MY SUMMER VACATION IN MALI & THE CANADIAN DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan recently returned from the former French colony of Mali to learn more about an ongoing UN Operation. Mali is on a shortlist of countries being considered by the Canadian government for potential peace keeping operations in Africa.

In June of this year when I had the chance to travel to Mali. My mother was none-too-pleased and the Canadian government certainly discouraged it, but life is short and sometimes you just have to say yes.

A dear friend of mine, I’ll call her K, moved to Bamako nearly two years ago. She took a role a with a small NGO, myAgro, that provides subsistence farmers with agricultural inputs (seeds + fertilizer) on layaway using a mobile platform and local village vendors.

For 18 months I heard the stories, good and bad and weird and crazy, about life in Bamako. I had to see for myself. So this summer, loaded up with cipro and anti-malaria’s, I packed my bag and flew out to see for myself.

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MY (SHORT) TIME IN MALI

I arrived on a Monday, a week before Ramadan, late in the evening. We walked off the plane and it immediately dawned on me – I have traveled and worked in countries at various points on the development spectrum before, but this was not like those places. The airports in Nairobi or Quito or Delhi, those are substantial international airports. This one reminded me of the tarmac in Yellowknife. A single bare cement room, paint chipped in the corners,  fluorescent lights flickering overhead. And insects – so many insects. Grateful for my closed toed shoes, I waited in line behind German and Swedish UN troops and a number of wealthier Malians, heading home for the holidays.

K met me in the parking lot and we drove make her to place. Arriving late at night is a nice way to ease into a new country – you start by seeing just the immediate and have a chance to adjust to the sounds and smells of a new place before the lights go on and you are overwhelmed with difference.

My dear friend does not live in the “ex-pat” part of town – she is on the other side of the Niger river, close to her office and away from the big hotels and the UN buildings. She feels safer over there. While the conflict in Mali remains mostly in the north, on the other side of the Sahara desert from Bamako, the city has not been wholly spared from terrorism. In November of 2015, terrorists supported by Al-Quaeda attacked a Radisson hotel in downtown Bamako. 20 people lost their lives and 150 were held hostage. Since then, K has spent far less time in that part of town.

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Sunset over Bamako, Mali

K had to go to work the next day, but set me up with a driver and an appointment for a massage as a nice way to ease me into life in Bamako. Her regular taxi driver was a friendly man, though my Canadian-French accent proved less effective than I had hoped. The bottom of his car was nearly rusted out and I think the doors were held on mostly by a hope and a prayer, but given it had four doors, it appeared to be in rather good relative condition.

Driving through Bamako I was struck by just how little infrastructure there is. The Chinese had redone the main thoroughfare and the highways to the coast recently, but once off those, the roads were rough, even in the city. On K’s side of the river, I think I saw a total of two buildings over four storeys high. The things you take for granted in most urban centres – certainly most world capitals – like power lines and side walks and storefronts, were few and far between. Bamako has no chain restaurants and very few banks – the only familiar sight were the Orange mobile stations everywhere. Like many developing countries, Mali skipped over landlines and went straight to mobiles. Mobile banking has also become a key part of life for most urban Malians. It was one of those strange juxtapositions that come about thanks to globalization – young people in torn clothes, in front of crumbling buildings, livestock on the streets, texting from their iPhones.

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Turning the corner in Bamako

I had been told that people in Mali were incredibly friendly – like, ridiculously friendly. I had assumed this was just a thing said about people everywhere – the more you travel, the more you learn that by and large, people are good (granted I have only experienced the world as a friendly, white Canadian woman). I was floored by the people in Bamako though. Walking down the roads near K’s place – broken back roads between relatively nice gated homes – there would be groups of men sitting idly, socializing and passing their day. Groups of idle men can be intimidating regardless of where you are in the world, but I took K at her word, smiled and said bonjour. The response was powerful – warm, gracious laughter and friendly banter met me every time. Saying hi to strangers in Toronto rarely elicits the same reaction.

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Strolling through the neighborhood

There is very little petty crime and theft in Mali – there are very high levels of social trust. Perhaps it is the uniformity of the population or the relative poverty, or maybe a lack of tourism and therefore easy targets. My biggest fear walking alone in the city was getting lost – there were no street signs, no street names even and though saying “the yellow house where the white lady lives” might actually help, I figured getting lost in Bamako was a bad idea.

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Rural Sikasso

We took off the next day for the south. Most of K’s work takes place in the southern region of Sikasso, so we spent a night at her second home in Bougouni, a town of nearly 500,000 that felt like a small sprawling roadside town. I am so grateful to have been able to follow her into the villages. K oversees a enormous team of local interns – young people eager to learn more about sustainable agriculture in order to support their own communities.

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K and one of her interns overseeing a women’s group planting peanuts

What surprised me most about rural Mali was the complete and utter lack of biodiversity. Three hours of driving down back roads into the woods and we did not see a single animal. Not a rodent or a monkey or even a bird. The land has been stripped, the original trees clear cut to make room for cash crops. Cotton to be precise. The sale of cotton is nationalised, farmers can only sell to the central government. But there is no manufacturing or processing in the country – all of the cotton is sold for export. It has left the land near barren. With the Sahara to the north, this mass deforestation has increased desertification, leaving traditional farm and swamp lands dry and barren.

