In search of Mali’s Russia connection

If you follow press coverage of public events in Mali, particularly street demonstrations, you may have noticed a pattern over the last few years: alongside expressions of anti-French sentiment, which I’ve written about extensively on this blog, are frequently expressions of pro-Russia sentiment. Below are a few examples of photos taken at demonstrations held at Bamako’s Place de l’Indépendance over the past month.

A banner at a Bamako rally on 21 August:
“Down with France and ECOWAS / Thanks Dicko / Thanks Malian Army”
(Note the smaller sign at left supporting Mali’s ties to Russia; AP photo)
“Group of Malian Patriots: Thanks China and Russia for their support of Mali!” (Deutsche Welle photo)
Screen cap from Horon TV video of 21 August rally:
“We need Russia”/”There is no ethnic war, no rebels in Mali. It’s France and her mercenaries killing Malians.”
Demonstration, 8 September :
“Support for the army / Long live Russia and China / ECOWAS and France get out” (AFP photo)

It’s hard to know what to make of these signs. Does a broad base of support for Russia exist among Malians? Among Bamakois more specifically? Or are pro-Russia demonstrators just more likely to show up and get photographed at marches?

Well, if pollster Sidiki Guindo’s work is as reliable as in the past, Russia these days would appear to be the most popular foreign power among Bamakois. In a survey conducted immediately after the events that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) from power on 18 August, Guindo and his team found that 88% of Bamako respondents had a favorable view of Russia–much higher than for the USA, ECOWAS, or France, though just a touch above favorable views of China.

21-23 August 2020 phone survey of 925 Bamako residents: “Do you have a favorable opinion of…”

What explains such strong support for Russia in this part of the world?

One likely factor is that a generation of Mali’s top secondary school graduates were sent for university training in the Soviet Union. It is quite common to meet Malians who studied film making in Moscow, forestry in Voronezh, law in Tashkent, or food science in Odessa. (Full disclosure: I’m married to one of them.) Most of these students received full scholarships. Between 1962 and 1993, according to research by Tatiana Smirnova and Ophélie Rillon, some 2500 Malians received Soviet degrees–which must be a huge portion of all Malian university graduates during that period. (Still others attended universities in Soviet satellite states like Poland or East Germany.) But in the 1990s with the Cold War over, that pipeline began to dry up as first Soviet and then Russian funding for scholarships diminished, and living conditions for African students in Russia deteriorated.

(My wife’s scholarship from the USSR came at the tail end of the Soviet period: it was awarded to her in 1990 and fortunately kept funding her through the completion of her masters degree in 1996, even though the USSR broke up in late 1991 and her university subsequently transformed into a Ukrainian institution.)

Africans still study in Russia today, which claims to provide 15,000 state-funded spots annually to foreign students. Training so many Malian and other African university students was something of a soft power triumph for the USSR. To this day, many of Mali’s high-ranking civil servants and leaders of industry have fond memories of their Soviet student years, and much of that goodwill has carried over to Russia.

The guys brandishing pro-Russia signs in this year’s Bamako protests, however, are too young even to remember the Soviet Union. They clearly belong to a different category of Malian russophiles. And some of them are organized.

The Groupe des Patriotes du Mali (GPM) was formed at least three years ago. It has a very active Facebook page, created in early 2017. Its content has been equal parts pro-Russia and anti-France. The GPM organized one demonstration in January 2020 demanding the departure of foreign troops from Malian soil and burning French flags, and its members and their signs have a knack for showing up in press photos of subsequent demonstrations against IBK and in support of the junta (see above).

Below is an image from the GPM’s Facebook page, taken at a rally in August 2017:

Image may contain: 3 people
“Long live Russia / Putin the Solution / “Down with MINUSMA; Down with France”

Despite the GPM’s media savvy, however, I don’t see the organization as a mass movement. Its following is modest: most of the videos on its Facebook page received dozens or hundreds of views, not thousands. It is also entirely possible that the group receives funding from the Russian embassy in Bamako to keep it afloat.

But the GPM has clearly tapped into a vein of pro-Russia public opinion in Bamako, and perhaps in Mali more broadly, which I suspect would still exist in the absence of external support. In other words, even if the GPM turned out to be an “astroturf” organization, it’s feeding on real grassroots support. With respect to Operation Barkhane, the GPM’s message is similar to those broadcast through official and semi-official Russian channels, which have been highly critical of French military intervention in Mali. (Never mind that the French wouldn’t have been able to fly their armored vehicles in without chartered Russian cargo planes!)

In addition to scholarships and other soft-power programs, the Russians have pursued closer military ties with Mali in recent years. Russia has been Mali’s top arms supplier for the past decade. (This assertion contradicts a recent DW article on the subject, which supposedly drew its data from the same SIPRI source I used.) A bilateral military cooperation agreement was promised in 2016 and signed last year with IBK’s government. Most recently, Mali acquired two Mi-35 attack helicopters from Russia.

So I would not make too much of the fact that two of the junta leaders recently returned from military training in Russia. This doesn’t imply that Russia was behind their takeover any more than Colonel Assimi Goita’s US training implies a US backing. Friendly bilateral relations between Russia and Mali go back a long time, even if they became less prominent for a decade or two after the end of the Cold War. These relations have clearly translated into enduring public support for Russia in Bamako. And all indications are that Mali-Russia ties will deepen in the future.

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“Hands off my junta!”

Or, Why the international community should show post-IBK Mali some love

The parallels between this week’s events Bamako and those of March 2012 keep coming. On top of the fact that both began as mutinies at the Soundiata Keita military camp in Kati, and led to the forced departure of sitting presidents, we’ve also seen revelations this week that the officers who carried out this week’s action (and who have been calling themselves the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (National Committee for the Salvation of the People, CNSP) were trained by Russia. And the United States.

(Just as in 2012, it’s vital not to be distracted by such details: as Denis Tull has reminded us, most Malian military officers have received foreign training, often in multiple countries. The sometimes implicit, sometimes overt suggestion accompanying these revelations is that foreign governments somehow fomented these officers’ actions. I think it’s safer to assume that soldiers in Mali are capable, like people everywhere else, of taking initiatives without foreign prompting or assistance, and that they did so on this occasion.)

Two more close parallels, on which I want to concentrate here, have been the international response and the reaction in Bamako to that response. The international response occurs in three phases.

Phase 1: Issue expressions of concern while trying to clarify the situation. What exactly happened–was it a mutiny? Was it a coup? The US government is apparently still trying to resolve this question. Calling it a coup would require cutting off all aid. This is what the US ultimately did in 2012. (By contrast, it chose to turn a blind eye the following year when the Egyptian army deposed President Mohamed Morsi.)

