Vaccinating Mali: posters, pamphlets, one slave, one vampire bat.

Author:Baker, Robert

The flight from Le Bourget outside Paris to my new post, Bamako, Mali was alarming, once we began flying over Africa. I did not know that the Air France Caravel aircraft, on long routes in 1968, routinely saved fuel by cutting back the engines and drifting down, then throttled up to gain altitude before drifting back down again. Alarmed, changed to charmed, but only after I figured it out. It was very French, logical and peculiar, much less monotonous than the straight-ahead flights across America.

Africa was like that, too, sometimes amazing and often charming. Mali had great people and wonderful art: wood carvings, beautifully decorated masks, great pottery and hand-woven carpets and centuries old music. Some musical griot families were like European minstrels, but when they sang at a Malian nobleman's wedding they recounted three or four centuries of the family history, an amazing feat of memory. The rich who paid them to sing were usually related somewhere down the line to tribal kings, so a lot of history was held in common. It was not uncommon for the griots to tell stories from a dozen generations in several days of singing. Their well-paid and honored performances, left Europe's minnesingers in the dust as repositories of history. The University of Illinois has a vast collection of Malian traditional music thanks to an academic whom I met there as he collected recordings.

Mali is mostly a vast, (about the size of Texas) land-locked, usually very hot, reddish plain covered with scrub and sand. Some hills and low mountains give hiding places to rebels. There is a single outstanding feature seen from the air, a river. The Niger wends across Mali in long curves from its source in the rainforest in Guinea to the Atlantic a couple thousand miles distant. The Niger fed most of Mali's desperately poor in 1968 five millions, providing fish and irrigation water along its shores. Winter rains also flood Mali's Niger plains, which suddenly become wide green swathes of grass.

Smallpox and measles were carried by the nomadic Peuhl tribesmen who in each year follow the rains for a thousand miles, crossing several national borders in West Africa, including a passage through Mali. Their herds of skinny cattle have the same broad, sharp horns that appear in ancient Egyptian paintings.

The mostly peasant Malian population sweated daily to produce a subsistence diet. Per capita cash income then was about $60 per annum (1969 figure), lower than that of India. The nomadic Peuhl were hard to spot to vaccinate against smallpox and measles. Mali, had, of course, its own outbreaks of other diseases.

When I arrived in Bamako, President Modibo Keita, whose family had been tribal rulers before the French took over the country, ruled as a Marxist dictator with lots of communist helpers in Bamako. He had secret police advisors from East Germany. Czechs helped to run the mass media. Several thousand Communist Chinese peasants worked on model farms; a North Korean ceramics factory turned out dinner sets (which your knife went through as you sawed on a piece of tough meat). Several hundred Russians helped to train Malian political cadres, built an African Olympics center, etc.

Few African countries embraced socialism and communist influence so much as Mali, so communist help poured into it. Malian official anti-American rhetoric was a small price for Mali to pay for communist help. Very rarely did anything good about America appear in the media which daily called Americans: racist, imperialist, exploitative, capitalists.

By contrast with the Communist Embassies in Mali, the American Embassy had six officers and a few staff. The Malian Foreign Minister deliberately kept our Ambassador waiting hours for scheduled appointments, and then simply sent word out that he was not available. Our Political Officer was not permitted by the...

To continue reading