01/23/2013 02:21 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Mali Meditations

In the wake of President Obama's second inauguration, military matters in West Africa continue to be in the news. In my more than 30 years as an anthropologist who specializes in the culture and peoples of West Africa, I have never enjoyed reading mainstream news reports from the region. The reason is simple: whenever a remote place somewhere in West Africa comes into global focus, the news is never good. We hear about places like Mali or Niger, Chad or Sierra Leone because there is famine and we see images of starving children who are dying. News organizations also broadcast stories of nations where ethnic conflicts have torn the social fabric. In those stories we learn about drugged child soldiers who commit unspeakable atrocities. On the ground, these newsworthy events provoke widespread misery as children lose their parents or parents lose their children, as desperate families are forced to leave their homes only to arrive in overcrowded, unsafe, unhealthy and unfamiliar refugee camps.

It is now Mali's turn to be in the spotlight. Mali, once the jewel of West African democracies, has unfortunately slipped into the news. Al-Qaida affiliated Islamist groups have overtaken and now control the northeastern provinces of the Sahelian nation, In towns like Timbuktu, a great center of Islamic scholarship and Gao, the place from which 16th Songhay emperors ruled over an empire that stretched across most of West Africa, the Islamists, many of whom are not even Malian, have established sharia law, which they enforce ruthlessly on the traditionally moderate Muslims of the region. The political anemia of the international community, not to forget that of the Malian state, has enabled the Islamists to reinforce their power. Could Mali turn into a rogue Islamist state like Afghanistan, or Somalia from which terrorists could plan European and North American attacks?

The Islamists, who are well armed and well supplied, have now moved their offensive to the south, inching closer to the Malian capital of Bamako. Those recent troop movements have finally compelled French and West African military intervention. The French and West African forces have bombed Islamist strongholds and attacked Islamist outposts. True to the form of other civil conflicts in Africa, the escalating chaos has provoked a Malian exodus from the region. Thousands of people have abandoned their homes and fled to the Malian south, to Burkina Faso and to Niger where authorities are ill equipped to deal with this latest humanitarian crisis.

Two important elements get lost in the here and now of the mainstream news shuffle. News stories about Islamists in Mali rarely take a historical perspective. The peoples of the northeastern provinces Mali are no strangers to Arab invasions from the North. In the late 16th century an Arab army marched across the Sahara and put an end to the Songhay Empire, installing a pasha to govern the region. From the perspective of Songhay people I've known over the years, the conflict between north and south, between "red-skinned" people from the north, and "black-skinned" peoples from the south has deep historical roots.

Spread through the oral tradition of epic poetry that is now performed on radio and television, the West Africans I've known have a deep and detailed sense of history. That historical vision is focused not only on the distant past but also on the far-off future. It is a vision that considers the slow, but eventual shift of historical winds.

The other element that is lost in the news shuffle is the social and cultural resilience of West African peoples. What has impressed me repeatedly during many years of research among a variety of West African populations is their capacity to adapt brilliantly to the considerable challenges of everyday life. No matter the challenge, most of them have been able to meet it. If they feel the pain of poverty, illness or dislocation, to borrow from the title of Scott Youngstedt's recently published book about urban life in Niger, they are nonetheless Surviving With Dignity.

I cannot predict the outcome of what may turn out to be a long lasting military conflict in Mali. Even so, it is worthwhile to pay attention not only to the short-term news of military maneuvers and human suffering, but also to the long term stories of human resilience. Those stories remind us that even in the direst circumstances, human beings have the capacity to meet existential challenges with a measure dignity and well-being.