Sunday, 11 November 2012

All of a sudden, Mali exists

Obviously it always existed. I haven't been suspended in space for these past months. But suddenly, the English-speaking media seems to have noticed. Obviously I always keep an eye out for Mali-related news, but suddenly there seems to be a lot more of it, and not just in the places I would expect to find it (IRIN, ReliefWeb, Reuters, African Arguments, etc).

Yesterday I noticed this piece, on boat owners in Mopti, on the front page of the BBC world news page. Then today the BBC was on Mali again, talking about the arrest of a French national trying to travel to the North. From the links at the bottom of the page it seems like there are quite a few stories on Mali, but when I open them and look at the dates it works out as about 1 per month since the coup, so two in a week is a definite uptick.

Then there's this week's Economist, which has not one but two stories on Mali. A leader, entitled 'Terror in the Sahel', and a more detailed article (highly recommended for an intro to Mali) that discusses the different rebel groups. Again, it's not the first time it's come up in the magazine, but being elevated to leader status seems to show a new interest, and previous articles seemed to care more about Mali's cultural heritage than about it's people.

As for other papers... there have been a few articles in the Guardian, a lot of them colour pieces about Mali's music, but a gradually increasing number of actual news pieces (e.g. French drones, refugees in Mopti, a good profile of Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghali, and the shocking news that the Nigerian army might not be totally equipped to fight in the desert). The Telegraph has a few articles - roughly one a fortnight for the past couple of months - but they're all about the Mali-as-AQ-haven-bombs-in-London angle - they explain why it's important, not what's actually happening, until the last couple of weeks, when they have articles on Clinton in Algeria and Ansar Dine's moves towards peace talks. Only the FT has been covering Mali in any detail for a while, generally with very good very detailed articles..

So in a few media, it seems like suddenly everyone's interested in Mali. The coverage is pretty good - there are some holes, with most media focusing on Ansar Dine and AQIM rather than MUJAO/MUJWA, but that makes sense because MUJWA is a much more confusing group to analyse than Ansar Dine or AQIM. They also don't mention many of the underlying dynamics*, preferring to focus on the basic facts: 'Armed groups affiliated to Al Quaeda took over the north and now there are plans for a military intervention'. But I wouldn't really expect that to be in the news - that's what African blogs, Crisis Group reports, and academic papers are for.

So why is Mali suddenly in the news? I guess the short answer is that there might be about to be a war, supported by France (a lot), the US (a lot) and the UK (a bit) - so the Libya coalition again. So it's gone from being a bit of local bother in a faraway country, only interesting insofar as it might lead to bombs in London, to part of a wider question around response to the wars that have followed the Arab Spring and the debate around liberal interventionism. But living here, following it for months, it's kind of weird that 'my' crisis is becoming mainstream. My response to reading most of the articles I've linked to was 'well, duh?', which is fair enough because I'm not the target readership. They're not wrong, they're just simplistic. But on the whole, if you read the articles, you'd have a good basis of what's going on in Mali, which is really all you can ask for. On the other hand, without the context, they feel oddly suspended, and the Mali described in the articles isn't the Mali I live in.

So I am a bit resentful of the media because I think Mali isn't getting a fair representation. But what I really worry about is the impact of the media. From a fundraising perspective, publicity is good. If Mali is in the public eye, there will be pressure on governments to donate, and the public will likely donate as well, which will make my job easier if the expected military intervention leads to the expected massive humanitarian crisis. But what if the media influences decision makers in a particular direction - one that may not be the right one for the complex environment of Northern Mali? Perhaps focusing on military intervention at the expense of the longer-term development aid, local peacebuilding, and attempts to address the drugs trade that the region needs? The instincts of most of the international community push them in a 'high politics' direction anyway, and away from development or peacebuilding - so what if the media starts reinforcing this prejudice? If it is on the American policy radar, does that mean we'll see drone strikes? Drone strikes are probably not good, though probably less bad in the Malian desert than in the Pakistani highlands.

