Photographing machetes and football 

Taking photos in the street is always challenging. You do not want everyone to know that you are there photographing, since that will most likely make the photo feel constructed. At the same time, you do not want to offend anyone or make them feel harassed.

You generally do not have these kinds of problems when you are photographing landscapes. But yesterday was an exception. I went on an evening walk trying to capture the Niger River that, more or less, runs through my backyard. Parts of it are dried up, which has left a moon-like landscape that looks amazing.

I took picture after picture but never seemed to get it right. Finally, I decided that I would try to include someone who might be passing through the area, to make the picture more dynamic.

I waited until I saw two people who seemed to be crossing the river a couple of hundred meters in front of me. As I raised my camera and looked through the view finder, I noticed that one of them stopped and changed direction toward me.

This is could mean trouble, but I decided to stay where I was. As I put down the camera, I realized that I his face was covered by one of the masks you usually have on you to avoid smog. He was also carrying a small machete.

So I realized that the situation looked a bit worrying. We were pretty much alone out here, but I decided to stay put. To walk away now would make me look guilty. But boy was he was upset. He pointed toward where he had stood when I took the picture and shouted in both French and Bambara. I speak neither but realized that gestures become way more dramatic when you’re holding a machete — even from a five-meter distance.

Instead, I used one of the oldest tricks in the photographer’s book: I played stupid and regretful. I told him that I did not understand why he was angry, but that I was sorry to have offended him. He yelled some more. I gave him my puppy-eye look, and he walked away.

 

I went back to the city and decided not to go home directly but to try to turn this around. But this time I would make sure that I had everyone´s permission. To hell with taking genuine street photos.

Photographing children in Mali is a pure joy. They are everywhere and super enthusiastic. If you have the opportunity to say hi to any grownups nearby, you´re completely safe.
In the time it took me to listen to one punk rock song, I found a bunch of kids playing football. I said hi to the grownups who smiled and waved back. I sat down among some kids, showed them the camera and was immediately welcomed. I got a few decent pictures, a lot of smiles and said goodbye.

One street away, I was invited to join a man who was sitting by himself. We did our best to understand each other, and after a couple of minutes I decided to ask him if I could take his portrait. He kept pointing toward his house, and before I knew it people were streaming out through the main gate.

My portrait had suddenly turned into a neighborhood photo, including at least 20 people. Everyone was laughing and joking as the group grew bigger and bigger. I asked for an email address so that I could send the picture to someone. Instead, I got a girl´s phone number. Not sure what to do with it, but at least it´s a lot better than being yelled at by a man carrying a machete.

 

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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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Storming corridors of power

Storming halls of power

After weeks of interviews with musicians it became more and more clear that I needed a comment from someone who was involved in the shaping of Mali´s culture on a political level. Also a few comments concerning Mali´s mining policy.

My first chief editor told me that you should always aim for the person at the top and only move down the political ladder if you have to. A good rule, but that often results in that I get answers written in an email from a political secretary. This after days of emailing. A meeting? Never. At least not in Sweden.

Therefore I was a bit worried that here in Mali this might become a bit of a struggle. Organizations such as Reporters without borders do not exactly rank Mali among the top countries in the world when it comes to freedom of press. Since I neither speak French or Bambara I did not want to try to reach them through emails or phone. So we tried a different approach.

Almost all ministers in Mali are working in a handful of buildings placed next to each other, surrounded by walls and guards. These buildings contains almost every minister’s office and all the staff that surrounds him or her. To get in my driver had to show his ID and explain the reason of our visit, I only had to show my white skin (or maybe it was my smile, who knows?).

Inside the walls we just followed a few signs and started to ask for the minister’s office – and it worked! Ok, we did not reach the culture or mining ministers themselves, but we got to me both ministers representatives – without filling in a single piece of papers or spending days trying to organize a meeting.

So here I am with answers to all my questions from people that represents top politicians in Mali. And it only took me one day.

 

One mans trash…

… is another´s treasure. But to say it here, at Bamako dump site, is to take it too far. More accurate would be that one man’s trash is another person’s survival.

I was on my way back from home from the University of Bamako when I passed this huge dump site just behind one of the university buildings. Out there, surrounded by smoke and the dirt, walks dozens of people, even children, in search for anything of value.

So I asked my translator to stop the moped and we went to say hi to one the women who were searching for plastic bottles among the rubbish.

I have to admit that it feels strange to call it rubbish, since she has been calling it home for almost twenty years now. Her old house fell apart and she´s been stuck here since then. I had so many questions I wanted to ask here, but also very little time. So we decided to come back another day.

There´s no city recycling program, or anything like it, in Bamako. But what does exist is something I call “spontaneous recycling”. That means that you can take anything you don´t want, but that might be of value to someone else, and just put it outside your home. It could be simple things like plastic bottles, or a piece of wood, scrap metal maybe, and I promise you that it will be gone in an hour.

Leave your opinions at home

Bamako, charming as it might be, is still a dirty city. A lot of people wear face masks when they travel along the main roads and for good reason. Exploring the countryside was not only very rewarding jobwise, but a welcome break from all the dust and smog.

