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A couple of weeks ago, I asked Faty, a friend in Timbuktu, if she would be willing to have her students design postcards for Postcards from Timbuktu. I proposed selling her cards for $12, with the additional $2 going towards her classroom.

I was not surprised that Faty got behind the idea. She is incredibly active on the net — blogging, sharing images of everyday life in Timbuktu, organizing social media campaigns for various causes — but also in her community. She is the founder of Sankoré Labs, an ICT (information and communications technology) initiative in Timbuktu that promotes entrepreneurship and civic engagement. Pick a NGO buzzword, and she is probably involved with it, but she actually does the work.

The whole idea with these postcards is that the kids design whatever they want. If you order one, you really don’t know what is going to show up. You can see a sampling of cards that have gone out in the picture at the top of the post. In addition to those pictured, I saw one postcard that had 2 frogs with their legs outstretched and a tree with hearts for leaves. Another had a dead “terrorist” with an ak47. Yet another had a mickey mouse type figure sprinting across the postcard, surrounded by CiWara designs, a traditional Bamana symbol featuring an antelope. The cards are original and beautiful, and I would personally be thrilled to receive one.

On the back of the postcard, the students have written their names. I encourage anyone who has ordered one of these cards to take a picture of it when it arrives (hold it in your hands, put it on your cat, put it in your front window – just something to show the kids how far it has traveled), and I will send that to Faty so she can share it with the kids.

In addition to the original designs, the hand drawn postcards are also interesting because they have an extra step in their journey. The cards themselves come from Bamako, like the others. But instead of going directly to Ali’s crew, they go to the Yehia Alkaya school. Once the kids finish with them, Faty delivers them to Ali, and one of the guides hand writes the message.

If you want to order one of these hand drawn cards, here is the page to do so.

We have one more twist that we are going to add to the project in January. I am also creating a map that tracks where all of the orders are traveling to. Since the BBC article, we have had an influx of orders to the UK, but because of the BBC’s wide ranging readership, we have also seen our first orders to places like Indonesia and Kenya.

I am really looking forward to our first order to a small pacific island nation. If you are in any place that meets that description, let me know and I will send you a postcard for free.

Stay tuned… I feel like before long we will be shipping camel cheese from Timbuktu.


Welcome to the World, Andre


Bintou was due to give birth on the 23rd of October. Andre, our child, was not impressed with the date. In fact, we will never know which date he had in mind as we took matters into our own hands (actually the hands of Professor Dolo) on the 2nd of November.

On the first of November, Bintou looked like she had a watermelon in her belly instead of a bowling ball. Andre’s head was tilted at an angle instead of facing down. His reluctance to put his head down had our doctor worried that if Bintou went into labor, it was going to be a risky birth with a strong chance of an emergency c-section. This did not sound good to either me or Bintou, so we went ahead and scheduled a c-section for the following morning.

I kept a lid on it, and I don’t think Bintou realized at all, but I was more or less having an ongoing panic attack between the appointment where we scheduled the c-section and the moment Andre arrived. Bintou was plenty anxious as well, and neither of us slept much the night of the 1st.

At the hospital, I was told about 2 minutes before Bintou was to head into the operating room, that I would not be allowed to attend. This was news to both me and Bintou. Professor Dolo had previously cleared me to be present for the birth, but I learned that was only in the case of a normal birth. My anxiety level was officially maxed out at this point. As they wheeled Bintou into the OR, I paced around the recovery room while the pediatrician tried to calm me down.

And then 15 minutes later, I heard Andre wailing. It was both reassuring and distressing to hear him. The pediatrician told me everything was OK. A short time later, the sage-femme carried Andre into the recovery room, and the pediatrician immediately put him under a heat lamp and began examining him.

In between moments of staring at Andre in pure wonder, I was asking anyone and everyone “where’s bintou, where’s bintou, where’s bintou, what’s happening, where’s bintou???” Bintou was wheeled out about 10 minutes later, looped out on who know’s what. She wasn’t in pain, though, and she was able to smile.

Room 208 at Clinique Pasteur would be our home for the next 3 days. It was clean and comfortable, and filled with mosquitoes. When I asked for a room with fewer mosquitos, one of the nurses told me that no other rooms were available, and that I must have opened a window for there to be so many mosquitoes (I did not).

From the moment we settled into our room, the nurses were either annoyed and impatient or nowhere to be found. I know nurses are often overworked, but every time I went to their area, they were sitting around as if they really needed something to do. We got into an argument about this and relations were irreperably damaged.

