A cultural Caravan for Peace
At two o'clock in the morning, I set foot on the African continent for the first time. Dark night, the lights are turned off even in the airport. Exhausted by the long journey and somewhat tipsy because I had just woke up from sleep, I looked at a lot of excited dark-skinned faces, which were not any different from the night. Everyone of the airport taxi drivers swarming around seem to work for my hotel. What a way to begin, of course, I should not have called the name of the hotel in front of the drivers. What now? Should I take a chance with the loudest screaming driver?
While I am still trying to determine the trustworthiness of the various contenders according to some indefinable criteria, my solution struggles through the crowd. "Lea mon amie, c'est par là". After all, he knows my name, I think half relieved, half worried, but I decided to follow him. It quickly becomes clear that "mon amie" is probably the only French vocabulary that the good man has mastered.
Soon we were driving through the dusty heat to the city of Bamako. At least that is where I hoped we were going. I felt unresolved once more with my decision to have booked this flight, but well, I had no alternatives.
We stopped at a gate, which could not be distinguished from any of the others with no inscription of the hotel name. We went through the courtyard and I was quite surprised to find that I was in deed in the hotel I had booked on the internet.
It was only later that I had to find out that the hotel name had been removed for security reasons - tourist sites are targets for radical Islamists and the hotel authorities are doing everything they can to protect the very few tourists from trouble.
On the road for peace: The Cultural Caravan for Peace
In the roller coaster
For three months I tried to contact the organizers of the Caravane culturelle pour la paix. It was only through the administrator of a partner festival that I finally got the long sought-after direct contact of a certain Manny Ansar, according to internet, the initiator of the Caravane which I wanted to visit. After a brief exchange of e-mails during which he invited me to accompany the Caravane, he seemed again to be absorbed by the earth.
At the same time, the security situation in the country was deteriorating. Several emails from the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs strongly advise me against the trip. The extent of the threat posed by the armed groups can hardly be assessed from a distance and it is difficult to identify the borders of the danger zone. All I knew before departure was that apparently there is a Caravane in Mali that aims to contribute to the promotion of peace through culture and that it is scheduled to make a stop in February at the Festival sur le Niger in Ségou.
Should I or should I not?
If only I had at least the precise travel itinerary of the Caravane or even knew who the people behind this project are, the people in whose hands I was putting my life.
My gut decides for the journey into the unknown.
Two days later, an attack was carried in Gao, Northern Mali which was the most deadly since the uprising began in 2012. There were more deaths in January 2017 alone than in the entire previous year.
I had ten days left until my departure on January 27th. "Which Mali do you mean," asks the gentleman who was to unlock the Postfinance card, "I am having trouble finding it on the map." "Nice beach holiday" the hostess wishes me at the luggage registration at the airport with a beaming smile. "Hmm, do you mean Bali?" "According to Swiss passport control you cannot go to Mali with this visa ", some more time went by for clarifications. Then the green light "things seem to have changed in the meantime," the passport official smiles in a friendly manner. Not exactly the most frequent destination.
And now I am here in the middle of Malian life. On the 28th, the first day after my arrival, the first concert of the Caravane was to take place in Timbuktu. A name that triggers wanderlust: Oasis city, desert wind, World Cultural Heritage, passing caravans, fairytale mosques made of sand (no clay, but in my imagination they were made of sand) and starting point for expeditions in the surrounding Sahara. Since 2012 it has been one of the venues of the current conflict.
I waited in vain for a sign of the Caravane. The entire Bamako seems to know Manny and talk about him with much respect, but none of them had his telephone number. I only learned days later that the concert in Timbuktu had to be canceled. Too risky.
In the meantime, I gradually approached life in Bamako and with various tricks, I tried to distract myself from the radio silence and the thought that this Caravane may not happen anymore and that I had come to Mali in vain.
In the meantime, I read that two followers of the Al Mourabitoun jihadist group who had planned an attack in Bamako could be arrested.
