Friday, July 05, 2013

Eulogy for an Interpreter, a Friend and a Con Artist

The man pictured up above on the left (and in other photos of the slide shows entitled ‘Interviews’ for December 2006, January and February 2007) was my first interpreter when I started my research in Mali. I use the past tense here, with heavy heart, because I was informed recently that he was killed in Tin Hama (located in the Ansongo Cercle of Mali) in 2012 by the Islamists. What exactly transpired between him and the Islamists remains a mystery but my recollections of him may shed some light as to what could have gone wrong. No matter what, however, I find it a loss and regret that he died prematurely during this tumultuous time in Mali.  

His real name will not be used here. I will refer to him as ‘Ag Bahanga,’ the last name of the Tuareg Rebel leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga from Tin Zaouatîn, Mali. I use this name because some of his friends in Gao, Mali often called him by this name when seeing him on the streets.

I met Ag Bahanga in October 2006 through my collaborator. He appeared quiet and shy at first but after a few tea sessions at my collaborator’s house and negotiating on a salary for assisting me in my interviews he opened up. I learned that he was from the Gourma Region of Mali (In Tillit and the regions surrounding) and that his heritage was Kel Tamasheq. He knew Kel Tamasheq, Songhaï and French very well and also a little Peulh. We communicated in French and he sometimes taught me words in Songhaï and Kel Tamasheq languages. At the end of October and into November we interviewed pastoralists and ex-pastoralists in Gao and even walked eight kilometers outside of Gao to find a pastoral encampment called Billalkawoul.

As an interpreter, Ag Bahanga was fantastic. He had an interest in my research, that being looking at food security for the region as a whole and the changes in pastoral livelihoods. He often invited me back to his room for tea and to discuss the interviews after they were over. It was during these sessions that I learned that the Kel Tamasheq commonly name places after the plant species found there in order to manage their herds, seek out wild foods during periods of stress and find plants used in traditional medicine. This was what brought me into studying ethno-botanical issues for the Sahara and Sahel. He even helped me collect firewood for tea and warmth when the chief of the Billalkawoul encampment demanded such. He didn’t have to, but between us grew a feeling of solidarity.

Ag Bahanga, however, was not perfect. I certainly learned this later in our experiences as we traveled in December 2006 – February 2007 to Ansongo, Ménaka and Anderamboukane to interview more groups. First, in Ansongo, while visiting some relatives of his, he had a dispute with a younger cousin. Angered, he began strangling her while other family members and I begged him to stop and pulled both of them apart. I had a discussion with him later that night on the rooftop of his relative’s house. I counseled him to control his anger as such outbursts would be detrimental to our presence and relationship with the communities we were about to visit.

In Ménaka, however, Ag Bahanga did something that ended our researcher – interpreter relationship and freindship. When we first arrived there at 3 o’clock in the morning, we stayed with a friend of his during his school days, a very kind man who welcomed us to stay with him and his family for a week-and-a-half. Practically everyone we met in Ménaka showed a genuine curiosity and were very generous with us. One family in Essakan II (a neighborhood of Ménaka) actually gave me a goat. Ag Bahanga and I both agreed to give the goat to his friend who provided us lodging, as a sign of appreciation for the hospitality.

The day when we were leaving Ménaka, we were given the goat and we brought it to his friend’s house. His friend was not there but his wife was. I heard Ag Bahanga talk to the wife in Kel Tamasheq. I thought this was a little odd as other times he talked to her in Songhaï, as his friend and she were both from Songhaï communities. Also, my comprehension of Songhaï was, at the time, better than Kel Tamasheq. We left the goat and then went to find a group of friends giving us a ride back to Gao. Our friends were not at their house so it was necessary to wait. Ag Bahanga said he needed to go to the market to purchase some cigarettes so I stayed. I waited for our friends to return.

After 45 minutes our friends returned, but Ag Bahanga had not. We all left for the market looking for him. I was the one who found him acting oddly as he had a big smile on his face and seemed more joyous than usual. We caught up with our friends and drove back to Gao. I paid him for the interviews and returned to my residence.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Things just didn’t add up and I was constantly thinking over what had transpired in Ménaka before we left. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong but I could sense something was. I didn’t own a cell phone so I could not call people. But I drew up a plan. I met with Ag Bahanga a few days later and told him that I received an emergency email from my advisor and that I needed to travel to Bamako immediately. This was a lie. Instead, early one morning I travelled back to Ménaka to see what had happened.

When I returned to Ménaka, I met up with his friend from school. He and his wife did not have the goat. After talking to his wife that day when Ag Bahanga and I were returning to Gao, she had said that Ag Bahanga asked her to only look after the goat, and that he would be back soon to take the goat. All of us realized that he had found a buyer for the goat at the market and made the transaction when I was waiting for our friends to return at the other house. I felt bad over the whole situation as Ag Bahanga did more than deceive me. He profited from the people who had welcomed us and shown us hospitality. I could not continue to work with him.

I found another interpreter in Ménaka and conducted more interviews. Later, when I returned to Gao, I met with Ag Bahanga and told him my funding was cut and that I did not have sufficient funds to pay him for future interviews. This, although necessary, ended our day-to-day interactions.

I did not see him around town soon after this, partially because I was conducting interviews elsewhere but also because he was pursuing other opportunities outside of Gao. I would see him once more in Gao, face-to-face, before I concluded my research in Mali. I had an altercation with a crazy, homeless person who attacked me on the streets and he aided me after the incident.

When I had the opportunity during the summer of 2007 to make photos of my research, I printed off photos of my interviewees and Ag Bahanga (which, as mentioned above, can also be seen in the slide shows entitled ‘Interviews’ for December 2006, January and February 2007). I wasn’t sure when I was going to return to Mali but I wanted them just in case I had the chance to visit again.

I did visit Mali soon after. I traveled to Niger in October 2007 but ran into difficulties in conducting research there because of the MNJ rebellion. Despite my efforts I was pushed to leave Niger by January 2008. I chose to visit Mali again. I handed out pictures of my interviewees in Anderamboukane, Ménaka and eventually Gao. Some of my friends asked to see other photos I still possessed. When I showed photos of Ag Bahanga to them and if they knew him, they made comments that he drinks and uses drugs. I knew that he drank. I would sometimes see the beer and liquor bottles at his place when visiting. I also suspected in the past he used drugs, but then this only added to his complexity. During this visit, I couldn’t find Ag Bahanga in Gao as he was likely running a scam in another Malian town, but I did find his brother. I handed the photos to him to pass on to his brother when he returned.

I was told last month (June 2nd) of his demise. You will be missed ‘Ag Bahanga.’ I did not like your temper, your chemical addictions, and the tricks you pulled on my interviewees, but these became valuable lessons, and the introduction you gave me to Tuareg society was invaluable. I hope your spirit is resting in peace and should a day of judgment come, I hope that Allah shows great mercy for your transgressions.