Mali and its treasures – Mali en haar schatten

Last Thursday I ‘travelled’ back to Mali, listening to amazing ngoni (traditional West African lute – the origin of the American banjo) music by Bassekou Kouyate & Amy Sacko, eating lovely Malian food, and discovering a member of the Coulibaly family (= my Malian family, it was the surname I choose while living there in 1995-97). All this due to a fantatsic event organised by the Mali Development Group and the Malian Community Council, supported by the Malian Embassy in Belgium. I will blog separately about Malian music because it’s worth it.

We listened to presentations about Fair Trade, Oxfam’s experiences, the power of Malian musicians, and environmental & climate change implications. I had an incredible good time because it brought back so many good memories of working in Mali in an agricultural project. While talking to Michael from the UK Fair Trade Foundation I was very pleased to hear a large amount of cotton grown in the Kita region (western Mali) is Fair Trade. In 1995, the CMDT (Malian cotton company) was just moving into the Kita region and we were very concerned about its effects on soils and land use.

It was lovely to hear that women farmers also involved in the growing of Fair Trade cotton and thus benefitting from the higher price for Fair Trade cotton. The following extract is from the UK Fair Trade website section on cotton (emphasis is mine):

Traditionally, women were not included in decision-making, but Fairtrade standards require the involvement of women at every level. The percentage of female farmer members remains low, but the slow process of adjustment is bearing fruit. Women are represented on the Board of each co-operative and, in Dougourakoroni, the statutes require that the appointed treasurer is a woman.

In Batimakana, another member co-operative of UC-CPC de Djidian, few of the women went to school, but 27 are now taking literacy classes. Women could only start to grow cotton because of the introduction of Fairtrade and previously were not invited to meetings, whereas now they speak up and their opinions are heard.

Before, the women were not invited, not asked, not consulted. We were sad. We are pleased now we are included at the same level as the men. We know that men can’t do everything without us. Women are valued now.” – Binto Dambile, Board member, UC-CPC de Djidian.

Besides the good news about Fair Trade products, I was really pleased to hear that the Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure emphasizes the importance of agricultural development for his country’s future. Now, how many presidents do you know wanting that sector to develop most in their country?? And by the way, did you know that he is not a member of any politcial party?

His comments reminded me of the work I did earlier in May 2008 as a member of the Baha’i International Community’s delegation during the 16th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development. The Baha’i Writings strongly emphasize the importance of agriculture:

Bahá’u’lláh states that “Special regard must be paid to agriculture.” He characterizes it as an activity which is “conducive to the advancement of mankind and to the reconstruction of the world”.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserts that the fundamental basis of the community is agriculture,- -tillage of the soil…. He describes agriculture as “a noble science” whose practice is an “act of worship”, and He encourages both women and men to engage in “agricultural sciences”. He indicates that should an individual “become proficient in this field, he will become a means of providing for the comfort of untold numbers of people”.

In relation to the economic and social development of the nations, the Universal House of Justice underlines the importance of “agriculture and the preservation of the ecological balance of the world”.
(Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 81)

Unfortunatly, world prices for cotton have fallen dramatically this year and many Malian farmers are abandoning the crop and thus a useful cash crop which helps to pay school fees, medicine etc. Other Fair Trade crops produced in Mali are fonio, karite (or shea nut), and mango, mainly grown in the regions of Sikasso and Kita. Very interesting, especially when you know that the karite tree, which is used to produce (shea nut) butter, is a women’s crop!

While I was working in Mali, cotton was the main export product. Nowadays, gold accounts for 75% of export revenue, followed by cotton and tourism. The Malian Minister of Culture & Tourism gave a very interesting talk, highlighting the importance of employment in the tourism sector, the increasing number of music festivals, and the improvements in road access and air travel.

Did you know that Mali has 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Worth checking them out: Timbuktu, Djenne, the Tomb of Askia (near Gao), and the  Dogon Country.

I told several people about the work of the Nosrat Foundation. This Foundation was founded in 2000 by teh Baha’is of Mali to establish primary schools & junior youth programmes. This year the programme is also expanding into Senegal.

I also discussed the SAT programme after a comment about young people not being motivated to be farmers and wanting to leave the rural areas. The SAT programme is used successfully in South and Central America. An African version of the programme is now being tested and adapted in Zambia and neighbouring countries. I’d love to see this secondary education programme being used in French-speaking West Africa, but I suppose I’ll have to be patient.

Later this week I’ll write another blog about Lucy Duran’s talk about Malian musicians because that music and those amazing musicians deserve their own space/blog entry.

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