Ishmahil Blagrove Jr interviews Steve Taylor, an ethnographer, who has spent the past twenty-five years documenting the art, culture and landscape of Africa. His photography captures a proud and graceful Africa, aspect of the continent that are very rarely reported.
What was your motivation for making the documentary Niger And It’s Ancient Trade Routes?
I was doing radio programmes for the BBC World Service about refugees travelling across the desert out of Libya, and using the ancient trade routes. The same routes that they are using today are the same routes that were in use four to five thousand years ago. After I did the radio programmes, I had a camera and so I decided to continue the same thing, but filming different regions of Niger and showing the whole accumulation of four thousand years of trade and commerce between North and West Africa.
This is your first documentary. How difficult was it to make?
The regions that I went to, you can’t really access. Some of those places you have to walk to, so people don’t go there. There are still land mines out there and the other thing is, if you want to go into some of the desert regions out in the mountains, there are no roads. It is a huge country; we are talking about two to three thousand kilometres of road, tracks. So you need a guide, a 4X4, and you need to be able to access water, so you should know the country, which means you have to hire people. I got taken along free of charge because people wanted me to film Northern Niger. If you tried to do that on your own, it can get very expensive. A Land Rover is £200 per day, plus you need a driver, then you need a guide, then you need gasoline, so you are talking upwards of £500 per day.
Where were you born and where else have you travelled in Africa?
I was born in the UK, but my father came to the UK from Sierra Leone as part of the Royal Navy. I have lived in Kenya for seventeen years; that’s why I speak Swahili. I have also travelled to Tanzania, Uganda, Madagascar for one year, Namibia for six months, Mauritius for one year, Sierra Leone for five years, Ghana six months, and the Mescarine Islands. I have been in the Sahel for the last six years. I was in Ethiopia for a year, Sudan for a year. I speak French, Arabic, Portuguese, English, and Swahili.
What makes you such an itinerant traveller?
I was making ethnographic collections for the British Museum, The Ornamans and the Royal Pavillion in Brighton. In Kenya, I was making ethnographic collections for museums, going around the different regions and collecting bead work, tribal stuff, weaponry, jewellery. Same in Tanzania. So I’d work in different regions. I’d go off and work with the Makonde Tribe for one year and then I’d be with the Masai Tribe for the next year and then I would go off and start working with the Somalis and then if I wanted to do some work on fabrics, I’d go off to West Africa.
How did you get into ethnography?
I was in Kenya and I used to buy art; then one day the British Museum bought some and then asked me to do collections for them. I bought fabrics, what they called Ronkos in Sierra Leone, and then one year I did a collection of Bundu masks and they asked me if I would do another collection for them, and then another was bead work.
What are your current thoughts about Africa, in particular the Sudan, as it has become quite current in the media?
All of this talk of Arabs fighting Africans is a load of nonsense, because basically, I know that area very well. There is this whole sort of propaganda thing in the West, describing the Arabs attacking the Africans; well that’s not true. Many of the so-called Arabs from Khartoum are as black as anybody you could meet in Sudan and their heritage is African; these people have been living as neighbours for thousands of years. I think the real issue is about oil, about concessionary rights from mining companies. If you look at Chad and then you look at Sudan, in Sudan 68% of all the oil concessions are owned by the Chinese who want to expand their concessions. When you go on the other side into Chad, it’s all owned by Gulf and Exxon and China would love to expand its concessions into Chad of course.
The Chadian government have recently demanded that the oil companies pay X amount of money or else they would be expelled from the country and China recently opened its first embassy in Chad, ready to get its fingers into the pie. It’s no coincidence that when the Chinese turn up, the government puts pressure on the Western companies to pay more tax.
Would you describe the current situation as a genocide?
When there is a war, the first thing the government will do is a scorched earth policy. If they assume that the people from a certain village or a particular ethnic group are going to support an armed movement against the government, they’re going to send in helicopters and erase the village and you know, clear the people off and that’s what’s been taking place in Sudan. Amongst that you’ve got thieves, banditry, there’s always been cattle rustling, they’ve always been raiding each other for cattle, that’s something that has been going on for years.
But at the end of the day from the Sudanese point of view, its better to have the land clear and people not living in villages in Dharfur, as much land available as possible, so that concessions, mining concessions, can be sold and also people can be accounted for; they know where the population is. If they are in camps or in new settlements, they are not likely to be so eager to subvert the government.
