Maybe this is a good sign: For the first time in months, it’s been a slow news week in Bamako. President Dioncounda Traoré is still in Paris for medical treatment, junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has not made a public statement or appearance in ten days, and the only major political event that was supposed to happen recently — a march in support of Dioncounda Traoré and Mali’s internationally brokered transition process — was called off yesterday after religious leaders asked the organizers to postpone it. The investigation of last week’s attack on Dioncounda in his office has made some progress. The city has been calm.
In a previous post I wrote about how corruption in Mali is not limited to the nation’s politicians. By way of illustration I’d like to offer some excerpts from a humorous series of e-mails sent by Oumar, a Malian construction engineer, trained in the USSR who also spent several years working in New York City. His anecdotes, written in French leavened with bits of English, Russian, Bambara and Songhoi, reveal just how widespread the problem is: the rules are there, but nobody wants to follow them, and God forbid you should ever try to have them enforced. There’s only one rule people respect: Never say “No” to your relatives!
The following is my translation of Oumar’s words.
i worked as an inspector for the New York City School Construction Authority. In truth i never saw anything extraordinary that couldn’t be done in Mali. Maybe 70% of the architects and engineers were from East Bloc countries, India or China. Who would have imagined that 80% of the masons would be Pakistanis? What i got out of it was especially the sense of responsibility, respect for human life and working conditions, in a word workplace safety.
Naturally when i became a construction coordinator in Mali i wanted to bring some of these basic rules with me. And therein lies my problem today: starting at my work site, which employs close to 2000 workers daily, i asked all the contractors to supply hard hats, steel-toed boots and gloves, at least to those at risk. After a two-month battle i succeeded. Imagine my surprise the next day to find all the hard hats lying on the ground, supposedly because the workers felt too hot in them. A month later, all the hard hats, boots and gloves were stolen.
Nevertheless, i managed to get the contractors to use safety nets to protect workers against falls from the upper floors, and harnesses to attach to the scaffolding. Then the harnesses and nets were stolen.
Now we’re doing the wiring. Even with a 4-km fence around the work site, every day we catch two or three people stealing concrete and wire. They are family men, heads of households. To think that we’re building a public facility for all of Mali’s children!
You can hire a mason at 8 a.m., by 10 a.m. he’s gone because you’re paying him 4000 francs [US$8] per day; meanwhile someone called him with a 25000-franc, 6-day contract that pays 10000 francs in advance and he leaves without even telling you. On the 6th day he comes back through the same channel that recommended him to you in the first place, a relative of yours, or maybe your boss. That’s the problem.
What really hurts me is this: two weeks ago a colleague who’s in workplace safety tells me to check out his job site. Around noon i show up and find a 10-year-old child working on an upper floor without any protection. I grab him by the collar and go to kick him off the site, but at the gate i run into my friend who intervenes. “Are you crazy?” he asks me. “It’s already noon, let him at least finish the day.” “What if he falls off the building at 3:45?” i ask. “Let us take care of it, we’re in Mali, not America,” he says. i can hear the worker insult me as he climbs back up the stairs.
You want to hear more? Several months ago a cousin calls me up. After the usual greetings she asks if i can get a job for her little brother, a construction technician. So off we go, i entrust him to a contractor, and a month later the contractor tells me “Your nephew is really great.” He is working long hours, even weekends. The next day i congratulate my cousin and say Listen, on work sites, there’s everything, construction materials, drugs, women, especially theft, you do the math; as soon as you have a problem come see me. But i might as well be talking to a sack of concrete.
Ba-da-bing, one evening in Ramadan as i’m getting ready to break the fast my phone rings, it’s the site supervisor saying Kodjougou Kera [a bad thing happened], we just caught your cousin red-handed stealing wire, but don’t worry i’m going to handle everything. Two minutes later he calls back to say The boss just showed up and i can’t help you. i phone the boy’s sister to let her know, then switch my phone off.
Long story short, i have to pay 250 000 francs [US$500], the value of what he admitted to stealing, plus another 75000 francs to get his motorcycle back from some masons to whom he owed money, so his sister could rest easy.
If you think i am done with it, wait till you hear the end. So three days later, my phone rings again and it’s my cousin who says Let me put my husband on. He says Tell your contractor friend that maybe he’s head of a business, but i’m head of a brigade of gendarmes, and if he doesn’t take the boy back at work, the day one of his relatives winds up in my custody he’ll have to deal with me.
Is he saying this because he really thinks it, or to impress his wife? alla houma yalam i give up