Phase 2 requires condemnations and calls for a return to civilian rule. France, apparently caught off-guard by the situation, has done this without explicitly asking for IBK’s return. ECOWAS on the other hand has drawn a hard line demanding that IBK be immediately restored to office. President Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire has been advocating a particularly tough response, at least according to the francophone press–just as he did last time.

Alassane Ouattara and IBK in Bamako last month (photo: France 24)

We are now in Phase 3: punishment. Mali has been suspended from regional bodies (ECOWAS and the African Union); its borders with other ECOWAS states have supposedly been sealed and financial flows to the country cut off. During this phase in 2012, I heard from many Bamakois that these measures were all for show: as I wrote at the time, few took the ECOWAS “embargo” seriously, and it was lifted after only a few days.

By going through these phases, Western leaders might be guided by lofty principles: officially, at least, they want to protect the democratic process and state institutions their governments’ aid programs have spent so long trying to build up. African leaders might share these principles but they also have more pressing concerns: they don’t want the officers in their own restive security forces getting any ideas. Ouattara is in an especially vulnerable position in this regard: Cote d’Ivoire has seen many mutinies in recent years.

Malians recognize the self-serving rhetoric and double standards at play here. Some of them (including in one Tweet from an account supposedly linked to the CNSP) have observed that when Ivorian troops ousted President Henri Konan Bédié in 1999, Ouattara himself–then an opposition leader–welcomed it as “not a coup d’état, but a popular revolution supported by all Ivorians.”

So Malians have good reason to be wary of high-minded calls for a quick return to democracy in their country, particularly since few were satisfied with the state of Mali’s supposed democracy to begin with. International sanctions and heavy-handed intervention will only strengthen their support for military rule, as I believe they did in 2012. Bamakois took to the streets repeatedly back then to demonstrate their opposition to ECOWAS.

Of the many hand-lettered placards I recall these demonstrators brandishing, the one that stood out most read “Touche pas ma junte“–best translated as “Hands off my junta.” I can imagine similar placards appearing this time. As they were in 2012, Malian social media is full of accusations that ECOWAS is acting as a French stooge in this affair.

Understandably, the international community cannot be seen to encourage coups. Yet its attempts to reverse this week’s events in Mali risk doing more harm than good. What to do?

I propose this: the world’s governing bodies will decide collectively that what occurred in Bamako on 18 August 2020 was not a coup. No, it was a group of military officers applying, let’s call them “enhanced resignation techniques,” to a sitting president. They thereby accelerated a departure from office that, let’s be honest, would almost certainly have come about before the end of his term one way or another, even if these officers hadn’t intervened. And no blood was apparently spilled, which is quite an improvement over Mali’s previous episodes of forced regime change. So we will call what happened an enhanced, non-violent resignation event.

Sure, it’s doublespeak, but it’s the kind of doublespeak the international community is accustomed to. And maybe adopting it will allow their governments to curtail the punishment phase of their response, thereby allowing Malians to get on with the process of what my previous post referred to as a “hard reset”–that is, deciding together how to redesign their political system and ultimately how to break out of this cycle of poor governance and military intervention.

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Taking it to the streets

Yes, Mali’s 2020 coup looked a lot like the previous one eight years ago. Frustration had been mounting, both among the general public and among the military. The army had been taking too many casualties up north. Troops in the Kati barracks finally mutinied and drove into Bamako, where they occupied the national broadcasting service and took over administrative buildings. Waiting once again for the new junta to make its late-night television debut gave me a chilling sense of déjà vu.

Meet the new bosses…

Much was different, too. For one thing, this time the putchistes managed to arrest the sitting president and force him to announce the dissolution of parliament and his resignation from office before the TV cameras. For another, the five officers who then appeared on screen projected a much calmer demeanor than Captain Sanogo and his unruly band of troops in 2012, and they seem to be more highly ranked. The new junta’s spokesman, Colonel Ismael Wagué, rattled off a list of grievances quite similar to those rattled off eight years ago, and announced the usual post-coup measures (closure of borders, a curfew, etc.).

But where Sanogo was always wary of foreign governments and their mediation, Wagué asked international forces–including MINUSMA and Barkhane–to “remain our partners for stability and the restoration of security.” And he called for “the efficient application of the Algiers Peace Accord.” Many of the protestors thronging Bamako’s streets over the past several weeks to demand President Keita’s resignation see this accord as treasonous, and think UN and French troops are part of the problem in Mali, not part of the solution. So Col. Wagué’s statement was remarkable–even if he didn’t mean it, he was at least diplomatic enough to pay lip service to Mali’s foreign “partners.”

ECOWAS is talking up sanctions again, and foreign governments are issuing rote condemnations and calling for a return to constitutional order. But mark my words: this genie won’t go back in the bottle. Keita’s rule was disastrous for the country, and very few Malians would welcome his return to power. He will not be allowed to come back to the presidential palace–not for the remaining three years of his term of office, not for a three-month transitional government, not even to clean out his desk. Consider him gone. And his son Karim too.

In March 2012 I wrote about the difficulty of sticking to an institutional pathway to political change when the institutions of the state have been hijacked by the people in charge. People in Western countries have not experienced this difficulty for a long time. With notable exceptions, they have been relatively well served by their constitutions, courts, and elections over many years.

This is why, even if they despise Donald Trump (whose presidency has been possibly as ruinous for the US as Keita’s was for Mali), most Americans are willing to wait until the next election to see him driven from power. But in Mali, the institutions of the state have only worked to reinforce the power and privilege of those at the top. The ruling elite put on a good show of inclusive governance, but their commitment to democratic values was hollow.

I don’t think I appreciated this fact adequately in 2012. I saw the junta’s civilian supporters (COPAM and MP22) as dead-enders, and dismissed their critiques of Mali’s democratic system as cynical. But after seven years of Keita’s presidency, I understand their position. A hard reset is necessary in Mali–the institutions of its third republic (1992-2020) will not serve the country anymore. Perhaps they never have; perhaps the system’s checks and balances existed only on paper.

What do you do when you can’t trust the legislature or the courts to rein in an executive intent on concentrating its own power and looting public resources? What do you do when the electoral apparatus is set up to ensure that incumbents never lose? You go into the streets, where the Sovereign People can make their collective voices heard.

“When a head of state fails in his obligations (by various constitutional violations) and the People, angered, rise up, all will bow down before them,” wrote Amadou Aliou N’Diaye in June as street protests were ramping up in Bamako. “The President of the Republic, the Constitution, the institutions… legality itself must bow down before their legitimacy.”

