Nomad Gal

On the move with Ojai artist and humanitarian Leslie Clark

By Maxine Hurt

Leslie Clark with friends from the Wodaabe tribe.


iger, landlocked in West Africa, is the second poorest country in the world and has the highest birth rate: 7.75 children per woman. The vast dunes of the Sahara comprise more than 80 percent of its land. In the searing desert heat, droughts are part of life. Poor education, poverty, lack of infrastructure, and substandard health care are the norm. On the fringes of this underdeveloped society live nomads, communities of people who move from one place to another rather than settle permanently. These people—specifically the Touareg, guardians of the desert, and the Wodaabe, known for their beauty and elaborate attire—are the focus of Leslie Clark’s art and her nonprofit Nomad Foundation.

Dressing the part at her namesake gallery in Ojai.

A fourth generation Ojai resident, Clark greets me in her gallery across from Libbey Park. She is tanned and tall, with light grayish green eyes and short rusty brown hair generously highlighted with blond streaks, the result of months spent beneath the Niger sun. Her paintings of nomad men and women line the walls, ethnic jewelry dangles from metal bars, and African pottery fills the corners.

“My first trip was across West Africa. I ran into a tribal war, the whole group nearly got killed. Then I was mugged. It was a catastrophe,” she says. “But in between those horrible things, it was phenomenal. We cooked our own food, camped, and met the cultures, which were so rich, warm, and welcoming. I had a great time painting them. Of course, when I was mugged on the last day of the trip, those paintings were stolen.”

Leslie's paintings are vivid interpretations of the human connections she’s made on her travels.

Clark (ironic how her surname reminds one of the celebrated explorers Lewis & Clark) didn’t make it to Niger that trip. Instead, she came back home to Ojai where she read a book called The Nomads of Niger, by Carol Beckwith. “I wanted to meet this culture,” she says. But unable to track down the author, she serendipitously discovered an old advertisement from a woman named Irma Turtle who had been taking tour groups into Niger. Clark asked Turtle if she would take her on the next tour. Eventually, Turtle invited Clark on an “unofficial” trip. She explained that there had been a rebellion, and that Clark would be traveling at her own risk. Clark ran to get her Visa and hopped across Africa on Air Ethiopia, Air Afrique, and a slew of small intercontinental flights before arriving in Niger.

The Nomad Foundation school at Doli. “We don’t want to create a dependency,” says Clark. “We want to give them tools.”

That first trip “knocked [her] socks off.” The guide introduced her to the first Wodaabi family she had ever met. “They came running out to welcome me,” she says. “They swept the dirt and laid out their mats. They had a little bit of milk, and they brought that because it’s the most precious gift a nomad can give to you.”

Clark was struck by the family’s gestures but took it in stride. It wasn’t until later, when she learned that the family was poverty-stricken, enduring a rebellion, and still suffering from a series of droughts, that she understood how much their welcoming meant. “They had nothing. They were hardly able to eat, but they still offered me everything they had,” says Clark.

When they’re not wandering, Touareg volunteers help run the foundation’s Tamesna Center for Nomadic Life health clinic.

The following year, she returned to Niger and bought the family a cow. “That was the start of everything,” she explains. “It was just $200 from my pocket. And when I went back the third year, I found out that because of that cow they were able to continue being nomads and didn’t have to move into the city to become beggars. I realized that I’m not rich enough to do a huge amount, but if one cow could totally change the lives of a whole family, then I’m obliged to do something.”

Leslie’s “Burden of Youth” depicts a 12-year-old girl she met in the desert protecting her family’s wealth: camels and goats, and a well.

Over the next few years, Clark learned the language, studied the culture, painted, and started leading tours for Irma Turtle. Eventually, she led her own tours and Nomad Adventures was born. Soon after, in 1998, she started the Nomad Foundation. For the next seven years, Clark provided aid to the Wodaabi and Touareg as much as her funds would allow. “I had been doing fundraisers, trying to get some money. I’d get small amounts and go back and help,” she says. And always, she painted: rich-toned, intensely personal, character-driven paintings of the nomads she met in Niger.

But it wasn’t until 2005 that the Nomad Foundation came into its own. “In 2005 there was a horrible catastrophe in Niger,” Clark explains, “a major famine. A nomadic friend called me and said, ‘We’re really suffering. My wife just died of starvation and I don’t want that to happen to my children.’ I thought if I could have a friend of mine die of starvation, that’s just beyond comprehension.” Clark emailed all of her contacts and called the newspapers. And with a little luck, her efforts paid off.

“The Ventura County Star published a front-page article about my work in Niger the same day the New York Times and the LA Times published front-page articles about the famine in Niger. Within two weeks I had $50,000 in donations,” she says.

Over the next few years, the Nomad Foundation increased their efforts to help the Touareg and the Wodaabi achieve access to water, food, education, healthcare, and work. They’ve built 28 cement wells, 26 cereal banks, five schools, 16 animal fodder banks, six women’s cooperatives, and the first medical clinic for nomads, where they’ve treated 2,500 patients to-date. They’ve also vaccinated 14,000 animals and purchased another 502. The foundation also has plans to build a boarding school for children, and they’ve started a vegetable garden where they can grow their vitamins instead of carrying them from overseas. “We don’t want to create a dependency,” she explains. “We want to give them the tools and opportunities to develop these things. The main importance of this center is learning.”

During these years of growth, there have been threats that Clark and her team have learned to circumvent. In 2007, they visited a small town in the middle of the desert and barely missed the start of a new Touareg rebellion. On the same trip, a uranium exploration crew planted a flag in the middle of the Nomad Foundation‘s school, marking the area for possible development. “That was to me a terrorist act,” she says. During her last trip, in September of 2009, there was a coups d'état.

At the gallery in downtown Ojai, African art mixes with Clark’s paintings.

Clark doesn’t mind the danger. She’s gone back to Niger about twice a year since that first journey in 1993. “There are risks,” she acknowledges. “But now I really know the ropes. I’m not going to put anybody in danger. For me personally, it’s worth it to be in the kind of environment that I want to be in—to be able to travel along the dunes and pick the most beautiful one to sleep in.”

Like the nomads, Clark prefers being on the fringe. And perhaps that has something to do with her local history: “My family came to Ojai in 1863 when there were only three other non-Hispanic and non-Native American families here. They came for adventure, for freedom, for opportunity. When my father was a teenager, he and my uncle would run cattle. They’d take the herds to the backcountry and spend the summer there, going from pasture to pasture just like the nomads. I think it’s that part of my history that makes me so comfortable with the nomads.”


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