The power of social media

No matter how hard I try I don’t manage to open either Facebook or Twitter. It’s not really an uncommon thing that I cannot access these sites from my phone. Especially at home the connection speed is often too slow. Over the past few days I couldn’t access the sites from my computer in the office either. Internet has been horribly slow there too lately, so at first I thought that was the reason. I’d probably still have believed it if I would have had trouble accessing other sites as well, but those work.

A few days ago a very popular local radio host and singer, known as Ras Bath, was arrested. I’ve never listened to any of his talk shows, but apparently he’s a huge fan of the freedom of press, using it to be critical and putting a finger on many a delicate issue, including corruption, the political powers and the army. In the eyes of certain people he must have crossed a line.

Ras Bath seems to have incredible numbers of followers, mainly amongst the Malian youth and he has made good use of social media to connect with them. Following his arrest youngsters flooded the streets of Bamako protesting and asking for his immediate release. At least one of them was killed by gunfire, several others were wounded. Security measures in Bamako were instantly taken to a higher level.

Is the Malian government afraid of a revolution like Burkina Faso has seen in previous years? There definitely seem to be similarities as the Burkina Faso revolution was powered by two popular local rappers, who got impressive crowds flooding the streets across the country. And they too used social media to communicate with their followers.

So, no there was no particular internet connection problem causing the inaccessibility of Facebook and Twitter. Both platforms were shut down on government order.
Even though Ras Bath has been liberated yesterday – awaiting his trial – there is still no access to either of the two social media platforms.

Quite a bummer since I personally use Facebook to keep up to date with the well-being of my friends around the world and to share bits of my life in Mali with them. We also use Facebook and Twitter as a business communication tool. And we agree, social media is an incredibly helpful and powerful tool for sharing information.

Like with many other things you only truly realize the value of things when they are not available. Besides a situation like this clearly shows what happens when a government uses its power: an entire nation can be – temporarily – silenced…

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The truth about stories

A friend living in Bamako told me about a young man from Ségou she had encountered multiple times over the past month or so. He had traveled to the capital to sell necklaces to gather the money needed to repair the motor of his boat.
She told him for weeks on a row that she had already bought so many necklaces that she really didn’t want to add any more. Yet, she felt sorry for his problems and finally decided to gift him a small sum.
‘I know everyone says it’s better to buy things or to have people work for the money, but honestly I didn’t want any more necklaces, even though they are beautiful’, she told me. She was very happy she had still been able to help the young man, who had been courageous enough to travel to Bamako to earn the much needed money.

Over the years I’ve become reluctant to giving money. I’ve heard so many stories about ill family members, about collapsed rooftops, about upcoming weddings and so much more. When people whole heartidly try to help someome in such a ‘dire’ situation it often leaves me with mixed feelings.
I’ve buyed in to multiple stories feeling so sorry for people about their situation. I too have whole heartidly tried to help people, providing them with the money that would meet their urgent needs. Needs that often turned out to be quite different: a bar visit, a new phone et cetera.
I’ve learned my lessons.

Nevertheless I felt (very) bad about feeling so reluctant when she told her story.
Especially when she explained to me what the young man and his boat looked like. He’s one of the people taking his work seriously and taking good care of his boat as well as of his family.
I felt sorry for him for the badluck with his motor. He had bought it only a couple of months ago. A Chinese mark. Maybe it wasn’t as good as he thought it would have been.
I hadn’t noticed his absence; his time in the capital surely had coincided with my recent trip.

Knowing this young man well, I stepped by on my way back home, to ask how he was doing and to inquire about the motor of his boat.
‘Monique, I’m still so happy that I changed the motor earlier this year. It’s click and start!’, he stated with a big happy smile on his face.
‘But you recently had it repaired, didn’t you?’, I asked him in surprise.
He hadn’t.
‘You weren’t in Bamako?’, I asked him.
He had been, only a few hours though, visiting an ill family member.

