Gotchi and Satchi

Gotchi and Satchi were Torn Apart by Drought. This is a fictional story that I wrote based on the Wodaabe women of Couloubade, Niger… it is a story about love, about a mother and her daughter, about climate change, about migration, and about hope and resiliency.

Photo taken at a Gerewol ceremony. This is how I picture Gotchi.

Resting after a long day roaming the parched desert plains, a girl stood atop a dune. Before her stretched her vast homeland, on the southern rim of the Sahara Desert. She imagined what her land must have looked like covered with hardy grasses, as it had been not so long ago, according to her parents. She breathed in the warm evening air and smiled at a young cow standing beside her.  She caressed its gray-and-white-speckled hump. With a sigh, she lay her head on the cow’s strong, thick neck.

“Gotchi!” called her little brother Moussa from afar. “Mother needs you. Bring Satchi and come home!”

Hearing the urgency in his voice, Gotchi intuitively understood that something was amiss.  Without another word the three hurried home to their small village.

Their mother Binta slowly appeared from inside their adobe hut. “Gotchi, sit down”, she said. “Drink some water.”

Binta was rarely so solemn: “My daughter, we are going to have to sell Satchi at the market tomorrow.” Before Gotchi could protest, she continued, “We have no more food to eat. We hardly have water to drink. Ever since your father lost all our cows to the drought, we have nothing. What else can we do?”

Tears streamed down Gotchi’s face; Satchi was her best friend, given to her by her father Sanda when the girl was five. Binta looked away to hide her own sadness, “We have no choice,” she declared.


Gotchi fled from the hut, horrified. That dreadful night she lay alongside Satchi, crying fountains of tears onto Satchi’s short coarse hair. Sanda sat silently beside her. He wished there was something he could do, but how could he place Gotchi’s love for Satchi over the need to feed his family? Gotchi spent all night praying for a miracle. Satchi licked Gotchi’s tears.

Around 4 the next morning, Sanda and Binta fetched Satchi to begin their arduous journey to the closest market, a two-day walk away.  Gotchi begged to go with them, but Sanda gently responded, “Bid farewell to Satchi now. You must care for your younger brothers and sisters while we are gone.”

Gotchi was devastated.  She did not eat for days, and refused to go out to play with the village children. She wanted no other friends than Satchi.

At the market, Satchi’s strength and magnificent horns caught the attention of a wealthy merchant. After handing several torn bills to Sanda, he pulled Satchi away with a rope.  Satchi resisted as well as she could, but soon followed with her head held low.

With the money, Binta and Sanda purchased enough millet for the family to eat for several months. They also bought cooking oil, tea and sugar, and some new clothes for their children.

Photo: Wodaabe man and woman from the Azawak of Niger, portraying Sanda and Binta.


Not long before her birth, Gotchi’s family had been among the wealthiest in the land. At that time, Sanda’s parents owned herds of more than a thousand head. They lived in camps and roamed the grassy plains, following their cows to the greenest pastures. They traveled on donkey-back or by foot, carrying their beds and calabash bowls, with which they decorated their camps, displaying them on a table, and using them to curdle their milk.

Sanda met Binta at a Gerewol ceremony. These celebrations, held to thank the skies for the precious water of life, was also a time for young people to steal away together. Binta watched the men dance and sing, luring the women to pick them as their mates. One man caught her eye. He was tall and strong, and his eyes and teeth were whiter than sugar. Sanda was lost in trance, praying for more rain.

After the dance, Binta approached Sanda, showing off her intricate braids, colorful barrettes and her delicately embroidered head scarf. Sanda observed the beautiful young woman, and she smiled timidly, displaying the small tattoos that decorated both sides of her mouth. A few hours later, they left the rain ceremony together, filled with young love and ignorant of the hard times that lay ahead. A year later, they celebrated the birth of Gotchi, their firstborn girl.

Photo: Wodaabe man at a Gerewol ceremony in the Azawak of Niger, portraying Sanda.


