Stupid of me. I should’ve known better than to arrive on time.
I’d been told the event would begin at 3 p.m., and it was just a few minutes past the hour when I got to the venue, the size of a respectable U.S. high school gymnasium, but which was still mostly empty. Soon after, one of the organizers showed me his copy of the schedule, and I saw that nothing was actually meant to begin until 4:00.
In the hour I spent watching preparations unfold, I realized that public functions like this are dictated by cultural patterns, and I thought about the unspoken rules by which such events play out. If you’ve ever watched more than 20 minutes of a Malian TV news broadcast, you know that these events include a predictable set of elements. So for this blog post I’ve decided not even to write about the event itself. Perhaps you can guess what kind of happening it was. The substance is more or less irrelevant here; it’s the format I’m interested in.
Here, then, are the 10 things you’ll need to organize a successful public event in Mali.
1. Les cartes d’honneur. Printed on fine cardstock, the carte d’honneur is like an invitation, although you don’t always have to have one to attend. It outlines the “who, what, when and where” of your event, and sometimes mentions the sponsors. Remember to indicate a starting time one hour ahead of when you expect things will actually begin.
2. La sonorisation. If you’re going to be heard, you’ll need a sound system big enough to drown out background noises and raucous crowds. You can use it for music (see item 3 below) and speeches (see item 7 below). A microphone, PA and loudspeakers can be rented for the occasion.
3. Les musiciens. For many of these events, especially those outside Bamako, “traditional” musicians are hired to provide some ostensibly local flavor. In Bamako, it may be a small ensemble backing griot singers, a pop group, or some other category. For the event I attended, it was a military band wearing khaki uniforms and brown berets.
4. Les médias. If you can’t have your event broadcast to a wider public, it may as well not have happened. Your goal should be to get featured on the ORTM evening news. Make sure to get plenty of shots featuring local color and culture, as well as any dignitaries present (see item 6 below).
5. Les hôtesses. Hire some attractive young women and provide them with matching outfits. For the classiest functions, you should get wax-print cloth printed up to commemorate your event, and have your hostesses wear outfits made from the commemorative cloth. If that’s too pricey, get some t-shirts made for them — silk-screened if you can afford it, stenciled otherwise. The hostesses’ job is to look nice while showing people where they’re supposed to sit. Mostly they do a lot of pointing.
6. Les dignitaires. Malian society is based on what political scientists call “patron-client systems,” wherein powerful individuals bestow favors on those less powerful and receive their loyalty in return. The importance of the dignitary at your event signals the importance of your organization. If the President of the Republic cannot attend, at least try to get a cabinet minister, local prefect or mayor. And no matter how late your VIP is, your event will not begin until he or she arrives. (Luckily ours, the minister of youth and sports, was only 20 minutes late!)
7. Les chaises résérvées. You can’t have VIPs without VIP seating! Only people with cartes d’honneur get reserved seats. Dignitaries must be seated front and center, pre- ferably in padded armchairs. If yours is an outdoor event, dignitaries must be in the shade. People seated in the VIP area can also expect the hostesses to serve them free soft drinks. Let everyone else sit on benches or stand.
8. Les discours. Speeches may or may not be made by the dignitaries, but will definitely be made to them. These speeches will start off addressing them by title (“Monsieur le ministre, monsieur le maire, honorables invités…“). This serves to remind them how important they are, and to remind your viewers how important you are for hosting them.
9. Les tubabuw. In a place like Mali, one of the best ways to show your event matters is to have some token white people (tubabuw) in attendance. Ideally they will be important white people (e.g. diplomats, visiting foreign dignitaries, or NGO officials). Realistically, however, any random white folks will do. Make sure they appear prominently in the crowd shots recorded by your videographer, so that viewers will notice them and realize how important you are. When filming a stage, a podium or an audience, ORTM cameramen are trained to zoom in on white faces. In a pinch, Chinese may serve as a substitute for white people. (Try to spot at least two token tubabuw in the photo for item 7, above right.)
10. Les policiers anti-emeutes. Where public events are concerned, nothing says classy quite like having riot police on hand. Don’t ask me why, but an event without the threat of audience members being clubbed or tear-gassed lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. The presence of cops or paramilitaries with night sticks, helmets, shields and shin pads — however unnecessary it may be — indicates that the organizers have political clout and aren’t afraid to use it.
(One of the first events I ever attended in Mali back in 1997 was a village ceremony featuring musicians, a dusty clearing for dancing, and a large crowd of spectators. I recall one adult who kept the crowd of mostly pre-teen spectators in line; he stripped a thin branch from a tree and used it periodically to beat the kids back from the dancing area. Since then, I’ve noticed public events here often feature someone whose job is to keep rowdy kids from getting out of hand — even when there are no rowdy kids present. And you can’t go to a big concert or sporting event in Bamako without getting at least a whiff of tear gas at some point.)
Now you know the key ingredients for making your very own Malian function a huge success. Remember, use this knowledge for good, never for evil.