Mali on my mind

There are some extraordinary scenes in Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film “Timbuktu”, which explores how the people in and around the city cope with the invasion of a bunch of jihadis bringing their haphazard ideas of the sacred and profane to disrupt everyday life on the edge of the Sahara desert. The half-crazed fanatics ban many forms of amusement including football. Some boys gather on their dusty playing field and go through the motions of a game but without a ball. Their flowing movements – like ballet dancers – are accompanied by a faint murmuring tune; the fundamentalists also banned music. A couple of jihadis roll past on a motorbike and the game stops. The players pretend to be doing gymnastics. There have been few better images of the surreal madness that has engulfed a vast belt of territory stretching from Central Asia, through the Middle East and across large expanses of Africa.

In 1985ish – not long after re-locating to Denmark – I began to think about food and agricultural policies in developing countries, about how and why some people have been able to transform farming systems, increase productivity and output and generate surpluses for export, while others languished in rural poverty, stricken with under nutrition and – in the worst cases – famine. Inspired by some analyses of peasants, markets and rural development, I decided to prepare a research project by traveling to West Africa. Through some chance encounters I had established contact with researchers at the Council for the Development of Social Sciences in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, so Senegal seemed like a good place to start out.[1] Studying maps, I realised that it would be possible to travel all the way from the Atlantic coast to Ouagadougou, the landlocked capital of Burkina Faso. Taking the train from Dakar to Bamako and ”taxis brousse” (bush taxis) the rest of the way, the trip would include an excursion into the inner delta of the Niger River, at the heart of “la République du Mali.”

For around two months at the end of 1986 I backpacked with Lene, enduring some hardships but also getting a very good impression of the region known as the Sahel (the coast of the desert). After a couple of days in the urban confusion of Dakar, we went to the southern Casamance region and then took the train eastwards crossing into Mali near Kayes. I later found out that the borderlands along the Senegal River are amongst the hottest on the planet. Our train was slow and lots of dust and heat wafted into the carriages. After numerous stops at small towns and villages in the savannah, the train crawled into Bamako 12 hours late.

There were very few tourists in Mali. We stayed in rather run down hotels in Bamako, Ségou and Mopti, the three most accessible destinations along the Niger River. We enjoyed the colourful crowds in the markets, but found out that traveling around the delta by bus or taxi was difficult, so we didn’t get to the great sights (mosques) of Djenné and Timbuktu.

I didn’t connect with any researchers in Mali either. There was no university in Bamako and other educational opportunities were limited. I realised that the world of learning was not high on the priorities of the military government.

In Mopti we joined a huge crowd to watch a display of sailing skills on the river in honour of a visit by Mme. Mitterand accompanied by the Malian president’s wife, Mme. Traoré. Her husband was a fairly brutal general who had seized power in a coup d’état back in 1968. He overthrew Modibo Keita, one of Africa’s independence heroes, who had broken with France and developed economic relations with the Eastern Bloc. But aid from the USSR was limited. Mali had few exports of value: some cotton and livestock “sur pied” (on the hoof). Various grand schemes to expand irrigated rice cultivation in the delta largely failed. Severe droughts and famines of the 1970s and early 1980s seriously affected the country and questions of how to transform rural livelihoods and ensure food security were paramount.[2]

At the time of our trip in the mid-1980s, Mali had become a testing ground for adjusting price policies to encourage farmers to grow and sell more while managing grain storage systems with food aid deliveries in order to cope with shortfalls. I collected enough information to be able to write a paper on how aid donors – notably the Commission of the EU and USAID – supported the government’s food and agricultural policies. It was published in 1987 more or less at the same time as I began my research in Copenhagen. But having been lucky enough to meet a group of young researchers interested in my questions and attached to Ouagadougou University, I had shifted my focus from Mali to Burkina Faso.[3]

Moussa Traoré was finally overthrown by angry mobs and dissatisfied soldiers in a popular uprising in March 1991. By that time I had finished my PhD and started to work as a consultant. For several months I was involved in a feasibility study of livestock development in the “Liptako Gourma” region, which straddles northern Burkina Faso, north-central Mali and western Niger. My second “on the ground” introduction to Mali in 1991 included discussions with enthusiastic young people working to improve animal production systems.[4] One of them I remember in particular: aside from cattle, Dr. Diakité had a special interest in the small population of elephants living in the Gourma region!

