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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Time To Go Back To Mali?


My first e-mail this morning was from Amédé Mulin an architect who build an amazing hotel in Mopti, Mali's second biggest city and it's biggest port. Maki's a landlocked country and Mpti is a river port on the Niger. It kind of reminded me of a cross between Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans and it defined seedy. Mopti did-- but not Amédé's elegant hotel, La Maison Rouge. Last we heard from him was in July of 2012, when the civil war was bad enough so that pretty much all the hotels that catered to tourists were closed. Today's message-- pardon my crude translation-- is much more up-beat:
La Maison Rouge opens its doors again!

We look forward to the pleasure of welcoming you soon!

You will find attached the rates for the current season.

I remain at your disposal for any information
I sent it to Roland and we reminisced about using Mopti as a base to visit the very primitive Bozo tribe that lives along the banks of the Niger and about the amazing time we had taking a boat out to a Bozo village on a remote island that seemed centuries back in time. Roland said we should go to Mali again. "I think it's safe again," he ventured. It's not. Today was election day in Mali. It didn't go very well, mostly because people were afraid to go to the polls. People rate it as relatively peaceful because only a dozen deaths have been reported so far.
In Kidal, voters on Sunday were prevented from casting ballots by rock-throwing Tuareg separatists. In Goundam, a desert outpost near the fabled city of Timbuktu, armed men stole at least 10 ballot boxes.

And in the region of Gao near the border with Niger, a security official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press said 16 ethnic Peul were killed in clashes with Tuaregs that occurred one day before the vote. The official said the violence was believed to be related to the death of an elderly Tuareg man about a week ago at the hands of ethnic Peul trying to rob him.

"It's for this reason that armed Tuaregs attacked the Peul in their base near the border with Niger," the official said.

Tuaregs are light-skinned whereas the Peul are black. Many Tuaregs have long clamoured for an independent nation in northern Mali, claiming that Mali's government, based in the south and dominated by the country's black majority, has marginalized them.

Florent Geel, Africa director for the International Federation for Human Rights, also said 16 were killed in Saturday's clashes but added that the organization was waiting on details. He spoke by phone from the capital, Bamako, citing information provided by a member of FIDH in Gao.

As voting got underway in Gao Sunday morning, United Nations peacekeepers and Malian soldiers outnumbered voters, though participation increased somewhat closer to midday.

The turnout appeared to have fallen short of Mali's peaceful presidential election held in July and August, when Malians elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to lead the country in a contest that was decided in a runoff.

"Today we have noticed that participation is weak," said Gao prefect Seydou Timbely. "There weren't enough means invested in encouraging the population to come out and vote."

Several voters said recent insecurity in northern Mali was on their minds, notably the Nov. 2 slaying of two journalists from Radio France Internationale who were reporting in Kidal. The lead suspect in that attack has previous ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
I mentioned the instability and violence to Roland and he said that's "only" in the north and we've seen enough of Timbuktu anyway. "Let's just go to Djenné. We loved that place." It's true, we did. Here's a picture of Roland I took in front of the big mud mosque there.



But Toronto's Globe and Mail reported in January, that tourism has collapsed entirely and just turned the whole country-- not just the north-- into "a hell."
For years, thousands of tourists flocked to see the unique mud-brick architecture of Djenné, one of the oldest and most beautiful towns in West Africa.

Today the once-thriving industry has collapsed. Almost every hotel and restaurant in Djenné is closed. Tour guides can go for months without seeing a single visitor.

…“We can’t feed our families,” says Badou Magai, a guide in Djenné for the past 10 years. “We’re suffering greatly. Everyone has gone away.”

It’s just one symptom of the crisis in Mali, where a military coup and an Islamist rebellion have devastated the tourism industry and triggered the suspension of most foreign aid, plunging the economy into recession.

Countries like Canada are now mulling a possible military training operation in Mali to push back the rebels. But the military campaign could take years, prolonging the crisis indefinitely.

Until recently, Mali was seen as an economic star on the African continent. Its economy had grown by nearly 5 per cent annually for most of the past decade, with Canadian mining companies among the biggest investors. But its GDP shrank by 1.5 per cent over the past year, according to the latest estimate from the International Monetary Fund, even though its gold and cotton industries were largely unaffected by the northern rebellion.

For people like Mr. Magai, the economic crisis is bringing misery with no end in sight. Kidnappings and political instability have driven away almost all of the foreign tourists, destroying an industry that accounted for 5 per cent of the country’s economy.

Mr. Magai remembers seeing up to 600 tourists a day at peak season in Djenné. The town was a magnet for tourists, offering views of the world’s biggest mud-brick building-- its famed Grande Mosqueé, a masterpiece that UNESCO declared a world heritage site-- and a labyrinth of ancient Sahel-style homes, along with one of Africa’s most famous markets.

The tourists began to vanish after a wave of kidnappings by Islamist radicals in northern Mali in 2010 and 2011. Only a couple of dozen tourists have ventured into Djenné over the past year-- compared to 30,000 tourists in 2005.

The guides have seen their incomes collapse. “It’s hell,” said Ahmadou Cissé, a guide in Djenné who is supporting 12 family members on his rapidly declining income.

Mr. Cissé says he can only afford to give his family one meal a day. He estimates that nearly 100 guides are unemployed in this town of 13,000 people, and more than 1,000 people have lost their jobs or income in the hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and markets.

Sophie Sarin, owner of the only hotel in Djenné that remains open, says the impact of the crisis has been “disastrous” in a town where tourism represented half of the economy. “People are much poorer,” she said.

In the town of Mopti, a tourism hub on the Niger River to the north of Djenné, foreigners are equally scarce. The biggest hotel, the Kanaga Hotel, is virtually empty. “It’s a catastrophe,” said Amassome Dolo, the hotel’s reception manager.

Despite the tourism collapse, the reality is that towns like Djenné and the Malian capital, Bamako, are still relatively safe today. They are a long way from the rebel-controlled region. But tourism in the entire country has been devastated by the perception of danger, the frequent kidnappings by the rebels and the official warnings issued by Western governments.
We stayed at Sophie's wonderful hotel, the Djenné Djenno, and I'm glad to hear she's safe and her place is open. She's still blogging, which is how I originally met her. And she introduced me to Amédé and his fantastic hotel. Today she wrote that "The elections have one great benefit for Hotel Djenne Djenno: the International Election Observers  are staying at the hotel and eating here too. There are two nice young European men staying: one Hungarian and one Romanian, sent here by the European Union. And then there are two Africans: one from Liberia and one from Sierra Leone. Keita  giggled about this: ‘Those two  great bastions of Democracy and Human Rights are overseeing our elections!’ Malians, inspite of their two year crisis, still feel that they lie well over the West African average when it comes to progress, civilization  and democracy…"

I have a feeling Mali isn't a place I'll be seeing again. Next stop for us: Ecuador.

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