Interview With Sani Boureima – Farmer, Fisherman and Tourist Guide

My name is Sani Bouriema. My grandparents originate from Kare Gorou, but I was born here. I currently partake in three different activities; besides farming and fishing which I inherited from my father, I’m also into the tourism business. I help tourists discover the Niger River. [0:00-0:41]

I live nearby and behind me you can see the pinnace on which I transport my clients. [0:44-0:51]

We heard about some journeying fishermen who leave Nigeria to reach Mali. We hear claims that they are thieves, homeless people, non-believers (in Islam) and even soul eaters. What is your reaction to such allegations?
We call such fishermen the Yaurance. Others people call them Dendi Borey or Gungawa  among other nicknames. These Yaurance fishermen are neither soul eaters, nor thieves and bandits. They are a peaceful folk. [1:38-1:43]
In the past were people were ignorant about the Yaurance, they assumed that since the Yaurance came from Nigeria, they were similar to the  « Agnamurey » (soul eaters from Nigeria).  This was of course, not true. [1:45-1:55]

The Yaurance leave home on the search for fish and other seafood.  If they end up settling at a local village, they first visit the village’s leader to salute him, give their respects and ask for permission to temporarily stay at the village. They then proceed to visit the village’s “master of the waters” (sarkin ruwa) to ask for the permission to fish on his share of the rivers, just so they could eat. When the water master grants them permission, they could start fishing. When departing, they often give gifts to the village leader and the water master. [1:57-2:47]

They do this annually. They partake in one complete crossing during the fishing season. The goal of such annual journey is to catch fish. They can return to an established fishing site or use other ones depending on the fish density there. They location they end up settling on is where there is surely to be an abundant amount of fish. [2:52-3:05]

To elaborate more on what I was saying earlier; people thought that the Yaurance ate souls. This allegation actually has an origin story. A long time ago, the the corpse of a drowned child floating downstream unfortunately ended up near the canoes of Yaurance fishermen who were settled near the local village. In the morning, when the villagers saw the corpse of the child floating near the Yaurance’s camp, they immediately thought that the Yaurance at the child’s soul. The rumour quickly dispersed around the village. This is the event behind people accusing the Yaurance of being soul eaters. In reality, the Yaurance have never been soul eaters. They are Muslim believers; they pray and give Zakat*. [3:09-3:37]
*The distribution of the Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. Zakat is the act of giving a portion of one’s riches to the relatively less fortunate and privileged.

Isn’t it true that the Yaurance claim to be believers of Islam but still continue to practice Animism?
Like many other Africans, the Yaurance practice some aspects of Animism with the objective of being prosperous in their activity, even though such practices are condemned in Islam.  [3:53-4:07]

The Yaurance also use animist practices in order to protect themselves from the dangers they face when travelling on the river, such as attacks by hippopotamuses and crocodiles. They use them to also be successful in catching certain creatures, such as manatees.  [4:08-4:11]

The animist practices used by the Yaurance can range from incantations, use of certain trees or the sacrifice of certain animals. [4:12-4:20]

So, they have been successful in creating powerful talismans that allow them to become successful fishermen. How exactly do they manage to make crocodiles and hippopotamuses not hostile toward them?
Fishing is a difficult job.
Black magic and witchcraft exist and will always exist. For example, when a crocodile is being hostile, the fishermen will use their magic to lure it out of the waters. They will then proceed to order it to stop attacking people. They can even punish the crocodile for being aggressive by immobilizing it for a couple of days. This also applies to hippopotamuses and other water creatures that have hostile tendencies toward people. [4:49-5:14]
When the fishermen want to kill an animal deemed dangerous, they gather around their *torou*  or shrine,  as means of briefing, and preparation anticipating the operation. [5:17-5:32]

The Yaurance that depart from Mali or Niger; are their poor or wealthy?
The majority of Yaurance fishermen can be considered as poor because it is generally in their nature to spend all their income, living day by day, instead of saving. This was a common behaviour back in the day of our grandparents, which still persists today among the Yaurance. Some of the fishermen are starting to change their ways though.  [5:47-6:10]
It is the fishermen’s tendency to spend all their income that is the cause behind their poverty. For example, out of 100 fishermen, you’ll find two or three that have actually saved a little amount of money. 97% go on living day by day.  [6:11-6:19]

But the Yaurance are able to conserve fish in large quantities to sell in Nigeria, therefore earning a lot of money, right?
On their way back from Nigeria, the Yaurance earn a lot of money from selling their fish. One fisherman could earn up to 500,000 FCFA, but he will most likely spend all of it because he not only needs to satisfy some of his wife’s wishes, he also needs to buy a canoe, fishing hooks, nets and other equipment. Additionally, he needs to buy stocks and rations of food that will enable him and his family to survive for the upcoming 8 months. In the end, the fisherman doesn’t have much left from his earning. This is the cycle that most fishermen go through each year. This is the primary reason why they are unable to save.  [6:47-7:26]

How are they able to purchase large canoes and pinnaces and even afford pilgrimages to Mecca if they don’t generally save?
In order to afford large canoes and pinnaces, they need to either get financial support from family members or sell livestock they’ve been herding for years. [7:57-8:12]
The ones seeking to go to Mecca for the pilgrimage gather all the income earned by their entire family throughout the year. If the amount needed to travel to Mecca exceeds the aggregate income from fishing alone, they then decide to save a little each year until they accumulate the necessary amount. This can be done in 6 years for example.  [8:13-8:40]

