07/06/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2012

What I Learned in Mali

In April a middle-aged Swiss woman was kidnapped in the West African country of Mali from the city of Timbuktu -- making it the fifth kidnapping of foreign nationals in the city in as many months.

Mali, once considered a model of development and democracy in Africa, now finds itself in the inglorious position of possibly being al Qaeda's next homeland as the government battles a Tuareg tribal rebellion and an Islamist resurgence in the northern half of its country, now called Azawad by locals.

But what no one is saying is that the Tuaregs, one of the poorest yet proudest tribes in Africa, had every right to revolt.

There have been several Tuareg uprisings in the past -- most recently in 2006 and 2009. Both ended with the Mali government promising more investment and support in the Northern Sahara regions. Promises that, by all accounts, were empty. Roads to and inside Timbuktu are unpaved and riddled with potholes. Government services, including the police force, the post office, schools, or hospitals were erratic at best (I spent a month in Mali over New Years and when I went to post a letter from the post office in Timbuktu I was told by the post office, "Do it in Bamako, your letter will never get to where you want it to go if you post it from here.") Modern improvements like the canal linking Timbuktu to the Niger River, actual gas stations (instead of rickety stands selling petrol in whiskey bottles), and the refurbishing of the famed mosques and libraries -- were all funded by UNESCO, USAID or Libya's Colonel Gaddafi (who, not unlike Saddam Hussein, insisted on having every project his country funded bear his name).

By the time the internationally renowned annual Essakane Music Festival, held in the heart of Tuareg country in the dunes outside of Timbuktu, rolled around on January 12, any Tuareg loyalty to the government was wearing thin.

For the occasion, the army was called in and for four days Timbuktu was as secure as the United Nations. This didn't go unnoticed by locals, who grumbled about having no regular security and being ignored the rest of the year.

But even worse than the government indifference was the sheer audacity of government officials to flaunt their wealth in the face of the people in Azawad.

In Timbuktu there is a clothing market I call the "Lost Luggage of Donated Clothes." The market consists of clothing people in wealthier countries have donated -- but before it reaches Timbuktu, the clothes have been sorted through and picked over by at least four other "poor" countries. The market is the last stop in the line for unwanted garments. And even though the prices are cheap and negotiable, most locals can still only afford one outfit change, if that. Children are given a shirt and wear it 'til they either outgrow it or it falls from their bodies.

Yet the Tuaregs wore their cheap cotton clothing and silver alloy rings with pride during the Essakane Music festival. It was a stark contrast to the government ministers who made the trip from down South.

This year, the festival -- a favorite amongst British socialites and celebrities like Robert Plant, Henry Rollins and Jimmy Buffet -- attracted high-ranking ministers of the Malian government, musician Habib Koite, Grammy winning artists Tinariwen and Bono, who arrived by private jet with his family and members of his ONE foundation in tow.

Wealthy tourists wandered around amongst government ministers, dressed in silk robes, and bedecked with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other gems all set in gold from the mines near Senegal -- flaunting their wealth in their subjects' faces.

On the morning of January 13, the second day of the Festival, Tuareg chiefs and government ministers convened for a conference on security in Northern Mali -- ironic, as just six weeks earlier four tourists had been kidnapped, one killed, in broad daylight from Timbuktu by al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM). According to eyewitnesses in Timbuktu, it took local police four hours to respond to the scene, a mere half hour walking distance away.

The conference, held in a tent in the sand dunes, was a recipe for disaster. Well-dressed government ministers delivered the final insult by insisting on speaking in French and English -- languages not native to the area.

One Tuareg chief was incensed and verbally accosted the government speakers.

According to Mohammed, an Algerian who looked like a young Fidel Castro and spoke Tamashek, Arabic, French and English, the Tuareg chief stood and shouted (in Tamashek), "You come to our part of the country for a festival celebrating our culture and you don't even have the decency to speak our language. You have done nothing for us since the ceasefire!"

The government ministers gestured for security and a fight in ensued. The chief warned, "We are going back to arms."

As the chief was escorted out of the tent by armed guards he yelled at fellow Tuareg, "Who is with me?" prompting a majority of the tribal leaders to stand up and follow him out of the tent in ominous silence.
That evening, Bono (introduced as "BOH-no from YouTube") took the stage to belt out a mangled version of "Vive le Mali, Vive la paix, Vive la musique" -- to the indifference of the crowd.

The next day, the government ministers and their armed entourages left town, leaving Timbuktu jittery.
Two days later the bombs started dropping outside of Gao.

So yeah -- basically, I get it. The Tuaregs wanted a homeland where they could govern themselves (as no one else seemed to want to), not be ignored, and have a basic human right of security. It's just a shame they were hijacked by the Islamists, Ansar Dine and al Qaeda. Maybe next time, if the Bamako-based government does end up able to subdue the turmoil, they will learn their lesson and distribute Mali's monies evenly throughout their districts, taking care of all the people, not just their counties. But I doubt they will.