I am looking forward to my Mali trip in less than a month, but this morning I received a worrying message from Dembele, who works in the MaliMali studio on my land in Djenne:
'I want to tell you that I am really worried about security in Djenne. Every day there seem to be new measures coming into force and now motorcycles and other vehicles cannot move around the district during the day! And even in the town of Djenne itself there are restrictions of movement during the day. People are frightened. When you get to Mali you should stay in Bamako!'
Well, I am used to most people telling me not to go to Djenne, but they never included my own staff! The reason for this banning of motorcycles is that the attacks by extremists on schools, army posts and other state-run institutions in the area have been carried out by armed gangs who arrive on motorcycles, or the ubiquitous Chinese 'Djakarta' scooters, do their often lethal damage then disappear again into the bush.
I wrote off to my friend, Keita's old bosom buddy, Dra of the Campement Hotel, who is now deputy Maire of Djenne. He reassured me that I would be fine, and that people were spreading hysterical rumours. I expect I will go as usual- I need to spend about two weeks there on various missions, one being this year's cataract operations, once more sponsored by my dear cousin Pelle and his wife Nanni and given to 100 poor villagers in memory of Keita. I also have business both at the library and my studio. We actually have some orders (!) from a London Interior decorating company and from an Australian client as well as the normal sales to the expat community in Bamako.
Dra says that there are still toubabs coming to Djenne and that nothing would really have changed since last time, as far as I am concerned at least. I am not a target he believes. I tend to agree- these elements are intent on causing trouble for Malian state employees.
My friend Guida Landoure, neurologist at the Point G hospital in Bamako and political commentator with a large following on Facebook, published the following after his last visit to Djenne, his home town, a couple of weeks ago. (I have translated and paraphrased slightly). He echoes in part the view of the 'Haute Conseil Islamic', the powerful national religious body, that is advocating negotiation with the extremist groups. It is difficult to see any other solution: the state is too weak and continues to withdraw.
"It is now a prohibited to ride a motorcycle in the 8 circles of Mopti and in 3 other circles in Segou. This is not a night curfew but total prohibition.
My sister just told me that their fish supplier has called to say that he cannot come because even the carts are forbidden. The harvest has not been good this year and the little that remains will deteriorate. I do not know how my brother will bring the food of his animals? How will my nephews bring back the evening milk that is sold for the price of condiments? How is the Bozo going to be able to sell his fish and buy grain? So are we to believe that there will be no more markets in this area?
I have just been for a visit back home to Djenne, in the troubled central region of Mali. I do not believe that this conflict will be quelled by force. We will have no choice but to negotiate. It must be understood that the people in these areas no longer trust the state and the state cannot count on their support. The truth is that we do not know exactly who sympathizes with these groups.
We should not be afraid to begin a dialogue with the extremists. They want to apply Sharia but know that it is not possible. We could concede certain of their demands such as the prohibition of festivities during weddings or baptisms while at the same time being intransigent regarding school: they do not want to attack doctors. We must press home the point that doctors learn at schools; that their mobile phones come from those who have been taught there and that their motorbikes are invented by people who have gone to school. The degradation of moral stamina will do the rest over time, even if we concede a lot. In which country today is Sharia fully implemented?
If we were to accept the demands of the extremists, they will be the first victims to fall by Sharia law through the crimes they commit and have committed in the north that are forbidden in Islamic law. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), there was Sharia but he used to sit with animists. If we ignore the extremists, they will strengthen themselves and continue to ensnare more people with them. We fell into the same error with the Tuareg rebellion. These draconian measures will only irritate the local population who are already lost to the cause of the 'jihadists'. We also leave the door open to other abuses. The enforcement of these measures is likely to lead to corruption. When the ban was limited to a curfew after 18h, in our zone the FAMA (Forces Armees Maliennes) were posted at the entrance of the city with their fuel cans. They threatened to burn motorcycles if people did not pay them money.
Besides, I do not know how we will enforce these measures in areas inaccessible to the state. How many victims do motorcycles make in big cities? Why not register all the bikes? It would reduce the robberies in Bamako and it would identify the people caught in these skirmishes in central Mali. "