Over two million souls lives in this city. No subway system exists, no trams and you cannot call it bicycle friendly. The two main roads go through the city like main arteries. Everyone uses them, simply because everyone has too. But the traffic situation is not as bad as one might suspect, mainly because so many uses the “moto” – or the moped. When cars, cabs and buses get stuck in traffic jams, all on motos improvises to get through. In Bamako it is not the biggest that goes first, but the quickest. If you hesitate you get left behind- in a cloud of smog. (Thankfully I´m not the one driving)

I left together with my guide early Friday morning and as we passed through the city I realized that the citys architecture looks very much like they were inspired by an old western movie.

For two days we met conversed with the locals in the villages south of Bamako, enjoyed Mali’s hospitality and took part in the weekly Saturday market.

Riding off into the sunset

I´m reporting on Malis musical scene to find out what shape it is in today. My second objective is to write about modern slavery. Both these topics led me to the topic of the Griot –and forced me to challenge my own views concerning freedom.

The Griot is a group of people that exists in several countries in West Africa under different names. It has been explained to me that traditionally a Griot family often serves a family of higher status, a bond that has existed for many generations. The Griots serve in many different ways: by keeping track of a family´s history, as praise singers and story tellers at weddings and other public events. But it is a lot more to it and this short resume won’t make it justice, so see it more as an introduction.

They also serve as sort of a family’s lawyer, as a mediator when there is a family feud and as advisors. They get parts of their payment by begging and demanding things from the family or the person they serve. They also get donations when they praise family members at weddings or entertain the family’s guests with music and speeches. In general people try to give them what they want because you do not want to risk that a Griot to turn against you, especially since they probably knows more about your family history than you do.

For me this first sounded absurd. That you work as a paid flatterer and have to beg to get paid. But the more I learn the more I realize that you should not be quick to judge the Griots role in society.

History and family is very important in Mali. A Malians last name can tell you where the person comes from, what his or hers family lines are. “Do you belong to that family? Then you are my slave!” is a common joke.

To an outsider being a Griot might look like choosing a life of servitude, but many take great pride in that they get the opportunity to master their family trade and in addition contribute to society. Many see them as key figures in the Malian society.

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The man in the middle is a Griot and a musician. The one to right is the father of the child and lives in the same village. He is not a Griot, but know both how to play and make one of the traditional drums.

 

South of Bamako lies the village Kirina. It is said to be the birthplace of Mali and almost entirely consists of Griots or related groups. Suitably, a musical school has been built just outside the village and there youngsters go to learn to play traditional instruments on days that the regular school is closed. (They go to primary school three days a week and the music school can afford to be open for three days also). It gives the kids something to do and focus and, as well as keeping their culture alive.

 

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Thug life? Naw, more like asthma prevention

We spend the night with a man who had to leave his home in the northern part of Mali. We ate together from the same plate with our hands, as you do here. Drank sweet tea and discussed the present and the past.
He and his family fled from northern Mali because of the war and they managed to bring their cattle all the way to his present home. He do not think he will be able to go back any time soon, or ever.

Protected by the mosquito net I slept like a baby in his garage. Until a goat sneaked and we had to chase it out. But that is a story for another day.

 

 

Another side of Bamako

I would not exaggerate if I said that I got a few warning about travelling to Malis capital Bamako. During 2014 many argued (mostly from abroad) that the city was possibly the only safe heaven in the country. But then came 2015 and no less than 3 acts of terrorism struck the city.

So when I got here I expected to be greeted by a city where many lived in fear. The realty could nog have been any more different. I live in a poor neighborhood were people find their entertainment among them self or at a local place. Many of the people who lives in my neighborhood has probably never set their foot inside the Radisson Blu Hotel (who were stormed by insurgents last November), neither at the uptown nightclub were a man started shooting in May last year.

Of course, these are horrible acts and it must have been terrifying for everyone who happened to be at these places. But the threat of terrorism does not seem to concern the majority of the population. For them “life have to go on”, and the daily struggle continues. (Mali is ranked 179 on UNDP:s development index. Syria is ranked 134)

What I have found is a city that feels safer than central Stockholm or London, despite poverty and lack of street lights. People are in general very friendly and go to great effort to help you to the best of their ability.  As a journalist who doesn´t speak French or Bambara this makes a world of difference.

So from now on culture will be brought into my safety evaluation.

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Sidenote: The best way to get around Bamako is on a “moto”, in other words: a scooter och small motorcykel. My guide and fixer owns one and we go back and forth around the city to meet people. To make those little trips even more interesting I have started to try to take street pictures while we rush down the streets. I call it “MotoPhoto”.

It takes quick reflexes, a good eye, a lot of luck and I´m really bad at it. So of the 50 pictures – or so – that I have taken, this one (the one above) is the only one I like so far. I think it shows the Bamako friendliness quite well, and that the V-sign is quite international.

 

(I will write these posts quite spontaneous  and only quickly look through them. So please have patience with my typos)