Amadou Cisse had been working for several months on opening his new venture, a restaurant in Djenne, one of Mali’s most famous places after Timbuktu. A Unesco World Heritage site, it is the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa, and the magnificent Great Mosque of Djenne is the largest mud brick structure in the world.
Since Cisse was 13 years old he has worked in the tourist trade, an accident of circumstance that became a way of life. He comes from a poor family and was living with his grandmother as a boy. A good student and fine linguist, on his way home from school one day he passed through the market and overheard an Italian lady trying to bargain. The man at the bazaar and the tourist couldn’t understand each other, but Cisse could. He intervened. As a thank you she paid Cisse what he considered was a small fortune, enough to buy a coca cola. Years later when Michael Palin did his series 80 Days Around the World, Pygmme, as Cisse has been called ever since, was his Mali guide.
For years though tourists, like the rains, haven’t come, and each year there are fewer and fewer. (The four groups Cisse had scheduled have all cancelled.) The political insecurity in the north has frightened them away. Not surprising as there has been a plague of kidnappings.
The terrorist threat is a growing concern as Al Qaeda has joined the militants. For a desperately poor, food insecure country dependent on tourism, the result has been devastating.
The situation is further complicated as the country has entered the ‘hungry season’. Rains have been failing for five decades, there have been several droughts in that time, and an estimated 3.5 million Malians are facing malnutrition in a subsistence economy. As with everything in Africa, the political situation and the issues that lie behind it have deep roots, including urban and rural grievances.
Democracy is seen to have failed, corruption is rife, and the inability of the ‘southern’ government’ to deal with the ‘northern’
insurgency has added to the instability.
When Pygmme heard about the coup d’etat, which deposed the long-standing President Amadou Toumani Touré, on Wednesday March 22nd 2012, he was having lunch with friends in one of his favourite restaurants in Bamako. He had gone to the capital two days before to pick up his passport. When the news broke and his phone rang, friends told him to go home. The restaurant hastily closed up, people on the streets rushed back to safety. Shops barricaded their premises, banks shut and the borders with its regional neighbours were sealed. The revolution had begun in this landlocked Western African country.
After the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in October 2011 weapons flooded into Mali. The countries share a common border. The nomadic Tuareg rebels defeated the Malian forces, seized much of the north of the country, including the historic town of Timbuktu, and declared it the independent state of Azawad. The rebels are made up two groups, one secular, and The Islamic Faction, Ansar Dine, a strict religious group, that advocates flogging, and the imposition of Sharia law.
"Islam has a long history in Mali," says Cisse, "but our Islam is mixed with animism, as well. In Timbuktu, Al Qaeda has destroyed all the bars, and made the women wear headscarves, and they are imposing Sharia law. My friends don’t drink a lot but they want to have the choice. Malians are moderate people and don’t want this religious law.
"Thousands are leaving Timbuktu and going to Mopti. This place is now the border between Mali and Azawad, What the people see is that the army has done nothing to protect them, and they are getting mad. My friends are going to Bamako because the situation in Timbuktu is too hard."
Malians value tolerance and cooperation. What little Cisse has, he shares with his friends and colleagues, one of whom is Mamadou Tapily, 32. "There is good will between friends," says Cisse.