Human Cartography and the Need for Stories from the Sahel

27 Apr

“What did most of us know of such parts of Africa? The armies of the Nile moved back and forth – a battlefield eight hundred miles deep into the desert. Whippet tanks, Blenheim medium-range bombers. Gladiator biplane fighters. Eight thousand men. But who was the enemy? Who were the allies of this place – the fertile lands of Cyrenaica, the salt marshes of El Agheila? All of Europe were fighting their wars in North Africa, in Sidi Rezegh, in Baguoh”.[1]

When I was 14 I came across Almásy, a fictional cartographer who mapped the history of the Sahara Desert believing that it would show how “power and finance were temporary things”. Prior to reading Michael Ondaatje’s description of desert exploration, I had seen the Sahara as a sparse and isolated landscape, a place of marginal existence. Growing up in rural New Zealand, in what felt like a distant corner of the world, the idea of continuing to dwell in isolated spaces held little appeal. I was more interested in escaping to the ‘centres of power’ and so the history I read was that of Europe and North America.

However, when Almásy – the partly historical, mostly fictional – main character of Ondaatje’s novel described the desert it was not ‘deserted’, but rather a “world that had been civilised for centuries, had a thousand paths and roads.” While the region is often portrayed as devoid of both water and history “in the emptiness of deserts you are always surrounded by lost history. Tebu and Senussi tribes had roamed there possessing wells that they guarded with great secrecy. There were rumours of fertile lands that nestled within the desert’s interior”. And so as I discovered the multiple histories of this desert, I was told of lost armies and Senussi raids, of water horses, and of painted swimmers signalling a time when it was an ocean of water, not sand.

However these painted swimmers do not always surface in ‘Western’ understandings of the dry, historically sparse continent of ‘Africa’. Often, when the history of the African continent is discussed, it is seen to begin with slavery and colonialism. The vast and shifting empires of Sokoto Caliphate, where Muslim Emirs ruled from palaces of red clay on the edges of the Sahara, or the Madingo Empire of West Africa are not discussed. There is, as Nigerian novelistChimamanda Ngozi Adichie has stated, only a “single story” of the African continent presented. But when I read this description of this desert, the way its multiple stories were tied in complex knots with other regions of the world, the way I understood geography changed. The African continent shifted to a more central location in my perception of the globe.

Almásy described how history could be read through the guns buried in the desert. As World War Two drew to a close, he was brought by a tribe to “translate the guns … The weapons seemed to be from different time periods and from many different countries, a museum in the desert”. The museum is now being updated. As I arrived on the continent, 10 years after first reading that description of the desert, the Sahara and its surrounding areas were finding themselves in centre stage of the news. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya has seen thousands of Malians, Algerians, Chadians and others who were living in Libya make their way home.  through these desert paths. A number of them are ex-combatants, and many of them have brought with them an “unspecified and unquantifiable” amount of arms and ammunition from Libyan stockpiles.

In Mali, members of the Tuareg group have returned home after living in Libya where economic opportunities were greater and where many found work in Libya’s army. These (mostly) men returned to an unstable climate. While the situation in Northern Mali had been relatively calm following major insurgencies in the 1990s, rising food prices, encroaching food insecurity, continued economic and political marginalisation and now an influx of trained fighters and weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenal have combined to exacerbate tensions in the North.

Since January, the armed Tuareg group, National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) have been launching attacks on military targets as part of a wider campaign to secure independence for the Northern region they inhibit. Following the recent coup in Bamako, the Malian capital, on March 21st, the MNLA along with other groups such as Ansar Dine have been able to take over key Northern towns such as Kidal, Gao and Timbaktu. On the 6th of April the MNLA declared Azawad an independent state, a claim that has been recognised by no government.

As the seriousness of the situation in Mali has increased, the country has found itself moving towards the centre of international security policy. However, the unease over the situation stems not only from humanitarian concern about the welfare of Malian citizens affected by the conflict, but rather from broader anxieties about terrorism and transnational crime within the Sahel region. Al-Qaeda’s North African branch, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has been benefitting from the loose borders and entrenched arms trafficking routes in the Sahel region to carry out attacks and kidnappings. The recent reported discovery of a cache of Libyan weapons believed to be the property of the AQIM has led to fears that this new availability of weapons

Mali was previously seen as a site from which the AQIM could be targeted and so military aid has been provided in large amounts. For example, last year the U.S provided the Malian military with $17 million in order to train forces in desert warfare – among other things – and improve their capacity to control the activities of the AQIM. However the resurgence of the insurgency in the North is likely to stall these efforts.

The terrorist concern has been compounded by the co-operation between the MNLA and Ansar Dine in the insurgency, the latter who are reportedly attempting to implement sharia law. A game of ‘spot the terrorist’ is now dominating the media with sightings of militants from the Nigerian group Boko Haram and the the AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Gao.

