Posts Tagged ‘Ségou’

Could this be another turning point?

February 7, 2021

A few fairly random thoughts following the trip back into West Africa…

The most overwhelming feeling on return to Mali after some time on the Old Continent to the north of here is how normal it all is. Bamako is bustling, the traffic is the same controlled murderous anarchy I left behind half a year ago, radios in shops and cafés play the same autotune-riven stuff I once described in this old piece and remains the main staple of locally produced pop.

The only people bothering with – nominally mandatory – face masks are the rich, who sport it when they drive around in their expensive FourWheelDrives. Alone. “It has become a status symbol for the elites,” was one perceptive remark I heard from long-time Mali veteran Aart van der Heide, on returning from his last visit to the country, late last year. He is right.

Although not entirely absent, few among the ordinary folks wear them. The defining issue is not whether or not they make any sense; that is a debate to be had by those who can afford the luxury of wasting everybody’s time. The defining issue is cost. If you have a family of seven (say) and you have to furnish them daily with that standard white-and-blue stuff that pharmacists sell, you will be left with no money to buy food. Ordinary folk go to Bamako’s heaving markets and do so unprotected.

This was Amsterdam’s world-famous Schiphol Airport, early in the morning of a late January day. In normal times, this place would be featuring hordes or businesspeople hurrying to their planes, copies of their obligatory pink financial daily tucked under their arm. The chances of these scenes returning are fairly slim and that is a good thing. Which does of course mean that in future I shall have to be as good as my principles and take the train to Paris for my flight to Bamako. As it happens, the COVID19 measures prevented overland travel and this was an old ticket, only halfway used. I repent and shall not do it again. Incidentally, my in-flight experience reminded me again why I have not flown Air France for literally decades: the plane was absolutely packed with passengers, “like sheep” as one rightly complained, the food was bland and quite frankly awful, the service correct but perfunctory…

The first night back in Bamako was spent in a mental time capsule. I was thinking back to the time when I was observing the wealthy, smug, self-referential Amsterdam elites doing their shopping in an upmarket Economy market in the city centre, which is selling food at the eye-watering prices only they can afford. I was thinking about them whilst sitting behind a large beer (one euro) in one of Bamako’s culture centres and watching a large crowd of boys and girls dressed to the nines (clearly an evening out) but wearing plastic flip-flops and imitation luxury shoes that would probably fall apart on the way home. The music was the usual totally eclectic mix only they understand, veering from seriously traditional stuff featuring chant and percussion that effortlessly segued into Ivorian coupé-décalé (zouglou does not work here), reggae, then rap and back to classic Mandé music. All in the space of half an hour and thanks to the DJ who was egged on to make his musical mixes as fast and outrageous as possible. A brilliant time was had by all. Social distancing resembled that of the Air France plane.

The airline, through no fault of its own this time, lost my luggage for a day. Which meant, among many other inconveniences, a missing phone charger. The Amsterdam mindset immediately kicked in, as I asked around for a place where I could buy one. The Bamako mindset returned the question with direct clarity: you said it’s in your luggage, right? So, wait for it to come back and in the meantime… (hands over phone charger) use this one. I know of an artist living in Ségou, who probably owns every single type of charger that has ever been on the market and helped me out similarly when I needed a particular type to fire up a rechargeable bicycle lamp…

From Bamako to – indeed – Ségou, where I found similar scenes at the Centre Culturel Kôrè, pictured here, which had organized an evening of storytelling, an art form to which I really do want to devote more time… Now, because this event was part of the largely foreign-funded Festival Ségou’Art and we had members of the country’s elite attending, the wearing of face masks was mandatory and the checks at the door rigorous. It did not, for one single second, diminish the fun the mostly young audience were having watching the shows, launching comments, hooting and shouting and singing along if a song came up they knew. (Most of these were of the traditional village type with a contemporary twist.) When the show was announced over they immediately filed out of the Centre with astonishing discipline, something I have witnessed in other places, as well. Maybe something to emulate for the youth of The Netherlands, when they consider going on the rampage again because their hours out on the streets have been temporarily limited…

Truth be told, Malian youths went on a spree back in July, smashing and looting, but this had little to do with a slight inconvenience in their otherwise cosseted lives but because they had connected with a crowd that wanted to remove a government that was killing their future. This provocative juxtaposition is, of course, a deliberate exaggeration.

During an off concert I only heard about the day before…

From the silence of Covid-ridden Europe to the life-affirming noise of Africa, where public life no longer suffers the devastation brought about by government measures in response to the pandemic, with the exception of South Africa I will immediately add. It resembles, by and large, a continent going about its large and expanding business, from music to IT service, from selling food to transporting people in ever growing numbers – and everything else you wish to imagine. It’s all happening and resembles, coming from the weird shutdowns that continue to hobble economic life from Lisbon to Stockholm, a return to something more than just business as usual.

