The combined work between Diawara and Tunisian composer Bouhafa has produced an inspiring title song. It is true to the message of the film that the soaring-strength of Diawara’s voice is used as its central musical theme. To quote Peter Bradshaw’s review:
“Islamist zealots are shown shooting gazelles with AK-47s – a powerful image of predatory crassness to which the film ultimately circles back – and also destroying masks and statues, including a statue of a fertility goddess. They are stamping on harmless pleasures like music and football, and throwing themselves with cold relish into lashings and stonings for adultery. The suppression and control of women is shown as a key part of this new order: an unending hate campaign that is both an ideological procedure and a symptom of their own unhappiness and self-hate.”
The film shows the defiance of Mali’s society in other ways; a particular favourite is a scene of men continuing a game of football, with no ball, through collective mime. In a similar way, director Abderrahmane Sissako uses the recurring joy of Diawara’s vocals to raise a musical objection to the dire oppression of women and the arts in Mali.
Sam Garbett is Public Affairs Coordinator for the Mali Development Group – www.malidg.org.uk.
To get in touch with Sam for further information he’d be happy to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any comments and ideas for improving the Hub are especially welcome. We all look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for tuning in.
The Mali Interest Hub is an initiative run by the Mali Development Group, supported by the Alliance for Mali.
This song, to me, is all about adventure. Travelling into an unknown, that magnetic pull to a place that you’ve yet to see. Firstly, its the pace. The song moves at speed. The rhythm, vocals and licks from the guitar climb over each other to keep the song moving, rolling like a wave. Its got that mysterious, care-free, optimistic sound. Like staring at a foreign landscape from a passenger window, excitement flies in from all directions. The instruments in the song compete, trying their luck with your attention. They excite and startle, all the while the rhythm and percussion pin the song together in an animated meld of sahelian sounds.
With these emotions flowing it is difficult not to imagine riding along the road to a Timbuktu of yesteryear. Ali Farka Toure was born here in 1939 and as it was French Soudan in those day the city’s inhabitants were dragged off to WWII. Things haven’t got much better for the city since. In the late 1950s the city’s main water source – a canal stretching the 12 miles to the Niger river – was swallowed up by the sands of the relentless desert. This economic decline coincided with decolonisation in the 1960s and with its position as a gateway between North and South, Timbuktu has suffered harder than most during the series of conflicts that have defined Mali’s recent history. The city’s fortunes are a long way from the time when it was home and provider to the richest person in human history.
Irina Bokova continued in interview to state that UNESCO had instructed the International Criminal Court to look into their destruction as a war crime, citing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This is not a new idea as Bokova’s similar statements in 2012 encouraged a New York based law student to analyse how the legal scenario would play out. Perhaps the judicial process would only be thrilling to a legal eye, its implications however could be interesting to many.
As UNESCO recommends in a separate document, would the Malian army really prioritise in future the deployment of ‘special units’ of its army to protect ‘cultural property’ when it struggles to defend its borders and citizens? It could be an example of how a security situation can become globalised; where the demands of an intellectually engaged community across the world can influence the reordering of a society post-conflict with their own priorities. Though well intentioned, this can be based on perceived ‘losses’ during the conflict experienced from afar. The mausoleums and manuscripts are known by many world-wide and are considered world heritage. Its an issue we have discussed before and it gets pretty complex both legally and morally. I guess its worth watching this space till either the ICC or UNESCO provide greater detail on the charges, which remain unclear.
So hats off to the master masons of Timbuktu. Foreign funds have provided employment for reportedly 140 people in this project that will last up to 4 years. In the end, culture and history are important to any economic recovery too. Providing jobs and attracting tourists. Its been many decades since Timbuktu was a real destination for the adventurous, maybe even before the days of the famous Rail Band. Here’s to hoping that the excellent work of 140 locals is not in vain and a new golden age for the city is on the way soon.
A talk by Professor Kevin Macdonald, University College London
SUDBURY 2 YANFOLILA
Linking Sudbury with a town in Mali for 2014/15 and learning about things we have in common
Many people may have heard of Timbuktu, but how many know where it is, or that it once formed part of the greatest of Africa’s indigenous Empires? Prof Kevin MacDonald (UCL) will speak about his 25+ years of researching the past of Mali and such characters as Sundiata Keita (Africa’s real Lion King) and Mansa Musa (named recently by the Independent as the richest man who ever lived). Within this African imperial narrative, MacDonald will consider the origins and destiny of Africa’s near mythic city of gold: Timbuktu.
