Approaching the capital: Nomadic pastoralist (im)mobilities in Mali

By Giulia Gonzales, PASTRES project

We are sitting in the corner of the boutique of Aicha, a small room full of veils and household items. The shop has two entrances, one on the street, one on the courtyard of the house. Aicha is concentrating on making tea, pouring the boiling infusion into small glasses to mount the foam, and then back into the small teapot on the camping gas. As she waits for the temperature to be just right, she lies on the pillow behind her, stretches her swollen foot, and stares into space.

Aicha has been limping for few days. Now her foot aches more, worsened by the increasing heat of April. Under advice from a doctor, she is taking some pills, but she knows that she will have to do some blood tests too. Her condition of semi-immobility frustrates her: she can’t travel around to visit friends and family, and this is having a negative effect on her petit commerce, a small informal trade in veils that she manages, like other Kel Tamasheq women in Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Aicha’s house is in Sirakoro, a peripheral neighbourhood of Bamako. It was the first area to attract an increasing number of Kel Tamasheq families, especially since the outbreak of the crisis of 2012. Sirakoro is the first in the city to acquire the title of ‘Kel Tamasheq neighbourhood’.

Motorbikes travel down a well-used, unmetalled, dusty road with sandy verges, bordered by trees and a chain of many electricity pylons
Getting into Sirakoro (Bamako, 2019)

Like many Kel Tamasheq families here, Aicha is originally from Kidal, in the north of Mali near the Algerian border. In her life, she moved between Kidal, in western Niger, where some of her family live; Tamanrasset, in the south of Algeria; and southern Mali, where her husband worked as a customs officer. This is not an unusual profession for both Kel Tamasheq men and women. However, unlike many Kel Tamasheq customs officers, Aicha’s husband likes to remark that he did not access the civil apparatus of the state by taking weapons against it. Rather, he followed his father’s path who was a tax-collector for the French colonial power before, and a military member for the postcolonial state later.

With the outbreak of the umpteenth rebellion in 2012, Aicha’s family escaped to Algeria. Then, in 2014, they bought a piece of land in Sirakoro, and towards the end of 2015, they moved there. In 2018, when I meet Aicha and her family, Sirakoro is a growing neighbourhood where economically prominent Kel Tamasheq continue the trend of buying land and building houses. These latter will likely become hubs to receive their kin and friends who circulate across the region.

If in 2014 “Sirakoro was the bush!” as Aicha claims, now Sirakoro is a growing and lively area. People visit each other’s houses daily, celebrate life events together (weddings, naming ceremonies for new-born babies, funerals etc.), talk about politics and organise formal and informal businesses, from developmental projects in their places of origins, to charity events, to the petit commerce. And it is the latter that Aicha thinks about now.

With Aicha’s swollen foot, she cannot move easily to visit others’ houses and participate in ceremonies and social events. She cannot nurture her social network, and this is having a negative impact on her business, which will not thrive by her staying at home. She explains that you have to go around, see people and meet new faces, get your goods known about in order to sell them and have a reputation, so that people will continue to come to you and in turn attract new customers. “In Bamako you have to move [to make a living].”

A woman dressed in highly patterned clothing, with her back to the camera, walks along a quiet lane in an urban market, bordered by small stalls in permanent buildings.
A Kel Tamasheq woman walks through the market in Sirakoro in the late afternoon

Living across six Saharan-Sahelian countries (Libya, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania), Kel Tamasheq, also known as Tuareg, are a heterogeneous and hierarchical society who find their unity in identitarian affiliation and language, common cultural practices, patterns of mobility and nomadic pastoralism (always associated with other types of livelihoods, from caravanning to commerce, to raids in the past). Great transformations have affected their way of lives, playing out in the short-term as well as in the long-term.

In Mali, where I have been conducting my research, short-term transformations relate to the Kel Tamasheq-led rebellion of 2012 (the latest of many), the taking root of religious armed movements, the numerous coups d’état in the Malian state, and the militarization of the region together with international military interventions, which has greatly contributed to social, economic and political instability in the region.

