From peace to chaos in Mali

Women in Mali pounding millet. (Photo by Kaia Chessen)

In a little over a year, Mali has gone from a tourist destination to the newest front in the War on Terror. A former visitor reflects on how life has changed for the friends she made in Mali.

“The French are here, everywhere. Four thousand troops, and many of them are patrolling Bamako. They have guns and are making sure that no one gathers together in groups,” Salif Traore says over the crackling phone.

He sounds tired and demoralized.

He used to make a decent living as a currency exchange teller in the Malian capital of Bamako, but after the coup began in March 2012, his employer closed shop and fled the country.

Salif Traore prepares breakfast. (Photo by Kaia Chessen)
Salif Traore prepares breakfast. (Photo by Kaia Chessen)

Salif has been out of a job since. When we last spoke on the phone in February, I asked him why gathering in groups is forbidden.

“There have been suicide bombers in Mali,” he explains. “Clusters of people, at the market or night clubs are easy targets.”

It has been five years since I visited Mali. At that time, life seemed peaceful. There were no guns or soldiers. Suicide bombers were unheard of.

It was a country of women pounding millet with giant mortars and pestles outside their homes, men chewing kola nuts and listening to the radio in the sun, and children running through the dusty open streets.

As I speak with Salif, I scroll through photographs from my visit in 2007. In each of them, he wears a sky-blue track suit and plastic sandals. He has a gentle grin and stoops because of his height. In one photo, he sits in a folding lawn-chair. He holds a spoon made out of a small gourd, about to serve the porridge one of the women in his village has prepared for breakfast.

That this stable, idyllic scene could collapse all at once is a reminder that peace should never be taken for granted.

Recently suicide bombings have been occurring throughout the country. On March 20th, eight people were injured and one suicide bomber died in a bombing at the Timbuktu airport. On April 12th, 3 Chadian soldiers were killed in a suicide attack at a market in Kidal. Fear of similar violence has spread to the capital.

“There are Americans in Bamako as well,” Salif says. “They fly overhead in small planes looking for enemies or explosives so as to warn other soldiers.”

It was shortly after the coup that Salif called me asking for money.

When his boss had fled the country due to its political instability, Salif lost his job. In a country with no unemployment benefits and few prospects of finding new work, he didn’t have the means for transportation out of Bamako.

Tuareg people spread across five nations in the central Sahara have long sought independence. But last January rebels in Northen Mali began a movement for succession. (Photo via
Tuareg rebels fighting for succession in Northen Mali. The insurgency has destabilized the once peaceful country. (Photo via

Fearing for the safety of his family, he wanted to flee to his home-village several hours north of the capital, a commune of mud houses with straw thatched roofs where the villagers farm peanuts and millet. Tensions were raging in the city and it was safer for Salif’s family in the countryside.

Salif asks me how my family is doing. I have terrible news of my own.

“My brother has been shot too,” I say.

“There are soldiers shooting people in America also?” Salif asks.

“No. He shot himself. It was a suicide.”

I consider that perhaps it had not occurred to Salif, who comes from one of the most impoverished parts of the world, that we can suffer in America too.

Coming from a place where basic survival can be more difficult, I wonder what he thinks about someone turning a gun on himself. My brother’s death was senseless, an impulsive act done out of heartbreak over a girl. The deaths in Mali are senseless too, but committed by young men fueled with a different kind of anger.

When I first met Salif, it was 2007. I was a twenty-two year old backpacker, halfway along a solo trek through West Africa. I desperately needed to pull money out of my account and he, a currency exchange teller, helped me to find an ATM. Afterward, I took him to lunch. We ate yassa, a chicken and onion dish, and tó, pounded millet dough with a sauce made of okra and spices.

At the time of my visit, tensions were already brewing in northern Mali where the Tuareg rebels’ insurgency was gaining momentum. But the political climate in Bamako was relatively stable under Amadou Toumani Touré who was about to be democratically elected for a second five-year term as president (the second president since the country’s first democratic elections in 1992).

Riding on the back of a motorbike through the capital, the city was calm and vibrant. Women carried buckets of water on their heads with babies strapped in bright print fabric to their backs, goats grazed amongst trash at the side of the road, bikes weaved between passenger vans in the red dust streets, and venders hawked baked goods and newspapers to passing traffic. Things seemed to be looking up for Bamako and its future as a democratic state.

A market scene in Bamako, Mali during more peaceful times. (Photo by Kaia Chessen)
A market scene in Bamako, Mali during more peaceful times. (Photo by Kaia Chessen)

But all of this proved to be a brief moment in the sun.

In just four years, an influx of arms from the Libyan Civil War would exacerbate the conflict. President Touré would be ousted. Tuareg rebels would take over the country’s north. The extremist Islamic group, the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, would seize control from the Tuaregs and declare independence for northern Mali. The French military would send their troops to intervene. The U.S. would send drones hovering across a desert larger than the state of Texas searching for the rebels.

Now on the phone Salif makes sure to note that, as a Muslim himself, the version of Islam practiced by the extremist militants is radically different than his own.

“The Islamists pray like Muslims, but it is just a cover. They are trafficking drugs like cocaine, committing acts of violence, severing people’s legs and hands, and taking women who do not belong to them,” Salif explains. “There are many kinds of Muslims, but these are not the good kind. Real Muslims do not do these things.”

Every day, Salif tries to find a little work here or there. Some days, he acts as an intermediary party in simple trading between buyers and sellers. Other days he mixes water with the powdery red earth that characterizes Malian terrain to make bricks for people who are building houses.

When he finds work, he makes around 1500 CFA a day—about $4. Some days when there is no work, he stays at home with his two-month-old daughter, Rokiatou.

The newest crisis in the country is a shortage of food. Due to the conflict, supply routes have been obstructed and transportation is slow-moving and expensive. Food prices have surged. Over four million Malians are said to be effected.

In the past, when I told my friends and family members stories about my travels in Mali, many admitted to not having heard of the country. To most Americans, it was a blank piece of land. Now when Mali comes up, images of drone warfare, militants and coups might fill the mind.

But when I think of Mali, I think of Salif, who showed unhesitating kindness to a young, vulnerable stranger.

For more on the situation in Mali, check out Amy Scott’s What the heck is happening in Mali (and why you should care).