Free entry but there will be a collection at the end to support work in Mali.
Afel Bocoum is an intelligent man. You only need to read a few lines of his interview with Belgian music magazine RifRaf or listen to a few minutes of one of his songs to realise this. In the interview with the magazine, Bocoum speaks eloquently and informatively on a range of subjects including the rights of Malian minority groups, youth culture, identity, post-colonial cultural relations between Africa and Europe and America and, of course, his own approach to music.
Curiously, Bocoum’s profession is as an Agricultural Advisor. Being from Niafunké (a town situated in the southern most part of the vast desert Timbouctou Region where temperatures frequently exceed 50’C) it is not immediately obvious what use an agricultural advisor would have. However the area surrounding the Niger River, which includes Niafunké and Timbuktu, is important farming land. Malian Minister for Culture N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo explains:
“When people think of Timbuktu they think desert, they don’t think about agriculture at all, but it will be one of the main projects there.”
The project Diallo is referring to is the plan to open a £50 million university in Timbuktu. A key feature of the university’s work will be the improvement of the region’s existing irrigation program and other agricultural practices. Amongst other research focuses will be renewable energy and Saharan literature – a subject that is anticipating a great boost once the city’s treasured manuscripts have been returned to their library.
Diallo also claims that the university is central to the rejuvenation of Timbuktu in general. Even before the recent conflict there, Timbuktu’s economy was a shadow of its former self. Now the situation is even more desperate. Fortunately a dedicated group of ‘diverse stakeholders’ called The Timbuktu Resistance has been focusing on a strategy “to promote reconciliation and sustainable development in Mali through a revival of its culture and heritage, and examine broader implications for post-conflict reconstruction and for understanding Islam in its global diversity.” In this case the diplomatic and political currency that Mali gains through the international popularity of its music in particular is clear. Music is important to Mali’s internal politics too. For example, the goal of returning the ‘Festival au Desert‘ to its home in Mali’s north (which instead will once again be staged ‘In Exile’ in early 2015) could have many potential benefits for the region. In addition to the economic benefits of tourism, the Festival is also symbolic and promotes “cultural diversity, peace, tolerance and social cohesion amongst the peoples of the Sahel and Sahara.” There is also a plan to share these lessons in cultural diversity worldwide by making the sights, sounds and knowledge of Timbuktu available online through Google maps, street-view and scholar.
Ever since the Mali Track of the Week started it has been difficult not to queue-up thirty Ali Farka Touré songs. He was one of Africa’s most internationally recognised musicians and is still the modern reference point for all Malian musicians trying to make it big on the world stage.
There is too much to say about Ali to do him justice here. At the time of his death in March 2006, the BBC 3 broadcast this hour long obituary as a tribute to his life, the spirit of his music, and to mark the passing of a great man – told from the very people who knew him best and loved him most. In particular, the obituary opens with a vibrant snippet of party life on a boat, on the Niger river, heading to Timbuktu and captures the moment that Ali himself climbs aboard. Magical moments. May times like these return in full-swing soon.
So now to the impossible task of finding a track to do all the above justice. This week’s track is taken from his 1994 album “Talking Timbuktu” created in collaboration with American guitarist/producer Ry Cooder – the mastermind producer behind the “Buena Vista Social Club”. It’s the final, parting track on a gift of an album.
So difficult was this choice the Mali Track of the Week will have back-to-back songs from Ali Farka Touré. This is a special gesture to celebrate Mali’s up-coming Independence Day (22nd of September) and also to mark the great progress made by the Mali Development Group over the last 12 months.
Please, above all, enjoy Ali Farka Touré’s “Diaraby”.
Disaster and conflict often shows that the indispensable heroes are found in the integrity of locals
Of the many under reported stories of the conflict, the story of the destruction of Timbuktu’s manuscripts in January was a truly global event. For centuries Timbuktu had served as not only an epicentre in the trade of silk, salt, gold and slaves but Timbuktu was also a centre of the trade in knowledge, science and art. A medieval cultural oasis at the edge of the Sahara – the mysticism of this reputation still more or less lives on today. But the conflict and the destruction of these great works have changed this. It is hard to say whether Timbuktu will be imagined with the same majesty in years to come.