So, in many ways the Sahel region is now central within international security policy however there is something distorted about this geography. While the region has become more central in foreign policy agendas because of security fears, the varied stories of the people inhibiting the region rarely surface in these same policy agendas. The recent international response to the situation in Somalia is indicative of the problems that result from a distorted perception of geography. The UK Government recently hosted a conference in order to address the  Somalia situation. It was a highly publicised, and well-attended affair with 55 countries and organisations represented. The conference was portrayed – by David Cameron in particular – as important by virtue of the fact that it signaled a new focus on Somalia, where there had not been before.

However missing from the focus on measures to address terrorism, piracy and (to a lesser extent according to some) humanitarian issues, were the varied experiences of those caught up in the conflict. Amnesty International criticised the conference for failing to properly address the civilian consequences of the conflict. As Benedicte Goderiaux argues “the recent surge in military operations increases civilians’ vulnerability to attacks and displacement, and brings more arms into a country already awash with weapons”. Evident within this criticism is the failure of the conference to engage with Somali civilians in order to ascertain the varied security  issues they are subject to.

Would hearing the stories of people embedded within these systems change how these issues are approached? Somali-born novelist Nadifa Mohamed thinks that it could. She explains that “the Western focus on pirates and militants, although understandable, can seem very myopic from a Somali viewpoint; they are the symptoms of dysfunction rather than the causes of it. A UN force of 30,000 went after a few warlords in the early 1990s and only succeeded in entrenching them for a further decade. A saner and less costly, strategy would be to emulate the process of reconciliation and institution-building seen in Somaliland”. Civil society representatives from across South Central Somalia offer similar perspectives. Therefore, using the varied perspectives of Somali citizens to understand the situation can create a different picture of the conflict, and allow the proposition of new solutions to addressing it.

In the case of Mali, the long-term response to the security situation by both the Malian government and the international community has yet to be mapped out. However the approaches that are adopted will be influenced by which groups are engaged with, whose opinions are heard and valued. There is a major risk, according to a Malian women’s rights activist, that in the rush to address the situation in the North, the perspectives of the “ordinary people” caught up in the conflict will not be taken into consideration. As she argues, “any decision that is taken by political leaders, ECOWAS, and the African Union or the international community needs to be aware of who is paying what price for every intervention that they consider”.

Already, many media responses to the conflict have provided shallow descriptions of the issues, in which it is seen mostly as a terrorist/security issue. This takes the actions of those involved in the conflict outside of the wider historical contexts within which they are embedded. Clumsy connections between the MNLA and AQIM are often made. It has become common for reports to focus on the role of returning Malian combatants (and their weapons) in exacerbating the conflict. While this has not doubt has a major impact, it is worth remembering, as International Crisis Group points out, that it was also the failure of successive rounds of talks with the government that triggered the return to armed conflict, not simply the influx of weapons and ex-combatants.

The almost sole focus on the ‘men with guns’ risks designating the responses needed as being mostly security-related. Unfortunately in this respect, the government-designed ‘Programme Spécial Pour la Paix, la Sécurité et le Développement au Nord’ has been criticised for not properly engaging with civil society groups and for being overly reliant on security responses.

A glance at history illustrates the importance of engagement with civil society groups as following the National Pact (the peace agreement between armed Tuareg groups and the government), the North remained insecure, and armed groups remained armed until local communities initiated their own mediation and conflict resolutions. It was only then that peace was consolidated and the wider disarmament programme could progress. However as the situation in Mali increasingly becomes a key international issue, the history of community conflict resolution  the wider perspectives of Malians populating the conflict will remain peripheral to the ‘security issues’ which are seen as central.

When I discovered Michael Ondaatje, I had not yet come across ‘African’ writers. However, while Ondaatje’s novel complicates simplistic conceptions of the continent’s history, it is the writing of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Hisham Matar, which populates the continent in a way that Ondaatje’s work does not. Through their respective portrayals of a middle-class professor in the Biafran war, a Nigerian journalist, a Kenyan bar owner-turned prostitute and a Libyan boy getting drawn into networks of governmental oppression and societal mistrust, these writers have not attempted to tell ‘the story’ of Africa, but to tell stories of the African continent. Through placing the various perspectives of their characters at the centre of their novels, these writers have portrayed the issues within their countries as complex, nuanced and contradictory.

On the periphery of public discussion about security situations in the Sahel and Somalia, Nadifa Mohamed has identified how writers are mapping out the future they would like to see for Somalia. Later on this year, the International Book Festival in Somaliland will be held. The theme is The Future. Unlike the aforementioned Somali conference, at this festival stories of Somalis will be central. Perhaps David Cameron will attend?

[1] Unless stated otherwise, quotes come from Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’ – the book, not the movie.


One Response to “Human Cartography and the Need for Stories from the Sahel”


  1. Human Cartography and the Need for Stories from the Sahel « elevenhoursahead - April 28, 2012

    […] can read the full piece here Share this:EmailFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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