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colonialism Conflict Indigenous peoples July 2021 Media and art Migration and refugees SPOTLIGHT Uncategorized

Spotlight on Sandblast

Spotlight regularly features a significant individual or team from the Human Rights community to answer questions put by students from the University of Essex.  This month, we talk to Danielle Smith of Sandblast, highlighting their important work in support of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in North West Africa.

Since 1975, the Saharawi population have been divided, half living in their own land, occupied by Morocco, and half displaced and living in refugee camps in SW Algeria.  A 2018 UNHCR report estimated that there were over 170,000 Saharawis living in five large refugee camps, enduring harsh conditions, forced into aid dependency for the last 45 years.

Since 2005, Sandblast has been seeking to raise awareness of the Saharawi struggle for self-determination and their long-term plight as refugees.  They do this through artistic collaborations and partnerships between the UK and the Saharawi people.  Through education, arts and skills development projects, Sandblast is empowering refugees, especially youth and women, to become self-reliant and able to reach audiences more widely to tell their story, promote their culture and advocate for their rights.

Their main on-going project is Desert Voicebox, providing English and music education to over 60 Saharawi refugee children and training local women to teach and run the programme. For those interested in donating to the Desert Voicebox fundraiser, taking place on July 11th, go to Sandblast’s Instagram , Facebook or Justgiving pages.

About Danielle

danielle_smithDanielle Smith is the Founding Director of Sandblast, a UK arts & human rights charity promoting the voices and visions of the Saharawi people. 

Smith began her long term involvement of educational and cultural activism for Saharawi self-determination after her first visit to the Saharawi refugee camps, in SW Algeria in 1991.  Smith’s involvement with the Saharawi includes teaching English in the camps, photography and award-winning documentary making, including the 1998 BBC 2 Correspondent programme ‘A forgotten war’, on which she was Associate Producer. 

Regarded as a regional expert, she has spoken widely at the UN General Assembly, the UK parliament and many university campuses in the US and UK and been interviewed on BBC radio and TV.  She was commissioned to write the peer-reviewed research guide on Western Sahara for the Centre for Refugee Studies at Oxford (2004), co-published 31 with Pablo Martin at Leeds University, the first book of Saharawi poetry in Spanish and English by the collective Friendship Generation and contributed the historical endnotes for Luis Leante’s novel, ‘See How Much I Love You’, published by Marion Boyars in 2009.

We are honoured that Danielle has graciously agreed to answer questions sent in by the students of the Human Rights Centre at Essex.  

Students’ Questions Answered

Oral tradition, including singing and storytelling, usually preserves cultural heritage, passing it on to future generations. How much, if any, of the Sahrawi people’s cultural lifestyle and heritage has been affected/metamorphosed by their statelessness? To what extent does your programme “Desert Voicebox” contribute to the preservation of the Sahrawi culture, and what are the ways in which we can connect human rights to art? 

In the 30 years of going regularly to the Saharawi refugee camps, in southwest Algeria, I have witnessed major changes and can unequivocally say that statelessness has had a huge impact.  It is believed that about 70% of their cultural heritage has disappeared since Saharawis first fled into this harsh desert zone, 46 years ago, to escape the war sparked by Morocco’s military occupation of their homeland in Western Sahara in 1975.   

Rooted in a pastoral nomadic past, Saharawi culture was built on rich oral traditions that were once passed on from generation to generation, often around long hours spent making and drinking tea.

Back in 1991, when I first visited the camps, living conditions for the Saharawi refugees were extremely basic, yet cultural life was vibrant and, remarkably, still connected to many aspects of their former way of life. This was largely because the Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario, who controlled the camps, actively promoted their cultural heritage as an important part of their cause to gain international recognition and independence in Western Sahara. At the outset poetry and music had been harnessed to recruit and mobilise and in exile, to advance the task of nation building.

1991 was also the year the refugees had hoped they would return to their homeland to finally vote in a UN-organised referendum, in 1992, for Saharawi self-determination.  That vote, unfortunately, never took place. Instead, while the Saharawis waited patiently over the next 3 decades for the UN to implement a peace plan that had no teeth, the camps and cultural life underwent dramatic changes. 

The reasons are too complex to deal with in a short space but suffice to say that numerous factors colluded in this period to disrupt the chain of cultural transmission between generations. Outside influences, economic pressures, infrastructure projects that brought roads and electricity into the camps, consumerism, and the growing dominance of technology in the lives of the younger generation-TV, video games, smart phones-all played a role.

