I’ve always had a fascination with maps. Maps and what they tell you about the landscape. Look at a map and it’s a very good depiction of the relationship between physical and human geography. It’s always fascinated me how you can see geology and social geography fit together – watersheds, rivers, market towns, great reefs. If I call myself a geographer in any respect, it’s because of that.
Africa has always spoken to me. I’ve criss-crossed the continent for over thirty years and I’ve never known anybody influential there, never met anybody rich or been involved with academics. My Africa has always been street corners, the back of a donkey cart, villages... very much at the ordinary people level. I’ve written four books about Africa and they’ve all been from that viewpoint. I’ve never been there as an objective observer. I’ve always been somebody who’s been reasonably vulnerable there on my own. Absorbing, being hurt by and enjoying the continent. My books reflect that experience. I’m not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I’ve just always told the stories of people on street corners.
Having travelled the ‘macro’ way across the whole of Africa, I began homing in a bit, so I spent six months just travelling in Mauritania because it was a big, blank space on my map. I was really going to every little nook and cranny, way out into the old desert towns and into the cities. It’s not an easy country to travel in. I was walking at the back of a camel, riding donkeys or in bush taxis.
I was invited to a village by my friend Salif in 1989 and I’ve now been visiting that village almost every year since. We set up a development program working with the local people. He wanted to return to his village from where he worked in the north and develop agriculture in the region. I have a charity this end that raises funds and together we work to help local people find solutions to the massively challenging issues they have there on the southern edge of the Sahara.
There’s a correlation between how efficient a country is and how well projects develop. Investors like to see good results, so if you want something spectacular that you can put down on paper, you go and work in Kenya or Ghana. If you’re working in a much more difficult place such as Mauritania, you have to accept certain ways of functioning. I’ve always made sure the charity was not linked at all at that end to government institutions or agencies because in Mauritania, as soon as they know you exist, they want a share of the pie. So we stayed clear, and within that framework we’ve been very successful at motivating a very demoralised community to have expectations of the future.
In that part of Mauritania, the dysfunction and corruption of the government and the marginalisation and discrimination of the local people make it hard to get anything done. Just trying to get a car tyre that fits and works can take six months. It’s like a game of chess, for everything you do there’s a counter-move. For example, we’d been trying to get NGO status because with that you can open doors, and that took fifteen years to achieve. It becomes a political issue.
Over there I don’t call it climate change but climate changed as it has completely altered. They have many more droughts and when it does rain it comes in massive deluges which sweep everything away. But more than that, it’s a corrupt dysfunctional government that doesn’t just not assist or support them in any way, it positively makes things difficult for them. Back in 1980 there was a border dispute with Senegal. At that time, the government took that opportunity to do a lot of ethnic cleansing. It was a marking point for discriminating against and hammering the black African community in the south. They became regarded as second-rate citizens in the country. Every day they are faced with demands, soldiers, merchant cartels – it’s a poisonous atmosphere.
Like anyone, I believe in civil society. If there’s any way of changing things at that micro-level, it is not through exterior agencies coming in and digging wells and so on, but through helping people organise and develop, teaching them how to set up co-operatives, unions and civil society groups. That’s when a community can have a voice, can start having influence. And we’re seeing that down there, an increased sense of voice because of the work we’ve done in that particular area. There are lots more co-operatives. There’s a union of pastoralists. There’s more cohesion. That is the way forward.
1984 Travelled extensively across the African continent
1988 Published A Leaf in the Wind: Travels in Africa
1988 First visited Mauritania
1990 Published Travels in Mauritania
1993 Published Two Rivers: Travels in West Africa on the Trail of Mungo Park
2014 Published Under an African Sky: A Journey to Africa’s Climate Frontline
This story was published in the December 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine