malian refugees
If faced with a choice between remaining in the relative safety of a refugee camp but being hungry, or returning to your home country to face violence and uncertainty, which would you choose?

The increasingly severe drought conditions that are affecting several countries in the West African Sahel states has forced many Malian refugees to consider this very question. Lack of food, shelter and other basic resources at refugee camps in nearby Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger have many considering a return to Mali, which continues to be wracked by violence.

Since the violence that pitted the government against rebel groups (mainly the Tuareg) began in Mali in 2012, nearly 146,000 Malians have been displaced both internally and abroad. Thousands fled to nearby Burkina Faso, further stretching the resources of a country that is consistently listed at the bottom of the Human Development Index (183 of 186 in 2013). Burkina Faso, which already faces its own high rates of poverty, has seen its food security become dramatically more uncertain due to both the drought and influx of refugees.

The drought affects seven West African countries (including Mali and Burkina Faso) and is mainly due to poor weather conditions – exacerbated by poor governance. Nearly 15 million people are affected, many of whom rely on good weather for strong harvests that serve as their livelihoods.

Malian refugees who fled during the past two years are making difficult choices between remaining in the safety of camps abroad, where there is no longer enough basic resources for them, or returning to their war-torn homes to try and make a new life. Mali has a population of 16 million, where 50% live below the poverty line and 47.6% fall between the ages of 0 and 14. Considering these statistics and the violence that continues, many needs of the young population that will allow it to grow in the future are not being met.

Both choices that the refugees face leave a strong possibility of falling into poverty and facing difficulty in securing a livelihood. The combination of food insecurity, conflict and displaced populations is and will continue to be a source of concern for countries throughout the world as this mixture is often at the root of instability that spills into further conflict and terrorism.

– Andrea Blinkhorn

Sources: VICE, The World Bank, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Central Intelligence Agency, Google Drive, BBC News
Photo: The Guardian

timbuktu renaissance
In 2012, Jihadist forces invaded and occupied Northern Mali, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians into exile. Among these individuals were musicians, artists and scholars.

Timbuktu is a city in the country of Mali, a western African country. Timbuktu is historically important as a trading post on the trans-Saharan caravan route. It was also the center of Islamic culture from 1400-1600. In 1988, the city was designated as a World Heritage Site.

Extremists invaded and immediately targeted Mali’s culture, notably music, including the world-renowned Festival Au Desert, as well as historic manuscripts that document Timbuktu’s position as the center of Islamic civilization in Africa during the Renaissance period.

The established culture is especially crucial in Mali, as it provides a guard against fundamentalism and the rigid Sharia law that outsiders have attempted to impose on the Mali people.

In an attempt to snuff out Mali’s culture, Islamic Jihadists sought to gain increasing levels of control. The extremist’s work to break down Mali’s culture was a strategic move, as culture is necessary for collective identity. When the collective body breaks down, a culture loses its cohesive nature — which is exactly what the extremists were trying to achieve. Due to the strength and perseverance of the Mali people, however, they were unsuccessful.

Invaders sought to silence the musical Internet for much of Mali, destroyed unique mud-brick shrines and tore down UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Despite Jihadist efforts, the Malians continued to blend music in hiding and in exile in neighboring countries. Under the leadership of Abdel Kader Haidara, a scholar and member of the Timbuktu Renaissance Action Group, individuals saved thousands of precious historical manuscripts, risking their lives to transport hundreds of cases on donkey-back.

Luckily, French forces worked to assist Mali in expelling the Jihadist takeover in the North. Now, as the country is working to re-unify the North and South, the current course of action comes in the revival of the Mali culture.

Mali’s President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, speaks openly about the crucial role culture plays in reunifying the country. The president spoke of Timbuktu’s symbolic importance as a major center of Islamic history during the concert of Malian music held during the UN General Assembly last September.

President Keita leads distinguished members of the Timbuktu Renaissance Action Group to revive and strengthen Mali’s rich cultural environment. This effort is for more than historical preservation, but works toward harvesting the potential for unity. Mali culture has the capability to promote peace, spur economic growth and attract tourists back to the region.

The Timbuktu Renaissance is alive and in full swing — and as the movement continues to grow, so does the potential for peace.

— Caroline Logan

Sources: Britannica, Brookings 1, Brookings 2
Photo: Flickr

Ranking 182nd on the Human Development Index (the 6th lowest ranking on the planet,) Mali is recognized as one of the most nutritionally unstable and under developed countries in the world. About four in 10 children under the age of 5 are underweight, and one in four people are as well. As a study from 2014 indicates, over 1.5 million people are not sustained by a regular supply of food.

This landlocked country is often afflicted by droughts and insect infestations, which deplete the crops upon which they often rely on for food. While malnutrition in Mali afflicts the entire population, it is the second largest killer of children under the age of 5.