Today, a third generation of children are growing up more likely knowing the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Superman than their own traditional desert stories and know little about their homeland. Meanwhile, elders with real memories of life in Western Sahara are dying out and with them irreplaceable oral libraries of the past. Conscious of this alarming trend, through Desert Voicebox we have been tapping into local cultural resources like artists who can teach about traditional music and we have been devising activities to ensure the children speak to their elders to learn about their past.

As for how arts can be connected to human rights, this point is particularly relevant to those Saharawis living under the Moroccan occupation. There the policy to “Moroccanize” the territory has resulted in the systematic suppression and appropriation of the cultural identity and history of the indigenous Saharawis in order to deny their rights and very existence.  Every cultural act, therefore, is politically charged and singing a song or reciting a poem can have severe consequences.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Smith

What are the ways in which us as students and academic staff can contribute to your work? 

To start, follow us on social media and sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about our work and get news from Western Sahara. Education and public awareness on the situation in Western Sahara is essential to generate support for the Saharawis and their human rights cause, so create a support group on campus and organise events on Western Sahara. These could also be fundraisers for our Desert Voicebox project in the camps. Film screenings on Western Sahara are generally a good, easy option combined with an artistic event and Q&A. We have films and can suggest speakers, both Saharawi and non-Saharawi. 

You can also contribute in a real way by volunteering. Like many charities we suffer from limited means to work with, so volunteers have been central to our ability to deliver our mission. You can contribute by either going out to the camps to support our project work and get directly involved or else do work placement and internships with Sandblast in the UK. For the camps, we seek volunteers with creative, music and English language teaching skills or to run a basic IT/admin training workshop for our local Saharawi staff. In the UK we need volunteers with strong communication, design and events organising skills with ideas for engaging the public. 

Find ways to get local and campus media platforms to cover stories about Western Sahara and the work of Sandblast. Regular coverage is vital to raise the profile. You could run monthly updates on the war in Western Sahara, waged daily since Nov 13th 2020 but getting no coverage. Use this as an opportunity to focus on the deteriorating human rights situation and the plundering of natural resources in Western Sahara under the Moroccan occupation, especially fish and phosphates.   Invite Saharawis to participate. Do radio spots to feature Saharawi resistance music, artists and activists to hear different voices. Check out Saharawi Voice on FaceBook and Twitter for good ideas and news too.

More generally, but as essential, students and academic staff can contribute by ensuring that the region and issues affecting the Saharawis get more academic attention. Contribute by focusing your papers and research on Western Sahara. Organise conferences; incorporate Western Sahara on platforms dealing with wider issues such as refugees, the UN, human rights, women, indigenous struggles, and post-colonial conflicts. 

Finally, check out Western Sahara Campaign UK  and contact the official UK Polisario representative for political and human rights campaigns.  Join initiatives to boycott tourism in Morocco or buying products from there that could be illegally sourced from Western Sahara.  Get in touch with your MPs.  Ask them to raise questions in Parliament or with the FCO about UK aid to the Saharawi refugees and whether trade agreements with Morocco include Western Sahara or not and are tied to human rights. Basically, start making lots of noise! 

Photo courtesy of Quintina Valero: Western Sahara nurses crossing the deserted Hamada on their way to work to Dahkla hospital in the refugee camps of Tindouf (Algeria).

You are clearly putting a tremendous effort into raising awareness for the Saharawis. What is the most effective as well as your favourite advocacy strategy or tool? 

Many times people have asked me who my target audience is to get support for the Saharawi cause. To that question, my answer is always: everybody. Because if we are talking about human rights then these should apply equally to everyone, everywhere. The Saharawis have so far been denied their fundamental right to self-determination while it has been granted to others. Why not them too?  Their cause, as I see it, goes to the heart of the human need to be recognised and respected and to have the choice to decide who we are and what future we want. I believe everyone can relate to that.

The challenge here is getting people to see this.  As the issue of Western Sahara is still so little known and is abstract for most, I have found that an effective advocacy strategy is to pique curiosity and invite people to have an experience that immerses their senses in the situation.

That is why I have taken a largely art and culture based approach to raising awareness.  People are more receptive to the Saharawi story when it is presented to them in a creative way and learning about the situation is enjoyable and inspiring.  Art has the power to address universal themes in ways that tap into our emotions and enables us to connect with our common humanity, dissolving barriers that often make us feel like strangers to each other.