I also discovered that Mali was riven with conflicts, notably between the peoples living in the northern desert and semi-desert regions and the greener south. The delta of the Niger River is a melting pot and meeting place for sedentary farmers, pastoralists and fishermen, as well as merchants. In course of time various kingdoms formed in the region, where control of salt and gold and cattle trading enabled rulers to accumulate some wealth and power. The Fulani – semi-nomadic cattle raising people – developed a sophisticated system permitting access to the river at different times of year as the waters rose and fell, thereby allowing the fishermen and farmers to co-exist. On the fringes of the Sahara, the “men of the desert” or “blue people” (Tuareg) occupied a vast, sandy landscape, riding camels and herding cattle between oases while obtaining grain from farmers along the river. Slavery was widespread.

Like many West Africans, the Tuareg resisted French colonial rule, not only in Mali but also in what became Mauretania and Niger, as well as southern Algeria and Libya. Their opposition gradually coalesced into a movement for the independence of “Azawad” as they call their territory. Since the end of the 19th Century there have been several armed uprisings both against French “imperialists” (AOF) and the Malian government after independence. Thus, for decades the north has been a zone of unrest and “instabilité.”

I was crazy enough to travel around this turbulent region in 1992. As a member of a small team evaluating Norwegian development assistance to the “Sudano-Sahel” region, I flew from Bamako to the small town of Goundam, 100 kilometres from Timbuktu. Working together with a French consultant, my task was to assess the progress of various Norwegian funded development schemes: irrigation along the Niger River, community development in off-the-beaten track villages and the dredging of a stream that supplies water to Lac Faguibine.

The lake is an extraordinary phenomenon. Surrounded by the Saharan sands, it is fed with water for two or three months every year when the level of the Niger River rises in the flood season bought on by the rains in the Fouta Diallon mountains to the south-west in Guinea. There is a narrow channel flowing from the river to the lake, but due to neglect it had silted up. Without water the crop production systems around the lake had deteriorated leading people to abandon the region. Thus, the plan was to dredge and clean the stream – called the “Marigot de Kondi” – thereby re-generating the lake and the rural economy.

In order to take a look we had to arrange transport. A peace agreement between the government and the Tuareg rebels had been signed in Bamako shortly before our arrival, but the local authorities in Goundam were uneasy about guaranteeing the safety of “la mission Norvégienne” since communication was poor, there were rumours of bandits in the area and the terrain was rough. After some haggling we agreed to have a military escort – whose fuel we paid – as we drove across the dunes to a settlement called Bintagoungou on the edge of the lake. En route I made surreptitious efforts to take a few photos of our odd little caravan as we bounced across the sand stopping from time to time to inspect the state of the “marigot.”

From Bintagoungou we drove eastwards to Timbuktu. I remember that we arrived in the legendary city towards sunset and immediately went for a walk to see the mosques and the buildings housing the famous libraries. I was a bit disappointed to find that it was a rather dilapidated and dusty settlement, but there was a comfortable bed and water at the hotel.

The trip around the north included meetings with farmers attempting to improve irrigated crop production along the riverbanks as well as a stop in Mopti to discuss birdlife and a scheme to protect nesting sites for migratory species with representatives of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The evaluation of Norwegian assistance covered numerous topics. I also spent a few days travelling by train to and from Bafoulabé in the north western Kayes region where a Norwegian NGO called Pastor Strømmes Foundation was engaged in rural development. Overall we had many positive impressions to report to the donor.[5]

One way or another, by 1992 I was beginning to feel that I understood some of the dynamics of development policies and practices in Mali. I was also well aware of the educational and health deficiencies in the country, which ranked amongst the lowest in the world on the UN’s “human development index.” The removal of Moussa Traoré, the end of military rule and the organisation of elections seemed to be ushering in a new phase promising better days for the impoverished rural and urban communities.

The Norwegians seemed optimistic too and in the post-cold war period of the mid-1990s it appeared that more financial resources might flow to the benefit of the poor. In 1994 I also visited Bamako briefly in connection with a study of crop protection schemes in the Sahel. But then the country dropped off my radar screen…

Over ten years later I was in Bamako again, as team leader for an appraisal of a proposal to provide Danish funding for improved water supply and sanitation. During my two-week assignment in 2006 I was slightly shocked to find that although there had been several elections and although local government had been strengthened considerably, illiteracy rates were still high, rural poverty was still widespread and the conflict between the north and the south rumbled on. I was particularly taken aback by discovering the extent of gender inequity; the female sociologist I worked with was very upset by the way in which even trained technicians in the water and sanitation services looked down on women, refusing to greet her or to listen to her ideas. In the final wind-up session at the Ministry in Bamako we made some noise about the importance of tackling gender bias in development schemes funded through Danish aid, something which might have seemed fairly obvious in so far as we dealt with basic needs for all: the provision of clean drinking water for rural households and efforts to encourage better hygiene to reduce infant and child mortality.

