What’s ailing Mali ?

July 14, 2020

You may have seen the images of Mali’s capital Bamako: the fires, the running battles and the extensive damage. It is an explosion that has been long in the making. Last Friday’s huge demonstration, the third of its kind against the government of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected in 2018 during an exercise the vast majority of Malians considered completely irrelevant to their lives, descended into violence that has yet to end and, according to hospitals in the Malian capital, resulted in 11 deaths so far.

Yes, it was long in the making because the causes are so well-known. Top of the list : a security crisis that began well before 2012 with the fallout from NATO’s disastrously criminal ouster of the Libyan leader Muamar Ghadaffi without having an exit plan, an act that pulled the trigger of what happened next.

For years Ghadaffi had been the very nice friend of European heads of state, especially since he stuffed his arsenals with well over one billion euros worth of arms, made in Europe. When Ghadaffi was deposed, the many Tuareg officers in his army departed with the contents of those arsenals and arrived in their native Mali early 2012, where they started an ill-fated rebellion that was soon overtaken by jihadist forces that Algeria had earlier thrown across its border into the vast desert space of Mali’s north. There was nothing to stop them; Mali’s army has to make do with kit that often dates back to the time when it was an ally of the former Soviet Union…

That security crisis is still with us and has mixed freely and unpredictably with organised crime, banditry and self-defense, rendering the north and the centre of the country both ungoverned and volatile. The numerous high-profile international interventions (France, United Nations, the regional G5 Sahel Force) notch up a success or two here and there but are in no position to put an end to the problem. The army is a demoralised mess and prone to human rights abuses, like most of the other actors in this drama.

The deeply detested Karim Keita (you guessed right: the president’s son) presided over the Parliamentary Defence Committee while he took an army plane to celebrate his birthday in a decadent Spanish resort, an event he has since downplayed. However, the images of a drinking and cavorting top official sticks in the craw of the many who don’t know if they can pay for their next meal. His extremely arrogant attitude (just follow his Twitter feeds) is emblematic of an elite that came to power nearly thirty years ago in the wake of a popular uprising against the repressive dictatorship of General Moussa Traoré but has presided over the descent of this country into corruption of both finances and morals. Keita Junior’s belated departure from the prestigious parliamentary post changes nothing.

The majority of Malians have no access to safe drinking water, health care that doesn’t kill you, quality education, reliable electricity, decent roads and working drainage systems. None of this bothers the clans in power, issued from that 1991 “revolution”, because they have their own water and electricity, they send their kids to school in Europe and when they fall ill there’s a flight to take them to a first class clinic in Rabat, Geneva or Paris. The system works for them – and nobody else.

‘They have failed and they have failed us,’ is a refrain you hear a lot when speaking with Malians about the parlous state of their government. But from the perspective of the elites and their – mostly foreign – supporters the system is working precisely as it should. International aid from banks and donor countries keeps them in power, as do the revenues from Mali’s gold mines that do not even improve the lives of those who live next to them.

In short, the idea that the current crop of leaders, essentially unchanged since 1991, will bring positive change in any of these areas has long since been abandoned. Hence the near-complete lack of interest in elections and the mass turn to Allah. Inevitable Islam – yes I wrote this six years ago and the trend has only intensified. It was only a matter of time before someone would appear on the scene who would personify the Islamic alternative to a morally bankrupt polity.

His name: imam Mahmoud Dicko and please take some time to read Bruce Whitehouse’s excellent profile of the man here. His movement, the rather blandly named Coordination des Mouvements, Asociations et Sympathisants (CMAS) is his still-discreet-but-soon-overt political vehicle. A former Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga, whose dismissal Dicko engineered called him “a hybrid”, a man of God playing politics.

But Dicko can marshall crowds tens of thousands strong, although he has been accused of paying the owners of Bamako’s ubiquitous Sotrama minibuses good money to ferry demonstrators into town, mirroring the practice of paying voters CFA2000 (just over three euros) for the promise to support such and such a politician. Whether or not these accusations have merit, the grievances are too numerous and too deep to dismiss these mass gatherings as simply rent-a-crowd.

Bamako, and if my sense of direction is anywhere near accurate, this is close to the Second Bridge, which demonstrators blocked off. Picture retrieved from the website of Anthropology professor Alain Bertho. Link here: https://berthoalain.com/

Last Friday’s was the third one. The pattern is always the same: mass open air prayer, long speeches denouncing the government, followed by nightfall and increasingly violent riots. This time, irate demonstrators attacked the building where the National Assembly (Mali’s parliament) exhibits its expensive futility and the national television ORTM, where the state broadcaster obediently broadcasts government propaganda. There was looting, fires were started, bridges across the Djoliba (Niger) River were blocked and then the embattled security forces took aim at the angry crowds with live ammunition. Deaths ensued.

This was inevitable, for it’s not just widespread anger and frustration. The many large and impoverished neighbourhoods in Bamako are filled with disenfranchised, disenchanted young men, permanently bored witless. I have written about them before. This is the demographic permanently left out of the high-flying development discourse, the group that finds out pretty early on in life that nobody has any time for them and that they’re on their own. When they hear about a big anti-government demonstration, they do not hear political complaints; they hear an invitation to pick a fight and loot businesses. In short, they copy the behavior of the clans that rule them – but in a more direct manner. It’s mainly because of them that Bamako, over the weekend and even today, resembles a battlefield.

