Salif Keita – Soyomba
Gold. Wealth, trade and fortune are interwoven into the history of all human societies. In almost every society that has had access to it, gold has become a symbol of and has facilitated prestige, opulence and power like no other material on Earth. For Mali, the bright yellow, dense, soft and malleable metal has been ever-present and remains a vitally important part of Mali’s economy today. From the hay-day of Timbuktu and the Empire that surrounded it to the stock exchanges of the modern world, it is gold that has been largely responsible for the economic successes of Mali – including since the conflict in 2012/13. It is also – due to Mali’s dependency on its export price – a source of continued vulnerability, as Mali’s fortunes are thus shackled to the successes and failures of the wider global economy.
Despite (or perhaps due to) mankind’s fascination with gold’s value, utility and aesthetics it can be a dangerous material and sometimes a curse for the populations that happen to live on the ground above where it is found. The mining of gold is not the safest of occupations and during any “rush” to obtain it human lives are often seen as a worthy risk for its extraction. This picture series from the BBC shows the working conditions experienced by those participating in the “boom” of Mali’s gold mines today.
Another problem with gold is that it is very, very rare for ordinary Malian’s to see any of its monetary benefits. The government taxation on the industry is deliberately low to attract foreign investment. Statements from both Oxfam and the International Monetary Fund have emphasised the failure of the government and of multinational companies to share the exploits of an industry that represents 70% of Malian exports and an enormous 15% of the country’s GDP. To put that chunk of national expenditure into perspective, the UK spends around 8% of its GDP on the NHS and defence spending represents about 2.5%. For Mali, that 15% could go a long, long way if shared out correctly.
The pictures in the BBC article are taken of a mine close to the Mali-Guinea border, in a Malian town called Kouremale. The town lies about 40km north of the Niger river, 150km upstream from Bamako. The choice of this week’s song of the week is down to the fact that afro-pop legend Salif Keita hails from the region, which is soaked in history. Near the gold-mines of Kouremale is the archaeological site at Woyowayanko, which marks the place where the last West African emperor Samory Touré did battle with French colonists – his victory here in face of the superior French artillery solidified his reputation as legendary military strategist. Not that this talk of 19th century Emperors and their impressive legacies would particularly phase Salif Keita; he is direct descendent of the founder of the Malian Empire Sundiata Keita who lived some 800 years ago.
Another link, if you needed one, between this week’s track and the Empires of Mali’s past is found in Salif Keita’s popular nickname. As a result of his unique voice, artistic brilliance, and leadership on many societal issues he is proudly known as “The Golden Voice of Africa“.