05/13/2013 05:38 EDT | Updated 07/13/2013 05:12 EDT

My Journey to War-Torn Mali

I made the decision to undertake a journey that has thus far brought me from Bamako to Douentza. My purpose was to observe first-hand the impact of the past two years of disturbance on the ordinary people. This seemed like a great idea while I was sitting in Canada with a café au lait and reading the daily paper.

Gilles Clairoux

Back in Canada, as I followed the news from Mali in late 2012 and early 2013, I could not help but notice that Al-Qaeda linked militants had seized northern Mali, threatening to gain control of the capital Bamako -- a story that dominated the news at that time.

In mid-January 2013, the focus shifted to the timely and decisive French intervention to assist Malian forces to re-establish control over the northern regions of the country. Whether it was done for the interest of French national strategy or not, the intervention was essential and remains greatly appreciated by the Malian population. Unfortunately, during the period prior to the French intervention and until recent days, limited news has been broadcast, and the story of the Malian people has been almost entirely absent. Perhaps their story was not considered newsworthy!

Hence, I made the decision to undertake a journey that has thus far brought me from Bamako to Douentza. My purpose was to observe first-hand the impact of the past two years of disturbance on the ordinary people. My contact suggested that I travel the Malian way: by bus, taxi, pirogue and on foot. This was considered safer and would also give me a more accurate perspective of the Malians' lives. This seemed like a great idea while I was sitting in Canada with a café au lait and reading the daily paper. However, once in country, as I traveled in over-crowded buses, breathing dust and exhaust fumes, doubting the quality of both bus and driver, in 40 degree Celsius temperatures with no air conditioning, I questioned my initial decision more than once.

Having been in Bamako less than 72 hours, I was surprised by the number of Malians representing all spheres of the society, openly discussing the upcoming presidential elections. Upon reflection, I should not have been surprised. Many Malians believe the present government has little legitimacy and is ill-equipped to address the country's pressing problems. No, the term "pressing" is too soft -- '"urgent" problems is more accurate. People are crying for change. People are tired of nepotism that, as a small example, led to the construction of hundreds of low rent housing for the poor only to see them allocated to public servants with government connections.

The presidential elections are now scheduled for July 7, 2013. Notwithstanding the numerous challenges to be tackled, most Malians remain optimistic that they will elect a legitimate president and a government that will speak on their behalf and enact policies in the best interest of all Malians. The country's citizens justly deserve an election that will inspire their confidence for a better future.

Why should we care in North America or elsewhere for that matter? Simply stated, it is the human thing to do. The war on terrorism, presidential elections and good governance are all laudable initiatives, provided we don't forget to ask ourselves: Why? Naively, we believe this should be for the benefit of the millions of Malians, who suffer from malnutrition, have little protection from an extremely harsh living environment, and very little hope.

One could say that this deplorable situation in Mali is not new. This is true -- however, over the past two years, beginning with the coup d'état and the increase in Al-Qaeda activity, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated significantly and steadily to -- I daresay -- the level of crisis. Malnutrition is widespread from Bamako in the south and up to the northern regions. I have seen young children blind due to vitamin A deficiencies; a simple untreated nail infection leading to the amputation of an arm; children and adults eating whatever they find (see the slideshow below) is a part of daily life for many millions of Malians.


Photo gallery A Journey to Mali See Gallery

Tourism, once an important source of revenue, came to a grinding halt as soon as many nations vacated their embassies and advised their citizens against travel to Mali. NGOs also left town, leaving behind only the road signs that had formerly announced vital community projects. The truth is that most villagers in the places I visited had not seen a foreign face for almost two years. As I travelled with my Malian companion through villages from Mopti to Simkanma, by pirogue from Mopti to Konna and by car to Douentza, I became a curiosity and sadly a sign of hope for them; the possibility that tourists might soon start pouring back! They must have thought me a mad tourist.

Nonetheless, regardless of what they thought, they were nevertheless extremely gracious as I was introduced to the wise men of the various villages by my Malian companion. Interestingly, many villagers went out there way to let me know that the Al Qaeda-like extremism was not welcome and furthermore, foreign to the Malian African culture. In fact it is not rare to see both a Mosque and a Christian church in the same village. In these villages, it is the wise man's role, through the application of African values, to ensure that religious beliefs do not adversely affect the social coherence of the village.

The UN estimates that more than 430,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of 2012, and only a fraction have since returned home. About 170,000 are still taking refuge in neighbouring countries including Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. More than 260,000 are displaced within the country itself.

Innocent civilians have lost homes and jobs. Children have dropped out of school. Struggling to stave off financial ruin, some families have had no choice but to put their children to work or to marry off young daughters.

These problems followed a recent drought, which created food shortages. The UN World Food Programme estimated in January that 1.2 million people in northern Mali were at risk of food insecurity. "Poverty is rampant, infrastructure is lacking and health care is abysmal in many areas," says African politics reporter Jacey Fortin in her 2012 article on Mali and Humanitarian aid.

Sadly, the influx of refugees in the larger centres such as Mopti, Bamako and others is putting pressure on these cities' scarce resources and infrastructure, resulting in increases in the cost of living, crimes such as prostitution, theft, drug etc., etc. and once again penalizing those most vulnerable. The French army and armies of the African Union have created a window of opportunity. This is an opportunity for the international community to come together to improve the current humanitarian situation. Just imagine how you -- as a citizen of the world -- might explain our lack of interest or failure to act, to Malian parents and their children.

Finally, I can only encourage the next Malian president, to occasionally take a stroll down the hill from the palace in Bamako, to walk among his people. It is not necessary to go north. There, in the streets and at the local dump the president will be reminded why he was elected and what he must do. Malians are waiting for a "president for the people." Thank you.

V. Sancerre, Mopti, Mali, 11 May 2013.