An Africa Renaissance: Mali

Guest Editorial
Karol Stoker, Longmont, Colorado

31 January 2005

An African Renaissance: Mali

After reading Bill Berkeley's excellent assessment of the currents of power and destruction on the African continent, The Graves Are Not Yet Full (New York: Basic Books, 2001), it occurred to me that it would be a simple matter for the casual reader to assume that the entire continent of Africa exists in a state of perpetual turmoil. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Berkeley demonstrates, in a masterful manner, that the tragedies one reads about in the popular press are not inherent to the African continent; rather, they are the result of a century and a half of Western intervention. A majority of the African nations have avoided descending in to the chaos depicted in the media.

I think that this false perception is the result of a number of cultural predispositions, foremost among which is the popular misconception of Africa as a vast, homogeneous entity; I believe, unfortunately, that the American public at large is much more likely to hold this view than is the European population. Obviously this is due in part to the European involvement in the colonial African experience. This view ignores the vast array of ethnic and cultural differences that exist in reality. Secondly, the American press is quite adept at reporting in depth (in vivid color) any African political upheaval. After the fire is extinguished, Africa disappears from the collective American consciousness. The ensuing successes at returning to normalcy are largely ignored. Not very interesting reading, I suppose.

My limited first-hand knowledge of Africa is based upon my travels through Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso. I've worked and traveled in Senegal, but the country I consider to be my second home is the Republic of Mali.

In 1976, I was accepted into the Peace Corps and assigned to Mali as a secondary-level English teacher. I went directly to my World Atlas. Like most Americans, I had a rudimentary knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa, and I suppose I'd heard of Mali a time or two; however, I couldn't have located it on a map. That portion of the continent was an unknown quantity, an enigma.

Since 1976, I've lived and worked (off and on) for a total of three years in my beloved Mali-ba. During my two-year tour of duty with the Peace Corps, I was very fortunate to meet Drs. Roderick and Susan McIntosh, currently at Rice University in Houston, Texas. These two exceptional individuals are dedicated Africanists. As a result of our relationship, I participated in four archaeological projects in Mali. Our efforts up to the present have been concentrated in the Inland Niger Delta, specifically in the area surrounding the venerable city of Jenne, known to the rest of the world primarily for its magnificent Sudanese-style mosque.

Monday market day in front of the mosque, Jenne

The medieval (and later) history of Mali was largely a known quantity in the 1970s. The Empire of Ghana, the foundation fo the Malian Empire by the culture hero Soundiata, and its Golden Age under Mansa Moussa are well represented in the literature, as is the succeeding Songhai Empire and the kingdoms of Segou and Sikasso.

Completed excavation in Jenne proper, with the assembled crew.

The general consensus at the time of our excavations, seemingly based on outdated colonial attitudes, was that, prior to the arrival of Arab-Islamic influence in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries C.E., there was little of interest taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, at least from a cultural perspective. The results of McIntosh's excavation and survey projects have proven otherwise. The Inland Niger Delta was for centuries a patchwork of major trade centers, such as Jenne-jeno, surrounded by a myriad of specialized satellite communities, all of which contributed to the success of the whole. (See McIntosh, "Finding Jenni-jeno, West Africa's Oldest City," National Geographic, September 1982.) The earliest excavated levels at Jenne-jeno date to around 250 B.C.E., with evidence of early rice cultivation and sophisticated metallurgy. The city was surrounded by a massive wall as early as the Fifty Century C.E. These discoveries have led to a greater appreciation of the complexity and importance of prehistoric sub-Saharan Africa.

I well remember the afternoon in February 1997 when I stood at the bottom of a just-completed four-meter-deep excavation at Jenne-jeno addressing a group of 30 or so Malian school teachers who had come at the behest of the Mission Culturelle de Jenne, under the direction of Dr. Boubacar Diaby. I opened my introduction with the statement that at their feet lay 20 centuries of Malian history. The general reaction was of amazement, even disbelief. However, I had the strong impression that, as question followed question, the educators of the next generation would instill a sense of pride in the rich history of Mali to their students.

The typical taxi-brousse, with a full complement, waiting for the "barque" to ferry it across the Bani River to Jenne.

Momentous changes in the fabric of Malian society have taken place in the last 30 years. Worldwide Internet communication is available in all cities and in many villages. Intercity transportation, using modern buses, can be found throughout the country; the old standby, the taxi-brousse, can still be used by those of us who remember the simple joys of traveling for hours on end seated on a wooden bench in the back of a Peugeot pickup, with 20 other travelers, strangers who would become friends. Both the evils and the benefits of an exponentially expanding tourism industry can be observed in all 8 regions of the country, from frenetic Bamako to legendary Tombouctou.

But even as Mali evolves, its people remain the same: unerringly friendly and hospitable, projecting a smiling face to others while enduring unimaginable circumstances. These are the people I like to think I have the honor to call friends and family. I believe Mali serves as the perfect example of the hopeful future that exists throughout the African continent. Mali has left the colonial legacy of suppression and division in the past and has evolved into a vibrant, modern vision of the African future.

"One People, One Presence, One Future," as the banner reads on the current generation of travel posters.

--Karol Stoker


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