The desert festival
At the beginning was the Festival au Désert. A cultural festival held annually in Timbuktu, founded by Manny Ansar in 2001.
The festival is based on a centuries-old tradition, the Takoubelt (in Kidal) or Temakannit (in Timbuktu). A meeting where the Tuareg tribes of the region meet once a year to play and share music. In addition to the fun, this festival was also an occasion to discuss problems and resolve conflicts.
In comparison, the Festival au Désert is more focused on bridging the gap between tradition and modernity and also between local custom and international cometogether. Over the years, the festival attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world and became a major source of income for the residents of this poor region.
With the destabilization in the region, foreign guests have been increasingly intimidated. There have been violent attacks by factions of al-Qaida terrorist groups especially on tourists which made it increasingly difficult to guarantee security.
The last edition of the festival was held in January 2012, with the most menacing signs of an outbreak of civil war and warnings advising all international guests to stay away from the festival. Bono, the legendary front man of the U2 group defied the threats, together with Tinariwen, the most famous Northern Malian music group they sang "Vive le Mali, vive la paix, vive la musique":
Video: "Vive le Mali, vive la paix, vive la musique" and here you find the film about the last concert: The last song before the war.
Only a few days later, the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad) sparked the Tuareg rebellion, with the aim of gaining more independence for the North (Azawad). This renewed rebellion was followed by a serious destabilization of the Northern regions of Mali by various armed groups and a coup de d'état. Islamic groups increasingly took control of areas of the Northern region and prohibited, among other things, every artistic expression and declared the end of the Festival au Désert. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee, including Manny Ansar and his family. The festival was forced to give up its venue.
While others were traumatized by the past and full of anxiety about the future, new plans were being forged by the cultural workers in the refugee camps in Burkina Faso. Soon, Manny Ansar, his partners and friends at home and abroad brought up the idea of emigrating with the Festival au Désert, to organize a festival in exile.
Video: Festival au Désert in exile
A Festival in Motion
The Festival sur le Niger (Mali) and the Festival Taragalte (Morocco) are speeding to the assistance of their "brother festival". The three directors of different ethnicities, Mamou Daffe (Ségou, Bambara) Halim Sbaï (Marokko, Aaribi) and Manny Ansar (Timbuktu, Tuareg) are coming together for the Caravane culturelle pour la paix. A life in motion relates to a very strongly anchored culture in the region. The festival team seems to accustom very quickly to the new circumstances. As early as 2013, one year after the expulsion, a first edition of the festival was held in exile at the refugee camp in Burkina Faso. The official launching of the Caravane culturelle pour la paix took place in November 2013 and was held in Ségou and Mopti (back in Mali) and Taragalte (Morocco) in the subsequent years.
The Caravane consists of a cheerful intercultural group of people who are connected by their desire to commit themselves to peace. One with musical instruments, the other by supporting the organization of this demanding undertaking.
This year, four concert evenings and two conferences are scheduled in three Malian cities. The tour starts with a Carte blanche at the Festival sur le Niger, an entire evening of the four-day festival is dedicated to the Caravane and the theme of peace. The group then travels to Sikasso where a concert will be held at the football stadium. This is followed by a show at the Institut français in Bamako and the big closing concert on the banks of the Niger in Bamako.
The Caravane has planned performances outside of Mali during the summer months, probably also in Europe. In the fall, the Caravane will come to the Festival Taragalte in the South of Morocco.
The Caravane has managed to turn the "Festival in exile" into a "Festival on tour".
The Caravane has managed to turn the "Festival in exile" into a "Festival on tour"
They came from Marocco to support peace in Mali through music "Daraa Tribes". Here you find their Videoclip from the last Caravane by Margot Canton Lamousse and team
A Country with Music Fever
The unexpected SMS comes five days after my arrival in Mali: "departure to ségou tomorrow morning". So there is going to be a Caravane after all.