Rita was the exception. She was an angel. Rita worked the night shift. She would come at a moment’s notice and solve all of our problems. There is nothing that can prepare you for being a parent. Many people told me this before Bintou gave birth. It turns out, they knew what they were talking about. It doesn’t take long to realize that anyone who has already gone through the process of caring for a newborn is an invaluable resource. Their mere presence is incredibly calming. During the day, Bintou’s mom served this role. At night, it was Rita.

In addition to their inattention, the nurses-not-named-Rita also offered conflicting advice. Bintou was already eating food (well, liquid food in the form of a broth) roughly eight hours after her operation. The following day, she began to have some solid foods. I asked a nurse if she could drink apple juice. The nurse said that would be fine. Some time later, a different nurse came to our room and saw Bintou drinking apple juice. Her reaction was along the lines of “ARE YOU INSANE WHAT IS SHE DOING DRINKING APPLE JUICE?!?!” This kind of thing — someone telling us to do or not do something and then someone else telling us the opposite — would continue throughout our stay.

However, all things considered, Clinique Pasteur — the clinic that was extremely negligent in their handling of the case of ebola that led to the only outbreak of the disease in Mali — was perfectly fine. Dolo did a great job with the operation, there were no complications, and we were able to leave the hospital after three days. Outside of a handful of dreadful nurses and the apocalyptic quantity of mosquitoes in our room, there was not much to complain about. Even the food was good!

The first evening in the hospital coincided with game 7 of the World Series. I had some serious chemical imbalances going on in my brain by the time the game rolled around (1AM in Mali), but it had to be watched. I laid down on my thin une-place student mattress and tethered my computer to the 3g on my phone in order to illegally stream the match. I also downed a couple of nescafes, which turned out to be unneccesary as my body somehow found hidden reserves of adrenaline.

The Indians lost, but it was a great game. For a loss, there were plenty of highs. I accidentally woke Bintou up and then almost went into cardiac arrest when this happened:

If we were going to lose to anyone, it might as well be the only team that had a longer championship drought than us. Most importantly, I will always be able to tell my son how I watched game 7 of the 2016 World Series, laying next to him and his mother, on the floor of our room in Clinique Pasteur while getting mauled by mosquitoes.


The first two days in the hospital were not easy. Bintou was in varying amounts of pain and more or less immobile. I did my best to keep her and Andre comfortable. I don’t know what I would have done without Bintou’s mom who was without question the MVP of our time in Pasteur. She came every morning and stayed until the evening.

We also had a near constant stream of visitors (mostly Bintou’s friends or friends of her family) during the daytime. At certain points, Andre had just gone to sleep and Bintou and I were on our way to do the same, but then someone would knock at the door and our plans were foiled. This is Mali, and there is no refusing visitors. Everyone who came was extremely generous, and we received everything from soup to diapers.

We enjoyed the extra company and all of the support, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it was one of the more tiring aspects of our stay in the hospital. After three days, we were thrilled when the doctors cleared us to go home. We could still receive visitors there, but in a more comfortable space, and now if one of us needed a break, we could dip into the bedroom for some rest.

Andre is a bit over 7 weeks old now. He has a bit of colic, which would appear to be nature’s way of testing the upper limits of mine and Bintou’s sanity, but otherwise he is a fine chap who makes me smile around the clock (ok, maybe not at midnight when his colic is in full effect). Bintou has been incredible. Certain aspects of her personality — her patience and warmth — lend themselves to motherhood, and like most Malian women, she was helping to raise her younger siblings by the time she was 7 years old. Andre and I are truly blessed.

For my part, I have come a long way in a month and a half. I am now a diaper ninja, and I can often bring Andre down from the heights of colic induced wailing. I still need some work in other areas. You might regret asking me to dress Andre, for example.

Long story short, Bintou and I are both very happy and looking forward to the many adventures to come.

Here are a few pics:




Bintou likes dressing him in his rabbit hat. It’s unclear how he feels about it.



This is the “I just had a major blowout in my diaper and now one of you is going to have clean it up” look.

Before the end of this year, I am going to try and squeeze in a couple more posts, one with an update on the Postcards from Timbuktu project (since the project was featured in the BBC, it has taken on a new life) and another with a look towards 2017.

Happy Holidays to you and yours :)


What’s going on with Maliba?


Last Thursday was Mali’s independence day. Happy birthday, Mali.

A little perspective: when I write about Mali, I do so as an expat that has been living on and off in the country for 6 years. My wife is Malian, and her opinion often informs mine. I also run a business in the service industry that employs a couple dozen people, which means that I am in regular contact with different government agencies and other business owners. This, too, informs my opinion.

