Mali: Warm Welcome Amid Turmoil

I’m very big on atmospheres. I’m one of those people who walk into a  room and can just tell whether its inhabitants are feeling generally  perky…or whether they’ve just had a blazing row.

Wherever I travel for Catholic Relief Services, around West and  Central Africa, I subconsciously seem to work out whether I like the  “feel” of a place. So when I arrived in Mali last week, my antennae were  twitching.

Mali, a country nestled in the middle of West Africa, is a nation  divided in two right now. Since a military coup destabilized the  political landscape earlier this year, various rebel groups occupy (and  are vying for control of) the north – an area the size of Texas. Reports  of atrocities against the people living there abound – killings,  maiming, rape, recruiting of children as soldiers. For all these  reasons, over two hundred thousand people have left their homes and fled  to neighboring countries. Another two hundred thousand have moved  south, many to the capital, Bamako. These are some of the people CRS is  helping and these were the people I had come to meet.

Three-year-old Saouda Keita is living in rented rooms  in a Bamako  suburb in Mali with 16 other members of her family. CRS  distributes  cash each month for people like the Keitas who have fled  their homes in  northern Mali, after rebels took control of the area.  Photo by Helen  Blakesley/CRS

Before I arrived, I’d been told that tourism to Mali had all but dried  up now. What was once a steady stream of visitors to this historic  country so rich in culture and music, had stymied to a trickle. Even CRS  had changed policy so that international staff couldn’t bring their  kids anymore, if posted there.

So I wasn’t expecting the vibe. The great, friendly, relaxed feeling I  got from Bamako – a leafy city sprawling from the banks of the River  Niger. Sure there was urban bustle, but there was a friendliness, a  welcoming cheer just under the surface. Can’t be an easy feat, when  folks must be worried about what’s happening elsewhere in their country  and about what the future holds.

With the thermometer nearly a full 20 degrees (F) more than in my  home-away-from-home of Dakar, Senegal, I’m taken by a CRS team to visit  some ‘IDPs’ – the catchy acronym for those who’ve fled within their own  country: Internally Displaced People. In Bamako, some are staying with  relatives, others with host families and some are renting rooms – if  they can afford it.

As always, before meeting with people who’ve been through something  traumatic, I ask myself “Will they want to speak with me?” and remind  myself to go gently with them.

Photo: Hawa Toure, left, sits with other members of her  family, who are taking refuge at their relative’s home in Bamako, Mali.  Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS

We visit the Touré family at their home in the Attbougou  neighborhood. Already a family of twenty-four, they welcomed thirty-two  more relatives who escaped the Gao region of the North. Some made other  arrangements or travelled elsewhere, but right now there are fourteen  people sharing one living room, two bedrooms and one bathroom.

I sit with Moctar, the head of the household, a retired customs  officer with cropped white hair and a youthful passion when he talks.  “We’re tired, so tired,” he confides. “Sometimes I think we’re done  for!”

I chat with family members who made the journey from Gao. I’m struck  by their openness, their willingness to tell me their story. A little  cat comes over for an inquisitive look. There’s laughter. Moctar’s  daughter Fatimata tells me “when you’re with your family, there is  always joy”. But the tension is also there, the worry, the fatigue.  Twelve-year-old Aminata’s eyes brim with tears as she admits, “I miss my  friends”.

CRS is trying to help ease some of the worry with cash distributions  each month. Targeting the poorest and most vulnerable, CRS gives around  sixteen dollars per person to help cover basic food needs or rent costs.

At the next home I visit, the two women who are head of the household  (their husbands stayed behind in Gao to look after the family shop) are  using that money for rent. They wanted to take the pressure off their  host family, so have found three rooms for themselves and their fifteen  children.

“We’re thankful to CRS,” Mariam Dembélé tells me. “You’ve given us  our dignity back”. As her sister-in-law Fanta Poudiougou explains how  older members of the family couldn’t or wouldn’t leave home to come with  them to Bamako, both women fill up with tears. I can’t help following  suit. They’re afraid what the planned military intervention in the north  will mean for the civilians left up there. But they also can’t see  another way to liberate their country from the extremist rebel groups.

During my stay in Mali, over three thousand people gathered in Bamako  for a peaceful march against religious extremism. They wanted the world  to know that the rebels in the north were not representative of their  country – some indeed don’t even come from Mali, but are there to take  advantage of a fragile state. Also during my stay, another European was  kidnapped. A French man in his 60’s who was in the west of the country –  not even near the occupied territory. These are complex and concerning  times for Mali.

As I boarded the shuttle bus at the airport that was to take me to my  return flight home, I saw a sight which struck me as symbolic. The guy  checking us for weapons was holding his prayer beads in one hand, the  metal detector in the other. A visual embodiment of the fact that  religion and security can co-exist. I would love to think it is a good  omen for the path Mali will tread.

About the Author: Helen Blakesley is CRS’ regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.