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We did see Baobabs – MASSIVE Baobabs

We returned to Bamako just in time for Canada Day. K and I went to the Canadian Embassy for Happy Hour one night, where I had the chance to chat with a number of Canadian expats. Most were there were there with the government or other NGOs, though some worked for extractive industries or consulting firms. All of them were surprised to meet a tourist. On the Saturday, we got to celebrate Canada Day at the official ambassador’s residence and the 4th of July at a US military house.

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K and I inside the Canadian Ambassador Marc-André Fredette’s official residence for his Canada Day party – his eight piece jazz band was the entertainment (yes, it was very hot)

It was an incredible trip. I had the chance to meet so many wonderful local residents and ex-pats alike. And while my last day was spent nursing my delicate stomach, I could not have asked for a better tour guide. And I have so much more to say – about role of organized religion in the country and their use of the radio to control the message, about rates of schooling and literacy for young people, about marriage and the gender roles, and the food – ooh man, the food – but a post can only be so long.

My experience in Mali was clearly atypical. And of course, we did not travel north, towards the conflict zone. I would have loved to see Timbuktu or the Grand Mosque of Djenné, ancient sites, now in taters because of the conflict. But the fact is I lucked out, and had my trip been scheduled for even a week or two later, there is a chance that it would not have happened at all. The security situation is worsening, even in the south. The Americans have begun to pull out all unnecessary staff from their embassy and other operations, a clear sign that things are not getting better. Which is why the Canadian Defence Minister recently traveled to Mali. Here is what I did not see firsthand on my summer vacation.

WHY IS CANADA CONSIDERING MALI FOR A PEACE KEEPING MISSION?

Mali is poor. Very poor. Mali finds itself in the bottom 25 if not bottom 10 countries in the world on the vast majority of development indicators:

  • UN Human Development Index: 176/187
  • Adult Literacy Rate: 31% (25% for women).
  • Infant Mortality: 75/1000 live births(7th worst in the world).
  • Unemployment Rate: 30% (189th in the world)
  • Access to Electricity: 26%
  • Child marriage: 22% of girls are married by 15 – the median age of marriage is 16
  • Age Demographics: 60% are under 24.

Canada is considering sending troops to support the 12,000+ troops already deployed in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The mission’s goal is to maintain control of Mali’s northern territory while trying to regain ground lost to the rebels during the 2012 Tuareg Rebellion.

RECENT CONFLICT

Twenty years ago, Mali was a relatively stable albeit very poor country. With its proximity to popular travel destinations like Morocco and UNESCO World Heritage Sites like the Great Mosque of Djenné and Timbuktu, Mali could boast a moderate tourist trade. For a country that is predominantly reliant on cash crops – namely cotton, gold and palm oil – diversified economic opportunities were crucial.

(Timbuktu, Mali – UNESCO)

In early 2012 however, the Tuareg rebellion in the north gathered steam and pushed into northern Mali, capturing cities along the border with Algeria. By March 2012, angered by the government in Bamako’s response to the rebellion, a group of soldiers in the city successfully captured the Presidential Palace and took control of the government.

The move immediately backfired: the international community overwhelmingly condemned the coup and suspended foreign aid, while neighbouring countries were swift to impose hefty financial sanctions. With chaos in the capital, Tuareg rebels were able to capture Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal – the three largest cities in Northern Mali.

By early April 2012, the president had formally resigned and the perpetrators of the coup handed off power to an interim government. It would take another 20 months before elections had been held and new legislature was elected. Rebels in the north however, have continued to fight with Malian, AU and UN forces. The region is highly volatile and dangerous.

Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali

Following an official request for military support from the interim Malian government, French and West African troops entered northern Mali in January 2013. By May of the same year, they had managed to recapture the three northern capitals.

In April 2013, MINUSMA was officially established, with 25 countries pledging peace keeping troops. The region remains volatile and the mission dangerous – to date, 69 UN troops have lost their lives in the conflict, the deadliest mission in UN history.

We do not know exactly what role Canada would take in the mission.  And to be honest, I am not sure what good the Canadian Forces will be able to do. Mali clearly needs help and innocent people are in danger. The UN has made it clear that it needs Canada’s support. But without a strong, stable government in Bamako to take the reigns eventually, it is hard to see an end point to the conflict. It is difficult to imagine what success would mean for MINUSMA. I am a supporter of peace keeping and believe that the Canadian military can most certainly be a force for good in the world. But I struggle to imagine an exit strategy for our troops. After nearly two decades of conflicts in the middle east that have arguably done as much harm as good, it is tough to see how Canadian action in northern Mali will do anything more than put Canadian troops as well as Canadian NGOs at risk.

I do not know what the solution is. I know Mali has a long way to go before it reaches some sort of stability and self-sustainability. Education, infrastructure, jobs, gender equality – there are a lot of basics that need to be met before Mali will stand on its own. I know standing by while well armed, radical terrorists take hold of cities and force girls and women out of school and work, and recruit young boys for conflict isn’t a good option either. Peacekeeping in the 21st century isn’t about standing between two opposing groups and waiting for them to cool down. It is far more dangerous and more complicated. I am glad that Minister Sajjan has postponed making a decision after having visited this region – this is not a decision to be made lightly, nor one that should be made for domestic political gain.

Regardless of their decision, I am sure the honourable Minister will find himself in the Malian capital again. And when he does, I highly recommend the ham and cheese sandwich at the casino – it is worth every franc.

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