There is war in Mali’s North, and there doesn’t need to be. Some of this conflict is hard to stop–the shadow boxing of distant powers, the scattering of weapons, the spiraling circuits of revenge. But some of this conflict people chose, and they are choosing it now. Let’s leave why for another time and place. Let’s ask instead, to what effect?
There is a lot of talk of hostages in the Sahara. In a video posted on OkayAfrica today (it was recorded in November last year) Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche says there might be too much talk, too powerful a “media narrative” of kidnapping and insecurity. I’m sure he’s right, at least in part. This is what Achille Mbembe calls the problem of African stories being too rarely told for themselves.
Still, let me talk about other hostages. The rebels–that is, the MNLA and their disavowed and dangerous allies–hold Mali hostage. Hostage to their own violence; to that of Salafist splinter groups and local militias; to the hunger that stalks the region; to the possibility of worse to come. What else does the rebellion hold hostage? Two ancient cosmopolitan, polyglot, and multi-ethnic cities: Timbuktu, not a Tuareg town; Gao, not a Tuareg town. What else? A lush weave of striking difference, one of Africa’s gifts to a world that hasn’t always known how to value it. A library of African thought, re-discovered and largely unread. Don’t visit it, not just now. Read the work of another hostage, Ahmed Baba, who in the 17th century wrote from Morocco of Timbuktu, celebrating the tolerance and diversity of his homeland. Listen to Ali Farka Touré, or even Tinariwen, in which they sing theirs. Mourn with me, for this is a loss, and if an ethno-nationalist state replaces a multi-ethnic, secular one, it might be a terrible loss.
Or don’t. Don’t mourn, don’t organize, and if bad gets worse, don’t read the news. Don’t feel involved, engaged, responsible. And don’t ask.