None of the actors present here has a workable solution. The president has offered the option of a Government of National Unity, which may or may not come about, as regional and international mediators fly in to put an end to the crisis. However, the international community is widely regarded as being in cahoots with this discredited regime. Besides, president Keita is very likely to hold on to power – whatever the scenario – until it is time to go in the manner approved by said international community: elections, which, once again, hardly anyone will bother to attend. Imam Dicko, if ever he declares his intention to run for the presidency and gets elected, is likely to turn the country into a state under de facto Islamic rule. The youths who now so enthusiastically follow him will not enjoy living in a land without music, videos, drinks and sex for very long…

And finally, there is doubt whether Mali can survive or whether it even exists as a unitary state. Parts of the north have been self-governing since 2012, a situation that angers many. Other parts of the north and the centre are steeped in anarchy and uncertainty, as criminals attack homes, businesses and buses and militias stalk the land while they murder, steal, rape and pillage. And that’s before we even get to talk about the regions that are supposed to be inalienably part of this vast land but where recent demonstrations have highlighted local grievances. In Kayes and Sikasso people took to the streets to protest against the terrible state of their roads and other basic services, even when their regions provide the gold (Kayes) and some of the food (Sikasso) that keeps Bamako on its feet. Another former Prime Minister, the relatively young and sharp-tongued Moussa Mara made this point in a public speech about two years ago when he said (and I paraphrase): everyone is looking at the north and the centre. Nobody is looking at places like Kayes and Sikasso where there is a groundswell of dissatisfaction at the lack of any tangible development.

The problem is not the north, or the centre, or any other region. The problem is Bamako and its aloof, self-serving elite. As the slow but probably unstoppable disintegration of Mali continues, the elite is currently being served notice. Is the situation insurrectional? I don’t think so: there’s widespread dissatisfaction but no revolutionary fervour. Could the army step in? Given the extremely unhappy memories of the last coup eight years ago this is unlikely. No: Mali will be very likely be muddling through, as it has done for quite a while now. Depressingly, there is at present little else on offer.

 

The dark side of being generous

July 2, 2020

It’s boys. Aged between, say, six and twelve they approach you on the street or call you when you’re passing by. Bright smiles, while they take a break from playing football or just bright smiles beaming straight at you.

“Toubab!” That would be me.

“Hello!” I say back to them, or him.

And more often than not, the next word out is…: “Argent.”

Money.

Sometimes it comes specified: the amounts demanded have ranged from 100 CFA (a mere fifteen eurocents) to fully one hundred times more than that. “Ten thousand francs.”  Eyes unblinking, smile still in place. We are in Ségou.

I have spoken about this in a previous blog and explained this behavior as the result of the extremely pernicious effects of colonialism and its sequel, international development aid. But individual behavior (to be very specific: individual white behavior) makes things worse, especially in places like Ségou, where I am at the moment, a city that used to thrive on tourism before international fear of jihadism and then the Corona crisis put a stop to it.

Now I have previously complained about being seen as a stupid loaded European but very seriously: being regarded as an ATM on two legs is a) annoying but insignificant and b) a symptom of something deeper.

This ‘deeper’ manifests itself in the domestic sphere in ways you only become aware of when you listen to stories like this, told by a friend here in Ségou. It goes like this.

“When Ségou was not yet overrun with tourists, I used to make a little extra money as a schoolboy shining shoes. This still happens today: you go to a place where clients are seated, you ask if they need their shoes polished and when you have done the work you return them and they give you 50 or 100 francs.

One day, one French tourist called me. Remember, there weren’t loads of them at the time so this was special. He was seated on the terrace of one of those posh hotels they have in Ségou. When I returned his shoes to him he gave me two thousand five hundred francs. I was over the moon! I ran home at high speed to tell my parents what had happened.

I showed my dad the money and what did he do? He hit me, saying that I had stolen it. Nobody gives such an idiotic amount to a shoe shine boy. We never managed to return the money since the man had disappeared and it’s stayed an issue for a long time. And I learned a lesson.”

I want you to reflect on this story, as I discussed it with my friend after he had finished his tale. First off, the amount given was indeed completely ridiculous and it did, rightly so, arouse suspicion. Second, while it most probably made the ‘generous’ tourist feel good about himself, it put life at my friend’s home on edge. Not just because the insane amount of money the young boy suddenly carried in his pocket, no. This works on another level, too.

Giving cash to people who are perceived ‘poor’ in places like Ségou or in many other parts of the continent where Africans come into contact with white lifeforms is principally not about the receiver. When you give money to a boy you perceive as poor, and especially when it is a large sum, it becomes all about you, the White Saviour.

And what’s more, as my friend stressed a few times while we discussed his story, it undermines parental authority at home, something that is taken very seriously here. Giving ten thousands francs to a kid, which has obviously happened because how on earth could that boy have come up with such an amount to ask of me…? Giving ten thousand francs instills in this young boy the idea that Mum and Dad don’t provide as well for me as this White Man or Woman could. The White Person is capable; my own parents are not, even though they put food on the table. Look, money! In my pocket.

