Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Evacuating to Kayes

So this week we're in Kayes, having been pre-emptively evacuated from Bamako for a few days. This was because the 20th or the 22nd depending on how you look at it (it's complicated... trust me) was the 40th day of the transition from military rule in Mali, which was the designated day for the inauguration of the transitional government. By Friday there still wasn't a transitional government, so we decided to clear out for a few days in case it got difficult in Bamako. I packed all my stuff though - I'm meant to be back in Dakar next week, and not confident I'll be back to Bamako in time to leave from there.

On Sunday, when we set off, we were all a bit grumpy as an agreement had just been agreed. But off we set anyway, on a journey which our logistician had assured me would take 5 to 7 hours. Google Maps suggested 8, so I was cynical, but it turned out to be 11 soul destroying hours. Here are some things that sucked about it:

  • it was 11 hours
  • the gut clenching fear you feel as a lorry drives straight for you only to swerve away at the last minute. Traffic accidents are either the biggest cause of death for aid workers, or one of the biggest. Which was actually something we extensively discussed on the road, for extra comfort and fun. Bonus points if you spotted the irony in evacuating us from Bamako for safety reasons while sending us on a journey that was statistically far more likely to kill us than being in Bamako.
  • I was stuck between two WASH guys who had a long coversation about WASH at the beginning.
  • having to stop when (first) a bag of onions and (second) a bit of desk fell off the roof rack. And no, I don't know why we were taking a desk or onions from one part of Mali to another, either, given that as far as I can tell neither onions nor desks appear to be in short supply in Kayes. On the plus side being able to produce a roll of duck tape and a leatherman when stuff is falling off the roofrack = smugness.
  • I forgot my ipod in Dakar.
  • in the Sahel, there are no bushes.
  • although we got some breaks I couldn't really walk around in them because it was 45 degrees and I'd have died of heat, especially as I was trying not to drink too much because of the lack of bushes.
  • the programme manager spent the last 3 hours saying there were only 45 minutes to go. To quote John Cleese: "it's not the despair. I can handle the despair. It's the hope I can't stand".

Eventually we got to Kayes and hotelled ourselves up, while the UK contingent and Joachim, the Belgian WASH guy, headed straight for beers. No national stereotypes here, oh no.

Next day, turns out it was a good decision to shut the office and pack us out, as there were massive demos in Bamako by pro-junta crowds protesting against ECOWAS 'meddling' and the interim president. They were calling for the implementation of a 'national convention' comprising 'civil society' to elect a transitional president - commonly believed to be code for Sanogo. This feeds a lot into Sanogo's narrative that he's the 'anti-politician' clearing out the corrupt classes, and which he's associated with a lot of anti-ECOWAS propaganda.

The counter-argument is that civil society in Mali isn't that strong, and that Traore, the interim President was, as Speaker of the Parliament, democratically elected and in the line of succession, so having him as interim President is a constitutionally legitimate solution in a way that having an unelected 'convention' decide that the coup-ster would be President wouldn't be. At the same time, there obviously are large groups who feel that anyone associated with the political class can't be trusted to run the transition, so it obviously isn't that simple either.

The unrest ended with crowds storming the presidential palace and beating the interim president unconscious - with only three fatalities. Given that the Presidential palace is on top of a hill and well guarded, it's obviously inconceivable that this could happen without army support, whether explicit or otherwise. Meanwhile, various pro-coup groups have decided to hold a 'national convention' anyway, and may announce their choice as President later this week. Since this is likely to be Sanogo, and it's pretty clear the military are the ones still running everything, this isn't likely to mean anything good.

On the positive side, this morning the Prime Minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, who is generally seen as not fully part of the political class, having spent lots of time outside the country working for Microsoft, went on TV to condemn the attack, as did ECOWAS, and, eventually, Sanogo did too. So for the time being things seem to be calm in Bamako, although by all accounts still pretty tense.

In Oxfam terms, this is frustrating not only because of the political crisis, but also because of what it means for the emergency response. When there are demos we have to close the office, which makes it difficult to work and delays our emergency response, and some people can barely work at all. Given that we're entering the peak of the crisis and time is therefore of the essence, this is pretty frustrating for all of us.

Otherwise, it's like a really weird combination of normal work and being on holiday. The office is basically like every other Oxfam office, with some nescafe and dodgy internet and the same five people I share an office and apartment with in Bamako. On the other hand we're in a hotel rather than the same guesthouse we're always in, and it has a pool and a bar with music and a pool table, which counts as super exciting when you've spent the last month living in an apartment 100m from the office with a 9pm curfew. And since I can't work as effectively here as I can in Bamako, it feels a lot like being on holiday, only a really sad busman's holiday.


  1. Having just completed the development of the Introduction to Vehicle Management e-learning course I can confirm, the biggest cause of death.

  2. This fact makes me glad I took that 4x4 driving and maintenance course serously... hope you're enjoying your working holiday!

  3. There's an Introduction to Vehicle Management e-learning course? Can I take it?!