08/03/2013 04:09 EDT | Updated 10/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Starting Anew in Mali: A Nation Returns to Democracy

How do you have an election in a country with a literacy rate of 37%? And why would someone who lives in a mud hut without running water or electricity take the time and effort to vote for someone who in all likelihood will have little to no effect on his or her life? But when the time finally came, election day in Mali was fantastic.

First there was the coup. Then there was the insurgency. After the insurgency came the French military intervention. The intervention provided some calm. And with that calm came a chance to start anew, a chance that has just begun, which I was lucky enough to see, in Mali.

Mali was never really on anyone's radar. It's a vast expanse of land in Western Africa in a tough neighbourhood. Until recently it was most known for the famed Timbuktu and its legendary music. In March 2012 things changed. A military coup coupled with an ethnic and Islamic insurgency in the north of the country tore it apart and shattered its position as one of Africa's most stable and successful democracies. This past winter the French military intervened in its former colony and the UN has followed with peacekeepers.

On July 28, 2013, Malians went to the polls to elect their first post-coup president. I was part of a team of international observers that monitored Mali's election.

Any election is going to be a logistical challenge. But how do you organize voter lists and voting stations in a country with little or no infrastructure -- physical or technological? How do you have an election in a country with a literacy rate of 37%? And why would someone who lives in a mud hut without running water or electricity take the time and effort to vote for someone who in all likelihood will have little to no effect on his or her life?

So off I went to this Muslim nation, in the middle of Ramadan, with an open mind and plenty of snacks. I was eager and excited to observe what has the potential to be a seminal moment in this tremendous country. My fellow delegates, including two Members of Parliament from Canada and one from Congo, each added insight and perspectives that helped make this a truly memorable experience.

After two full days of team briefings in our Bamako hotel, we deployed into teams of two for election day. Escorted by a driver and bodyguard with a strong affinity for Celine Dion, I made my way to Mali's second largest city, Sikasso, with my partner Thibault. We had a day and a half before the election to scout out the polling centres - scattered throughout the city and surrounding villages. We arrived in time to check out the closing rally of a presidential candidate who happened to be from Sikasso making it that much more exciting. The shady side of the stadium was packed with supporters, decked out in supportive clothing awaiting their man who finally greeted their cheers and waves with a lack of enthusiasm and emotion that suggests he was either in shock or not really running for president and very confused by the commotion in his honour.

Election day was fantastic. Voters had to have a national identity card in order to cast their vote. And they had to find their name and picture on lists of thousands to know where exactly they had to cast their vote; logistical challenges that sort of worked themselves out in typical fashion, almost at the last minute. After figuring out where to go, Malians young and old, literate and illiterate, abled and disabled, lined up around the country (well, approximately half of those eligible did, and excluding all 18-year-olds, who had been left off the list due to bureaucratic error).

But when the time finally came, those who did stood there proud as they dabbed their index fingers in ink, took the giant ballot (27 candidates means 27 pictures) behind the cardboard booth, made their mark, and then walked over to drop their ballot in the box. Their next task was to sign next to their name on the voting list. Most, not knowing how to sign their name, left fingerprints - patterns more personal and unique than signatures that no one can replicate. Last, they dipped their index fingers in purple ink to prove they voted and prevent them from voting again. A stain of civic engagement.

I never saw anything that really questioned the integrity of the vote; neither did any of my fellow observers, or the other observer missions that attended. Malians were eager to show themselves and the world that the past year was an aberration from their democratic and peaceful course. Staff at polling stations, many of whom were observing Ramadan, spent well over 12 hours in the heat, guiding their fellow citizens patiently, never showing signs of frustration. One polling station president told me that when he realized none of the other four workers showed up he grabbed the first four people in line and asked them to give up their day to help out; all said yes.

Even counting the votes went smoothly. The sun had set and each polling station was given one lantern for the process. It's that image that will stick with me. As the sun set over Mali on July 28, in mud buildings without proper floors, schoolrooms with empty windows, and countless other settings, thousands of little lanterns started to flicker, making a nation that much brighter. Gathered around them were five poll staff, party representatives, and domestic and foreign observers. Next to them was a sealed plastic ballot box, with hundreds of folded ballots, each marked with a fingerprint. And in that dim light, while waiting for the next day's dawn, a nation started to chart its new course, or should I say, get back on its old one. Ballot by ballot.

The election observer mission was funded by Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade; it was organized by the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C.

Photo gallery Post-Intervention Mali See Gallery