In short, it reinforces once again the idea that Whites are superior and Africans should be grateful for whatever gets sent their way. In reinforces the racist mindset present through slavery and colonialism and perpetuated through the aid industry. We give – we feel good. They receive – we feel good.

All this is learned behavior and therefore it can be unlearned, on both sides. Whites with their Superiority Syndrome, Africans with their forced-upon-them Dependency Syndrome, especially egregious in tourist places like Ségou, which does indeed tend to get infested with mindless loaded do-gooders. Visitor, this is not about you. In fact, while you are here, nothing is.

OK. Here is how I ended one particular Ségou episode. I looked at the spokesman of the football team who had asked me for money, for some time. He looked back. Something dawned. He said: “Pardon.” We made our peace. Walking away, the realization came that he may have been apologizing to me in person. But far more importantly, he was, in fact, saying “sorry” to his parents.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 20, 2020

Part eight and end – open borders and dense crowds – 2

 

So the airport is supposed to re-open shortly. (Yes, for once I indulge in the maddeningly annoying habit to start a sentence with the completely redundant ‘so’… so there.) Earlier this month, the Transport Ministers of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a virtual video meeting, where they proposed to resume domestic air travel by the end of this month. Mind you, domestic other travel has been going on in the most spectacular fashion, at least here in Mali (in Senegal, inter-urban travel was banned until this week). On the way into Ségou, a two-and-a-half hour journey, I counted at least two dozen buses heading in the opposite direction. I was made to understand that these are all packed to the rafters with passengers. They will not bother departing with a half-empty bus. One old carcass on wheels had been hastily parked and was expeditiously shedding its passengers as black smoke enveloped the area of its right-hand-side back tyre. I also noticed the smashed wreckages of at least half a dozen FourWheelDrives that had been driven at high speed into trees and ditches. The elites’ travel habits differ slightly from those of ordinary folks but at least they get to respect the 1.5 or two metre barrier as they drive themselves to death.

No such concerns for everybody else. On Monday, the only day Ségou springs back to something resembling life, the market in the centre of town was heaving with people. Women and their merchandise were packed like sardines in the many covered motor taxis that crisscross this town; they seat about 6, sometimes 8. Fare: 100 CFA franc, 0.15 euro, perhaps a little extra for your wares. No taximan in his right mind leaves with a half-empty vehicle. With petrol well over one euro a litre, to do so is economic madness. And the same goes for the famous green Sotrama buses in Bamako, and the hundreds of buses that ply those long routes from the capital to Kayes (600 kilometres), Sikasso (400), Ségou (nearby) or even Gao (900 kilometres) – this last destination on a no-longer-existing road where you risk getting hi-jacked, robbed or even blown up.

One bus after it hit an IED between Sévaré and Gao. Photo credit not known, picture retrieved from the site djeliba24.com

The risk of contracting the dreaded virus is subject to the pragmatically calculated risk assessment we discussed earlier: either you sell your stuff and live another week – or you don’t and then it will be game over very soon. And as we saw earlier, too: there are no underlying health problems really; in Mali those supposedly underlying health issues tend to kill you on their own, without any help from COVID-19.

The ECOWAS ministers also discussed the issue of international and intercontinental travel. The idea is to gradually open the ECOWAS internal borders by July 15th at the latest. This means that the twin circus I described here will begin again: a smooth passage through the airport for the few, a rough, unfriendly and corrupt passage for everybody travelling by bus, this time augmented with Corona-related checks, which I predict to be user-friendly at the airports and add another layer of harrassment of the travelling public at the land borders, this time wearing white overcoats instead of uniforms.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita makes increasingly frequent television appearances, delivering speeches in complicated French nobody understands and designed to put across that famous line: I Feel Your Pain.

No You Bloody Don’t, is the riposte coming from meetings such as these.

Opposition rally in Ségou, June 19th. Pic: me.

A much bigger one happened on the same day, June 19th in Bamako. And as you can see, the virus fear has been completely overtaken, nay: overwhelmed, by rising public anger. About the education crisis – kids have not been to school for months because of a deep and bitter dispute between teachers unions and the govenment. About the all-pervasive corruption, large and small, with which people are absolutely fed up. And for some it is also about the recent parliamentary elections, another excercise in futility, which returned some to their seats and booted others away from their sinecures. In some circles the results are contested, while for most everyone else life goes on regardless. For those 99%, COVID-19 has been a most unwelcome distraction but one that has brought the existing cleavages in even sharper light than before. And that cleavage is where it has always been: between the haves and the have-nots. Foreign money often makes the difference.

No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when your position, your job, your sinecure, your income… is essentially assured by financial, political, diplomatic and/or business support from outside the country. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when you can sail through an airport and the journey from your capital to another capital in the ECOWAS region takes less time than for a bus with 70 passengers to leave a congested city. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when forking out 500 euros for a return ticket to Dakar or Abidjan makes no dent in your budget while for 95 out of 100 of your compatriots this constitutes their entire budget for most of the year. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when once again your health problems will be sorted after a quick trip to Paris, London, Lisbon, Rabat or Johannesburg, while others die on their way to hospital in a taxi or a handcart.

Caveats, execptions, all duly noted and accepted but we are talking general trends here. And we are trying to come to terms with the fact that for most Malians – and I’d wager most everyone else in this 350 million strong region – COVID-19 has not made any difference to their lives, had it not been for the official measures that often killed their business. (And before I forget: the formidable food business woman who went missing from our beloved depot when the curfew hit …is back, with her new daughter strapped to her back.)

