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Bujma Ould Handag, Alhaj Ould Bukana  

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Issa Mohammed translates; Saharan caravans; Salt mining  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
12 Jan 2003

    Geography
  • Mali
    Tombouctou
    Locality
  • Timbuktu
    Latitude/Longitude
  • 16.7758333   -3.0094444
    Channels
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Recorders
  • SONY TCD-D7
    Microphones
  • Sennheiser MKH 30
  • Sennheiser MKH 50
    Accessories
    Equipment Note
  • Decoded MS Stereo

Show: Mali-Tuareg Music
Log of DAT #:4a
Engineer: Leo
Date: January 12th, 2003

IM = Issa Mohammed
RC = Roberto Cerea
BH = Bujma Ould Handag
AB = Alhaj Ould Bukana
WD = Wade Davis
AC = Alex Chadwick
Leo = Leo del Aguila

Carolyn says this is Dat 4a and they're going to a place with camels and salt in Timbuktu. It is January 12th, same mic set up as Dat 3a, stereo ms.

Alex says the guy who owns the place is going to be interviewed.

2:49 RC-We are looking at the salt bars and the salt bars were brought down from Taoudenni several days ago and they started handing Timbuktu in the area (?) before to be brought through the area where there will be salt.

3:09 AC-And they're just stacked up here, these salt bars are, actually they look like slabs of marble.

RC-And if you pay attention they are different colors, different more white, less white because they are quite a different price. And the bars are brought down by the camels. And the camels have four bars of salt and there is a set of (?) for the bars, a (?). And there is a special name, an Arabic name for the 4 bars of salt.

Roberto Cerea (pronounced Cheria)

5:45-9:09-Ambi. Setting up for interview, background sounds.

12:39 IM-My name is Issa Mohammed and I am the president of Timbuktu heritage institute.

Alex wants Issa to ask the professor to pronounce and spell his name.

IM-Translates

13:00 B-French

IM-Ya, he said my name is Bujma Ould Handag and he is an expedition, a Sahara expedition guide.

AC-And could you spell his name please? Buj¿

IM-Um, hm, Bujma. B-U-J-M-A, O-U-L-D, H-A-N-D-A-G. And Ould means son of Handag.

AC-And this gentleman here, please.

IM-His name is Alhaj Ould Bukana

AC-A-L-H-A-J, O-U-L-D, B-U-K-A-N-A. And what does he do?

IM-Translates

AB-French

14:20 IM-He's a caravan man so he worked on the caravan and the delivery of the salt.

AC-Can you tell me is he a Berber?

IM-Translates

AB-Arab

IM-Arab, okay, yes

14:43 AC-So where are you from? Where are you from? How did he come to be in the caravan?

IM-Translates

14:56 AB-French

15:12 IM-So he said at that time he was residing in Araouane which is we will be passing through Araouane on the way to Taoudenni, and right at the age of 15 years old the main occupation for young men is to get involved with the caravan.

AB-French

15:40 IM-Ya so it was almost like an initiation and if you don't get involved with the caravan then your friends will be teasing you and will not respect you. It's like you are not standing up to your being a man, someone who wants to face challenges.

AC-If he is from Araouane tell him I bring him greetings from Fritz and Ernst.

IM-Translates

AB-French

AC-They know who he is. He's the guy who planted his gardens and all that stuff. So what do you get when you work on the, does he work for you?

IM-Translates

AB-No

16:46 IM-No, he is independent contractor.

AC-So would he has his own camels that he takes up to the¿

IM-Translates

AB-French

17:08 IM-So he's saying yes, he had some camels and in the event he no longer have camels then he can rent the camels or he can also be a guide to people in the vehicles. So they are looking for the alternative as the ecosystem is deteriorating.

AC-So do you have camels now?

IM-Translates

AB-French

17:53 IM-Ya, he has some camels around. Ya here, they are with the family.

AC-And if you go to, so you go to Taoudenni, how long would it take you to go to Taoudenni?

IM-Translates

AB-French

IM-40 days from here to Taoudenni on a camel. These are very brave merchants.

AC-40 days.

IM-40 days

AC-So and how many camels, when you go on a caravan I guess a lot of people go together, ya?

IM-Translates

AB-French

18:41 IM-He said it depends like a caravan that's called a Kabar, meaning there's twelve camels.

AB-French

IM-Ya and you can also find a caravan that has 20 camels or 30 camels.

AB-French

19:14 IM-So he said also you can organize a safari where everybody with his caravan they get together and they create one long caravan and they are in company with each other until they reach the salt mines.

AC-So how often you, so how often do you go to Taoudenni in one year?

IM-Translates

AB-French

IM-It's only 3 times, that's the maximum for the camel, only 3 times a year.

AC-And the camels can't, ya. Uh, how many times have you been to Taoudenni this year?

IM-Translates

AB-French

IM-He said he only did it in vehicles, not in camels.

AC-When did you last go in camels?