It sure wasn’t him, telling stories about a broken-down motor of his boat.
Nor was it our captain or the captain of the only other tourist boat in town…

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Timbuktu can wait – part 2

Djinguereber mosque - Timbuktu

The Djinguereber mosque in Timbuktu was built in 1327 and served throughout the centuries as a learning centre for the Islam.

I recently posted a blog titled Timbuktu can wait on why we do not currently take clients to the fabled city of the 333 saints. Following on that blog I’d like to share the story of one of our close friends, a Timbuktu resident, on what happened on a recent trip back home.

Like I wrote in my 9 April blog we took the decision to not take travelers to Timbuktu at present for good reason. Only a few weeks after I published the post, our good friend A. traveled back from Bamako to Timbuktu. He had tried to get a seat on a UN flight, but unfortunately hadn’t been granted one. Finally he decided to travel overland and share a ride with friends. Precautions were taken: only a small amount of cash in his pocket and only little money in his mobile account.

The trip went well, just until all in a sudden they were forced to stop the car by armed men. The driver stopped the car. There seemed to be only two bandits, but they were ruthless and started shooting immediately. Two of the men in the car were wounded by the bullets. It was clear to everyone: obeying was their only chance they might live to tell their story.

Within minutes the five Malian men were robbed of all their belongings, including clothes and all the water and food in the car. They were lucky though, they were all alive and the car was still there.
They made it back to Timbuktu, where the two wounded men were instantly brought to the hospital, where they spent multiple days recovering from their injuries.

It took A. a few days to get the practical stuff taken care of: new sim cards, demands for new debit cards et cetera.
Getting over the experience will take much longer.

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You shouldn’t!

‘Monique, you shouldn’t treat me like this, there are other ways to deal with me’, Mr. X said.
‘I shouldn’t treat you like this? You shouldn’t treat me like this! You’re not taking me serious, but I’ll make sure you’re going to!’, I added with a fierce and clear voice. ‘I’ve paid you all of your money, and I’ve paid a very fair price.’
An uncomfortable grin appeared on his face. He knew he wasn’t right and soon realised I wouldn’t let him get away with it this time. I was done being the good and patient girl.

It’s hard to get me upset or angry, but sometimes people cross a line. A salesman in Ségou had the doubtful honor. Late February 2014 I had ordered seven hand-made items from him. A week should be enough to get the job done he had assured me. Since he was at that time working on another order, I would have my seven items by the latest in a month.
One month went by, another month went by and by early June he had managed to deliver… six. I had been promised time and time again that all seven would be ready before I’d travel to The Netherlands. He had even blamed me several times for not having given him the right travel dates (…) and sure enough nr. 7 wasn’t ready before I left.
I didn’t need to worry though, it would be waiting for me upon return. He seemed to have forgotten that I had ordered the items to take them to The Netherlands. And of course it wasn’t waiting for me upon return (you’re back already?). Also I had to return one that hadn’t been properly made, which brought the number of delivered back to five.

‘You’ll have them tomorrow.’
‘I promise you, both of them will be ready before the end of this week.’
‘Really, did I tell you they would be ready today? You must be mistaken. Come back the day after tomorrow. They’ll be waiting for you.’
And on it went and again weeks became months.
Late November I decided that enough was enough. I would get my ordered and paid for items!
So, I went to his shop again, exactly at the day he had said they would really really really be ready!

‘Monique, good evening, what brings you here?’ he said looking the other way.
‘I have come to collect my items.’
‘Today? I told you tomorrow.’
‘No you said today, so today it is.’
‘I promise you, one will be ready tomorrow, the other one on Sunday.’
‘You’ve told me that once too often and it’s been nine months now. I’ll give you a reason to take me serious!’ Not giving him the chance to interrupt me, I stepped forward and took two items from a shelf, that had at least the same value as the ones ordered.
‘I’m taking these two as a security. Please note that I do not want these, I’ll just guard them for you till the others are being delivered.’
‘You’re not going to do that. I’ve given you my promise. You’re making a mistake. You should not be treating me like this.’
‘So far your promises were worthless. Do you realize that everyone will sooner or later face the consequences of their behaviour and that you will be no exception?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I won’t take you to the police, but someday someone else might do so.’ He had a bit of a fright. Only a week before someone had taken another salesman to the police for abuse of confidence. He was still in jail awaiting his lawsuit.
‘Ok, take whatever you want, you can take even more than two.’
‘You owe me two, I’ll take two.’