Social networks and international media mourned the loss of these precious pieces of world heritage. It was a curious moment that befalls during most human tragedies; when material, or non-human, losses are met with a great outburst of sorrow. Valid reasons for sadness, but always standing awkwardly next to the human death and misery of the wider war.
Very rarely do these outbursts eclipse the emotion felt for the deaths, casualties and terror of war. However, Romeo Dallaire – Force Commander of the UN force in Rwanda in 1994 – has always insisted, coldly and hopelessly, that if it had been the endangered mountain gorillas of the country that were being butchered with the aim of extinction then perhaps international help would have been more forthcoming.
In modern conflict, the line between combatants and civilians, allies and enemies, “good” and “evil”, terrorist and liberator can be significantly blurred. Understandably, withholding empathy can be a natural response to this. It can also be a rational one, for it is uncomfortable for anyone to have to back-track on the solidarity they felt for people overseas upon hearing news that they are perhaps not as innocent as first thought.
To want to wait and learn a bit more about the fighters in a conflict before you lend your support is a healthy attitude. Perhaps responding to the destruction of the manuscripts in Timbuktu was an opportunity for a no-strings-attached outburst for many of the world’s concerned people who had been struggling to hold back their humanitarian instinct. When these inanimate and entirely innocent scriptures, maps and works of art were destroyed so much of history went with them – and for what? It was an act of violence that symbolised the senselessness of the conflict as a whole. What explanation were we given? To the Islamist insurgents the scriptures were a violation of their severe interpretation of Shiria law. It illustrated quite how deranged the logic and the conviction of the Islamist militias were and how destructive they intended to be as a means of reshaping the Sahel in to fit their image.
It was indeed a poignant moment in the war.
But were the scriptures destroyed at all? Remarkably, in the months that followed, stories arose telling of a truly heroic micro-story of the conflict. Yes, the shelves and vaults of the libraries of Timbuktu lay empty. If you went and visited them now you would only find ash and empty leather cases as evidence that these ancient documents ever existed here. However if you did visit, you would also hear rumours – just as Yochi Dreazen of The Atlantic did. His article for New Republic explains the incredible story of how a Malian man called Abdel Kader, of the large and well respected Haidara family, foresaw the coming destruction that the artefacts faced at the hands of the militias. When he was 17, Abdel was the family member of his generation that took a vow to protect the library for a long as he lives. This tradition is replicated across Timbuktu in many families. He was one of his generation’s guardians and the madness of the last year pressed him into action. He had to protect the 300,000 manuscripts and fast, but how?
As Drezen’s article explains, Abdel fell back onto the only reliable thing he could – the networks between the families of Timbuktu who had all maintained the same values, ties and traditions that bound their society together. Steadily, and with immense danger, the artefacts were moved into the homes of many families in Timbuktu. They remained here till the conflict intensified and they then made their way to Bamako over a series of months.
No doubt without the assistance of some key, brave, individuals then none of the above could have happened. But the contributions of one group must be particularly emphasised. These are the families which took the scriptures in and then facilitated, organised and funded their arduous trickle to Bamako. Even here they still are not safe. Bearing the scars of a tough migration south, the more humid climatic conditions are starting to eat away at them now they are away from their multi-million dollar institute. A fund-raising campaign has been set up to support them “in exile”.
While conflict situations will forever attract the international development cavaliers and industrious thrill-seekers, Mali – with its networks between elderly heads of respected families – shows a rarely appreciated source of resilience in war-torn societies. Perhaps the lesson in the story of the manuscripts of Timbuktu is not only about what the world needs to do to nurture Mali’s unique cultural heritage. Actually, it is more about what Mali’s traditional societal characteristics can do to provide conflict resolution approaches for the current crisis, which in turn can be supported by the world.
We will return to the importance of Mali’s social heritage in my next post.
This time next month the major component of the French military intervention in Mali is going to be heading home. However, this has not halted the debate over the reasons for France’s involvement in Mali in first place. Interestingly, it is the African journalists rejoicing and describing France and Hollande as their saviours, making the whole thing seem like a jovial neo-colonial favour. Meanwhile, parts of the Russian and Arabian press remain highly critical, citing geopolitics and West Africa’s resource endowment as the real pull-factors in the French decision to intervene. These arguments are compelling, however a huge part of the French timing of their intervention and their withdrawal are linked to the domestic political landscape in France.
