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Western Mali, where migration is a religion

The road from Bamako to Kayes

The road from Bamako to Kayes

The minarets plastered with azure colored tiles tower above the baobab trees on the desolate savanna. In this region in the west of Mali signs of prosperity are dissonant with the image of an otherwise poor country. Besides the beautiful mosques, stone houses and shops with corrugated iron roofs catch the eyes in contrast to the traditional mud dwellings with thatched roofs.  A school, a clinic, a small water treatment plant – all these are fruits of the labor of migrants in African and European countries.”Welcome to the port of departure for migration,” says Mayor Sega Sissoko in the dusty village of Ségala in the western region of Kayes. “Migration is for us a religion. If Europe does not allow migration it means that you do not grant us a life. ”

Migrants from Ségala transfer money to their families, and in consultation with the village elders  they invest in social and infrastructure projects. “Our young people cherish just one desire: migrate” The adviser to the mayor has also recently left for France in search of work.

Moussa Fofana in SégalaMoussa Fofana

From far and wide mopeds strapped with coolers ride on and off at the house of Moussa Fofana in Ségala. On his property are two second hand Mercedes cars and a satellite dish which he uses to watch French television.  After 44 years working as a steward on French express trains he has now retired to his hometown. He bought with his little capital a generator and fridges with which he began to produce ice water. “I rebelled against poverty. When I left in 1971, the Malian government banned migration, but you will always find a way out. I bought a Ghanaian passport and chose the adventure.”
Why did he go to France? He pulls the woolen hat which he brought from Paris over his face and says, “My father served in the colonial army. At home we were always talking about France. It was a logical choice. ”

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Mali conflicts undermine economic growth

Horses, cars, donkey carts, motorbikes and pedestrians compete with one another over the limited space on the narrow quay of Mopti. Market stalls, lining the quay and overlooking the small harbour on the Niger River, offer mainly unrefined salt in hefty slices or smaller chunks. Previously the product was transported on camel caravans to Mopti from the north of Mali; nowadays it’s by four-wheel drive. The town is an ancient trading post on the dividing line between north and south of Mali.

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From Mungo Park to the UN invasion of Mali

“Hello mate,” writes Matt in an email. “Welcome! You can come back to the Sleeping Camel. I’ve decided to stay open. Because the UN has arrived in Mali the hotel is full again “. Matt, the Australian manager of a cheap hotel for backpackers in Bamako is filled with optimism once more.

After the capture of northern Mali by Muslim extremists from North Africa last year, the tourism sector died in one stroke. No traveller, not even the adventurer riding on a motorbike through the Sahara, comes to a land of terror groups and crumbling government authority.

After the French intervention against the Islamic radicals in January, a manager of a large hotel had predicted to me: “First will come the journalists, then follow the hordes of aid workers until finally the United Nations will arrive and take over. And that will mean a much better business than tourists”.

In November 2011, Sjaak Rijke, a Dutchman, stayed at the Sleeping Camel. A few days later he travelled north and was kidnapped in Timbuktu, together with two other foreigners. The train driver from Woerden remains in captivity up till today. A group of white Africans now occupies some rooms at the Sleeping Camel. They work with a private company hired by the United Nations to remove landmines. “We come from Rhodesia”, says one of them standing under a huge painting of a classic hippie whose artistic brains are exploding all over the wall.

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Africa’s election aid fiasco


The development industry is as fashion-prone as any other. Fads come and go. There are a few giveaways when it comes to spotting them. Deceptive simplicity is one indication. The idea should have a silver-bullet quality, promising to cut through complexity to the nub of a problem. Even better, it should be a notion that can be rolled out across not just a country, but a region.

Covering the Kenyan elections, which climaxed with the inauguration last week of Uhuru Kenyatta as the country’s fourth president, I suddenly realised I was watching a fad hitting its stride: the techno-election as democratic panacea. We’ll see it again in Mali’s elections this summer.

Touareg, scapegoats of Mali’s misery

Mohamed Moctar is packing his belongings. There is not much is his room besides a sleeping mat, a blanket, a small sound system, a teapot, two cups, and a heap of cloths. All of it is on the floor. “I will return to Timbouktou now it is liberated”, says Moctar a teacher at a primary school in the legendary city in the north of Mali.

