He Just Laughed And Said “Leave Djenne (Africa)” Never!

“When the Jihadists attacked the north and seemed to be on the march towards Djenné in 2012 I decided to leave for the south. I remember asking Yelfa if he would leave if things took a bad turn in Djenné. He did not really understand what I meant at first. The he just laughed and said “leave Djenné? never! I realized that his forefathers have seen empires rise and fall for a thousand years in Djenné…”     Swiss Lady, Sophia,  Djenne Djenno blogspot.com

Mali is a political and conflicted disaster these days. There are many effective soldiers on the ground, but there is no opposing force to meet face to face. No military presence can prevent three people from pulling up in a car, or on a motorcycle and unleashing rounds from an AK47.

Therefore, no location where westerners gather in Mali could truly be safe, you simply cannot guard every location people live, move and have their being. You can’t stomp out an army that is so disseminated among the population. You cannot displace a movement that is so small and so fluid on the ground, not knowing where they will appear next.

I arrived home from Mali and was immediately immersed in pressing commercial fishing work.  As usual, I had my nose so close to the grindstone that Mali, what happened there, seemed unreal within weeks.  Was I really there in Mali, West Africa only 5, 10, 12, then 15 weeks ago? It all seems like a dream. Did I really have that experience outside that mosque? Was that conversation with a village a bit in turmoil really part of my conversation? Was that really me dancing with the village men? Were those prayer calls really a mosque 50 feet from my front door?

I landed the lobster gear this week and I took my first few days off, and, as usual, Africa came flooding back in through that crack in the all consuming nature of a Canadian life. 

I’ve been kind of a wreck about it all.

Man of Peace Development has been very concerned about us being in Mali the last few years. This year tipped the scale for them, and me.

Of course the kidnapping of Sister Gloria Cecilia Narváez, of Columbia,  in February, only 30km north of rural area I work in was  a bit startling.  We had scheduled an Ethnomusicologist to do recording work there, and that was terminated, though he graciously agreed to proceed with the Ganadougou, about 125 km from the incident. It is surreal to be in the position of explaining an Al-Qaeda kidnapping, and how it is situated in your work area, to an Englishman about to arrive for audio recording work.  We provided the information we had to him, we had to, and then we left it in his court to make the decision to arrive or not. We simply had the obligation to see he was informed. His security choices were his to make, not mine to make for him.

We had some amazing things happen this year. A work that exploded beyond what we ever dreamed was possible.

However, we also had some startling things happen this year as well.

At my entry into Mali, and also of my wife later on, questions were asked about our water filter and irrigation work, and our region. Our humanitarian supplies were taxed, which i had no intentions of protesting over, phone numbers were taken, asking for details on where we live, and then being told they will be coming to see us in Sikasso. We were told things we could, or could not undertake. 

Since when is it an issue to gift clean water (Filters) and drip irrigation gardens to your neighbors and friends? When has simple generosity become a security or control issue?  Notes were taken, information was gathered. This was all new for us in Mali. 

It proved to us that we, and our work, is drawing more attention then we liked. We realized that we were no longer flying under the radar of the government, and other people of influence. I can’t go into great details.

Let me just say, that the further we can operate outside the standard Humanitarian arrangements, the more effective and flexable we feel we can be, and the less likely someone is lining their pockets, or pointing our work in a direction that was not our intentions. So we have always moved in modest, simple, and low-key manners, and that invisible movement allowed us a great freedom to get to people of our choosing, people we felt needed us most.
Corruption is in Mali. (Feel free to skip these details in the following quote)

Malian government bureaucracy costs taxpayers dearly. More than half the state budget goes to civil service salaries and administrative expenses–buildings, motor pools, telecommunications, trips, supplies, etc. For every franc spent on public infrastructure, roads, or schools, another 1.37 francs is spent on the bureaucracy. From 2010 to 2017, the Malian budget more than doubled, from 1.1 trillion to 2.27 trillion CFA francs (about US$4.5 billion), an increase of 106% that yet had little impact on key sectors like education and health, or even the effectiveness of government services. But worse than its poor productivity, the Malian state sector has become a place where funds meant for public investment either disappear or are misspent. Through fraud and theft of public funds, a mafia has taken over the public sector……..

