The mosquitoes in the car do not observe Ramadan and eagerly attack when we drive away from the Malian capital Bamako in the early morning. The pockmarked road to Segou has given way to a perfect highway, built by Chinese. An imported second-hand van from Germany with inscription Fahrschule pushes Chinese mopeds on the roadside, where bottles filled with gasoline are on sale.
Suddenly there is a traffic jam on the tree savannah of the Sahel. A long line of trucks of the French army drives north. The heavy equipment-tankers, security of dozens of soldiers, lorries with mineral water- does not give an impression that the French military intervention has come to an end. The Muslim extremists have been driven out by the invasion in January, but 3,200 French soldiers were left behind. Soon 12,000 troops of the UN will be stationed in Mali. “Every day I see the French army bringing in more material,” says my driver Amadou when we arrive at Segou after four hours.
The break I have in this historic town on the Niger is spoilt by children beggars. “My father is dead,” complains one. And when that does not evoke a reaction, the other one says: “And my mother died.” Amadou tells them to buzz off. Two European election observers are less abrupt, and the nagging beggars keep on swarming around them like mosquitoes.
After Segou, endless plains start with only gnarled baobab trees as landmarks. It rains in Mali for a few months in a year, and this brings jubilation time. Shepherd boys desert their goats and splash in the puddles. Where little sandstorms had ravaged the desiccated landscape, there now lays a green carpet. There are even nets thrown in puddles to catch mud fish which had somehow survived the drought miraculously.
These are busy times in the rural areas. A Fulani shepherd crosses the road with hundreds of cattle, and the sweet aroma of cow dung penetrates inside our car. Some villages along the road to Mopti are dead quiet; everybody makes his contribution on the fields. Only the rich farmer owns an ox for ploughing. With little hoes women, children and old men work the sandy soil, seed by seed, and plant by plant. It is a farming method that still exists only in the poorest regions of the Sahel. I have seen only one tractor and we have already covered four hundred kilometres.
Each village we pass has a picturesque appearance. “Authentic Africa” it is called on tourists posters. With the specific Sahelian architecture: brown/yellow mud houses with flat roofs, grain stores with turrets. Residents painted their stucco exterior walls with symbolic patterns; sometimes they erected an artistic monument in the alleys, a Rasta warrior, a beast or a cartoon character. The attire of the villagers gives everything a colourful touch. But all these decorations do not disguise the abject poverty, the poor farmland, and the population pressure. Mali has more than three times the population it had at independence in 1960.
A blacksmith beats a glowing horseshoe while women pound grain in wooden mortars. What has changed here in recent years? At the entrance of every village next to the hanging Coca-Cola billboard are signboards of dozens of organizations advertising their projects. A well, a women’s cooperative, a school – from World Vision, Caritas, USAID, even a development organisation from Luxembourg. But the most striking change is the well maintained mosque. In every village there is a new one, near the old dilapidated house of prayer. “A gift of Wahabites” says Amadou while overtaking an old Dutch lorry with the inscription Stortbeton(Poured Concrete).
“They are the source of all evil in our country. The Wahabites want to impose on us their conservative form of Islam, the Arab Islam. This is not the faith of us Africans”, grumbles Amadou. “They receive money from abroad. They want to introduce Islamic law. They speak the same language as the Muslim extremists who occupied our country last year. ”
We approach Mopti, a town which half a year ago was the front line against the extremists. A huge sand storm before a downpour occurs, and even the baobabs shake. Suddenly we drive in the dark. We pass the roadblock where half a year ago, I was stopped by order of the French soldiers who wanted no prying eyes. Unhindered this time we enter Mopti. Now the French try elsewhere to direct the developments. They erected roadblocks near the northerly town of Kidal for journalists, because the rebellious Tamachecks(Tuaregs) still do not accept the Malian state authority.
This article was first published in NRC handelsblad on 27th of July