Of course, things are far from ideal. I already mentioned the ubiquitously appalling behaviour in urban traffic and we are still having to deal with every other ill under the sun, from the very true menace of armed militias to everyday petty corruption and a massively dysfunctional infrastructure. And yet, in spite of all this, it feels like a continent going places, while in Europe I cannot shed the impression that this is the end of the road. The European run has been impressive, just like the cost it has imposed on the rest of the world and it is high time to make space for others. What exact shape that will take is impossible to predict but you can take the end to excessive decadence like flying dozens of times each day to easily reachable destinations as a welcome sign of the times. We can do with a bunch of those planes over here, after all…

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.

 

Orientations

March 22, 2019

This is a picture I took a few months ago in a Ségou hotel.

There’s a lot to see here.

The “motos” parked to the right are pretty much Mali’s standard urban mode of transport, topped (in Bamako at least) only by the ubiquitous green minibuses called “Sotrama”: relatively cheap and always packed. The buses have attracted an industry that now consists of drivers (of course), apprentices (for seat distribution and payment of fares) and an army of young men, some just boys, who dash dangerously across Bamako’s busy crossroads dodging cars, lorries, swarms of motos, cyclists and other Sotramas as they watch, eagle-eyed for potential passengers – and all this work for a tiny fee.

Move your regard from the motos to the door, and you will see two signs of the Castel beer brand. Castel is part of the empire of Pierre Castel, the 90-plus years old tipple tycoon, who runs his vast and mostly African empire from the company’s headquarters in Toulouse. Castel is part of a small but powerful bunch of (often family-based) French businesses that work in logistics (Bolloré), construction (Bouygues) mining (Orano) or sell mobile phone services like France Telecom, which owns the Orange brand. And that’s before we get to Total, the largest oil major on the continent.

Castel pretty much owns the Malian beer market, as it does in neighbouring Burkina Faso and much elsewhere in officially Francophone Africa. It has a real fight on his hands in large and relatively rich Côte d’Ivoire – with Heineken. Mali drinks beer in impressive quantities but this is often done at home. However, you can also find it in hotels, in those basic but friendly watering holes that are called “dépôt” and in many shops – even in most of the big supermarkets run by ostensibly pious Lebanese businessmen. Money talks and alcohol sells.

But things do grate at times. Look to the left of that door, across from the parked motos and you will find, gently sloping against a wooden cupboard, a prayer mat, an indispensable item in every Malian household. Of course, Islam forbids the use of alcohol but in real life you will find that the majority are definitely familiar with it. This is rarely a problem, since West Africa, which imported this religion from the Middle East gave it a uniquely tolerant, flexible and cosmopolitan swing. Mali is about 95% Muslim but – to give you just one other example – Malians resort to consulting a traditional seer at the least sign of trouble.

But there has been an intermittent culture war going on between the “flexible” and the “precise” interpretations of Islam,* which goes back centuries. It has been brought into sharp relief following an Arab oil money-fuelled construction wave that involved erecting scores of Wahabi mosques across the entire Sahel region and beyond. Wahabism is the state religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; its narrow-mindedness and its proselytising zeal are matched only by the televangelical priests from Texas who have been poisoning public debate in East and Southern Africa. Wahabist missionaries have been doing the same in West Africa.

*Dutch readers may recognise similar interpretation battles going on four centuries ago in the Lowlands’ Protestant Church between the “rekkelijken” and the “preciezen”

You’ll be hard pressed to find a Bamako street with no mosque

One of the most contentious issues in this public debate is about and around sexual orientation. Christian and Muslim fanatics have been hard at work to limit the societal space available to people who do not conform to their society’s mores, already conservative, since they prescribe that sex happens between and man and a woman and preferably with the objective to create offspring. Gays and lesbians and people who self-identify in still other ways have been threatened, harassed and beaten up in Uganda, Senegal, Cameroon and indeed Mali. Even murders have occurred. This is done in the name of religion and both USA and KSA-based ultra-conservative excruciatingly intolerant varieties have a lot to answer for in that respect. Sometimes the violence of intolerance is perpetrated in the name of what is referred to an “an authentic African culture”, which, in point of fact, used to have room aplenty for people who fell and/or felt outside the heterosexual norm – until colonial laws shut that space down. And, irony of ironies, sometimes violence is visited on gays and lesbians in the name of the anti-colonial (i.e. anti-Occidental) struggle. I have heard all three varieties.

Yes, this is a very muddled, very complex mix in which peoples’ personal lives clash with religion and its various interpretations, traditions new or invented, the colonial heritage and…the inheritors of that colonial heritage.

Have a look at the banner in that first picture. It’s hanging on the wall, left of the beer signs. It announces a workshop. One of the main sponsors is the Dutch government and the main content provider is the Rutgers Foundation, a well-respected organisation in The Netherlands, where it has done work in promoting knowledge about sex, and sexual and reproductive rights. The workshop is about how to integrate Complete Sexual Education into Mali’s school curriculums. (I’ll not go into Mali’s ongoing education crisis – that’s yet another story.) It has the endorsement of the Ministry of Education, which sends an envoy on a courtesy visit.