The problem in Sudan is oil, that’s really what the factor is. Suddenly all these people are sitting on oil. There are rumours that Chad has the second largest oil reserves in the world; there are so many oil deposits right across the country and as a result of that, you’ve got lots of conflicts. There’s a conflict on the border between Central Africa and Chad and now on the border between Dharfur and Chad as well.
Why do you believe there is this renewed enthusiasm for African Oil?
Because if you look at the Middle East with Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the West doesn’t want to be totally dependent upon an unstable region for its oil resources. And if you look geographically at West Africa, it faces onto the Atlantic and on the other side is America, so it's much more accessible. You don’t have to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to access energy resources.
The other side to this is China. China is now actively searching for resources; they are in Africa now and they are buying up concessions left, right and centre, especially in Angola and Nigeria, and now they’ve just arrived in Chad.
Is this yet another scramble for Africa and its resources?
We are always talking about resources; before it was people, then it was gold, and then it was timber. Now we are talking about oil, so we go down a road in history in terms of what people do to get the resources that they need or are in demand. If you go back to the Biafra war, two million people died during that war. The federal government of Nigeria was supported by the Americans and the Brits and the Biafrans were supported by the French, so, BP and Shell got the concessions because the federal government won the war. Elf and Total got nothing. So what were the politics behind the Biafra war? I’m pretty certain it was about oil concession. For BP and Shell to get those concessions meant that a war took place and two million people died during that conflict.
Will your next production be centred around Africa?
Yes, I am off to Freetown, Sierra Leone to film a bi-centennial project that is called Africa’s Greatest Resource
What are you hoping to achieve by making this film?
I hope it will be an educational resource on DVD that will inform people about what the bi-centennial is about. It won’t cover the entire story, but it will give a perspective into the main players and the people who went off to Sierra Leone and founded the colony of Sierra Leone around the general theme of the abolition. I’m following the story of Thomas Peters (African descendent); he is the main theme character. So this isn’t about Granville Sharpe or William Wilberforce; this is about the African participants in the bi-centennial. It’s about the main players who were Africans. It’s their story; it’s a story of the bi-centennial from the perspective of Africans as opposed to William Wilberforce.
Do you believe enough is being done to raise awareness about the slave trade and the holocaust committed in Africa?
I’ll just give you one thing that one Ghanaian said to me. He said, “Without filming Ghana, Elmina, you don’t have a story about the two hundredth anniversary and celebration of the abolition of slavery.” So I asked, what exactly do you want mentioned about Ghana? He said, “well…” I said, “Look, before you really go into detail, what we have to mention is that you were the biggest slave traders. You sold and traded slaves during that period. Because if you look at the fortresses in Ghana, the guns point out to sea, they didn’t point inland. They were worried about being ripped off by other European nations. So the guns weren’t there to threaten the Africans; they paid lease holds on those fortresses and the slaves were brought to the fortresses and there was a system of bargaining. How much? You inspected your cargo, they had to be fit and healthy, within a certain age. You didn’t buy old people who had no teeth, because they couldn’t work. So you wouldn’t bother shipping them. You wanted young healthy males mostly, people that could do a solid day’s labour on your plantation and produce the sugar that made you rich. So the Ashanti’s and other tribes got rich from selling labour, that’s the story from "Ghana." His reaction to me was, “Well, we weren’t the only ones.”
That’s a very sensitive issue, an uncomfortable truth for many Africans and Diasporan's to digest.
Rather than me talk, think about a fortress: a fortress which is there to stop people from breaking in and the guns point out to sea. Ask yourself why? All your answers are there. It should be known; it’s part of the story. You can’t gloss over the unpalatable bits that people don’t want to know about; this is about informing people about the significance of what slavery meant and what the abolition period is there to celebrate. That’s what should be told: the truth. People have to accept the reality of what took place. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s a part of our history.
To view a trailer for African Diaries in Focus select format
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Preview Audio tracks from Sounds of Niger
1. Tillia -
Abdulai Az Fazali 0-24
2. Chirilet -
Abdulai Az Fazali 26-57
3. Assaquak -
Abdulai Az Fazali 58-1:57
Music and film available online > shop
1st November 2006