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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A industry driven by hope, part 1

Once again I found myself travelling before dawn. On pitch dark roads we cruised back to Bamako with a cab drivers who´s car lacked working lights. Somehow he still managed to avoid most of the big holes and the trucks that met us before we arrived at one of Bamako’s busstations.

But nothing is easy when it comes to travelling in West Africa, at least not for me it seems. Once again the bus I jumped on broke down and our travelling time went from 8 to 15 hours. But few bad things can not be turned into something good and we soon realized that the next bus we got on where filled men and women heading for different mines. A perfect time for small talk.

“I few years ago I would never had guessed that I would become a miner. But once you found that one piece of gold and you get that feeling, well its hard not to come back after that,” one man told me.

I asked another who long he planned to stay. First he just smiled at me, then he replied:
“As long as it takes.”

When we arrived at our destination, a small town close to the Senegal border, the sun had set. We found ourself waiting in the darkness, surrounded by nothing more than empty street shops and a raging wind that seemed to want us gone before we had arrived.
We where picked up by my guide´s friend: a man that combines mining with missionary work and spent the night in his house. The village he and his wife lives in lies in a beautiful area totally surrounded mountains that circles around the area like one huge wall.

With the help of our host  we could travel further out into the countryside on mopeds to find an area filled with different mining fields. One driven by a big company, but most by normal men and women that hopes that they will be the one who finds that big lump of gold that will change their lives. But we were soon told that to be here and report from this place, we first had to talk to the village elder and get his permission. The village elder had been sacrificing an animal to increase the chance that the local miners found gold, but should be back by now. And so we went on to meet this man…

Next part follows in a couple of days.