Category Archives: Thoughts

One Year Ago Today: An Update

One year ago today, I was somersaulting through sand dunes with Tuareg and Songhai children. I shared camels, meals, and a tent with a primarily nomadic family. Friendly turban-ed strangers offered me rides to and from Timbuktu in iconic dilapidated Toyota Hiluxes, the preferred vehicle of gun-toting desert-dwelling terrorists everywhere. Or so I thought. Like much of my trip through Africa, the sojourn up through Mali’s northern region was about dismantling preconceived notions.

409070_10100975348780033_1345201532_nHeld just outside of Timbuktu last year, the Festival Au Desert is one of the strangest and most remote international festivals in the world. Travelers I’d met in Bamako had warned me against taking the trip up north for the festival. A month prior, four westerners had been kidnapped in Timbuktu, a first for the city. The US, British and French foreign services immediately augmented their already stern travel warnings for the region, and it seemed like the vast majority of tourists had decided to reroute their plans. Despite the president’s assurance that the festival would have an unusually high level of military security, what is normally one of Mali’s biggest international draws seemed too dangerous and too remote.

P1020504After some initial skepticism, when people told me to avoid Timbuktu at all costs, I scoffed. Crises always appear more dangerous from a distance, I told myself. It’s easy to take any whiff of danger and inflate it. My friend Phil and I decided to book a last minute ride with a Tuareg tour leader looking to make a little extra on the side, and two days later we were off.

On the last night of the three day festival, during headliner Tinariwen’s set, Phil and I managed to find some satchets of cheap Cameroonian gin. In the predominantly Muslim area, this kind of beverage was frowned upon but not contraband. Mali’s constitution is strictly secular, and the local population is traditionally moderate and politically secular. In a drunken 3am haze, we discovered a conveniently-placed late-night brochette stand and stumbled our way through endless sand dunes, trying to reach our 5am bus scheduled to leave for Bamako. The bus, a sort of hybrid of an old European school bus and a reconstituted engine, stumbled through makeshift terrain as we literally blazed our own trail through the Sahel. To say that the ride was bumpy is a massive understatement.  At one point I briefly fell asleep, only to wake up to a bloody nose as my face made violent contact with the hard steel of the seat in front of me. Still, the ride only took 24 hours, which by Malian standards is pretty incredible.

In terms of the festival, I was right to go. With the exception of an extraordinarily lame surprise appearance from Bono (yeah, THAT Bono) it went on without a hitch.  In terms of the region’s long-term stability I was wrong. This was January 2012. A year later, Timbuktu is an extremely different place.

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Iconic 14th century mud mosque in Timbuktu.

For those of you who haven’t followed the news, I’ll provide a brief update. Shortly after I left Mali in late January 2012, armed militants from a Tuareg separatist group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) (important note: though much of the western media has taken to referring to these rebels as “the Tuaregs,” they do not represent all or even most ethnic Tuaregs’ ideologies or wishes) attacked military outposts in a few towns in the north of Mali. The Malian government responded by sending troops-largely composed of ethnic Bambara from the south who had very little experience fighting in the harsh, isolated Sahara- to quash these rebellions. The troops were underfunded and unprepared and the MNLA, allegedly armed by the Qaddafi regime during the Libyan revolution, were able to successfully defend towns they’d occupied, killing dozens of Malian soldiers in the process.

P1020511Realizing  how vulnerable and volatile the north was this time (the Malian government had successfully defended its territory in the north from several Tuareg separatist groups since the late 80s), the military began to impose “tactical retreats,” leaving large swaths of land, including a key route into Timbuktu, one of the North’s most populous cities, unprotected.

Meanwhile, a series of major protests broke out in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Though Bamako was (and still is) far from the fighting, citizens and soldiers’ wives, angry with what they perceived as poor preparation and funding on the part of the military, protested outside various administrative buildings in the capital. After a particularly violent protest in which soldiers dissatisfied with the course of the conflict pelted the Defense Minister’s car with stones, a small group stormed the presidential palace and found it relatively unsecured. Though Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was expected to abide by the constitutionally mandated term limits and step down after the elections a month later, soldiers forced him into exile.  The next day, on state television, the junta announced that they had suspended Mali’s constitution and taken over until the country had the opportunity to elect a new, democratically elected president.

