Musings Beneath a Mali Sky


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In the grand scheme of things, there aren’t many benefits on offer in Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world and currently suffering an ongoing, often brutal conflict between government forces, French forces, the UN MINUSMA mission, multiple separatist Tuareg groups and Jihadists.  However, this week I had the opportunity to spend a few nights out in the remote wilderness of Northern Mali, away from the light and noise pollution of the town, in the quiet and peacefulness of the Sahel region of Africa. On a clear cloudless night I was able to lie back on my camp cot and through my mosquito net see the full glory of the night sky.  The milky way as I had only seen in photographs stretched out before me, its sheer magnificence and beauty made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I was in awe of the cosmos above me, recognising half remembered constellations, Cygnus the swan gliding gracefully towards, but never reaching the vain queen Cassiopeia.

As I gazed up at the heavens, I was reminded once again how insignificant our planet is, just a small rock orbiting a common or garden star, one of billions within our own milky way galaxy, itself just one of billions more galaxies in the vastness of the universe. This brought to my mind the words of the late Carl Sagan when he spoke about the ‘pale blue dot’ in reference to a long distance photograph taken by the space probe Voyager 1 in February 1990 from a distance of some 3.7 billion miles. Every time I read the words he wrote about this photograph, I am struck not just by the beauty of his prose, but by the way he captures just how wondrous yet tiny our place in the universe is.


Continuing the quote from his book:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

The section in bold really strikes a chord with me. As a species we seem to spend so much time and energy in conflict with other groups, countries, cultures, religions and so on.  Perhaps its in the make up of humans, the need to secure the best advantage for ourselves, our kin, our tribe, our nations or whatever particular level of society we wish to identify ourselves as part of.  The key issue here I think is ‘difference’.  We fear it, we fear the ‘other’, as a species we fear that which we do not understand, the differences between us form the boundaries of conflict. Wherever these boundaries occur, be they physical, cultural, national, tribal, familial, there is tension, conflict, distrust, fear and hatred.  And yet in the relative vastness of the cosmos, our constant squabbling and fighting seem just so, well, pointless really.  An over simplification, yes of course, but when viewed through the cosmic lens, when we see our place in the universe, I think I have a point.

Mali itself is currently in the grip of a conflict that has elements of all of the examples I listed above.  A former French colony with arbitrary borders that were drawn on the map by Europeans.  For centuries before there were no borders in the region and the nomadic tribes that lived there would move from place to place as they desired.  A region known as ‘Azawad’ was the traditional lands of the Tuareg and spanned parts of modern day Mali, Niger, Algeria, Burkino Faso and Libya.

Mali political map

Map showing the traditional Tuareg region of West Africa

Since the imposition of the current borders, the north of Mali, has been bound to the governmental rule of the southern capital Bamako, a place with markedly different ethnic groups and little in common with the Tuareg people.  Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world with an estimated GDP in 2012 of just $641 per capita according to Wikipedia (for comparison, the UK 2015 figure is $44,118).  There is little interest or will to invest much of Mali’s meagre finances in the poor cousin that is the north and unsurprisingly the predominantly Tuareg inhabitants being unimpressed with this, have regularly rebelled over the last few decades.  The latest uprising began in 2012, with the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) leading the charge to defeat Malian Government forces.  Initially the MNLA was assisted by a number of Islamic groups including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine. Government forces were soon crushed and the independent state of Azawad was declared. However the honeymoon didn’t last long and the Islamic groups themselves turned on and defeated their erstwhile brother in arms, the MNLA and took control of the north, imposing harsh Sharia law across the region later in 2012.

Although the population of Mali is 95% Muslim, it is by and large, a relatively tolerant ‘islam lite’ version that is practiced. Alcohol is accepted in the same way it is in the west, music and dancing are a big part of Mali culture, and Malian women enjoy wearing the bright and colourful clothes commonly seen across West Africa.  The arrival of brutal Sharia imposed by hard line fundamentalists put a stop to all this and unsurprisingly, was not popular with the majority of people. All alcohol and cigarettes were publically destroyed, music and dancing was outlawed, and brutal punishments for transgressors were carried out (the stone block used for chopping off hands and feet is still visible in the main square in Gao complete with blade marks and blood stains).

hqdefaultA victim of the brutal Sharia law imposed by MUJAO in Gao, Mali in 2012.  Convicted as a thief by the sharia court, his right hand and left foot have been publicly amputated.

