Minnesota’s Malians celebrate 50 years of independence

By Issa A. Mansaray
Contributing Writer

Many express disappointment; all are hopeful

Although Malians make up one of the smallest West African communities in the Twin Cities, many do not know each other. Many of them are students, and most live in St. Cloud according to Moussa Diawara, president of the Minnesota Malian Association. “Compared to other African countries, we are in the minority,” said Diawara, who has been in the Twin Cities for the past 11 years.

September 22 marked 50 years since Mali gained independence from France.

On a recent weekend, Malians gathered at the Arnold P. William Community Outreach Center in St. Paul to celebrate their country’s independence from colonial rule. Some of them expressed their disappointment in how the country has been governed since 1960, while others believe change for the good of the country and its citizens is still possible.

Malians in Minnesota say independence has’t changed much in a country where its citizens are still struggling for their daily survival. Hopes for a brighter Mali and most of the expectations that came with independence have been dashed away by various leaders elected or selected to manage the country.

When it comes to democracy, Mali is seen as a role model in West Africa, and Malians want their country to be recognized for that accomplishment.

“We are very proud and take credit for that,” said Diawara. “Most African and European countries, when you talk to them about politics and democracy, they will refer to Mali as a role model.”

It was not always so. Mali went through political conditions similar to what many African countries have confronted “the Africa-Big-Man syndrome,” when political leaders don’t want to step down from power easily. Former president Moussa Traore ruled Mali for 23 years until he was toppled in a bloody 1991 coup and forced into exile in Algeria.

Traore was first condemned to death in 1997 for “crimes of bloodshed,” his sentence later commuted to life imprisonment by then-Malian president Alpha Omar Konare, who was against the death penalty. Konare ruled Mali for 10 years and was succeeded by current president Amadou Toumani Toure, elected in 2002.

Toure, also known as “ATT,” played a major role in ending Mali’s military dictatorship with a coup 19 years ago.

“President Toure did not even have a party, but people decided to elect him,” said Diawara. “The farmers elected him because they said he respected his words. He promised to bring democracy, and that is what he did exactly.”

Malians see Toure as a role model, and most of the European countries trust him for bringing democracy to his country after 23 years of dictatorial rule.

At the same time, Alpha Omar Konare is credited for not changing the constitution to cling to power as practiced by some African leaders.

As Toure’s second term draws to a close, he has assured Malians that he will hand over power peacefully as the constitution requires. “That is why we Malians are proud of that,” said Diawara, “because we have seen in other neighboring countries [that] things are different.”

Like many African groups in the U.S., Malians also face problems in Minnesota, a reason why Diawara says his compatriots should join the Malian Association.

Malians say they sometimes face racism, but they “just close our eyes on that.” The association was created in 2003 to address some of these problems.

“Our goal is to help each other, and also to be able to collaborate with local African organizations in the Twin Cities,” said Diawara.

“A majority of us do not know each other,” Diawara explained about the association’s members. “The problem we do face is related to communication. Sometimes we pass each other without knowing who is a Malian.”

“It is important for us to be united as Malians,” said Diawara.

“We are united, but we would like to have a stronger Malian Association united with other Africans to have a better future for Africa. The independence celebration is not only about Mali. It is also about Africa.

“Coming back from Mali two months ago, I’m very impressed,” said Diawara.

“There is a lack of leadership at some point, at some level, but those are works in progress.”  The problem with Mali, as far as the government is concerned, “is that a majority of the people have’t gone to school,” said Diawara.

“Most of the people are farmers. I can say two percent of the farmers are educated. Two percent out of 100 percent are educated; they will just do what they are told to do.”

“The independence means a lot to me,” said Malian student Bakary Sanogo.

“It means freedom from colonization. Those colonial people took over our country for reasons I don’t know.”

Sanogo said that for the most part colonialism had been negative for his country. He opined that the only good side is that Malians speak French just like other countries that were colonized by France.

“We don’t control our monetary policies, which is very hard to deal with,” said Sanogo. “The IMF [International Monetary Fund] has been trying to keep them [government officials] away from raising the salary level. We want to develop our country, but we don’t have the financial independence, so how can we do what we want to do?”

Salaries in Mali are so low that people have to send their children abroad to get a better education, because, according to Sanogo, “The system is messed up! We have to raise the level of education.” He believes the country used to have one of the best educational systems in West Africa but it deteriorated after 1991.

“We need a change,” said Sanogo, “but we have to educate everybody.”

“Culturally and mentally we should be independent,” said Adama Coulibaly, who came to the Twin Cities about two months ago. “But unfortunately, when we took independence in 1960, our history was written by White French people.

Until now, the history of Mali has been read through books written by French people.

For me, we are still under mental colonization, because we are not free mentally.”

Coulibaly stressed that Mali’s education is still “suffering from lack of competent people and good programs.” He believes Mali’s independence has been jeopardized because Western donors determine programs the government has to implement.

“After 1960, we are still coping with corruption,” Coulibaly said with obvious disappointment. “Despite the limited resources of the country, there are a few people who are monopolizing the resources.”

“The independence makes me very happy and at the same time very sad,” said Mohamed Soumare. “We can’t say that it is a total independence, because we basically depend financially on other countries to fill our deficit.

“People there in power are not doing their job well,” said Soumare.

“If your people can’t feel secure in their own country, it is a big problem.

“I believe in rebuilding Mali’s educational system, but it cannot be changed in a short period of time. You’ll probably need 20 to 40 years to see a little bit of change.”

As they celebrate in Minnesota, Malians say the thought that occupies their minds is about their families and relatives living in Africa. They have lingering questions: “If war breaks out right now? If something happens?” asks Soumare. “I’m here, I’m fine, but I have my family in Africa. Only part of me is fine. That means none of us is secure.”

Issa Mansaray welcomes reader responses to theafricapaper@yahoo.com.