However, these transformations are emblematic of deep-seated processes that have reshuffled the politics and economies of the region: the institutionalisation of centralised powers, such as the colonial and postcolonial states, which in turn shaped local politics and socioeconomic arrangements, and access to land; an increasing environmental variability, related to global warming; the integration of local markets into a global market, and the arrival of capital fluxes in the region (including licit and illicit economic exchanges, from tourism to drug smuggling); and a trend in misplaced interventions, from development to military, to name a few.

All these processes can be considered among the most significant long-term transformative dynamics, but they have not been passively received by the people of the Sahara and Sahel. On the contrary, the local population tackled, embraced, or resisted these changes, depending on pre-existing relations of power and politics. In the process, some groups have lost their political or economic influence, while others have risen to more powerful positions.

Responding to change

How have people dealt with these uncertainties and changes? The current literature on nomadic pastoralists in the region asserts that two interlocked strategies have been deployed.

The need to further diversify livelihoods has become more and more compelling (for example, looking for waged labour in the region, in urban centres or in rural places outside of existing networks). This trend is entangled with the need to alternate patterns of mobility and immobility. Namely, in a system that is sedentary and favours sedentary practices and exchanges (as the nation-state does), it’s useful to have fixed hubs to lean on permits to access services like sanitation, to have a different relationship with the market (e.g. by providing continuity of goods in a selected place), and to access the apparatus of the state.

Crucially, both interlocked strategies rely on the socio-economic and political networks that people nurture. Connections related to lineage and kinship, geographical origins and migratory history, as well as to age-groups or gender, are crucial in the ongoing reconstitutions and transformations of everyday life in the Sahara and Sahel. Kel Tamasheq networks are, therefore, readjusting to the powerful trends towards sedentary life by anchoring themselves in different places, in order to get easier access to sedentary services.

‘Fixation’ and mobility

In this sense, Aicha’s house in Sirakoro is emblematic of a trend among the Malian Kel Tamasheq of ‘fixation’: meaning to invest economically, politically, but also socially and emotionally, in being ‘fixed’ in a place. This can take the form of having a house in the capital, or a new well in a nomadic zone, or a village established next to this well, which will represent the group’s action of putting down roots in a particular place over generations.

For Aicha, being in Sirakoro means sending her children to school, and cousins, nephews and nieces living at her place; getting medical assistance for her leg; weaving new connections with other Kel Tamasheq in Bamako; and exploring other urban non-Kel Tamasheq relationships. This weaving of novel relationships opens up possible profits, such as those from selling veils and household items through the petit commerce.

Sunshine through the patterned fabric of a tent supported by a structure of wooden poles.
Sunshine through a tent on the courtyard of a Kel Tamasheq house in Sirakoro

At the same time, Kel Tamasheq life is still very much structured around mobility. Mobility not only shapes economic life; it also influences political, sociocultural, and emotional relationships across time and space (e.g. pastoralist gatherings in the wet season, where kinship and political alliances were sealed). The patterns of how Kel Tamasheq have settled in Bamako follow this same path: they maintain a highly mobile lifestyle across the rural-urban continuum, as well as through the capital itself. Mobility allows people to nurture beneficial connections across the city, but also beyond it, by meeting relatives who come and go between Bamako and elsewhere.

It is exactly to this issue that Aicha’s mind goes now: as her foot might take a long time to heal, she is worried that she will lose important opportunities to visit people around the capital, see friends and kin, and nurture her other social and economic connections.

As uncertainties in the social, political, economic and environmental spheres continue to mount, one on another, Kel Tamasheq rely on combinations of mobile and immobile strategies in order to embrace these uncertainties – and, at best, transform them in new possibilities.

One thought

  1. I really want to thank you for you focus on situation that highlights just who pastoralists do talk to and want to talk to in real-time. That your illuminating post focuses on one such instance and case in no way personalizes what should be, I hope, that more general, methodological point, namely: Who in government, if any body, are they talking to and want to talk to?

    Speaking for myself only, there is something ironic about outsiders, who criticize government policies regarding pastoralists and drylands, recommending radical policy change that mean pastoralists bear all the risks if the recommendations go wrong. It’s doubly ironic that critics recommend government officials need to be in an authentic conversation with pastoralists taking the lead in change when the critics themselves wouldn’t be caught dead in compromising their values by taking the government status quo at all seriously.

    I look forward to reading more!


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