The Royal Geographical Society caught up with filmmaker and author Reza Pakravan to discuss his love of travel, his visit to the Sahel and the issue of desertification, ahead of his RGS-IBG lecture at Turner Sims on Thursday 28 November.
RGS: Tell us a bit about yourself – what sparked your thirst for travel?
RP: My father was a big influential figure in my life. He was a film director, so I grew up travelling with him as his assistant filming in remote locations. Storytelling – perhaps the most powerful way to create human connections – is in my blood. I love to tell the stories of extraordinary people and communities, especially those which are struggling to keep the spirit of their traditions alive in the face of an ever-developing world. I feel I am in a very privileged position, in that my job is my passion and has enabled me to travel to remote corners of the world to document and share my findings.
RGS: Your most recent expedition was to the Sahel, to look at the impact of desertification. What was it about this issue, and region, that stood out for you?
RP: The first time I came across this issue was when I travelled to Chad to make a short film for Oxfam. It hit me full in the face. Nowhere in the world is the impact of global warming and desertification as obvious as it is in Lake Chad – the lake has shrunk to 90% of its extent. As the desert encroaches further, families are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from agriculture, fishing and livestock farming, and over 10 million people are now dependent upon aid to survive. I have never seen anywhere like Lake Chad. When I returned home, I did some research and realised that there has not been much coverage of this issue, so I decided to dig deep and tell the story of the entire Sahel and its forgotten people.
RGS: What did the expedition involve? Did you come across anything surprising or unexpected?
RP: This has perhaps been the most logistically challenging expedition that I have ever done. It was a nightmare to put together. I was travelling in countries with Foreign and Commonwealth Office warnings against all travel, and pretty much all of them were war zones. How I got through is a question I am still processing, since it was so very complicated. There were many surprises, including getting arrested in Darfur, facing border closures, and being held at gunpoint in Agadez by people smugglers.
RGS: What sort of training and preparation is needed for an expedition at this level? Where do you start?
RP: A glass of whisky and a map is always a good starting point! For this particular expedition, I soon realised there was no way I could get through this complicated region without local partners. It took me two years to build a network which would help me across the Sahel. For example, at one point I had to pass through an area of eastern Niger which has a high presence of Boko Haram militants. Where do you spend the night in a place like that? Certainly camping in the desert was not an option. We spent the night at the UN compound, thanks to months of negotiation and navigating through the UN bureaucracy.
RGS: Your filmmaking often focuses on Indigenous communities and very local stories – were there any stories from this expedition that were particularly memorable for you?
RP: As I was travelling in Burkina Faso, jihadists launched attacks on checkpoints, killing a number of soldiers. So we decided to stay away from the main roads and made our way through more rural parts of the country. We arrived in a village where I met a local animist priest. When I told him I had spent time with an animist tribe in Mali and expressed my desire to learn more about the religion, he gave me a knowing smile. ‘You want to know about animism? Then you have to be initiated.’ I went to his temple. What happened next I still find difficult to explain and, four hours later, I walked out of the temple with a massive blister in the palm of my hand, an overwhelming sense of dizziness, and no idea whatsoever what had just happened. The priest tapped me on my shoulder and said: ‘Welcome to Animism.’
RGS: What can audiences expect from your talk?
RP: The talk will be action packed with some mind-blowing visuals. I will be sharing stories from my daring travels throughout some of the most dangerous parts of the world, ranging from experiencing arrest in Darfur; escaping Boko Haram attacks in Niger; escaping a stand-off with Al-Qaida in Mali; being initiated in Burkina Faso; getting lost and running out of water in the Danakil Depression (the hottest place on earth) in Ethiopia; meeting the sexually liberated tribes of Chad and the incredible Dogon tribes of Mali. The common thread linking all these stories together is the impact of climate change and desertification on the Sahel, which has led to wars and terrorism. I will also be talking about the Great Green Wall, a successful pan-African movement combating desertification with the aim of bringing life back to the Sahel.
RGS: Issues like desertification can seem far removed from life in the UK – is there a take home message that you’d like audiences to come away with?
RP: I went to the heart of the African migration crisis with one question: ‘What is the cause?’ And I found many causes – among them climate change and desertification. But I also found the symptoms: the human smuggling, the terrorism, the wars and conflicts. These are not just limited to the Sahel. In this globally connected world, everything is linked. After my talk, the audience should expect to understand how issues like desertification in the Sahel region affect us in the streets of the UK. We might not experience the immediate impact, but certainly we see the repercussions.
Reza Pakravan’s talk, Africa’s forgotten frontiers: the Sahel’, is part of the Society’s Regional Theatres Programme. Book your seat now to hear more about his amazing journey.