In her intensive ethnographic study of Magnambougou, Mali, “Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa,” however, Dr. Katherine Dettwyler suggests that rather than poverty, a lack of education surrounding nutrition is the main root of malnutrition in infants and young children. It is the mothers’ misunderstanding that it is not simply enough to give children food, but in the early stages of development, it is crucial to distribute the right kinds of food.

On one of her visits to Mali, Dettwyler examined a little girl with kwashiorkor, of which the primary symptom is swelling all over the body and particularly in the abdomen. The disease is a result of protein deficiency combined with a high caloric intake and often appears when the child cannot sustain the same level of protein intake after being weaned.

The mother who summoned Dettwyler called the disease “funu bana,” meaning “swelling sickness,” and believed her daughter caught it from another child. She begged Dettwyler for medicine to cure her daughter despite Dettwyler’s assurance that all her daughter needed was to have a higher quantity of protein slowly introduced to her diet.

Dettwyler also offers an anecdote regarding misconceptions about nutrition that occurred when she brought her young daughter Miranda to Mali. When the two were eating with some of the villagers and Dettwyler gave her piece of chicken to her daughter, she was immediately questioned. One man explained that good food should not be wasted on the young, because they have their whole lives to eat, while the old should be honored because they will soon die. Dettwyler, however, tried to explain that children should be the ones to receive the better food because they need the protein to fuel their growth.

Moreover, a large reason for the high child mortality rate due to malnutrition is because adults often have trouble identifying the signs of malnutrition. In her ethnography, Dettwyler notes that “people simply get used to the way children look. If the typical child is mildly to moderately malnourished, then that becomes the standard… normal is what you’re used to” In addition to providing emergency relief, Dettwyler, along with Action Against Hunger, argue that the key to combating malnutrition in Mali is education, and that teaching Malians how to identify malnourished children will be an enormous step in the process.

– Jordyn Horowitz

Sources: Action Against Hunger, Dancing Skeletons, WFP
Photo: Flickr

Mali is a West African country that lies within the Sahara Desert, bordered by Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania and Niger. Conquered by France in 1904, Mali became a member of the French Union. However, in 1960, Mali became an independent nation, adopting the new title of the Sudanese Republic, later changing its name to the Republic of Mali.

While the 1960s marked Mali’s transition to an independent self-effaced nation, this decade also marked the onslaught of political instability that would later run rampant throughout the country. During this time, Mali receded from its international ties with China; this outraged opponents and ultimately lead to border wars and military disputes.

However, in the early 1990s, Mali peacefully transitioned from a country under military rule to a democratic nation. However, unrest and hostilities in Mali has remained prevalent, affecting the nation’s social structure and economic stability. For example, in 2012, Mali was hit by a military coup d’état, reawakened hostilities between Tuareg rebels and the government and the capture of the northern territory by Islamists. In order to address these issues, significant steps have been taken to help reinstate a stable democratic order in Mali. One key area of concern is safety.

According to an issue released by the Bert Koenders of the United Nations, “The new authorities are confronted with numerous challenges that need to be addressed urgently to enable Malian men, women and children to live in security and to benefit from peace dividends.” In order to reestablish stability, the United Nations is working to reestablish constitutional order through presidential elections. By establishing national authority and security, Mali is in a greater position to combat the terrorist attacks that it routinely encounters.

Koenders states that while Mali has made great strides since the 1960s, the establishment of humanitarian efforts in the nation remain unseen. In order for full stability to be achieved, reconciliation, further peace negotiations and a reestablishment of national authority must occur. Therefore, there is much work to be done in order to stabilize the nation.

Phoebe Pradhan

Sources: Info Please, United Nations
Photo: Borgen

At this time last year, France had just lead an intervention into Mali as Al-Qaeda militants had control over much of the country. The French sent troops in after the government became alarmed by the direction Mali was going. Within three weeks, the French had driven out many of the jihadists that had once seemed like they would take hold of the country.

While there are still worries about a remaining Al Qaeda presence in the region, the tumult that ensued in the last few years has severely affected the nation’s food situation. Many residents were displaced from the fighting and harvests have been disrupted as well.

Thus, a number of food programs have stated that 800,000 people are in need of “immediate food aid,” and that “three million people nationwide are at risk.”

Food shortages have been an ongoing problem amid the tumult going back to 2012.

This looks to be the largest crisis facing the country at the present time, yet the help that came last year to fight the jihadists has not been there to fight hunger. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “the ‘lean’ season… will start early this year. The late arrival of rains, the low availability of cereal stocks… mean that people have not been able to recover.”

These factors, along with the instability that has been much publicized, has brought Mali to the food crisis they are now facing. It is up to organizations like The Borgen Project to raise the proper awareness about the food crisis. The United Nations appeal for help in the food situation was only able to raise half the funds it set out for.