Is it helpful that these new demonstrations are organised by a Wahab imam, the former head of the influential High Islamic Council, who has none-too-subtle presidential ambitions, ambitions that, I’m sorry to say, go strangely missing from most if not all all international media coverage? No, it is probably not. What is abundantly clear, though, is that ADEMA, the party and its associated military and civilian politicians, who came to symbolise the beginning of the democracy wave in 1991, have had a heavy hand in shaping the decay and the corruption that have become the sad lamented hallmarks of this once (and so blindly) hallowed example of a functioning democracy. I have been blogging my own mea culpa in this respect more than once. 

Ségou, June 19th. pic: me.

So as we leave Corona behind, we can re-concentrate minds to the underlying isues that don’t kill you instantly but slowly: glaring inequality being the most prominent among them. One of the things I have finally been able to do is to start reading Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s study of how colonialism continues to shape the most uncivil administrations across the continent, the ones that are sustained with foreign money. It’s the turn of Malians to be angry with their particular variety of administrative indifference. Mamdani’s book is entitled Citizen and Subject and I want to return to this key issue soon. For even though the book focusses on countries far removed from the Francophone West African experience, it will have many things to say that resonate here, too. Stay tuned.

 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 17, 2020

Part eight and end – open borders and dense crowds – 1

 

There was a great deal of grumbling almost three months ago. On March 20th, an Air France flight landed at the Bamako Senou Modibo Keita International Airport, released an unknown number of passengers into the night and took off again. This occurred after the Malian authorities had decided that because of the steady influx of COVID-19 problems from Europe the sensible thing to do was to close the airport. Were these new arrivals tested for the dreaded virus on arrival? Nobody knows.

And so teeth gnashed and fists clenched. Those dastardly arrogant French again! Grist to the mill of the army of (mostly online) conspiracy theorists, who see the hand of France behind every ill that befalls this nation, which conveniently provides them with an explanation for everything and absolves them of any and all responsibility for what transpires. No self-reflection is needed when everything is always someone elses’ fault. Like the mental toddlers who keep calling COVID-19 ‘The Wuhan Virus’ or keep blaming Obama for things that never happened on his watch. (Mind you: plenty happened on his watch, a lot of it very bad, but the catastrophic handling of a health crisis isn’t one of them…)

So what would these armchair warriors say when it emerged that a good number of the passengers on that Air France plane were actually members of the Malian elite, rushing to leave the seething Corona hotbed called France and seeking refuge in the safety of the extended family and having acquired the means to sustain themselves in what was, once again, becoming ‘their’ country? Again: nobody knows. We do know about elites, though…

*******

So, where are we now and how safe is it all? Perspective is in order here. As things stand, you are still far more likely to die in a road accident or get a deadly bite from a mosquito. This is not to diminish the seriousness of the situation but Malians are aware of two things simultaneously (yes, this is possible. It is called mental multitasking and you should try it, too, especially when you’re used to wearing tin foil hats. But I digress…)

First, while not anywhere near the calamitous levels registered in the Ferocious Five, five countries that are are – how coincidentally – ruled by far-right leaning ultra-nationalist megalomaniacs (USA, Brasil, Russia, India and the UK), Malians do realise that there is a problem. We have 1,890 confirmed cases, half of them have recovered; there are 107 deaths, as of today. The death rate, from what I understand, is not higher than at the same period last year. That should tell us something but we are still not taking this lightly here.

However, and you knew this was coming, the second point is that the measures taken by the authorities, while initially accepted as necessary, are being regarded as disproportionate the longer they go on. Yes, this is serious but we also die of malaria, diarrhea if we can’t afford going to the clinic, pneumonia, meningitis and cholera when they break out. Even birth is deadly! For both mother and child. In fact, according to the statistics from the Centres for Disease Control, the most dangerous thing you can do in Mali – is to get pregnant.

Think about that.

In short: you die, or you die, a point I made earlier. Death is not something you put away in a well-locked safe somewhere until it somehow gets out and springs a horrible surprise. Death sits at your table, while you eat.

So once again: while initially the preventative measures were welcomed, especially with the memory of Ebola still fresh, the longer it went on the more it was seen as unnecessary. Because there is now another thing that no longer can be ignored – and that is the colossal amounts of economic damage these measures have caused. Unlike Europe, there is no safety net here. When you have nothing, you go hungry, you go begging, or you die.

However, very similar to Europe, COVID-19 related measures are wide open to abuse. France’s police, already out of control, seems to think nothing of manhandling a 50-years-old nurse who was demonstrating for her rights. The Dutch government wants to rush a bill through Parliament that will turn the country into a de facto Stasi Police State. Guinea’s budding autocrat Alpha Condé is using the virus as a pretext to throw everyone in jail who disagrees with him. And we don’t have to cast our minds back very far to recall the atrocious – and indeed frequently deadly – behaviour of the police in Nairobi, Abidjan, Johannesburg or any other major centre. Folks in uniform on a power trip are dangerous, it does not matter where you find them.

