If we had held these kinds of gatherings in the early 90’s, we would not be in the position that we are today.
That quote comes from the dugutigi (neighborhood chief) of Bankoni, the neighborhood where we held our most recent SOS Democracy community event (help us fund the project here).
Early warning, I’m probably going to tell you to support and/or share our crowdfunding page 5-10 more times in this post. Mali has set elections for a very soon July 28, and our project has taken on a new level of urgency. With or without funding, it will be nearly impossible to reach all of Mali’s 703 communes. But Saturday’s event showed me that we can have a significant impact, even in this short period of time.
Before I talk about Saturday, I want to explain once more the purpose of the group (this info can also be found on our lonely-without-your-support crowdfunding page). We are about two things: raising voter turnout in Mali and making sure people are voting for the right reasons.
Historically, Mali has had one of lowest voter turnout rates in West Africa. When people do vote, many of them vote because they have been told to vote for a certain candidate or because a candidate’s political party has more or less bought their vote by offering gifts of fabric, tea, sugar, and sometimes cash. We want to change this.
Coumba Bah Traore – founder of SOS Democracy – explaining the project (in French with English subtitles)
Days like Saturday are how we are going to change this. We first approached the neighborhood chief of Bankoni, explaining the event, asking his permission and inviting him along with all other persons of influence that lived in the area. We in turn told them to invite residents of Bankoni. And then, showtime.
The event has 3 components. The first is a comedy sketch performed by the Yeredon dance/theater troupe. It stars famed Malian actor and comedian Issiaka Kane and it is a hilarious takedown of the political status quo in Mali, while also offering a picture of how things could look if they were done the right way (high voter participation and transparent and credible elections).
Photos from the sketch
After the comedy sketch there is a discussion. A moderator from SOS Democracy asks questions of the crowd to keep them engaged and to reflect on themes from the sketch. Questions like: What is democracy? Has Mali had a democracy as you/we’ve defined it? How did Mali end up in its current crisis? What needs to happen differently for Mali to move forward? These questions start discussions which are then moderated by Maiga, member of SOS democracy, school teacher, and writer who is working on a memoir and a book documenting the history of Mali’s democracy.
The final component asks the crowd for their take on the most important issues facing Mali. We record the issues mentioned and then explain that after our national campaign is finished, we will make a list of the 10 most frequently cited issues and harass each candidate until they provide a specific plan for each one.
Saturday’s event went well for several reasons. The sketch got people laughing and thinking, the crowd responded to questions during the discussion, and people were clearly engaged throughout (the entire event from sketch to discussion is conducted in Bamanankan, the most widely spoken local language, to make it as accessible as possible).
The man in the photo at the beginning of the post raised his hand on several occasions. He was impassioned, and nearly breathless when he finished speaking. He came from Niarela, a different neighborhood, and he explained how he was trying to start a similar movement there. He exchanged phone numbers with Sogona, who takes care of volunteer recruitment for the group (she also took the photos in this post) and we now have plans to collaborate. Many others took Sogona’s number, after the dugutigi asked how we can keep this partnership going and how we can get more youth involved.
There are a few specific things we need to work on, however. One is raising the attendance of potential youth voters and the other is raising female attendance and participation. These are our primary objectives in the lead up to our next event. Only one woman got up to speak during Saturday’s event (aside from Coumba, who is featured in the video above) and that can’t be the case as we move forward.
Malians have every reason to be cynical about what they have come to know as democracy. This group is working to recalibrate their definition of democracy and to show people how that system can function. One presidential election is not going to transform Mali’s political culture, and our grassroots group is not going to single handedly raise voter awareness and participation. But Saturday’s event was a step in the right direction, and with your help, we are going to take this thing to the next level.
If you can spare a few dollars, or a few seconds to post our campaign on twitter or facebook, click here to go to our Indiegogo page.
Huge thanks to everyone that has already supported and shared this campaign. We know who you are and whether you are getting a specific reward or not, you can expect plenty more thank you messages to come.
For those uninterested in this stuff, I promise my blog will not be asking you for money every post. Will be finishing up the Yop City series, and talking about some news with our Abidjan food business soon.