The dusty town of May Jirgui lies just off Niger’s main highway, Route Nationale 1, over 500 miles to the east of the capital Niamey. It’s no different from hundreds of other towns and villages across this country. Except for one thing: it’s the site of the grave of Paul Voulet, the colonial commander whose murderous invasion of 1899 claimed this region for France and created the modern Niger.
When I first went there in a research trip for our film, I felt I had stumbled across a grim but compelling symbol of what colonialism really means today. This well-kept grave fenced by wrought iron railings appears out of place, like an imposition from another world. It’s maintained by a guardian, Amadou Sadaou, an octogenarian who protects the site from the ravages of the Sahelian scirocco in the hope that one day it might be a tourist attraction for rich visitors from Europe.
On the day I first went, a crowd of residents gathered just as they did in our film. There was quite a different atmosphere from other places along Voulet’s trail of carnage. There, I had sensed sadness and resignation. Here, the people were angry, defiant. A rancour bred from too-long an association with Voulet and his enduring legacy.
The anger was palpable. The town’s mayor, Idi Saley, suggested we dig up Voulet’s remains and take them back to Europe. Everyone wanted to be rid of him. To be free of his dark shadow. An unwelcome malignancy in the heart of their community.
Another villager, a woman called Batoula Adamou, told me ‘that man down there’ (pointing to Voulet) represented a dictatorship, control by forces from afar, that overwhelms their everyday lives.
Maliki Yahouza, the young man in our film who connects Voulet with today’s pressure to leave home in search of a better standard of living, was just one of so many here who see the origin of mass migration in colonial dispossession.
Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk in Europe and America about taking down statues of brutal colonialists and putting them in museums to educate future generations.
Perhaps one day soon, I hope, the people of May Jirgui will be able to remove Voulet and his grave and put them in a museum where they can be remembered as a symbol of a time that is finally ended, or at least beginning to end.