Complete Sexual Education. Pretty uncontroversial stuff, you’d say. After all, donor-organised workshops are a dime a dozen. No, far from it in fact.

As the workshop went on, I watched from the nearby hotel terrace and saw men coming out of the conference venue and spending inordinately long amounts of time on their prayer mats. With hindsight I get the impression that those long sessions with the Supreme Being served to perhaps purge something from the system. For a myriad of reasons, homosexuality is regarded extremely negatively in Mali and indeed in many other parts of the continent, and frequently connected with the presence of foul, decadent, white, colonial men – in fact, when visiting Cameroon I was told various times that the current crop of unaccountable leaders running the country into the ground were all gay: they had been groomed before independence by the French to ensure that an invisible gay cabal of Freemasons would hold the reigns forever. This rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.

So, unwittingly, a well-meaning but culturally out of its depth Dutch NGO was fuelling something nobody was able to control before to long. Someone got wind of the Complete Sexual Education plan, it was then splashed all over the social media and then into the streets and the word was: “They” – it’s always “they” – have come to promote homosexuality. Never mind that your sexual orientation is something you are born with and cannot change; you can no more “promote” homosexuality among people than you can get a polar bear to eat mangoes.

Never mind any of that. The stream soon swelled and the “scandal” became unstoppable.

And at the end of it all, the plan was put in a drawer and forgotten.

The end?

Not quite…

Enter: Mahmoud Dicko, the Wahab president of Mali’s High Islamic Council and one of the most influential men in the country. On the second Sunday of February he managed to shut down most of Bamako and get a 60,000-strong crowd in the nation’s largest stadium, named March 26, after the day when a peoples’ uprising and the decisive military coup removed the strongman Moussa Traoré from power in 1991. Powerful symbolism that.

March 26 was the day “democracy” was supposed to have come to Mali. In its wake, a plethora of NGOs, the whole alphabet soup, moved in following a slew of eager donors wanting to spend money. Lots of it. Here was Mali, a new donor darling, fresh from the clutches of dictatorship, ripe for the picking and a welcome target for what can only be described as another mission civilisatrice. Yes! I know! Practitioners from the field will howl and bark and scream at this notion but for the sake of clarity we need to be brutally honest here.

The development effort is the orphan of decolonisation and it has to be regarded in this fashion. The “locals” have done so from the Year Dot. To them, aid is another foreign busybody coming in to teach them something they probably already know, except this time they are not armed with Berthier guns but laptops and don’t arrive on horseback but in air-conditioned FourWheelDrives. For the recipients, these differences are mere details. And now these same people are at it again, this time “promoting homosexuality”.

So what happens in the stadium? Imam Mahmoud Dicko marshalls all this resistance and resentment and calls for a law banning homosexuality. That goes down pretty well, as do his denunciations of corruption, nepotism and the rampant lack of security in large parts of the country. The rhetoric is compelling: the Malian government and its decadent Western backers dabble in the “promotion” of deviant sexualities while the country burns.

Bingo. That was the easy part. 

Dicko’s Achilles’ Heel, however, is that he does not remember where he should draw the line. So he overplays his hand and demands the resignation of the Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga. Now he’s gone too far. The trick is no longer working: you can denounce a distant and decadent government in thrall to the West and its sexual peculiarities (as most Malians see it) but as a religious leader you don’t get to play politics. Because there’s another thing Malians know about their imams and their helpers: they are as venal and corrupt as the people supposed to govern them. Murders have happened over business deals gone wrong in mosques and not so long ago a close aide of one Bamako imam was apprehended for producing arms without a license. Maïga had the easiest of tasks replying to Dicko, calling the stadium rally “theatrical” and referring to Dicko as “a hybrid person,” someone who plays religion and politics at the same time. Dicko 1, Maïga 1. A draw.

So – it there a takeaway from all this?

I doubt it. Except, perhaps, the things we already know or should know. Namely, that nothing on this continent is ever easy and that every “simple” solution from a peace-keeping mission to a development program will inevitably crash on the hard rocks of the daily realities and old customs whose existence is all-too-frequently denied. And that resentment about the descendants of former colonial rule (and being white sufficiently qualifies you for that), together with conservatism on the one hand and a despairing lack of perspective on the other, together with the condescending attitudes of those flying in to “study the natives and then improve them” will result in the development effort being seen as a resource, or something that must be thwarted – or a mere background annoyance.

The only thing that works is: come over, you’re always welcome, be quiet, listen and listen well and only then decide if you have anything to add to the society that is not yours in the first place to conduct your social experiments in. Not rolling out your program is an entirely legitimate choice.

 

a very light note

February 11, 2010

I never knew this and I am certain you weren’t even aware of it – but I’ve got proof that I own, I run, no in fact I AM an entire country!

Don’t believe me? Have a gander at this then!

Ségou, Mali, February 2010

Et voilà!

BRAMali of course stands for Brasseries du Mali, which produces one of life’s essentials. Cheers!