equality.

How are you perceived in your own country?

In the beginning it has been very difficult to make my voice heard in front of the men, in the middle of the men, from the communities to the outside. It has been very difficult.

Sometimes you felt in danger?

I did feel in danger in my life so many times, because if you have a different view of the world and you are a woman you want to express it so of course, you can get an enemy from many other people and then sometimes they harass you verbally. Sometimes it can be also physically.

What will you teach to your children?

Even if I do not yet have children, I have nephews, I have nieces. What I’m teaching them every single day is be proud of yourself. Do your dream, what you want to do. Don’t let anyone break your dream because you are black or because you are white, or because you are a woman or because you are a man. You can be a woman and you can be strong in your mind, in your culture, in your identity as a human. You can do it. And I do that by using my own example. When I go to my community, I’m always surrounded with a lot of children and then I’m always telling them that you can do more than me. Don’t see me as just a model or extraordinary, I’m not. I am growing up with you. I am born with you. I’m eating what you are eating. I’m drinking what you are drinking. So I’m just alike. Get a chance and get courage and you can get more than me and you can do it. That’s what I’m teaching them all the time.

At the end of the day what do you want to achieve?

My dream is having the world as a better place for everyone in the world, where we can choose. You cannot choose white, black, woman, man, but you have equity, recognition, where everything is important. My dream is the world where the people can live in harmony with nature.

Nowadays many young people around the world are much more aware of sustainability?

So that is what we need. It is not happening quickly. That is the problem. It’s very small. This is the problem. So we must build the future leaders today and on a bigger scale of young women and men that care about diversity, justice, equity and environmental protection.

The history of humanity is not quick.

But we don’t have time, because we have the climate impact with the biodiversity loss. I’m seeing with my eyes what is happening, like Lake Chad vanishing, all the natural resources that we are losing, species of animals that are disappearing. If we do not stop our way of living, if we do not respect nature, live in harmony with nature, very fast with what we are doing we are going to lose so many, and at the end of the day, we will be ending up with a big flow of migration – north to south, south to north – and then the conflict will continuously become a reality because people will fight for their own survival. That’s why we have to do it very quickly.

Thank you very much for these words.