Fadimata Walet Oumar – Nothing without music

When Muslim extremists took over the north of Mali, they forbade music. For four years Timbuktu was silenced, as musicians were prosecuted for plying their trade. Singer Fadimata Walet Oumar sought refuge abroad. But even in exile in Burkina Faso the leader of the band Tartit continued to support the Tuareg women and children in the refugee camps with music and education. ‘To us, music is therapy’

The first time she was forced into exile from Mali, her country of birth, she had discovered the consolation the music of your own cultural tradition can bring. In 1992 the musician and singer Fadimata Walet Oumar had fled the violence between Tuareg rebels and the Malian army. In exile, Oumar and other refugees from around Timbuktu founded the band Tartit, which played traditional Tuareg music. ‘We wanted to save our culture that was about to disappear,’ she says.

Early 2012, Oumar had to flee Mali again, when Tuareg rebels once again started fighting for an independent homeland for the Tuareg people. The insurgency was gradually hijacked by Islamist groups. Under the sharia they introduced, music was considered haram and musicians and singers were prosecuted. The north of Mali, a country where music is an integral part of everyday life, turned silent.

Oumar and her family had found refuge in neighbouring Burkina Faso. Though she wasn’t living in a refugee camp, every morning Oumar would go to the one in Ouagadougou as a volunteer to meet the women and discuss their problems. She has experienced that women are the centre of the family, in wartime even more so than in peace: they are the ones who take care of the children. ‘The woman is the central pole of the tent. If she falls, the entire tent will cave in,’ she quotes a Tuareg saying.

Oumar and her family spent three years in exile before they felt it was safe enough to return to Mali, when government troops had driven out the Islamists with the help of foreign forces. The first time she went back, it was to perform at the first public concert in Timbuktu since the Islamists had taken over the city three years earlier and banned all forms of music. For the music in Mali to stop, she says, they will have to kill the musicians first: ‘As long as I’m alive, I will play.’

Even now, Oumar’s family has not gone back to live in Timbuktu. They are staying in the capital Bamako instead, because the insecurity back home is still too high. Oumar hasn’t lost hope however in a peaceful and united Mali. She believes music can play a role in the process.

‘It was music that made this work for my people possible,’ says Oumar. ‘Without music, there is nothing.’

By Femke van Zeijl