P1020518The coup was universally condemned. The UN security council and ECOWAS suggested sanctions against the regime, and the World Bank and African Development Union followed suit. Starved for funds, the coup leaders relinquished control to an interim prime minister, but not before the instability in the south allowed the MNLA to secure all of its desired territory in the north and declare itself independent from the country of Mali.

In the ensuing months, Mali’s vast northern region has devolved into infighting and factionalism. It’s been hard to keep up with news because the region is too dangerous for western journalists to enter, but suffice it to say that a series of rebel groups have been steadily competing for control of Mali’s northern region. Though the largely secular MNLA were the initial aggressors, various other groups like Ansar Dine, dedicated to imposing sharia law on a largely moderate population, have since taken control in some cities. They have destroyed historic shrines in Timbuktu, a UNESCO site, banned music, and instituted public whippings. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group whose ties to the real Al Qaeda are unclear and undocumented, has been responsible for many of the kidnappings of foreigners in the region in the past few years. They have also allegedly formed splinter groups that are competing for northern territory.

In the past few weeks, the poor, not particularly resource-rich country of Mali has made front page news. Due to militants’ attempts to move southward far beyond traditionally Tuareg territory, the French military has launched a counteroffensive. The situation is ongoing. I have my own opinions about the intervention, which I will share later. In the meantime, you can find excellent commentary from bloggers and journalists actually located in the area here, here , and here.

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Perhaps you’re wondering why I finally decided to update my blog after such a long hiatus.

There are a few reasons I haven’t updated this blog in so long. I spent some time in Europe (including 3 weeks on a goat cheese farm!), and it was hard to relate my experience there to all the stories I still have yet to tell from Africa. I also had a computer malfunction that essentially erased all my notes (sure… I’m new school), half-written stories and essays. I recently got that fixed.

This blog was and continues to be an outlet for my travel stories. I have consciously avoided using this site to highlight humanitarian crises and political instability for a variety of reasons. For one, they present a singular, oversaturated view of West Africa with which westerners are most likely already familiar. Two, they are generally not consistent with my own experience in West Africa, however limited that might have been. For better or worse, my experiences in Africa radically transformed my perceptions of poverty and instability in ways I never expected.

That’s why the situation in Mali has affected me so profoundly. And that’s also the biggest reason I haven’t updated in so long. In my dedication to provide a contrarian voice for a misunderstood region, did I miss a few steps along the way?

It’s hard to continue along the same, confining narrative, when a country that had seemed like the same bastion of peace and political stability that it had been for the last 20 years has erupted into chaos. I’d been working on a post about whether West Africa has finally become a manageable travel location. But how could I not have seen this coming? Could something this tragic also be this random?

Perhaps that’s why this post is appropriate. Since the beginning, with few exceptions, this blog has been about me. My experiences are a medium through which to examine an often overlooked corner of the world. But, in this situation, that’s a little absurd. I am not the one allowed to feel slighted here. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in the north of Mali. Millions of Malians are living without a real government for the first time in decades.

Still, there is hope for Northern Mali. Polls suggest that Malians largely favor the French intervention, and the French military, with help from ECOWAS, Chad, and the UK have recently driven out militants in Gao and Timbuktu, Northern Mali’s two largest cities. However, intelligence suggests that the conflict could become drawn out as rebels simply retreat into the North’s vast desert. To be sure, the North’s problems are becoming systemic. But alas, I am not there. And that much I truly regret.

Timbuktu sunsets

Timbuktu sunsets

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The Difference Between Ghana and Morocco

Ghana: Most offers of hospitality are genuine.

Morocco: Most offers of hospitality end with a solicitation to buy hash or a carpet. Also, as I learned today, any female that wants to talk to you is probably a prostitute.

