Mohammed Ould Baddi
Trans-Saharan salt trade; Translated by Godfried Peter Ibizador
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
16 Jan 2003
- 22.666667 -3.983333
- SONY TCD-D7
- Sennheiser MKH 30
- Sennheiser MKH 50
Decoded MS Stereo
Log of DAT #:7A
Date: January 16, 2003
PG = Godfried Peter Agbezudor
MO = Mohammed Ould Baddi
U = Ubdi
MT = Mohammed Tahur Ould Sidi
WD = Wade Davis
CR = Chris Rainier
AC = Alex Chadwick
CJ = Carolyn Jensen
Leo = Leo del Aguila
Leo sets up, says they are at salt mines, stereo, mkh 50/30, tcd-7
Thank you for letting us see your camels, we appreciate it very much.
(Unintelligible)¿He's happy that he came first to ask permission from him. He's really happy. He also thanks you.
Uh, may I ask a couple of questions about your, about your life? Because we want to tell the story of the salt trade back to our radio listeners.
Leo wants to know his name, it is Mohammed Ould Baddi (?), his family is from Timbuktu.
Thank you for explaining how you work with your family in Timbuktu. I wonder how many people in his family work in the salt trade?
When he was a boy did he know he wanted to be in the salt trade? Or, what else do people in his family do? How did he choose to be in the salt trade?
(very faint recording). He already (unintelligible) when he was very small (unintelligible under the coughing sounds) and he knew when he grew up he was going to take part in the (unintelligible).
But, uh, it seems like such hard work, such a hard life, and so dangerous, it takes a lot of courage. Why is it that he wanted to be in the caravan; because it seems so hard, and so dangerous?
Ever since he was young and had this in mind because his grandfather was doing the same thing, he saw his father doing the same thing, and he already had in mind that that was what he was going to do. This part is just involved. It is difficult to sell people, but to have family it is not difficult.
And afterwards he's going to go retire, but he's going to let it go (laughs)
What will he do when he's retired?
I think he says he's going to travel with blondes.
Ya, with a white. He says when he's got enough money he's going to go retire with, he's going to buy a vehicle and start driving tourists around Timbuktu. And is the only one he'll do until he dies out.
So he's Arab?
He's an Arab
So, uh, how long is it, how long will it take him to do that? How long will he work in the salt trade until he is able to retire? And is that what happened to his father, is that what his father does now, or does his father still work?
He's saying perhaps it's a last mission here and maybe after this he's going to stop the camel trade.
This might be his last caravan?
He's been working now for 14 years going up and down the desert.
How many trips have you taken?
Twenty-eight times he has been here, over 14 years.
So why will this be his last year? Has he made enough money, or is he tired of it? Has it become too¿Why is he stopping to do it? And another thing I think we should ask him, does he have a son, will his son go on with this tradition, are fewer people doing it now? But one thing at a time.
It's not that he's got enough money, that's why he won't do it, but because he is very tired of going up and down the desert. He's also got children, but he wouldn't allow his children to do the same thing. He prefers sending his children to schools to one day be big men in the banks, working somewhere else, but not to engage themselves in the salt trade.
Well, does he think the salt trade is going to end? Will it stop because people won't do it anymore?
I don't think the salt trade is ever going to end because salt, whatever we eat we add salt and it's the only way we preserve our bodies.
But, wouldn't it be, I mean you could buy salt more cheaply, wouldn't it be easier to buy salt somewhere else, than you could going through all the work up here.
If they find salt a little bit less expensive, people buy it, but our salt, because you don't find it in abundance in the market it is more expensive and it is the best quality.
There really is something different about the salt from Taoudenni?
The salt of Taoudenni is the best in the whole world.
If you do stop coming to the desert, coming to Taoudenni, if you stop being in the caravan, what is it that you are going to miss about that experience, what is it that you will regret about stopping the caravan?
He will miss nothing because he knows much about the desert and once people keep going the trade will still continue.
Thank you very much, we'd like to make a small gift to him for his, for the time that he has spent with us.
Ambi. Walking camels, camel calls, people talking.
Leo sets up next scene with camels.
Ambi. Walking sounds, people talking.
FX. Camel sounding out.
FX. Low hum of a fly, then loud bleat of a baby camel.
