55 shades of heat….. in Mali

Heat does amazing things to your body and brain. As Bamako basks (or boils) at over 41°c degrees (that’s 106 fahrenheit for the rest of us) I now think of cold liquids (water, beer, water, water, gin, water) all the time. Sweat pearls down my neck all day, my pee is almost orange and when I lie down to sleep, my bed feels like it already has a giant hot water bottle inside the mattress. This is life in Mali for the next month until la benediction of the rainy season, begins. The temperature might reach beyond 55 shades of burnished heat. When rain does fall I will dance in the raindrops, hold my face to the sky and laugh like a lion.

I’ve just returned from central Mali, the city of Mopti to be precise, where I was training security forces in conflict analysis with my wonderful team. It was intense, challenging and exhausting, especially as this is the first time I’ve trained soldiers and law enforcement officers, women and men. The trick is conveying the layers of analysis necessary to ‘read’ security situations that are so fluid they can change within hours. For the moment Mopti itself is calm, though beyond the city, communities are literally terrorized by armed groups. These are not all the infamous Jihadis stalking central and northern Mali: they include multiple other ‘actors,’ including young men who feel abandoned by the state – which they effectively have been – plus conflicts that have been festering for generations, over land use between Pheul herders and local farmers, who are mainly but not all ethnically Bambara. There are local land conventions dividing land use between herders and farmers, but communities say these are not applied, so herders and farmers now compete for these resources in often violent confrontations.

There also violent power struggles between Pheul communities themselves (who are used to be being armed as they often have to defend themselves) and these are in turn exploited by armed groups for their own ends. In addition, multiple armed groups, some very small, and not all even identified, merge and separate, build and trash alliances between themselves. Conflict analysis in Mali is complex because there are many different strands of conflict interwoven into this national context, plus the regional dynamics of Algeria and Mauritania. Believe me, this is not all about AQMI (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb) at all.

The heat in Mopti was staggering: the legendary Harmattan gritted us with dust and coated our throats. So it was a relief to wander at late afternoon when the air had cooled just a little. In fact, the highlight of my whole Mopti visit was passing by the River Niger and seeing the local traffic – see above for one of my snapshots. Our return flight to Bamako, in a small UN plane (think of an 18 seater box in the sky) was almost cancelled because visibility was so low. I kind of wish it had been! Most of the passengers applauded when we crashed, sorry, bumped down in in Bamako – it was a plunging descent. I felt like I’d left my stomach, or what was left of it, up in the clouds.

Meanwhile, in Timbuktu there are new tensions, with a new alliance of several armed groups now calling themselves Jamaat al-Nusra Il-Islam. They have a hardline Jihadist agenda, are violently opposed to the new interim authorities governing the region until full elections can be held across Mali and have claimed responsibility for several recent attacks.  They shelled Timbuktu’s small airport on 3 May, killing a UN peacekeeper, and launched another mortar in the vicinity of the airport again last week. They claim to be taking on all countries with foreign troops based in Mali. This won’t stop me going to Timbuktu again very soon – but it does render daily life even harder for communities there, including isolated fishing communities based on small islands in the River Niger. Heat comes in many different shades. As Le Macron will see for himself when he lands here for his flash-visit to Goa, in North Mali where the majority of French Barkhane troops are based.

But this is no France -Mali state visit: Macron is not flying onto Bamako to greet President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his elected Government. President Keita is instead obliged to hurry on up to Gao to salute Macron, who will then streak straight back to the Elysee Palace on his private jet, job done. Power shifts and security rises and falls across Mali and right now there are numerous ‘actors’ vying for power, especially as the Malian Presidential elections loom just eighteen months ahead. Violent political positioning has begun at all levels.

To end on a more sumptuous, sunny note, savour this luscious photo of luscious mangoes I picked with one of my Malian friends on his beautiful plantation just outside Bamako a couple of weeks ago. By the end of the morning I was filthy, sweaty and starving – and very happy indeed. Who would not be with this richesse? You can almost smell them from the page, n’est pas?  This is one of the things I love about Mali, and why, for now, I am staying put.






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.








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