Mali's culture: the 'lynchpin' to recovery from conflict

To restore a sense of normalcy to the community, as well as encourage a resurgence of art and culture in Timbuktu, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives has been working with traditional leaders and youth since September 2013. Here, in March 2014, Timbuktu youth perform traditional song and dance about reconciliation. Photo by: Yaya Bouare

Traditional definitions of development no longer apply in today’s international environment of non-state actors, good and bad, as well as “beyond borders” challenges such as combatting violent extremism or climate change — all relayed through 24/7 news coverage, citizen journalism and social media.

Yes, development still means empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty and to access education, health, shelter and employment. But increasingly, development also plays a crucial role in today’s most challenging political struggle: the fight against violent extremism.

The accomplishments and the methods of the Office of Transition Initiatives, part of the U.S. Agency for International Development, in Mali following the extremist incursion of 2012 exemplify the multifaceted roles of development in the 21st century. OTI was founded in 1994 to provide a more nimble and flexible arm of USAID, one that could help facilitate political stability and transition during critical moments of opportunity.

Timbuktu Renaissance

Morgan Freeman narrates the story of Mali's exceptional history, jihadist occupation, and her hopeful future, with culture as the 'tip of the spear' leading to development.

In Mali, OTI staff developed a deep understanding of the complex ethnic mosaic in the volatile north by listening to and gaining the trust of citizens of all ages, including leaders in cultural, religious, political and economic spheres. Through these grassroots connections, OTI staff learned about the importance of culture — particularly the living culture of music and dance — in re-establishing a sense of normalcy and conveying ideas about peace, reconciliation and unity.

When the extremists took over northern Mali, they knew how to brutally subjugate the population: take away their culture, strip them of their roots and means of communication. So they banned music, destroyed shrines, and even burned some of the prized manuscripts of Timbuktu, dating from the University of Timbuktu’s heyday, when it drew the brightest minds in Africa and the Middle East.

Mali’s music, the roots of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, is the lifeblood of the country, with traditional singers communicating the news of the day and the traditions of the past. Singer Fadimata Walet Oumar’s response to the extremist’s ban on music, “They’ll have to kill us first” captured the sentiments of many.

Recognizing that reviving Mali’s culture was the lynchpin to the country’s recovery from conflict, Malians and Americans came together to found the Timbuktu Renaissance, an initiative that promotes reconciliation, peace, and economic development in Mali through a focus on her calling card to the world — culture.

The TR consists of co-directors Manny Ansar, founder of the renowned Timbuktu music festival the Festival Au Desert, entrepreneurs Salif Niang and Chris Shields, and myself. We, along with our Malian government partners — with Minister of Culture Rama N'Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo as President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s designated representative — know that restoring culture will give Mali’s citizens the resilience essential to recover from conflict and counter continued threats of violent extremism. Equally importantly, through commercial cultural production and tourism, culture contributes to the economic development required for socio-political stability.

Recognizing these links between culture, economic development, stability and countering violent extremism, OTI has supported the Timbuktu Renaissance and its activities.

In February 2015, for example, OTI helped underwrite the Caravane de Paix, or “Peace Caravan” concert tour, organized by TR co-director Manny Ansar, that brought together musicians from all over the country to sing about peace. At the Mopti concert, Khaira Arby, famed diva of Timbuktu, sang in the dialect of Segou that she also “came from Segou“ — that they were all Malians who longed for peace. The crowd went wild.

OTI and the Timbuktu Renaissance realized that bringing thousands of Malians together to share the music they loved, and to voice together their desire for peace would help them to envision peace and unity in their country and move toward it.

In June 2015, after yearlong peace negotiations brokered by the Algerians, the Malian government signed a peace deal with Tuareg rebels, who in 2012 had joined with al-Qaida and other extremists to occupy two-thirds of the country.

So, mission accomplished?

Not exactly. Now is the moment to seize the peace. Continued sporadic violence plagues the north. If Malians, particularly the citizens of Timbuktu and its region, don’t feel that peace brings noticeable positive change, they will lose hope and could become prey for recruiting extremists.

For this reason, the Timbuktu Renaissance wants to move ahead on the ground in Timbuktu with the Center for Innovation and Culture, which will provide much-needed artist, music and media studios; computers and whitespace; as well as a gathering place for youth and location for job training and education.

As stability increases, the TR will turn to other long-term priorities, such as the return of the Festival Au Desert, the re-establishment of the University of Timbuktu — once the most prominent University in Africa and the Middle East — and an international exhibition on Timbuktu.

OTI would be an excellent adviser and partner for the center, and related e-commerce for Timbuktu artisans that the Timbuktu Renaissance will develop on its website (forthcoming), but, as of now, OTI is slated to leave Mali in December 2015.

Decisions about when a “mission” is “accomplished” when emerging from conflict are notoriously difficult to make. History indicates, though, that staying to rebuild (Germany, Japan) works better than hasty departures (Iraq).

As Morgan Freeman suggests in his narration of a short film about Mali and the Timbuktu Renaissance, a future of reconciliation, cooperation and development is indeed possible.  Through its deep grassroots connections and nimble, creative initiatives, OTI has helped lay the groundwork for such a future — one that TR would like to help build as a partner to seize the peace.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Cordaid, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Cynthia Schneider

    Cynthia P. Schneider, distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University, teaches, publishes, and organizes initiatives in the field of cultural diplomacy. Ambassador Schneider co-directs the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown, as well as the Los Angeles-based MOST Resource (Muslims on Screen and Television). Additionally, she co-directs the Timbuktu Renaissance, an innovative, culture-focused platform for countering extremism and promoting peace and development, which grew out of her work leading the Arts and Culture Dialogue Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

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