At the Doli school for nomads, the teacher pounds on a hubcap each morning to summon children. Many don't hear it because they are too far out in the bush, scouring the scorched land for pastures to nourish their herds.
Supplying education and health care to nomads in northern Niger is no easy task. But it is essential to a strategy hatched by Leslie Clark, a California artist and founder of the Nomad Foundation, which helps nomads hang onto their lifestyle in the world's poorest country.
In northern Niger, tribes of Tuareg and Wodaabe nomads shuttle herds around the flat, semiarid grasslands of the Sahel, a belt of land across Africa that divides the uninhabitable Saharan dunes from fertile farmland farther south. It is starkly beautiful land, where stripped acacia trees stand out like lightning bolts against a vast blue-gray horizon.
Life is barely sustainable in the parched Sahel. Nevertheless, pastoral nomads cling fiercely to traditions that are 1,000 years old.
But now they face new risks: desertification – the encroachment of the Sahara on pasturelands – and infiltration by the North African branch of Al Qaeda into their lawless territory.
"With changing environmental and political situations," Ms. Clark says, "there are adaptations that have to be made. We're trying to help them adapt."
Clark's first contact with nomads came when she was a young artist traveling through Africa 20 years ago. Transfixed, she began guiding tours to finance her extended periods living among tribes, during which she would spend countless hours painting and learning how to sound out and throat-cluck local dialects.
In the past five years, Clark has steered the Nomad Foundation, the small nonprofit she founded and presides over with support from Rotary Club grants and private donations, into increasingly ambitious humanitarian ventures.
Most aid groups are deterred by the difficulties of working with nomads – "very dispersed, small populations in the middle of nowhere," Clark says. But she believes that the rising poverty and insecurity among nomads will require increased aid.
A breakthrough came in 2005, Clark says, when she teamed up with Muhammad "Sidi" Mamane, a gifted and widely connected elected representative of the nomads, whom she tapped to serve as her foundation's on-the-ground representative. Sidi fought in the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s but later decided to turn to democratic channels to make changes.
"I realized the best way to fight," he says, "is within a democratic framework that allows social and economic development of the population."
Helping nomads is a unique challenge: How do you provide health care and education without requiring that nomads settle down? Their solution is to build up a "fixed point" within range of the migratory routes used by the nomads.
At Doli, for example, the Nomad Foundation dug a well, set up a cereal bank, built a two-room school, and hired a teacher to manage it. Also in the works is a program to hire nomads to dig small earthen dams, an effective way to irrigate that prevents rainwater runoff.
With plentiful water and well-irrigated pastures near the school, the nomads should roam closer, encouraging attendance at the school.
A visit to the school in March proved the approach is working. Twenty-three students, all under age 10, shouted "Moi, monsieur!" ("Me, sir!") when asked who would like to come to the board to count to 100 or read from a booklet.
One year after the school opened, the young children already have more schooling than any of the adults in the Iherherane tribe, who nonetheless are enthusiastic that education will help their children adapt in a changing world.
"What helps us most is education for the children," says Badta Ibag, the Iherherane tribal chief, his wizened face hidden by Ray-Bans and a large turban, as befits his stature. He cannot conceive of any other life for his people. "Nomads cannot become other workers, and other workers cannot become nomads," he says.
Despite the success of schools like Doli, Clark's greatest legacy is likely to be the Tamesna Center, a work in progress at the nexus of several migratory routes. So far, a clinic and a volunteers' house have been opened there.
In February, Clark brought Bob Skankey, a retired medical doctor, to treat patients at the clinic and examine students at Doli and other satellite schools. During Dr. Skankey's two weeks at the clinic, 827 patients were treated, some of whom had traveled more than 100 miles.
The work of Clark and her volunteers is often draining and difficult. They spend long hours driving off-road in the heat. Recently, a journalist traveling with them feared an Al Qaeda ambush after a soldier's gun accidentally discharged in the early-morning hours.
But the joy in Clark's face as the girls and boys at Doli break into song is palpable. When she isn't shepherding Americans around the bush, Clark serves as an ambassador for nomadic art and music from her Nomad Gallery in Ojai, Calif., arranging embroidered leather and silver jewelry made by nomad artisan cooperatives next to her own art.
"What she has done is extraordinary," says Hasso Akotey, a Tuareg musician and close friend of Clark's. (Clark helped her enter the US to record a track with the Rolling Stones.) "It is so rare to see someone who lives with a people in order to understand them, and who tries first of all to integrate with them – because a social and cultural integration is what's necessary and that's just what she did."
For her part, Clark sees continuity between her forebears' frontier living – in the Wild West days in California her grandfather was a six-gun-packing sheriff and her father spent summers herding cattle – and her own attachment to northern Niger.
"I know that it is in my blood to want … that freedom and adventure," she says.
•For more information: www.nomadfoundation.blogspot.com