After several hours of waiting (for what?), we were at breakneck speed on the road from Bamako to Ségou. Of course with a mandatory tea stop. Mali certainly can’t survive without tea, it gives people a three-hour rhythm to everyday life, more accurately than the clock in Switzerland. The gas stove, 10 grams of tea and half a kilo of sugar is always at your fingertips.
Where would the gas stove be placed in this wind? I ask confused. "We have a very secure solution," says one of the young turbaned men who are supposed to take me to Ségou, and lights the gas stove leaning it against the accelerator pedal of the car. With the door open, he starts with the elaborate tea ceremony between the knees, hand brake and door frame. Not a single drop of tea ends up in the car, regardless how high he pours the tea from the teapot past the steering wheel into the glass and back again. "Aman Iman" he says as the tea flows from the pot.
„Water is the soul or let's say life. You need to remember that when you're with us Tuareg".
Once again, I am amazed how enough tea for everyone always flows from this little pot.
Soon the journey continues. I had prepared myself for a tedious journey, now I found myself in the middle of a race, which I followed tensely. Mali in the music fever. With the excitement and anticipation, the drivers do not slow down a second. The cars - magically attracted by Ségou – are racing across the dusty and scorching heat on the road to the North. They always get close to each other, gesticulate, laugh and scream offensive or cheering words while they avoid a truck or potholes.
Together with the musicians, we are lodged in a hotel in some suburb quarter. It was still unclear to me who is part of the Caravane, who has what role, let alone who belongs to which ethnic group. This state of confusion had to go on for a while.
International stars like Salif Keïta heat up the crowd
The festival grounds was like a swarm of ants at work. As a newcomer on this continent, I was overwhelmed by this impression. Dazzling colourfulness, boisterous cheerfulness, busy calling and fiddling. We push through the dense market and get to the banks of the Niger. A group of female singers are crowded on a wooden boat and screaming cheering songs to the fishermen in the water who re-enact the catch of a particularly big fish, a fantastic show. The colors look even brighter in the warm light of the evening, a golden shimmer looms over the water, the dark faces glow from the white robes, while the whole boat rocks in a rhythm. I felt like stopping the scene, enjoying it in slow motion, focusing on every single face. The crowds which had invaded the entire river bank yelled with delight, joy, and took pictures.
Unexpectedly, I had landed in the middle of the Caravane. Just without imagination, I now felt the intensive treatment, surrounded by music, dance, celebration, and many people who smiled at me, meanwhile I didn’t actually know anybody.
The Driving Force
In the backdrop of all this, I had to ask myself what really is Caravane culturelle pour la paix? While I was still woozy from the impressive performance, I tried to get closer to the "cultural caravan" with a conversation with the man who pulls the strings in the background.
He completed his education in international relations, followed by various humanitarian jobs. He was expelled from his homeland in the North of Mali in 2012 and lived for some time in refugee camps in neighboring Burkina Faso. Father of two, he lives with his wife and other family members in Bamako where he is also active in the field of solar energy. He is the founder of the Festival au Désert and co-founder of the Caravane culturelle pour la paix, which won the Freemuse Award in 2013 for the protection of free artistic expression.
Mohamed Ag Aly Ansar was born 1961 in the oasis city of Essakane West of Timbuktu.
Manny Ansar, the much-sought-after, busy man was now barely sitting across from me. He finds time to talk with me. The problem child from Switzerland. "No, we did not invite international guests or media this year, we only accepted the very stubborn ones like you" he says, smiling.
A bit ironic, but not far from the truth. In addition to food, logistics and VIP access to backstage and behind the scenes coverage, he also provided a guardian angel who took care of me around the clock. I enjoyed the much-praised hospitality of the Tuareg to the fullest. In the current situation, it was no easy task to take care of the safety and well-being of a single traveling white woman.