IM-Translates

AC-This man here

BH-French

IM-So he said it was last year that he went on the camel caravan, but this year it was on vehicles.

AC-Is it changing right now so that more people will go on vehicles and not so many on camels?
IM-Translates

BH-French

21:55 IM-Ya, he said even still, still you have more camel caravans than going to Taoudenni.

AC-So why does he go in vehicle, why not camel? Cause I'm wondering if it makes a difference in his life; the money has changed, business has changed.

IM-Translates

22:24 BH-French

AB-French

23:21 IM-Ya so he actually changed his vocation. He said before, yes, he was involved with the camel caravan trade and as he was renting camels from their owners he's realizing it's becoming more and more expensive and more and more difficult so he had to switch and now he is becoming a guide, a tourist guide. So he is taking people, just like Bujma, to take people, visitors to Timbuktu to give them a chance to see a caravan in action, but mainly he is a tourist guide now.

AC-Is the salt trade changing so that the camels will only be for the tourists and the real salt merchants are going to use trucks?

IM-Translates

BH-French

24:58 IM-Ya, he's saying that the trade is declining because before one man can own 10, 12, 20, or 40 camels so he can realize in renting them the benefit, the greater benefit. However, the time has passed by. That kind of arrangement has become more costly on the entrepreneur. And so therefore the owners of the camels have monopolized the trade for themselves. So now these ex-camel caravan riders or leaders are looking for alternatives in terms of jobs, in occupation to provide for their families.

AC-I don't understand what's happened to the trade. Does it still make sense from a business standpoint to go up with camels or not? He said he now drives camels for tourists. Do you use the camels to get the salt or¿

2617 IM-No, no he's actually, he's asking before he used to have his camels before he was renting them from other people. But now he does not have any camel, nor does he have the means to rent camels and go to the salt. So now he has really changed his occupation.

AC-But what happened to the camel trade? How is it that some people monopolize camels now and they didn't 20 years ago?

IM-Translates

AB-French

28:19 IM-So he's really saying the caravan, the salt trade is being affected by the changing, you know the changing environment, the ecosystems and so forth. So before it was very profitable, you know as we know in marketing there is diminishing return, you see. There is a point where doing the same activity over and over and giving the new product substitutes¿

WD-What is it that made it so unprofitable? What is it that changed the trade? What is it that made this salt trade suddenly unprofitable?

IM-Translates

BH-French

30:44 IM-Ya, so really to answer your question these are now new products that are more lucrative and more profitable than the salt trade.

WD-To trade, more items?

IM-Ya, more items. Uh, he's saying that before you didn't have so many shops and also the people who lived in the countryside who owned the camels were essentially doing just that. So now they are able to tape into cities, new markets in Mauritania, in Africa, and to give you an example it's just like the agricultural system in the United States. You know back in 1700 the country was practically agricultural and then you went into the industrial revolutions and so forth to the point where now we are into finances and things. Yes, um-hm.

31:46 WD-Let me ask. At the very height of the trade, when the trade was good, and somebody owned their own camels how much could they make from one trip to Taoudenni? What was their profit?

IM-Translates.

AB-French

BH-French

33:54 IM-So he's saying that, um, at that time, at the peak of this trade the commerce was very lucrative. It was a very paying ventures, business ventures, you see. So they realized a lot of profits doing that. But as the time is passing by and new opportunities are coming up with the new contact coming up that carries more in terms of benefits and changes. Also, what's happening right now is, even if a merchant comes with his caravan, what he's going to realize is not enough in faces of high prices. You know he need milk, he need salt, he need soap, he need clothing and these are very expensive items. So now he's faced with a choice of either to survive or starve. So he or they are facing situations where they need to change. Their occupations, you know, they need to drop it. They need to look for something that can respond to those basic and urgent needs.

35:13 AC-I want to just ask him one more thing, if I may. So he sees his life changing now. He used to go on caravans and now he's helping tourists. What does he think is going to, he's a young man so he must have a family, what does he see is going to happen to him, what is his life going to be in 20 years from now. Is he going to be, what does he think is going to happen. And a second question, uh, does it make a difference to him whether he goes with tourists or goes on a salt caravan. Maybe life is better if you just take tourists out for a day here. Maybe life is easier or you just make more money or something, or maybe he prefers to go on a salt caravan. Two questions, what does he think will happen, and what does he, what is his preference for life? Maybe the tourist life is good. I don't know.

IM-Translates

BH-French

AB-French

37:52 IM-So he's saying that, um, really it's, there is a shift. It is changing. Because he said, for example, if you have someone who has 10 stores, and then he has 5 Land cruisers, or trucks, he can easily go to the mine and get the salt and go and trade it on the open market, as opposed to a person first of all you have to worry about fitting the camels and then you have to worry about the environment, first of all it's not raining, and the life of the camel depends on rain and you have to have some water and grass to graze on, you see. So therefore he sees that the trade is slowing down and at least it's diminishing for the caravan men, and may be being picked up by the diesel engines.