The first ever Saharawi arts and culture festival that we organised in 2007 proved this point. Not only did it give a great platform for Saharawi voices to be directly heard, but through poetry, music, theatre, film, and more we were able to generate real interest as well as wonderful collaborations and exchanges which developed into solidarity links, some of which to endure til now.

Another favourite strategy has been to invite people to go to the camps to participate in annual events like the Sahara marathon to raise funds for Sandblast and live with Saharawi family hosts for a week. This is often a transformative experience.  Spending time in the camps volunteering for projects like Desert Voicebox has also been a great vehicle for building support as it gives people the chance to both contribute and be enriched. The quality of relations that one develops in these experiences with the Saharawis plays a key role in raising real awareness and solidarity.

In the case where it is not possible to offer an immersive experience, then I always love the format of a good film on Western Sahara with a Q & A, ideally involving a Saharawi, the filmmaker and someone actively involved in campaigning on Western Sahara.  Focusing on specific issues, like landmines, human rights, resource plundering is helpful for instigating action and campaigning.

Photo courtesy of Emma Brown Photography

Working with an NGO in the past, we faced some cultural differences/issues in our fieldwork. I would be very interested to hear about any challenges you might have faced with the Saharawi community? How can human rights defenders be more sensitive to such issues?

I was fortunate to have been equipped with some valuable tools for fieldwork through my Masters in Anthropology, before going out to the refugee camps. Also growing up in different countries has definitely helped me to adapt quickly to new circumstances and to be flexible about different lifestyles. The Saharawi society is by and large very open and tolerant so, in that respect, I have been fortunate and have found it easy overall to be in their world.

I would say the area of greatest challenge I have had with the Saharawis has been at the level of communication and managing expectations. This is always complicated between cultures that are living in very different realities and also when there is the added layer of different languages involved. It requires a lot of effort, patience and sensitivity to ensure assumptions and prejudices do not get in the way of real understanding. That understanding is essential for building trust and respect which are key ingredients to working in marginalised disenfranchised communities.

Without a doubt learning as much as possible about the situation before you go into it is important. That effort is always appreciated and noted, but I would caution one to never to treat the knowledge you have as a basis for thinking or behaving as if you are an expert. Humility is essential. Rather, that knowledge should be a basis for guiding you and giving you a better idea of what you can expect. This is especially true when you are working in a highly sensitive issue where people are very vulnerable to human rights abuses and live in a climate of fear. 

Photo courtesy of Emma Brown Photography

For some of us who are preparing for human rights fieldwork for the first time after graduation, can you offer any resilience tips?


This is a tough one to answer. It depends on a number of things, like how long you will be in the field, how much you will be immersed in the community, levels of risk involved and other variables. So this makes it difficult to offer advice. Also I can only speak from my experiences with the work I have done with Saharawis, though I would venture to say that certain principles would probably apply to almost anywhere you go.

Personally, I find one of the toughest things is the sense of isolation that one can feel at the beginning when you don’t know any of the language, if English is not widely spoken. I believe it always helps to know greetings and a few essential words before going out to help you cope with basic situations. It helps establish relationships more easily and makes you feel less of a stranger.  

Doing field work can be intense and overwhelming so it is important to get rest and eat well and do things that help you unwind. Bring good books and even games to engage people on another level or if you have any skills or talents share them and get people to join in. It is good soul food for all.

Finally, be ready for the unexpected and stay calm and don’t get too frustrated when things don’t seem to be going according to plan. I have found it helps to remain flexible, open and patient in unfamiliar situations. Things have a surprising way of working out but perhaps not as you may have imagined.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Smith

I am a PhD researcher in the Literature Film & Theatre department at Essex and my project is looking at applied theatre and playwriting to examine Female Genital Mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and how alternative methodology can educate, support and challenge.  Is FGM/C a practice that impacts the women and girls in the community you are working with? If so, are there existing materials that focus on this topic?

Fortunately FGM is not practiced in Saharawi society and it is not an issue there at all.

Have you faced any political issues from the governments of Morocco, Algeria or Mauritania since your involvement with the Saharawi? Have you faced any difficulties on the ground since the rise in tensions in recent months between Algeria, who support The Polisario, and Morocco?

I have never faced any issues with the governments of Algeria and Mauritania but have had, over the years, numerous run-ins with representatives of the Moroccan government. This has mainly been in the form of disruptions they have tried to cause at events I have done on Western Sahara.

Fortunately, so far, I have not faced any difficulties on the ground due to tensions on the ground between Algeria and Morocco.

