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Back to Mali: A Country Suffers From the Single Story of Danger

Where tourist sites meet travel warnings.
The Bandiagara Escarpment in the Dogon country of Mali. (Photo: Timm Guenther/Wikimedia Commons)

The Bandiagara Escarpment in the Dogon country of Mali. (Photo: Timm Guenther/Wikimedia Commons)

The Hotel Campement de Sangha rose before us like a desert palace, its ochre mud walls interspersed with elaborately carved wooden doors and windows. Unexpected and unannounced, we walked through its imposing entrance toward a sign offering guides to elaborate cliff dwellings in vast canyons inhabited 2,000 years ago. The sun shone brightly, erasing the toll of a long Chicago winter. It was mid-March and in the palace courtyard, birds flitted between pomegranate trees.

Otherwise, all was silent.

“Allo?” we called, as we opened the door marked Salle a Manger, or Dining Room. “Is anyone here?”

The room was cool and dark. Its tables were set but no one ate, although it was the middle of what should have been a busy lunchtime. Above us hung a framed photograph of a smiling Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, and his wife enjoying a meal in the same room. We were also looking for a meal.

Welcome to Mali, a vast country rich in history, natural beauty and hospitality that offers UNESCO World Heritage Sites, boat rides on the Niger River, and camel treks.

"I have almost shut the hotel down," he explained. "I have let all of my employees go except for one or two. But this place is at the end of the world, so I can’t close it completely, or people would have nowhere to stay."

In 2012, the north of the country was overtaken by an Islamist rebel uprising that occupied the remote cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. The rebels were advancing on the south of the country and its capitol city of Bamako when French troopers carried out a bombing campaign in January 2013 that quickly dispersed the rebels.

Today, the war is over, and the French patrol the north while U.N. peacekeeping troops are stationed throughout the rest of the country. With free and fair elections last August and a rebounding economy, peace and democractic rule in Mali have been restored.

Indeed, a survey conducted last December by Afrobarometer reports that two thirds of all Malians now believe their country is headed in the right direction—a sharp contrast with a similar survey conducted in 2012 that found three-quarters of Malians were pessimistic about their country’s future.

As a professor of health and human rights and the director of the Northwestern Access to Health Project, I traveled to Mali last month with six Northwestern University graduate students and a faculty colleague to conduct a health and human rights needs assessment in the town of Douentza.

Having attempted to exhaustively research Douentza’s health access issues over the previous three months, we were struck during our visit not only by the country’s eagerness to build its capacity in the area of health, but also by its safety and stability, whether in the market in Douentza or in the remote Dogon.

What we saw firsthand is rarely shared by visitors, particularly since the 2012 occupation. Until the uprising, Mali enjoyed steady economic growth of nearly five percent annually for most of the past decade, and an international tourism industry that accounted for five percent of the country’s economy. However, the Malian Tourism and Hotel Business Office reported earlier this year that tourist arrivals by air dropped by 22 percent to 101,335 in 2012 from 129,975 in 2011.

Although it ended over a year ago, the rebel uprising produced a chilling effect on all aspects of daily life in the country. As far as tourism is concerned, the entire country may as well be a war zone. Although the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mali, which include the Dogon cliff dwellings and the Djenne mosque, were never occupied during the conflict, tourism in these remote areas stopped entirely in 2012 and has not revived.

Travel warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State and the United Kingdom, among others, have been in place since The U.S. State Department renewed its travel warning for Mali on March 21, while we were driving from Douentza to Bamako.

We traveled without incident—save for minor traffic jams caused by goats and donkeys. To be sure, a government’s concern for the safety of its citizens is paramount. However, the only specific incidents described in the warning occurred in Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, while the entire country bears the brunt of moribund tourism.

At the empty hotel, having driven nearly eight hours to see the ancient cliff dwellings, we tracked down the owner and asked if he could serve us lunch. He said he would and went to buy groceries for us—his unexpected guests—and while waiting, we explored the region. We walked through an elaborate warren of cliff dwellings and granaries, carved into the sides of gorges so sheer that the local legend is that their inhabitants could fly.

When we returned, over cold sodas and stew, I asked the owner about the impact of the conflict.

“I have almost shut the hotel down,” he explained. “I have let all of my employees go except for one or two. But this place is at the end of the world, so I can’t close it completely, or people would have nowhere to stay.”

His words echoed in the empty dining room. Surrounded by a moonscape of boulders and sheer cliffs, the desert palace was indeed remote. But as we were leaving the Dogon region in our 4x4s, our driver Amadou told us of the parking lots previously overflowing with Jeeps and that hotel that was always booked to capacity. I remembered the sign in the empty courtyard suggesting that hotel guests make a donation to the local school, rather than giving coins directly to the children who crowded around us to shake hands and clown for the camera.

Mali is not the only country with both tourist sites and travel warnings. Both Mexico and Israel are in that unenviable club. But Mexico’s gross domestic product is $1.8 trillion and Israel’s is $248.7 billion—a sharp contrast with that of Mali, at $18 billion. So those countries have the resources to dedicate to international advertising campaigns persuading travelers to choose sunshine and cultural heritage despite incidents of crime and violence.

Back in Douentza, as we strolled through the marketplace, a man on a motorcycle called out to our host, Boucary, in Peuhl, the local language. I asked Boucary what he said.

“He said you are the first white people he has seen in two years,” Boucary replied. “He is glad because it means we are emerging from the crisis.”