FX. Several bleatings of a baby camel
FX. Camel and baby camel(?) voicing out their sounds, one after the other.
FX. Walking sounds, hear the baby camel loud, getting fainter.
For the last hour or so we've been wandering around these pit mines here, at Taoudenni. These are just open surface mines, usually with a lot of old cast-off stuff built up around the edges of them. They're each one is, oh, maybe, a couple of hundred feet square, which is not very big. And I would guess maybe a hundred feet deep or so (camel bleat) They're very square cut, they call almost a perfect square, with some steps cut into the earth leading down into the bottom of the pit. And, the very top layer you can see there's a kind of a layer of clay and then you hit the salt about, oh, three or four feet down, and then you get to a layer of salt, and that layer of salt is three feet thick, perhaps, maybe a little thicker, and you see the color change. It's darker at the top, lighter at the bottom. This is where they come and chisel these slabs of salt out of these old salt deposits left from tens of thousands of years ago when this was all covered with salt water. This is where the work is done, of Taoudenni. This is where these miners chisel out these slabs, each one weighs about 90 pounds. They stack them up, then they take them to a central area and the caravaneers come and trade for the salt.
FX. Pretty bird singing.
There's a stack of slabs over here. These haven't been worked yet, that is, they haven't been cut down to the side. They pull these slabs out and they're oh, maybe, six to eight inches thick, but they'll get kind of dressed up and cleaned up so when they're ready to load onto the camels they're maybe three inches thick. You've just got kind of the essence of the salt. And all around this looks like kind of the trenches, this looks like pictures I've seen of the trenches of World War One, and even the Civil War. The great pits of Earth dug and little walls of Earth and blocks of salt built up all around them.
All these mines that we've been working through, all the mines we've been walking through here, and we've taken about oh, I don't know, about 10 minutes or so to just walk through this area of, of the mine, none of them are being worked, these are all old mines that have been abandoned. They've dug through the salt layer, they've gotten to Earth underneath the salt layer, and just walked away.
We're following a boy here, named Mohammed [Ubdi]. He's from the town called Araouanne, where we were three days ago. Mohammed is 15 years old, and this is his first year as a miner here. He's going to show us where he works.
This is where the political prisoners had to work, in this mine, and that is how they did that. And normally when the local people get the bars of salt they get it in pieces before they take it out of the hole, but here, prisoners are made to bring them out in big blocks. For example, what you see there, that is one example. They are made to carry that from below the tunnel and carry it up, out before they chop that into pieces. That's a kind of a carry. Meanwhile, the local people who cut it into an average size that a camel could carry at a time before they help each other to bring it out, but the political prisoners were made to suffer, that's what he's doing.
How far back down in there does that mine go?
And then if you can have as far as one to two kilometers underneath.
And people stay under there to work, even at night, with a lamp.
One to two kilometers?
You need someone to tell you, to give you the right direction anyways, because of the tunnels, you could easily get lost underneath.
You go under those?
You go into that small hole there and there are so many tunnels. You need to know it before you go in, other wise you could get lost inside.
Isn't it dangerous? Doesn't the roof of the mine collapse?
So at every angle they leave a certain pillar that supports the Earth from collapses.
That's an example he's pointing at. They leave a, a kind of a pillar that supports the Earth. And then they (unintelligible) left. So it's like we are standing on a suspended Earth.
So there are tunnels all underneath where we're standing?
Yes, it exists.
So sometimes we have the light tracks moving on top, but that doesn't break because of the support of the pillars today.
If you want to see it for yourself, come with him.
To go down into the¿
walking into the mines.
So how do they get it out in these slabs, in these perfect slabs?
You see that? Now they are going to cut it in between the two salts there's a layer of mud. And I'm sure that's where they are going to get it out like this. You see that? In each layer, in each block, there's a layer of mud. Exactly in the middle. You see that? That's where they chisel. Slowly, slowly.
But then h-. Oh, and you think it falls away from another layer of mud?
One falls away from the other because the clay in the middle (very faint at end).
Ambi. Sound of salt mine
We're just entering the mine of the Maribou. The Maribou is the man who's in charge of this area here. We're down now in the pit. It's full of bits of salt, big chunks of salt, it's cinder block size, other pieces smaller than that, some shale rock, and lots of these big slabs of the salt that are cut, and Mohammed, our guide is showing us. He says¿
48:38 PG and U
Ubdi, Mohammed Ubdi?