Once an iron grip was established in the North, the Islamists turned their eyes to the south of Mali and began to advance towards the capital Bamako.  In 2013, the French, at the request of the Malian Government, deployed their armed forces and within  few weeks, retook the north and ejected the islamist groups from the towns and cities.  This was followed later that year by the UN establishing MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) in order to provide stability and assistance during the restoration of infrastructure and governance in the region.

French troops drive past a MINUSMA convoy forming up in Gao.  The UN armoured personnel carriers are manned by soldiers from Bangladesh 

Since 2013 there has been a slow and painstaking dialogue between the several disparate armed groups claiming an interest in the future of Northern Mali.  At the last count there were several, each with influence in different regions and each with their own agenda, and each with their own name based on the theme of popular representation. This kind of reminds me of the ‘Life of Brian’ scene when Brian tries to join the ‘Popular Front of Judea’ only to be told to:

“f**k off, were the Peoples Front”.

“Whatever happened to the popular front?”

“He’s over there”

All shout “SPLITTER”………..

Anyway, I digress (but I don’t care, its my blog after all) but the negotiations finally got all of the armed groups to sign up to a fragile ‘peace agreement’ this year and although tensions remain high, by and large it is holding.  Of course the Jihadist groups are not part of this agreement and are an additional overlay woven into the fabric of the current situation and a complicating factor.  As usual it is the young, uneducated, impressionable and disaffected youth, brainwashed with hateful religious dogma by wicked and manipulative authority figures, that are recruited to carry out IED attacks and ambushes on a variety of targets, predominantly MINUSMA, that are part of the effort to restore stability to the region.  Add to the mix high levels of lawlessness due to the prolonged absence of effective law enforcement; banditry, kidnapping, drug and people trafficking, are all effective ways for criminal elements to make money in cash strapped Mali.

sahel view

A typical view of the vast Sahel wilderness of Northern Mali

Anyway, the clumsy and rambling point I am trying to make, is that Mali has many contributing factors, many layers of complexity, that shape the current conflict here.  The everyday experiences of many people here are totally different to the relatively privileged and cossetted lifestyles we enjoy in the first world.  To the ordinary inhabitants of Mali, the issues at the heart of the conflict are massively important to them, it is their world, their universe.  It does not matter to them that we live on an insignificant planet tucked away in an obscure galaxy in an incomprehensibly large expanse of space.  They are just trying to survive, to make the best of what little they have to live their lives and do the best they can for their future generations.  We could apply the same examination to any number of ongoing conflicts around the world and identify similar reasons.  Fear of difference, struggles for power and self interest between different groups across all hierarchical levels from personal to international.  All of these will inevitably lead to conflict between our species.  So whilst I wholeheartedly agree with and embrace the sentiments, observations and visionary outlook for our future made by Carl Sagan, I am alas resigned to the reality that the human race has an awfully long journey to make before any of his great visions can ever become a reality.

Can we succeed in making this journey? Will we ever manage to learn to get along, to put aside our fear of difference and work together to make the world a better place for humanity?  Who knows, but in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my opportunity to gaze at the magnificence of the Mali night sky and reflect how lucky I am to even exist in such a wondrous universe.  Oh look, a shooting star……..


Welcome To My First Blog Post – The Frog And The Pot

frog looking out of cooking pot for help. a red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas), closeup isolated on white

Without wanting to sound like a Daily Mail reader (I’m not), I really can’t see a bright future for our species if we continue to act in the ways that we have been in recent history.  Also I am very aware that much brighter, better qualified, wider read and more articulate people than I have studied and written on many of the issues that affect us today in far greater depth than I could ever presume to have.  However, as an ordinary bloke with (well I believe) a reasonable level of intelligence and rational thinking ability, I feel compelled to sometimes add my own thoughts, observations and opinions to the discussion.  I have no academic authority (unless a Sociology and Social Policy degree from the Open University and O levels in maths, physics and art count……… thought not), I have no particular expertise other than what I have gained from a long career in a fairly niche specialist field, and I certainly don’t believe I have any real capacity to influence or change what is going on in this world that make me worry about my children’s future.  I do however have my 50+ years personal experience of life so far and a voice.  That is it. That is all I have to offer (not even blood, sweat, toil and tears….. ).

