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.