The debate raged on about Mali. To go or not to go.
West Africa’s tourism hotspot was calling me, but I couldn’t ignore the warnings splashed all over foreign embassy websites. Former colonial master France has declared Mali a “zone rouge” and forbidden its own citizens from entry all together. Stories of kidnappings near the border, like that of Canadian ambassador Robert Fowler by Al Qaida operatives, were enough to strike fear in anyone’s heart.
I reasoned that Mali is a large country and these mishaps were geographically isolated. The less-alarmist Canadian embassy website gave the green light to visit the heavily populated South. I took a deep breathe and rode a painfully long bus ride from Burkina Faso into Ségou, a sleepy town built on the Niger River that boasts impressive French colonial architecture and a thriving music scene.
During the week ahead I discovered a beautiful, hospitable country that has been decimated by travel advisories.
Boubakar Guindo, our able guide through the Dogon country’s spectacular cliffside villages told us the coming months are usually his peak season but for now he only has one trip booked through January. He is growing onions and farming to feed his family in the meantime. Oumar Touré, our charming host in Ségou said his once-popular hotel and contemporary art space over-looking the Niger River is often vacant for days at a time.
The effects on the local population are dire. Mali is one of the poorest countries on the globe ranking 175 of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index. The one thing it has always depended on is big-ticket tourism.
But many in Mali believe that the travel warnings doled out by Western countries are not warranted. In fact, they argue that there is a political motive behind them. According to all local hotel and tour operators we met, the story goes like this:
Up to now Mali has refused to sign an accord with the French government that would allow for Malian immigrants to be paid to voluntarily return to their home country. Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Benin – all former French West African colonies – have signed. In addition just last month Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Touré repeated he will not grant France’s requests to build military bases on Malian soil. According to locals, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has retaliated by putting up the travel warnings and forbidding all French nationals from entering Mali. England, the United States, Australia and other Western countries followed up with their own warnings against travel in the country. For now, Canada’s travel advisories warn against only the desert North and border areas with Niger and Algeria.
Guindo stressed to us that the areas where kidnappings have taken place have always been off-limits. There are illegal operations running through the desert and the traffickers would like to keep the already unnavigable terrain an even more dangerous place to be. But it is ridiculous to claim there is a risk of kidnapping in the South, he said.
“Nothing has ever happened to a tourist in the South,” said Sophie Keita, the Swedish owner of a hotel in Djenne, a city known for it’s stunning giant mud brick mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After the British foreign embassy translated and copy-pasted the travel advisory from France’s website onto their own, Keita wrote an angry letter to the ambassador. “What exactly is your job, then? Is it not to investigate?” she asked him.
As we trekked through Dogon country we were pleasantly greeted at every turn. One elderly woman held my boyfriend’s hand and pleaded with him, “It has been awhile that you haven’t come; you haven’t come in a long time,” she said. We later told Guindo what we had been telling all the forlorn Malians we had met along our journey: “It will change. They can’t keep warning like this forever. Things will get better.”
I hope we’re right.