 

The conclusion of this – sort of – conclusion will follow tomorrow.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

May 24, 2020

Part seven – Le dépôt

 

This is a Malian institution and I happen to live near one of its finer specimens. Le dépôt can vary in appearance: from a dark den hidden behind a clump of trees to a fully-fledged garden with an on-site food service and tables and chairs. You go there to get your beers and before the Corona Curfew you could sit down at a rickety steel table and talk with fellow punters.

The dépôt is, basically, family. From arrival to finding a place to sit under the trees would take quite a while. Because you must greet everyone who is there. There’s the elderly man with a very loud voice who likes to insult everyone – all in good cheer, mind you. It is part of an old tradition that is designed to release possible tensions and ensure that good relations are maintained. It is, very emphatically, not to be taken seriously. A specific kind of humour, like a glue that holds society together and that is a necessity in a city that grew from barely one million to three times as much in the space of thirty years.

Tucked away in the back of the garden you would often find another elderly man (yes, we have quite a few of those…) who had somehow managed to wrench permission from the owner to park his motorbike inside the premises. A very special privilege. Mostly on his own, with the occasional friend dropping in (greetings, handshakes – now forbidden, how are you, how is the day, how is the family, how is your health all the way from the entrance to the back of the garden). He’d sit there, beer on the table, his face hovering over a collection of notebooks, until, fed up with whatever he‘d been doing, he got up and leave. The special privilege extended to his being allowed to start and profusely rev his bike until ready to go. With him, a perfunctory nod with the head and a few words would suffice. We’re all different, at the dépôt.

 

Will they be back, now the curfew has been lifted? Oh yes, they are already slowly trickling back in, elaborate greetings and all.

 

And many will insist of the whole ritual. If you forget to greet someone (how are you, how is work, how is the family, I hear your little daughter was ill how is she now, how is your own health…), be assured that you will be reminded of your egregious oversight on your next visit.

‘You don’t remember me?’

‘Why, of course I do, you’re always here.’

‘Well, yesterday, you forgot me. You know that’s very bad…very bad…’

‘Sabali (pardon me), mon frère, I must have been busy…’

‘Yes! You were busy greeting the other people – but not me…’

‘I will not do this again. What do I do now?’

‘Oh, nothing. It’s alright.’ (Just make sure you do not neglect me on the next occasion…)

And all is right with the world again. Discreetly send a beer his way; he will know who this is from…

 

Strangers are welcome here. Which is how I fit in. There are just a few requirements that you must meet: consumption is not optional, you must be on your best behaviour (this is a society that greatly values politeness in public places), and…you must pay for your consumptions. The very hardworking and highly accommodating staff are totally uncompromising when it comes to money. Beers arrive daily and tomorrow’s purchases are bought with today’s revenue.

This particular dépôt also has a habit of attracting musicians. There are live venues nearby and frequently you would find a maestro parked on one chair, his guitar on another, beer or something else in one hand, the other loosely draped around the back of the chair where “my wife”, i.e. the guitar, had been placed. No country on earth places a higher value on music, especially live. The lockdown has dealt a devastating blow to the live music scene from which I hope it can soon recover. On story has it that a maestro had left his guitar in on of the nearby music venues, thought better of it, recovered his guitar, returned home and discovered the next day that the place had been consumed by a fire. He was distraught for a full two weeks, only by the thought of what would have happened had he not followed his best intuition…

 

Not everyone is back yet, to the chagrin of the staff, who have been holding the fort for all of the six weeks the curfew lasted. You were allowed to pick up beers during the day but…round the back. It almost felt like a clandestine operation, performed with the two young men in their green overalls working there, whose faces spelt gloom whenever you asked them how business was going…

‘Just very slowly…’

‘Will you close when it goes on?’

‘No, the owner runs this place; we are not renting.’

That was obviously a concern. Your landlord does not care when your business goes down by 80%. There is another big worry, though: the woman who ran a roaring trade with her food service and who had given birth only days before the curfew hit. She hasn’t been back and no one seems to know where she is…

It still is eerily quiet in the depot, even when the clientele is slowly coming back in. One reason for this is simple: the television is off and stays off. There’s no football, English Premier League being the staple here. The televised roar of the crowds, now silent, would only be surpassed by the nearby mosque when calling for prayer. Drink and faith: there’s no hard and fast rule. I once watched in wonderment as an elderly man, who looked like he had come straight from prayer, sat down on a barstool savouring the beer he had just ordered. Malians overwhelmingly want to guard that live-and-let-live attitude.

 

‘Soumalemba….’

Now, once you hear this deep bronze voice coming from behind one of those rickety tables, freshly installed, you know that things are going back to normal. ‘Really cold,’ the words mean, and it is a little ritual greeting between me and a corpulent man with a beaming face, who has made this place his second home. Former driver, in or near retirement, and determined to have a good time of it – and he has just drifted back in, too.

Maybe the old depot from before the Corona Curfew, is on its way back after all. But we will not be complete until our friend, one of the few women who has managed to become part of this place, is back with her soup and meat business. And her new child strapped to her back.

 

We have, on this day, 1030 COVID-19 cases confirmed, 65 have succumbed, 597 have recovered. From the Ministry of Health.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 27, 2020

Part six – no distance (note: the term “social distancing” is patently preposterous, as it is entirely clear that the distance required to avoid catching The Virus is physical…)

pic: me.

