I set out to tell a story of how dramatic social change will re-forge our sense of community and identity, and of how memory and history choose their own heroes. I had no anticipation of how much the steady drumbeat of contemporary events would demand attention.
As I was tracing the threads that would become Our Memory Like Dust, others were risking their lives in leaky boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean. In Europe and the United States, those who dared to merely seek refuge from conflict have been vilified by far too many people willing to throw away the lessons of the last world war, opening space for the old politics of division and fear to take hold.
And amidst all this is the strident call of nationalism and the wilful determination of majorities to concentrate power in ever-fewer hands. For the narrative of our time is of how so many permitted so few to have dominion over so much.
I drew on a host of sources during my research, and these will take you deeper into the world I describe:
Genii of the River Niger, Jean-Marie Gibbal (1988);
City of Thorns, Ben Rawlence (2016);
Griots and Griottes, Thomas A. Hale (1998);
La Belle Histoire de Leuk-le-Lièvre, Léopold Senghor & Abdoulaye Sadji (1953);
Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, David MacKay (2008).
Jean-Marie Gibbal’s work was a powerful motivator to include the mysticism of the people of the Senegal Valley into the narrative, as was Léopold Senghor’s mix of human and animal fairy tales. Ben Rawlence’s descriptions of life in one of the world’s largest and oldest refugee camps recalled the precariousness of existence in informal settlements where I worked in South Africa.
David MacKay’s work is much thumbed, and I recommend it to anyone attempting to work out what we can do regarding alternative energy. For those of you looking to understand whether the solar farms are even theoretically possible, I suggest visiting this spreadsheet where you will find my calculations. Briefly, though, the solar intensity in the Sahara is about 270W/m2, of which – theoretically – we could capture about 60 per cent. The solar farms in the narrative capture 135W/m2. Each person in Western Europe consumes about 125kWh per day, which I’ve reduced to 100kWh per day on the assumption that our devices should become more efficient even as more of what we use requires energy.
That implies each person requires a solar concentrator of 30m2 for their total energy consumption.
This calculation comes with a major caveat. In MacKay’s work, he used a solar capture efficiency estimate of only 14.5W/m2, quite significantly less than my own. To which I answer: hey, science fiction.
David MacKay passed away shortly after I started writing, and I can only offer my thanks and sadness that we have lost his insight and good humour.
Many of the events and locations in the narrative are based on my research in Senegal.
I spent a morning at the Hissène Habré trial in Dakar without expecting to understand anything but wanting to get a sense of the process. I came away with a deep impression of the importance of this trial where an African court tried and sentenced an African dictator for his atrocities against his own people. I thank Reed Brody, then of Human Rights Watch, for his patience in explaining the events of the day and providing needed context.
I would also like to thank Marie-Caroline Camara of Au fil du Fleuve in Saint-Louis, who helped me navigate the complexities of culture and location. She entertained some of my weirder requests and found drivers willing to take me to random spots I thought might work in the story. I won’t go into the bewilderment of drivers and locals as I would bumble around some dusty town on the Mauritanian border figuring out where things would happen.
Senegal is a wonderful place, and I deeply recommend including it on your travels.
Any horrible errors either in my calculations or in rabidly mixing up and misappropriating culture and tradition are entirely my own responsibility. My intention was to capture a flavour of this relatively unexamined (to English-speaking European eyes) part of the world, and I can only express my gratitude and appreciation for the people who helped me with my research and tolerated my inquisitiveness.
If you would like to immerse yourself further, here is the music playlist along with the relevant scenes where they belong:
The following is the closest I can get on Spotify:
She was there when I began this tale, and she was patient as I traversed its paths in darkness and light. I am grateful.