Khaira Arby and Vieux Farka Toure on Mali’s Crisis
Two great musicians of the troubled Malian north recently performed in New York, and Afropop had a chance to ask them about the turmoil there, in the wake of rebellion, coup d’état, and a massive refugee crisis. Vieux Farka Toure was touring with the Toure-Raichel Collective, and appeared at the City Winery on April 13 and 14, 2012. Khaira Arby, Timbutu’s most renowned singer, appeared with her group at Le Poisson Rouge on May 3, 2012. First, here’s Banning Eyre’s brief chat with Vieux, which came at the end of a longer conversation about his collaboration with Idan Raichel.
B.E.: Before we stop, let’s talk about Mali. I must ask you what you think about what is happening now. First of all, is the family still in Niafounke? Are they okay?
V.F.T.: All of my family is in Bamako. All of my family is in Bamako.
B.E.: They left.
V.F.T.: Yes. For sure. It’s better. But all I can say about this thing is it’s a question of politics. It’s a national problem. The thing that I can ask of the whole world—whether it’s the rebels, whether it’s the military, whether it’s the population—the one thing I can ask everyone is that we need to have peace. That’s it. In this world, and we must live together. We don’t have any need to fight wars to live. We don’t need guns, and knives, and things like that to live. No, no, no. We need tranquility, and peace, to live our lives better. For me it’s the North, it’s the South, it’s the West, that doesn’t really matter.
B.E.: Is it important that Mali remains one country?
V.F.T.: It’s very important that Mali stays one single country. On that we agree. That is very, very important. But all we want is to stop all the fighting and live in harmony, and peace, like we always were in Mali. That’s better.
B.E.: That’s always been the strength of Mali. When we visited the Festival in the Desert, the harmony was so impressive.
V.F.T.: Among everyone.
B.E.: Your father always spoke about that.
V.F.T.: Voila. But now, there are people who want the South, there are people who want the North, and people who want the West. I don’t see the importance. I’m from the north. We are from the north. But it’s Mali. We don’t have to say, “I was born in Bamako, I was born, I don’t know where, in the Sahara.” No. I was born in Mali. That’s it. That’s all we need. So let’s make peace. That’s it.
B.E.: This is so tragic. Mali has long had a history of harmony.
V.F.T.: Mali was an example for other countries, but today, it is giving a bad example to other countries, a very bad example.
V.F.T.: I’m really sad about the way this is going. I’m really sorry about the way this is going. That’s clear.
B.E.: And our friend, Afel Bocoum. Is he safe?
V.F.T.: Yes, he’s okay. He’s in Bamako. He’s okay.
B.E.: Everyone who can has gone to Bamako. Is that it?
V.F.T.: No, everyone. It’s the whole north that headed to the south, because it’s not working up there. That’s it.
B.E.: Thank you.
(Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow were able to have a more in-depth conversation with Khaira Arby. First two photos by William Farrington. Thanks!)
B.E.: We’ve been following what’s been going on in Mali with great concern. And you should know that you are in our hearts. Can you tell us your experience of what happened. The Festival in the Desert ended, and then what?
K.A.: Really, what happened is beyond me. We had a nice Festival. Everything was peaceful when this problems started. In the beginning, I was traveling abroad. I returned to Bamako just when there was the coup d’état in Bamako. I thought I’d better return to Timbuktu. Then there was the crisis in Gao. Then there was the crisis in Timbuktu. Everyone was leaving. No one knew who was who. No one who did this, who did that. It was beyond everyone. I learned that they had brought Ansar Dine [an Islamist group led by the Tuareg rebel leader Iyad Ag Galy], and there was AQIM, Al Quaeda. They had directly attacked the military camp. They had taken everything from the camp, all the arms. They had chased all the soldiers away. They went into stores, they went into government offices, and they took everything. They went into the banks. Nothing works anymore in Timbuktu. And I learned that in Gao, it’s even worse. In Gao, they turned sick people out of hospitals to steal their mattresses.
B.E.: And you say Al Qaeda is doing this?
K.A.: They say that. I don’t know. We don’t know who’s doing what. But it makes you sick. In Timbuktu it’s the same thing. Tessalit, Goundam, Dire, Gao, Bourem. They say there are these problems everywhere. There are no hospitals, no schools, no electricity, no television, no water.
B.E.: No water?