This Amadou Aliou N’Diaye is no activist or rabble-rouser. He is a former head of Mali’s supreme court.

Perhaps the streets are the only functioning institution left in Mali these days–the place where ordinary citizens can still hold their leaders accountable. I understand why so many in Bamako took to the streets to demand their president’s removal from office, and why the army eventually stepped in on their side.

But I do not celebrate these events. As Greg Mann has pointed out, a military coup is not the same thing as a popular revolution, even if it resembles or coincides with one. So here’s hoping that a fourth republic, or whatever comes next for Malians, will be better–fairer, more inclusive, and less venal—than what came before.

And here’s hoping that Americans won’t have to take to the streets to make their voices heard come November.

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Tuesdays with Mahmoud

During a recent press conference (below), Mahmoud Dicko–former head of Mali’s Haut Conseil Islamique and de facto leader of its political opposition–said that big events in Mali often happen on Tuesdays. The 19 November 1968 coup that overthrew President Modibo Keita was on a Tuesday. The 26 March 1991 coup that overthrew President Moussa Traoré was also on a Tuesday. He didn’t cite further examples, but two points determine a line, and one can imagine that line leading up to Tuesday, 11 August 2020, which Dicko described as a “decisive day” in Malian affairs.

Fortunately Dicko didn’t mention Mali’s most recent coup (21-22 March 2012), perhaps because that began on a Wednesday, was complete by a Thursday, and in any case has often been called the most idiotic coup that ever happened–with good reason. (Though none of this has prevented some with poor memories from slotting that coup into the “great Malian events that happened on Tuesdays” category as well.)

11 August 2020 is meant to be a showdown between the forces calling for regime change, with Dicko at their head, and the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). Building on their momentum from a series of street protests starting in early June, the anti-regime camp has planned for weeks to mobilize their supporters. The unstated goal seems to be a massive show of civil disobedience that forces IBK to resign from office, rather like the protests that prompted Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré to leave power in 2014.

It could happen. Mali’s usual models of forced regime change–coups either initiated by the army (à la 1968 and 2012) or starting out as street demonstrations and resulting in the army taking power (à la 1991) don’t seem likely in 2020, with Mali already the focus of concerted “stabilization” efforts by foreign powers and international organizations. But should the Malian armed forces stop supporting IBK and decide simply to sit this one out, Mali could see its own version of the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which French and UN troops would be hard-pressed to quell. Thus, with considerable disorder but little violence, would the governing regime lose power.

Dicko has proved an able organizer, a popular figure who has accumulated an energetic base. If you listen to Sunday’s press conference (mostly in Bambara), you’ll hear his admirers in the audience raucously voicing their support and, periodically, chanting his name. Dicko’s populist aura these days is quite unlike that of his chief rival/sometime ally in leading Mali’s Islamic civil society, Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara. You can see the contrast by comparing their respective press conferences this week; Haïdara’s (also in Bambara) is below. If both men are charismatic leaders who like to refer to themselves in the third person, the similarities end there.

Where Dicko appears on an outdoor stage thronged with people before an adoring crowd, Haïdara sits in a well-appointed living room, a small child (his grandson?) sitting–sometimes fidgeting, sometimes napping–next to him the entire time. In 2003 anthropologist Dorothea Schulz described Haïdara as sitting outside of and critiquing the political and religious establishment. For years he maintained that position. These days, as head of the HCI, he seems more comfortably part of the establishment, and lacks both Dicko’s heated rhetoric and confrontational approach. Where Dicko wants to frame the 11 August protest as a date with destiny, Haïdara seems determined to play down the potential for conflict, at least within the Muslim community, and stops short of calling for anyone’s resignation. And where Dicko makes a point of accusing France of meddling, Haïdara doesn’t even mention the French.

What comes next–will Mali’s government abruptly fall, or will there be a negotiated, more gradual transition? It seems to me that the throngs of young men who flock to Dicko’s rallies are unlikely to settle for a new cabinet or even a new prime minister. They see IBK as fundamentally unfit to rule. The whole scene is reminiscent of March 2012, when the country’s previously elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), was ousted from power. Here’s something I wrote back then:

Mali’s March 22 coup continues a terrible precedent, reinforcing the notion that in desperate times, individuals can use the power of the gun to press the state’s “reset button,” dissolving the institutions of government rather than working through them to effect needed changes. Such an improvisational course is always dangerous, since leaders who lack effective institutional oversight are prone to every type of undemocratic and abusive behavior.

The question Malians have struggled with in 2012 is whether it can be more dangerous to adhere to a constitutional course of action when state institutions are compromised and have lost the trust of the people they are meant to govern.

More than eight years later, distrust in those institutions has only grown. And sooner or later–whether today, or some other Tuesday, or maybe even another day of the week–some new expression of the “sovereign people of Mali” will take action to invalidate the constitution and whatever other formal legal institutions are keeping IBK in power. His government will fall, and Mahmoud Dicko will be standing by to pick up the pieces.

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Sounding the alarm

I received a 15-minute audio clip from a friend via WhatsApp in which an unnamed man, apparently a Malian, discusses Mali’s political situation in a tone of utter desperation and indignation at the fact that seven years of foreign intervention has only made matters worse. Given that a delegation from ECOWAS is visiting Bamako today, his analysis struck me as timely and I have decided to feature it here–the original audio clip in French, followed by my English translation (very slightly condensed, with URLs added by me). I feature this anonymous speaker’s analysis not because I agree with much of it (there are plenty of factual errors here) but because it encapsulates a central narrative about Mali’s dire circumstances in 2020 and what is needed to change these circumstances, and because I think this narrative is the dominant framework that Bamako’s street protesters use to explain their country’s crisis. If I could send one message to the ECOWAS delegation, and for that matter the French foreign ministry, it would be: “Listen to this.”

I’m not speaking French because I understand it. I’m speaking French because I’m in pain and I don’t know when this pain will end. But it’s my duty to sound the alarm about what’s happening in Mali today. Before Mali, ECOWAS, MINUSMA, the UN, the G5 Sahel, before the religious leader of Mali, Ousmane Madani Haidara, the so-called president of Mali’s Haut Conseil Islamique, before our brothers living here with us in Mali and before everyone who identifies as African, especially ECOWAS: I sound the alarm.

A protest in early June demanding the departure of IBK, France, and MINUSMA

They finished off Mali’s children, under the gaze of the international community–mainly the creators of this mess and disorder, France. France wants to [destroy] us before the entire world because we are a people without weapons, defenses, or advocates. This is what happened to Rwanda in 1994, before the whole world, the UN, and the French people, they let Rwandans massacre each other until millions were dead.