A Bamako street corner. A very average Bamako street corner, with roadside vendors trying to make a few cents, taxis looking to gain the edge at the traffic light, the Sotrama boys running across the street looking for passengers, the impatient beeping and revving of cheap Chinese motorbikes forever in a hurry, pedestrians looking for a safe place to cross, corrupt traffic police and their sneering whistles, car horns blaring…. Once that red light goes green all that energy will be unleashed and there will be a tremendous roar as thick traffic races to the next light.

That traffic thinned out somewhat after the government announced the strict measures designed to keep COVID-19 manageable. But it’s already growing back to its previous volume – most certainly the motorbikes and their gravity-defying habits.

I recently went to visit a political analyst who explained to me the folly of going ahead with last Sunday’s second round of the legislative elections – more about that in a later post. Enthusiasm for these polls was at a bare minimum and the reason people gave for not going to the polling station was the obvious one: Corona. Rather bewilderingly, fear of the virus vanishes entirely in other places. On the way to the interview my taxi crawled through a densely crowded market, there was the usual sight of the people packed like sardines in the Sotrama minibuses…

I am also reliably informed that mosques fully fill up for Friday prayers. There are very prominent religious leaders in the country who are virtually untouchable and whose authority goes way beyond that of the secular government, again for reasons that are perfectly easy to grasp.

Rushing to market. Pic: me.

So actually, none of this is terribly bewildering. Buying groceries, moving around town and going to pray – especially in this time of Ramadan – are activities that are an order of magnitude higher on peoples’ priority lists than taking part in a pointless exercise in what passes for democracy but is, in point of fact, a complete irrelevance to the vast majority.

In crisis times such as these people have a very stark choice to make: if we stay at home we’ll have no business and no money and we will starve; if we go out and do our business on the streets we may risk contamination. You die – or you die.

That’s a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, if I am permitted a maritime image about 1,200 kilometres from the nearest coast.

Similarly, it is the ordinary folks that get into the crosshairs of the men and women in uniform. In some places street vendors are the target of sustained harassment. Here it is those who are breaking the (increasingly pointless) 9pm to 5am curfew, in place since March 26.

Not exactly locked in but close enough. Pic: me.

Increasingly pointless, indeed, because what’s the use of letting bars and music venues and restaurants – and the many street vendors they attract – go bankrupt because you want to avoid contamination while it is actually during the day that far more people run that very same risk? ‘The only folks happy with the curfew are the people in uniform,’ says the good friend and neighbour you have already met. ‘It’s business for them. The only good thing about it is that they leave people like me in peace when I am at work during the day because they now make their money at night…’ But for him, and many of his colleagues, the very lucrative night business cannot come back soon enough.

Enforcing the curfew now is the new sport in town that extends to the furthest nook and cranny of this vast city. Don’t think you can sneak about in your remote corner of Bamako because there will be patrols and you will be chased, beaten up and be made to pay a fine that goes straight into the pocket of the chap that’s just beaten you up.

Nobody knows how long this will go on. But everyone knows that this can not last for much longer. Requests for money multiply. Food stocks, such as there are, run out, as does the patience of people you rely on for survival. Remittances have ended because the places where your relatives are working, in Côte d’Ivoire, in France, in Canada, wherever, are all closed, too.

There is no full lockdown and it’s unlikely one will happen. And this half-half position keeps full desperation at bay for now, as Mali’s contamination rate creeps upward to 389 with 23 dead, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Does this justify the continued restrictions? That’s up to the government and it does not appear new announcement are forthcoming. So for now, we just muddle through.

A regional Corona song

April 25, 2020

Normal programming resumes shortly. But this one’s good, too.

 

The African continent has many Avoid Corona messages about keeping your distance, washing your hands, coughing into your elbow and more in general not to behave like a complete dick. All set to music – of course.

This one does the same but also calls on all of us to pull together and create a society that’s built around the notion of solidarity, rather than the obsolete Me First model. It’s also a real joint effort, with singers and musicians and producers from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire.

Here’s the link

 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 15, 2020

Part five – “Hey, Coronavirus! Go back to your country!”

 

“Is Corona a white disease?”

It was a question a Senegalese newspaper asked when it was found that most if not all people who had brought the disease into the West African nation were Europeans. Or had been in close proximity to Europeans. “Is France coronising Africa…” was a clever pun made in Dakar, when the March 4 headline of the Rewmi (Nation) newspaper announced that “another Frenchman” had been found to be contaminated.

The foreign origin of the virus gave rise to this blog piece I wrote, which was subsequently translated into my native Dutch and went on to cause a bit of a stir, especially among people with reading comprehension issues. No, of course I was not advocating “ethnic profiling” white people; if you actually read the end of the piece you will immediately dismiss that idea. It is arrant nonsense.

Meanwhile, I am happy to report that when out and about on my long trips through the vast sprawling Malian capital I have not once been addressed as “the white man who carries Corona”. The virus is seen as a problem that we all must overcome. To be sure, behaviour does not always match rhetoric and I will be writing about this again shortly but it is refreshing to see that, so far, the kind of xenophobic nonsense that the virus appears to have spawned elsewhere has not taken hold here. People were, are and remain their usual polite selves. It’s a cultural thing. After all, when you, as a country, have been around for a thousand years you may have picked up a few things along the way…

Meanwhile, there was a neat little bit of actual ethnic profiling happening in The Netherlands and I am wondering whether this upset the same people who were so terribly terribly shocked by their erroneous interpretation of my piece. It concerns this gem. Commentary and translation provided through that link.

