In all the depressing headlines about Mali becoming West Africa’s ‘new Afghanistan’, or the frustrated editorials about the country’s apparent political paralysis (the ICG’s Gilles Yabi recently said “it’s as if Mali has fallen into a coma”) it sometimes seems as if the image of a Mali rich in cultural heritage has vanished.
It’s hard now to find any references in the media to Mali’s incredible musicians, the beauty of the desert, the tranquillity of a pirogue journey on the River Niger, or the striking indigo of a Tuareg’s scarf. Let alone its reputation as a land of tolerant Islam, a peaceful melting pot of different ethnic groups, a pillar of West African democracy.
So much has already been threatened – from the Al-Farouk statue in Timbuktu so unceremoniously decapitated, to the tombs of saints smashed with pick axes, their destruction recorded on mobile phones. Invaluable research work into Mali’s history has been put on hold – the entire team of the Ahmed Baba centre, which houses some 40,000 ancient Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu, has gone into exile in Bamako. The books have been left behind without guarantees that they will be kept in special lighting and air conditioning units; other private libraries have also been forced to close. Two major archaeological digs supported by foreign universities – one in Dogon Country which had revealed evidence of continuous settlement in the area for 100,000 years, and the other in Segou which suggested the town is actually two or three hundred years older than first thought – have been forced to stop.
While musicians and singers are still holding concerts in the capital, there seems to be an air of uncertainty and audiences in some venues are low. Tourists have stopped coming – Djenne, home to a UNESCO heritage site and the world’s biggest mud mosque, used to welcome about 10,000 foreign visitors a year – in the last six months the town’s museum registered just 20.
The response from many Malian cultural figures to the conflict and political turmoil can sometimes seem hesitant. Veteran griot singer (a traditional praise singer and guardian of Mali’s oral history) Nahawa Doumbia, who recently opened the new season at Bamako’s Alliance Francaise, says “We want peace, nothing but peace. We’ve held meetings and press conferences; we’ve sung and written songs about peace”. But when pushed on the role of musicians coming together to get Mali back on its feet; “I’ve told you what we’ve done. Don’t ask me what more we can do. No-one wanted this war”.
Other singers have also spoken out – Khaira Arby from Timbuktu called for peace in the middle of a concert in the US, and Bassekou Kouyate recently spoke on the BBC about his disappointment that the Festival of the Desert may never happen in Mali again. But so far there has been little in the way of joint efforts such as a concert.
For some, the biggest damage to Mali’s culture has been the attempts to impose a strict form of Islam on a country which has traditionally called itself moderate. Life in Bamako is mostly easy-going, people hold parties, weddings and concerts in the streets; bars dot most street corners. The calls for sharia law in the north and the extreme punishments being carried out are truly shocking to many. “There are groups of people – some who come from outside Mali – who have effectively said our history is nothing” says Samuel Sidibe, the director of Mali’s national museum. “By forbidding people to listen to their favourite music, by smashing up tombs. We’re all thinking what will happen if that comes to Bamako and they tell us to close the museum. It’s a destruction of our humanity”.
So what of Mali’s tradition of democracy, which alongside its artistic culture, seems to have been dealt a crippling blow by the coup which happened just weeks before a presidential election in which the incumbent had pledged to step down. One group which is attempting to take this issue head-on, merging music with politics, is the group ‘Sofas de la Republique’ – artists, directors, musicians and youth leaders who have joined forces in an attempt to re-engage young people. Sofas is a Bambara word which means ‘warriors’ and comes from the time of Sundiata Keita, the legendary first king of the Malian empire. The latter day Sofas have been holding meetings, handing out leaflets and writing songs to get the message across that everyone bears some responsibility for the present predicament Mali finds itself in.
“Our democracy didn’t care about people, our leaders just got rich and the poor got poorer. But we all sat back and let politicians be corrupt. We paid bribes to get policemen off our backs, we voted for whoever gave us money before polling day” says Ousmane Toure, one of the founding members of the Sofas.
In a land where the spoken word and song mean so much, the Sofas’ message is clear “People need to know what democracy is, they need to know their responsibilities to the Malian republic. We need civic instruction. We’re still getting over the shock of what happened and we haven’t seen these things yet. But we will work towards it. This is our responsibility”.
Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist with a focus on African issues. She has a particular interest in the Sahel.