The Oxfam director in Mali said, “We have to invest in agricultural and pastoral policies that… make people less vulnerable to shocks.”

The next few months will be very important for the future of Mali. It is just this sort of food crisis that could cause the desperation that allowed the jihadists to come into Mali previously. If the Western world identifies the issue beforehand, they will be able to save the money and resources that another intervention would entail. Mali is a banner example for the importance of foreign poverty relief, and the background of the past two years should weigh heavily on the work the West can do.

Eric Gustafsson

Sources:, The Economist, ABC News, The Guardian
Photo: Voice of America

Students at N’tjibougou School used to have to choose between relieving themselves outside in bushes or running home to use the bathroom and risk missing class.

They now have six new latrines, three for boys and three for girls – an improvement to the one restroom they used to have to share among 70 of their peers. This is just one of the changes that came about with the Dubai Cares WASH program in Mali’s schools.

N’tjibougou School created a Children’s Government for students to become actively involved in the changes taking place.

Nematou Malle, 12, is the Minister of Cleanliness and her job is to “keep all students in good health, see that they drink clean water, that they come to school clean and that the school latrines and courtyard are clean,” as she described to Dubai Cares.

Nematou created a hygiene kit for the school as part of the Dubai Cares initiative. The kit includes a brush, buckets, gloves, face masks, soap and bleach. As Minister of Cleanliness, Nematou is also in charge of collecting drinking water for classrooms, sweeping and removing trash, and making sure students wash their hands with soap.

Not only do these practices impact positive behavioral changes among students, but they also give those who are involved in the Children’s Government a sense of leadership and confidence.

Many children who do not finish school in Mali have preventable health problems that can be eliminated with more hygienic systems and access to safe and clean water and sanitation facilities at school.

The Dubai Cares WASH program in Mali covers 726 schools to provide water and sanitation infrastructure to ensure a healthy learning environment. The objective of the program is to improve children’s access to quality primary education.

– Haley Sklut

Sources: Dubai Cares, WASH in Schools
Photo: Open Equal Free

Guinea Worm
There were only 148 cases of Guinea Worm infestations reported worldwide last year, which is a leap forward compared to the 3.5 million cases less than two decades ago. This disease is known to many as “dracunculiasis” which means, “affliction with little dragons,” due to the pain the worm causes on the skin. Hope remains for the few countries left on the Guinea worm-endemic list as complete eradication of the parasite may come at a faster rate than that of the polio virus.

The number of countries on the Guinea worm endemic list dropped from 21 to four. Ethiopia, Chad, Mali and South Sudan remain on the list, but there are now less than 200 cases compared to the millions that reported in 1986. South Sudan currently has the highest number of cases due to a resurgence that occurred last month when health workers were removed from the main eradication center due to fighting in the villages.

People acquire the worm by drinking contaminated water. When individuals drink the contaminated water, the pathogen enters the body where it remains for almost a month. During this time it matures into a worm that can grow up to 3 feet long. When it is ready, the Guinea worm exits from a blister on the individual’s skin inch by inch.  In most cases, the exiting worm has contact with water, where it releases its larvae and the pathogen is able to spread to several people if they continue to drink from these shallow ponds. This microscopic parasite usually appears in isolated villages marked by these shallow water ponds.

Family economies also suffer as victims are unable to work or farm. The process is painful and as it emerges it cripples a person for several weeks. Young children who acquire the worm also miss school for several weeks.

Wiping out the Guinea worm has been quite the obstacle since there is no vaccine or medicine against the parasite.  Health advocates usually visit various villages to educate families about the dangers of drinking contaminated water. They also explain how the water becomes contaminated when villagers place their infected limbs in shallow water ponds.

So far efforts to eliminate the Guinea Worm have cost around $350 million since 1986. This amount has almost solved the problem, while fighting off polio will cost upwards of $5.5 billion. Health workers note that eradication efforts are low-tech but can be easily implemented since the only strategy is to drink clean water and keep infections monitored. Officials from the Carter Center, the main operation center against Guinea Worm cases, are confident about eliminating the parasite if they continue their same efficient methods.

Maybelline Martez

Sources: NY Times, NPR, Guinea Worms, NPR, Slaying Dragons
Photo: TrialX

Film Tells Story of Exiled Musicians in Mali
In every culture, music is a special way to tell a story.  It says something unique and important about a culture, and is an essential way to connect people.  Music’s importance is seen most visibly in Malian culture, where music is not a profession or a pastime, but a people.  Griots are musicians who tell stories about Malian history, and hold the keys to the past.  In Mali, therefore, music is culture.

In 2012, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa banned all music in Northern Mali.  This movement took over Northern Mali after a violent take over instigated by Islamic extremism.  This music ban forced Malian musicians to either flee the nation or move underground.  As a result, an incredible counter-cultural movement is sweeping over Malian music.