He receives me in his office, where he actually works when he is not pursuing his passion for the Caravane. I realize that I never feel very secure in his presence, after all I knew about him and about Mali, it seems to me a miracle that he has never been a victim of violence. But I forget this thought immediatly as we start our conversation.
During our conversation, people knocked on the door every few minutes, sometimes more energetically, sometimes less. Manny stayed calmly seated. Relaxed would be the wrong word, I have never seen him relaxed, not even at home in the pajamas surrounded by his family. In his mid-50’s, wearing the traditional silver bazin with turban and glasses, he exudes some respect.
He speaks cautiously, precisely, without pathos, without swinging out of topic. Rather reserved, but behind his less-revealing face, one feels the spirit of a highly educated man with great responsibilities and steadfast perseverance.
For twelve years he had set up the Festival au Désert and brought it to great international success before it was ravaged in 2012. How does a man, after such a defeat, get a much more daring project on its feet?
„They ruined the material, plundered the stage, burned instruments ... but I had to go on, “la joie entre les humains était en danger” and the only possible way was the cultural resistance. It was no longer a question of festivity, but about the survival of a culture.“
The key to the actual implementation, he stressed as if he wanted to get out of the spotlight, was above all the support of the two festival directors, friends and partners around the world who had supported the project from the beginning.
Et puis, je ne sais pas utiliser une arme! Fallait que je trouve autre moyen pour me défendre! He laughs his half-dry, half-cheerful laughter.
L'esprit de la Caravane
I would like to figure out the importance of the "caravan". Why exactly did it have to be a caravan? Could it not be a Festival pour la paix?
The caravans have always helped cultures meet, exchange, share and learn from each other. The cultural heritage, music, poems and handicrafts helped to build mutual understanding, develop forms of coexistence and cooperation and overcome difficulties together. This is precisely the function of the Caravane culturelle pour la paix.
Manny Ansar adds that the flexibility is a prerequisite for such a project to work. "The area of activity is constantly changing, doors are opening and closing, a place which was ruled out yesterday can be visited today and vice versa as in the case of Mopti.
"As a caravan, it offers exactly that flexibility and mobility. You can hardly see a gateway, you move in that direction and you don’t have to abort the whole project because of a danger zone."
A considerable advantage is that the concept is therefore also applicable in other conflict regions which have no connection with the nomadic tradition.
Musicians as Mediators
The Caravane has already proved its role as ambassador for peace in several occasions. While the politicians worked mainly on a political level on ways out of the conflict, the Caravans set themselves the task of paving the way for a peace process at the level of the population.
"Le monde culturel avait plus de chance d'être écouté, il fallait que nous jouions ce rôle-là",
was one of Manny Ansar's remarks. I want to understand this role. What can music contribute to the promotion of peace?
in a spontaneous conversation with the sought-after person during the Festival sur le Niger, Mohamed Doumbia, festival administrator, I had the opportunity to better understand one of the key moments of the Caravane.
"The biggest challenge at the beginning of the idea of the Caravane was the distrust created by the crisis. Everyone was suspicious of the other."
The Festival au Désert in exile in the refugee camp in Burkina Faso (before the founding of the actual Caravane) in 2013, just a year after the rebellion, had created the first opportunity for the people of the different parties of the conflict to meet and exchange about peace and possible ways of coexistence, and to better understand and accept the mutual positions and realities. An encounter, according to Doumbia, which could not have been conceivable in any other context.
Mohamed Doumbia explains with an example that the refugees refused to make contact with the official representatives of the Malian government. The festival succeeded in establishing this dialogue, conveying positions and concerns between the refugees and the government and contributed in building trust.
Mohamed Doumbia, administrator, Festival sur le Niger
But how is the Caravane able to be perceived in this mediation function?
Manny Ansar had told me how much courage it took the musicians of the festival to perform in the refugee camp.
"On avait peur qu'ils allaient nous massacrer."
No one knew how the refugees would react to the festival and the call for peace, and they were in danger of being chased away from the camp with stones.