Over time, the rains diminished. They went from falling more than five months a year to eventually less than one. The unbearable hot season lasted most of the year. The rainy season all but disappeared. Without the rains, the grassy plains turned brown. Marshes, once filled with water, stayed dry.

Sanda and Binta became desperate. Like others around them, they renounced their pastoral life and built an adobe home. With Sanda’s brother, they dug deep in the ground searching for water, but Sanda’s brother died, asphyxiated when the well caved in on him.  Sanda kept digging, but to no avail; the well never reached water. With little food to eat or water to drink, his family’s herds died off, and survival became a daily concern.  The changing climate became the enemy of man and animal alike.

One night a violent sand storm swept over the land, burying everything that stood in its path. Sanda’s last remaining cows, already weakened by hunger and thirst, grew frightened.  To escape the horrifying winds, the animals ran up a giant sand dune, not realizing that a cliff lay on the other side.  One by one, each cow fell to its death.

That same murderous night, a miracle occurred. To shield her from the devastating winds, Sanda had brought his favorite cow, Kouri, inside the family home as she labored with twins. When the first calf slithered out, Sanda handed it off to Gotchi. Kouri, exhausted by her effort, breathed one last breath and died.

Photo: Man digging well, desperately seeking water.


Sanda silently mourned the loss of his beloved cow. Indeed, every member of his herd was precious.  He knew his animals by name, and recognized their footprints in the sand.  But Kouri, the head of the herd, had been his close friend since he was a teenager.

He looked over at Gotchi holding Kouri’s calf and sighed.  He gently took the calf from Gotchi and cleaned the blood off its fur.  He whispered in its ear, “little baby, you will have to wait until the winds subside for your milk.” He led the wobbly calf to his daughter. “Gotchi”, her father informed her, “This baby is yours.  Care for her as you would your baby brother. Tomorrow, I will find her milk, Allah willing.”

From that day forward, Gotchi and Satchi were inseparable. Gotchi hand-spooned milk to Satchi, until she was old enough to graze.  Satchi followed Gotchi everywhere.  As they grew older, they spent days roaming the plains together. Gotchi sang songs and shared secrets she dared not tell others.  She savored taking naps curled up next to her best friend, while Satchi licked her face and hair.

The day Sanda sold Satchi, he sold away their family pride. The endless drought had stolen not only their health and wealth, but also their last bit of dignity as herders of the Sahara.

Photo: Wodaabe girl herding her family’s cows, from the Azawak of Niger, portraying Gotchi with Satchi.


As Gotchi grew older, her sorrow diminished.  Binta decided it was time to teach her the traditional art of making medicine and potions.  Ever since they lost their herds, the women spent months every year selling their traditional concoctions in neighboring regions.

Gotchi traveled the plains with her mother, and learned to identify medicinal plants. She gathered wildflowers and bark from trees.  While drought limited the plants available, they still made what they could with those that survived.  Each had its own use for different ailments or needs.

One day Binta announced, “You and I must travel to a distant land to sell our medicines.” Gotchi felt proud to be given such responsibility. Deep in her heart she told herself, “Maybe if I make enough money, I can buy Satchi back”. This thought made her all the more eager to travel.

Gotchi and Binta walked for days through sandy plains to the nearest town, where they boarded a long, rusty bus. Up to now, Gotchi had only traveled on donkey, and she became both nervous and thrilled when the bus roared ahead, jumping from one pothole to another, on unrepaired dirt roads.

After an uncomfortable day and night, they finally arrived in a giant, bustling city. Tall brick buildings loomed overhead and cars rushed by in all directions. Gotchi had never seen so many people and so many things! Everyone spoke in a language that she did not understand.  Overwhelmed, she hid like a small child inside Binta’s dress.

Photo: Wodaabe woman from the Azawak of Niger, portraying Binta.