Quite incredibly, as this research shows, France has conducted 46 separate Military Interventions in Africa between 1960 and 2005. What constitutes an intervention may be contestable, but by the standards set out in the research above the military campaigns France has led in Libya and Mali in 2011 and 2013 should bring this total up to 48 – averaging just under once-a-year since a wave of African states, including Mali, gained their independence 53 years ago.
In their own words, one would suspect that the French would describe their mission as overwhelmingly successful. As Oussama Romdhani summarises:
“Five weeks after the start of their military campaign, the French believe they have already achieved about “70% of the set-objectives”. They have indeed retaken the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Then, with the help of Chadian and Malian armies, their expeditionary forces have dealt heavy blows to Jihadist positions in the Ifoghas and Timetrine regions, north east of Mali….Compared to the relatively limited casualties in the French expeditionary force, hundreds are said to have been killed in the ranks of Ansar al-Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJAW) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)…”
But the important question remains begs to be answered: “… is there reason to believe there is a clear endgame in sight here?” Does the timing of the French troop withdraw going to impact positively on Mali?
There is much doubt that this was a consideration in the decision to withdraw at all. It is end-game time for France, and that’s that. As Romdani points out the “quagmire syndrome” is choking the halls of the French foreign ministry. The quagmire syndrome is a historic problem, a ghost that haunts countries who have ever had a fairly miserable experience conducting a military intervention and fear a recurrence of the rolling difficulties, plunging approval ratings, spiraling costs, and mounting body count. The enthusiasm for the war in Mali amongst French people, especially people of the political right, is quickly departing. This war in Mali – a victory for Hollande – is slowly becoming a vulnerable flank to attacks from the hawks of French security policy. The press is turning and it is time to get out. April has been announced as draw-down date and will see all but a fraction of the French forces return home, or relocate to relocate to Niger. As William Terdoslavich writes in reference the American experience of Vietnam; botched and bloody interventions haunt political elites long after they finish.
But as Romdani wisely notes “quick military victories alone will not provide an endgame for the Sahel’s widening arc of crisis.” Reprisal suicide bombings are jeopardizing the French’s ability to get out swiftly and successfully state the case that everything is done and dusted. This violence is a potential spanner in works for the way the world will view French withdrawal plans, but it seems pretty clear that France are leaving next month anyway. If France adamantly stick to their self-declared withdraw date – in this setting – they run the risk of appearing to be trying to wash their hands of their responsibility of not getting a the job done. France is getting out of there and is medicating the ‘quagmire syndrome’ with a strict regime of treatment and is willing to take a risk on its credibility for it.
Where does this leave Mali, and what does the rest of the world planning to do about it? The Malian army cannot be left to fend for themselves just yet. During the most intense period of the conflict “some of the Malian soldiers ran out of ammunition before the jihadists did.” But everyone isn’t leaving. Yes, it is the plan that the majority of the fighting will not be done by the armies of Western countries from now on, but that does not mean these armies have not remained behind in some capacity. The EU is introducing a force this spring for a period of about 15 months which will aim to support the Malian army in securing the gains of the last few months. The French, joined by the Czechs, will retain a combat role in defence of infantry training personnel from the Republic of Ireland and 40 troops from the United Kingdom. Whilst most of the British troops will carry out mortar and artillery training, it is a welcome sign that four UK personnel will be headquarters-based alongside three civilians from the Foreign Office’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative who will provide human rights and gender awareness training. The UK government continually stresses that its contributions will not be in combat roles, further evidence of our obsession in avoiding the quagmire. This leaves the remaining French forces to do the taxing job of scouring Mali’s dry, rocky and unforgiving landscape, or ‘Planet Mars’ as it has become known.
The stability of the situation on the ground remains confused. Diplomats from the United States are convinced everything is chugging along smoothly and have already committed $6.6million toward elections. Instability remains widespread. Malian everyday tells a slightly less chirpy story. As was suggested in an earlier article written by the author, militarism usually brings more militarism. “Striking knives into wounds rarely cause them to heal any quicker.” In response to “France’s Crusader Campaign” Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have appealed for the “sons of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Mauritania, to thwart the attack of Crusader France and defeat its agents in the region, and empower the Islamic project.” France can claim to have dented this call to arms by killing one of the leaders of AQIM. But when in the War on Terror has decapitation ever stunted the long term war-preparedness of Al Qaeda and its associates? These wars are not frontier wars with battle lines drawn, with enemy armies to crush and rout off a designated battlefield. It’s not about seeking terms and surrender. Taking out significant members of armed rebellions rarely translate into a crushing the willingness to fight, because the reason for taking up arms isn’t mercenary. The difficulty in attempting to deliver ‘knock-out’ blows on any large network of armed groups is that reports of enemy deaths can be so easily contested. For example, the world seems unable to confirm whether the notorious architect of the Algerian hostage crisis, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is dead or not.
