Plastic paradise: why recycling and clean fuel can raise the stakes in Mali

Hello again, from sunny Bamako, where the temperature is going up just as mangos are tumbling from the trees.  It’s getting hot here and the temperature is going to keep climbing, till it busts 50 degrees Celsius: that, ladies and gentlemen who are not from the US, is 120 degrees fahrenheit. Hot enough to fry eggs on the pavement, if you really want to.

I live in Bamako and have recently moved house, to a small, lovely villa surrounded by palm trees, and a small swimming pool: I call it a swimming bath because two strokes and you’re done. But, I do recognise having a private pool for the first time in my life places me right in the whiff of wealth category. We Western professional ex-pats are amongst the most privileged people, not just in Mali, but the world. I have a house-keeper too, and a gardener and a driver: all blatant symbols of wealth in a country where GDP per capita stands at US$720 a year. Mali is currently considered one of the five least developed nations on earth – 70% of families depend on farming for their livelihood, it has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and Bamako is a very expensive capital city. All this is a contradiction that sits hard with me, which is probably why I’m writing about it now.

So, to recycling. I don’t throw out much trash, but there are no recycling facilities in Mali, at all. So all the crap that is thrown out – and there is a lot in this city of some 2 and a half million – gets buried or burnt, and, especially the toxic stuff, literally goes up in smoke. Poisonous smoke. The black plastic bags that litter the streets and quartiers, the canals of stinking raw sewage and the rotting food-stuffs fugg the air and taint the water people drink. Many Bamako quartiers have communal gardens, where people grow, and sell, salad. They water it with water straight from the canals, or the River Niger, both of which are poisonous with toxins and human waste. I soak my salad in vinegar as recommended, but still get sick if I eat salad from Bamako.  Some Malian friends tell me they refuse to eat salad at all in Bamako because of this.

In addition, the air quality here is infamous. Sometimes the level of pollution in Bamako makes you feel physically nauseous: the noxious mix of burning plastic, coal, wood and car fumes. One investigative report I urge you each to read is ‘Dirty Diesel” by Switzerland based Public Eye. They expose the cauldrons of African quality fuels” brewed up in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Antwerp, and traded by, amongst others, two Swiss trading companies – VITOL and TRANSFIGURA – who dominate exports of many petroleum products exports Europe to West African countries. To quote directly from this brilliant report, “About 90 percent of the diesel exported to West Africa from the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp has sulphur content at least 100 times above the European standard.” This is what we are breathing here in Bamako. And in Ghana and Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, and over east in Zambia.

Eating toxic food and breathing toxic air is a devastating combination. When I leave Bamako, for the Malian cities of Ségou, Mopti or Timbuktu, I immediately feel the difference: my lungs don’t hurt and I don’t wheeze. But this is not only a huge public health issue: living amidst poisonous toxins is bad for the soul, and development on all levels. Walking through Bamako quartiers like Torokorobougou, where I was living until a couple of weeks ago, you can feel something has been lost. People have become used to filthy streets awash with dry and wet waste. Mali needs recycling alternatives, to clean the public water, and land, and the spaces where people are growing food to eat: and it needs support to demand corporations don’t continue to have a free, and very profitable, license sell filthy fuel to African countries when they could not sell such degraded products on such a large scale in most of Europe.

The Mali government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is, generally weak, sometimes utterly incompetent, and struggling to control the flow of arms, drugs, and people, from Mauritania through Mali to Algeria and northwards to the Libyan border. It has many other priorities, like controlling the threat of terrorism and increasing violent conflict, plus cleaning up its image, rather than its environment. But. Malians are dignified, educated people who deserve better than living amidst their own waste. Having some control over your own waste management offers people a sense of control over other parts of their lives, the lives of their kids, and a sense of collective pride through communal actions that can help to resolve other festering conflicts.








Why Leonard is illuminating the darkness and how to face down facebook with metta

Djenne central Mosque

Djenne central Mosque

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve survived Christmas and are cruising towards New Year, happy or sad, reinvigorated or bruised by life. This year hasn’t been easy for most of the world – I’m listening to Mr Leonard Cohen wanting it darker right now which has, of course, has set me off on a twilit path of thoughts and reflections…….

