Magazine article Geographical

In Conversation: Chief Newton Jibunoh Is the Veteran of Two Expeditions across the Sahara. He Speaks to Christian Amodeo about His New Book and the Organisation Fight against Desert Encroachment (FADE) of Which He Is the Founder

Magazine article Geographical

In Conversation: Chief Newton Jibunoh Is the Veteran of Two Expeditions across the Sahara. He Speaks to Christian Amodeo about His New Book and the Organisation Fight against Desert Encroachment (FADE) of Which He Is the Founder

Article excerpt

What was your first experience of deserts?

I crossed the Sahara alone in 1965. It was an adventure for a crazy young man who had finished his studies in London and was ready to face the world. The 1960s were the decade of the Space Race and social change, and I was looking for the best ways to be a part of that era.

Were you aware that desertification was an issue in 1965?

Oh yes, and I went on to link it to the drought that occurred in 1974 and caused widespread famine. When aid started to pour into Africa, money went to relieving hunger, but not into what caused people to end up with no food. It was desertification. If you look at the various wars going on now in Sudan, Chad and so on, again, they arise when desertification causes people of very different cultures to cross boundaries in search of fertile lands and water. The desert sees no boundaries.

Why did you recross the Sahara in 2000?

I thought it was the best way to raise awareness. I was invited to speak at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which mainly focused on rainforests. I felt the Sahara should have attracted as much attention, but I wasn't in a position to prove that it deserved to. I subsequently went to study in Israel because scientists had done what I was proposing to do in the Sahara--tame the Negev Desert.

How had things changed?

It was unimaginable. The desert had grown bigger and there was much less vegetation and fewer hamlets and settlements. On the last trip, in regions bordering the desert I encountered wild animals looking for water and vegetation. This time, in the same places, there was nothing the animals and people had gone. Once, driving into the desert from a city such as Kanu [in Nigeria] would take you two hours. Today, it takes 30-40 minutes.

What was the biggest danger you faced--the desert itself or bandits?

Armed insurgents definitely posed the bigger threat. The year before, the Paris-Dakar rally had been cancelled because of security fears, but the publicity I was generating and the fact that I befriended the groups that I met saved my life. Just as I was entering Algeria, I strayed from the track I was on. I was using GPS, so I knew that I could find it again, but I entered territory that was controlled by fundamentalists. They promptly kidnapped me and interrogated me for six hours. At the end, they gave me tea. There were so many informants among them that by the time I reached the Algerian police in a safe area, they already knew I had been temporarily kidnapped. …

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