Without any doubt people within earshot had closely followed the conversation. They all know him and his attitude towards his clients. When leaving the shop with the two items I was praised on my good choice. I told them they were gifts of Mr. X. They looked at me in surprise.

The next day the first item was being delivered. And only two days later the second arrived too. When I thanked Mr. X, he thanked me with a big smile, stating I had done the right thing.

Unfortunately he had soon forgotten about the lesson learned. He lost a well-paying client. This time for good.

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First times

Visiting a carpentry workshop in Ségou

Carpentry teacher Chaka shows the children of Fanga School how to work with a wood carving machine during a visit at his workshop in Ségou.

Do you remember the first time you saw an asphalt road? Or the first time you saw a multiple story building? Probably not, since you were raised in an environment where these were so common that you have known them all of your life. Imagine that day you visited something quite different from what you were used too – maybe a rural area with lots of farming, cows walking in the streets, long-drop toilets and dust roads – and what it meant to you.

Last month a group of 21 children – group 5 of Fanga School* – had the honor to set out on a school trip (their very first ever!) to Ségou. It may not sound very appealing to kids in many a place to go to a city and to visit handicraft workshops on a school trip. The kids in Fintiguila however were beyond eager to step out of their comfort zones and into that whole new world.

One Sunday afternoon in April a minibus arrived in the village to pick up the children and the accompanying teachers and mothers. I wasn’t there to witness it, but I can imagine the kids pushing one another aside to get into the bus, all excited and probably not having much attention anymore for their parents and siblings waving them goodbye.
Their first night out quickly turned into a real adventure. Not even halfway the village and the city a flat tire occurred. The driver quickly replaced it and they were back on the road. Not for long though. Another flat tire and no more spare one to replace it. Night started falling and they were in an area without cell phone reach. Trying to stop one of the rare passing motorcyclists turned out to be a real challenge, but finally one did stop and they negotiated a ride for one of the adults to the nearest village, where they were able to contact someone in Ségou. A spare tire was arranged and brought to the minibus.
Finally at 10:30pm the minibus arrived in Ségou and the kids had a first chance to see a city by night. They were blown away by all the lights. When arriving at Centre Soroblé – where they spend the nights – they were very ready for their dinner. Still a bit modest – and maybe overwhelmed by all the experiences – they didn’t eat that much. Yet in the morning all the food was gone, so we guess there were a few nightly ‘snack tours’ 😉

When daylight arrived they were finally able to see more of their new surroundings. They didn’t stop taking it all in. Their heads turned from left to right and back when walking along the river to the town centre, where the week market was in full swing. Stops were made to greet people from the pottery villages, and at Archinard’s statue and the Faboulon Tunnel to explain about the history of Ségou. The kids were invited to visit souvenir shops, corner stores and one of the rare supermarkets in town. The afternoon was spent visiting mud-cloth workshop N’Domo, two carpentry workshops, a metal workshop, a carpet knotting women’s association and last but not least the soccer stadium.
On top of that they set out on a Ségou by night tour. That night they slept like babies!

