A career inspired by a journey from Cape Town to Cairo with Till Trojer

“Anthropology forces you to reset and rewire your own thinking process. You have to train yourself to be open to the world around”

An anthropologist and filmmaker, Dr Till Trojer recently joined the Wheeler Institute as a Post-doctoral Research Fellow.  We touched on his ambition for his research at the Wheeler Institute, and discussed his early experiences on the continent that inspired and influenced his career.

In 2007, Till spent the year working with vulnerable youth embedded in a South African township.  Instead of returning home to Germany, Till along with a friend, embarked on a journey that took him across the African continent, from Cape Town to Cairo. Crossing all land borders on foot, using only public transportation, and couch surfing in the time before AirBnB; Till and his friend’s approach to travel was to use “really anything that kept moving us towards Cairo”.

We spoke about the diversity and complexity of Africa culturally, geographically, politically and how experiencing that through the back of moving trucks. “Sitting there for 10 hours and just letting the landscape pass by… I often travel back to it in my mind. We met amazing people, and it was this kind of hospitality of sitting together, eating, just being invited, we experienced this extreme form of hospitality. I had this feeling that I need to go back. There’s such a diversity in the variety of different languages, different cultures but there were also many things that I felt were common. Common ideas about hospitality, about receiving guests, universal principles and values of engaging with each other.”

A career inspired by a journey from Cape Town to Cairo

Upon his return to Germany, the work in South Africa and the travel across the continent motivated Till to pursue an academic career in African studies, which ultimately led to his career in social and cultural anthropology. “I had all this experience, all these memories and all these emotions attached to the continent, but travelling is easy. Whenever you don’t like a place, you just move on, you don’t stay and figure things out. But what I liked about my time in South Africa – we were embedded in the community.” The desire to be embedded in the community, coupled with a curiosity to learn more about the various cultures and ways of life present across Africa drew Till into African studies.

Till enrolled in an Applied African studies programme with a mixture of anthropology, political science, history, sociology, at the University of Bayreuth. It was here he met his mentor, Magnus Treiber. “I was given good advice; if you’re interested in a discipline, you shouldn’t study its theories, you should look at what the practitioners do. For anthropologists, ethnography is where you immerse yourself in another community for a long period, trying to understand it from within. Giving up your own judgments, beliefs, dispositions and worldviews you have and then allowing yourself to collide and be open to other viewpoints.”

As part of his Bachelor of Arts degree Till undertook an exchange in Ethiopia’s capital, at the University of Addis Ababa.  And, throughout his degree he continued to return and worked as a researcher on Ethiopian politics and as a tour guide for German tourists. Till then pursued his Masters in Ethiopian studies at the University of Hamburg, where he based himself in the northern region of Tigray.

Till’s PhD dissertation led him to the Afar community in Northeastern Ethiopia, a choice that was both practical and driven by passion. “There was not a lot of research going on in this particular part of northeastern Ethiopia and I already spoke two [Ethiopian] languages. The Afar region always intrigued me and I’ve always felt drawn to it.” In the northern parts of the Afar region, bordering Eritrea and Tigray, the camel salt caravans are an essential part of the culture and way of life for this community. However, since 2010, trucks have slowly replaced the camel caravans in the salt trade which led to a decline in the trade. The dissertation work included a documentary, Arho: The Afar Salt Trade of Northeastern Ethiopia.

The film really allowed Till to explore filmmaking as a research method.

“Having a camera and strategically using it as a methodological tool is great, especially these days because it takes on a form of collaboration, you can show it back to people on the spot, and really make sure that the people you are working with feel fairly represented.”

A view from Afar

Till highlighted the importance for researchers to reflect upon their own responsibilities that they have as practitioners when they go into the field to conduct research, especially among vulnerable groups.  Before Till began filming the documentary, he spent time embedded in the local community, speaking with community members. He rented a small room, on a compound with a family, spending his first few months in small cafes, speaking to people, learning the language.

He heard about the importance of the camels and how it was a declining tradition, slowly being replaced by trucks. As Till made closer connections with the community he was invited to the areas, saw first-hand the camels. Salt has been an important commodity for centuries, in many parts of the world, and Till saw it as an opportunity to explore many themes by putting the trade at the center of his research.

He spoke with community leaders, religious leaders, clan leaders and realized that the trucks were going to make the camels obsolete. It was in speaking with the community and reflecting on the disappearing nature of the trade, that Till had the idea to create the documentary in collaboration with the community. He wanted this document to be co-generated by the community. Till began shooting the documentary and worked with the community directly, showing them rough cuts and discussing the editing process, accepting feedback, suggestions on what should be included, what should be eliminated. The documentary captured the everyday lives of the caravans, the majesty of the region and the beautiful Afar music; an element that Till had not envisioned in the original documentary but included at the insistence of the film’s protagonists. “The music at the end really is what makes the film so strong and what has been received really, really well from within the Afar communities, people in Ethiopia and also abroad…” Devastatingly, less than six months after filming finished the camel caravans disappeared completely.

Coming back from Afar

When Till returned from his PhD fieldwork in the Afar region, he became a research assistant in Professor Elias Papaioannou’s Political Economy of African Development research project. Bringing his expertise for the Horn of Africa, and writing country reports on the social, political and economic history of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. “…the project was really, really interesting to me because it was exploring the legacy of private companies on the African continent, and how they still shape and influence regions, communities and individuals today.”  The research position evolved into the full-time project manager for the research project.

The idea of fair representation is central to anthropology and ethnography, particularly in the face of decolonization “Fair representation feeds into a lot of discussions of how we document communities, how we represent them correctly. It feeds into entire narratives of debates of decolonization, and I find [filmmaking] a really nice way of working and collaborating with people. I am able to discover things about the communities I work with that would have otherwise remained hidden.”  A discourse Till now is actively engaging in and bringing to his new post-doctoral fellow role at the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development.

Till is keen to identify ways how there can be interdisciplinary and diverse representation in Wheeler Institute initiatives.” Where there is diversity and an interdisciplinary approach, then there’s inclusiveness.”  He is also very keen to ensure any fieldwork or project work is collaborative and a result of co-generation. For example, in support of the Political Economy of African Development project, Till is identifying how he could share insights through film-making.  He is keen to explore how some of the companies that were formed during colonization still operate today and what effect they still have, positive or negative. He will seek to collaborate with partner organizations on the ground, universities, filmmakers and local production companies.

“Academic papers are written for a specific community and often hidden behind paywalls, but as academics, we have to find ways to communicate our findings to the broader public and the film is a perfect way to do this.”

 The Wheeler Institute’s ambition is to be a pre-eminent hub for trusted insights on business solutions to development challenges; and to take evidence-based insights to a wide audience.  It is hoped that Till’s approach to co-generation in story-telling coupled with his curiosity to learn more and understand various cultures and ways of life, will enable the Wheeler Institute to not only  engage with wider audiences, but to engage an audience with research in a more meaningful way. The Wheeler Institute and Till are both excited to see what the future brings.

Margaret Wieland (MBA 2022) has a background in corporate finance, with 6+ years of experience in audit, controllership and financial analysis roles. Prior to London Business School she was based in Shanghai, China leading revenue accounting teams in the region for a large multinational. Margaret is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives. 

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *