Another day… another awe inspiring location that would sit quite comfortably amidst the pages of Lord of the Rings. We’re guests of the Dogon people this week, camping by a small village at the base of a huge escarpment facing the desert plains of the Sahel. There are strict rules to living here. I’m not just talking about practical things like preserving water or running for home the moment you see a yellow dust cloud on the horizon. There are supernatural rules here. Age old dos and don’ts forged from a culture’s tumultuous history of attempting to grasp an esoteric mastery of their unforgiving environment. As a result, our every step is being closely scrutinized by our protective neighbours.
The cliff faces above us are scattered with the remains of dwellings perched precariously hundreds of feet up the sheer rock. These were the houses of the Tellem people who predate the Dogon by almost half a millennium. The Dogon maintain that the Tellem had the supernatural ability of flight in order to access their isolated homes and I must admit that after a week of contemplating their high rise lodgings, I am still at a loss to comprehend the Darwinian pay off for living in such a dangerous location. Maybe they could fly. Who knows? The Dogon certainly can’t, however, and so these sacred places remain off limits to everyone.
Filming in this sacred landscape has been interesting. Tracing our daily pathway through the boulder-strewn village is not for the uninitiated, especially if you happen to be a female of the species, something Cecilia has discovered on a number of occasions already, the familiar cry of “sacre!” halting her progress following the footsteps of myself or fellow male colleague, Robin. Women cannot go there! Those rocks are sacred… those are OK… Don’t touch wood in piles… No torches allowed after dark in certain areas (usually the most treacherous places too I might add, especially now the moon is not rising until 1am).
Last night, with a blessing from the chief… a rare opportunity to witness a sacrificial ceremony intended to usher in the first rains. Well, for me and Robin at least. Cecilia had to stand aside, with a somewhat redundant boom microphone whilst a procession of poultry got the chop and the village elders muttered their fireside incantations.
As a vegetarian and general lover of all animals it is never a pleasant experience watching an animal sacrifice. Somehow, I’ve never sat comfortably with the notion of loving animals on the one hand, and killing them for food on the other, a sentiment that is unique for a meat eating species within the natural world and one I don’t pretend to understand.
Over the years I’ve been present at quite a few blood offerings and the one thing that has united them all has been the cooking and eating of the sacrificial meat after the ceremony. This time was no exception. What I always find interesting about sacrifices though, is how an unsavoury experience such as watching an animal being slaughtered can turn so quickly into the highly sociable and warm experience of dining in a group as the meat is shared out. It’s an interesting paradox that most meat eaters in my country never have to face, enjoying the fruits of just the latter part of their meat’s journey from farmyard to plate.
When I witness animal slaughter first hand like this I am prompted once again to ponder the reason why I have chosen to be vegetarian because my decision to be so appears to be in conflict with my nature. I mean, where else in the animal kingdom will you find an organism at the top of its food chain showing compassion to a prey, refraining from the kill? Indeed, as many fans of natural history films will know, the footage that remains the most memorable to us humans very often involves the process of hunting and killing. The truth however, is that during those sequences, most people will be secretly willing the prey to escape and rarely do such programs show the kill in graphic detail in order not to distress viewers. I wonder why that is? I honestly don’t know. We are an omnivorous species after all, designed to be genetically successful by evolving the ability to eat both meat and plants. How is it that I have ended up feeling uncomfortable with the process of slaughter?
An evolutionary step in the wrong direction? I’ll let you decide.
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Photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith in Mali
“Abbie, would you mind going to the Sahel for 3 weeks to hang out with elephants and Tuareg warriors? Oh and you can’t wash or the elephants will smell you. It shouldn’t be too hot, only 43 degrees in the shade and watch out for the camel spiders and scorpions….”
I have to admit, I was a little nervous of what lay in store, but there’s something about this place that penetrates your soul, leaving an imprint far larger than you may have first acknowledged, that blossoms into a feeling of peace and the realization of what it really means to be a human. I am at Banzena, a fast shrinking lake south of Timbuktu, and after 8 months of no rain, everything is thirsty. Including us.
“A dark wind is coming” says El Mehdi, our local Tuareg elephant expert and as I turn around the sky is literally coming at us. Within minutes we are lost in a sea of dust, the world has morphed into an orange, hazy whirlwind and I feel as if I’ve just been transported onto the set of a science fiction movie.
At that precise moment I realize I am falling in love with the desert… and everything it represents. The raw ebb and flow of nature and how this has such a soothing effect on our bodies and souls in spite of the harshness of the environment. I can feel the grit being swept in into my ears and up my nose, and I’m frantically ripping off my turban and wrapping it round my camera.
The air clears, but my excitement remains, and I’m grinning from ear to ear, at which point Cecilia, our director on this sequence, starts giggling at all the orange dust stuck to my teeth. Luca, our cook has a new sand-blasted tan.
This special place is a refuge for the elephants of the Sahel, now numbering only 200. Banzena lake is one of the last stops on their migration route before the rains come in a few weeks time. In the 2 weeks since we’ve been here, we have watched, almost in real time, the lake shrinking before our eyes. Watching the effects of climate change first hand is something of a shock. Not just to me and the crew who would have given anything for a drink cooler than tepid, but to the thousands of cattle who cross the desert from their pasture to come to drink, and the herders who need donkeys to carry their water supply through the many mirages that we can see. And of course the elephants, who rely on this dying watering hole to sustain their existence.
Later on, as I am showering beind a thornbush in the moonlight with half a bucket of water and a cup, trying not to step on the fresh elephant dung as my body vibrates to the sounds of a rumbling herd nearby, I’m struck by what an amazing planet we live on, how lucky I am to be here and whether I really will be telling my grandchildren stories of the last of the Sahelian elephants.
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My time in Niger didn’t start as planned. After 4 days travelling from Ethiopia, via London to pick up a new camera, I arrived in the capital Niamey with some new bags under my eyes. Unfortunately, they were the only personal bags I’d be seeing for a few weeks since my luggage never made it with me to Africa. Experience has taught me always to carry my cameras as hand luggage, so it was a minor setback. My schedule for rendezvousing with the rest of the team near Lake Chad was very tight, so there was no time to wait for the next flight to arrive. It wasn’t all bad news though – in Lost luggage I discovered a bag belonging to our cameraman Toby, which had been sitting there for 3 weeks whilst he had been travelling across the Sahara on another shoot. The same thing had happened to him as it turned out, so I acted as courier and took it with me on the 2 day journey to hook up with him and the rest of the crew in the east. By the time I arrived at our meeting point I was definitely ready for a change of clothes. My salvation came in the form of Cecilia, our producer, accompanied by our all knowing fixer who whisked me off to the local market where we managed to commandeer 2 lovely new outfits which would end up lasting me my entire time in the desert.
Well what did you expect? Jeans and a T-shirt?
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