Mohamed Doumbia sees the key to acceptance in the neutral performance of the festival. "We did not take a position, we did not condemn or praise anyone." Our only message was: "There is no development without peace. And think of our children who have to live with our heritage." More peace, more joy, and it is exactly this desire for joy that had obviously lured the people to the festival. "Enfin, tout le monde aime la joie!" said Mohamed Doumbia with a big smile on his face.
I encountered another person who, with a keen sense and understanding, and at the same time with implicitness and modesty, turns to small levers that can have a great effect.
In the Same Rhythm
Manny Ansar adds an example of how music succeeds in connecting people. Takamba rhythm for example exists in different cultures of the region. When this Takamba rhythm which is an integral part of the Caravane is played, different ethnicities dance and experience moments of joy together, differences and barriers are broken. Similarities become apparent.
"They feel human among human beings."
The famous Takamba Band Super 11 at the concert in Sikasso
and this is their theme song
Culture of Reconciliation
Music is not a new phenomenon in the promotion of peace in Mali. The Caravane is based on a long established tradition and its success has a lot to do with this traditional role of the musician in society. In order to understand this very close relationship in its core, Manny Ansar gave us a brief digression into the role and importance of the "Griot".
The Griots are an ethnic group, which was primarily responsible in the oral tradition for keeping and telling the story of individual tribes and families. The Griots recited this story accompanied by a musical instrument. In addition, it was their role to settle disputes and mediate conflicts. While everybody else would have being killed, the Griot could approach both parties without being attacked. He was able to initiate peace negotiations and secure dialogue between the hostile parties, which could resolve a variety of conflicts.
"Une foie un parti prend la sagesse de s'adresser à l'autre parti on a déjà fait la moitié du chemin."
The role of the Griot in the society was even more important as he had a great influence on the reputation of the families.
The Griots seem to enjoy this special status and immunity until now. He had just witnessed a Griot telling a high-level individual about things that even his closest advisers would not have dared to tell him, said Manny Ansar.
Manny Ansar clarified that he refers to the Tuareg tradition which is most familiar to him. The Griots have similar functions in other African cultures.
The potential of the caravans can be better understood through these explanations. In such a context, the role of promoting peace through music goes far beyond "having fun together" or bridging cultural and linguistic boundaries. Music is represented at the negotiating table.
The involvement of musicians as a neutral authority in the negotiations seems so obvious to me that I wonder whether we should not have to set up a music council or a cultural council at international institutions.
They Provide the Rhythm
The Sahel Sahara Band is the symbol bearer of the message of peace of the Caravane. Consisting of musicians from different regions of Mali and Morocco, with different ethnic roots, the group is part of the Caravane with its own formation to set a musical character for cultural diversity, solidarity, tolerance and a peaceful coexistence of all the people of the Sahel and Sahara region. In their most famous song with the meaningful title "Salam" (Peace), everyone sings a verse in their language. The following clip of Margot Canton-Lamousse and their team took us on a trip to Morocco, where they accompanied the band on their last stop in October 2016.
Video - Sahel Sahara Band
The Desert Relationship
What does peace in Mali have to do with Morocco? From the outside, one would think that the conflict in Mali does not have much to do with Morocco. "Ils sont nos frères", says Halim Sbaï, co-director of the Taragalte Festival and co-founder of the Caravane. He underlined the close ties between the South of Morocco and the North of Mali and offers a detailed digression into the history of trade relations, emphasizing the cultural proximity of the two regions and the mythical association with Timbuktu and the legendary trade route leading from Morocco to Timbuktu.
Halim Sbaï, director, Festival Taragalte
Having his own festival in the oasis, he can identify very well with the Festival au Désert. It was self-evident for him to welcome this festival forced to exile in Morocco and to help establish the Caravane from the outset.
As the famous plaque next to his festival’s site says “52 jours jusqu'à Tombouctou", Halim's vision is to revive the axis impaired by the spread of the conflict in the North of Mali and to move with a real caravan of musicians, artists, camels and tents from M'hamid El Ghizlan to Timbuktu.
