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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. Continue reading