Today in 2020, France claims it’s helping Mali to end the war. We don’t know–France came to propagate the war, to intensify the war, to take our lands away from us under the gaze of the international community, with the complicity of ECOWAS and our African brothers willing to sacrifice the Malian people for their own interests. There is too much disorder, criminality, corruption, and in the midst of all this Malians cannot reclaim their rights. They’re taking people hostage, killing people in their own homes, kidnapping the opposition leader all with French complicity. Yet not one African in the ECOWAS region has protested. Today I have no more hope for Africa.

If you think that Mali’s problems concern Mali alone, set yourself straight. If you think that what’s happening in Mali will never happen to you, set yourself straight. The enemy is circulating among us–France and its politicians, who have never helped Africa and will never help Africa until the end of the world. We will do what the Rwandans did: look, please, at the anglophone countries around us. The day Paul Kagamé abandoned the French language, he regained work, development, and peace, but the French language is the most–I don’t know how to say it. I’m sounding the alarm.

IBK: la bête noire, barbue

Before the entire world, France has been killing Malians because of one person, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Whatever France gives Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to sign, he signs! Because he never signs in his people’s interest, only in the interest of the French. Which is why they don’t want Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to leave, because once he’s gone, France will be gone too, full stop. Our soldiers can’t support us because they’ll be stuck with the label “coup d’etat”–even though it’s not the army out there, it’s the people who are fed up with IBK. We don’t want him, we don’t need him, his regime, or his children anymore, everybody knows what his children are up to. Nothing’s hidden.

You who call yourselves ECOWAS, at the moment when Malians are demanding their rights, you’ve come to make things worse–because we know what ECOWAS is about! It’s a clan, when things are getting hot for someone, France sends its so-called ECOWAS people, “Go calm things down,” because if you don’t do things in their favor France itself will intervene. That’s what is happening today in Mali.

I don’t speak French well, I didn’t go to school; I have to speak it to make my point understood. I’m speaking to men of integrity and dignity, the children of Africa who will never let Mali fall into enemy hands. Mali’s people are tired of this unending war, two million Euros spent uselessly each day and our children have no food, no school, no health, no security, no housing…. And the whole world is trying to say that nothing’s going on. When they’re finished killing and massacring, take your phones, go record the deaths, their comings and goings. They’re through killing unarmed civilians. Just imagine what will happen next.

ECOWAS–I don’t know what it means; it’s for destroying their brothers. Could you imagine the European Union destroying a country in Europe over an African? But we see the African Union destroying an African country to turn it over to the EU! That’s what’s happening in 2020. I’m here to bear witness to what France is doing in Mali. They know full well why we are tired of IBK–he didn’t let our children go to school, he didn’t open clinics for them, he didn’t give us security. What good is IBK for Mali? What’s his attachment to Mali? To govern? To take Mali’s wealth? To send his children to the West? This is what we reject. On TV they pretend nothing’s going on–every day Malians are being massacred, north, south and center.

African brothers and sisters, I’m calling on the international community: don’t remain aloof thinking you’re free, you’re the kings–no! God showed His power with the corona virus. God unleashed this virus to show his anger with us. You’re destroying other people to save your own. Africa was born for suffering because its people will not live up to their responsibilities. They think they can stand by while their brothers are being killed, then they will come forward and say “We didn’t know, this is unfortunate!” All this is happening before your eyes. When Qaddafi decided to help Africa, they said no, and you saw what happened to Qaddafi.

And now what are they doing? They’ve sent people to try to kill Mahmoud Dicko because he bothers them, because he’s come to save the Malian people, because he’s not a corrupt person. He doesn’t want their money, their cars, their gold, their houses or their vacations. Mahmoud Dicko, may God protect you and give you long life! To take Mahmoud Dicko they’ll have to destroy Mali, they’ll have to kill all of us to have him! That is what France usually does… with the complicity of a few corrupt men, greedy for money, cars, vacations, and white women. That is why all their solutions operate by killing Africa’s children. We say NO to ECOWAS, no to the international community!

Mahmoud Dicko: Mali’s best hope?

With more than 30,000 military personnel in Mali, look at what has happened! Before the international community, MINUSMA, the UN, ECOWAS, nobody dares to speak up. How can one person command the whole world against us? From Kayes to Kidal, Malians have all said NO to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita; what does France expect? They kill Malians to hang on to power, to terrorize Malians. No, Malians are not a subjugated people, Mali is not a subjugated country! We will fight to the last to get rid of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and France and ECOWAS and MINUSMA. By God, you will see, I promise you this will happen soon because we are determined to do it. We are determined to give our lives for Mali.

The day we elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in 2013, there was no international community, MINUSMA, ECOMOG [sic], G5 Sahel, the EU. It was Malians who put him in power, in peace and security, and this is the same power he must give back to Malians. They’re done killing Mali…. Go find another people, not the people of Mali, of Modibo Keita, of Sunjata Keita, of Omar Tall! We Malians, let us recognize who is complicit with France and with Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Let him go where he will: Mali is and will always remain for Malians.

Some Africans are complicit, claiming they want peace. What peace? Would you destroy others to say there is peace? The UN and MINUSMA have set Mali ablaze, we don’t know what’s happening, the north is full of weapons, we don’t know where they’re coming from. The north is full of militiamen, we don’t know where they’re coming from. Now they’re coming to kill us because rumor has it that Mali is a rich country, and France wants to profit to eliminate Malians. That’s what they did in South Sudan, setting people against each other such that they’re still fighting today. This is what these politicians do.

From today, I call on all who speak the French language, get rid of it, learn English! Because they have more [pity?] than the French language. France destroys heads and leaves children orphaned, that is their governance system. Has anyone seen a French factory on the African continent? What factories are there–Jumbo, mosquito nets, Paracetamol? What are they using to develop Africa–their lotteries and horse racing bets? That’s what they give Africans. Have you ever seen a Peugeot factory in an African country? A Citroen factory? France isn’t here for Africa. France is here for its own, with the complicity of those seeking to destroy Africa.

Share this message as far as you can, until it reaches the ear of Macron, because he must know what he’s doing, and because the EU and ECOWAS are complicit with France, we all know what they’re doing to destroy Africa. But Mali is not a country you can destroy because not all of our people are corrupt.

Postscript, 18 July: As I predicted they would on the BBC’s “Focus on Africa” a few days ago, the anti-IBK coalition has roundly rejected overtures from ECOWAS to resolve the political impasse in Bamako.