How has the pandemic impacted on your work in terms of access, travel and fundraising for your projects?

The pandemic indeed has had a real impact on the work we are doing in the Saharawi refugee camps through our early-learning Desert Voicebox project, which is providing English and music education to over 60 primary school children.

Since launched in 2016, we have had a pretty continuous presence there, either by a member of our management team or else through the presence of successive volunteers who have been supporting the project in different ways. It has been common practice for me to personally make 2 to 3 site visits to assess progress on the ground, resolve issues and develop the project further.

Since March 2020, it has not been possible to travel to the camps as the Algerian borders have been closed to all international visitors. This means we haven’t been able to carry on with the on-site training that our volunteers were providing to our local teaching staff at Desert Voicebox. Although we’ve attempted to continue to do this remotely, we have been limited by very poor connectivity issues and have only mainly been able to work through Whatsapp!

Neither have we been able to deliver special creative workshops for the children, which we were running 2 to 3 times a year by UK- based volunteers. These have been a great source of excitement for the children, whose lives have very little stimulus and variety otherwise.  

As for fundraising for the project, one of our main sources of income has been through the annual Sahara marathon in the camps, which did not happen in 2021. For the past 11 years, UK participants have been going out for a week to join the race in solidarity and have helped raise vital sponsorship money for Sandblast. This has usually ranged between £10,000 to 25,000k. So this has hit us pretty bad and the virtual option has not nearly been as successful in raising funds.

Photo courtesy of Sherifa Saleh Mahgub/Olive Branch Arts

What impact did President Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara have on your work and the morale of the Saharawi people you know?

Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty did not have a direct impact on our work, but it certainly had a major impact on the Saharawi people and most of all directly on those living in the part of Western Sahara under the Moroccan occupation. Human rights violations against Saharawi human rights activists have ramped up since then and Trump’s deeply misguided step has given Morocco more confidence to carry on doing business as usual and disregard international legal norms. Apart from this, Trump’s recognition has set a dangerous precedent towards gaining wider legitimacy for its illegal occupation and has undermined the UN decolonisation process even further.

On the Saharawi side, while they were deeply shocked, dismayed and angered by this rupture with US foreign policy towards the question of Western Sahara, it has had the positive effect of galvanising the community all over the globe and given them something very specific to campaign on.

Photo courtesy of Mohamed Moulud Emhamed/Olive Branch Arts

What has been your proudest achievement and your biggest regret throughout your human rights career?

To talk about my proudest achievement is like trying to decide who is the favourite amongst my children. If it’s ok I’d like to cheat and mention two.

The first was to have had my second documentary “ Beat of Distant Hearts: The Art of Revolution in Western Sahara” selected for The 3 Continents Human Rights Film Festival in South Africa in 2003. The 3 continents were South America, Africa and Asia. It was a huge honour for me to be invited to attend and screen my film. And it was particularly inspiring and humbling to meet amazing human rights film activists from different corners of the world who were passionate and committed and had faced many challenges and dangers to document vital issues to create awareness about stories we rarely get to hear about.

The second was organising the first ever Sandblast festival of Saharawi arts and culture from Western Sahara in the UK. Its aim was to bring the story of the Saharawi freedom cause directly to British audiences and tell it through music, poetry, film, art, photography, theatre and more. The festival took place in London over 3 days at Rich Mix in Nov 2007 and included a one-month tour of the 8 member camp-based band Tiris.

It brought more than 20 Saharawi artists from the refugee camps and involved the collaboration of over 50 leading artists in the UK and also internationally. It also brought together, for the first time, the highest profile Saharawi woman activist from the occupied part of Western Sahara, Aminatou Haidar, and the Saharawi Minister of Culture Khadija Hamdi from the camps. We also had the honour of Ken Loach attending as our special guest.

The festival opened many new doors and put Western Sahara on the map in an unprecedented way. Tiris which was the artistic highlight of the festival garnered a lot of media interest. Their debut album “Sandtracks”, which Sandblast also produced, was highly acclaimed and chosen Top of the World album and got a 5-star review in the leading world music magazine Songlines. The experience showed us the power of great music to engage new audiences and build solidarity. That festival launched Sandblast and was an epic moment, representing the fruits of a three year long slog to raise funds, prepare the artists and get them into the UK! I am not sure that would be possible to do again.

As for regrets, I try not to have any.  I am always learning and learning lessons from what we might commonly term as mistakes or failures. My only regret would be not to learn from past mistakes and to give up if my first or even second attempt fails.

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