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Mali's Cultural Heritage, Old And New, Faces Threats
Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 11:43 am
Mali is a country rich in culture, both old and new.
The banging of hammers on silver echos through the main crafts market in Bamako, Mali's capital. It's usually teeming in a place where you can buy anything, from silver earrings to batik fabric, all of it handmade.
And despite its remote location, Mali has enhanced its cultural reputation in recent years with an annual international music and arts festival in the Sahara Desert near Timbuktu, drawing both African and Western artists.
But Mali's cultural gems, which have drawn steady tourist traffic, are now at risk from a dual crisis. The democratically elected president was ousted in a coup in March, and Tuareg fighters and Islamists have both revolted in the north.
Things have become a lot quieter in Bamako's market, with many craftsmen saying there are no tourists, no customers and no money.
Shop owner Sidi Ag specializes in the leather goods of the nomadic Tuareg tribe from northern Mali. The post-coup crisis is affecting business, Ag says. He's praying Mali's problems end soon.
"I need money because I have my family. I have my children. Six. I'd like to sell my business, but [there's] no business now. No customers," he says.
It's a similar story across town at the magnificent National Museum of Mali and its expansive, adjoining gardens. The museum is a cluster of discreet, low-rise, sand-colored buildings, inspired by the traditional earthen architectural style of Mali.
Tourists Have Vanished
There's no one around, not a visitor in sight. And that, says the museum's chief researcher, Fatou Toure Sako, is demoralizing.
She says television images showing Islamists destroying some of Mali's most important historical sites breaks her heart and brings tears to her eyes. They include revered, centuries-old Sufi saints' mausoleums in Timbuktu and the great door of the Sidya Yahya mosque.
"The day I saw those images on the television, I said to myself everyone who works at the museum, anyone who works in the cultural industry, must have tears in their eyes," Toure Sako says. "It's really so very painful. Especially as we, who work with our national heritage, know what harm those people have done to our treasures and to Mali."
That view is echoed by the national museum's director, Samuel Sidibe. He says the news is devastating for the culture, history and future of Mali.
"It's dramatic — even for the museum. But, of course, it is important to be hopeful. We have to keep fighting. I am a fighter for the heritage," Sidibe says. "If we don't keep fighting, who is going to make the country for us? Nobody. What I have to do is to protect the museum, protect the heritage. This is what I can do for Mali."
Since the rebellion, Timbuktu and the surrounding desert region have become no-go areas for visitors.
Desert Festival At Risk
Each year since 2001, the town of Essakane, outside Timbuktu, hosts the Festival of the Desert, which showcases local and international talent. Organizers managed to hold the festival as planned in January, around the same time the rebellion in the region was picking up steam.
But it's unclear what will happen next January.
"What is happening now is very sad," says Manny Ansar, the founder of the festival. "And it's really against all our objectives and against all what we wish for –- by bringing people from different cultures, from different religions to meet together to have music, to have fun."
Ansar adds: "Timbuktu is famous because it used to be a crossroads from North Sahara and South Sahara. And the people of Timbuktu used to welcome, for centuries, people from different religions, from different origins, and we would like to maintain this idea of Timbuktu, this way of life of Timbuktu, and we have to get it back soon."
Acts like Tinariwen, a Tuareg desert-rock group, helped make their name at the festival. The band won this year's Best World Music Grammy for the album Tassili. Ansar used to manage Tinariwen.
The armed Islamists in command in the north have banned all public singing, dancing and other forms of entertainment. They're meting out punishment to those found flouting the ban.
"We'd like to fight by music, by bringing joy where people have tried to bring death and fighting," Ansar says. "This is our way to resist –- to tell to all these people violence is not the solution. The solution is to live together."
Ansar says he'll take his music festival to another desert elsewhere in the world if he has to, though he'd much rather have it here in Mali, in the Sahara.
SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:
Think Mali, you think ancient - ancient culture, from the fabled world heritage sites in the desert sands of Timbuktu to late blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ALI FARKA TOURE: (Singing in foreign language)
STAMBERG: Here, he's playing with Ry Cooder. And for the past decade, Mali has hosted an annual international music and arts festival in the desert, where Ali Farka and lots of other Malians have performed. But Mali now is a divided nation. Islamists control the rebel-controlled north, and in March a military junta overthrew the democratically elected president in the south. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on how this dual crisis is affecting culture and tourism in Mali.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: I've come to the main crafts market here in here in Bamako, which is usually teeming. You can buy anything here, from silver earrings to batik fabric. But in the months since the coup here in Mali, no tourists, no customers, no money.
SIDI AG: My name is Sidi, Sidi Ag. I come Nord Mali. I'm selling jewelry and boxes with camel skin, but we not market now. No customers. No touristique.
QUIST-ARCTON: Sidi Ag specializes in the leather craft of the nomadic Tuareg tribe from northern Mali. The vast region of the north is currently under the control of Islamist radicals who fought alongside Tuareg rebels. But the post-coup crisis right here in the capital Bamako is also affecting business.
AG: Yeah, in Mali, I have my family. I have my children - six. I'd like to sell my business, but no business now. No customers.
QUIST-ARCTON: It's a similar story across town at the magnificent National Museum of Mali and its expansive, adjoining gardens. But there's no one around, not a visitor in sight. And that, says the museum's chief researcher, Fatou Toure Sako, breaks her heart and brings tears to her eyes.
FATOU TOURE SAKO: (foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Madame Toure Sako says she's also heartbroken that world heritage sites in historic Timbuktu in the north are being destroyed by Islamist occupiers of the ancient city in the Sahara Desert sands. That view is echoed by the national museum's director, Samuel Sidibe. He says the news is devastating for the culture, history and the future of Mali.
SAMUEL SIDIBE: It's dramatic, even for the museum. But, of course, it is important to be hopeful. We have to keep fighting. I am a fighter for the heritage. If we don't keep fighting, who is going to make the country for us? Nobody. What I have to do is to protect the heritage.
QUIST-ARCTON: Since the rebellion, because of insecurity and the risk of being kidnapped, Timbuktu and the surrounding desert region are now no-go areas for visitors.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing in foreign language)
STAMBERG: Each year, the town of Essakane, located beyond Timbuktu, hosts the Festival of the Desert. It showcases local and international talent. About the same time as turbaned Tuareg secessionists announced their rebellion in January, Manny Ansar was organizing the festival he founded, which remains his passion.
MANNY ANSAR: What is happening now is very sad. And it's really against all what we wish for by bringing people from different cultures, from different religions to meet together to have music, to have fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing in foreign language)
QUIST-ARCTON: Star performance, such as the Mailian Tuareg desert rock group Tinariwen has played at the Essakane Festival. The band won this year's Best World Music Grammy for the album "Tassili Desert Sessions." Manny Ansar, the festival organizer, used to manage Tinariwen. Manny Ansar is unsure what will become of Mali's Festival of the Desert next year, given the political and security upheaval. Plus, the armed Islamists in command of the north have banned public singing and dancing, and all entertainment. They're meting out punishment to those found flouting the ban.
ANSAR: We'd like to fight by music, by bringing joy where people have tried to bring death and fighting. This is our way to resist, to tell to all these people violence is not the solution. The solution is to live together. Really, this battle and this war should stop.
QUIST-ARCTON: Manny Ansar says he'll take his music festival to another of the world's deserts if he has to, but he'd much rather it remained right here in Mali, in the Sahara. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.