Posts Tagged ‘development’

The face mask: a status symbol

August 5, 2021

An upmarket riverside restaurant in Ségou. A collection of FourWheelDrives has been parked before the entrance. Inside, a party of clearly well-to-do individuals, dressed to the nines. It is lunchtime and they have come to this place to be very well fed and watered. And another thing they have in common: all wear face masks. Not while they are eating of course; the masks are then lowered to cover their chins. This fashion statement is marginally more ridiculous than the already quite ridiculous habit of shoving your spectacles up your crane when you don’t use them, instead of putting them safely away. As for the masks, only a few have stored them in their bags or inside pockets but they will appear again once lunch is over and they get back into their FourWheelDrives to wherever they are having their gathering.

Here’s another frequent phenomenon: a lone man or a lone woman, behind the wheel of their luxury vehicle. Nobody else is there but they drive around in a face mask. I will confess to having a good old laugh when I see this but it clearly points at a social phenomenon.

One more, then. In spite of all the problems and troubles and asymmetrical violence this country has been subjected to over the past nine years, there is one phenomenon that is inexplicably resilient: the workshop. This whole region is absolutely addicted to the workshop, invariably dedicated to subjects that are fashionable in the donor countries that supply the money for these occasions. We call this ‘development’.

Workshops, trainings, evaluations and assorted other gatherings of VIPs are typically held in an upmarket place in the capital (Bamako, Niamey, Ouagadougou) or any other major urban centre (Ségou, Sikasso, Bobo Dioulasso…) that is still accessible. The deteriorating security situation, something these gatherings are not designed to address, limits the available options. But there are still more than enough accessible urban centres with multiple star hotels, the natural habitat of workshops.

On one such occasion, it was lunchtime, a procession of ladies filed out of the conference room on their way to the tables, where the food had been lovingly and lavishly laid out. My lunch table was, rightly and correctly, relegated to the margins of the establishment. The participants all wore fine clothes, some had elaborate head dresses; quality mobile phones were on display and they all marched to the tables wearing face masks. Yes, every single one of the development-oriented (upper) middle class gentlewomen wore one, without exception. No doubt they proceeded to discuss the plight of the poor, over lunch. I was out of earshot and should, of course, have been out of sight, too.

Alright then, one more…

Recently, we had a Very Important Visitor in town. That fact that this was a Very Important Visitor was made obvious by a Gendarmerie pickup truck ordering everybody off the Boulevard 2000, a very wide and very smooth stretch of road that takes all dangerous traffic (including Very Important Visitors travelling at high speed) around Ségou, instead of through the city, where they have to negotiate a stretch of tar road that has been in an utterly horrendous condition for at least a decade and a half…but I digress, unlike the caravan of the Very Important Visitor.

After we all had been made to stop going about our business, an impressive number of vehicles careened past. I’d say a dozen and a half. FourWheelDrives, of course. Pickup trucks. Even the odd saloon car, obviously in excellent condition. If she brings along a caravan this long I wonder how many cars wil accompany the President if ever he decides to come over here. You may as well close business for the day…

The next day, I saw the same procession move away (slowly this time) from the Governor’s Office, located of course in a very leafy part of town, and it was here that I was able to notice the many lone men and the occasional woman sitting at the wheel of their vehicles. Only a few had someone to talk to during the drive and almost all of them wore…a face mask. I am sure the maskless will get a stern lecture before too long. The visitor, incidentally, was the Minister of Health. She had first paid her respects to the town’s bigwigs and religious leaders, had then paid a visit to the various health facilities, had been able to see for herself the deplorable condition they were in and naturally terminated the tour by promising to do something about it. I was told the same has been said numerous times about the decaying tarred surface of Ségou’s main thoroughfare…

So what is this social phenomenon you may wonder. The penny dropped when I witnessed the following scene in one of Bamako’s upmarket supermarket our affluent friends – and expats – frequent.

A classy lady had parked herself and her rapidly filling trolley in one of the aisles. Meanwhile, her underling, a girl in a dress that was intended to denote her inferior status, was being sent around the shop to get the required items. (In fairness, I will add here that this does not happen very frequently; most of the time the girl is left at home and Madame does her own shopping.) And there, as if to emphasize the different stations of life these two women occupied, I noticed that Her Ladyship was wearing a face mask; her servant was not.

Couple that with the astute observation of an old friend who is a regular visitor to Mali, when he remarked that it looked to him as if the face mask had become a status symbol and the insight became even clearer: that is precisely what it is. It may be the case – not very frequently though – that the face mask wearer signals the aspiration to belong to this exclusive top class club but in almost all instances the face mask says: “I belong to the elites. I’m wealthy. I’m connected. I’m in.” Hence the ubiquitous presence of face masks at summits of heads of state, meetings between important representatives of international bodies and ministers, UN representatives, international NGOs and businesses. Money not only talks these days; it wears a face mask too.

Ordinary people in the streets, in Bamako’s green Sotramas (those privately run public transport minibuses), in the markets, on their motorbikes, working on the land, in the downmarket shops and eateries…do not wear one. My conservative estimate is that 95 per cent never bother with a face mask. And yet these are places where space is in far shorter supply than in the upmarket abodes of the elites.