Despite canting touts, at least the food is better:

A Free Haircut: Why Malians Have the Most Bizarre Sense of Humor Ever

Africa is pretty well known as the continent of over 10,000 cultures, languages, and tribes that within the course of one hundred years, were aggregated into a little over 50 largely arbitrary nation states. It’s easy to read that statistic and not grasp the magnitude. But come to any country in West Africa and discover that diversity yourself.

I’ve only been to four countries so far. Within those four countries, I’ve encountered over 20 different languages and dialects, along with myriad different tribes, ethnicities and distinct cultures. Some of them are insular, some of them, by virtue of urbanization or trade, have begun to integrate. Of course, as you are probably aware, this has provided the groundwork for a lot of conflict on this continent. Sadly, culture clash in Africa has led to violence on many occasions.

Sometimes, however, you find yourself face to face with something bizarre and beautiful. In southern Mali, when many people approach someone new, they begin by insulting each other. This line of insults stems entirely from lineage.

Say I introduce myself as Moussa Traore (one of my many given names). A person (for purposes of this demonstration, let’s say a Coulibaly, another extremely common Malian last name) might greet me with a series of customary West African salutations, asking about my family, my health, how my day is going. Then he might say something like “Traore? I be so dun” (“E Bay Sho Doon,” literally “‘you like to eat beans”). Without missing a beat, I could respond with “You’re a Coulibaly. Your family is too stupid to farm, all you eat are peanuts and horses.” The line of insults continues until both parties burst into laughter.

“What?” You ask. “How does this make sense?” To the outside observer it doesn’t. But can you think of a more bizarre and interesting way to deal with ethnic confrontation? Thus, out of sheer cultural curiousity, I became a regular participant.

Though French is the official language of Mali, like other West African states, most people speak only very little of the colonial language. Bambara generally functions as the lingua franca, a trade and media language and the mother tongue of Mali’s largest ethnic group. Though I tried, I learned very little Bambara during my stay in Mali. “I be so dun” quickly became a mastered phrase, however, as it would immediately bring a smile and an incomprehensible line of insults headed my way. Once people understood that that phrase was about the extent of my Bambara (can you think of anything more random?), they continued in French if they could speak it, or simply gave up and hugged me. “I be so dun” was key. It turned a lot of potentially awkard cab rides into social events, and was often the beginning of a conversational ticket into peoples’ homes.

In Mopti, it even got me a free haircut. I had some time to spare, so I wandered around the market area, playing tricks on touts and trying to find a decent brochette sandwich. I came upon a particularly interesting barber shop, purporting to be the “Barber Shop of Obama.” Barack’s visage is all over West Africa, from t-shirts to mattresses. Still, I couldn’t help but marvel at the barber’s audacity.

We began talking, and he introduced himself as a Keita. I introduced myself as a Coulibaly and let out my line. He countered with a line of French insults culminating with “We are Bozos, you are our slaves.” Jokes about slavery might seem a bit uncouth. In the world of cousinage however, they are both fair game and commonly used. I then came up with a line about selling fish in Senegal because his family is too stupid to accomplish anything in Mali. He returned with another line about slavery and I admonished him for his lack of creativity. I also concluded that, as payment for all of our years of free labor, the least he could do is give me a free haircut.

Then he did.

BEFORE

AFTER

That first photo is actually a picture of Yusuf Islam (AKA Cat Stevens) that I ran into in Timbuktu. His company is self explanatory.

AN UPDATE ON THE SITUATIONS IN SENEGAL AND MALI

In Dakar, protests have died down, though the opposition has pledged to organize more if their demands are not met. Most people I’ve talked to are so incredulous at the government’s (or overzealous cops, these things tend to get conflated) violent crackdown on the protesters that it’s really hard to determine who Wade’s base actually is. It seems like his administration has really alienated a good portion of the voting bloc, and it is hard to imagine that he would get reelected.

Of course, one never knows. His administration allegedly provided “gifts” for the supreme court judges that ruled in his favor, and only one major political figure formerly affiliated with his camp has spoken out against him. The leader of the influential Niassene Leona Muslim Brotherhood appealed by writing “power is not worth this. It is not worth the death of even one of our sons. You have given us 11 good years. You cannot do anything short of what Senghor or Abdou Diouf have achieved. For the sake of peace, Wade, we beg you to retract yourself.”

