Archive for January, 2013

Thoughts on Mali 4 years later

January 6, 2013

After a post-night shift slumber, I awoke thinking about Mali this afternoon. For the first time since leaving Uganda, I re-read my 2009 blog posts from Mali (

In 2012, Mali underwent significant strife with Tuareg separatists rebels returning from Libya with weapons from the conflict in Libya ( In March 2012, a coup occurred in the capital ( As if things couldn’t get worse, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in effect overtook the Tuareg separatists and imposed their version of sharia law ( and continue to dismantle the public cultural way of life in northern Mali.

The AQIM rebels have destroyed holy and historical sites ( In terms of safety it is impossible for non-regional people, such as Americans, to travel to Timbuktu. The Festival au Desert, one of the most powerful travel experiences I’ve had, has been “exiled” to Burkina Faso. Now, the AQIM stones people, amputates limbs, punishes people for listening to music, all while previous poverty soars and the infrastructure in northern Mali crumbles ( &

Whenever I’ve read one of these articles over the past year, I sigh, then SMS my friend Jess who arranged our trip to Mali, and pause to think about the Tuareg family that hosted us in Timbuktu and Essakane. Vaguely knowing the answer to this question — it was unfolding as we decided to go to northern Mali for the Festival au Desert against State Department recommendations in 2009 — I still ask, how did it come to this? While driving to the hospital the other day, I came upon Terry Gross’ interview with New York Times reporter Adam Nossiter on NPR’s Fresh Air ( He laid out the timeline of events succinctly in a useful interview. If you are at all interested, I recommend you read it or listen to the podcast.

My father asks me on the phone about my experiences with Tuaregs when he reads/hears these news reports. I smile to myself recalling how warm, friendly, proud, musical, and above all, hospitable and peaceful they were with me. I remember how they waxed poetically about the desert and about their love for their way of life amidst the economic hardships. The news reports do not explain who the Tuaregs are or always relate their everyday stories or history. Of course, they are not a monolithic group. Now, we only hear about the separatist faction, which apparently, itself has been overrun by the competing AQIM. As I was told while in Mali, the vast majority of Tuaregs are not separatist rebels and now they have been victimized twice over — poverty and neglect by the government based in Bamako and AQIM oppression as we read about day after day. In one of my posts, I write about their poverty and its origins and the Bamako government’s treatment of Tuaregs.

The Timbuktu in 2012 news reports is not the same place of 2009. I only hope a concerted effort is made by ours and other governments to rid northern Mali of AQIM so that the cross-cultural exchange/interface my friends and I experienced can be renewed, that the Tuareg families I met flourish in the ways they have often struggled to do so for centuries in the Sahara. If you want a glimpse into some of the cultural richness we experienced, download music by Ali Farka Toure, play it, dim your lights, sip a glass of tea, and picture yourself huddling with people around a bonfire in the middle of the desert.