It has been said before: in Mali, Covid19 is an issue that virtually never invites itself in any discussion. Of course it is an issue – for people who travel by air and these are mostly the same people who are found in expensive cars, expensive homes or expensive workshops. Besides, in a country where you are far more likely to die of malaria, water-borne diseases, meningitis or the incredibly polluted air in the homestead or the city, Covid19 takes its place at the back of the queue. Of course, the initial responses were quick and adequate because people remembered the horrors in next door Guinea (and to a limited extent back home) of that other deadly virus, Ebola. But Covid19 is mainly an obsession for those who can afford to be obsessed – and buy the masks at 500 francs apiece, the price of a roadside meal.

A mask or a meal: now you understand the priorities.

(More on Covid in Mali? Read my Corona Chronicles, written last year.)

Inevitable Islam

June 14, 2014

Bamako. It’s 3:30am and someone has been singing verses from the Koran non-stop for well over an hour. Not very loud but very persistent. He must be keeping hundreds awake at this hour but clearly no-one is going to tell him to be quiet.

Every afternoon the reception area in the court of the Maison de la Presse in Conakry turns into a miniature mosque. When I witnessed it for the first time I will freely admit to feeling upset. More precisely: my secular, social democratic and most of all my journalistic sensibilities were upset: why bring evidence-free religion into a building that supposedly celebrates evidence-based reporting? I was told that it was not a problem.

Dakar. The city centre goes into shutdown. Large groups of people, chain of 99 prayer beads in hand, stroll through the narrow streets and settle in any place where there is still space. The Plateau becomes one large open air prayer session for the duration of the Friday afternoon prayer, the most important one of the week.

What is going on ?

Central Ouagadougou with the old Great Mosque

Central Ouagadougou with the old Great Mosque

The rise of Islam in this part of the continent is neither extraordinary nor inexplicable. After Independence, formerly French territories like Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger were run by political elites that singularly failed their people. No better place to go to than, once again, that epic novel by Ahmadou Kourouma, En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, a novel I want to see on every Global Top Ten Must Read list. As Kouroumah shows, the political elites combined the rhetoric of modern nationalism and democracy with styles of leadership that had roots in local traditions. But the people at large did not see a clever hybrid or a government by the people for the people. They saw kleptocrats who served themselves and their families and in-laws, their friends, and the interests of the former colonial power, especially France. Everybody else came dead last.

Meanwhile, in came another belief, carried along by a large group of mostly Western individuals. In tandem with sections of that already discredited political elite, this imported gospel was called:

Development.

Nobody was really sure what in Heaven’s name this meant, not least because the high priests (at first) and high priestesses (later and in larger numbers) kept changing the definition every other year. First, development was to come through big, state-coordinated plans. Then culture had to be promoted and women too – not at all a contradiction in most of West Africa. Then the state had to be dismantled and decentralised while corruption had to be fought and good governance promoted. For a while, building infrastructure would bring development but then environmental degradation had to be halted. And security had to be promoted, in countries where the army had taken over power (often with widespread popular approval) but then had been allowed to turn into undisciplined racketeering machines. Exceptions duly noted.

And the people? The saw armies of Four Wheel Drives come and go, bedecked with an increasingly bewildering array of logos and labels. And they stayed poor.

Bamako, Tour d'Afrique, from taxi

Bamako, Tour d’Afrique, from taxi

I am writing this from Mali, a country that has had more than its unfair share of these multiplying and often contradictory development fads rammed down its throat. The development faith gained its disproportionate influence because of the money that was attached to it, which the elites, correctly, identified as another resource to be exploited. And the fads it brought along across the decades were always, always, always the result of development in donor countries.

As a result, Mali is the prefect example of a development state where development rhetoric was on everyone’s lips. A country where foreign-organised workshops, notoriously, passed for news items on state television. But the rhetoric is losing all of its relevance. Fast. ‘I live less than an hour away from Bamako and my village has no electricity, no safe drinking water and not even one decent primary school. ‘ It is these and other statements (including the absolutely dismal performance of the education sector in spite of  Millennium Goals rhetoric) that should compel all of us to come clean and give the development experiment in Mali and elsewhere its proper name.

An abject, catastrophic failure.

New mosque. Under  construction but already in use. Ouagadougou.

New mosque. Under construction but already in use. Ouagadougou.

The people, still poor, have already done so. They are turning elsewhere, to another imported religion but one that arguably has older and deeper roots. Islam does not promise material gain through “development”. In fact, it does not promise development at all. Neither does it change priorities every two years. Islam has a number of immutable basic tenets that, like the five calls to prayer, can act as anchors in peoples’ lives. It also has a good number of very practical rules that people can live by; solidarity is one of them, no matter how modest one’s means. In short, if offers an outlook on life that is a much closer to the majority’s lived experience than any kind of rhetoric emanating from air-conditioned offices and cars. The people do not own aircons; they own cheap ventilators.

The Sufi tradition predominates here and revulsion at the vandal hordes that invaded northern Mali and the ugly killing sprees by Boko Haram is virtually universal. This is not the kind of Islam that compels people to go and fight in Syria or Iraq, with a few exceptions here and there. What it does do, is offer refuge. The political elites have failed, the security details steal and everyone sees the Development Gospel for the scam it is.