«All our hope is in the rain,» says a farmer in The Great Green Wall. For 27 years, he has been working the land in Senegal, but because of increasing droughts and desertification, yields are dwindling. Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region, a belt below the Sahara stretching across the continent, is on the frontlines of climate change, its degradation driving resource scarcity, mass migration, and conflict. The young are turning to a new mantra: «Go to Europe, or die trying.»
Many prefer to risk the hugely dangerous journey via Libya over the prospect of a future with nothing to eat for their families. The documentary, which has its World Premiere at Venice Film Festival, outlines a third option to starvation or exile, one that depends on collective action. The Great Green Wall is an initiative of the pan-national African Union to replant trees, creating a mosaic of restored lands to combat the effects of environmental crisis.
Jared P. Scott is attached as director to The Great Green Wall, but the real face of the film is Mali-born musician and activist Inna Modja. We join her as she takes the 8,000-kilometre journey across the region from Senegal to Ethiopia. Her aim is to collaborate with musicians along the way, creating an album that incorporates the region’s cultural traditions, which will raise funds for Great Green Wall projects. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification is a backer, and City of God director Fernando Meirelles is on board as Executive Producer. It’s a slickly packaged multi-media push to spotlight the issue, in other words, with big-name clout.
An African dream
«How can we create an African dream?» Modja asks early on, determined to lend her voice to a more upbeat vision of the continent, and better prospects to stem the exodus, in a region where over 80% of the population subsist on some form of agriculture. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary who became president of Burkina Faso in the ‘80s, before his untimely death by assassination, is held up as the guiding spirit of the Great Green Wall, in his vision of pan-African self-reliance, and his own agenda of replanting more than ten million trees to combat the Sahel’s desertification. «We will dare to invent the future,» he said — a quote that opens the film.
the real face of the film is Mali-born musician and activist Inna Modja
The film’s idealistic rhetoric is geared to inspire in a manner that assumes self-help by the peoples of the Sahel can triumph over corporate and colonial exploitation by a global elite with conveniently selective attention. But it is not a film that glosses over grave challenges internal to the region that stall the implementation of the expansive tree wall — a plan dismissed by many as over-ambitious — even as it insists that a change of mindset is imperative for it to be possible.
In each nation where she stops, Modja speaks with locals hard-hit by the region’s instability. The shrinking of Lake Chad has had massive humanitarian repercussions, including heightened vulnerability to radicalisation. Teenage girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria, forced into marriage and trained to carry out suicide bombings, share their stories, as do young men educated by armed groups to kill who are now battling stigmatisation as they endeavour to regain their lives. In Niger, which has the highest birth rate on the planet, with women averaging seven children, we encounter mothers with newborns in a maternity ward, discussing their hopes to release their children from poverty. At a migrant crossing point, men have returned after being imprisoned in Libya, or their boats capsizing, a better life still elusive («We only found the sea,» says one). Some have horror stories at the hands of corrupt traffickers. They are in limbo, ashamed to return home penniless.
The desert follows
One advocate of the Great Green Wall mentions, in passing, a quote he once heard: «The forest precedes man, and desert follows.» He doesn’t say it, but it’s from Chateaubriand, a nineteenth-century French aristocrat and Romantic who liked to pen exotic novels and gorge himself on steak. Perhaps it’s easy to offer up eloquent phrases of pithy cynicism, and no solutions, when not faced with only sand to eat.
Perhaps it’s easy to offer up eloquent phrases of pithy cynicism, and no solutions, when not faced with only sand to eat.
Arriving in Ethiopia, Modja finds the horrors of the ‘80s famine the world knows from television are still fresh, and nobody wants to talk about it. But more than three decades on, the land is transformed. A farmer in Tigray recounts how with hard work they replanted the greenery. Modja grasps onto this as «a perfect example for the rest of the Sahel» — proof that if only resources were mobilised, reality would respond. It’s projected that 60 million Africans south of the Sahara could migrate by 2045 if nothing drastic is done to halt desertification. Whether or not we embrace the film’s optimism that its call to action will be answered, it makes crystal clear what is at stake.