K.A.: No water. It’s just the river now. When there’s no electricity. There’s nothing else. The North–truly it doesn’t work now.
B.E.: And a lot of people left.
K.A.: A lot of people have left. There are those who’ve left for other countries–for example those who went to the refugee camps in Mauritania and are getting assistance from the Red Cross. Those who went to Algeria, the same thing. Those who went to Bamako, they’re just relying on their friends, their families. There’s nothing. There’s nothing for them. You can’t even send money to your parents up there because there are no banks. If you want to send something to Timbuktu, you have to pay someone in Bamako to take it there. And it costs you a lot.
B.E.: It’s dangerous.
K.A.: It’s very dangerous. And along the road, you will be stopped at least four times and they’ll go through all your baggage to see what you have. If you’ve a nice telephone, they’ll take it. If you have gold, they will take it. Even if you have nice clothes, they will take them. And sometimes they will take women and abuse them.
B.E.: When we first heard about this rebellion, it was presented as a Tuareg rebellion. And then afterwards, they talked about Al Qaeda. But what I don’t understand is how is it possible that Al Qaeda could have infiltrated the Tuareg like that?
K.A.: I don’t have any idea about all that. But what I can tell you is it’s not all the Tuareg are rebels. There are Tuareg who are refugees, who are afraid, afraid of everything. There are Tuareg who left, leaving everything that they own. It’s not all the Tuareg who are rebels. Just like it’s not all the Arabs who are rebels. It’s something very mixed up. I don’t know. But it’s not all the Tuareg who are rebels.
B.E.: That’s important. Because I think the story has been told in a simplified way. It’s not simple.
K.A.: It’s not simple. It’s not simple. Because it’s all mixed up. People really don’t know. But me, as a mother, as a native of Mali, a native of the North of Mali, I know that the sons of Mali would not let this pass among them. Because everyone is mixed together. I don’t know where this came from.
B.E.: So what can one do now? That’s the question.
K.A.: I would like it if the West would think of us. I would like it if the West would think about Africa. But I don’t want the West to aid us with arms. We don’t want that. Arms will not solve our problems in Africa. You have to help us with water pumps, with tools, with things we need to work.
B.E.: With schools.
K.A.: With schools. We need to live. Help us to get out of this crisis. But not with arms. Arms will not solve our problems. The arms have to stop in Africa. And that’s not just in Mali. This is all of Africa.
B.E.: And the weapons, the arms that came from Libya after the fall of Qaddafi, that’s part of the problem, right?
K.A.: Me, I don’t know. I don’t even know the names of these arms. I don’t even want to hear the sound of weapons. Really, really, this is bizarre.
B.E.: And you have a lot of family in Timbuktu still.
K.A.: For sure. All of my family is there, apart from my two or three sons who are in Bamako.
Sean Barlow: But without water, without food, how is it possible to live there?
K.A.: They are there anyway. If there’s a little peace for the moment, they live. Those who can leave will leave. Some stayed because they don’t want to be helped by a European organization. They contradict themselves. When you say you don’t want to use things made by Westerner, then don’t be driving around in cars. They make cars. They make telephones. They make arms to kill people. To kill people.
B.E.: Khaira, as a singer, are you singing about the situation?
K.A.: Yes. I’ve already sung about this. I have already thought about this.
B.E.: Is there a song that you’ll sing tonight that deals with this?
K.A.: Yes. The song says, “We need peace. Without peace we can’t do anything. Without peace we can’t travel. Without peace we can’t sing. And we, the Africans, we have to be helped, but not with arms. We prefer schools. We prefer vehicles. We prefer tools to farm with. We prefer water pumps. And this Mali, this country that I love, we do not deserve this. Mali does not deserve this. Above all, Timbuktu does not deserve this. We are sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters.” In Timbuktu, you can see you are black and I am white. That never existed with us. That is not our history. I am sick. I am sick. I am too sick to sing, but despite that, I will sing to have peace.
S.B.: And we, as American citizens, what can we do to help?
K.A.: We have an organization. We’ve created an association of people from the North and the South. We’ve already begun sending trucks full of medicines. So someone who wants to do something can help this association. It’s called Cri de Coeur pour le Nord-Mali (The Cry of the Heart for the Malian North.) It’s based in Bamako. We’ve already sent five trucks loaded with supplies. Two trucks filled with medicine. From Bamako to Gao and Timbuktu.
