The closest I’ve been to Bamako in Mali is a truckstop town called San, about 200 miles to the east. I was travelling to Bobo-Dioulasso after a trip on the Niger River from Gao to Mopti just a couple of months more than twenty-six years ago.
My first attempt to visit Mali, three years earlier, had been interrupted by a war, stranding me in a Burkina Faso border town. I made it through the next year, going up to Timbuktu by truck, the river being too low that season.
The parts of Mali I saw were fascinating, inhabited by people of a wondrous range of beliefs and backgrounds. From the Dogon hills to the great mud mosque of Djenne to the rooftops of Mopti to the great well of Timbuktu, I have never seen anyplace with more grandeur than that rather modest country.
Rarely, when I lived in Africa, did I stay at the fancy hotels like the Raddison Blu, site of today’s terrorist attack and hostage taking. These were always removed from the real lives of the countries where I lived and visited, Europe and America transported into an African landscape. They were emblematic not just of colonialism but of the new elites so far removed from the average African. Few of the people I knew had ever been inside one or ever would be. In Timbuktu, the only place with regular electricity (at least part of the day) and air conditioning was the Sofitel establishment just away from the edge of town. It wasn’t really part of the town at all so has long served as an emblem, to me, of the divide between the elite and the people.
In Kampala, Uganda, when I was there in 1990, the finest building was a new hotel at the top of one of the hills in town. Much of the rest of the city was still pockmarked with bullet holes from the recent conflicts. It had been seen as more important to make sure the foreign elite coming in were comfortable than repairing the lives of the local people. At least, that’s how it appeared.
The resentments bottled up in much of the world toward the much richer West often focuses on hotels like the one in Kampala or the Raddison Blu in Bamako, so it does not surprise me that a terrorist attack in Bamako would concentrate on such a place. These sites are clear symbols of the arrogance and wealth of the few.
I’ve long complained about the reporters (and others) who think they are visiting Africa while riding around in a bubble–air-conditioned cars, bottled water, hampers of prepared food from the hotel, believing their drivers are representative of the common people. People looked at them almost as visitors from another planet.
When I visited Russia in 1992, one of the places I spent some time was the museum at the Kremlin where there’s a collection of royal carriages, many of which had been built specifically to carry the elite on the road between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Looking at them, I had a new understanding of the frustrations that led to the revolution of 1917. Poor Russians, seeing these bejeweled carriages speed by, powered by eight, even twelve beautiful horses, must have long hated those inside, who had so much while they had so little.
From the French Revolution through the Russian to the terrorism today, one thing holds true: the root cause of the conflict is the gulf between rich and poor. The ideologies and religions that are used as cloaks and justifications are no more than that. The real cause is unequal distribution of wealth.
More shocking than the attacks in Beruit, in Paris, in Bamako (which were easily predicted–in generalized terms) is the fact that so few of us among the rich are willing to see the real cause of the attacks upon us. The reaction against Syrian refugees, clearly based in separating the ‘have nots’ from the ‘haves,’ is cloaked behind a pretense of protecting ‘our way of life.’ Jeb Bush, for example, says we should let in Christian Syrians, keeping out the rest. Donald Trump wants Muslims to be registered. Marco Rubio tries to couch the situation as a “clash of civilizations.” It is not. Those attacking are the desperate, just as they were in 1789 and 1917 (and at plenty of other times). None of what Bush, Trump or Rubio says or wants us to do will change that–or increase protection for Americans.
Keeping people “out,” attacking terrorist strongholds and all of the other strategies being used today to fight the kinds of attacks on “us” we are seeing will ultimately fail–unless we also address the desperation that fuels the attacks. I don’t know how to do that, but I do know that our current path will lead only to greater and more frequent incidents of terror.