Monday, February 20, 2012

Lots to update!

Yikes so much has happened in the past couple of weeks that it’s hard to know where to start with this update!  But, just to give you an idea of how quickly things can change in Mali, I arrived at the office this morning to find that classes at the university had finally started and that the students were already protesting (the university had been essentially closed since I arrived in October due to administrative difficulties and no one seemed to know exactly when it would open). What a change from the normally deserted space I had grown accustomed to! From what I can tell these types of student protests are pretty common (the student association holds a considerable amount of power in Mali), but it was still a little bit of a shock to stumble upon a large group of rowdy students so early in the morning. Hopefully everything will be worked out and both the professors and students can get back into their normal routines soon.   

Tense situation in Mali and Senegal

 I guess I’ll start with the bad news first: the troubling situation in both Mali and Senegal, two countries very close to my heart that have been experiencing considerable violence in the past 3-4 weeks.  In Mali, rebels calling themselves the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) have been demanding independence for the north of Mali. In the past month there have been almost daily attacks on cities and villages in the northern regions and many people have fled into neighboring countries. The UN estimates that there are more than 44,000 refugees in the neighboring countries of Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso because of the recent violence. The MNLA is reported to be about 1,000 people strong and composed of both Taureg fighters returning from Libya with heavy arms and money, as well as Taureg rebels that were previously integrated into the Malian army but have since deserted to join the MNLA.  While there have been several Taureg rebellions in Mali’s history, many people are saying that this is the worst fighting in over 20 years and the first time that the Taureg have actually demanded independence. Both sides have suffered many casualties, but in many cases the Malian army has found itself at a considerable disadvantage in comparison to the MNLA’s heavy weaponry and experienced fighters.

While the fighting has been far from Bamako and the southern regions of Mali, where I have been doing my research, we have been experiencing ramifications here as well. Notably there has been much frustration among the population about how the government has been handling the situation, especially from families of the military who claim that the army has not been well prepared for this type of combat.  Several weeks ago this frustration boiled over into riots in the streets of Bamako where the houses and businesses of many Taureg families (and other lighter skinned people including Mauritanians and Arabs) were targeted and burned. There are many Taureg living and working in Bamako, who are not at all involved in the recent rebellion, but have decided to flee because they do not feel safe. Even more troubling, just this weekend there have been reports of attacks by the rebels in villages farther south in the Mopti region. While I still feel safe in Bamako and southern Mali, it is certainly a concerning situation because it is not at all clear at this point how the fighting will progress.

The situation in Senegal is equally troubling as they prepare for their presidential election in less than a week. There have been protests off and on for the past month after the Supreme Court decided to let the current president, Abdoulaye Wade, run for re-election. He is at least 85 years old (many claim that he is older, but reduced his official age in order to stay in school longer) and is seeking re-election for his third term as president. What is frustrating for many Senegalese is that he passed a constitutional amendment in 2001 that limited the mandate of the president to only two terms, but he now claims that the new constitution is not retroactive, thus permitting him to run for re-election again. There has been much opposition both to his candidacy in general and the Supreme Court’s decision. In the past several days the situation has gotten progressively worse with violent clashes between protestors and the police and at least six deaths. While SenegaI has a relatively long history of peaceful and democratic presidential elections, there is a lot of frustration and tension among the population right now. I sense that there is a lot more at stake now than when I was there 5 years ago for the presidential elections of 2007, and it will certainly be tense for the next several weeks. Needless to say, the situation in both countries has been heavy on my mind lately and I’m praying for a peaceful resolution to the all of the problems. I’ve attached a couple of articles in case you’re interested in reading more, and I’ll try to keep you all updated as everything progresses.

Me and the moto
Trip to Sikasso Region

In contrast to that news, my research has been progressing relatively well recently. I have now visited 3 out of 4 of my field sites (…and will visit the 4th this week!)! I had a great trip to the Sikasso region, where I spent two weeks interviewing people, visiting villages, and riding around on a scooter (which is called moto here) with Fatoumata (my chauffeur, guide and translator). It was awesome!! I finally feel like I have a sense of what life in rural Mali is like.
Fatoumata- my guide, translator and chauffeur!

Women in the village of Kaniko (Siwaa convention) making Shea Butter
Mayor's office in commune of Kouoro

I was studying two local conventions in the region: the Siwaa convention, which covers 7 villages just outside of the city of Koutiala; and, the Kouoro convention, which covers the commune of Kouoro about 50 km south of Koutiala. It was fascinating to meet with mayors, prefets, forest service officials, NGO consultants, and villagers to hear about their experiences with the two local conventions. The Siwaa convention is one of the oldest in Mali, but many have said that it hasn’t been very effective in recent years. However, when I arrived I found that they were in the process of revitalizing the convention, and had even drafted and signed an updated convention within the last month.  In contrast, the Kouoro convention seems to be working relatively well despite the lack of support from the government (the prefet has still not signed the convention). Anyway, it seems that both conventions have interesting aspects to study, and I’m excited to go back for more in-depth interviews in the next couple of months.

I also really enjoyed staying in the city of Koutiala, which I found very calm and refreshing in comparison to Bamako. Koutiala is the third largest city in Mali, and is also known as the Paris of the Minyanka (the major ethnic group in the area) because of its relative wealth from cotton farming. There are lots of factories for processing various parts of the cotton plant to make clothing, oil, and food for animals. It is also relatively close to both Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, which makes it a hub for trading various goods. I was very excited that I could find big pineapples from Cote d’Ivoire for less than a dollar, which is not possible in Bamako. While there, I was staying in a dormitory with other researchers and interns from many different countries (Columbia, Switzerland, Cote d’Ivoire, Netherlands, and Mali) and it was fascinating hearing about all of their experiences in Mali and beyond.  Overall, it turned out to be a great trip and I’m excited to return soon!

Festival sur le Niger in Segou

River walk in Segou
And just in case you’re worried that I’m spending all of my time in Mali doing work, I’ve made sure to include some photos of a fun excursion to Segou to see the Festival sur le Niger this past weekend. The 5-day, Festival sur le Niger takes place every year and has become one of the biggest music festivals in Mali. I decided at the last minute that I didn’t want to miss it and managed to get a ride to Segou (about 3 hours outside of Bamako) with a Malian colleague (assistant professor who is working on his doctoral thesis) and his girlfriend. We had a great time exploring around the city during the day (despite the hot weather) and listening to great music at night! By far the highlight was seeing Salif Keita, one of the biggest Malian musicians, perform!  It was definitely one of the best concerts I’ve been to in a while and I feel fortunate to be able to check his name off the long list of “must see Malian musicians.”

Salif Keita at the Festival sur le Niger

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