Where to begin?, why not in Tibuktu?Having spent two long days on the
(with widely differing interpretations of the word) we arrived in
Tombouctou. I went off into the desert for a wander with some tuareg,
bunch of lads i must say.
As you do in a desert I had a good little chat with myself, took stock
somewhat at the ‘edge of the world’ and started to make my back to
The journey takes you to a myriad of place and peoples from Bamako to
regions of Mopti, Segou, Dogon country and on up to Tombouctou. There
many languages with varying customs etc. for each tribe, suffice to say
could just about make out what language people were talking, but had no
as to content.
The landscape also changes remarkably from place to place, from scrub
to pastureland, to paddy fields and desert to the rocky outcrops of the
There are times when you can drive some distance and see no-one and
much just scrub, then people appear and you may not see another person
another ten miles. Resilience must be central to their very core, the
unforgiving heat does not show any mercy, and lifestyles must be
But surprisingly when you do actually stop a group of people will
just appear from nowhere, which in a way reminds me of Ireland. When
are some strangers around there will always tend to be locals only too
to have a ‘nosy’ as we used to say. To say hello, exchange
pass the time of day. some things are universal it seems, I dont think
addiction to socialising has been researched enough to remotely come to
terms with its central focus in day to day life, for everyone, but I
Alongside the road from Mopti further up north there is signs of real
progress, rural electrification and the road being upgraded. This to me
a real sign of a commitment to extend the reach of people in these
communites and also to open up many possibilities.
Access to power and transport with the rest of the coutry will likely
greatly increase economic activity as well as offering true development
potential to vast swathes of the country. However there is still plenty
work to be done, as the cable laying runs parallel with the road it is
people withint distance of this that shall benefit in the early stages.
full rolling out of electricity supply to the entire rural population
take great efforts from the regions and the towns within these regions,
never mind the sparsely populated rural areas between towns and
But is definitely a step in the right direction, one of many that I see
Mali of today taking.
At present the political will definitely appears to be there, there are
plenty of countries vying for influence in this emerging country and the
people themselves are eager for progress, they have seen it for the
number of years, but the common refrain is that it needs to happen
As ever also the rural folk feel that benefits will come to them slowly
that a concentration on their plight is not high on the central
The upgraded roads and the laying of cables do however offer the
for the regions to develop themselves, wating for government action is
likely the best course of action and it would appear that Malians
are all too aware of this.
What happens in the coming months and years could truly be remarkable, a
country hungry for development, with plenty of suitors in the wings has
real opportunity to effect real, lasting, positive change
Where to begin?, why not in Tibuktu?Having spent two long days on the
We had been out all morning at meetings with various bankers in their air conditioned offices, which for myself are a necessity. Even the taxi ride to the office can be troublesome, with the windows down and my head slightly to one side trying as best I can to get some of the draft which can appear from time to time when the taxi manages to get up enough speed.
At every intersection there are any number of vendors, with phone credit being the main commodity, but frankly there is little you could not get, at one intersection there appears to be an abundance of bureau de change merchants plying their trade. They have quite large bundles of fresh notes, millions of CFA’s, the local currency, and likely some thousands of dollars and euros between them all, perhaps twenty in a small stretch of the main road into the city centre.
They are trading, no-one seems to take into account that they have multiples of the average annual salary (did I say salary?, sorry that would imply a job, income of course would be closer, and perhaps even more appropriate would be hard earned small amounts of cash) in their hands. There are no guards, no guns, no air of tension, just people doing their business. With others carrying just about anything you can imagine, bags, books, shoes, pans, hats, drugs, hardware, you name it.
We conducted our meeting in a smart modern office, the headquarters of one of the local banks and duly returned to our hotel.
At this point I am feeling a little peckish and so head down to the bar for some lunch with yesterdays International Herald Tribune under my arm (I get a copy daily, it is one of the free copies from Air France, which I have noticed and can get free online anyway, but…..).
I head to the kitchen through the bar, we are that well known at this stage, which is grand, and order some poulet frites (chicken and chips, the standard fare for my good self when looking for food and not wanting to be adventurous, just fed).
The bar girl notes that I am ‘faim’, which in my terrible French know to be hungry. ‘Oui’ says I in my mild brogue French and proceed to sit down with a cold drink and my newspaper.
I am half way through my meal when the young man who sells all sorts of souvenirs in the hotel lobby wanders in. He sits with the bar girl and they pass the time of day. His stall is outside the door of Linda’s room and he resides there day after day, ever trying to make a sale. We talk politely to him when passing and even stop for the odd chat, as much as you can with the language barrier. I have a look at the items he has and make a mental note of what he has, what I would like, what would fit in my bag and so on and delay the actual purchase.
So there I am in the bar, happily munching on my food, with the girl and boy talking and I happen to catch a word coming from the young man, ‘faim’.
My heart sinks, my stomach shrinks and my mind blinks, back to the reality of who I am, where I am, and what is going on around me.
I stop, take up my plate, and walk over to the young man and hand him what is left of my lunch, suffice to say I have a friend for life and an indelible scar seared on my soul.
Bon appetite mon ami.
An outsiders, possibly naive, perspective.
Talking to an array of interested parties in Mali, of which there are many, there does seem to be something approaching a common view, and one that as an outsider I was reluctant to admit openly, that there is a culture which denigrates planning, which frowns upon taking the longer view. ‘I will look after what is in front of me and God will take care of the rest’ is something I have heard uttered more than once.