He fled his hometown last year after the Islamic extremists occupied the north of Mali. “In the beginning we hardly noticed them”, remembers Moctar while he is brewing a cup of bitter tea that Malians sip all day. “Slowly though crazy rules were introduced. Children were not allowed to play football and smoking became forbidden. They stopped you on the street to check the ringtone on your mobile phone. When it was music they destroyed your sim card and gave you a new one with verses from the Koran.”

Within months the rebels had introduced the strictest form of Sharia, the Islamic law. “We were commanded to public places to witness the cutting of hands of thieves and whipping and beatings for other offences. It was sheer terror.” It all became too much for Moctar, a Touareg, and he left for the capital of Bamako in the south of Mali.

He was not received with open arms. Mali has some twenty different tribes and most of them have issues with the Touareg. It was the MNLA, a secular Touareg militia that had started a year ago an uprising against the army.  Aim was the creation of Azawad, an independent state in the north of Mali.

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No easy solution for a divided Mali

Proud ladies in expensive, colourful costumes ride on mopeds through the blue smoke hanging above the streets of the Malian capital Bamako. The perky presence of women in public life in Mali is very common. In the Sahel, along the thriving transit route for trade caravans from north to south, because of the cultural communication back and forth for centuries a very specific lifestyle, religion and politics developed. But nine months of occupation of the north by extremist Muslims, has put on edge the divisions between North and South Mali, between currents within Islam and between tribal and racial groups.

Mali has a liberal Islam and a secular constitution, but conservative groups strive for more influence and the establishment of the Islamic Shari’a criminal law. There are signboards everywhere, with the inscription “donated by Saudi Arabia”, near the mosques in the cities or villages, and near new the water wells and schools in rural areas.

“For about 25 years we have noticed among us the Wahabites with their long beards,” says the MP Baba Haidara. “They have us pitted, with money and by the training of our marabous in Saudi Arabia.” Haidara hastens to distinguish between the Wahabi movement of conservative Muslims and the extremist fighters who impose their beliefs by force.

Many long beards were shaved off after the French intervention. Out of fear for revenge, light colored Malians in Bamako also keep a low profile. Many fled from northern Mali to Bamako through neighbouring Burkina Faso, because they do not trust their own countrymen anymore.

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The enemy has become invisible

The old man Lamine Traore comes chuffing towards an army roadblock, sixty kilometres from the western frontline in the city of Diabaly. Malian soldiers at the roadblock watch a French television channel to get the latest news about the war. Traore gives “un petit cadeau”, corruption money, to the soldiers to pass. It’s war time, but old habits don’t die. “Almost everyone has left Diabaly”, says the old man. “We fear the extremists, but I also rather stay away if the Malian army returns. The insurgents withdrew into the rice fields. Or they fused with the population in the surrounding villages. They have become invisible. ” The government soldier stops journalists. “We do not know where the Islamic extremists are hiding,” he says. “It’s too dangerous for you to continue, they can take you hostage.” Does he have an idea when his army will advance to Diabaly? “When the French army tells us to”.

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The Challenges of Retaking Northern Mali

All photos: © Petterik Wiggers
(Click to enlarge)

Once considered Africa’s flagship of democracy, Mali has turned into a shipwreck of anarchy seemingly overnight. A military coup ousted Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré in March 2012, and within weeks state authority completely withered in the northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Covering an area as large as the state of Texas, these regions are currently controlled by three “hybrid organizations” blending Islamic radicalism with transnational crime. Deeply concerned by the security threats posed by such a sizeable sanctuary for terrorists, the international community has pressured the Malian government and military to overcome internal wrangles as preparations for an international military intervention are underway.

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Oumou Sangare sings – audio

In the capital of Mali, Bamako. I met the famous singer Oumou Sangare.
She sang a song for peace.

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Mali: If the music dies…

Bamako — Huge posters in the capital Bamako tell it all: a map of Mali, tears rolling down the North and the South covered by a big question mark. In the wake of the Tuareg rebellion that began in January, Al Qaida affiliated Islamic extremists have taken control of many but not all towns in the North.

A military coup d’état led by captain Amadou Sanogo against President Toure on March 22 had made the situation worse. Sanogo was quickly forced by the West African regional organisation Ecowas to step down in favour of an interim civilian government, but behind the scenes he is still calling the shots.

“Malians feel very sad”, the famous singer Oumou Sangare told me. She then sang a powerful song: ” We need peace, we need peace to sing and dance”.

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