Acacias on the savannah.

Under the Acacia, Sustainability in Africa's Shifting Desert and Savannah

Playa (lake) relicts at site 81/62 called “Willmann’s Camp”, western Great Sand Sea.

The Sahel is the region in Africa where the Sahara desert meets sub-Saharan tropical Africa. This semi-arid belt runs east to west across the continent and includes the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea.

One of the sites of the Abu Ballas Trail (Jaqub 99/31) with its Old Kingdom pottery depot near a sandstone cone.

Expedition Camp at Zolat el Hamad (North Sudan), © Sonderforschungsbereich 389 (ACACIA), Cologne. A normal day in the life of desert researchers: improvised living and working conditions in difficult terrain.When savannahs become deserts and deserts turn into savannahs — Soil erosion, © Sonderforschungsbereich 389 (ACACIA), Cologne.

Saharan dust swept off the west coast of Africa then turned northwards on March 8, 2006. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flying onboard the Terra satellite captured this image the same day. In this image, tendrils of pale beige dust swirl off the coast of Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Senegal. The biggest swath of dust appears to come off the coast of Mauritania. Once over the Atlantic, the dust heads north, and appears to be aimed at Europe rather than the Caribbean.


of Ethnography
Museum of Non-European Cultures
Ubierring 45
+ 0221-33694-0
In the shade of the Acacia –
Research in the African deserts
April 22-November 18, 2007

“But the path to wisdom leads through the desert.”

— Nomadic Proverb

Deserts and savannahs have fascinated people for centuries — vast sand dunes and grass plains, scorching sun, relentless heat, and a horizon stretching to infinity — a combination of beauty and isolation arousing a desire for adventure — to discover the unknown.

Twenty-five percent of the earth’s surface consists of desert and over 500 million people live in these regions. According to the most recent UN desert report life is getting more and more difficult for these populations as a result of global warming.

In the Shade of the Acacia is the first stage of a touring exhibition presenting results of the research project (SFB 389) on "cultural dynamics and landscape change in arid Africa“ to a wider public. This university project took an in-depth look at arid and semi-arid areas, some of them difficult to access, in the northeast (Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Libya) and southwest of Africa (Angola, Namibia, South Africa).

In the wake of the UN-designated International Year of the Desert in 2006, Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum is devoting the last exhibition at the Ubierring Im Schatten der Akazie — Forschung in den Wüsten Afrikas (In the shade of the Acacia — Research in the African deserts) to this highly topical subject. Roughly 140 scholars from the universities of Cologne and Bonn conducted research for twelve years in sometimes relatively inaccessible regions in northeast Africa (Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Chad) and southwest Africa (Angola, Namibia, South Africa).

Arid Climate, Adaptation and Cultural Innovation in Africa The aim of the project was to analyse the interrelation of cultural dynamics and changes in the landscape under extreme ecological conditions. The analysis has been based on the assumption that human societies constantly reassess and change adaptive strategies to an environment which is, in many respects, instable.

The exhibition is designed as an interdisciplinary project involving sciences and humanities (African studies, archaeology, botany, ethnology, geography and history).

Their results are presented in five modules on deserts and savannahs — barren landscapes, landscapes of abundance. Fascinating photographs, film sequences and unique objects make it possible to experience research visually and acoustically.

When savannahs become deserts and deserts turn into savannahs“The desert moves” and was moving thousands of years ago. Archaeological finds in southern Egypt show that present-day desert must once have been a landscape of savannahs where it was possible to hunt, graze livestock and harvest wild grain. In a 25 m deep salt lake in a remote region of northeast Chad it was possible to obtain a drilling sample which gives a complete record of climatic and environmental changes over the last 5000 years and can show whether there was, for example, a sand storm or plague of locusts in the region in summer 1664 BC. Even a small grain of sand can provide information about climate change thanks to traces left by how it was transported (wind or water).

Deserts and savannahs — Barren landscapes, landscapes of abundance Landscapes arise in a material sense as a result of geophysical processes and are shaped by human intervention. Human beings engage directly with their environments when they work in them, cultivate the soil, vegetation, and manage water resources over a period of time. They may, however, have a destructive effect on the ecological balance of the landscape. Landscapes, however, do not only exist in a material sense; they are not merely rocks, soil and vegetation. Many landscapes serve societies as a reference point for their memories — both personal memories and the traditions of entire societies are linked to landscapes. The erection of tombs, shrines and monuments links the relationship to deities, ancestors and spirits with the landscape and establishes proprietary rights in a political sense.

Adopting and sharing — Survival in the deserts and savannahs Environmental dynamics also change the basis of a population’s livelihood.The exhibition shows the lives of people who lead a partly sedentary and partly nomadic life in the arid regions of Africa and who again and again adapt to changing environmental conditions. Thus, the Himba literally tighten their belt in times of drought, the Zaghawa pulverize their foodstuffs to make them go further, the Haillom share the animals killed in the hunt according to clearly defined rules in order to guarantee a supply for everyone. Finally, the Damara help each other out with packets of instant soup and sugar when they are in short supply.

Exploration and traveling — Routes through deserts and savannahs Visitors cross the desert on different routes and accompany the researchers: they might participate in an ancient Egyptian expedition in search of valuable raw materials, by donkey as a beast of burden or by camel caravan. Spectacular discoveries by the Research Project such as the mysterious 5000-year old clay rings, Libyan desert glass which turns up again as a decorative stone in the tomb of Tutankhamen or the remains of thousands of roasted locusts challenge the experts to throw light on the secrets of the desert.

Narrative & memory — deserts & savannahs in their inhabitants' minds Different perceptions of a landscape are shown impressively in the rock art of the Ennedi mountains in Chad. The landscape is used as a constantly changing canvas on which people painted — above all domestic animals. Apart from these imposing rock paintings visitors can listen to the various songs of the Herero, which all deal with the theme of the Waterberg and its special role in the history of Namibia, they can inform themselves about ancient Egyptian tombs as ritual places of commemoration and see how the ’sausage tree’ got its name.

Fighting and negotiating — Conflicts and wars in deserts and savannahs Both the political past and the present play an important role in the regions under investigation. No matter whether settlers, traders, missionaries, colonial masters or the present-day elites of independent states, they have all had a considerable impact. Present-day conflicts are clearly unequal and are reminiscent of David and Goliath — the peasant who defends himself with a millet cane against camel riders armed with Kalashnikovs or the Himba herdsmen fighting a government-subsidized project to create a reservoir with praise songs.

Soil erosion represents an acute danger for the lives of human beings and animals. The habitat of plants such as trees and cereals disappears along with the fertile soil, thus destroying the possibility of sustaining life.

Alam (road sign).

Layer by layer — delving into the past, © Sonderforschungsbereich 389 (ACACIA), Cologne. Water and wind deposit sediments, a cross-section of which shows distinct layers. The oldest layers are at the bottom and the more recent ones above them. In this way the various deposits provide evidence of a changeable climatic and environmental history.