No, no, no
They figure out his name is Ubdi.
And our guide, Ubdi, says that these openings here, at the bottom of the pit, that kind of go under the side, he says there are tunnels under there and they go back for huge distances and you can get lost. But we're going to look.
getting into the tunnels
Now, they've abandoned it for the meantime because they have got to a point where the quality is not up to standard. So they've gone out to (unintelligible word) a different mine. But then they'll come back again and start digging. Perhaps after two or three days they'll find a good quality so they can still continue. It is not completely abandoned. They've just left it for a while.
How do they dig here? What kind of tools do they use?
Okay, there, uh, well, we should go to his place and they will show us all the instruments that they use. But normally it's with the axe. They use the axe in cutting. But there are two kinds of work in the mine. There's someone who's duty is only to find a way to dig a tunnel, and there's another person, excuse me, after the slabs are out he put them in shape and separate them from the ground. So, it's like labor is divided in the mine.
Ya. It does, it looks to me like it must be very hard to use an axe in here. You can't stand up so it must be very difficult to use an axe here.
Okay, there is not much room here for throwing an axe, but we have a special way of using the axe that is, we don't raise the axe up, but we do it sideways and we use extra care. And you can see from down there, we took up three slabs, that's the best from the bottom, the second and top, and then the lower quality is always in the middle because it has a lot of mud that separates the two qualities. So, when we go to our mines I will start working and you will see how we do it, just demonstrate that to you
Okay, let's go.
This mine is about, uh, maybe four feet tall. I don't think it's even that. I'm sitting here kind of cross-legged and my head is maybe three inches from the ceiling. It's all kind of gunky, old, cut up, ground up salt and mud on the ceiling and the walls, and big chunks of salt that have fallen down. I'm going to crawl over Ubdi, to his mine where he's working.
FX. Sound of Alex crawling, then walking through mine.
Asks permission to see Ubdi and his father's mine.
This is the way we dig the salt out in big slabs like
How does a boy like this¿
And the best quality, if it is very good, most of the time in one single slab you can get two pieces. And this is what he's showing me. And that's the mud in between and that's why you just cut it open with a chisel. And it comes two slabs instead of one.
How does a boy like this get a slab like that out of here? It's too heavy for him.
I took it out alone and if you want I will demonstrate that to you.
I don't believe it, but¿
Rambo man, macho man.
(demonstrates lifting the salt)
K, he's taking up a big size kind of brick of salt here, it's like a cinder block size. He's asked his friend to bring him a tool or something.
It's a relative.
His cousin, yeah. A piece of canvas, a pair of canvas trousers.
He's going to sit down.
Oh, he's gonna sit down. Well, that's a good idea, I'm sitting down myself. He's got a kind of a single bladed pick-axe it looks like. A short, short wooden handle, a couple feet long.
Uh, one of the axes you take off the mud on top of the salt, and the second axe is to cut the salt itself into slabs. Okay.
FX. Cutting the salt.
Leo stops the recording
You've been doing this for three months?
Isn't it awfully hard for a boy of 15 to do this?
It depends on where you're coming from and your dedication towards work. If you really want to work, even at the age of 15, you know how tough it is already. You put up with someone, a hard working person, within some few days you get used to your axe and your axe knows you. For example, some people who've been working here for quite some time now are able to bring six bars of this salt in a day, but I have, for the maximum, brought out only three because I'm beginning to bring out the strength for the work. I know it's difficult, but ya, still, I like it.
How could you like it? Your first day of work, the first day you did this, didn't you think that you would die?
I know it's very difficult. I know how very difficult life is for my father, too, and it's because of my father that I'm here, and for the first few months it was really difficult, but I don't think I'm going to come back here after this season, when I go back to Araouane.
What will you do?
I have in mind going back to school and my vision is to become a school director. I love to teach. And I think after this is when I'll have a little money with my family I'll go back to school and I have a vision that I will be a great teacher someday.
I have been to school with the hope of making money, but now I've found out my father is living a very difficult life, so when I go back I have to go to back to school.
And I'll start learning.
Do the boys in Araouane, young boys, do they think that they'll come to the mine, or do they think no, I don't want that kind of life?
This year, all the young men of Araouane came down to work.