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The two sides of Mahmoud Dicko

Mali’s political situation is as tense as it’s ever been, with Covid-related economic disruptions added to an already dismal security environment, police violence against civilians, and a growing sense of public alarm at the direction the country is moving in. The man of the moment appears to be a 66-year-old imam named Mahmoud Dicko. Having organized a pair of huge street rallies in Bamako and other towns (on 5 and 19 June) calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), Dicko has emerged as the de facto leader of Mali’s political opposition–even though he’s not formally involved in politics. Facing the massive show of force mounted by Dicko and his allies, IBK has agreed to talks that might lead to some sort of power-sharing arrangement.

Nobody who has paid attention to Dicko’s lengthy involvement in Malian public affairs has been surprised to see him playing such a prominent political role today. Although trained as religious scholar, he has been working with or alongside Mali’s officially secular state since the 1980s, when he was named to AMUPI, a council of Islamic affairs created by the government. Shortly after rising to the helm of AMUPI’s successor organization, the Haut Conseil Islamique, Dicko spearheaded the opposition to progressive family legislation in 2009, mobilizing street protests and filling Bamako’s Stade du 26 Mars stadium with supporters. He and his allies succeeded in killing this legislation primarily by framing it as part of a Western attempt to undermine Malian family values. This experience demonstrated two things: that Islam had become a political force to be reckoned with in Mali, and that Dicko was an ambitious and skilled political entrepreneur.

Judging from his interviews in French-language European media, you’d be tempted to consider Dicko a religious moderate and apolitical defender of tolerance. In his recent interview with Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, one of France’s top Sahel specialists, for Politique Internationale, Dicko claimed to be all in favor of the bedrock institutions of modern liberalism, from elections to an independent judiciary. The problem, he said, is that these institutions in Mali have been subverted by bad actors–members of the country’s despised classe politique who have bent the nominally democratic process to their own selfish ends. The true cause of Mali’s multifaceted crisis, according to Dicko, is poor governance. The jihadi militants launching attacks in Mali’s northern and central regions have been primarily motivated not by religious ideology (they have only been “superficially Salafized,” in his words) but by the fundamental failure of the Malian state to keep order and provide basic services. You’d almost think Dicko had been reading the latest book by Pérouse de Montclos, which makes a very similar (and, in my view, compelling) case. In the June issue of the Paris-based La Lettre Confidentielle du Mali Dicko describes France as “a partner of Mali” and boasts of his own warm relations with Mali’s former colonial ruler.

But one thing that can be safely said about Mahmoud Dicko is that he knows how to tailor his message to his audience. When addressing Malian audiences in their own language (Dicko speaks Bambara, Fulfulde, and Songhay in addition to Arabic and French), he has often sent very different signals. In his sermons and speeches, he has propagated the myth that violent jihad in Mali was cooked up by the French as part of their sinister bid to recolonize the country (the same narrative famously recounted, in somewhat more extreme form, last November by singer Salif Keita). As hopes for a decisive resolution of the country’s northern instability have soured there has been growing demand in Mali for this story, and Dicko has not hesitated to sell it–for domestic consumption only, that is.

To me the question is not whether Dicko has political ambitions; it’s what his political ambitions are. He better than anyone understands that political Islam has become an influential player on Mali’s political stage. One could easily imagine him as a kingmaker or power behind the throne, along the same lines as the late Hassan al-Turabi in Sudan. But one could also imagine him converting his “association,” the Coordination des Mouvements, Associations, et Sympathisants (established last September), into a party and running as its candidate for president in some future election.

To be clear, I consider the criticisms that Dicko and his allies have levied against IBK as entirely legitimate. The sitting head of state has yet to demonstrate, after seven years in power, that he has a vision for Mali that is not simply “more of the same” even as conditions have steadily gone from bad to worse. IBK is a political survivor and if he had any intention of stepping down voluntarily, he would have done so by now. Moreover, the odds of populist street protests unseating him, as happened to Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré in 2014, are probably low as long as thousands of French and UN troops remain on Malian soil.

Yet public discontent is high, particularly in Bamako, and it is not hard to envision a large group of Malians deciding that they shouldn’t have to put up with IBK’s disastrous regime for another three years. They see their country falling apart all around them and they want someone to take action now. Imam Dicko probably commands more legitimacy with the Malian public than IBK these days, but we have no clear picture yet of what Dicko and his supporters would do with formal power if they held it. The opposition coalition has issued a rather vague manifesto of aspirations (e.g. “institutional reforms to guarantee free and fair elections” and “guaranteed access to public services”).

In his book Bamako Sounds, Ryan Skinner described “an in-the-mix ethics that values keeping things in play (opportunistic and provisional) in order to work them out.” Lately I find myself thinking about that line more and more. Experience has taught me not to expect dramatic resolutions to crisis in Mali. Rather, the most likely outcome is always one in which political entrepreneurs try to “keep things in play” for as long as possible, exploiting instead of banishing conditions of uncertainty. One prediction I can make is that whatever the mix of political change might be in Bamako, Mahmoud Dicko and political Islam will be in it.

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Mali’s existential threat: Jihadism, or the French?

I have tremendous admiration for Salif Keita, who for decades has reigned as the Malian singer best known to Western ears. His recordings, concerts, and activism have made him famous all over the world. With a career dating back to the 1960s, the man has an incredible backstory. Having released what he calls his final album earlier this year, this eminence grise is spending his twilight years in Bamako helping Mali’s young artists.

And, as of now, making political statements.

In this short recording, Keita addresses Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as “IBK,” and no relation to him). In familiar but respectful language–the singer addresses his president in Manding as kɔ̀rɔ, “elder brother”–he says he’s not seeking money or power, he’s just a Malian who loves his country. “But you know well,” he tells IBK, “that Macron, France, is sending people to kill Malians. It’s not the jihadists at all. They’re spreading false rumors about jihad, but there are no jihadists in the north. France is paying people to wreak havoc, to kill Malians. The cream of our youth is being killed.” Keita implores IBK to stop conspiring with the French and to put Mali’s welfare ahead of his own. He adds darkly that it would be better for IBK to leave power of his own accord than to be chased from power.

The notion that Mali’s grave and gathering insecurity stems not from militant jihadists but from French neocolonialism is not some fringe conspiracy theory in Mali. It’s been around in different forms for years, propagated for example by Muslim leaders with their own agendas. Mahmoud Dicko, the longstanding figurehead of Malian political Islam, blamed violence in the country’s central and northern regions earlier this year on “invisible, obscure forces that are planning to destabilize the entire subregion” (see video below).