The official festival video as an appetiser, more information on the festival here.
At the Frontier of Freedom
The range of music genres at the Festival sur le Niger is broad. What was especially unexpected for me was a "Hip Hop musical comedy", the result of a musician’s residency where a group of hip hoppers dealt with the great theme of peace. All parties of the conflict in Mali are represented by a suitably-dressed singer. I froze for a moment, while the UN, the priest, the red cross, the Muslim, the soldier, and to my dismay, an Islamic fighter dance past me and sing an incomprehensible but obviously amusing lyrics into the microphone.
"It is the task of the hip hop to pull attention on abuses, to address things that make a difference in the society, but are often concealed. And our task is to promote free expression and reflections on the subject of peace, even if that entails taking a risk, "said Mohamed Doumbia." Of course I understand, but I must say in the given context - where culture and peace efforts are pursued - I would have loved to be anywhere else in the world instead of being where I was, just two meters from the stage where musicians were parodying jihadists.
The atmosphere at all the events is remarkably pronounced. This musical breaks serve as limbo moments in an everyday reality that is dominated by worries. While I am standing casually in the middle of a crowd of people who jostle and scream with enthusiasm. It seems to me as if an entire nation takes a breath, fuels up and relaxes.
People come from all regions of Mali to celebrate what holds them together - their love of music.
Music In The Firing Line
We travel in a large tour bus. The atmosphere is cheerful and helps you forget the potholes and heat. The air conditioning had failed a long ago, we languish in the dusty wind which is blown through the window which immediately covers every small surface, hair or telephone. Someone repeatedly tunes a song or beats a rhythm on his djembé while the barren landscape outside, some simple buildings, amazed eyes and waving arms of children roll past.
Back in Bamako I would like to know from Manny Ansar whether he already sees any results of his work.
"The most important thing: People talk to each other."
"I can see how different ethnic groups dance and celebrate together."
I wonder whether the people who dance today are the same people who took up arms yesterday or are the same people who would take up arms tomorrow. "Some will - some won’t," says Ansar. "But I think even those who stay away from the festival will sooner or later realize the futility of their actions,
"pourquoi ils iraient se faire tuer pour des gens qui font la fête ensemble...?"
Besides those who play at the various festival grounds, there are also numerous people who have stayed away from the festival. Embassies had prohibited their nationals from travelling to Ségou. Many Malians respond with nostalgia when I speak of one of the festivals, "I would love to be part of it, but I prefer watching it on TV."
"Of course, people are afraid, people are traumatized, they would not dare to participate in the festivals. You have to understand people,
"Risking life to go to a concert is something quite ... he searches for the right word, it is too much to ask"
However, this does not seem to apply to him. "Of course, I am in the visor, and my family is very concerned, but my role simply happened that way, I have followed an instinct, the instinct to save the culture from repression, which has nothing to do with heroism."
Heroism or not, I wish, more people in the world could find the courage to listen to their inner self and use it impassively, no matter what tomorrow brings.
More disturbing reports, more shootings, more deaths, terrorism seems to spread more and more towards the South. 24 attacks and 154 deaths in the first six weeks according to local media.
And what is Manny planning next with the Caravane?
"My greatest desire is to dissolve the Caravane."
What do you mean, I ask, confused? Because his response seemed to be nothing near what we had discussed so far.
"If we dissolve it, it means that peace has returned. If peace prevails, there is no need for a Peace Caravan."
And the next step?
“We want to go back to Timbuktu.” The determination which had led his actions up to now could be heard in his voice. “It did not still work this year, the concert had to be canceled. But people want peace, they are in a "dynamique de paix", unlike in the past, most people believe that peace is possible today. That's the most important thing.”
"We gradually expand the peace zone at the expense of the war zone, petit à petit. C'est si simple que ça."