The song – if you want to grace the plodding sequence with such a name – suggests that we should stop eating food that’s prepared by what the singer terms “stinky Chinese”; if you do not eat Chinese food you don’t have to be afraid. Of the virus, apparently. Chinese people were accosted on Dutch streets with “Hey, Coronavirus”. But hey – that’s banter, right. It’s fun-ny….

As the late and forever and always great Ian Dury would say in a heavy Cockney accent: no it ain’. It is crass and offensive and serves no purpose. It does not even inform; it just paints a bad and grotesquely inaccurate picture of one particular demographic.

Like the virus itself, this kind of behaviour spreads rapidly. There are reports from Abidjan where Chinese workers have been similarly aggravated. There is a growing scandal about the treatment of Africans in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, who have been moved from their homes and hotel rooms, ostensibly in an attempt to keep the spread of the virus in check. This became so bad that it took concerted action by African governments to put a stop to it.

The pandemic has given the usual suspects an opportunity to mount their hobby horse and hammer home their familiarly depressing mantra that “the borders must be closed”. It has given others to opportunity to get onto their White Saviour high hobby horse. We need none of this. Stop pointing fingers at others. The problem is you. And me.

Corona may well have exposed the limits of unchecked globalisation. But instead of giving us the impetus to draw up the bridges, retreat in our bunkers and forget about the world outside, it hopefully gives us the opportunity to build something new, something better and more equitable. A society that starts understanding the value of everything, not just its price. A society that cares for the marginalised, the vulnerable, the frail, the ones cast adrift without their knowledge or consent. A society that stops pretending to care about these groups by throwing them crumbs from the table. A society that recognises that bulldozing away Nature and not giving Her the chance to regenerate is a society on its way to oblivion.

If this whole episode can teach us one thing, this should be it. It should mark the end of the catastrophically misguided “Free market- Free for all – Greed is good – Me first” Thatcher/Reagan revolution that set this train in motion, which is hitting the buffers as we speak.

Here endeth today’s sermon. And for heaven’s sake: do not start playing John Lennon’s Imagine. I can’t stand that piece of sanctimonious piffle that lulls you to sleep instead of making you bloody angry.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 14, 2020

Part four – what on god’s green earth were they thinking…?

 

Conversation between two medical students overheard on a train in The Netherlands, many many years ago:

“So we’re off to Africa then, for our internship.”

“Yeah. It’s great, man! You get to cut into people.”

To my eternal shame, I was too shocked/too timid to interfere.

And here’s another conversation I overheard, this time not in a Dutch train but a taxi in the Guinean capital Conakry. It is the last week of the year 2003 and the whole West African region is still in shock following a horrific air crash, at Cotonou, Benin. The report on the Guinea-registered plane’s final moments, even when couched in technical aviation terms, is harrowing.

The doomed aircraft. Photo: Torben Guse, retrieved from the website oldjets.net

I vividly remember seeing this piece of junk parked at Conakry’s Gbessia International Airport and thinking: you will have to drag me kicking and screaming into that thing! On Christmas Day 2003 it crashed. What was the considered opinion of the taxi occupants in Conakry?

“It’s a conspiracy.”

“So it can’t possibly have anything to do with non-existent maintenance, untransparent ownership, a transport minister lying about its airworthiness, chaotic overbooking and catastrophically bad luggage loading at Cotonou?”

“No. Conspiracy.”

Alright, that’s settled then.

Two observations.

  1. There is ample historical evidence that the continent of Africa has been used as a testing ground for aspiring doctors and ruthless pharmaceutical companies. The only thing that would keep them in check, especially during colonial times, was their own moral compass – if one were present at all. 
  2. Africa has more than its fair share of conspiracy theories. For 26 years, it was the method of governance in Guinea – that taxi conversation sprung from the rich field of conspirational thinking it cultivated. The crimes of France, well-documented, give rise to the idea that the French are probably also the evil geniuses causing massacres in Mali. Or at the very least sponsor terrorism/jihadism. And outsiders bring diseases, which was, in all probability the thinking behind the attack on a medical convoy in deep Guinea, in the midst of the Ebola epidemic.

And now there’s COVID-19. Like all crises, it brings out the best in some and the worst in others, the latter often in the shape of an endless parade of yet more conspiracy theorists, who blame anyone and their canary for their own bumbling incompetence in the face of a major health crisis. The current occupant of the White House is a prime example.

Social media have exploded with folks babbling incoherently about Bill Gates controlling the WHO, the virus being the Chinese Communist Party’s avenue to world domination, chips being introduced surreptitiously into body parts we did not know we had, vaccines being surreptitiously introduced during routine medical checks by lizard people looking to control everyone and then there’s of course the inevitable dog-whistling misfit bringing up George Soros at every opportunity…

There is no room for nuance in these scenarios. And into this utter and complete mess wade these two:

Have you seen them? They are Camille Locht, research director at Inserm (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) and Jean-Paul Mira, head of Intensive Care at Paris’ Cochin hospital, where another famous French doctor once walked the corridors…

These two found it necessary to discuss, two weeks ago, on a mainstream French television network, the idea of using Africans as guinea pigs if ever a vaccine against COVID-19 were to be proposed. I find the actual discourse too crass to reproduce here but for those who can follow French, here’s a link.