And how many will come back?
Uh, for a beginner like us, we are only allowed to stay here for about four months because even our teachers know that the work is very difficult here and life is very hard, so some of us will be going back, leaving behind those who are masters at this job. They can stay up to seven months in a year before coming back home, and they bring money for us, too.
But of the boys who, boys, the young men like himself who came here, how many of those will come back for another year and another year and will work in the salt mines?
Ya, even the young men who came down from, everyone wants to go back to Araouane, because it's our first time here and it's really difficult for us
I always remember how my mom used to prepare food in the kitchen for us all to eat. And if you get down here there's nobody to prepare food for you, you have to do that on your own. And as we are not good cooks we always prepare something to eat, and that's it. And I always remember what my mom prepares¿(fades)
This work is really difficult, especially when we have to wake up in the morning at 6 o'clock, and keep working until about 11:30 before we go back to get something to eat. And then only to come back at three o'clock in the afternoon and continue until about 5:30 before we have to back to look for the droppings of camel and go back home and start to prepare something to eat before we go to bed. I have had a chance once to watch a television of people working, but I never had an idea of how difficult it was here. Now I have seen it and when I go back¿(fades).
He says he needs money for school and he's going to earn money for school here. What does it cost to go to school, and is he going to school in Timbuktu, or would he go back to school in Araouane?
It's that a school in Araouane that's much¿In the time of the rebellion my family moved to Mauritania and that is where I was schooling, and even the exercise books and things were free for us at school we paid nothing. But now? (laughs) It is something that I found out, it's better to learn than to work here, work here is really difficult, that's why I have to go back to school.
So he's gonna go, when he goes back to school, will he go to school in Mauritania?
I'll be going back to Timbuktu to learn because you learn a lot, much more in Timbuktu, rather than Mauritania.
Alex tries to get an idea of how much school costs
I don't know. I have no idea now about¿ya?
Uh, first of all, thank you for agreeing to talk with us.
Tahur mumbles something, then Alex asks if he speaks French and Godfried asks him if he does. He says he does, but not well. They get a second interpreter.
And, uh, so, if we could tell him we are radio journalists from America and we're doing a story about the salt trade and the men who are involved in it and their traditions.
He's free and he's willing at the core(?) (very faint)
Could we first ask your name please?
Tahur, Mohammed Tahur
Tell me how you spell it?
Tahur, so it's T-A-H-U-R.
So, what is he saying?
He says normally you call your name and you add the name of your father. So, in Tamanashek they use the word Aga, but in Arabic, with them, they use Ould, Ould.
So his name is¿
Mohammed Tahur Ould
No, no, Mohammed Ould Tahur
Mohammed Tahur Ould
Mohammed Tahur Ould Sidi
Ould Sidi. (speaks French with Tahur)
S-I-D-I, Ould: O-U-L-D.
O-U-L-D, Okay, Mohammed Tahur Ould Sidi.
Speaks French (laughs)
And where are you from?
How did you come to be in the salt trade?
Well, uh, he began the trade because he had camels, or he has camels and the work of the camels between Timbuktu is to run between Taoudenni and Timbuktu, so that's how he got in to the salt business.
Was his father in the salt trade, camel caravan?
His father was a Maribou. A Maribou is a teacher of the law in Islam.
they speak French
And he lives in Araouane.
Um, his father lives in Araouane and, uh, his father has the camels. It doesn't actually belong to him, but because his father is a Maribou he chose to pick up the business of running the camels to Araouane to Taoudenni and to Timbuktu.
And he's, and he's been doing for 10 years.
And he's been doing this, yes.
Um, how would he describe the business to someone. What is his life like? I come from very far away, I don't know what it's like to be, uh, running these caravans. And in the course of this can you ask him, is he the guide, does he direct, he's the boss of the caravan?
Okay, when my father had the camels, by then, before I got here, the other people knew my father, and they knew me as the son of my father, so I just sat on my father's camels and I came down with some goods. That is in terms of rice, millet, sugar, and tea. When I got to Araouane I met workers here on the field, so I traded some of these items for some salt, but then there were some other people who gave me some salt to send to Timbuktu. That is on every single four bars of salt that I am given I am asked to keep three and one for the miner, which, of course, I kept in Timbuktu for the miners until they come back from the mines to sell their own salt. And that is how I started my trade.
