Behind the headlines in Mali

As French and Malian combat soldiers fight al-Qaeda-linked groups in Mali, Camilla Toulmin, the director of IIED, reflects on her experiences of life in a village near Diabaly, close to the conflict. 

The mud-walled village in Mali, near the town of Diabaly, surrounded by fields and baobabs.

Having originally said that they would only provide air and logistical support, French forces have joined Malian troops in ground combat against the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Dine group. The media images of tanks on roads that I drove up and down years ago when I lived in Mali are unsettling.

I spent two years in a small mud-walled village 60 km south-west of Diabaly, the town where shells are now falling, while doing field research for my doctorate. I spent many a happy day walking out to the fields, learning how to sow, weed, harvest and winnow millet, asking lots of questions about marriage, cattle and well-digging.

I try to go back every year or two, to keep track of friends and developments in the village, help out with the mother and child health clinic, and encourage other projects in the region. And I take my children, now in their 20s, to visit. It’s a rare privilege to connect generations in this way. It’s almost two years since I was back there but, despite the gap, I can keep in touch a bit thanks to mobile phones and the arrival of solar panels with which to charge them.

My friend Makono tells me the millet harvest, the major food grain staple in the region, is almost finished, threshed and stored. It hasn’t been a bad year. Now they’re waiting on the arrival of traders to purchase their sesame crop. Normally, villagers take their goods to market either in Ségou, the old regional capital, or the smaller but closer weekly fair in Dougabougou, on the road to Niono, up which the French armoured carriers have been driving the last 2 days. It’s unclear how the conflict will disrupt marketing patterns, for them and thousands of other villages across the region.

Recently, the villagers have shown a strong interest in fish-farming – not a profitable investment you might think, on the edge of the desert. But they have decided to try out the technique following a neighbouring town which successfully experimented with seeding the large ponds, which fill up with water during the short rainy season, with fish fry. The fish make for a delicious cheap source of fresh protein during the rains and provide a considerable source of income from fish sales. Traders come from as far as Ségou to buy crates of the live, squirming fish.

For a country that almost never appeared in the newspaper headlines, it’s strange to see armed convoys superimposed on familiar towns and landscapes. While the French armoured vehicles have just driven north from Mali’s capital Bamako along the main highway, I have driven the cross-country route south many times. From Diabaly, it’s a 4 to 5 hour drive in the dry season to Bamako. In the wet season, it’s much less assured, as great muddy stretches can swallow up cars and trucks for hours, and even days, of digging out. I have spent several nights in the bush having mis-judged the depth and stickiness of the mud.

The route takes you through wide grassland plains, dotted with stubby baobab trees, the sweep of the landscape waving with flowering grasses. You’ll catch sight of cattle grazing in the distance, and a noisy throng of sheep and goats scattering as the car approaches. You’ll skirt several ponds still holding water months after the rains have stopped, with kingfishers and egrets lingering on the margins. There’s the village of Taiman with the seasonal lake where alligators emerge each wet season after many months of hibernation, and the saintly Imam’s tomb visited by people from afar. Then the road cuts through scrubby woodland for half an hour where a patient driver can bag a couple of partridges, before running through the next batch of settlements and onto the tarmac at Banamba.

These farm and grazing lands were protected in the 18th and 19th century by a ring of defensive settlements surrounding the northern edge of the Ségou empire, and traces of their mud walls are still visible in some villages. The Scottish traveller, Mungo Park, travelled through in the late 1780s and described a scene not dissimilar to today’s. But these thick mud wall defences are not able to withstand the weaponry and force of the current conflict.

As the occupation, killings and hostage-taking at the natural gas facility in Algeria show, the “fallout” from the current conflict is spreading far beyond landlocked Mali, or even northwest Africa. Sadly, there’s a real risk the conflict will become more complex and engage neighbouring countries, and that Mali will be in the headlines for months to come.

While the landscape is vast and glorious, and the historic cities and the great River Niger awesome, it’s the people, above all, who inspire the greatest affection for me, and I think for all of us who have been fortunate to spend time in Mali. Perhaps it’s only in one of the poorest countries in the world that people have the time and consideration for others which you find on a paved street in Bamako or a dusty path in a small hamlet out in the bush. It’s an open-hearted engagement, both respectful, but also teasing you to connect, talk, and listen. As the conflict continues, with West African troops gathering to join the conflict in the next week, my thoughts stay with the ordinary people of Mali – the Coulibaly, Diarra, Dembélé and Traoré, caught up in a battle not of their own making.

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