Out of Africa

An expat witnesses the end of halcyon days in Mali.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

On Feb. 14, my husband and I moved to Bamako, Mali, with our 1-year-old. Seven weeks later, the baby and I found ourselves evacuees on a flight back to the United States.

We had been in our new house just south of the Niger River for only four days when, in late March, junior military officers staged an improvised coup détat, reversing 20 years of elected civilian rule in Mali and plunging the country into chaos. Two weeks after the coup, whose purported intention was to restore Mali’s territorial and democratic integrity, an army of separatist rebels declared independence of the northern half of the country — just as my daughter and I changed planes for Washington.

Back in the halcyon days of February, Mali was one of those African countries you could convincingly assure your grandparents was safe. We used the standard line: Mali is a model of democracy and stability in the region. Sure, there is the "problem of the north" — the latest in a long series of revolts by Tuareg rebels and the presence of an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cell — but that’s deep in the desert, a thousand miles away from the capital. (Mali is nearly the size of Texas and California put together.) My husband and I were excited to work on projects to strengthen justice and public-sector systems in the country — he at the U.S. Embassy and I at the Earth Institute, Columbia University’s regional center for West and Central Africa. Our daughter would learn French, Bambara (Mali’s primary local language), and how best to eat a mango. Thanks to my previous work in Mali and other connections, we had many friends in Bamako.

But I cannot say I was not warned. "Mali is like the Niger," a close friend was fond of saying. "It looks so calm. But below the surface the current can carry you away."

Indeed, beneath that calm surface were signs of trouble. Following the Europeans’ lead, USAID was working toward increasing government-to-government support, directly financing the Malian treasury. Yet expats commonly talked about corruption in Mali; a 2010 scandal in which officials at the Malian health ministry embezzled at least $4 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria serves a spectacular case in point. In our most cynical moments we mused that government officials had simply learned to play the aid game and knew what to say and do to keep the money rolling in — nearly $1 billion in official development aid annually and millions more in mining investments. But the vast majority of Malians barely continued to eke out a living in the dust and sand. Thousands more were unable to do even that, dying in one of the worst food crises on record, brought on by droughts acerbated by climate change.

I think our ardent desire to believe in the symbol of Malian democracy kept us from dealing with deeper issues. The presidential elections originally scheduled to take place later this month were considered "low risk"; President Amadou Toumani Touré — who resigned following the coup — was in his last term and was expected to step down when the time came. I was among those who underestimated the crise de confiance — the terrible lack of trust in politicians and deep concerns about corruption, nepotism, and what many in Mali called the exclusive "mafia" of the political class.

On the day the coup began, March 21, my daughter, her nanny, and I were in the labyrinth of our outdoor neighborhood market when my husband called to say there had been some trouble in the military town of Kati, just outside the capital and that, just to be safe, we should avoid going downtown. It was not news that the soldiers were livid at the perceived lack of government support to fend off the Tuareg rebellion, so back in the market the three of us took our time finding just the right colored buckets and other items for settling into our new house. Thirty minutes after returning home we learned that a mob had blocked a nearby bridge. My husband called back: Soldiers had overrun the national television and radio station, and now something funny was going on up on the colline du pouvoir — the "hill of power" where the presidential palace and several other government buildings look down on the city.

When he was finally able to return home late that night, my husband had a perfect view from our roof of the gun battle up on the hill. I stayed glued to Malian national television. After hours of eerie dance music videos behind the message "In a moment, a declaration from the soldiers," a dozen men in various military uniforms, some holding guns, appeared and explained that they were now in control of the country. They looked to be straight out of Binyavanga Wainaina’s classic essay "How to Write about Africa."

We went on home-based lockdown the next day as soldiers continued to fire in the air around our neighborhood. The baby was oblivious to the gunfire as I read her a bedtime story. But in that intimate moment, questions of coups and governance ceased to be an academic and programmatic problem. Instead, we worried about staying away from windows and stocking provisions.

It took me a few days to realize that the reactions of everyday Malians to the coup were more complicated than the blanket condemnations on Twitter from both Malians and the international community. When I began listening more closely to what my neighbors were actually saying, I got a glimpse of the undercurrents. People largely shared the junta’s grievances: Touré had left the Malian army woefully unprepared to fight the rebellion. And while politicians benefited from resource exploitation and drug-running, schools and health clinics barely functioned. Our neighbors saw democracy in Mali — in terms of accountability and the expression of the people’s will — as a charade; to them, the junta’s intent to "restore democracy" by ousting the elected president was not ironic. Yet most people were uncomfortable with the junta’s approach; some referred to them as "children with guns," and everyone worried about what would happen next.

As with all good juntas, Mali’s said it would stay only long enough to fix things and hold elections. But under what increasingly felt like house arrest, I watched online from my dining room table as the situation rapidly went further south, literally. In just over a week the Malian army had retreated from the biggest three northern towns, including Timbuktu. It was unclear who was in control. Tuareg independence rebels were fighting sidebyside with Islamists seeking to impose sharia law on all of Mali (something quite incongruous with Malian tolerance), and no one quite knew what al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was up to or where the shadowy group might strike next.

Meanwhile, the junta dug in its heels. Severe regional sanctions loomed as I alternated between packing our family’s "go bag" and planning my garden.

On April 2, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed a "total embargo" on Mali to try to force the junta to give up power. I became keenly aware of just how hot it was outside: 105 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and getting hotter. We found a source of local milk in the neighborhood, and I made my own yogurt. Our daughter, spending most of her time with the kids across our dirt road, started saying "ayi" — "no" in Bambara. Then my job left in an 11-car caravan moving west: Like many other NGO offices, the regional anti-poverty center relocated to another country.

When the U.S. Embassy authorized voluntary departure for "non-emergency" Americans, we were torn. Expat friends had been leaving in droves but Bamako still felt normal despite the sanctions, and we figured the junta might still agree to a transition deal. We had worked hard to get to Mali and it made little sense to leave when the country needed its friends the most. Finally, we were told that expat families with children should leave while it was still possible. Our nanny and I fought back tears as we decided which toys would go and which would stay with my husband, awaiting our intended return. Our rushed goodbye in the sweaty chaos of the Bamako airport — me struggling with baby and bags down the stairs to the tarmac — was as wrenching as they make it out to be in the movies.

What not to listen to on an evacuation flight out of Bamako: Amadou et Mariam’s "Welcome to Mali."  When my daughter finally fell asleep, I put their classic "Ce n’est pas bon" on loop because I wanted to feel just that raw. "Hypocrisy… corruption… dictatorship in politics — it’s not good," the Malian duo sings. "Happiness and love for the people."

It is very hard to know what will happen next. An initial political solution and the lifting of the ECOWAS sanctions — obtained this week when the junta agreed to cede the interim presidency to the head of the National Assembly, per the Malian constitution — is just the beginning. The junta leaders remain key players, yet the formidable questions of forming a consensus government, organizing elections, and addressing the secession of the north, greatly complicated by the advances of the radical Ansar Dine and AQIM terrorist groups, remain unresolved. Already hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the food crisis and conflict, and much greater violence is possible. Even if Bamako remains calm, it may take quite a while for embassies and international NGOs to deem it safe enough to restart operations and invite the return of all expats, including babies. 

It was a sparkling day in Washington when my daughter and I landed, just in time to catch the last cherry blossoms. I was instantly reminded of how easy it is in America to forget about what is happening so far away. This time, however, it is home I have left behind. And the question of finding long-term resolutions to the intertwined complexities of politics, famine, terrorism, human rights, and war has become very personal.


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