Meanwhile, the resistance in Northern Mali has lulled, though leadership has suggested that fighting will continue. Like many in Africa, the conflict is a lot more complex than a short news article can possibly communicate. Though the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), has explicitly expressed its goal for an independent nation state, there are likely several different groups all vying for similar but not always consistent objectives. Also, Tuaregs inhabit one of the poorest and most isolated regions on earth, so adequate information and decent journalism is often very hard to come by.

Here’s an article from the front page of the New York Times website that refers to the rebels as “The Tuaregs.” If the rebels had been of French origin, would they have been referred to as “The French?” I think not. The article also paints Colonel Gaddafi as the sole posthumous mastermind behind the most recent rebel incursions. Though his mercenaries’ influence is undeniable, anyone familiar with the region would rule that out as a gross oversimplification. To add to that, someone who’s never been to Mali and has no familiarity with the region reads the last line of the article, and Mali immediately becomes hell on earth. You can see why I have an endless beef with western media coverage of this place.

According to reports, Tuareg rebel forces still hold a few towns, and have apparently killed a relatively large number of Malian troops (as much as 40 in Aguelhok alone). Though civilians have allegedly been mostly spared from the fighting, I find it hard to believe that this new wave of violence will garner more popular support for a movement already lacking in that crucial category.

After the second day of protests in Bamako, representatives were granted an audience with the president who recognized their concerns. He even fired the defense minister, a move that is clearly symbolic and likely won’t do much when it comes to properly equipping the military anytime soon. Despite rumors, protests were explicitly aimed at the president’s administration, not at Tuaregs living in the city. According to friends, no violence has been directed against Tuaregs, though rumors that opportunistic juveniles were targeting Tuareg businesses and anyone Arab-looking persisted. No deaths or major injuries have been reported.

Now, to contribute my own ridiculous cultural generalization: not to be insensitive, but  the Tuaregs are perhaps the only major ethnic group in Mali that don’t participate in the cousinage ritual. Coincidence? MAYBE NOT.

A Bit of Somber News

I spend a lot of time making fun of myself on this site. I also spend a lot of time discussing some pretty silly things. My next post will be a prime example, I promise.

This one is different. I hope that, beyond all the silliness, a common thread has emerged from this website. I set out trying to counteract some commonly held misconceptions about this region, or at least to give a little nuance to an unfairly characterized corner of the world.  Unfortunately, every now and then, violence happens. And therein lies the conflict for major western news outlets. To ignore these events is irresponsible, to give them airtime only falls right into much of the western world’s limited comprehension of this region.

This last week has not been a good one for Mali and Senegal. I arrived in Dakar two days ago. So far, I’ve had a great time, though this city hasn’t.

Since my arrival, Dakar has been a site of protest. Traffic has been insane. The city center has been packed daily. People without televisions have been sitting outside general stores, restaurants, or even homes staring as the news cycles images of protest, masked gendarmes firing rubber bullets, injured protesters limping or being carried to nearby medics. It’s been impossible to escape, the Africa’s Cup providing the only respite from an otherwise grim news cycle (Ghana won yesterday and advanced to the next round… hell yeah).

It hasn’t been hard to see whose side the news is on. Except for the state-sponsored channel, each professor or politician interviewed spoke of preserving Senegal’s now fragile democracy. So far, four people have been killed countrywide.

The precedent for abuse of term limits and electoral fraud in Africa is strong. It has retarded once prosperous, functioning democracies like Cote D’Ivoire and turned them into war zones where investors and NGOs fear to tread. Many Senegalese are sensitive to this, and see president Abdoullaye Wade’s party’s augmentation of his constitutional term limits as a dangerous step in that direction. This recent wave of protests has been in response to a supreme court ruling that upheld the decision. I can’t say I blame the protesters. The elections are at the end of this month. If he doesn’t step down and then wins the election, the situation in Dakar could get ugly fast.