Their last day in Ségou arrived all too soon. The kids couldn’t get enough of it. They were munching away the tasty rice and spaghetti meals (something they rarely eat in the village) and the bread and milk breakfasts. They were taking in every visit, some of them even taking notes.
Many of the villagers from Fintiguila have their family roots in the historical village of Segoukoro – in former times the capital of the Bambara Kingdom – so they visited the village and met the chief. Ibrahim guided them and explained about the history of their great-great-grandfathers.
Once more into town to visit our office and some of the nearby hotels, before time arrived to return to the village. A smooth ride got them back home before dinner time. They were warmly welcomed by their families. That night it took a long time before it was finally quiet in the village. The children just couldn’t stop talking about all that they had seen and done and answering all the questions of their parents, brothers, sisters and friends.

About a week later I visited them in the village and was of course very curious to hear, what had most impressed them. Asphalt roads, multi story buildings, electricity, the soccer stadium, Segoukoro, the supermarket (who treated them on drinks!), the hotel’s swimming pool and the Niger river were mentioned. All of the kids’ eyes lightened up when talking about their school trip.
Even though only one of them mentioned the workshops they had visited, I’m sure that part of the trip will surface sooner or later and the stories of the workshop owners – who make a good living working with their hands – will definitely inspire some of them at some point.
Also for one of the accompanying mom’s it was the first time in the village. She was truly inspired by the workshops – especially the bogolan – and asked Souleymane if she could learn it too.

‘Monique, Ibrahim promised us we can come back next year!’, some of the kids happily told me.
He may have been a bit over enthusiastic when promising that, but we’ll see… Next year it’ll be the next group 5’s turn. There’s much more to see and do, like visiting Comatex, the textile plant and setting out on a boat trip to visit one of the pottery villages and what to think about the rice fields or the calabash hamlet… So yes, if there’s enough money in the funds, we may invite this year’s group 5 back to Ségou too.
Fingers crossed!
* Fanga School is being supported by the Papillon Project Fund. The school – which was founded by our good friend Souleymane Coulibaly, owner of mud-cloth Centre Soroblé – combines theoretical and practical classes, which is a rare combination in Mali. Also children are invited to think for themselves rather than to just copy the teacher.

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Post office challenges

Never a dull moment when visiting the post offices. Challenges will arise!

The Ségou post office employee trying to fix the scale.

Heaving a deep sigh, she bends her head over the scale. It is rather worn out and it’s probably not her first challenge with the oh so necessary piece of post office equipment. It’s not the first time I’m witnessing these kind of inconveniences and it’s also not the first blog I am writing on the postal services in Mali. It may not be the last one either.

Post office visits are never really high on my want-to-do-list.
They usually come with challenges and they in general take a lot of time.

In general I prepare to avoid the most common challenges:
– I carry plenty of small bills and coins so they don’t need to set out on a search for change (or else I’m willing to take stamps as change).
– I already write my own receipt at home, which I complete with the prices at the post office, so they just have to stamp it.
– I make sure to not collect too many parcels to avoid facing a lack of stamps.
– I make sure I have about an hour available.

On Monday it was time again for a post office visit:
– small bills & coins – check!
– pre-written receipt – check!
– only two packages, one for Benin and one for Burkina Faso – check!
– time available: 1 hour – check!
Pretty straight forward, nothing special. Let’s see if we can beat Murphy’s law!

The post office clerk grabs the scale after having greeted me and sure enough the battery falls out. Now this is not the type of AA or AAA battery, but the one where you need to click on the + and – connectors.
She clicks on the connectors, puts the battery back in place and turns the scale around.
The battery falls out.
She puts it back in place and turns the scale around.
The battery falls out.
She puts it back in place and turns the scale around…

By now I feel like I’m watching Groundhog day.

Due to the lack of a battery cover – which probably got lost a long time ago – the battery falls out again and again and again.
And sure enough the moment arrives when one of the connecting cables disconnects.
A pair of scissors and scotch enter the stage to tape things back together.
They fall apart.
Are being taped back together…
They fall apart…
One disconnected cable.
Two disconnected cables.
She definitely wasn’t aiming at quitting the efforts, yet all efforts contributed to more pieces falling of the scale and a solution was not expected to happen miraculously.
The sighs get heavier.

