BAMAKO, Mali — As the first United States-African leaders summit opens this week in Washington, D.C, it is hard to hear Malians in their capital drum up enthusiasm for it.
President Barack Obama has invited 50 African heads of state — excluding those from Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe — to meet with him and other American government officials as well as executives of corporations to discuss trade and investment but also rule of law and human rights. (The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone have bowed out because of Ebola outbreaks in their countries.)
The summit, Aug. 4 to 6, is supposed to be a big hullabaloo to reinforce America’s ties with African nations — with African corporate executives also expected to join the business side events, sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies and others. But Africa is a huge continent subject to persistent generalizations from outsiders, belying that countries in Africa vary in profound ways.
At least one upper-class resident of Bamako, the capital of this West African country, grumbled that the summit is a catch-up attempt to compete with a similar forum the Chinese produced for Africans.
Another Malian, an industrialist, Mamadou Sinsy Coulibaly, thought the summit should have been more “innovative” in format rather than taking the same approach that conferences in China and Europe have done with African governments. Coulibaly, who owns a diverse group of companies in Mali, would have preferred that the summit introduce more midlevel-size American companies to Africans rather than dominate the interaction with multinational corporations like General Electric.
What businesses in Africa need is more expertise to grow, roles that smaller companies, like software developers, can provide, he said.
In Mali, a country of 14 million that is slowly recovering from a rebellion in the north in 2012, complicated by a coup and then deadly insurgencies from terrorists, the Washington summit is meaningless for the people who toil day in and day out with few gains in sight.
Mody Ba, a university student in Bamako who works for the Centre Jeunes, a nonprofit group offering reproductive health care services, said that education should be the most important topic in Washington. (The motto of the center is “Children by choice and not by surprise.”)
“It is an opportunity for the president” – Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – “to find financing for the country” to help it recover from the 2012 conflict. Ba, who translated his responses from French into English using Google, thinks that health and infrastructure are also important subjects, but that Mali’s education system — its lack of materials, inadequate equipment, a teacher’s strike — is in extraordinary straits.
“Malians must go to school to counter the problems that it faces,” Ba said. He is studying for a degree at a science and technology university so that he can go into mining.
The United Nations Human Development Index showed some positive trends for Mali despite its political upheaval and ranking of 182 out of 187 nations, measured for poverty, education, gender equality and other basic lifestyle criteria. Other UN indicators on such harmful practices as female genital cutting — or excision, as they call it here — show stubbornly high rates compared with other West African nations, reflecting the lingering effects of Mali’s crisis on furthering women’s human rights, a Unicef specialist, Jennifer Melton, said. There is no law, to begin with, banning the practice of excision, unlike most of Mali’s neighboring countries. And the practice is starting earlier and earlier, in infancy.
Electricity in Bamako can be problematic (except for those who own generators). On a recent Friday evening, the entire city went black for about an hour, during rush hour, making a normally hectic scene more chaotic. Pedestrians became silhouettes; the city’s hillsides, usually speckled with lights of residences and office buildings, fell dark. The presidential palace, which sits atop one of the bluffs, overlooking the city and the Niger River, was not visible.
The president, Keita, who was democratically elected in 2013, is in hot water with European donors and the International Monetary Fund, because he bought a 737 Boeing aircraft for reportedly $40 million this spring. The International Monetary Fund is withholding a $46 million poverty-reduction loan to Mali until an audit clarifies how the plane was purchased and other national budget questions.
Keita is also being pressured by the UN, which set up a peacekeeping mission last July to help protect civilians in northern Mali from attacks by Islamic extremists, to negotiate with certain rebel groups.
Indeed, Keita is apparently flying to Washington on that very jet, inciting more criticism by the media. Yet his communications minister tweeted on Saturday that people still protesting the purchase of the plane were “bitter.”
The first step of the peace talks being promoted by the UN recently occurred in Algeria, which is viewed as an influential neighbor in the Sahel. Six rebel groups (though not Al Qaeda-affiliated ones, say UN officials) from northern Mali were involved as well as the African Union, a regional African group and the European Union. What they agreed on, so far, was the process but not the content.
No women or civil society groups were included in the meeting, and it is unclear whether they will be invited to the next one, if it happens.
Bamako is a teeming, spread-out metropolis, where motor scooters, or motos, compete for narrow space in the traffic-choked roads nearly every day of the week, morning to evening. Women use the motos as much as men, and it is common to see a baby strapped to the back of a woman driver or passenger and maybe a toddler squeezed in between two adults. Few drivers use helmets; occasionally, drivers are spotted wearing masks over their mouths, as fumes spewing from vehicles can be overwhelming.
Pedestrians weave in and out of traffic as fluidly as motos, and off the paved byways in Bamako, dirt roads are so rutted that a four-wheel-drive vehicle could have trouble getting through.
Some children consider the roads their homes, as two boys demonstrated with flair one afternoon, galloping bareback on a horse along a neighborhood street named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president. Goats can also be presumptuous, roaming a main thoroughfare with oblivion.
Bamakans, most of whom do not speak English, keep up with the news of their president and find the country’s slow — if stalled — economic and political progress (and the plane purchase) deeply disappointing. Yet the city hums with a sense of individual purpose, as male laborers dig ditches or work other construction even on Sundays while women handle the domestic chores, sticking to rigid gender roles, bent over a washbasin. It is a city with high aspirations, aware that it has lost time and must compensate before it drifts further behind.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.