Mali’s intellectuals have made similar interpretations of recent events. Professor Isaa N’diaye, a lion of Mali’s nationalist left, has raised the possibility that massacres of entire villages in the Mopti region–acts framed in the international media as perpetrated by local militias fueled by ethnic antagonism–were actually carried out by “foreign mercenaries.” The foreign mercenary is a recurring bogeyman in the Malian political imagination, and N’diaye’s analysis fits into a long history of anti-colonialist discourse in the Malian press and intelligentsia.

As brazen attacks against Malian army garrisons in the north have multiplied (most recently in Indelimane, in the Menaka region, where over 50 government troops are believed killed in a strike claimed by an ISIS affiliate), interpretations like these have become increasingly generalized among Malians, from Muslim activists to members of the francophone elite to ordinary people. Street demonstrations in Bamako and Sévaré have denounced France’s alleged role in stoking the deadly violence and called on Barkhane, the French military force in the region, to leave–along with UN peacekeepers and troops of the regional G5 Sahel security force.

As an anthropologist, I feel a certain duty to shore up my own anti-colonialist credentials. I am no supporter of France’s self-interested policies in Africa. Mali and its neighbors would be better off today if they had never been colonized. Successive French regimes have certainly contributed to the Sahel’s problems over the past several years, most notably through their involvement in ousting Qaddafi in 2011, then their decision to destroy armed jihadists in Mali while ignoring (and, occasionally, partnering with) armed separatists in the country.

Yet the argument that Mali has no jihadist problem, that all its woes stem from imperialist interference, and that the country would be just fine if France would only leave it in peace (see Mahmoud Dicko’s interview above), strikes me as a refusal to confront the internal problems that have sapped the Malian state since independence nearly six decades ago and have pushed a growing segment of its population into open revolt. As long as Mali’s intellectuals, religious leaders, and artists continue to frame their country’s crisis as purely or even primarily exogenous, this crisis will persist.

Denial, the saying goes, ain’t just a river in Egypt. These days it flows through Mali from end to end. And it finds confluence with a current of public frustration and despair the likes of which the country has not seen since 2012–the last time a Malian president was chased from power.

Postscript, 19 December: The French newspaper Libération has a good overview of growing anti-French sentiment in Bamako.

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The manyamagan

Editor’s note: The role of manyamagan[1] has no equivalent in Western culture.It is still carried out in several regions of our country,” wrote Aoua Keita in 1975; “it is exclusively female, very often passed down from mother to daughter and consists of helping young people in the first days or even months of their marriage.”

In 2010 I met an elderly manyamagan in Bamako. In the following excerpt of the interview she accorded me, one can sense frustrations about culture loss and transformation similar to those in my interview with a griot. One can also learn a lot about gender roles and how young Malian women entering marriage might learn the rules of femininity and appropriate wifely behavior. I’m not sure whether the manyamagan is disappearing in Bamako these days–or whether its disappearance would be something to mourn.

Being a manyamagan is all about educating the bride to give her to her husband. First for three days [prior to the wedding ceremony], and then for seven, altogether ten days.

A young woman who’s getting married knows nothing about how to treat her husband, how to treat her in-laws, how to look after children. [As manyamagan], if you see that she disrespected her husband somehow, you tell her to stop it. If you see that she spoke harshly to her husband, you tell her to stop it. You tell her that her husband is her family, that she must love him. “Your husband is a relation, you must love him. Your husband’s friends, you must never come between them. If your husband needs water for washing, you draw the water. If your husband comes with food, you cook it. If he says not to go out, you stay put. If he says not to go someplace, that he doesn’t like it, you stop.” Being a manyamagan is about those sorts of things.

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Henna on the feet of a new bride

Some people don’t want a manyamagan, they say they don’t need her; they’re afraid of the expense, because if you have a manyamagan you need to support her. If there’s a young girl with you, you need to support her. So they can say they don’t need her. With some, [the nuptial chamber] lasts three days. With others it’s seven days. Whatever your means can support, that’s what you do. Back home in the Segou region, it used to be a week but now they’ve dropped that to three days to reduce the expense.

Suppose a wedding happens on a Sunday. So [from then] through Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, [the bride] doesn’t go anywhere; you bring her good food to eat. She doesn’t eat to [millet or cornmeal porridge], couscous, rice, or bread. Because if she eats them, lying in one place, they won’t digest, they’ll make her tired.[2] So when she’s done there, she’ll turn out well, she’ll be a good wife, she’ll become radiant. The manyamagan sits to watch over her and checks the food she eats. Because people may come with food to give her and the food’s not good. You can tell her not to eat it.

Nowadays anyone can become a manyamagan, but in the old days a manyamagan was a garanke [member of the leatherworking caste]. No slaves, no blacksmiths, no nobles, no Sonrai, no Bella unless the Bella was a garanke. Only a garanke could be a manyamagan. But nowadays it’s become a means to make money: those who know its meaning and those who don’t all become manyamagan. They go to weddings and we’re there, we explain to them how it’s done. Many try to make money at it.

Some [couples] don’t even provide you a place to sleep. Others, when you go they respect you; some pay you your money, others don’t. Some treat you well, it’s like you’re in your own home. But with others you have to spend your own money. There are good and bad. It’s like when you start a job, you find peace and rest. But sometimes you don’t find rest. But if it’s your work it doesn’t bother you. You’re seeking a reputation: if you do it well, people will speak highly of you, they’ll respect you. [Being a manyamagan] used to have benefits, but these days the benefits are few; people don’t have much. Before, people would give you a lot of millet, and sugar, and money. These days you might just get a tiny bit of millet, because they don’t have enough.

Nowadays the man and the woman decide to marry each other. A man says “I like this one,” but he doesn’t know her father’s behavior or her mother’s behavior, he doesn’t know her own behavior. He just likes her because she is good-looking, and says “I’ll marry her.” If they get along, fine. If they don’t get along, she doesn’t need his father, his mother or him, and she walks out. That’s changed. It used to be that you and your husband would not lay eyes on one another until the konyo [nuptial celebration]….[3] If they get along, things work out. If they don’t get along, the father has nothing to say, the mother has nothing to say, [the bride] walks out on her two feet. That’s changed. Before, weddings didn’t cost a lot of money. Now a wedding is expensive, it has no barika [strength, vigor].

It used to be that you only knew your husband once when you married, at that time brides were very young, and the grooms were very young, and that was good. But now women of 20 years haven’t married. Women of 18 years haven’t married. Some are 30 and haven’t married.[4] That means they’ve learned a lot of things, a lot of things. It’s hard to find a young bride nowadays.

