Several days ago, an American living in Bamako wrote the following account on his blog:
I was in a SOTRAMA (Mali’s take on the minibus, a green shell ringed with wooden benches, infinite division of space, unlimited passengers) the other day and I watched a guy scoop up a baby from the arms of a mother who was burdened with several bags and a large plastic bowl overflowing with toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.
After she climbed into the SOTRAMA and arranged her merchandise, she did not ask for her baby back. Her baby remained in the arms of a stranger, who was now smiling and laughing with the woman’s daughter on his lap.
Two other women – strangers to each other – began a conversation that ended with reciprocal benedictions when they parted ways.
Everyone sucked their teeth in unison when a policeman stopped the SOTRAMA and asked to see IDs. But everyone quickly laughed when the prentike [the driver's apprentice] mocked the policeman and then dodged the outstretched hand intending to give him a playful slap on the head.
At a time when Mali has become unjustly branded around the world as a den of violence, religious zealotry and ethnic strife, this anecdote helped me remember what it is about Mali that made me fall in love with the place years ago, and what it is that keeps me going back. I want to highlight four of what I consider the most admirable qualities of Malian society and culture, and reflect on how, if properly harnessed, they might help the country cope with the challenges now before it.
(Although I use terms from the dominant Bambara language, having lived in Senoufo and Soninke communities in Mali, I know the Bambara have no exclusive claim to these qualities, and that equivalent concepts exist in other Malian languages.)
1. Mɔgɔya. This is what’s evident in the SOTRAMA story above — a spontaneous familiarity found even among strangers, an eagerness to engage with other people socially in almost any situation. The Bambara word mɔgɔ means “person,” and you could translate mɔgɔya as “personhood,” but that wouldn’t tell the whole story. In Mali, as in much of Africa, the person is not reducible to the individual; mɔgɔya is expressed through social relations, which exist prior to the person. “It is only by means of social ties that one can achieve personhood,” writes anthropologist Saskia Brand in her ethnography of Bamako, Mediating Means and Fate. An individual human being does not necessarily qualify as a person because, as Brand notes, someone who is anti-social may not be considered a mɔgɔ.
I think of mɔgɔya as a parallel of social capital, something that constitutes a public good, and the decline of which in American society has been noted by social scientists like Robert Putnam. Whatever you call it, Mali has it in spades. For outsiders like me, everyday displays of mɔgɔya can lift the spirits. For Malians, mɔgɔya is what holds society together.
2. Danbe. This term can be equated with dignity, honor, and reputation. Danbe stems in large part from what anthropologists call “ascribed status” — that part of one’s reputation one inherits from one’s ancestors, closely linked to one’s place of origin, as described in my own book. Malians take great pride in their history, both at the level of the family and of the nation. A whole category of people (known as jeliw or “griots”) make their living reminding other people of their danbe. They make sure the memory of illustrious forebears, of legendary heroes and great leaders from Mali’s precolonial history stays fresh in the public mind.
Malians consequently tend to have a solid sense of who they are and where they came from. They exhibit comparatively little desire to mimic outsiders, whether it’s the French, the Americans or the Saudis. They have their own ideals to emulate, rooted in centuries of oral tradition and in their own understanding of their faith. “For us, danbe is at the center of everything,” a Malian man once told me. “It’s like water, you cannot live without it.”
3. Faso kanu. This term literally means “love of father’s house,” but a better translation would be “patriotism.” People unfamiliar with Mali might be tempted to dismiss the country as another African basket case built around arbitrary European-drawn borders lumping together ethnic groups that ought to be separate. But all borders are arbitrary, and overall Malians coexist quite well within the borders they inherited (I’ll address a notable exception below). They relate to their nation-state in a way many other Africans don’t, in part because of the danbe complex of dignity, honor and historical memory that goes back to the 13th-century founding of the Mali Empire. Watching recent news footage from Timbuktu and elsewhere in newly liberated zones, I’ve been struck by the scenes of jubilant crowds greeting the troops and journalists, and by hordes of children chanting “MALI! MALI! MALI!” Even as the country has been at war, Malians have been transfixed by their national soccer team, les Aigles, who on Saturday battled their way past South Africa to reach the semi-finals in the African Cup of Nations. Don’t tell them their national identity is a meaningless colonial-era construction; they’ll think you’re stupid or crazy.
4. Senenkunya. Definitely the most idiosyncratic of the four, senenkunya is a system of joking relations that cross-cuts distinctions of ethnicity, caste, and clan. When two strangers in Mali meet, the first thing they do is ask each others’ jaamu or clan name. If for example one’s a Traoré and the other’s a Diarra, or one’s a Coulibaly and the other’s a Keita, or one’s a Fulani cattle herder and the other is a blacksmith (both statuses readily revealed by clan name), the second thing they will do is ritually insult one another. They will belittle each others’ intelligence, ancestry, and diet, often accusing each other of flatulence. And then they will get along like old friends.
Bizarre as it may appear, senenkunya is about a lot more than ritual insults (see a recent BBC article). It lays out a shared cultural blueprint to help people from all walks of life relate to one another. If two people in conflict learn that they are “joking cousins,” the conflict is immediately ended. Senenkunya is a system of alliances, some characterized by joking, others by deep respect and even avoidance. Like danbe, its origins can be traced to the earliest period of Mali’s precolonial history. If mɔgɔya is the glue that holds Malian society together, senenkunya is the grease that facilitates social relations and exchange.
(A couple of my colleagues in France, Etienne Smith and Cécile Canut, have questioned the utility of senenkunya and other African systems of joking relations, describing analyses like mine as outmoded functionalist irenicism. While I don’t know what irenicism is, I do consider their argument a fitting contribution from two dim-witted, flatulent eaters of donkey meat.)
Mali’s combination of strong social capital, concern for dignity, national identity, and joking relations described above can, I believe, help the country survive the conflict that now engulfs it. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, there’s nothing that’s wrong with Mali that can’t be fixed by what’s right with Mali. But Mali’s history since independence also suggests that these cultural assets have not extended evenly to all parts of the country. The Tuareg have no joking cousins, and as the BBC’s Tim Whewell puts it, “This is a bad time in Mali to be a people without cousins.” The “Tuareg problem” in the north is the one ethnic divide in contemporary Mali with political salience, and groups on both sides of this divide consider themselves the historical victims. Light-skinned Tuareg point to a history of periodic repression by the Malian state and its associated ethnic militias, while their darker-skinned neighbors point to a history of being enslaved and attacked by the Tuareg. Recent recriminations against Tuareg and Arabs in Timbuktu are rooted in this history.
For Mali to break the decades-long cycle of conflict in the north, two things must happen. One, Tuareg leaders must face up to the legacy of slavery and racism that marks their people’s relations with black Africans. Two, officials of the central government must face up to the pattern of neglect and abuse that marks their relations with the Tuareg. At a juncture when even some Europeans are calling for an independent Tuareg state, perhaps we should think instead about how Tuareg and non-Tuareg can forge new bonds of peace with each other. The inclusiveness of Malian society simply needs to be taken a step further. It is not so far-fetched to imagine that all citizens of Mali, regardless of ethnicity or skin tone, might someday soon unite behind a common national identity.
Allez les Aigles!