In Africa, the Sky Is Black (Interview with Martin Mareček)

Documentarist Martin Mareček, dramaturgist and co-author of the subject of “Copper Age”, presented at the Docalliancefilms portal from November 25, tells us about his journey to Africa six months after the premiere of Copper Age; about what he found there, what he filmed there and what he discovered there.

You are a co-author of the subject of Copper Age and you cooperated closely on its completion. However, you only travelled to Africa this year. Is there any connection between Copper Age and your new project?

Mareček: Primarily the place of shooting. Zambia is a country which has had a close connection to the Czech Republic already since the time of explorer Emil Holub, who was the first one to make a detailed map of the Victoria Falls. Emil Holub is pretty much known in Zambia by the way, we even came upon his statue. However, that is where the similarity between the two films stops. While Copper Age was made in cooperation with the Bankwatch NGO and dealt with the problem of copper mines, this project is rather creative, dealing with something completely different.

What will your new film with the working title “Can’t Help” be about?

Mareček: For quite some time, I have been observing the activities of Milan Smrž and Tomáš Tožička who have managed to electrify several hospitals and a school in remote parts of Zambia by means of solar panels in areas where it is too costly fora regular electricity network to be established byZESCO, a state electricity provider. In the spring of 2010, they went to Zambia again to check several problematic parts of their photovoltaic project. We accompanied them, observing the process and trying to understand how development help really works in Africa, including its limits and pitfalls.

The project of Smrž and Tožička received vast criticism on the basis of an article describing their solar plant as a malfunctioning black whole swallowing the money of Czech tax payers.

Mareček: It is not true that the project doesn’t work. On the contrary, the community centre in Naluyanda functions perfectly well. There were certain problems though in the other part of the project, in the boarding school and health centre in Masuku. So we set out there to find out why some parts of the installed electric appliances failed. The result of our “raid” was quite expectable. The technology was functioning well; it was the human factor that failed.

Doesn’t the greatest pitfall of development help in Africa consist in the difference between the African and the European approach?

Mareček: Indeed, it is not easy for a European to understand the things he encounters in Zambia. One cannot just take our notions of success, ambition, diligence, and apply them on the African society. In such a case, one would not be far from the superficial “colonial” approach. It is necessary to realize that a society which, for instance, never had to deal with how to survive winter, could hardly form the same mechanisms of thinking like the ones we inherited from our ancestors, for whom the inability to preserve the summer harvest would mean certain death. Thanks to our guides, we tried to accept and understand the African experience; it was the encounter with a different reality that was to become the subject of the film.

What sense does it make to install a technologically advanced energetic system in Africa when you have to come over and repair it again and again?

Mareček: I asked Milan Smrž a similar question. In his philosophy, we owe something to Africa since the time when our society only took its treasures. A locally oriented project, such as the electrification of Naluyanda or Masuku, can bring a very important effect; along with the establishing of the technology, Africans also learn how to use it. Though it might appear as Sisyphean toil, the future prospects are not that poor. If the remote parts of Zambia were left the only possibility of electrification in the form of a central network, the local inhabitants would be dependent on somebody else again, with the electricity bill further burdening their now already very limited budget. Regardless of the fact that, due to the financial demands of the construction of the distribution network, it would never be constructed anyway. Only twenty percent of people have access to the energetic network, which is quite a paradox, since most of Zambia has mobile signal coverage. The electric socket is thus becoming a necessity, also for the mobile recharge. Though the credit is usually a zero one, at least the mobile can serve as a source of light in the black African night. In the African bush, one can experience something practically unseen in Europe; black skies and omnipresent darkness; and on top of that, a poisonous snake under one’s feet.

What is the African notion of success and diligence?

Mareček: Logically, in one of the poorest regions of the world, heavily devastated by AIDS, the hierarchy of social values will be significantly different from ours. In this region, many people have to live on one dollar a day; if someone is able to make two dollars a day, well that’s fine, however, he won’t make a career out of that either. We discovered that rather than acquiring the means of living, it is crucial for Zambians to be able to share the few things they have. Living in a community is essential. Then they will survive, they will manage somehow, things will clear up. I will give you a little example. We and several local people set out to do some shopping in town. Within two hours, our originally empty truck turned into a formless heap of people and things. Others were coming, willing to take a ride, and each of them found a place. We tried to persuade our drivers that it would be better to rearrange the things on the deck but they just shrugged it off. Some of the things did fall off at the beginning but nobody cared. They stopped falling off after all, since the things shook and settled as we went, while the undisturbed black passengers went on joking, laughing and singing on top of the crowded truck.


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