The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali has once again taken a violent turn. Rebels, many recently returned after fighting for Gaddafi’s military in Libya, have attacked six towns in the last two weeks. Their most recent attack has garnered the most attention. Niafunke is Ali Farka Toure’s hometown, and the site of a huge part of Mali’s musical tradition.  I was also there less than a month ago which is pretty surreal.

In an interesting and related musical anecdote, the Festival Au Desert’s most anticipated act, Tinariwen, came onstage to rousing fanfare. Soon, however, the crowd lost a lot of its enthusiasm, as it became obvious that they were missing members. A drunk aussie behind me at one point referred to the group as “Tinariwen’s B team.” It turns out, their most recognizable member and principle singer Ibrahim ag Alhabib has joined the rebel forces.

Though many Tuaregs share the rebels’ separatist sentiment, most don’t advocate violence, and they’re certainly not accustomed to it. If the situation doesn’t calm down, Tuareg refugees could begin spilling into the rest of the country. Phil from Phil in the Blank has been in touch with our hosts from the Festival Au Desert. They’re ok, but needless to say unhappy and apprehensive about the future.

On the other side of the coin, the deaths of Malian troops in northern Mali have sparked a wave of protests in Bamako. Wives are understandably angry that the government is sending their husbands to protect these villages without adequate preparation or equipment. According to friends, much of the city has been closed, and it has been hard to find a bus out, since people are leaving en masse. The situation remains safe, but as always, potentially volatile.

Here’s hoping that these situations die down soon.

If only we could all reconcile our differences over football matches. Speaking of that, the second round of the Africa’s Cup starts in two days. I hope you’re as excited as I am.

My Nightmare

I feel like I’ve been doing a lot complaining on this site lately. Maybe I’m hypersensitive, but it seems like the last few posts have been kind of negative. I want to counteract that.

I’ve been having a recurrent nightmare. It goes like this: I’m in the U.S.A. My trip to Africa has either been cancelled or hasn’t happened yet. I try to convince myself that I’ve been to Africa by invoking memories of my trip, but I can’t. I know I’m here, yet somehow can’t prove it to myself. I’m terrified and incredibly uncomfortable. In this dream, the U.S.A. is the last place I want to be. I’ve had this dream at least 5 or 6 times. Every time, I wake up in a (hot) sweat. When I realize that I’m actually in a sweltering room with no fan and stridulating mosquitos, my sense of ecstatic relief is a cause for a tiny early morning celebration.

Just, you know, so things don’t get too negative.

Fear

Today, as I exited a tro-tro at Kaneshie station, my left leg buckled, I dropped my bag and I fell to the floor. My leg felt so numb that I couldn’t move it. I tried standing up, but instead fell back down. I thought of the cut I’d received on my foot a few days prior and realized I hadn’t dressed it or sterilized it since the initial bandage. In a split second, all of the friendly warmth and open hospitality of Africa turned sinister. Panicked, I recalled the inhospitable Africa: the land of microbes, amoebas, a complex patchwork of disease vectors. I could see myself looking back, pinpointing this exact moment where my trip went south. I envisioned a series of hospital visits, an I.V. of antibiotics affixed to my leg, a doctor shaking his head as he prepares to amputate my gangrenous foot.

Of course, my leg had just fallen asleep.  Tro-tros are cramped, and in my case, I sacrificed circulation for thrift. But that’s what the myth of Africa can do. It turns a small thing into a big thing, a big thing into an even bigger thing.

There’s always been a sort of mystique about this continent. Since day one, European explorers embellished danger, invented adventures, and highlighted cultural oddities. Even contemporary travel writers often still see Africa as a place to be conquered, the last vestige of a chaotic and dangerous world elsewhere too muted by comfort and technology. I’m more content to ignore these things, downplay them almost to a degree of naivete. Still, I have some daily reminders.

Locals often laugh at my intake of malaria prophylaxis, my application of sunscreen and bug spray, my insistence on drinking at least 3 litres of water per day.  They see me as a neurotic, overly cautious westerner, swayed by sensationalized stories of malarial fatality, cursed with skin so vulnerable to the sun’s unforgiving mercy. In the U.S., the mere mention of someone’s race is a risky dance through a minefield, a maneuver so inexorably linked to a complex history of coercion and oppression that without adequate cultural context, it’s almost impossible to decipher. Here, not only is it acceptable, it’s encouraged. These daily routines make it a practical element of my identity, and complement the less subtle catcalls I constantly receive.

