I don’t have a distinct memory of the episode, but this didn’t prevent me from writing it into a defining moment in my childhood. I was about four and a half years old when my family moved down from the dunes to the edges of Gaaway – Niger River in the tongue of Gao. The short distance itself happened to be very short, but it marked a shift in my life. It was the moment I stopped speaking Tamashek (Tuareg language) and picked up Songhay. Thus I changed language and worldview. Years later I would be reminded that I used the words for the wild plants of the grazing plains for the riverside crops. For example, I called paddy rice fonio and, even starving, I would not eat fish for a long time. In the first yeas of my life spent among the Tuareg nomads, our diet was based on dairy products and wild cereals (fonio [digitaria, panicum laetum], cram-cram [cenchrus biflorus], “takabar”), not on rice and fish.

Why I didn’t continue to speak my first language is still not clear to me. My father spoke Tamashek like a native Tuareg; that is, without any perceptible “foreign” accent to even the sensitive ears. Far from me to be the right judge in the matter, but I remember once in the late 1980s, he was crossing the river across rice fields during the flood season. He was carrying on a lively conversation with his companion, a Tuareg he picked up from the other bank at Wabaria, where the bridge to Gao stands now. A group of his fellow villagers busy at harvesting the floating rice in pirogues failed to recognize him and shifted their own talk to the passengers in the pirogue slipping away. Indeed, the world has changed, and there is no better proof: a Tuareg is steering a pirogue across the river!

Needless to say, I can’t boast of the perfect mastery of Songhay and Tamashek. I made a definitive switch at the turn of 1970, though I was barely aware of it. Even when I entered primary school and had to learn from day one in French, the experience – with hindsight quite an ordeal – seemed to be in the nature of things. Going to school meant learning French, then learning in French, as long as it would take. I weathered that storm and managed to get by in this language, added English in the seventh school year and Russian in the tenth (high school). Contrary to popular belief, I found Russian the easiest to learn of the three, but that’s another story altogether. From my eleventh year on, I started a hyper-specialized track with French matters wielding a coefficient 10, English 6, Russian 4, and you could imagine that not much is left after these big three. For some reason, English worried me the most, like a proverbial middle child. I had sufficiently grasped the complexities of French spelling and grammar and was lucky to have a teacher who made the intricacies of Russian word combination and syntax predictable. But English seems to be a free market of grammatical rules that were none, almost like playing by the ear each time I had to build a sentence.

So I decided to concentrate my energies on it. I started writing my diaries in English, poetry, essays and short stories too. I found out about that the BBC’s French service had three-level English lessons in the day, at 6:oo am, 12:00 pm and 6 pm. I managed to reserve one of the shortwave radios for these time slots. I would rarely miss a lesson. I would continue the exercise through my college years and beyond. There were more interesting programs at time went on and listening became easier. “Catch the world” was one in which popular songs are played and the lyrics read over and over with repeats. I don’t remember the exact name a serial, maybe “Off the shelf”, maybe not. They read from a book over weeks and months. That’s how I discovered Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and many other works of fiction I would be able to have in my hand only years later when I went to graduate school in the United States. I listened to English programs on all possible shortwaves channels (Washington, DC, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Bonn, Accra, Hilversum, Moscow), but the BBC was my home base with the regard to learning the language.

I’ve gone too far… Actually, I also had a few stimulating experiences at the lycée (high school, gymnasium). The English teachers mobilized volunteer students to contribute to a “magazine” titled the “Oasis”. I ended up writing a few pieces but today I have no idea what they were about. The teachers corrected them and had them typed and run off over a stencil duplicator (mimeograph). Okay, this requires Wikipedia or a video clip, to simply show this resilient printing machine before the photocopier. A decade later, when modern machine came to the school and no “Oasis” or other publication was produced anymore, the language teachers used the old copies in their classes. This is why it is important to remember that more advanced technology does not create content. At best, it enables a faster and cleaner job. Publishing with a basic mechanical typewriter and a mimeograph not simple or limpid, but it was possible, at times even fun.