B.E.: But you say big organizations like the Red Cross are not helping people they are, only outside the country.
K.A.: Not in the north. Not in Timbuktu. Not in Gao. They’re not allowed to. It’s too dangerous. When you go to help someone, they’ll kidnap you. You just can’t.
B.E.: And this is why it’s hard for us to understand what’s happening. There are no journalists to report on it.
K.A.: They paid €30 million to free two women. Two women. An Italian and a Canadian. €30 million for two women.
Chris Nolan (Khaira’s manager): This is a known problem. I went to a wedding in Noakchott. In returning from Noakchott to Bamako, there are checkpoints every 5 km. And they ask every time, “The white person? What’s he doing here? We’re afraid he’s going to become a hostage.”
B.E.: So if you go there, as a white person, you’re creating a problem. Because they get a lot of money from these kidnappings.
K.A.: Yes, yes, absolutely.
B.E.: And this works.
K.A.: It works, because people pay. The whites pay for them. So they’re providing lots of money to pay for the arms and the drugs.
C.N.: Doctors Without Borders are not there. The last ones that were there were Doctors of the World. They’ve also left now.
K.A.: The last ones were in Mopti. Once there were problems in Doanza, they came back to Bamako. Now they are between Bamako, San and Sikasso. In the South. I have a young brother who drives their vehicle. Everyone has left the North. If you go to Timbuktu, you won’t find many people. And the empty houses get occupied by the bandits. If you have air-conditioning in your house, it’s a nice place to go and hang out. If you have a nice salon, they will just go and live there. They will take anything they need from your house.
B.E.: And it’s the same in Niafounke?
K.A.: The same thing. In Dire, Goundam, Niafounke, everywhere. The same thing. Someone told me that even in Waro, across the river. They cross the river to go to Waro to attack the mothers of the community, to steal their vehicles, everything. This is not a question of independence. This is a question of banditry. If you want to be independent, you don’t destroy what you’ve taken. You conserve it.
B.E.: Good point. It’s unimaginable.
C.N.: Also, if you’ve been reading Andy Morgan. He was reading the Wikileaks communications from the embassies, including the US Embassy. They took a tour of the military camps of the Malian government, Tessalit, everywhere. This was in 2009. And they found that there was no one there. There was nothing there for the Army to fight with. And these are the people who are supposed to defend the region.
S.B.: In other words, they left defenseless.
B.E.: And this is why the coup happened.
K.A.: No, no. No. They did that just to have something to say. That’s not why the coup happened. The coup happened because they wanted to be in charge also. If it was about the North, two or three days after the coup they would’ve sent the army up there. But that didn’t happen. Since they came to power, since they made the coup, they have spoken to times only about the North. Two times only. All the rest is about taking banks and all this stuff.
C.N.: She stays connected to the news on her phone, 24 hours a day.
K.A.: Radio France International. RFI. [She demonstrates.] In 10 minutes there’s a report.
B.E.: Khaira, can we even imagine a solution to this problem?
K.A.: I don’t even know who could resolve this problem. My head turns around and around, asking, how can we fix this, how the North could return to the way it was before? Ansar Dine says they will not leave Timbuktu. We do not have the military to go and fight them. And we do not even want the military to go and fight. We want there to be an accord between the parties.
B.E.: You agree that it’s not a good idea for ECOWAS, the neighboring states, to come and fight the rebels.
K.A.: Me, I think that the solution is not arms. The solution is dialogue. We have to negotiate.
B.E.: But it’s difficult to negotiate with bandits.
K.A.: No, if they don’t want to negotiate, and they want to be bandits, will treat them like bandits. Criminality. You don’t have to negotiate with criminals.
B.E.: But it’s difficult to throw hundreds of people in jail.
C.N.: It’s actually not that many people.
B.E.: Well, I would just say that Mali has seen a lot of problems in its history. A lot of history has gone down, and a lot of difficult situations, and the people have always found some way to come through it. So we have to hope that that will happen again.
K.A.: We have hope. We have hope. We have hope. I am sure and certain, maybe this will take a long time, but this will work out. I have hope that this will finish in a good day. And to me, as your friend, I will tell you that I need help to get my own family to safety. I’m telling this to everyone everywhere I go. I want to bring them all to a house in Bamako. So anyone who is my friend, I’m collecting to bring my family home.