“They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Musicians in Exile” is a documentary currently being commissioned by British director Johanna Schwartz and producer Kat Amara Korba.  The documentary will explore how Malian musicians are seeking to restore music and peace to the ailing nation.  Musicians featured in the documentary will include Khaira Arby (the “Nightingale of the North”,) Manny Ansar (a music festival director), and Toumani Diabate (a 72nd generation Griot.)

The project began shooting in February 2013, near the beginnings of the conflict, and will continue to shoot through April.  The documentary is being independently funded through a Kickstarter Campaign.  The fundraiser officially achieved its goal of 30,000 British pounds on December 7, 2013, but is still accepting pledges to meet production costs.

As stated by Malian musician Fadimata Disco Walet Oumar, “They want to ban music?  They will have to kill us first.”  Mali’s musical rebellion is a testament to the power of expression.

Taylor Diamond

Sources: Kickstarter, They Will Have to Kill Us First

The World Health Organization confirmed the eradication of smallpox in 1979, the only human disease to be completely eradicated. Now, another disease is getting closer to the same fate. Dracunculiasis, or guinea worm, is on its way out. In a weekly report, the CDC has said that only 89 cases of guinea worm were recorded in the first half of 2013. This is a 77 percent reduction over last year.

In contrast, there have been over 300 cases of polio, another disease nearing eradication, in the same time period.

Dracunculiasis is spread through ingesting stagnant water contaminated with the Dracunculus medinensis larvae. About one year after infection, the worm can grow up to 30 inches, and emerge through the surface of the skin, frequently on the lower limbs. While it is rarely fatal, pain and bacterial infections often follow and can cause permanent a disability.

While the number of cases has dropped, there are no drugs available that could prevent or heal the current cases. The possibility of spreading the parasite is particularly high if the infected person frequents stagnant water sources, such as an open well or pond.

The worm is now only found in four countries: Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, and South Sudan. A majority of the cases were found in South Sudan, but the country has seen an 80 percent decrease since last year. Mali is facing a tougher time in the eradication process. Due to a coup d’état in April of 2012, health workers have not been able to reach some areas of the country.

– David Smith

Sources: NPR, CDC, WHO
Photo: KidWorldCitizen

Mali Refugee Children School Teaching Tuareg Separatists Ansar Dine
In the wake of the jihadist occupation of Mali, hundreds of thousands of displaced Malian children currently await the opportunity to return to school. The country’s $9.1 million back-to-school campaign, “Peace is back, School is back,” aims to re-establish the education system by reinstating teachers and providing school supplies. The campaign also plans to provide therapy for children and teachers affected by secessionist occupation of the country.

Among obstacles to the campaign are teachers who have yet to return to the north after seeking refuge in the south. Seen by jihadists as a face of the Malian state, many teachers fled for their lives when groups linked to al-Qaeda began to target schools that employed “western-style” education methods. Books were burned and classrooms were destroyed. Teachers were forced to flee south. Many of these teachers are still skeptical of security in the north and are hesitant to return.

“We have to help the teachers deal with psycho-social trauma for themselves and for the children,” Francoise Ackermans, Unicef’s representative to Mali, said to The Guardian.

Mali’s Ministry of Education reports that 1,400 of 2,500 displaced teachers have returned to the north and taken advantage of a grant from the European Union that allots $500 for each returning teacher. However, even if all 2,500 teachers are accounted for, 2,500 teaching positions in northern Mali will remain empty. To combat this problem, Unicef is providing training and therapy for 9,000 Malian teachers. Financial contributions to the campaign are also lacking. Ackermans noted that only $4 million have been pledged to the campaign so far. She emphasizes that if the campaign is to be successful, effective communication among communities is key.

“It’s a nationwide intervention and we have to mobilize the communities and send the right messages,” Ackermans said. “So it’s about communication and mobilization at the community level.”

Education is Mali’s focus in postwar recovery. Despite financial hardship and a lack of teachers, progress is being made. Children in southern Mali begin a new school year on October 1st. Children in northern Mali, who are currently participating in accelerated learning programs, will begin in November. Ackermans refers to education as “the cornerstone of Mali’s reconstruction.”

“What’s a more visible sign of things going back to normal than a girl and a boy walking to school in the morning?” Ackermans asked.

The campaign still has a long way to go in accommodating the estimated 800,000 children affected by the jihadist occupation. If the campaign is to be successful, the international community needs to step up by raising awareness and financial support. Without securing its future by providing its children with access to education, the country cannot remain stable. Ackerman stresses that each child has the right to education, and Mali will not be able to return to normality until that right is realized.

“An educated child is becoming a citizen of his own country and of the world. This is one of the basic rights of every child,” Ackermans said to Voice of America. “We have to commit ourselves to work together on that.”

– Matt Berg

Sources: The Guardian
Photo: Education and Transition