In my third and last year at the lycée, the last semester of our linguistics course was devoted to “national languages”. Finally, after twelve years of schooling, we were going to learn the alphabets of four indigenous idioms: Bamanankan (Bambara), Fulfulde (Fulah/Peul), (Soŋay (Songhay) and Tamashaght (Tamashek/Tuareg). The introduction was limited to our “Languages and Literature” section, the smallest with only 8-9 students. It wasn’t much but turned out to be enough to instill in me an unending interest in these languages and the possible relationships among them.

Three years later, at the teacher’s college, as I was choosing a thesis topic for my bachelor’s degree, I decided to return to the prosody of Songhay through the long tales that I once heard over several nights. To be sure, I was encouraged in this direction by Charles Bird’s work on Mande (Malinke, Bambara and Mandinka) praise songs and call-and-response declamations. Bird worked in Mali after independence and helped publish the English-language collection of tales, Malian Stories, which became an immediate classic in the national school system. Further research led me to similar work done in the Balkans (Serbo-Croatian recitals and songs), traditional Appalachian songs and the diverse traditions of American folk music. These discoveries would steer my thesis further away from the material I recorded in 1986-87 in Gao, partly abandoned and rediscovered much later. By then, part of the material had been seriously damaged.

Private libraries and archives

Here I am. Thirty years after, faced with the challenge of sorting out old records during a move, I listened to a score of audiocassettes and found at least four from 1987. Two were recorded with my father and another man whose first name I now remember. I interviewed both about Songhay history, language and classics (epics and coming-of-age narratives). The two others are evening conversations recorded at random in two villages near Gao after my summer school in the USA in 1987. Hearing these cassettes triggered a trip back in time. Only a month before, I had digitized some 300 minutes of recordings with my father realized in 1997. Actually I was finishing my dissertation and teaching in Illinois when I decided to have him record the genealogy of our family and his personal history, which cut through the colonial period, the turbulent post-independence era, religious and political upheavals, devastating droughts and famines, and the grassroots movements that tipped the balance in the early 1990s. Mali seemed to be one of the promising models of self-generated democratization then.

I made a quick calculation: 320 minutes of 1997 plus 120 minutes of 1987, I have now in hand 440 minutes of rare material spoken in the sort of Songhay I can only dream of being able to speak today.  In terms of content, the 1987 material recreated the genealogies of families from Gao eastward to the border with Niger, with Songhay, Peul, Tuareg, Mossi, and Mande (Bambara/Malinke) roots intermingling over 5-6 centuries. Then westward, the major waves of Peul migrations from the Massina region, 500-600 km south… That’s where my father’s paternal lineage leads. People who migrated with languages they lost along the way and across the centuries, that is Fulfulde speakers adopting Songhay, shifting from herding to farming, etc. At one point, some practiced three religions at once, for the most part until the 1970s, with the first backlash against traditional beliefs along the Niger Bend and elsewhere. I could already hear in the accounts of 1997 how old faith systems were dismissed as soon as they were mentioned – as superstitious, misled, non-Moslem. I don’t hear this in the tapes from 1987. It was still another era when it comes to think about and representing Islam and popular faiths.

As you could feel, I am now completely drawn into this narrative. I was aware of it, to be sure, but lately I listen it with a great sense of urgency. Much of the material is already digitized and audible. One side of my father’s 1987 tape is barely audible for transcription, but it is no lost cause. Transcription, transliteration and translation are the immediate tasks ahead. In this regard, HaB is a fortunate coincidence, potentially the fulcrum for realizing a popular, open library out of personal archives.

Next steps

  • Hardware: so many people in Gao have told me lately that they have 30-40 year-old cassettes of live concerts of takamba music, as well as conversation, correspondence, preaching, etc. lying around in some dusty corner. I am curious to find out what is still audible or usable. But that’s what I plan to sift through during the month I am planning to spend in Gao after summer vacations.
  • Virtual rendering: digitizing all that can be to build the archives further
  • Collaboration and production: with the local school academy and an independent Songhay-writing club, I will organize several workshops about “found” content using abandoned tapes in private households and turning it into audio archives and even written material for a content platform (Wikipedia, for example).
  • Slack: I will the repository to put online raw and marginally treated (transcribed, transliterated) data so that other colleagues in the network can take a look, listen in and give a tip or hint. This will be handy during my stay for posting daily short entries (texts, images and video clips).

I have no idea if all this will work or do the way I think or wish, but that’s the plan and the hope.