We are three years into the presidency of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). Here is what IBK or an IBK supporter (there are not as many of them around these days) says about the current state of affairs in Mali: the country was in chaos in 2013. Since being in office, the economy has grown, the prices of a number of basic goods have not risen significantly, civil servants are receiving more pay, and a peace accord has been signed between the government and armed groups in the north of Mali. There is a new bridge in Koulikoro, more people will soon have access to potable water in the capital, and work has restarted on the Niono to Timbuktu road. Things could be better, but they are a lot better than they were!!

Here’s what I (and a good number of Malians) would say: the north is a mess. There are more armed groups now than there were before the peace accord was signed. While the Malian military has not had direct conflict with the armed groups that signed the accord, the pro-government militia (GATIA) is actively fighting them. The Malian military has also been regularly attacked by jihadist groups. Banditry and general crime in the north continue unabated (just a couple days ago an ambulance was stolen in Léré). In many localities the state is present in name only.

While the IMF may applaud Mali’s macro-economic numbers, there has been little benefit on the ground in terms of jobs or infrastructure. The creation of 200,000 jobs was a staple of IBK’s campaign in 2013. Where are they? The public sector isn’t growing. Last I checked, it shrunk because the government found heaps of salaries going to nonexistent people (a good thing that they found them). Of course, too many civil servant jobs can be its own burden. What about elsewhere in the formal sector? Outside of Ozone Mali (a Moroccan garbage collection agency that has been plagued with labor issues), what are some other significant employment initiatives? (I’m serious, I would be relieved to know about others.)

What about the informal economy? The government has recently flexed its muscles by dismantling free standing informal businesses, such as barber shops, orange money transfer kiosks, small maquis and restaurants, boutiques and many others. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the government has razed these businesses, supposedly to liberate the main arteries of Bamako. However, many businesses on side streets have also been demolished, and it’s clear the picture is more complicated than freeing up the roads and open sewers.

The businesses (or what’s left of them) in the photos above were on an unpaved side street. They were mostly small bars and restaurants. Maiga’s late night sandwich shop was, to me, a Bamako staple. The maquis at the end of the road, Coup de Frein, was a once-a-week stop for me. Excellent brochettes and kedjenou and cold beer. Marie, the server who had been working there for 10 years, is now trying to get work at our place. How many people lost their businesses or their jobs in this campaign?

Many of these businesses may not have been legal. They may have paid a local tax to the mayor, but they might not have been formally incorporated. Many would not have paid tax beyond the small sums imposed by the municipal government. So yes, the state was not getting revenue from most of these businesses, but these businesses provided a means for money to circulate. Mali has many laws on the books that aren’t enforced because much of the population is vulnerable (for instance, non bio-degradable plastic bags are officially illegal), and the enforcement of certain laws would raise the cost of living. Now the state is not getting revenue from these businesses, and heaps of people aren’t making any money themselves.

In one fell swoop, I lost my barber shop, my dibisogo spot (slow-cooked, smoked sheep meat), my maquis, my late night sandwich shop and my boutique (corner store). Maybe these businesses will recover. Maybe they will end up in storefronts with a license to operate. If they do, it won’t be because of anything the government did. There were no viable alternatives in place to absorb the demolition of these businesses citywide. Some business owners said they were told to go to Halles to Bamako, a giant shopping complex that doesn’t make sense for many businesses.

It’s clear that there are many actors to blame here, not just IBK and Ami Kane, his appointed governor of the district of Bamako. Many of the mayors (who were collecting small small tax from the businesses) may have misled business owners in the lead up to the demolition. It seems that Ami Kane previewed the demolition long before business owners received their 3 day eviction notices. That said, all levels of government in Mali have threatened action in the past and nothing has happened. I remember when IBK first took office, and it seemed like the motorcycle helmet law was going to be enforced. They spent a couple weeks training police, warning motorcyclists (which is a good percentage of the Bamako population), and then, nothing.

There was significant resistance in certain neighborhoods over these demolitions. There was also a massive protest following the arrest of a radio commentator (who also happens to be the son of a minister) who had condemned Ami Kane’s trail of destruction. Social media networks were down for several days following the demonstration (the first time I have ever experienced this in Mali). And then things cooled down. It would appear that the heavy police presence and social media outage was a success.

What’s most frustrating to me is that over the course of two weeks, the government showed that it has the capacity to do something. That something just happened to be the destruction of informal businesses across the city. If only they could apply the same motivation to, I don’t know, overhauling the main public hospital in the city, or the overstretched power grid, or so many other issues that are more pressing.

