Posted in full by permission of Nick Benton, owner/editor of the Fall Church News Press. Take a look at the new format of the online version of his weekly newspaper--recognized as the best local paper in Northern VA.
In the cover story of the April 2008 edition of National Geographic magazine, “Africa’s Ragged Edge: Journey Into the Sahel,” author Paul Salopek, photographer Pascal Maitre and the editors do a terrific job introducing readers to perhaps the most important region of the world that no one, almost, has heard about.
The Sahara is known, the Sahel is not.
Yet the Sahel is perhaps the largest contiguous arable region on the planet, dwarfing the entire continental United States in scale. From coast to coast, from Dakar on the west to the Red Sea on the east, it is at least one-and-a-half times the width of the U.S. Presently, despite its dry and undeveloped condition, it is home to an estimated 55 million mostly poverty-stricken and ethno-politically divided people.
As the National Geographic article points out, the Sahel’s dimensions have shifted over the centuries due to the amount of rainfall. Just as the arable land in the U.S. plains can devolve from agriculturally-fertile to dust bowls, so it goes for the Sahel. The Sahara Desert can encroach on its land under drought conditions, or it can recede when there is rain. At one point a thousand years ago, much of it was fertile and lush, and in that era Timbuktu on the Niger River in modern Mali was the seat of a rich and powerful regime.