I don't mean that the high politics/intervention approach is wrong - I definitely don't know enough about Mali to have the right to a theory - or that media interest is bad -not my area either. And public attention will be invaluable if there is a refugee crisis we need to respond to. But somehow I can't quite shake a sense of unease, and I can't figure out if it's because I'm being protective, or because I actually have a reason to worry.

*e.g. AQIM is loaded because of kidnap ransoms paid by western governments, which is a pretty good argument in favour of the UK policy of never paying ransoms. Northern Mali has long been a route for drug smugglers crossing the Sahara, which is both a source of income and a source of local conflict. Tuareg rebellions have been a fairly regular occurence over the last 20 years - so clearly the underlying issues leading to these rebellions are not being addressed. And the north has been basically ignored by a Bamako government that was such a corrupt shell that it collapsed at the smallest push in March. And the current government is a shaky transitional arrangement with many competing factions and limited public support.

Monday, 5 November 2012


One of the major features of Mali life has been the curfew. It's now been lifted to midnight, but for my first few weeks here it kept me trapped at home every evening, with nothing to do but watch my way through the whole of Dr. Who. Which got dull after a while.

I did a lot of reading, but after a while even that started to get old. So I decided I needed a project, something to keep my brain ticking over. The solution: Coursera. Coursera is a free website, where you can take short, not-for-credit courses produced by major universities around the world, especially the American Ivy League schools. The lectures are posted online as videos, and then depending on the course there are often assignments, either multiple-choice quizzes, or short essays which are marked by a peer grading system - you submit your essay, then the next week you grade five other people's essays, and your result is the average of those results. I've been considering doing something with the OU, but I'm concerned about the money and long-term commitment, so this seemed like a great way to test the water.

I started out by signing up for a ten-week course in Greek and Roman Mythology, run by a chap called Dr Peter Struck at UPenn, which I'm currently just over halfway through. Each week there are about 90 minutes worth of lectures, plus texts to read ranging from the enormous (half of the Odyssey) to the short (the Oedipus tragedies). Then there's a weekly quiz and two essays over the course - all in all it's been taking about six hours per week. The readings have been interesting - mainly forcing me to read things I've wanted to read for ages anyway - and the lectures have been interesting and relevant. One of the best parts is the online forum, where the thousands of students have started threads discussing different aspects of the text - I've learned as much from those as from the lectures. The Mali bandwidth means I have to be a bit organised with the lectures - usually I start them downloading on Monday evening, go to the gym, then watch them later in the week - but that's not too much of a problem.

As for the assignments - they're surprisingly similar to being at a real uni. The multiple choice quizzes I mainly guess, a strategy that has so far been successful, and I started writing the essay at 9pm on a Sunday night (it was due midnight US East Coast time). Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Luckily, my carefully-honed last-minute essay-writing skills haven't deserted me, and I ended up with a pretty good score considering that the entire process took about an hour.

One of the odd things about it is how it's worked as a mental trick. The course doesn't matter, at all. It doesn't matter if I fail (obviously it does, because that would condemn me to a life of mediocrity... but it doesn't matter *really*). But since I'd signed up and committed to it, I've been making sure to do all the readings (well, most of the readings...), and doing things like listening to lectures at 7am on a friend's sofa the morning after my friend's wedding in Canada, because I didn't want to fall behind. Because once I've committed to something, I feel like I need to do it, even if I don't really. So it's functioned as a trick to make me learn things I want to learn anyway. And best of all, I'm excited to listen to the lectures (yes, I'm a loser), so I've got more efficient at work and am making myself leave earlier, which is a double win.

It's also been interesting as a way to identify friends. One of the things people ask one another here is 'what do you do with yourself in the evenings'. When your answer is 'well, I'm doing this online course in Greek Mythology', people split into two camps: 'AWESOME, what a great idea', and 'huh?'. If you say 'Awesome', then you mark yourself out as a geek like me, and someone I want to be friends with. And even if I didn't find anyone, I'd have learned loads of really interesting things about Greek and Roman Mythology, which makes me cool... right?