Fighting corruption was another fixture of IBK’s campaign. On that front, there has been little to no progress made. This government has been burdened by multiple scandals, but more than that, the rampant day-to-day corruption and over-billing continues. I see this on a first-hand basis during interactions between government agents and our business.

Meanwhile, IBK has made tracks all over the globe. I remember when the hotel Nord-Sud was being attacked in Bamako, IBK’s twitter account sent out messages saying that he was following the situation from Namibia. What exactly was he doing in Namibia? How is Mali going to benefit from that trip? An IBK supporter might say that IBK is restoring Mali’s credibility after the crisis and looking for new opportunities for trade and collaboration. All of that is well and good, and of course, any head of state has to travel, but IBK’s globetrotting is excessive. Someone who works in security at one of the embassies in Bamako recently told me that IBK has traveled more in 3 years than Obama has in 8. This would not surprise me at all.

I wanted IBK to win in 2013. I wrote about it on this site. He had a history of accomplishment in government, especially during tough times (resolving student union protests in the early 90’s, for example), and he had distanced himself from the rot of ATT’s government. But his campaign was notably thin on policy. His platform was more or less “I will fight corruption and fix the north.” The lack of policy and vision certainly seems to be playing out now. IBK hasn’t done much to combat corruption and he certainly hasn’t fixed the north. What’s more, this government is directionless and reactive. I see this from a Bamako perspective, but what is the plan for the country in general? Is it going to be five years of projects here and there and ongoing corruption? Mali can’t afford that.

This tweet references a mouse that grounded an Air France flight for two days. The person tweeting jokes that even the mice can no longer take it in Mali.

Maybe the Africa-France summit in January will be the turning point. Maybe the demolitions across the city won’t just be a superficial “make Bamako beautiful for visiting heads of state.” Maybe it will jumpstart a new approach to urban planning, and maybe this government will for the first time share its vision for Mali’s development.

But damn, it’s hard to be optimistic about that. And even harder to be optimistic about the north.



The above image is an excerpt of an article written on our postcards from Timbuktu project from La Vanguardia, which I learned is the largest newspaper in Catalonia. Wikipedia also informs me that:

It is one of the oldest papers in Spain, and is the only Catalan newspaper that has survived all the Spanish regime changes, from the restoration of Alfonso XII to the 21st century.

Thanks to journalist Xavier Aldekoa for writing the story! It has resulted in at least 50 postcards to Spain, many of them to Barcelona. I have posted a round-up of articles and radio pieces on the project over here.

We have had over 350 postcards sent to 25 different countries. Some of the more interesting stats:

  • furthest distance traveled by one of our Timbuktu postcards: New Zealand
  • only country in Africa where we have sent a postcard: Tunisia
  • We had one postcard take over 3 months to arrive to an address in Holland. We have no idea what happens to the cards once they leave Mali, and some of them have certainly been on very interesting journeys. Arrival times remain entirely unpredictable.
  • We just got our first order for a postcard to South America. Timbuktu to Uruguay!!
  • To our knowledge, only two postcards have never shown up (as in, they still haven’t shown up after 6 months). Maybe one day they will turn up?
  • We have had postcards written in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Bamanankan, Swedish, Danish, Portuguese and Icelandic. We have not yet received any messages that use a non-Latin alphabet. While I am looking forward to our first orders in Russian or Chinese, Ali and the boys in Timbuktu probably aren’t – they will be the ones that have to write them out by hand!

We’ve had people write:

  • birthday wishes
  • love letters
  • poems and lyrics
  • at least one apology letter
  • motivational messages
  • a request to officiate a wedding
  • love letters from secret admirers
  • a paragraph on the history of the Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu (this person was collecting postcards from UNESCO World Heritage Sites)
  • a reminder to let the cat out of the house
  • many, many inside jokes
  • notes intended to convince the recipient that the sender is in fact in Timbuktu
  • and at least one letter that seemed to be some kind of clue in a scavenger hunt

I think this is a worthwhile project mainly because it’s putting some money into the hands of young guys who lost their livelihoods when tourism collapsed in Mali. There is an additional aspect of the project that I have also come to appreciate, and that is this marriage of analog and digital. With a few clicks and keystrokes on a website, you can send a physical object on a bizarre journey across the world. When the postcard arrives, it will have been on several airplanes, motorbikes, buses and trucks. Who knows how many people will have handled it. In Mali, it’s at least 4 people before it even arrives at the Bamako post office.

