Earlier this year, filmmaker Reza Pakravan completed an epic 5,000-mile traverse of Africa’s troubled Sahel region. He tells Ben Willis about how, despite war, terrorism and environmental breakdown he still found hope for the future and a rich cultural heritage surviving amidst the chaos
The Sahel contains some of the world’s most notorious hotspots for terrorism and political instability. How did your idea to undertake such a dangerous journey come to be?
It was an accident. I went to Chad in 2018 to make a film for Oxfam. And what I saw there blew my mind; I never thought I could go anywhere so underdeveloped and so remote. It is literally the frontline of climate change there. It's not an obscure, abstract reality; it's in your face. And when I got back, I dug a little deeper into it and I realised I really wanted to tell the story of the Sahelian belt. It's a very under-explored area, you don't hear much about it in the English-speaking world. So, I thought I really want to tell the story of these forgotten people.
How did you plan and prepare for undertaking such a difficult journey?
You always start with a glass of whisky and a map! And then you realise, this is a nightmare: half of these borders are closed, [terrorist group] Boko Haram is covering Central Africa, on the other side, Al Qaeda is attacking everywhere. And reading the news, you just think, oh, screw this, I'm not going to go. But joking apart, it was a puzzle to put it together. Going to Chad helped a lot because it gave me a lot of regional contacts, including organisations on the ground. And I really relied on them to provide information. So, part of the two years it took to put this together was getting in touch with people on the ground and building this network of people who could take me from one place to another.
What route did you take and how did you travel?
I started in Senegal and finished in Somalia, and I pretty much stuck to the Sahelian belt. I used any possible means of transport, anything from the back of onion trucks, camels and donkeys, trucks loaded with people, buses, animal carts – you name it, I used everything. The reason I did it this way was because, to be able to tell people's stories I needed to be close to them, so I didn't want to miss a chance of meeting people. Most of the foreigners, most of the Westerners, in the Sahelian region, they're not tourists – they're NGO workers or they work for the UN. They come in their 4x4s, go to the site, do their job and then go back to their secure bases. But I wanted to be exposed to people. So that's what I decided: I'm going to travel as they do, I'm going to eat from the same bowl, I'm going to sleep where they sleep, and that's how I did it.
The potential risks you faced were many. Which worried you the most when you were thinking about the trip?
To be honest, I had this vague idea about Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, insurgency, kidnappings, that kind of stuff. But it's far away, remote, and doesn't resonate with you; you think somehow, I'll get through. But once you're there and, all of a sudden, about a mile from you there's a suicide bomber attacking a checkpoint, then you think about things twice. Or when you're going to a place called Diffa in eastern Niger where all the UN workers are telling you, forget about it, we just emptied that office a while back and we're not going to go there; there are some frontline guys, they fly in and out, but there's no way we're going to use the road to get there. Then you think, oh, this is the UN with fully armoured vehicles; they're afraid of going there. What are the chances I'm going to get there? On the ground, these are the things that really hit you in the face.
How much did you have to adapt your plans as you were going along, or did you try to stick to your agenda?
I tried to stick to my agenda as much as possible but at some points, for example, when I wanted to go to Timbuktu [in Mali], we had to change our plans because no one wanted to take us with them. We tried to get there by boat; all the boat owners said no, you're going to put the safety of other passengers in jeopardy because you guys are targets. And when we tried to secure a road journey, all the jeep owners said exactly the same thing. So we didn't go to Timbuktu and had to turn back. We wanted to go to northern Mali and through to Niger; in the end, we had to go south to Burkina Faso to make it to Niger.
Borders are always sensitive in sub-Saharan Africa, but some of the crossings you made were between particularly challenging countries. Did any crossings stand out?
The one that stands out was between Sudan and Chad. We were going from west to east, and when you go from Chad into Sudan, you enter Darfur, which obviously is an extremely sensitive area. And unfortunately, we arrived when Omar Al Bashir, the country's dictator, was toppled by his own general, so the country was in upheaval. When we arrived at the Chadian side of the border, they didn't know what to do with us, because there's no foreigners passing through that border. Finally, they gave us a stamp to leave, and once we left Chad, we were arrested at the border of Sudan by the military. They took us for interrogation by security services and after four days of detention, they kicked us out of Darfur. That was one of the lowest points of the entire journey.