So now that’s cleared up, welcome to my blog, a place where I intend to write about anything that stirs my emotion, grabs my attention, provokes my incredulity or just plain annoys me enough to bother to give my thoughts a public airing.  All opinions are mine, any topics or material discussed may or may not be referenced (I’m not trying to win a Nobel prize), I won’t be writing with the eloquence of a Hitchens or a Sagan or any number of great people who have influenced my life, and I certainly won’t be writing with the expectation that many people will read, or even care, what I have to say.  I see this blog as an outlet for me to get shit off my chest, a means of challenging the nonsense and bullshit that seems to pass as ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ for many people these days and my opportunity to call people out when they are obviously pretending to know stuff they actually don’t (religious types in particular may or may not get a lot of attention here…..).  I don’t expect everyone (or anyone for that matter) to agree with me, but if you don’t, then I look forward to some interesting discussions.  If you do happen to agree, then yay me, I won the internet.

I was reading a blog post today written by one of my long term twitter tweeps, @SecularScarlet on her excellent blog SECULAR SCARLET – Theology Is Ignorance With Wings which triggered something in my mind and compelled me to write something on this long dormant blog that I set up last year, but never got around to starting.  The article concerned was a piece called E.L.E…Extinction Level Event (read it here: which briefly outlined the 5 known previous Extinction Level Events that have occurred during the earths history, and concluded by identifying that we may be in the midst of a sixth extinction event, possibly of our own making.  This got me thinking, as I have a lot recently, about what the human race is doing, both to itself and to the planet, and what the effects of current human activities will have for our future generations. If we truly are experiencing an extinction event, then the long term prognosis for our species, indeed all of the species that inhabit our planet, looks bleak.

How long before we and our future generations really start to see and feel the effects of what humans have been up to for the last few thousand years? Will these effects even be noticeable to someone in a single lifetime? Arguably we are seeing those effects now without even realising it because their onset is so gradual in relation to a typical human life span measured in decades.  The number of species becoming extinct grows slowly every year, but over say 1000s of years (still a short time relative to billions of years the earth has existed) the numbers would be appreciably large. The ever increasing world population barely registers in the ‘everyday’ of those of us fortunate enough to live in the western world.  But population growth at current rates is, and will continue to have, a massive impact on the earths resources.  Again, in a single lifetime, this may not be apparent to us now, but for future generations it will be a huge problem.  The same can be applied to any number of effects of human activity: the production of greenhouse gases, burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of the rain forests and so on.  Each in the short period of a human lifetime are barely measurable to most people, but over several generations, the damage and its effects will become a serious problem and have an irreversible impact on our planet.

I have no idea of the source or the veracity of the ‘frog in the boiling water’ story, but it is certainly provides a good analogy to use to describe our current predicament.  For those that have not heard it, the story goes that if you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will instinctively leap away in an effort to save itself.  However, if you put the frog in a pot of cold water and heat it up, it is unable to detect the slow change in temperature and will stay in the water until it is boiled to death.  We as humans are apparently unable (or unwilling) to detect and react to the slow changes over time that may eventually imperil, if not our very existence, then certainly our way of life that we so take for granted.

So what is the point of my post so far?  Well with the concerns I have for the future of my children and future generations I try to imagine what I would say to them if it was possible for me to visit them in the future.  If I could sit down with my great great grandchildren, how would I tell them about the policies and activities pursued by us that ultimately ruined the planet for them?  How would I explain that we did nothing to address these problems, that we carried on regardless with no thought for the life they would endure?  How would I describe the beauty and diversity of the world we knew but failed to protect for their enjoyment and benefit?  How would I rationalise the irrational beliefs that were held by billions which ultimately informed, shaped and even dictated the policies which led to the demise of our beautiful world?

So with this in mind, I intend my next few posts to be a series of ‘letters’ to my children’s children where I will try to explain what we did, why we did it and how we didn’t care how it would affect the future.  I intend to cover a number of the major topics that in my opinion contributed to this potential grim future.  I have no idea what the final result will be, what I will say, or indeed how I will say it.  The only thing I do know is that there will be a lot of apologising and begging for their forgiveness for the parlous state of the world we handed to them.  We could have and should have tried much harder, but we chose to ignore the warning signs.  We were frogs in boiling water indeed.