Another unexpected benefit of this project? We have woken up the Timbuktu post office. A friend of mine in Bamako, Katarina Höije, recently traveled to Timbuktu and wrote about our postcard operation. I really enjoyed her reportage, because she actually went to the post office itself and interviewed the clerk there. Check out her article in Voice of America here.

We live in a world where you can now send a handwritten message from Timbuktu to anywhere in the world with a few clicks on a website. I am happy about this. If you want to send one, go to postcardsfromtimbuktu.com.

It will show up looking something like this:

Look out for an upcoming post on recent developments in Mali. You can get a preview of it by reading this post by Bruce Whitehouse.

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31 ounces of alomo bitters


My thriving, long-term relationship with maquis – cheap outdoor bars with plastic tables and chairs, tunes playing, brochettes grilling, cold beer – began in Ghana at a small neighborhood bar in the Labone neighborhood of Accra.

The bartender there introduced me to Alomo Bitters. On its own, Alomo Bitters tastes like fermented tree bark, which I believe is actually one of the ingredients. But if you mix it with a bit of gin and lime, kind of like a gimlet, you can drink it until the sun comes up.

I am in Ohio right now. I will be heading back to Mali in 6 days. I was sitting here thinking about that alomo bitters cocktail. And I wanted one. But Alomo Bitters can only be purchased in Ghana and Nigeria.

No worries. I can improvise almost unconsciously (West Africa has provided me with this skill), so I sub in Angostura bitters, and I am enjoying sips of this highly drinkable cocktail between keystrokes.

Why am I dusting off the blog? Mostly because I have a bit of free time while I shelter in place until the Republican National Convention gets out of town. I didn’t plan on writing anything. I don’t have any organized thoughts to share. But I just turned 31. So here comes 31 bullet points of whatever is on my mind.

1. A lot of people ask me if I get culture shock when I come back to the US. In general, I don’t. But I also don’t typically come home when the Republican National Convention is taking place twenty minutes down the road. This circus would be great entertainment if it were fictional, but it’s real and it’s terrifying.

Steve King is an elected member of congress.

2. At some point, my wife and I may very well come to the United States to live. Or maybe we won’t. How do I explain this shit to her? To my child?

3. I am also experiencing another little morsel of culture shock. I am finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that we live in a period of time where it’s possible to be poisoned by your municipal water supply, while it’s also possible to catch fucking pokemons in augmented reality. Don’t these two things belong in separate eras? Separate centuries?

4. The current state of Malian politics is worrying in its own way. A flat-footed, corrupt administration repeating the mistakes of years past after squandering unprecedented political capital following the 2013 election. Most of the opposition is washed up and recycled former politicians, many of whom have also been accused of corruption. At least these politicians are not preaching racism and xenophobia.

5. I am listening to this Ramata Diakite song right now. She may be my favorite singer from Wassoulou. Died too young after a long fight with Hep A. RIP Ramata.

5. Remember when Mali signed that peace accord? It’s really not going well. In fact, it has been a disaster. RIP to the soldiers that died in this attack. Let’s hope that no civilians are caught up in reprisals.

7. Rose the Champion Dancer as a baby.


That made me feel better

8. I really don’t think Trump will win, but… I don’t think he can win because of demographics and the sheer incompetence and disorganization of his campaign. That said, I have had conversations with Trump supporters since I’ve been back home, and their allegiance is frightening.

Many of these conversations remind me of something said by Michael Gove, the former education ministry of Britain who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU:

“I think people in this country,” declared Vote Leave’s Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.” His fellow Brexiteers were quick to back him up. “There is only one expert that matters,” said Labour MP Gisela Stuart, also of Vote Leave, “and that’s you, the voter.”

Trump supporters run into an inconvenient piece of information, and they deny it, or ignore it, or just shout about illegals and Muslims and change the subject. They have succeeded in blocking out the real world. That’s not unusual. Lots of people are politically close minded and refuse to have a level discussion. What’s astonishing is the number of people that are going to bat for all of the nonsense this man has said. For this group of people, Trump can say whatever he wants. He can weather any scandal. As he himself said, he could shoot someone on 5th avenue and it wouldn’t affect his support. Even if Trump loses, these people aren’t going away.

9. I follow Siddhartha Mitter for commentary that keeps me sane and grounded :

I said I was going to write 31 bullet points. I lied. I’m not used to all of this political ruminating. It’s exhausting, and it’s giving me anxiety. Je suis fatigué.

K’an kelen kelen wuli (may we wake up one by one in Bamanankan)