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Sahel Sahara Sahel Ethiopia Rainforest Great Lakes Great Lakes Savanna Swahili Southern Africa

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Timbuktu. Djenné. Koumbi Saleh. For centuries, the Sahel boasted some of Africa's most influential civilizations. Anarrow band of semi-arid land south of the Sahara, the Sahel attracted both Arabs looking for gold from Sudan and Europeans looking for slaves from West Africa. The two influences merged with native ones, creating a culturally complex area. The Sahel is widely French-speaking, Islamic and takes its name ("shore") from Arabic.

But the region, one of the poorest and most environmentally damaged places on earth, has deep troubles. In the 1970s, the Sahel captured international attention when drought and famine killed nearly 200,000 people. Though conditions have since improved, it has yet to shake a vicious cycle of soil erosion, insufficient irrigation, deforestation, overpopulation, desertification and drought. Parts of the region -- like Mali's legendary Timbuktu -- are now more Sahara than Sahel.

As the environment has suffered, the scramble for income has intensified. Ethnic lines that divided many traditional occupations -- herders and farmers -- have blurred, often sparking bloodshed. Instead of sticking to the land, rural workers are now heading for the cities. Dakar (Senegal), Ougadougou (Burkina Faso), Niamey (Niger) and Bamako (Mali) now hold about 25 percent of the Sahel's population and each year grow by another five percent. Open sewers are common, and electricity, running water and trash collection all too infrequent.

To ease the strain, the Sahel's land must be restored, international development agencies believe. Ambitious tree-planting and irrigation projects dot the Sahel, fueling hopes. Will they succeed? For now, the answer remains in doubt.


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