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.