Thursday, 20 December 2012

A mixed week for shoes

This week started out badly. I have a pair of shoes that I love. They're the only pair of heels I can consistently walk in, especially on dirt roads where you really need a wedge, and they're red, and I love things that are red. And they've been with me a long time - I bought them in Cote d'Ivoire when I was 17 or so, and I've loved them ever since. They accidentally got left behind in Uganda when we moved back to the UK, and I made my parents find a way to rescue them. I really love these shoes, and they weren't even close to being worn out.

My beautiful shoes the way they're meant to look

But on Monday, I noticed that my beautiful shoes were sitting at an odd angle. Looking at them, I realised that the soles had been completely destroyed, making them totally unwearable and totally irreparable.

Seen from the side, the sole collapsing

A close up of its poor mauled sole :-(
I have no idea how this happened, but two working theories. One is insanely strong floor cleaning equipment, and the other is ants, which were crawling all over them when I first noticed. I suppose it could also be both.
 Either way, I am sad. I realise it's only a pair of shoes, but beautiful red shoes that I love and can walk in don't come along too often, and sometimes it's the little things that hit you worse than the big things. Christmas away from home I can deal with. A lost pair of shoes, even a pair of shoes that was old for a pair of shoes and widely travelled and so had had a good life, much better than most pair of shoes.... that really hurts.

Luckily, this week had some slightly better news on the shoe front. While buying a handbag from a very talented leather-worker, I noticed he also sold shoes. I asked if he took orders and he said he did - so I picked a pair where I liked the style and asked him to make them with a red upper and a neutral sole, rather than green and black, the original colours. I stood on a piece of paper and he traced my feet, and four days later I picked up my shoes.

My new shoes... as you can see from the colour scheme, my taste hasn't changed much in the last decade!
This is my shoe guy's handbag shop. Any takers?

 I would definitely give up my new shoes and much more to have my old shoes back, but it's still pretty cool that I live in a country where I can get leather shoes made-to-measure for the price of a cheap pair of ballet pumps in the UK.

Monday, 17 December 2012


Normally in Bamako on the weekend we go to a party or out for dinner. But this time we decided to do something a bit different - we went to the Tuareg Cultural Centre for a fashion show and concert. Once we got there we found we'd been misinformed - not a fashion show, but a play, and then a concert. But it was still a wonderful opportunity to step into another world.

Outside, the centre is unpreposessing - it's a metal door with a small awning, with 'Tumast' written in Roman and Tamazigh script. But inside you step into a huge mauritanian style tent - not really a tent, actually it has a thatched roof, but the cloth walls and the leatherwork and silver and other Tuareg symbols that make up the walls give it that feel straight away. There's no alcohol, but we had shots of the strong Sahel tea, and as we were the first people there - only half an hour late, rather than an hour and a half, like everyone else, we had some brochettes with the director. He told us a little about the centre, how it had grown from twenty years ago when only a handful of Tuareg families lived in Bamako, rather than the hundreds there now, and a lot about about his interactions with journalists. Particular ire was reserved for La Nouvelle Observateur, whose journalist allegedly claimed to have met the MNLA there.

After eating, we made our way back to the tent, where other people had started to arrive, and curled up on seats around the back ready for the show. When it came, I didn't follow all of it, but what I did follow was funny, about an inept king and his equally inept advisors, and the mix of French and little Tamazigh interjections was fun to listen to. Then, after the show, the concert began, a group down from Kidal, playing exiled music, banned by Ansar Dine in their homeland.

Sitting in the back of the tent, watching the music and the people, I felt like a child at a wedding - curled up in a corner, watching the grownups in the beautiful clothes, safely invisible. First two people, then many more, got up to dance, women and men in rows opposite one another, moving slowly to the music, all in the most amazing costumes. For the men: boubous and some in turbans, and for the women: some in Bazin boubous - a Bamako style - but lots in the more traditional Tuareg costume, consisting, for women, of a long, transparent piece of cloth wrapped an improbable number of times around the body and somehow held in place over the head. I have one from when my family visited Tamanrasset, in Algeria, which I use to cover a chair, but when I've tried, a few times, to wear it the way they do I've always failed to figure out how it works.

Too many people over-romanticise the Tuareg - wild blue men of the desert, and all that - but it's very, very easy to do.

Friday, 14 December 2012


One of the things that's interesting about living in Mali is that it's totally changed my perspective of Africa.

Normally we're used to talking about 'Sub-Saharan' Africa, which includes Mali. But Mali isn't really sub-Saharan. Bamako is, and the south is, but a lot of the north, the part that's occupied and causing all the trouble right now - that part is definitely Saharan, and the difference matters a lot when you start thinking about the dynamics of the conflict here.

Traditionally, those of us in Europe think of deserts as a blockage. Of course I knew they aren't really, any more than seas are. Back when I was writing my undergraduate thesis, focusing on Early Islamic North Africa, I spent a lot of time reading about continuity in the cross-Sahara trade routes. So 1500 years ago there was a thriving trade across the desert in goods such as salt, gold, and slaves. Nowadays the goods have changed, but the routes still exist - transporting migrants, drugs, and smuggled cigarettes, among other things. So northern Mali, and hence southern Mali, has always been connected to the world to the north.

Even more important than the economic link to the north is the political link. When I was about 13, my family was based in Algeria. There, we faced a threat from the south - an Islamic militant group called the GIA. The GIA were nasty, carrying out massacres of civilians, but through the 90s they lost popular support and suffered defections following an amnesty law, and gradually they were eclipsed by a splinter group, the GSPC. The GSPC were mainly active kidnapping westerners for ransom, attacking Algerian security forces, and smuggling. In 2007 they formally affiliated with al-Quaeda as Al Quaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), and they are now active in northern Mali, bits of Niger, and bits of Mauritania.

So the rebel group that we worried about from the north in the late 90s is the same one that we're worrying about from the south now. Algeria, with it's powerful security apparatus and it's long border with Mali, is a major player in the planning over what to do in the north - and their policy is based largely on the implications of the conflict on 'their' rebel group and their border.

So thinking of Mali as 'sub Saharan Africa' makes no sense at all. In some ways it's disconcerting - it throws an assumption into question, and suddenly I feel like I'm expected to know about North Africa - even though THAT'S THE MIDDLE EAST, NOT REAL AFRICA! What do you MEAN it's important and I should learn about it?!

But there's something about it that makes me feel connected - the thought that rather than having followed this conflict for six months, I've been following a part of it for years. I feel like I understand part of the background a little better than I otherwise might. As an historian, I instinctively look to explain events with reference not only to current tensions, but also to past events and long term currents, and I'm sceptical of stories that seem simple - such as, for example, seeing AQMI as only Al Quaeda. I'm troubled by the short term explanations that are all the analysis we have time for, with nothing prior to the last five years or so considered, but I lack the knowledge of Mali to do even that properly. It's why I read as much anthropology as I can get my hands on - histories of African societies are often hard to come by, but anthropology is much more plentiful, which is in itself pretty telling, but definitely a can of worms too far for today. Having even a little background on the trajectory of even one of the active groups makes me feel a little less rootless, and a little more at ease, in the context I'm transplanted into.