The cultural cost of the conflict in Mali

2013-02-17 10:00

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As war drums beat in Mali, Percy Mabandu considers the cultural toll of fighting in the west African country.

French bombs drum-rolled across northern Mali in a collaborative attempt to snatch the country back from militant Islamists.

News reports of the rising death toll grew commonplace as citizens of the west African country found themselves languishing as refugees in neighbouring countries.

However, the bells of war were also tolling for Mali’s cultural wealth.

On August 22 2013, in the city of Gao, a heavily bearded spokesperson delivered an official decree banning all Western music.

“We don’t want the music of Satan. Koranic verses must take its place. Sharia demands it,” the decree said.

Many musicians have fled their homes for fear of being arrested for the crime of playing music.

The ban came in the context of an application of sharia law meant to start governing all aspects of daily life.

Those who failed to comply were met with punishment from the militiamen.

They cut off the hands and feet of thieves, and stoned adulterers. Smokers, alcohol drinkers and women who were not properly dressed received public whippings.

The first waves of violence against Mali’s heritage was reported when the rebel forces started destroying tombs of Islamic saints in territories under their control.

In the town of Goundam, 90km from Timbuktu, which was under the group Ansar Dine, the mausoleum and tomb of Alfa Mobo was razed.

Last year, on September 15, rebels of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa destroyed the mausoleum of another saint, Cheikh El-Kebir.

It was 330km to the north of the city of Gao. Kebir’s tomb is venerated by the Kunta ethnic group in Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger.

These reports raised fears about the safety of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu. This is where Mali’s famed manuscripts are housed.

They number about 40?000. South Africa pledged in 2001 during then president Thabo Mbeki’s administration to help Malians digitise and preserve these ancient documents, some of which date back to the 10th century.

It is reported about 2?000 manuscripts may have been lost during the turmoil of the past year.

South African researcher Mohamed Mathee, who’s been visiting Timbuktu, was quoted by BBC News recently saying many manuscripts had been moved and saved before Islamist rebels occupied the city in April 2012.

In Bamako, the country’s capital in the south, where the coup that threw the country into conflict began, many live music venues have closed down.

These include places such as Le Diplomat, where Toumani Diabaté, the renowned kora player with his Symmetric Orchestra, played every weekend.

The coup also meant hotels and restaurants were starved of once abundant foreign tourists.

“Culture is our petrol,” Diabaté told a journalist once. It’s a belief that has made him part of a joint effort led by Fatoumata Diawara, another of the country’s most celebrated singers.

They have gathered more than 40 of Mali’s most renowned musicians in a studio in Bamako to record a song and video calling for peace.

Known collectively as Voices United for Mali, the group includes Vieux Farka Touré – who was in Joburg recently – Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Bassekou Kouyaté, Djelimady Tounkara, Khaira Arby, Kasse Mady Diabaté, Baba Salah, Afel Bocoum, Tiken Jah, Amkoullel and Habib Koité.

As for the visual arts, since 1994 Bamako Encounters has promoted various trends in contemporary photography and video in Africa by creating international exchange among artists, the public, curators, commissioners, the media and collectors.

After unsuccessful attempts to reach its organisers, we spoke to Raphaelle Jehan, the assistant photographic curator at Stevenson gallery, who was uncertain if the biennale would still take place given the situation in Mali.

The Goodman Gallery’s spokesperson, Lara Koseff, shared Jehan’s uncertainty.

“But it’s a bit early to know, since it’s scheduled for later in the year.”

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