Binta dragged the terrified Gotchi to the marketplace, declaring, “This is where we will sell our medicine.” They found an empty space on the dirt ground, next to a fruit and spice vendor.  After rolling out their torn plastic mat, Gotchi proceeded to neatly lay out their plants.  She then found some discarded cardboard, and on it drew little sketches to describe what the medicines would heal: headaches, diarrhea, and malaria. There was even a potion to help people fall in love!

When she finished her drawings, Gotchi sat beside her mother on their mat. The hot air lay heavily around them, filled with aromas of sweet spice, rotting vegetables, sewage, and drying fish. She missed her family and Satchi terribly. Flies swarmed all around, and she grew hungry.

A few people bought their medicines. Their love potion was the most popular. Since they had earned a little money, Binta said, “Here’s a few cents to buy a little plastic bag of water to drink.”

Gotchi went to a small store where she bought one little plastic bag filled with water, and asked the owner for a second for free to give to her mom.  Feeling sorry for the girl, he gave her several little bags “for tomorrow”, he said.  Gotchi was proud to return with all her water bags, which she handed to her mom, who responded gently, “thank you, Gotchi”. The two used the extra water to wash their face and hands.

Photo: Wodaabe Fulani mother and child sharing a drink of water.


Binta and Gotchi went looking for food.  They found several open stands lit with dangling, colorful light bulbs. They bought a small bowl of rice topped with a gooey green sauce.

“Mommy, that’s not enough for us both to eat!”

Binta replied, “I cannot waste our precious money. We must have enough to bring back to the family. If not, then there will be no purpose to this hardship.” But when she noticed Gotchi’s long face, she relented, “It’s ok, you can eat, my dear.”

Gotchi’s heart sank. She picked at the rice, and left the rest for her mother, trying to ignore her hunger pangs. Gotchi pined for Satchi. “Maybe there is a real chance that we’ll save enough money to buy you back.  For that, I’m happy to go hungry.”

Photo: Wodaabe girl from the Azawak of Niger, representing an ever hopeful Gotchi.


After almost a month squatting in the mosquito-infested market, Binta abruptly announced, “It’s time for us to leave.  Now we will go to the villages to sell our medicines there.” Binta omitted to inform her that during the late moments of the night, strangers often troubled her, asking for favors she did not care to offer.  She had begun fearing for their safety.

With their belongings on their heads, Gotchi and her mother walked along the busy roads. They finally found a bush taxi – a minivan meant for eight, packed with fifteen people and sheep tied to the roof – that would take them where they wanted to go.  Gotchi could hardly breathe and thought she would faint, squeezed in tighter than a sardine.  Finally, after several hours, the taxi dropped them off on a sandy path.

Gotchi and her mother walked for hours until they reached a large village of thatched huts hidden behind stalk fences. Soon, she remarked, the sun would begin to set. Women carried buckets of water on their heads that they had filled at the village well.  Children of all ages played in the dirt streets. “Tomorrow, we will go from door to door to sell our medicines,” Binta declared.

She obtained permission from the village chief to sleep in the thatched hut set aside for visitors. Encouraged by his kindness, she shyly asked, “May we have some water to bathe with? We have not showered in a very long time.” That night the chief’s wife brought them a large bucket of muddied water to wash with, and a hot meal of millet with fresh frothy milk. They felt a new hope in their hearts.

The following morning, Gotchi and Binta went from gate to gate, selling their herbs, remedies and love potions to the villagers. When they had tried their luck at every home, they walked miles to the next village. They repeated this routine, day in and day out. On good nights, they found a friendly family that lent them a safe place to sleep and gave them a hot meal to enjoy. On other nights, they simply laid their mat on the sand, falling asleep under the brightly illuminated desert sky.

Photo: Migrant Wodaabe Fulani women seeking work in Konni, Niger.


After many months of wandering, Binta and Gotchi saved enough money to return home. They traveled back to the big city; Gotchi was no longer afraid of the bus. All she could think about was seeing her brothers and sisters. She fell asleep, each bump bringing her closer to home.

