Sunday, March 27, 2011

Closer than you think

I curl my legs beneath me on my brown, black and gray squiggle-stripe couch (I swear, it's not quite so bad looking as it sounds ☺) and select a trashy magazine from the pile of glossy  periodicals on my coffee table.  From the soccer field beside my apartment I hear the static-filled sound check of a PA system cough to life and a bassist strum through a collection of chords.  I set down my magazine, a cloud of dust rising up from the couch cushion, and walk onto my terrace rooftop overlooking the clearing below.  I crane my neck and see groups of Malians arriving in bachées and on foot, descending from sputtering mini-vans and Jakarta-brand motos to arrange plastic lawn chairs in a semi-circle and erect a tarpaulin shelter to protect against the relentless, even in the afternoon, sun.  Women sporting outfits in an indistinguishable-design-yet-certainly-matching fabric test out the microphones, greet arriving guests and prepare the dirt clearing with hand-made straw brooms.  A wedding party?  Another extravagant baptism?  Evangelizing Christians?  The wind catches a white banner and I read the banderole's blocky letters painted with care on a white sheet: 'Union Pour la Republique et la Démocratie.'  No, today we will not be throwing our money into the mouths of hungry griots but rather the empty hands of politicians.  It's a political rally!  

Bamako is no stranger to political rallies and while they are entertaining and certainly colorful with all their wax print fabrics and singing and dancing – it is the protests and demonstrations elsewhere in the world that are capturing the attention of the media.  Lately it is as though the barometer of North African politics is mounting in conjunction with Mali's hot season – la vie commence à chauffer deh! and the barometers of both are rising quickly.    From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, political landscapes around the world are shifting drastically as people who have lived under dictatorships their entire lives begin to speak out against the injustice of suppression and autocratic rule.  This malcontent is not isolated, as we have now seen, to North Africa.  Middle Eastern countries are playing political dominoes as we watch from afar, and sometimes closer, the toppling of draconian regimes.  One can only hope these leaders will be replaced with  governments that actually represent the interests of their populations and not just the interests of their off-shore bank accounts.

Politics in the Ivory Coast, south-western neighbor to Mali, are not much better than those of the countries to the north.  While the Ivory Coast recently held democratic, multi-party elections, the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, who was defeated by Alassane Ouattara, refuses to hand over the presidency and his control of the Ivory Coast's rich resources (the Ivory Coast is the world's largest exporter of cocoa and home to many other natural resources).  Since the elections in November the United Nations has sent over 10,000 troops to prevent more bloodshed in this country that has barely recovered from a civil war just 10 years ago.  Over 500 people have lost their lives due to this presidential stale-mate and the number of regionally-internally displaced peoples is estimated to soon surpass 1,000,000 – in a country where the population is just over 21,000,000.  1 in 20 Ivoirians are fleeing their homes.  1 in 20 Ivoirians will soon be flooding the borders of neighboring countries and continents.  Is one of them yours?

Mali is a country situated geographically and politically in the middle of the instability surging in both Libya and the Ivory Coast.  While I have never been better received as an American than while living in Mali – there has been a palpable shift in some Malian's sentiments towards Americans, at least in Bamako, since the implementation by NATO of the no-fly zone in Libya.  Muammar Ghadaffi has invested heavily in Mali and many associate his money with his heart.  It is clear, though, as Ghadaffi continues to massacre his own people that this terrorist has no heart.

And with the Ivory Coast as a direct neighbor to Mali, and the previous allure of employment in Abidjan so high, many Malian friends of mine anxiously await news of their family in Abidjan or are finding room in their homes to welcome back relatives fleeing the thieves and insecurity of the Ivory Coast.  Just last week I noticed 7 Greyhound size buses parked not too far from my apartment and, I later learned, in front of the Mauritanian embassy in Mali.  'Aw be taa min?' I asked.  Where are you going?  'Mauritania,' they replied.  'Nga aw bora min?' I continued.  But where are you coming from?  'Abidjan,' they answered.  The travelers – tired-looking, dusty and surely hungry from such a long voyage – (and only ½ way to their destination) said they were escaping Abidjan, the Ivory Coast's capital, which had recently fallen to banditry and random shootings.

Ghadaffi and Gbagbo are clinging to power in countries where their people clearly no longer want them there.  These autocrats are massacring populations to hold on to authority over a people who have clearly had enough.  When will they finally listen to what not only the international community, but their fellow countrymen, are saying so loudly?  Relinquish your power and pass it over to a leader of, and for, the people  

Orange and Sotelma, two phone-service providers in Mali, broadcast messages from time to time to their customers to advertise for bonus phone credits 'buy 1,000 – 5,000 CFA in credit, get 100% in bonus credit' among other promotions.  They also partner with private organizations such as UNICEF to promote events such as International Hand Washing Day and International Women's Day – 'Journée International de la femme!  Envoyez FEMME à 3757 et recevez un message pour envoyez à toutes vos proches! (300 CFA/message).'    In the car on the way back from a visit from to one of USAID/PHARE's multi-age classrooms, all the phones in the car dinged with their respective text-message indicators.  'Inscrivez-vous sur Facebook pour rester connecter avec vos proches!'  Youssouf, the head of USAID/PHARE's training programs, scoffed.  'Facebook?  Why would I want to subscribe to facebook?  Do they think I want a revolution in my country?!' he said.

Bamako is filled with extravagant mansions, villas with bougainvillea flowers creeping over 10 foot walls and more Hummer and Lexus brand cars than you would expect to see in a country ranking 178 on the UN's poverty index.  Bamako is also filled with people just scraping by, literally, to make a living.  Malians welcomed multi-party, democratic elections earlier than most in West Africa following a coup d'etat on March 26, 1991.  The extreme political instability of the countries surrounding Mali to the North, South, East and West make their democracy  appear all the more outstanding.  But democracy on paper and democracy in practice are not the same.

Have your gas prices been going up recently?  Have you tried shopping in a grocery store in Mali that receives its products via the ports of Abidjan?  The reverberations of the political unrest in countries that seem so far away are closer than we think.  Political rallies, like the one that took place just below my apartment, are on the rise in Bamako with presidential elections projected to take place in Mali in spring 2012.  Maybe that text message from Orange and Soltelma is a prophesy for things to come.  Maybe Mali could use a little more Facebook – and a spoonful of revolution – in their lives, too.


Anonymous said...

Besides being a very educational entry, I enlarged and printed the map--2,in fact (1 for home, 1 for work)--now will be able to better place what's going on and where as I read the paper and hear the news. I, for one, am so geographically challenged. Your insights are enlightening--as always! Be safe. xoxo mom

Manzo said...

I assisted that past February with some Colleagues to a soccer final between schools, we have sponsored to still promote the fight against HIV/AIDS. I spent the hour and half the game took, sat aside the local Major, who owns a Hummer and a luxury 4/4 in that forgotten corner of Mali.

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