But where does this come from, is it a reference to religion and fate? faith? in God, which ever one you happen to believe in? is it a cultural phenomenon, where tribal and historical mores come to the fore?
Or perhaps, as has been suggested by some of the local stakeholders we have met, a matter of education?
The answer to this is crucial in a number of aspects. Planning is seen as foreboding, inviting fate to play a negative role in your future, that you are somehow trying to outdo God and plan for the future when you know that this is not possible, as only God can decide your fate.
Culture is very strong, in my opinion, in developing countries, and dictates to a large extent peoples activities and opinions. Whether everyone agrees with this in place like Mali, in their heart of hearts, is another matter of course.
Proselytising on the inherent truth in science, and dare I call business education a science?, can be seen as inviting failure.
However there does seem to be something approaching a consensus that more education can ameliorate this attitude.
Replacing one dogma with another can be very dangerous, as vacuums usually are, never mind what nature thinks.
Education may help to smooth the transition from a society determined by fate to one determined by action. True, there is no way of telling the future, but there are many ways of potentially altering it, and for ones benefit. I may plan for the future and also make contingency plans, for
without them, you are indeed inviting the naysayers and doom prophets upon you with tales of ‘told you so’. But culture and more importantly, certain elements of it pertinent to our work, can be explained in more
realistic, practical, relevant terms. The challenge is not to confront culture, and who can challenge something without knowing its core, its source, its essence, especially when they are so nebulous and uncertain, but rather to offer alternatives that are attractive to people, from all
religions and tribal backgrounds, offer what does not involve conflict with core values, but which can augment them.
There is room for such thinking, and talking to locals this has become abundantly clear.
So the challenge is set, the task is great, the road ahead uncertain and unmapped, but what must be taken, dare I say it, to borrow a well worn phrase, is the road less travelled.
Anyone got a map?
One of our first conceptual struggles at MVS was how our service could be paid for. We established the organization because we recognized the very real limitations to success and growth that limited business management skills impose. However, developing our program and then offering it to entrepreneurs at the level we want to reach has a cost. We started out, idealistically, thinking that the microfinance community would recognize this as an essential service for their clients, and would be happy to pay for it. However, MFIs have great pressures — internal and external — to cut costs to the bone and be sustainable or profitable. We recognized that our clients are already under a great deal of financial pressure — after all, they’re poor to begin with, and then may be carrying a lot of debt to keep their businesses viable. Plus, they’re in no position to take any more financial risk. So we came to the conclusion that not only would we have to bear the upfront costs, but that we SHOULD bear the risk of ensuring that our program was successful and effective.
So….we decided that our clients would only have an obligation to us that was in proportion to the benefit we bring. If we have an equity stake in their businesses, we only succeed if they succeed. And if we have a pre-defined, transparent, exit strategy, then we only benefit as long as we continue to bring value.
From the beginning, I’ve been unsure of how this would be received. Would the small entrepreneur, who’s worked so hard for what she has and has had so little power all her life, be willing to share ownership of her business? Could we establish the trust that would be essential to make such an arrangement work?
It’s a pleasant surprise to me that we’ve already heard of 2 arrangements in Mali that are very similar to our intention. One is actually a proposed equity fund that we may have the opportunity to participate in. So some of the groundwork has been laid for micro- or meso-equity investment, and it seems to be “culturally appropriate.”
We’ve been here a little over a week. We should have enough inputs to get some meaningful outputs, but the place is so alive and complex, and in some ways its true nature is so hidden, that I can’t be sure of any conclusions I might draw. After this 3-week trip, we may well be able to identify effective ways to do business here, but I can already see that understanding the culture in any organic and accurate way will take much, much longer.
First I’ll say a little something about how hard it can be to be a stranger. Garrett and I both have the handicap of not knowing the language, in addition to being outsiders. In the morning this is a nagging irritation – communicating with cab drivers is a chore, we may have to settle for a breakfast that’s not really what we wanted. By evening, it’s emotionally exhausting. All casual conversation, all day long, has only been with each other (what would I do without Garrett? I don’t even want to go there!). You don’t realize – trust me, you really don’t – how disorienting it is to have a natural, quick reaction – “Look at that bird!”…..”What a cute baby!” – and have to explain and attempt to translate what you’ve just said. So by evening, we’re both unnaturally relieved to see a white face. I was disappointed the first few days when we went to a restaurant that was frequented by ex-pats. Now I see how tempting it can be, on a long assignment, to surround yourself with those a little more like yourself. These are not our values, and this is not why we’re here, and on a personal growth level this factor could well make the experience meaningless, but it will be a very, very hard impulse to resist.
I won’t write yet about business factors. That’s unfair to you readers as well as all the people who’ve shared with us – there are possibilities for alliances but no conclusions. But we’ve been hearing interesting things about the national character that will certainly inform our business methods. Early on, an old (American) Africa hand said, “The Malians don’t trust each other.” This seemed to contradict the surface behaviors – the manners we’ve observed. Mali is a very social place. Everyone greets everyone else on the street. There are smiles and waves all around. Except for the beggars, there’s a remarkable lack of expectation of tips. The streets aren’t tense like they are in so many places, and we’ve seen soldiers and police but absolutely no guns. So the trust comment had to be filed away for future reference.
I guess if I’ve come to any conclusion, it’s that everyone is trying to make sense of the world in their own way. I take in what others say, Garrett does as well, we talk and compare reactions, and we’re each still learners — maybe even pilgrims.