story by Thomas Cleary



photos by Thomas & Cindy Cleary

Part one: A review of recent events in West Africa

Mali is a mess. After years as a stable democracy and a model for the rest of the West Africa, Captain Amadou Sanogo of the Malian Army ousted the democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT) in a coup d’état.

Ironically, ATT was the leader of a coup in the 1990s; however he stepped down after setting up democratic elections, only to be elected himself 10 years later. ATT was scheduled to give up the presidency due to term limits in just over a month, when elections were scheduled. Sanogo’s first justification for the coup was that ATT would not really step down and elections would not take place; however, they were at least scheduled and Malians were moving towards them before the coup.  Now, three plus months later, new elections are not re-scheduled, nor expected in the near future.

Sanogo also complained that the poorly equipped Malian Army was being mis-managed; unfortunately the power vacuum the coup created led to the loss of the whole of the northern two-thirds of the country to the rebels. Many of these soldiers and their equipment came from post-Gaddafi-Libya, and they are calling themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Other rebels are with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group tied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM. These two groups are now fighting each other within the occupied territory, but are unified enough, and well-armed enough, to keep Malian forces too scared to go on the offensive, even if they were able.

Sanogo’s third claim was that Mali’s financial troubles were due to government corruption, and granted, this was a problem. However Mali now has a bigger problem with the loss of outside aid funding in the millions, foreign business investments in the millions, and it has crushed its own tourist industry. Strike three. The mess in Mali is going nowhere fast.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a collective of regional heads of state, immediately condemned the coup, placed border sanctions on Mali, and demanded a return to civilian control. They eventually appointed Interim President Dioncounda Traore for 40 days to work on elections; when the 40 days was extended, there was rioting in the streets, he was attacked, seriously injured, and hospitalized, all under Sanogo’s guard’s watch. Sanogo, the populist man of the people, will continue to act as de facto head of state, and civilian rule is a long way off.

The tragedy of course is borne on the backs of the people: food insecurity, extended drought, impoverishment, low literacy rates, rudimentary health care, desertification, and now the occupation by the Touregs and fundamental Islamists in the north. And with the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) shutting their doors, and government relief funding being withdrawn or blocked by the rebels, the tragedy deepens. The people are fleeing from men with guns but even more from the shooting pains of hunger, but to where? Most neighboring countries are generally not much better off.

In summary, there are two issues in Mali: the political instability in the capital of Bamako, and the occupation in the north. The later cannot be approached before the former. The ECOWAS pledge of troops was rebuffed by Sanogo’s claims of sovereignty. In the meantime pray for the people of Mali. For a more detailed history of events go to Bridges over Bamako, a blog written by a Fulbright Scholar and anthropologist stationed in Bamako with links to published news articles as well as insightful commentary,

Part two: The Clearys’ adventure

The life of an overseas teaching family was wonderful and challenging. Teaching and counseling and being students at the American International School of Bamako was an eye-opening, multi-cultural, amazing experience. But in many ways it was also like school in the states with lesson planning, grading, homework for the kids, etc., just set in the thriving chaos of a West African city of 1.5 million people! We travelled to the beaches of Senegal, rock climbed at a nearby village, camped out at music festivals in the land of Ali Farka Touré, participated in dance and drum classes, experienced markets and village life at encampments, and simply lived day in and day out in francophone West Africa.

All this came to an end March 22, when our school sent kids home early two days before spring break. There were reports of shooting in the streets downtown as well as looting and the army “requisitioning” private vehicles. The embassies told everyone to “shelter in place”; that was how we spent spring break! We followed a Facebook page called Americans and Friends in Mali, where people were posting minute by second updates from around town. Check it out, as it continues to be an active site. School was supposed to resume April 30, but with the security situation so unstable we began an online “virtual school”. Students would go to their teachers’ blogs or web page on the school website and download assignments, videos, activities, and more to complete the curriculum. On May 3 we were evacuated to a sister school in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Three weeks later, on the eve of our scheduled return to Bamako, soldiers loyal to the former president staged a counter coup which failed but succeeded in closing the airport for several more days. Soon thereafter our school board decided that Bamako was unlikely to stabilize enough to reopen the school anytime soon, and 2 weeks later we were being welcomed back to Crestone.

Our plans are uncertain. We were in Crestone through the close of our regular, albeit virtual, school year and will base out of Crestone for the summer. We have return tickets and a job in Bamako if the school re-opens, but based on the current situation, we are seeking new jobs locally and abroad. While we would be happy to stay in Crestone, our house is rented and we do not have work, but who knows what doors will open? We are also excited to return to Mali if possible. We love Crestone and have felt the support of so many people. Thanks to all who have helped ease our transition through this challenging time. The adventure continues . . . but where?

There will be a Cleary adventure slide show Wednesday, July 18 at Elephant Cloud (Jillian’s) Studio at 8pm.