The reports of various oversight agencies show that the Malian state is being looted in a multitude of ways. Euphemisms such as “irregularities,” “managerial errors,” “discrepancies,” “non-collection of fees,” etc. boil down to just one thing: a fraudulent system kept in place to enrich certain civil servants at state expense. Some civil servants’ greed knows no boundaries. The staff of the Ministry of Mines surely wins the prize for sheer brazenness in this regard (BVG 2012 report, p. 89):

With respect to vehicles, maintenance records show, for instance, that for a single repair job, 150 parts were installed on a single vehicle [including] 3 windshields, 3 oil filters, 3 air filters, 3 fuel filters, 4 front shocks and 4 rear shocks; 2 windshields, 4 front and 4 rear shocks, 2 radiators, 4 sets of motor brackets, 4 crankshafts, 4 fuel pumps and 6 headlights were installed on another. Such cases have become common and recurring.

Such effrontery may seem amusing, but it’s the root of the problem. Theft doesn’t even bother to escape oversight–since punishment never materializes–and concentrates on extracting maximum funds from state accounts. The 2014 BVG report (the last one published) includes examples like these:

  • At the Roads Authority, some 11.8 billion francs simply disappeared, including 4 billion misallocated by a single individual (p. 106).
  • 667 million francs disappeared from the Office de la Haute Vallée du Niger (OHVN), including 183 million stolen by the head of marketing (p. 118).
  • At Gabriel Touré Hospital, the BVG found that the staff basically stole x-ray film worth 115 million francs; as a result of the shortage of x-ray film, the radiology unit stopped functioning for two weeks (p. 125).
  • In all, 1.4 billion francs disappeared from Gabriel Touré Hospital accounts from 2011 to 2014. This sum is the equivalent of the combined budgets of the public hospitals of Ségou (Hôpital Nianankoro Fomba) and Kayes (Hôpital Fousseyni Daou).
  • At the Centre International de Conférence de Bamako (CICB), where the controller set himself up as a bank teller for ministry of culture personnel, the public lost nearly 995 million francs (p. 131).

Reference LINK

The Sanago War Crimes trial came to Sikasso this year, and Sikasso was flooded with thousands of journalists, lawers, judges from the highest courts, military, and protesters etc. Soldiers were on every corner. I was concerned something would happen in tiny Sikasso, but thankfully my fears proved false.

However, when you are sitting at a watering hole in some food dive in Sikasso, and lawyers and legal men arrive to eat, and they are talking over the case, and making phone calls to inform people about the results of the morning proceedings, for a war crimes case of a Senior Military officer of Mali, I had to leave.  Prime target for anyone who would like to retaliate, and too much information, more than I wanted to know. When you are sitting at a table listening to talk about mass graves, and the nature of the torture on fellow soldiers etc. it is overwhelming and beyond my comfort and experience. Over the month I found myself arriving and then leaving many small watering holes I had been using to retreat to after a hard day in the village. It was kind of unreal to see how Sikasso was taken over by thousands of outsiders at the time.

My main partner in Mali is wise, saving my ass in many ways, probably saved my ass more ways that I am aware of.  With words come meaning, and meaning is determined by culture and history. This is why he has never once refereed to us as Humanitarians in the six years we have worked in Mali. With that term comes an image and expectation we may not wish to fill, or a box we probably do not wish to be pushed into.  He has only ever told the locals that My wife an I are here on vacation (4 month each year) and they love the people here, so they like to “work for the good of the population while they are here.”

So we have not passed ourselves off as humanitarian workers. We have avoided using the term “Project”, as this is a major trigger word in Mali, if not all of Africa. Dollar signs appear in people’s eyes.

Anyway, it seems we may not be returning to Mali in the same capacity this year, if this year at all. In our personal absence we still have another sixty families (or 600 people) entering the drip irrigated garden project over this year, and water filtration for 3000 people, in 300 families, over the next year and a half. My friends are carrying on this water filtration work, and drip gardens work free of charge, no salary.  Salifou is an amazing man with a heart to serve and better his people, not for personal gain.  Also we have fifty women in a very remote region, undertaking literacy study, and this needs to go to stage two this coming winter.

The reality is that we have seen two unusual breakthroughs within two people groups in a short period of time, to such a degree we have worked ourselves out of a job in a rare, and rapid way. It seems so little to do with us, and how a timly movement folded before us. We, and our board have found ourselves kind of dumbfounded that we reached our objectives within five years, not the expected fifteen years. No joking! I am totally flabbergasted at what I have seen unfold the last two years. This year with the Ganadougpu was spellbinding. Much I have never really talked about.

Anyway, Man of Peace Development is hesitant to grant a return to Mali at this time. A few MOPD directors are down right against the idea at this time, feeling the work is in good hands anyway.  So, it seems as if I may not be in Mali this fall as a result. For security reasons, they asked us to downsize our footprint in Sikasso on one week’s notice during our very last week of our term, so we did.

