Asking the hard questions

How do you talk to a stranger about something that is private  to him or her and most likely painful? This can be especially hard if you do not even speak the same language, but have to communicate through a translator.

I´m trying to find people that can inform me about the situation in northern Mali. To find out if slavery is growing in the shadow of the ongoing conflict in the north. For that I need to find first hand sources.
But the topic is sensitive, tabu and I can feel it in the air during the interview. The elephant in the room is growing larger and is starting to look mighty fierce, so I try a more general question to approach the subject.

“What did you do when you were living in the north of Mali, where you working?” I know this woman has been living as a slaved, but it doesn´t mean that she wants to talk about it. She avoids my question, and the next one. Time is running out. So I ask her:
“There are several reports from different human rights organizations that the practice of slavery in different forms have been brought back in communities in the north. Is this something you can confirm?”

She confirms. At the same time she looks like someone is holding up a torch flame towards her face. I tell her that she do not have to talk about it if she does not want to. She shakes her head. No, she doesn´t want to talk about it. But she can gives us contact information to a group of women whom might know more.

We talk a bit more, about her son who goes to school, the lack of government support and memories from the Sahara dessert.
“During night it was so cold that the sand would almost freeze. It felt like walking on glass,” she says and smiles.

We thank her for her help, gives her a number to a refugee center we visited earlier and wish her the best. It´s time to visit the women she gave us contact information to. Time to once more ask the hard questions. First I have to sit down and think this though. Should I have done something differently? Could I have formulated my questions differently? Was I patient enough? Have I the right to bring up topics that causes people pain? Is the story worth it?

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