Excerpts from an interview with Moussa Ag Assarid by Víctor M. Amela.
Moussa Ag Assarid: I don’t know my age. I was born in the Sahara desert, with no papers. I was born in a nomadic camp of Tuaregs, between Timbuktu and Gao, in the north of Mali. I have been a shepherd of camels, goats, sheep and cows for my father. Today, I study Management in the University of Montpellier.
Victor Amela: Who are the Tuareg?
MA: Tuareg means ‘abandoned’, because we are an old nomadic tribe of the desert. We are lonely and proud: masters of the desert, they call us. Our ethnic group is Amazigh (or Berber), and our alphabet is the Tifinagh.
VA: How many are there of you?
MA: Approximately three million, the majority still are nomadic. But the population is decreasing. A wise man said it is necessary for a tribe to disappear to realize they existed. I am working to preserve this tribe.
VA: What do they do for a living?
MA: We shepherd camels, goats, sheep, cows and donkeys in a kingdom of infinite and of silence…
VA: Is the desert really so silent?
MA: If you are on your own in that silence you hear your heart beat. There is no better place to find yourself.
VA: What memories do you have of your childhood in the desert?
MA: I wake up with the Sun. The goats of my father are there. They give us milk and meat, and we take them were there is water and grass. My great-grandfather did it, and my grandfather, and my father, and me. There was nothing else in the world than that, and I was very happy!
VA: Really? It doesn’t sound very exciting.
MA: It is. At the age of seven, you can go alone away from the camp, and for this you are taught the important things—to smell the air, to listen, to see carefully, to orient with the Sun and the stars… And to be guided by the camel if you get lost. He will take you where there is water.
VA: To know that is valuable, no doubt.
MA: Everything is simple and profound there. There are very few things, and each one has enormous value.
VA: So that world and this one are very different.
MA: There, every little thing gives happiness. Every touch is valuable. We feel great joy just by touching each other, being together. There, nobody dreams of becoming, because everybody already is.
VA: What shocked you most on your first trip to Europe?
MA: I saw people running in the airport. In the desert, you only run if a sandstorm is approaching! It scared me, of course.
VA: They were going after their baggage, ha ha.
MA: Yes, that was it. […]
VA: Where did you get interested in school?
MA: A few years before the Paris-Dakar motor rally came through the compound and a journalist dropped a book from her backpack. I picked it up and gave it back to her. She gave it to me and talked to me about that book: “The Little Prince.” I promised myself that I would be able to read it one day.
VA: And you did.
MA: Yes, and because of that I won a scholarship to study in France.
VA: A Tuareg going to college!
MA: Ah, what I most miss here is the camel milk. And the wood fires. And walking barefoot on the warm sand. And the stars. We watched them every night, every star is different, just as every goat is different. Here, in the evenings, you watch TV.
VA: What do you dislike the most here?
MA: Many people here have everything, and it is still not enough for them. They complain. In [the modern world] many people complain all the time! They chain themselves to a bank; many people are anxious to have things, to have possessions. People are in a rush. In the desert there are no traffic jams, and do you know why? Because there, nobody is interested in getting ahead of other people!
VA: Tell me about a moment of deep happiness for you in the desert.
MA: It happens every day, two hours before sunset. The heat decreases, there is still no cold air, and men and animals slowly return to the camp, and their profiles are painted against a sky that is pink, blue, red, yellow, green.
VA: That sounds fascinating.
MA: It’s a magical moment… We all get into the tents and we boil tea. Sitting in silence we listen to the sound of the boiling water… We all are immersed in calmness: with the heartbeats tuned to the rhythm of the boiling water, potta potta potta…
VA: How peaceful.
MA: Yes… Here you have watches; there, we have time.
Moussa Ag Assarid is the oldest of thirteen children in a nomadic Tuareg family. Born in northern Mali in 1975, he moved to France in 1999 to study Management at the University of Montpellier. The above is excerpted from an interview with Víctor M. Amela.