We no longer hold a place, and when we are able to return to Mali, in whatever capacity that will be, we will be taking on only basic and temporary living solutions each time.  It was actually not a stressful undertaking, as we had so little, it is easy to just give it away, and it costs us nothing to setup a temporary lodging solution to carry on any needed presence in the future.  Yes, I know, some of you think this is crazy- we are back to arriving in Mali, once again, not knowing where we will sleep.  LOL. But it does not stress us.

What was strange to me was that our national friends and partners were insistent we not notify our community of any changes to our program.  Even though they saw stuff leaving our home they did the talking to the people around us. But they had to have known we were leaving or moving. We were also told not to tell people when we would be leaving at the end of the term.  They would say goodbyes for us after our departure. All this was strange to me,  and so not Malian culture, at least in my mind.

But they truly felt there was some security risk and felt we should take precautions and maintain ambiguity of our movements since we live fifty feet from the door of a Mosque. My friend is adamant one of our neighbors, who I like, and has been very friendly to us,  is an Islamic radical, and not to trust him, or tell him anything about what we do or where. He will not pray in the mosque only 50 feet from both of us, and he has pictures of some radical imam in his shop and he only prays there.

It seemed strange to have this kind of paranoia, coming from Malians, a paranoia I did not have.

Man of Peace Development is using their official channels to communicate this situation, so you should not take this story as the official news.  What is certain is that our Malian partners are already carrying on the work, and our commitments are ongoing for two years from today.  Our work is still ongoing, we just became even more invisible to the process is all, and this is a good thing, the best thing.

So it seems MOPD’s goals with one people group have been not only fulfilled, but surpassed rather quickly, extending to a second group, and we may be in a position to reposition ourselves to undertake a new work, in a new region, a even a new country.  We are still examining the ramifications of everything that has unfolded.

I remember a mentor of mine, Lew Cass, saying something to the effect,

“The longer you stay the greater the dependency that develops.” It is counter-intuitive to a westerner.

However, going away for extended times, regularly, actually helps the work from the very beginning. This forces locals to step forward, or not. You get to see the level of buy-in up front, no illusions are perpetuated”

We have lived exactly this principle.

However, it is not easy for me today. I’m missing my friends, my fellow workers (all volunteer), villages, and my home in Sikasso. I am missing the rawness of life in French West Africa.

These two days off have given time for the ramifications of all this to sink in a little more, and of course I am sad, yet excited about the possibilities. If we could come cold turkey to Mali and begin a new work, without having our hand held by expats, we are probably capable of going anywhere in the world to begin something new, again. But Mali is in my heart, as there is a lifetime of work here in any region, in one of the least developed places on planet earth.  I can’t imagine working in a “softer”  country. I  have lived it as raw as it can get, so the rest does not seem to apply anymore. Yet, the security situation is no joke, not to be dismissed lightly. 

Say prayers over all this transition, send your thoughts, your words of encouragement, as we can use a little right now. Mali has been one hell of a ride,  one where we were needed most. Yet, Mali is also the place that has given us the most in return as well. You don’t just shake Mali off and easily move on. These words are a shared experience. She writes so much better than I do.

Yelfa and I have always had a joking, bantering relationship. He is constantly teasing me recently about that it is time to get married again. I reply that it is not possible because he (Yelfa) is already married to four wives and he is the only one I would contemplate. The first time I said this I think he blushed a bit. But I also always contradict myself by telling him “ Ah,  Yelfa! Thanks be to Allah the Merciful that I am not married to you! You live in the 14th Century!”

I sometimes wonder how one can have 21 children and even remember their names. His lifestyle is so totally different from mine that it is quite a miracle that we do understand each other so well. But knowing some of these traditional  Djennénké  has made me realize how very close we all are in some of the ways that really matter. Love, pain, regret, joy, ambition, all these universal things are understood by us all in almost the same way it seems to me……

Sometimes we are not aware when something happens for the last time. Circumstances change without our intervention; we take leave of someone quite casually and we don’t know that we will never see them again;  decisions are made over which we have no power which have  sudden and deep consequences in  our lives.

– Sophia, Swiss lady.  Djenne Djenno, Djenne, Mali)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. MaryLou Frazee says:

    Andy, I thank God for you! Your shared experiences and observations are a connection to Mali, and therefore my family, that enriches my understanding of their experiences. Thank you for your heart for Mali! And bless you as you make decisions and choices for your “next step”!


    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. We so love the Frazees in Mali.


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