I often receive frantic bits of advice from strangers, eager to help me navigate this supposedly dangerous terrain. Nowadays, however, their warnings are decidedly more contemporary, their concerns more metropolitan. I’m warned of upcoming potholes, not to walk near the sidewalk (ie. the street), and not to eat from certain food stalls. They groan sympathetically when I abrade my mosquito bites, and offer me directions even when I don’t ask for them. On at least five occasions, someone has warned me that the corner of a cedi was sitting visibly in my pocket.

The truth is, no matter the century, no matter the context, I’m an interloper in this place. And I always will be.

What the Hell Did I Just Do?

Why it takes ages to get anywhere in this city. Also, cool mosque.

Today was a tough day. West African bureaucracy got the best of me. I spent about three hours in a bank only to find out that they hadn’t received my debit card yet. Then I had to go all the way to the airport to book a flight, since Air Mali apparently has neither a functioning website nor a telephone number. In between, Accra’s typically congested streets and waits for Tro Tros added about 5 hours to my tally.

After purchasing the flight, I found myself in Osu, a district notable for nightclubs, trendy restaurants and hotels. Frustrated and starving. I strolled into the nearest restaurant, unusual, since I’ve consisted almost entirely on street food so far. It was a nice building: two stories, it had a functioning bathroom, and an actual waitstaff. I don’t know what came over me. My vegetarian cronies will cringe at this one. But really, my most egregious offense was ordering a cheeseburger in Ghana.Why did I do that?

When the waitress placed the offensive collop before me, her expression said it all.  As I ate, I looked around at the Ghanaians in the restaurant. I felt their penetrating, judgmental gaze on my the back of my neck. I knew what they were thinking: “Ha, this honky can’t even go one day without his precious american food.”  I’m not like that I swear!

Even the westerners seemed to express resentment, comfortable in their knowledge that at least they reserve this meal for special occasions. How could I prove my cultural sensitivity, my desire for immersion?

Of course, no one actually cared.

Tomorrow, I’ll return to my standard diet of banku, akbleh, shitoh, and stew. But damn that was good.

This, Too, Is Africa

A few days ago my computer shorted out. That explains the lag in between my second and third post. Some sort of electricity issue caused it to stop functioning.  It didn’t charge, the screen was blank, the power button did nothing except conjure a single yellow light that taunted me. Every time I touched the headphone jack, I received a shock, as if to pour salt on my wounds. I thought, “there’s no way I’m going to find adequate repair or parts in West Africa, and a new laptop is prohibitively expensive here.” I was about ready to kiss this blog and my main source of information goodbye.

As I discovered, Accra has a computer repair shop practically every three blocks. I asked around and found one that came recommended. Within 20 minutes, I had an adjusted motherboard, a new adapter, and a fully-functioning laptop. Lord, my repairman, was educated at a Ghanaian institute of technology and has been working freelance ever since. His collection of new and used motherboards, hard drives, processors and laptops is impressive.

The self-anointed Mr Lord "Bill Gates" Dzidenyio.

Those that see Africa as a vacuum isolated from western technology are misinformed. It’s a continent, infrastructure varies. In Ghana, even rural farmers often have cell phones. Networks are often more extensive here than they are in the U.S. Edem, my couchsurf host, lives in a community without running water that experiences regular electricity outages, yet still manages to check his email constantly. Many people here have smart phones.

A few days ago, Edem was complaining about his internet service provider. He uses a mobile network, allowing him to access the web anywhere as long as he plugs in a USB device. In an isolated part of the Volta region, he couldn’t get service. I told him that he’d be able to check his email in about an hour when we got to a better area, then teasingly consoled him by saying, “you know what we call that? A first world problem.” He laughed, having never heard that expression before. He then retorted, “I guess it’s a third world problem now.” I can’t say I disagree.