When a young bride marries, at that time she doesn’t have a lot of ideas, she fears her parents, she accepts whatever they tell her. But if she gets a lot of ideas, she’s 20 or 30 years old… maybe she’ll accept what her parents say because she’s understood a lot of things. If she’s a good wife it will work out, and if she doesn’t become a good wife, it gets ruined. Brides should marry early, that’s good. If a woman marries young, that’s good. My own children married at age 14, I myself was 13. All my children married early. But nowadays there aren’t husbands, it’s hard to find them. Even if you want to marry, if you can’t find a husband how can you marry? The lack of men is a problem![5]

I’ve advised a lot of brides, and none of them has divorced. Their marriage doesn’t die as long as their husband doesn’t die. But what God has cut, no one can reattach. All things are in God’s hands.


Notes

  1. I’ve encountered multiple ways to write this Manding word using the Latin alphabet, including “magnomaka” (Diallo, 2004) and “magnamagan” (Keita, 1975). In 2009, Malian TV began airing a reality/game show with couples competing to win a dream wedding and a house; the show was called “Manyamagan” (see a 2011 episode here). I chose the latter spelling because it is easiest for English speakers to pronounce accurately.
  2. By contrast, according to Aoua Keita’s description of mid-20th century life in the town of Nara, the manyamagan would feed the bride a liquid diet expressly to weaken potential resistance. When the time came for a husband to consummate the union with his new bride, Keita wrote, the manyamagan “offered her services to the husband to master the girl in case she refused out of fear or modesty. Fear, modesty and even antipathy could come into play all at once, for often the girls only met their husbands for the first time on their wedding day” (1975, pg. 274).
  3. While it is unusual today for a bride and groom not to have met before their wedding, many marriages are still arranged in Bamako. Fully 23 of the 50 wives my research team interviewed in the city back in 2012 reported that their first marriages had been arranged for them.
  4. According to the 2012-13 Demographic and Health Survey, the average age at first marriage for females in Bamako was 19.4, and 98% of Malian women surveyed had married by the time they turned 30.
  5. See my 2012 post on the “myth of female overpopulation.” I’ve devoted a chapter of my book manuscript to Bamako’s “marriage squeeze” (a lack of eligible men) and to this myth of a naturally imbalanced sex ratio.

Related readings

 

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Twilight of the griot

Editor’s note: In preparing a book manuscript on marriage based on 2010-2012  fieldwork, I find some interviews that I can’t integrate into the project. I’ve decided to start posting a few of the more noteworthy ones, translated and edited, to this blog. The interview excerpted below was with a jeli (pl. jeliw), also known as a griot, in his Bamako tailor shop, back in early 2012. As with all my interviewees, I promised him anonymity, so he goes nameless here.

Outsiders, if they know about griots at all, associate them with music and praise singing, but this veteran griot was no musician. For him being a griot, as he explained, had nothing to do with music. He took his inherited role seriously and was critical of the way other griots, and society in general, had become corrupted by money. His words now read like the sad chronicle of a dying way of life (what’s known in my profession as “salvage ethnography”). He spoke quietly while projecting an almost palpable energy; this was among the most intense interviews I’ve done. Special thanks to my wife Oumou for helping me with the translation from the Bamanan language.

My family is a jeli family from Segou. We are griots of the kings of Segou who lived four hundred years ago. Our way of being griots is different from other griots. I want you to understand that. Because there are griots who will go to your house, play their ngoni and ask for you for something. We don’t do that.

Peace talks between two towns in conflict, that was our first role as griots. The second role was to facilitate agreement between two families whose children were to be married. Whenever there is a marriage, it is because of a griot. If you wanted a wife for your son, you would call us, the griots, even before you told your son.

In the past, for example, the father was the one who would find his son a girl to marry. He would call a jeli and tell him, “Go ask for the hand of this girl from her parents for this son of mine.” The griot already knew the father of the girl, her grandfather, her mother and her grandmother. So you knew the girl was good, because she was from a good family. And you wanted to have the kind of girl married into your family, so you could have good children with her.

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A jelimuso (female griot) working a Bamako wedding in 2010, clutching banknotes in both hands. My interviewee took pains to distinguish himself from this kind of griot.

Her relatives would also talk about the family that was asking for the girl’s hand. They would try to find out if the other family had good people before letting a member of their family go live with them. They started with the boy’s father and grandfather to see if there was a history of good behavior in that family. If they all agreed that there was, they would give their approval for the marriage. Or someone might say, “You know that boy’s great grandfather once stole something, so we should not let them have our daughter.” Then there won’t be a marriage.

 

If your father stole something or your grandfather lied about something, that would ruin the dignity of the family. If that was the case, the girl’s family with a high standard wouldn’t let their daughter marry him. But if everything checked out about you and your family, then the girl’s family would agree to the marriage. Marriage was only allowed when the couple belonged to the same social class or group. A jeli could marry another jeli or a blacksmith. A blacksmith could also marry a jeli. A noble can marry another noble. A funè can marry another funè.[1]

If the couple really love each other, the marriage will last. But very few marriages last, because here the foundation of marriage used to be your upbringing–your roots, the people you come from, like your grandfather, your father. And today that is not important for people. If you have money, a good job and you are a funè, you can marry a griot here in Bamako, but that is not in [my family’s] background. The jeliw like Kouyaté, Sissoko, Diabaté and Dembelé can marry a funè, but [my family] will not marry funèw. Today if they have money, even Fulani and blacksmiths get married.[2]

Marriage in Bamako today has more heartache than happiness. If the bride’s family asks for 250,000 francs [about US$500], I should not negotiate with them like we are bargaining, but ask with respect and dignity, since the matter is about a human being. You cannot show in any way that you are trying to set the price of a human being. That way things get easier between you and the bride’s family. And then I will need to report back to the groom’s family. I will say they asked for 250,000 francs, and then agree to 100,000 francs. Then I will deliver just the 100,000 francs, with no extra for me. I don’t expect any money from you for my service; if even you give it to me I won’t take it. I just do it for God’s sake. If I have to travel to Segou or even Kidal to deliver the kolas,[3] I won’t accept your money. But today the jeli live off marriage negotiations, as if it is a profession. That is why marriage liaisons are not strong anymore and marriages don’t last.

[In my family] we don’t want that money, but other jeliw live on that. If you call them to  negotiate for a wedding to take place, they will demand 10,000 or 20,000 francs for transport. Someone even came here and proposed 10,000 francs as a negotiation fee when his own daughter was the future bride. I couldn’t accept it–I left the room, I was so upset.