It is astonishing that in the 21st Century there are men who consider women to be unclean, unfit to drive cars and only able to serve as sexual servants, not to mention who like to grope girls. I’m not surprised that the feminists are resurgent in many countries. During travels in Mali I learnt a little more about the closed minds of religious fanatics.

Meanwhile the war of terror continued to spread unrest throughout the Middle East and deep into Africa. In 2011 the rippling waves of Arab discontent reached Libya. Colonel Gaddafi was heavily involved in the politics of West Africa and there were many soldiers with roots in the region serving in his armed forces. Thus, amidst the chaos when the colonel was overthrown, hundreds of men and thousands of weapons drifted southwards across the desert to Mali. It was only a matter of time before these heavily armed “mécontents” began to organise another revolt, bringing together the jihadis of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and the Tuareg.

Although I haven’t been to Mali since 2006, I have watched from a distance as the tragedy of violence has spiralled out of control. In 2012 the fundamentalists fleeing from Libya joined forces with the northern secessionists and began to move south, rapidly overrunning the demoralised Malian army. A coup d’état in Bamako further weakened the institutions of the country. As European governments’ fears of a jihadi “state” exporting terror from south of the Sahara looked increasingly likely to materialise, the French put together a coalition and a major military campaign to fight back. By early 2013 French and Malian army units – supported by contingents from numerous other countries including Denmark – had recaptured the main northern towns and in June a ceasefire was agreed with the Tuareg rebels. Provisions were then made for a UN peacekeeping force to take over.

As I conclude this essay, the operations of MINUSMA (“la mission multidimensionelle intégrée des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation au Mali”) are entering a fifth year, but there is not much stability in the northern zone.[6] Indeed the risk of terrorist attacks has spread throughout the country. New dimensions have been added to the chaos, notably drug and human trafficking across the Sahara. In the latest response a joint military force is being put together in order to strengthen regional anti-jihadi and anti-trafficking campaigns. Meanwhile MINUSMA has become notorious as the UN peace operation with the highest casualty rate; it seems that the soldiers have become easy targets for fanatical rebel warriors emerging from the sands of desert with their automatic weapons and improvised bombing devices.

There are no tourists or travellers in Mali nowadays, only warnings to stay away. In March 2014 I went to a concert at the Palais des Nations in Geneva where the famous Malian singer Salif Keita was performing with his band. I had seen him on stage in Bamako in 1992 when I went to the Stade d’Omnisports with the team of Norwegian aid evaluators. Like many others I have developed a taste and an ear for the soft tones and swirling rhythms of West African music. But sadly it is the sound of gunfire not the kora that is heard in Timbuktu.[7]


[1] The Council is still going strong! See:

[2] Keen to understand more I located a useful collection of essays about ”Mali, le paysan et l’état” edited by Moussa Cissé et al. (L’Harmattan, Paris, 1981). The story of the ”Office du Niger” and the colonial use of forced labour to construct dykes and channels for irrigation is told in a minor classic by Amidu Magasa entitled: ”Papa Commandant a jeté un grand filet devant nous” (Maspero, Paris, 1978).

[3] My research efforts in the late 1980s resulted in two papers published as Speirs (1987): Food aid and food strategies, the case of Mali (CIIR, London); and, Speirs (1991): Agrarian change and the revolution in Burkina Faso (African Affairs, volume 90-358).

[4] At the end of the 1980s I was also involved in a major study of crop and livestock production systems in West Africa for which I got credit when the results were published as a World Bank Technical Paper called: ”Indigenous integrated farming systems in the Sahel” (Speirs & Olsen, 1992). It is available online:

[5] The Foundation is also still going strong: To my surprise the final synthesis report of the 1992 evaluation is available online from the Norwegian evaluation department:


[7] A recent study by Charlie English about ”The book smugglers of Timbuktu” (2017) contains many insights into the history of the region, while also dealing with the rescue of the ancient manuscripts from the city’s libraries that the jihadis were expected to destroy in their rage against the world.

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