‘I’ll be back in a minute’, I told the lady and went straight back home to grab the kitchen scale.
I admit it almost fell apart on the way to the post office (the extreme Malian climate wears stuff out – even the good quality stuff!), but luckily we could get the weighing done.
Challenge tackled!

It then turned out that the lady – who usually sorts out the packages and was now replacing a colleague – had no clue which price list she needed to use. Phone credit had to be ordered and a colleague was called for information.
Another challenge tackled!

Now we get to the hardest point. That is: for me. I’m kind of a number freak and the lady at the post office isn’t – nor are most of her colleagues. She had a real hard time to figure out how many stamps of 1,500 were needed for a package requiring 13,300 in total.
I gave her a hint, which she ignored.
With her phone serving as a calculator, she started narrowing down the options:
‘6 x 1,500 = 9,000, 9,000 that’s not enough.’
‘10 x 1,500 = 15,000, ah, that’s too much’ she whispered.
‘7 x 1,500 = 10,500’
‘You may want to try 8’, I suggested one more time. No response.
Breathe in, breathe out…
’10 x 1,500 = 15,000’
‘9 x 1,500 = 13,500’
‘So, now we just need to add 300’, she happily said.
Even though I felt like saying yes, to save a lot of time, I didn’t want her to end up with a deficit at the end of the day, so I suggested she might want to double check the amount.

In the end it all worked out. She managed to find out how many stamps 0f 1,500, 1,000, 300 and 100 were needed for any of the two packages and yes, even the stamps and change were available.
45 minutes after having entered the post office for the first time that day I walked back home again, feeling very grateful for the kitchen scale and… for having been patient enough to not grab the stamp booklet to get the job done in a fraction of the time.
It was probably not her choice to be poorly educated!

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Timbuktu can wait

The fabled and mysterious desert city of the 333 saints: Timbuktu

The fabled and mysterious desert city of the 333 saints, Timbuktu, has inspired explorers, writers and travelers

‘Look, that’s the travel agency, who refused to organize our trip to Timbuktu’, Ibrahim recently overheard a traveler say to his travel companion when walking past our office in Ségou.

Quite regularly people contact us to inquire about the possibilities to travel to Timbuktu. The fabled and mysterious desert city of the 333 saints is on many a traveler’s bucket list. Apparantly these travelers were amongst the people who had contacted us for a trip to Timbuktu.

True, we do not take people to Timbuktu at present. And for good reason.
Don’t get me wrong, we would love to (and we would love to travel there ourselves too), but it’s simply not the right time.

One swallow does not make a summer!
Even though these travelers went to Timbuktu and returned, the situation in the city is far from safe and the risks of incidents both in the city and on the road to Timbuktu are high.

Our good friends and guides in Timbuktu share their stories with us and provide us with up-to-date inside information and they are absolutely clear about it:
‘Do not take anyone to Timbuktu yet! Monique, you too will have to wait!’
Keep in mind that they used to make their living by guiding tourists and you may realize the value of their advise!

Banditry abounds in the North. Incidents happen almost daily and don’t even make it to the news. When a car is being ambushed, being robbed from valuables and money  is only the best case scenario.
Gunmen have no mercy.

Give it a few thoughts:
What would happen if you’d be kidnapped or murdered on a trip to Timbuktu?
You may be ready to take the risk. But it’s not just about you!
It’s also about your family and friends, about the people who organized your trip, about the people representing your country in Mali and about the consequences for the entire nation of Mali.

We’re not willing to expose our clients to this level of risks.
Neither do we fancy losing our license over a premature trip to Timbuktu or contributing to another set-back for Mali.

Be assured that we’ll let you know when we’re ready to add Timbuktu to the itinerairies again. Till then, we warmly welcome you to experience Mali’s beautiful South.

Most posts on this blog are based on experiences in my personal life. Every now and then – like in this case – I’m writing as the owner / founder of Papillon Reizen as well.

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