Gotchi woke with a start. Men and women shrieked as gunshots sounded. The bus came to a screeching halt. Men outside the bus screamed “Get out of the bus! Everyone out of the bus!”

Although Gotchi did not understand what the men were saying, she knew something was drastically wrong. The passengers hurried out as they could.  The men, armed with AK-47s, lined up the travelers outside of the bus, and demanded one by one that they hand over everything they had on them.

Gotchi grasped tightly to Binta. Her mother whispered, “Don’t worry Gotchi. We’ll be okay.” Gotchi wasn’t so sure. She protested when her mother handed over their hard-earned money to the men. “Quiet! If we don’t do what they ask, they will hurt us,” Binta whispered.

Sure enough, one of the men smashed his gun into the stomach of another passenger who had hidden money in his clothing. Gotchi shivered from fear, hardly daring to watch the bandits.  In the dark, she heard one of them yelling. Without warning, the scary men jumped onto the bus and sped away, leaving the passengers on the roadside. Some passengers cried, others screamed with anger.

Gotchi’s mother cajoled her, “Hold my hand. We will walk home. Let us thank Allah that we are alive.” And so they walked along the dark road, their path lit only dimly by the stars.

Photo: Wodaabe mother and child. They had hitched a ride with me. When they asked to be dropped off, there was nothing for miles in sight.


Gotchi felt numb. She thought achingly of Satchi. Without money, she lost all hope of seeing her beloved friend again. She thought of all their hard work, and she thought of her father, brothers and sisters. The rains had still not come. Without money, would they all die of hunger? Of thirst?

And so Gotchi walked, tears streaming down her cheeks, clenching Binta’s strong hand as if it were all she had left. Red and pink light slowly filled the sky, and eventually turned to gold.  Gotchi did not notice the beauty of dawn, nor the freshness of the breeze. She and Binta just kept walking. For days they trudged on. They traveled from village to village, from house to house, begging for food, water, and a safe place to spend the night.  Sometimes they washed clothes, hulled grain, or did other tasks to reimburse the kindness of their hosts. They had nothing else to offer in return.

Days became indistinguishable from one another. Gotchi had no sense of how long it had been since they had left their village. She could hardly remember the day she had begun this journey, when her heart had been filled with eagerness and hope.


Days became indistinguishable from one another. Gotchi had no sense of how long it had been since they had left their village. She could hardly remember the day she had begun this journey, when her heart had been filled with eagerness and hope.

The moon lit the night as Gotchi and Binta arrived at the foot of the hill where their village stood.  Upon seeing the two women, the villagers yelped with joy and chanted, “Binta and Gotchi are home, Binta and Gotchi are home!” Gotchi’s brothers and sisters ran out of their hut to welcome them. They could not contain their joy, and danced around the two travelers, hugging them over and over.

“What did you bring us, mommy”, asked Bimba, Gotchi’s youngest sister.  Tears filled their mother’s eyes, as she clung to her children, almost in disbelief at seeing them again. She had been so strong for Gotchi, but now, she collapsed from fatigue and sadness. She had hoped to return home bearing food and gifts. She had nothing.

Photo: Fulani siblings from the village of Satchi, Niger.


Where is your father?  I must see him,” Binta asked the children. Just at that moment, she lifted her head, and saw in the distance a sight that filled her weary heart with such happiness that she cried even harder. “Gotchi, look, look over there!” she sobbed.

Gotchi looked up, and saw, in the shadows of the night, lit now by a full moon, Sanda walking toward the village, leading a small herd of cows. Gotchi’s cow, her own Satchi, strong and proud, led the way. When she saw Gotchi, Satchi ran toward the girl she so loved and licked her face, over and over.

Allah had heard Gotchi’s prayers after all.  After thinking she had lost everything, there in front of Gotchi stood everything she wanted — her family, and her Satchi.  As she thankfully lifted her face to the night, a small drop of rain splashed her cheek, dripping down onto the parched earth.

Photo: Fulani man herding cows.