Magazine article Geographical

I'm a Geographer

Magazine article Geographical

I'm a Geographer

Article excerpt

I've always had a fascination with maps. Maps and what they tell you about the landscape. Look at a map and it's a very good depiction of the relationship between physical and human geography. It's always fascinated me how you can see geology and social geography fit together --watersheds, rivers, market towns, great reefs. If I call myself a geographer in any respect, it's because of that.

Africa has always spoken to me. I've criss-crossed the continent for over thirty years and I've never known anybody influential there, never met anybody rich or been involved with academics. My Africa has always been street corners, the back of a donkey cart, villages ... very much at the ordinary people level. I've written four books about Africa and they've all been from that viewpoint. I've never been there as an objective observer. I've always been somebody who's been reasonably vulnerable there on my own. Absorbing, being hurt by and enjoying the continent. My books reflect that experience. I'm not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I've just always told the stories of people on street corners.

Having travelled the "macro' way across the whole of Africa, I began homing in a bit, so I spent six months just travelling in Mauritania because it was a big, blank space on my map. I was really going to every little nook and cranny, way out into the old desert towns and into the cities. It's not an easy country to travel in. I was walking at the back of a camel, riding donkeys or in bush taxis.

I was invited to a village by my friend Salif in 1989 and I've now been visiting that village almost every year since. We set up a development program working with the local people. He wanted to return to his village from where he worked in the north and develop agriculture in the region. I have a charity this end that raises funds and together we work to help local people find solutions to the massively challenging issues they have there on the southern edge of the Sahara.

There's a correlation between how efficient a country is and how well projects develop. Investors like to see good results, so if you want something spectacular that you can put down on paper, you go and work in Kenya or Ghana. If you're working in a much more difficult place such as Mauritania, you have to accept certain ways of functioning. I've always made sure the charity was not linked at all at that end to government institutions or agencies because in Mauritania, as soon as they know you exist, they want a share of the pie. So we stayed clear, and within that framework we've been very successful at motivating a very demoralised community to have expectations of the future. …

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