≡ Menu

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.

{ 1 comment }

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)


Jaunt to Maroc


After we got married, Bintou and I had a one night honeymoon in Segou. We had a fantastic meal at Hotel Djoliba and then slept in a simple room by the river.

As blissful as that short trip was, we also planned on traveling outside the country at a later date. Due to current circumstances, several friends referred to this trip as a babymoon (that will be the last time I use this term in this post, and on this blog for the rest of time). However you want to call it, we just wanted to travel before baby arrives.

Morocco is a short and and relatively cheap flight from Mali, and neither Malians nor Americans need a visa to travel there. I traveled to Morocco in 2010, but Bintou had never been. This would be her first trip outside of West Africa.

After purchasing airfare, I immediately booked accommodation that was in another universe from anything I stayed in while traveling solo in 2010. This was going to be a trip of self-indulgence. In Morocco, a trip like that does not have to bring about financial ruin. It is a very affordable country to visit.


This is the interior of Riad Monceau, where we spoiled ourselves for three days in Marrakech.


Bintou enjoying our sanctuary in her Mickey Mouse t-shirt dress.


Incredible photo bomb by this juice vendor. Morocco is really the land of plenty. Fresh squeezed orange juice costs around 40 cents a glass.


In Marrakech, we ate delicious meals every 15 minutes (Bintou actually became disgusted by cumin during this time), wandered the streets in between, got lost, and bullshitted with I don’t know how many merchants. We retired often to the inner tranquility of our riad.

Then it was off to Essaouira. I traveled to Essaouira during my solo trip in 2010. I discovered then that large numbers of seagulls give me severe anxiety. Now it was Bintou’s turn in the Essaouira harbor.


As far as I’m concerned, seagulls have worse spatial awareness than pigeons, and they are far more arrogant. Bintou was unfazed, however.


It’s a good thing neither of us is diabetic, because each day we consumed at a minimum:

-at least 3-4 sugary mint teas
-3-4 fresh squeezed grapefruit/orange juice
-Moroccan crepes with nutella or confiture
-Countless miniature almond pastries
-and pure sugar cane juice just for good measure


Tea all day


If you ever find yourself in Essaouira, do yourself a favor and go to stall #11 (only one I can vouch for) in the harbor and get a massive plate of grilled fish, shrimp and calamari for about $8.


That is a long fish.

We found ourselves in Essaouira for the annual Gnaoua music festival. This was an accident that really worked in our favor. It is an international festival – they even had Songhoy Blues, a Malian band we have seen on several occasions in Bamako – but the centerpiece is the locally produced Gnaoua music, which is all frenetic percussion and this bassy lute that I love (called a gumbri, it reminds me of a bass ngoni in Mali). Aside from Essaouira’s round the clock gusting winds (Bintou was not a huge fan), we had a great time in this fortified city on the Atlantic.

We are back in Bamako now, grinding out the end of the hot season, waiting for the rains. Bintou has a due date of October 23rd. So far, so good.

Bored and have $10 to spare? Send a postcard from Timbuktu to anywhere in the world. You send a piece of thick paper stock half way around the world, make a friend’s day when it eventually arrives, and support former tourist guides in Timbuktu at the same time. Good deal, right?


A personal update


Outside of a few photos here and there, I haven’t posted a life update in quite some time. To be fair, I don’t post much of anything anymore.

I’m not quite ready to talk about the demise of Venya, but that post is coming. Venya still exists, but no one is profiting from it, and a good many things have gone wrong. Hair has been torn out (the few scraps I have left), and lessons have been learned.

What am I doing, then? I am running a hotel and restaurant in Bamako. Matt and Bill (the owners of the hotel) were more than accommodating with a shared ownership arrangement, so here I am.

The hotel and restaurant business is going well despite the thorough collapse of Mali’s tourism industry. Matt and Bill did well to build a strong brand, targeting anglophone travelers and now expats. Most of the clients are affiliated with NGOs or the UN economy. Not the original clientele of backpackers and overlanders, but the doors are open, and we have become fond of many of the long-term guests.

Meanwhile, I have been fortunate to maintain what is currently a 5-year-streak of not working for anyone. Those five years have not been a straight pleasure cruise – wildly fluctuating sums of money in my bank account, constant hustle – but I have been damn lucky.

In fact, I even count myself lucky when me and Bintou lived in that concrete sweat box in Baco Djicoroni Golf, with dishonest roommates and a dishonest landlord. I still have fond memories of eating lunch on the floor of our spartan living room with a breeze coming through the front door. I slept on the roof, and every day I woke up without the slightest hint of anxiety or dread. I might have cursed out the neighbor’s donkey for waking me up, but hey, we can’t have it all.

Prior to June 2010, I was teaching middle schoolers in DC. For three years after that, I supported myself with writing and web projects. Since 2013, I have been managing or co-managing businesses in the service industry in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. Teaching and running restaurants may seem far apart on a spectrum of occupations, but both involve managing people, and adults are not much different from 12-year-olds.

I regularly suffer from a bit of decision fatigue, but in this line of work, a cold beer is never far away. The staff is mostly excellent. I have known many of them for 5 years now. It’s definitely a family atmosphere in that sense. Every day, I get a few lessons in psychology, sometimes a result of my own mistakes, sometimes the result of an unavoidable collision course with a nightmare client. If I ever end up back in the classroom, I will have a few new tools at my disposal.

The real pleasure in this job is the complete lack of an “average day.” On a Tuesday afternoon, I could find myself at a braai two steps from the bar courtesy of the South African mechanics staying here. On a different day, I might run into Fatoumata Diawara having lunch with a team of German filmmakers. Last week, I had a surprise visit from Sophie, a Swedish woman who runs an excellent hotel and bogolan studio in Djenne (please spare a few thoughts for her husband Keita who has been dealing with a persistent cancer-this is a crucial week for his prognosis).

I’m happy here, and it is unlikely that I make any kind of permanent move this year. What’s in store for the rest of 2016? Here are a few things, inshallah:

Keep working on side projects. I don’t draw as many camels these days, but I recently launched a project that allows people to send a postcard with a custom message from Timbuktu to anywhere in the world. You can check it out at postcardsfromtimbuktu.com. The first batch of orders should be arriving this week. Let’s see what the modern global postal system is capable of.

Get my Malian passport. This should be a straightforward and inexpensive process, which will allow me to eventually travel freely throughout West Africa. I just need to go to the tribunal with my US passport, Bintou and our marriage license, declare citizenship, get a Malian national identity card, and then apply for a passport. What can go wrong?

Go to the states for a visit. Hopefully, Bintou will go along for the trip, but the U.S. State Department may have something to say about that. We’re working on it.

Take a trip to Guinea by boat. Now that we have a boat that can manage the trip…


Back in the Moussa Traore era, there was even a public ferry that traveled between Mali and Guinea. These days, traders regularly make the trip with smaller vessels. A few cases of beer on board, a stop-off in Kangaba, napping on the roof, a swim in the much cleaner pre-Bamako stretch of the Niger. Sounds ok to me.

Take a long overdue trip to Abidjan. To sort out Venya and figure out what’s next with it. Also, to eat poisson braisé and attieke while sharing grosse bières with friends at roadside maquis.

Have a child. Well, to be fair, Bintou will be doing that. Hopefully, he or she does not spend her early years with Donald Trump as president of the USA. No one believes that will actually happen, right?