Over the past year and a half, 35-year-old Hasan Söylemez has been exploring the African continent on his bicycle. The Turkish cyclist has travelled from the Sahara desert to the forests of West Africa, stopping by shanty towns in Sierra Leone and Liberia on his way. His aim is to show another, more positive and hopeful side of Africa, one that’s a far cry from the often depressing news cycle coming out of the continent.Hasan Söylemez, a Turkish journalist and documentary filmmaker, began his journey in Morocco in January 2017. From there, he plans to visit all 54 countries on the continent – an immense task that he hopes to complete within five years. He’s now reached Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, having already travelled 8,500 kilometres and visited 12 countries.
Along the way, he films the countryside, the towns and the people he meets. When interviewing someone, there’s one question he always asks: “What is your biggest dream?” Söylemez says the locals' diverse answers “say a lot about their life, their country, their past and what their future will be like.”
"I want to dismantle the clichés we have about Africa"
All over the world, there are so many stereotypes about Africa and Africans. I already knew that Africa wasn’t just what we see in newspapers: civil wars, famine, diseases, wild animals… One of my aims with this trip and my videos was to dismantle these clichés.
Unfortunately, lots of people still think that Africa is just one country, full of dangerous animals and dangerous people. Obviously, there’s a big difference between this idea of Africa and the one that I can see with my own eyes.
To show what Africa is really like, I wondered what made its 1.2 billion inhabitants tick. There was one thing that I thought about: their dreams, their hopes, and what gives them the strength to keep going through hardship. By asking them what their biggest dream is, I’m trying to understand and make the world understand Africans in all of their diversity.
To emphasise this diversity, I’m very keen that they respond in their native language. One of the things that most surprised me when I started this trip was the huge number of languages there are – sometimes even a different language from one village to the next. It was incredible to see how many people speak two or three languages fluently.”
Söylemez speaks Turkish and English, and tries to communicate with locals in the little French, Arabic or Portuguese that he’s already picked up on his journey. He says that he gesticulates a lot and uses questions that he’s translated in advance for his interviews.
The people I meet are often surprised to see me turn up in their village. But they’re always very kind. They’re not used to seeing a white man go around on a bike like this. The white men they see are generally on 4x4s, going past fast and not slowing down. But I stop each time to chat with them. I listen to their stories and their dreams and I film them.”
The Turkish journalist has also documented the poor state of roads in parts of the continent. Sometimes they’re so bad he has to push his bike and his 70 kilograms-worth of luggage.
Exhausted after crossing 1,400 kilometres of the Sahara, he decided to jump on a train, which meant he crossed Mauritania much more quickly.
Hasan Söylemez has been preparing for this trip for a long time, and saved up money over several years in order to meet the costs. He also looked for sponsors and sometimes receives administrative help from Turkish embassies in different countries to help him get permission to film.
Depending on the weather, the state of the roads and how tired he is, he can travel between 10 and 100 kilometres every day. “But I’m not in a hurry,” he says, before leaving Ouagadougou to head to Ghana. “I live day to day, and I go at my own pace.”