In the remote plains of Niger, much of daily life revolves around collecting water from parched wells that have fallen victim to climate change. A documentary sets out to show how community members are pulling together to build a well that will not only quench thirst, but also promote equality for women and girls.
Above Water, by Franco-Senegalese director and actress Aïssa Maïga, shows the hardships of women and children who spend kilometres day after day trooping off to fetch water from their nearest well.
You can almost feel the grit of the sand and earth as you travel by their side, listening to the gentle clanking of the water containers on the donkeys’ backs.
“It didn’t always used to be this way,” says an elder from the village of Tatiste. “There used to be plains with grass so high it could hide the wild animals. Giraffe and jackals used to gambol.”
But the land is drying out, and water is scarce.
The film’s viewers are made to squint through beige-coloured dust as they listen to the howling desert wind. The smoky beige sky sits low beyond the sparse, bare trees.
The villagers harness the donkeys with ropes to pull buckets up out of the well. Sometimes there’s next to no water.
The irony is, like many areas across Africa, there is a rich supply of water hidden in reservoirs deep below the surface, but too deep for ordinary wells.
The nomadic people of the land are literally “walking on water”, which is the name of the film translated into French.
Above Water is not a lesson on climate change, but rather an observation of the effects of global warming seen through the eyes of the villagers themselves.
“I really wanted the spectator to feel they were immersed in the story, to be in this village, to be with the people, to be in their reality, and be a part of their challenge,” Maïga told RFI’s Sophie Torlotin after the official launch of the film at the Cannes festival in July.
“I certainly didn’t want to look down on this story, or be detached from it, to see people struggling and not feel touched by it. I wanted to create a strong emotional connection.”
It was important for Maïga to have two parallel stories driving the narrative forward, to humanise the subject and raise awareness.
That connection is guaranteed thanks to the authenticity of 14 year-old Houlaye in front of the camera. It is through her eyes you sense the difficulties of village life, season after season.
Her parents, aunt and other adults must travel on foot to neighbouring countries in search of work, leaving her in charge of the younger children.
We sense her anxiety over the long months as she knows what dangers they might face. Besides lack of food, water and shelter, the Azawak region is prone to raids by rebel groups and rival tribes.
“There was something about her look, some shyness too, but there was this depth and sensitivity, intelligence and a strength also,” says Maïga after her first meeting with Houlaye.
“She was the leader of the film. She really understood the presence of the camera, what it meant, and how to let herself be filmed. It was a very impressive encounter,” Maïga said.
One of her goals was to emphasis the fact that water scarcity affects every aspect of a village life, from security, to health, to education and equality.
Born in Senegal and raised between France and Africa, Maïga says her own experiences of growing up in a West African family, and frequent holidays spent with her father’s relatives in the north of Mali, were helpful in understanding the crucial question of water.
Although she says her memories were extremely positive, she was always aware the lack of resources had the power to pull families and communities apart.
There are no figures mentioned in the film, but the repetitive nature of the well trips and the long dry season hint at the shocking statistics behind accessing clean water.
Unesco figures show that in Sub-Saharan Africa only 24 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water, and 28 percent has basic sanitation facilities that are not shared with other households.
The burden of collecting water lies with women and girls, many of whom spend more than 30 minutes on each journey to fetch water – a situation that prevents them from attending school.
Keeping these facts in mind, Maïga presents a singularly humane vision, bringing into focus the strong women in the village, their desire to keep the local school running and their courageous trips carrying bundles of homemade medicines to sell.
The film is full of surprising moments of humour and tenderness, amid a backdrop of breathtaking scenery.
There are uplifting scenes when the rain finally comes and the landscape is utterly transformed. Children shriek happily as they splash in mini lakes and cattle graze contentedly in the marshes that were once dust bowls. A father takes the time to wash his little boy.
This abundance of water is tied to another important narrative in the film, which is the official quest for a communal well to be drilled near Tatiste. The local government is prompted into action by a letter written with the help of the school teacher.
The project comes to fruition with the help of an NGO Amman Imman (Water Is Life), bringing much joy to the village.
Maïga knows building wells cannot be a solution for every village across Africa, but by using cinema she is able to open up a universal dialogue on the crucial issue of access to water.
“We can’t drill holes everywhere, even if there is a significant source of ground water which has been there for centuries,” she says.
“We need to find sustainable solutions for regreening, replanting, irrigation with rain water catchments. Agroforestry requires means: for logistics, technical aspects and funding – only this will allow a cycle of water, to find sustainable solutions.”
Above Water (Marcher sur l’Eau) was released in French cinemas on 10 November, and 12 November in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.