What? The? Hell?

Which is what the internet thought. And predictably, it fed straight into the ballooning body of conspiracy theories and of course reinforcing old ones. But this is not about damage control through communication, as Inserm attempted to do.

This is about two individuals working in the medical profession, which is, let’s be clear, supposed to be governed by the highest ethical standards, blithely and openly discussing how you can dispatch living breathing human beings to some kind of rarefied abstract space where they become objects for experimentation – as was the case with those two medical students I overheard on that train. It was offensive, dehumanising, monumentally ill-judged and yes, of course: it was racist.

The upshot of all this is that you will have to work harder than ever to convince an already fundamentally skeptical population that there are perfectly good reasons to allow trials to be executed all over the world – including Africa.  There has, for instance, been an argument about the exclusion of Sub-Saharan Africa from the WHO’s Malaria Eradication Program in the 1960s and whether or not this set back anti-malaria efforts on the continent.

But before any experimentation happens, two criteria must be met. One is called informed consent, which means that whoever volunteers knows exactly what they are volunteering for. And second, all standard safeguards must be in place to protect volunteers against the consequences should anything go wrong, which is the exact opposite of what these two were proposing.  And as a result of their nonsense, rationality, already in the back of that Guinean taxi, takes another hit. Thank you for nothing, you &^#€!&% French dimwits.

The WHO website currently records 109 cases confirmed in Mali, with 9 deaths. Mali’s Ministry of Public Health notes 123 confirmed cases and 10 deaths; 26 patients have recovered.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 10, 2020

Part three – They know

 

Some years back, during one of those public debates broadcast by French world service radio (RFI) from time to time, I picked up a memorable one-liner from a member of the audience. The location was Lomé, and so he made a reference to the family that had been running his country, Togo, for half a century, primarily as a client state of France.

“When a member of our ruling elites falls ill, he or she takes the next plane to Paris, where hospital treatment is good and readily available. As a consequence, the state of the health care system in Togo is of no interest to them.”

This goes for many a nation. And so, these current headlines are in an odd way rather satisfying…

The late Robert Mugabe had a subscription to hospitals in Singapore, while his subjects died of preventable diseases in hospitals in Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo and Masvingo.

The rhetorically anti-imperialist first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, died of heart failure in a Cleveland hospital.

Muhamandu Buhari, president of Nigeria regularly goes missing because of health scares. If you want to find him, you must go to London.

Paul Biya, the ailing president of Cameroon (in power since 1982) spends most of his time in or near a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, a visitor to the country he is supposed to govern.

Depending on convenience and religious/ideological bent, you will find heads of state from the African continent occupying hospital beds in Moscow, Brussels, Riyadh, Beijing and sometimes in locations at either end of the continent: usually Rabat and Cape Town.

All this has now come to an end, thanks to Corona, because intercontinental flights have been suspended. Will this mean that the elites develop an interest in how hospitals in their own countries are run? This is not immediately evident. Just like terrorism, this virus is only an issue when they are directly affected. On the other end of the wealth spectrum, ordinary folks initially regarded Corona (which arrived mostly by plane) as a thing that affected “…them up there…nothing to do with us…”.

Not necessarily our problem….we just get on with our work…

But could this be changing?

There is a short-time perspective to this and a longer-term one.

Right now, there is an awareness among the authorities about the (usually poor) state of health care in the face of a looming menace. Whether said elites have developed a sense of their own responsibility in this regard remains to be seen. But they know. They know that things are not good. Years of neglect, devastating wars in some places, coupled with IMF-mandated austerity measures and the expectation that foreign NGOs would be there to pick up the slack have all played their part. Many large hospitals have developed a bad reputation, as places where you don’t go to get healed – but to die. Rural parts frequently lack even the basics.

There are also medical staff up and down this entire region with high levels of professionalism and a keen sense of public duty.  I have met many of them. It’s a fact that tends to be often forgotten, both here and in the global media. They know. They know better than anyone that they are working under extreme circumstances. They know there are not enough intensive care units, ventilators or even hospital beds available to deal with anything major.

And as a result, everybody and everything banks on prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Authorities ban large gatherings (well, some of them at least – I’ll come back to this later), close borders, enforce curfews and start campaigns to encourage social distancing (another headache as we have already seen and will see again later)

Live music, Mali’s pride and joy. Banned until further notice. But they’ll be back…

To date, prevention is working remarkably well. Mali has ample experience in this respect, as do Senegal, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. There are at present 87 confirmed cases in Mali, with 7 deaths and 22 recovered patients (according to statistics gathered at John Hopkins University Hospital in Washington), 59 confirmed cases according to the WHO. Here’s hoping it stays that way and that there will be no curve to flatten.

But inevitably there will come the longer-term question: will this outbreak be enough to start changing things around and concentrate elite minds towards creating decent basic services, to wit: water, electricity, health care, education, waste management? This, dear reader, is anybody’s guess. And that, in and of itself, is a deeply unsatisfying answer. But I have, at present, no other.

 

To be continued