Where do they deposit their savings? At a bank? or do they invest their money in livestock?
In order to save money for the pilgrimage in Mecca, they have two alternatives: some people buy livestock that they will later sell when a profitable opportunity arises, others will bury their money in secrecy and diligently protect it. The latter can be problematic though, because in some cases, the buried money will be damaged by termites. One can also forget where they’ve buried their money or even die, leaving the buried money lost forever and never to be found. [8:53-9:20]
I know a man who once buried his money, estimated to be about 4 million FCFA, only to later find out that his disinterred money was heavily damaged by the soil’s humidity.  [9:21-9:33]
Back in the day people weren’t very sure if they could entrust their money to somebody else or banks. Matter of fact, there were no banks back in the day.  [9:35-944]

Some people assert that the Yaurance are a deeply traditional and conservative folk, that they are not evolving their customs. What is your opinion in this matter?
The Yaurance have always been conservative of their traditions. Eve though they are starting to change, this change amounts to approximately one percent (1%) of their lifestyle. [9:58-10:03]
The Yaurance have been passing by here since I was born. I’ve know and witnessed them for 40 years, and I can attest that they haven’t changed. We still see them walking without shoes, wearing old clothes and living in old deteriorated houses. There is very little evidence supporting the notion that they have changed they way of life. [10:08-10:30]

I think you may be right Sani. But I’ve also noticed that they have engines installed on their canoes, and that they use cellphones and other modern items. How can this be explained?
A canoe engine initially cost 2,500 FCFA. So for example, if a manatee was caught, it could be sold on the market and finance a canoe engine. [10:32-10:40]
The arrival of the canoe engine facilitated fishermen’s lives. [10:42-10:45]
Back in the day, 40 to 50 family members needed to assemble and aggregate their money together in complete discretion. When they purchase the canoe, they set it under the responsibility of one of theirs and follow him throughout the crossing. [10:46-10:59]
The use of mobile telephones is a trend that concerns the young ones more than the old. Out of 10 old people, you’ll probably find only one cellphone owner.  Contrarily, all the youngsters have cellphones on which they could do things like watching videos, making cellphones very trendy. They use cellphones also facilitates some aspects of their lives. [12:04-12:21]

How useful is the cellphone to the Yaurance, in your opinion? 
The cellphone has immeasurable utility to the Yaurance because back in the day, when they left Yauri to journey to Mali, no one hears about them until they see them again at their return. Nowadays when they leave Yauri, the can call and be called daily and give their position. [12:31-12:31]
Another important use of the cellphone for the Yaurance is the fact that they can inform prospective clients about their return to Nigeria. This means that they can immediately sell their fish to clients along the Niger River, clients who already expect their arrival. Additionally, in cases where a canoe has been capsized, or when the fishermen are being attacked by thieves, they could always call and inform people about their whereabouts and ask for help. The cellphone’s utility has no limit.  [13:07-13:36]

The crossing journey from Yauri (Nigeria) to Timbuktu (Mali) covers a very large distance. How do the Yaurance manage in successfully guiding themselves all the way to their destination?
Experience can be acquired in everything one involves oneself in. Among fishermen, there are some that know their way around the river very well. These are people that have journeyed and fished during both the cold and dry seasons and have accumulated strong itinerary memorization skills.  [13:58-14:08]
It is during the dry season when the river’s water level is low that one can surely know paths on which a canoe can pass. It is during this season that rocky and hazardous areas are visible. Once you memorize the areas with rocks and hazardous obstacles, you could then visualize the right path to follow. [14:10-14:18]
Once you know the right path, all that’s left is to guide the canoe’s pilot on the right path using hand gestures. You must know the from Yauri all the way to Timbuktu and Massina.  [14:20-14:33]

Do you happen to know one of these guides? Someone who knows his way around the river?
I know someone who knows his was around the river so well, he can actually pilot the canoe at night without losing track of the path. His name is Mahamadou, and he is the child of Yaurance. He is a very skilled and intelligent person regarding the mastery of paths on the river. [14:40-14:55]
When Mahamadou indicates to you the right path to follow, follow his instructions and you will not run into any risk or danger. he can go anywhere on the river. He travels back-and-forth a lot due to the fact that he is the guide for journeying. Back then, Mahamadou’s father held the responsibility of guide but after his death, Mahamadou replaced him.  [14:56-15:14]

Where can this guide be found?
My friend Mahamadou is currently working as a guide for travellers heading to Garidjo and Mali. He will return only after guiding them to their desired destination.  [15:20-15:27]

Where is Garidjo?
Garidjo is a village located between Tillabéry and Ayorou. It is three kilometres away from Ayorou. [15:39-15:42]
Garidjo is a little village located on a Island inhabited exclusively by fishermen.

So, how are people in Yauri able to  contact Mahamadou when they need his help?
Back in the day (before the cellular phone), people asked Mahamadou to come back and find them at Garidjo based purely on an estimation of the number of days it would take to get to Garidjo as well as the duration of the fishing season. Nowadays with the cellphone, fishermen simply call him to notify him of the date of their departure. [15:52-16:23]
The fishermen call Mahamadou as soon as they charge their canoes to notify him that they are ready. As soon as he is notified, Mahamadou embarks on a trip on land to rejoin them, taking only one day to reach Yauri from Garidjo. [16:24-16:35]

Thank you infinitely for your time.

Read more about Sani Boureima and his tourism business “Les Pirogues de L’amitié” by clicking here.

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