Problems from the coalface

In writing a thesis two Senegalese students (they both wrote their own thesis, it wasn’t a collaborative effort or anything like that) went out into the wide world to interview a variety of tirailleurs sénégalais and their families. The aim was to examine the memory of the Algerian War and the role of the tirailleurs but before we (or indeed they) get ahead of ourselves (/themselves) here and start with the examination of memory, it was (and is) vitally important to get the interviews in the first place. And here is where the problems begin …
What problems I hear you cry?! Well, young Mbaye has a remarkable section in his introduction where he talks about just these sort of problems. And I suppose the easiest way to do that would be to reconstruct them here. I think I’ll do it in the form of a list. There aren’t enough lists on here yet, in my humble opinion. I feel I should also point out that these are in no particular order. I think we all know that problems never queue up nicely and many of the ones here, although typical, are by no means exhaustive.

So, problem number 1: Health.

When interviewing tirailleurs sénégalais, or indeed any person, about an event, a war, a celebration or quoi que ce soit that happened in the past, the interviewees state of health must be taken into account. It is entirely possible that the people who you are trying to interview are, how can we put this delicately, a long way down life’s bumpy highway. Many of them, because of the advancement of their years, might be in somewhat poor health. By this I don’t mean to imply that they are likely to drop dead between questions (although it could happen), but that they may not be able to hear very well, their memories might well be jumbled up, they just might not be ‘all there’ (what a marvellous euphemism), or they may suddenly require medical attention. In this case it is often just a matter of being patient, of rolling with the punches, of reorganising when necessary and of repeating questions or speaking slower or louder as the case warrants. I can’t tell you what’s required, and neither can Messrs Mbaye and Khoulé, but I’m sure you’ll be fine!

For another opinion of old age and its effects on memory, might I suggest a quick glance at/listen of the podcast with Camille Evrard…

Problem number 2: Language.

This is perhaps somewhat obvious as a problem: how to interview someone who doesn’t speak your language? How to make yourself understood, how to understand them? And it raises all kinds of questions about transcription, translation and stuff. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to this. Sorry.

Problem number 3: Money.

As a researcher it is entirely likely that you will be working on a restricted budget (if indeed you get a budget at all) and so this will limit your interviews to a certain degree. In this respect, Messrs Mbaye and Khoulé could only interview tirailleurs in the environs of Dakar. While there were tirailleurs available for them to interview there, many more lived in Casamance which was a bit too far away, and Mbaye in particular seemed a little disappointed. Still, although it is always a bit of a shame when these things happen, happen they will and you’ve got to make the best of it. Don’t get too annoyed and remember to eat.

I don’t want to be disheartening here but there are many more problems that you as a researcher of oral history will face. For reasons of space, time and avoidance of boredom, we cannot list everything here and these three are but examples taken from the work of the two Senegalese students. Still, I have faith that you’re all sensible people, and that is often the best way of dealing with problems as they arise. That and talking to people about them (which is almost what we’re here for at AOH). And cake.

For further problems why not have a look at our Q and A section, where the everyday issues that may crop up from time to time have been tackled using a series of, well, questions and answers!  Click here.

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