There must have been plenty of other moments on the trip when you were in high-risk situations. Do any others stand out?
Pretty much 80% of the time! But the ones that stand out... One was in Agadez, where we were filming migrants. Agadez is the starting point for migrants for the journey to Europe, and human smugglers came with AK47s and pointed the guns at us and said told us to get the fuck out of here, right now. And that was the first time I was really scared for my life. And we were lucky because at the same time a convoy of the army was passing, and they intervened and they let us go. Obviously, the army is heavily corrupt, but they didn't want to see us getting killed.
Apart from the negatives, there are many fascinating aspects to this region. Were you able to experience any of the positives?
Yes absolutely. The more positive stuff outweighed the negative stuff hundreds of times. In Senegal, I had a local guide who knew the region like the back of his hand, so he provided access to subjects that otherwise would not be available to me. He took me to incredible places and I experienced incredible rituals. In Mali, I went to the Dogon country and spent time with Dogon people; their culture is very mystical. Mali particularly stood out – it's a fascinating place, incredible.
Despite all the hardships in this region, do you feel like the rich culture and history are being preserved or are they being lost in the horrors?
No, definitely the cultural element is as strong as ever, but unfortunately a lot of people live in fear. For example, Agadez, the ancient city of Agadez used to attract so many tourists: the Tuareg culture was incredible and there was a thriving music scene. That's all gone now because people are afraid of going there, and the city has turned into a city of smugglers. But on the plus side, you have incredible, mystical countries. Even in the deepest parts of the Amazon or in the most remote corners of the world, I've never seen such a culturally rich place as the Sahel. Things like animism, rituals – these are strongly embedded in people's mindsets. These are people's belief systems, which are really embedded in how people carry themselves and reflect on life. So, the cultural element certainly is high up there.
Arguably you've seen this region in more depth and detail than any westerner for a long time and at a particularly critical point in its history. Is it all bleak or did you see anything to give you hope for the future?
Definitely. The Great Green Wall stood out for me. Eight countries across the Sahelian region have come together to plant a wall of trees to combat desertification and bring life back to the Sahel. And I've seen the positive impact that this Great Green Wall has created including stopping migration, creating more grazing land, persevering the land and creating jobs and hope. I visited the Great Green Wall in four countries, and each section I went to literally blew my mind about how much positive impact it has created and how much change it has brought to the lives of the communities there. And whoever is involved in the Great Green Wall was really hopeful about the future, about the future of their children and food security. Food security is a huge issue. If you know you and your kids are fed, there's food for them tomorrow, you don't go and join the extremist groups, you don't migrate to other places. You stay there, you work on your farm, and you collect the results of your work.
What about politically – is there anything hopeful to report?
The political situation in those countries is a nightmare, pretty much all the leaders are corrupt. Perhaps the countries that stood out in terms of getting their politics right were Senegal, another Ethiopia, the third Somaliland. I was really surprised by these three countries. They have their struggles, northern Senegal is struggling with severe desertification – but overall it’s a very positive, successful, stable African country. Ethiopia is the same – they're really benefiting from stability, openness, tourists going there spending money, the country is getting better, it's a good time for Ethiopia. Somaliland has all the elements to benefit from – stability, very safe and sound. But it’s not recognised [as a country] and no one wants to trade with an unrecognised country, hence it’s poor. But I was surprised by its relative success, given that it’s unrecognised. There was no one hungry there. It's doing alright.
What are your plans for the material you gathered on your trip and what adventures are you working on next?
I've just finished a short film, The Great Green Hope, which is particularly addressing the Great Green Wall. I’m also working on a TV series, a four-episode documentary TV series. Apart from that, I've just become a dad, so I think for the next few months I'm going to focus on this adventure, finish the TV series and then take another journey.