AC-So what will he do? What will his life be in?

IM-Translates

AC-How long will he work? Will he work for the tourists or what?

IM-Translates
AB-French

BH-French (some laughter)

40:10 IM-Ya, he's saying right now the way he's seeing his future he's really seeing his future more as a tourist guide because whatever he's going to earn on a particular day or trip belongs to him and nobody will come asking for a portion of that earning as opposed to the salt trade where you always have mark-ups, you see, somebody always has to get something and this is for me. So he sees himself moving more on that end, even more than opening up a shop or a trade because the fluctuation of prices. You see, his prices with his tourists are constant, plus the tips and things. He's earning a better income with that.

AC-Just say thank you for answering all my questions. And I'm a radio journalist and I talked to many people in my country and even in my country we've heard about the brave men who take the caravans to get the salt and their story is fascinating to us and so we want to go back and tell them, and thank him for his patience.

IM-Translates

AB-French

BH-French

43:24 IM-So he said he's really thanking you for the time to cover all this distance to come and find about the destiny about the caravan. And that is already a hope, rekindled a hope in their hearts that someone really cares about the future of the caravan and of this trade.

43:54 WD-Can I just say one thing? One of the¿I can understand how for the individual life in the tourism sector may be easier, maybe even better, the problem is that the tourists come because of the caravans, and without the caravans the tourists may not come. Secondly, one of the things that is lost when you give up the caravan, and the movement through the desert is the knowledge of the desert. So that it's not simply a matter of the economy changing to an alternative, you're also losing a way of life and a way of doing things that in and of itself gave you knowledge about all sorts of things, whether it was navigation through the desert, whether it was understanding of the plants of the desert, attention to the weather, attention to the change in the environment, whatever. So losing the caravans is also to lose a whole element of the culture and one of the things we're hoping to do with Bujma, as we go, is the understand all of the elements of the cultures so that we can understand all of the things that are at risk if the caravans are gone.

IM-Translates

BH-French
IM-Translates

BH-French

48:37 IM-So he's saying that one, that everything that he's explained is from his own perspective of things and he doesn't have the camels or his family, however there are, for them camels are their main activity for life and there are those who would very dearly hang on to that trade. So even if it's diminishing or vanishing it would take a long time for the sands of the Sahara to blow over the tracks of the caravan forever.

BH-Merci

51:05-54:14 Ambi. Courtyard of Bujma's house. Talking, baby crying.

54:21 AC-Okay just Issa please tell us where we are.

54:24 IM-We are at the compound of Bujma Old Handbag. So this is our guide, the one who's going to guide us to Taoudenni, through the Sahara.

AC-And what is all the things we see here?

54:42 IM-Ya, what we see here is really, these are bars of salt. And the salt has been the primary trade of commodity in Timbuktu. And really it has been this commodity that has fueled this great legacy of Timbuktu. And without the salt trade one can say that there would not have been an academic legacy in Timbuktu, and without the academic legacy in Timbuktu there would not have been salt trade because the manuscripts insured to protect the caravan. Because before the diffusion of the message of the manuscript, the message of peace, tolerance, cultural diversity, the caravan most of the time, the caravans were attacked by neighboring people, tribes, because it's a way or a mean of gaining one's livelihood. Now with the apparition of the manuscripts the scholars of Timbuktu started preaching the message of love and peace and respecting other people's good.

AC-But this is like a warehouse? I mean, this is like ingots or bars of this stacked around in his yard. So he bought this from people, he's a guide, but also a merchant himself or also a middleman in some way?

56:26 IM-Yes, he is a merchant, yes because he did work in the mines and he has his own mines there and this is like a warehouse. This is like a display, a showroom. This is where we are here.

AC-So people come by and buy these slabs of salt?

56:44 IM-Exactly. So the dealers the middlemen would come and buy these bars of salt from him and then go to the respective places and then brake them into small cubes that will be sold in pieces.

57:00 AC-So this, you say this is a bar of salt, it looks kind of like a slab to me. It's almost four feet tall and about 2 feet wide and about inch and a half, 2 inches thick and there are gouge marks on it. It doesn't look like table salt that people are used to in the United States cause this is not fine crystal. It's just a huge slab that looks like it's been cut out of marble and it's been cut out of salt tomes. And we're going to see the place where this was cut out of.

IM-Yes, and that is Taoudenni, uh, salt mines, and Tegaza salt mines. And this is where the salt is being, um, extracted from.

AC-And this slab here weighs close to 100 lbs?

IM-He said 40, 40 lbs.

AC-40 lbs or 40 kilos?

IM-I'm sorry, 40 kilograms, 40 kilos, but on the average he said it's between 30-35, but the best is one that weighed 40 kilograms.

AC-So more than 80 lbs., 80-90 lbs. So there's actually a fair amount of wealth here stacked against the walls of his compound¿okay, great, thanks Issa.

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