Ever since I started my father was controlling, but now my father is old so I am the boss of the trade.
In the beginning I started traveling with my uncle from Araouane to Taoudenni, and I made two trips with my uncle. Then afterwards I knew the road myself so I started doing the whole thing myself. So today I am my own guide and I travel from Taoudenni to Timbuktu without any problems.
How many camels does he have?
I have 20 camels today, but then 20 camels cannot be guided by one person alone. Actually there must be two of you, one in front, the other behind. So I always take a friend who is willing to come with me and I take the front lead and he always stays behind to control situations.
Do you, is this a business that you are happy in? Do you like doing this, or would you prefer to be in some other business? Because this seems like a very hard way to make a living.
It is a work that I love so much, since I was a boy. And once I got myself into it I always loved it. Today I can promise anybody even in the darkness I can move from Taoudenni all the way to Timbuktu without problem, even if it should be in the dark. And I also have the experience of training young camels, of following their mother. That is because today it is very difficult to find shepherds who will keep camels while you are away, and my father is very old. So what I do is to keep the young camels with their mother while we are coming down on a trip, and I'm able to take care of them, too. So it is something that I love so much.
Is he on a trip right now, gathering salt and getting ready to go back to Timbuktu?
Well today I am here, I am not on a holiday. I came with a lot of things to sell here in Taoudenni. I have my goods that I bought; blankets, tea, rice, millet, and so forth and so on, to sell to the workers in the field because I have no cash right now to pay for the salt. And my camels I left behind near Araouane to keep grazing because I know after this month a lot of people will start ascending to the south and it is at that time I will send a message home for somebody to bring all my camels so that I can load them with all that I can get here today. When I get here I store them at a place so that I can keep collecting. And normally, if I do that, I have three trips in a go. That is, I load my camels and deposit what I have loaded very close to Araouane, leave them on the way, come back, load a second trip, send it closer to Araouane, come back, load a third trip and go to Araouane, leave it. And in this manor I convey all my goods in beats until I send everything to Timbuktu. So that's what I am doing now.
So when he came up here he probably brought a couple of camels loaded with goods.
Now, I have a friend about 12 kilometers away who lives by a well. So whenever I am coming down to live here for some time before going back I normally come with about four camels or three, depending on the quantity of goods that I have. And on my arrival here I offload my camels and send the camels down to my friend because camels always need water. So when I send them to my friend I leave them with my friend sometimes for three or four months. And once the camels get used to him they always find their way in and out. So whenever I arrive here I just send them off and they know where to go and they always go to my friend.
Uh, he's really accomplished. He seems like a very smart guy. Can I just ask him, he says that he loves this, this business; does he love being in the desert? Does he like walking from Araouane to Taoudenni? Is there something about the desert experience that is spiritual to him or powerful to him?
Actually what I like about this, uh, work is that training the young camels. You also learn something from the young animals and you become like one body. Whenever you are going, they know exactly where you are going. You just load them and they send your stuff to where you want. You sell the stuff and you make a profit. And making a profit you always have to remember your camels and that is how you create a relationship between you and that animal. That is what he likes more.
Tell him we only have about five minutes of tape left so we don't have too much time left. Ask him if he's ever been lost in the desert.
Yes, I have been lost sometimes. And, uh, whenever I get lost it is always in the darkness, really, really dark. You have cloud covering the moon. What I actually do is whenever I get lost is to stay at the place. I never moved, I never continue my journey. I discharge all my camels and I wait until the clouds move away from the moon. And spiritually as soon as the clouds begin to move away my mind opens up and tells me which direction I should go. And that is the way I always find my way back home.
This happens to me whenever I am in an open without any plant with any kind of vegetation, without dunes, without rocks, whenever I am on the plain, when it is really open to me. This is when one actually gets lost. But within the rocks, within the mountain, or where there's a vegetation, or where there's a dune, you always use them as land marks and within that region one never gets lost. It is only when you have a plain surface. If it has been windy and there is no more trees one could easily get lost, but you only have to hold your patience and all will come back to you. It is adding something spiritually in the mind, but I don't know how to explain.
Calm, you stay calm.
You stay calm, ya
Okay, we only have a minute of tape so maybe we'll stop and record a little ambience right here so everybody just stay quiet.
Ambi. Nat sound