Tell us about everything involved in the Sahara Dreaming project.
It all started last October with my friend Ivan Gonzales, when we decided to do a trip across the Sahara Dessert from February to April 2013. We organized and planned the route and we finally did it during that period. I ended up doing the entire expedition alone due to issues on his side. It was easier to be by myself since I speak Arabic and it is always easier to travel alone.
What was your main purpose for Sahara Dreaming?
I live in the Ivory Coast, born, lived and raised. My friends from the U.S. always call me and ask, “how is the war?” “How is the violence?” But for me, life is always fine and there is no presence of these things in my life here in West Africa. This made me realize that people on the outside have very negative views of Africa. So what I was hoping to do with this project was to share all the positivity that comes from Africa. There is this negative image that everyone outside of Africa holds on to, so I wanted to use this project to show people the positive side of things. I want to show people that it is safe to be here and people are kind. Kidnapping does exist, but if I am able to cross the Sahara Dessert by public transportation and take photos and video, I think it shows a whole different image and that was the main motivation.
Everything was on public transportation, about 13,000 km in total. I took a plane from Ivory Coast to Tunisia and decided to go all the way back down to the Ivory Coast.
October-February was the preparations and I was contacted by lots of media. During the trip I learned a lot about stereotypes that I had, but were not true about the Sahara Dessert. Whenever you think about Tunisia and Algeria, you think there are sand dunes everywhere with camels and its very very hot. There is actually a spring in the Sahara and there were some points when I had to wear jackets during the day. And to see sand dunes, you actually have to drive miles out of your way just to see sand dunes.
It is far more developed than I thought. I never thought Algeria had mountains, it even has snow! There are mountains with nature areas with monkeys. In Niger there is a national park where there are giraffes and these things were impressive to see.
After having gone through this experience, have you seen any after effects? Have you passed on inspiration?
A lot of people are very interested; it was very great for everyone who helped with the preparations. For everyone who I touched throughout the journey, I stayed with locals during the whole trip. Those people that I was able to stay with were really touched. And from this we have already started planning another expedition due to the interest in the project.
I arranged all of these houses through Couchsurfing. In Algeria, all I had to do was meet one person on Couchsurfing and then they would connect me with other people and they would all use their networks to help me on my journey. There is an impressive Couchsurfing community in the Sahara and it is representative of their sense of community.
Can you share with us a personal story from your journey?
The first thing that always comes to mind was Ghardaia in Algeria and it was absolutely stunning in the way the houses were built and the way they were all compacted on the side of a hill. It brings you back to a place you would never think existed, it was magical. It was so well preserved; it took you back in time. For example, the hijab, which is worn in many different ways, was worn specially in this place with one eye covered and one eye opened. The unmarried women have their face open, but as soon as they get married they have to have their face covered. When you get to the center of town, there is a sign for tourist that say, “Respect the people, do not take photos of the women and use a guide.” The hijab is tradition passed down and it has always been that way in that certain area.
Another story that I think of is the music. The music in the Sahara is stunning and the most amazing experience I had was in Niger. We already had this idea of Niger with full covered face with color, but we never think of an electric guitar. In the southern Sahara, the electric guitar is a big thing. I came across a man called Bambino who was amazing.
So people were willing and excited to welcome you into their homes and excited to share their lives with you? Was this common among everyone?
Everyone I met agreed with the idea of Sahara Dreaming. They would tell me, “We are tired of all these people thinking negative things about our society and country, so this project is amazing.” It was really easy to connect with people there because it was common thought.
I wanted to allow people to be able to speak to the world. So what I did was carry around a chalk board with me for my entire trip and I asked people to write one message to the world.
Was there a common trend with what people were writing?
There were lots of call for peace, world peace and a lot about unity. There was a common theme of ‘we are here with you’ and ‘you are not alone in this.’
What is your future vision?
My next step is to participate in the Leggos photo festival in October. I would love to expose in a few other countries as well to really get that push to reach more people with the project.
After that, I will do a similar project in Latin America with more or less the same idea of what I did in the Sahara. It will have the same focus of working with people and showing the positive, which is a common theme for my life. I will utilize photography and multimedia to pass along the message.
The expedition I am hoping to do is composed of 90 photos, videos and local music that I collected throughout the expedition.
We work in so many countries that have so much conflict. There are so many cycles of conflict that play out time and again and that has made us become so desensitized to it. In Syria, for example, there is horrible conflict and although the media is playing out stories about the plight of refugees the world is not enraged like we should be about the 70,000 people that have been killed and the 4 million people who have fled the country. If we were more outraged and there was more of a focus on the people affected instead of arming one side or another, I think it would change the response around the crisis. It is a regional crisis, so what are regional leaders not doing more to stop the bloodshed?
In regards to policy, I often think about the disproportionate support to militaries and their weapons around the world instead of development like education and healthcare and humanitarian aid. For example, the United Nations just passed an Arms Trades Treaty after 10 years of campaigning and one of the cases the campaigners used is the billions of dollars lost in Africa due to recurring conflicts.
If you could wave a magic wand and change your issue of choice, what would it be?
It would be for there to be more support and assistance on the ground to local actors and local governments to respond to emergencies instead of international organizations swooping in to ‘save the day.’ It would save money, be more efficient, and create some sustainability on the ground to deal with the next crisis. Like my Peace Corps experience taught me, we should all be working ourselves out of a job. What better way to do this then to support local actors and civil society in responding to crises.