Someone who had met Belmokhtar on quite a few occasions is Dr. Abdoulaziz Maiga, a family practitioner and aspiring surgeon at the Hospital of Gao. According to Anne Jolis of The Wall Street Journal Belmokhtar is ‘just another patient’ for Dr Maiga – “sometimes he came to the hospital and sometimes we went to his house. But it was purely medical.” In an amazing article, Dr Maiga takes us on his journey through his experience of the war, occupation and his interactions with the Belmokhtar and his soldiers. Despite the strength of the French in battle, he states that the militants remain “strong and they’re dangerous. With all that we’ve survived here, no one feels secure. Even with the French here, they’re still capable of doing things.” As Jolis continues:
“It’s not hard to see why Dr. Maiga does “not have confidence” in French talk of an imminent troop drawdown—and why he might dread that development. If the jihadists ever manage to retake Gao, it will likely mean a return to the most harrowing period of the doctor’s professional life…assisting in the dismemberment.”
Dr. Maiga was forced to cut, repair and dress the stumps of their victims. He found it very difficult. He went into medicine to combat disease and infection, but now appears to be burdened with the guilt of assisting in nine Shariah-prescribed amputations. Like every other resident of Gao with whom Jolis spoke, Dr. Maiga doesn’t really believe the jihadists have gone anywhere. “Mujao is very powerful,” he says.
So the French are leaving, but the situation does not seem one primed for their departure. There is an explanation. As the editor of Think Africa Press explains, the reason the withdraw has to be now is in line with the justification for intervening in the first place. It’s not neo-colonialism. Despite France’s “sorry record of neo-colonialism in its former colonies” this intervention “is not an example of it.” Apparently it’s not as a result of Mali’s resource endowment or “strategic importance” either, but rather a combination of three prevailing narratives. One is combating Islamist militants in a broader War on Terror and another is salvaging a chunk of domestic popularity. The third is because France was asked to by the government of Mali. This narrative is not so much a neo-colonial one but is instead because “Mali is a victim of structural dominances related to colonialism and its subordinate position in systems of global power. France’s intervention is an expression of that rather than an extension of it.” In this position of authority, France only has to stay for as long as the other two narratives permit it. Sinking support for the war domestically and the fear of being stuck in a quagmire in the Sahel means it’s definitely time to go. Sadly, Mali’s domestic affairs have no weight in this equation.
The first question is of course, will it really be over? The relative ease that French forces found on entering Gao and Timbuktu make a strong contrast to the heavy fighting and resistance they found around Konna a little over a week ago. Only now are people beginning to consider that this access to Urban areas leads to a, “shadow war” where terrorists blend back into the cities, or retreat into the deserts, where they know the territory well and have much more freedom of movement.
Bruce Whitehouse neatly lays out the political, social and economic problems laid out ahead in Mali, entitled, “Next, the hard bit”. He deftly highlights the effect of the terrorist’s forces dispersal but leaves one clear message that has been continually missed in the western media.
“Mali’s conflict must be resolved not only in the wastes of northern Mali but in the corridors of power in Bamako. The country’s political leaders must now get down to the difficult business of working out how Malians will coexist in a single republic, under a democracy worthy of the name. Recent history may be discouraging, but one hopes Malians will rise to the occasion.”
It will not be an easy process, many people in the south still blame the Touregs for this crisis and the various economic and political struggles leave the capital and country divided. Retaliation attacks are already happening, harming reconciliation. Leaders at all levels of Mali must now come together to reforge the country as a strong nation. One that takes democracy beyond a process, but into every community and home, whether in the North and South, which empowers Mande and Toureg alike.
Economically Mali has been given a $18.4m loan from the IMF to help stabilise the economy. But while this may stabilise the economy in the financial markets, 400,000 Malians are still refugees and may take months to return. Mali itself is still considered a war torn country, damaging it’s international image.