Being a jeli is really hard. Real jeliw don’t exist now. All we have today is making money. If a jeli today meets a Mr. Bagayogo, he will tell him that he is related to all Bagayogos in general; he won’t say his father’s name or his grandfather’s name, or his father’s siblings, just “Bagayogo.” That is not being a jeli, that is asking for money! If I meet him I should do it the right way, starting with his father, his grandfather, then I come down to him. In Mali there are a lot of patronyms; I can speak about 72 patronyms [4] very well. I can start speaking from now until sundown without repeating a thing, if I want to. So if everything I tell him is true, his heart will beat and he will give me some money automatically.

If I wanted to, I could close my shop right now and take you to Dabanani market and talk to the rich men, call their names and the names of their fathers and grandfathers. I assure you I would leave with 500,000 francs. But we don’t want that. This is what makes griot work complicated. The purpose of being a jeli is to serve people, to restore peace between people and countries, and people who love each other. Jeliw used to be the ones who could tell the king bad news or things he did not want to hear. Others would be afraid to say it because the king could behead them. The griot was the only one allowed to do that without any consequence. [In my family] we don’t care even if you own everything in the world. We are not going to your house to eat. But we still tell you the truth if even you don’t like it. That is the difference between us and other jeliw.

 


NOTES

  1. A funè is a member of another hereditary social class, similar to griots but, as this interview suggests, socially distinct from them. The funè specializes in Islamic praise poetry.
  2. There are taboos against marrying across certain ethnic and caste lines. Marriage between members of the Fulani ethnic group and the numu (blacksmith) caste remains among the most strongly taboo, though such taboos have begun to weaken under the influence of Islam and modernity.
  3. Kola nuts are symbolic of marriage in Mali, and are sent by one family (through the intermediary of the griot) to another to symbolize the request for a woman’s hand in marriage.
  4. The patronym (jaamu in Bamanan) is the father’s family name, or what Americans call the “last name.” This is the name with which a family’s genealogy and reputation are associated. Bagayogo, Coulibaly, Keita, and Traoré are among the more common patronyms.

Related readings on jeliw:

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A lesson in sociability

While 2018 has been an eventful year for Mali–mostly for the wrong reasons–it’s also seen my least frequent blogging since I began in 2011. Instead of tracking the political and security situation on the ground as it goes from bad to worse, I’ve been focusing on my second book project (the one about marriage in Bamako, in gestation for far too long). I’ll have more to blog about regarding that book as the manuscript nears completion over the coming year. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a fun video posted to YouTube this week by linguist Coleman Donaldson.

 

This ten-minute video is the first in a series Coleman is putting together called “Na baro kè” (come chat), consisting of his encounters with everyday people. As Coleman put it to me, the series is “primarily made for learners and speakers of the language, but I’d like to believe the videos will also appeal to anyone by highlighting the voices of people and places that–through an African language–it has been my great honor to learn from for nearly the last ten years.” This is all hosted on his language-learning website An Ka Taa.

In this first episode, Coleman’s interactions are entirely in Bamako and entirely in Bambara (or “Manding” as Coleman calls it–a language category which also includes Jula and Malinke). Like a roving reporter doing “man on the street” interviews for an entertainment show, he affably poses questions about a particular topic to apparently random people and edits their responses together. The resulting video has four full layers of subtitles: two for Manding (in n’ko and IPA scripts), one for English, and one for French, the better to help language learners. The topic of episode one is vital for anybody learning Bambara for the first time: everyday greetings and why they’re important.

People in Mali, and probably throughout the region, base their first impressions of someone to a considerable extent on how well and eagerly that person partakes in verbal greetings. Greeting is a social obligation, as some of Coleman’s interviewees point out. The simple act of exchanging ritual greetings with someone can establish what kind of person he/she is, whether you share some kind of kinship connection (real or fictive), or what kind of mood he/she might be in. It helps knit society together. “Here, for us, greeting is everything. It’s what makes the social side of life a lot stronger,” one man says. It underlies mɔgɔya, the condition of being a person (see a 2013 post I wrote on this and other key cultural dynamics in Mali).

People greet not only because they’re sociable but also out of self-interest. Nobody wants to be branded disrespectful or worthless because they failed to greet someone. A greeting can affirm an existing relationship or bring a new one into being. A young man perched on a motorcycle tells Coleman that he even greets strangers “because, I might not know them at all, but maybe I’ll need them.” One can never be sure which human connection might turn out to be useful.

We in the West may see little reason to greet others very much, even at all, in our daily lives. How much time do we spend oblivious to those around us, glued to our phones, headphones isolating us from spontaneous conversation? When we do initiate an interaction with a stranger, how often do we skip any meaningful exchange of greetings and get straight to business? Even with colleagues and acquaintances we see regularly, how often do we take the trouble to inquire after their health and family?

“Greetings are indeed a crucial element in traditional Malian society,” a Malian man I’ll call Sabou wrote in an email to me after watching Coleman’s video. “So much so that even after la lifetime in the West I can’t get used to the contrast. A colleague comes into the office in the morning and goes straight to his desk without saying a word to me. In Mali this would mean that you’re no longer speaking to each other. But in the West it means ‘nothing to report.'”

Sabou also identified some less cheery aspects of Mali’s greeting rituals. They index social hierarchies, particularly around age; young people have to greet their elders and receive social validation from them. Greetings are also essential to so many interactions there in part because the formal institutions and mechanisms Westerners depend on and take for granted are largely absent in Mali. In societies like the US where individuals are more independent, one can usually count on getting service and assistance without being friendly. One barely needs to rely on one’s neighbors, and with electronic customer service, even the little smile at the checkout counter is becoming a thing of the past. But in Mali, writes Sabou, “when you need help, when you need any assistance at all in Mali, you need social relations.”

The longer I’m away from Mali, the more I miss the easy interactions with strangers, and the more I fear I’m growing disconnected from the people around me. In the West it’s easy to be unsociable. In Mali even a part-time misanthrope like me must find a way to become sociable; I don’t really have a choice in the matter. And I know that’s good for me–it’s one of the things I love best about living in Bamako.

“Whatever the reasons for it, greetings are often all you need to feel better, to feel like a member of society, to feel that you exist for others and that you belong,” Sabou writes. “I’m sure a simple ‘Hello’ would prevent a lot of suicides in the West.”

I think Sabou’s right. Mali may be coming apart at the seams, but we can still learn something from Malians about everyday sociability. Greet your neighbors. Say hello to a stranger. Resist the urge to isolate yourself. It’s a great message to end the year on.

Coleman, I’m eagerly awaiting your next episodes of “Na baro kè” in 2019.

 

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