I’m currently in the UK for a couple of weeks holiday and rest: cold, frosty England looks beautiful this morning and I’ve been wandering alongside icy canals as mist drafts round bare-bone trees (told you) feeling the happy sadness of the end of this year. How has it been for you? I’ve traveled a lot this year and have seen wondrous new places: I went trekking in Nepal, studied Arabic with a wonderful Syrian teacher in Beirut (through online start-up natakallam) sailed through the Outer Hebrides in northern Scotland (the magic, damp isles of Harris and Berneray) volunteered in a refugee camp on the Greek isle of Samos (with Samos Volunteers) and in the autumn I started a new job in Bamako with an international peacebuilding NGO – International Alert, as their Mali Country Manager.

I’ve recently traveled across Mali to Mopti, Timbuktu and to the wondrous ancient city of Djenne, which is almost unknown outside of Mali: Djenne is home to the largest mud-brick building on earth (the Central Mosque, see main photo above) and a library filled with ancient sacred manuscripts rotting as scholars struggle to preserve them en masse. This atmospheric town, only reachable by ferry, is sliding into neglected ruin because there are no tourists: hotels and restaurants stand empty, the famous market is a shell of its former life (it used to be one of the biggest markets in West Africa): even the local artisan jewellery makers are closing their doors.

There are virtually no tourists in Mali: people are frightened of traveling here because of threats from ‘Jihadis”. Lets be honest, there are real dangers in northern and central Mali: Timbuktu is off-limits to visitors because violent groups, including trafficking networks, are struggling for power and control of northern Mali and the routes to Libya, Tunisia and Europe. These men are well-armed criminals, and some elements are extremists, often using extremism foremost to profit from the entrenched conflicts here. But, there are areas of Mali you can travel safely – like Djenne, where locals say nothing significant has happened since the French arrived in 1893 – the old colonial fishing town of Ségou, or southern Sikasso where elephants roam freely. Malians want and need tourists. Pay attention, plan in advance and you could have a very special visit – feel free to contact me through this website if you decide to come to Mali. I will be here for a while!

The world feels dangerous and malevolent at the moment: violence conflict has become normal. The election of Donald Trump bodes especially ill for peoples across the Middle East, like my beloved friends in Gaza. I’ve read angry polemics about how wealthy US liberals have jeered at the concerns of Americans living in fear of their jobs and lives and healthcare being swept to one side by politicians who don’t wake up wracked with these fears. I’ve read writers analysing “what went wrong” with Brexit and the jeering triumphalism of Nigel Farage – to me these political shocks are linked by mass public anger at politics being seen and experienced as the rich out for themselves, to hell with the rest of us. Anger underpinning intolerance and fear of other people, political manipulators spinning out hatred to win elections and referendums.

As the gifted Kurdish poet Bejan Matur says, ” The moment you fight against the terrible order of things on its own terms, you join it. You have to find another way – and poetry is about finding another way.” In these quiet moments I’m enjoying between Christmas and New Year, as I wander the countryside around my parents home on the Welsh borders, I’ve decided to dedicate my 2017 to metta, or loving kindness: because on a personal level this is the most political action of all.

I will be fiercely protective of the people I love: I will laugh as much as I can, drink too much red wine, dance, work hard, love harder, and travel with eyes wide open. I will try to do all of this and more with as much kindness as I can. Maybe I should listen to Leonard more often……

Finally, the ‘revelation’ that cruising social media websites can depress you (because your life isn’t quite so great as everyone else’s cheery posts) made me stop in my FB tracks. And think how much detail I sometimes miss because I’ve got my nose in my phone. I know it’s great to hook-up with friends from around the world, I just sometimes need a break so I can go back to staring at clouds, right…… so I am going on a social media fast – except for my blog. If my friend you need persuading to take a wee media pause, here’s a gritty little video from Choice and Truth that will make you laugh and cry (click to see video uploaded in November). And maybe press power off.

Happy New Year to each of you from Louisa!







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