Between 1 and 1:30 p.m. on Fridays, life in Bamako grinds to a halt – literally: Our SUV is stranded by an endless stream of men, many in their best robes, all toting prayer rugs. They line up on every street and stand waiting for a signal foreigners can’t catch. Then they drop to their knees, faces to the ground, and spend 15 minutes praying.
Women don’t take part in this Friday prayer, and a lot of men and boys continue bustling about, tending to their business. But still, in the Brownian motion that is Bamako, this mass display of stock-still, solemn unity looks uncanny.
Our guide sneers at the worshippers (many use old cardboard boxes in lieu of prayer rugs) and points out alleged Wahhabis. But in the end he just waves his hand: “It's not really about religion. You want people to know you, to mourn at your funerals, you gotta pray in your district. It's a community thing, like Sunday service in America.”
“...and it's a thing you Russians don't have,” he adds hours later in a false non sequitur. “You all don't even like each other, do you? No wonder you've forgotten about us.”
And so, it seems, we have. The Malians are a community-minded people, and Russians are a virtual part of this community, to an extent that boggles the mind. For decades, most Malians seeking higher education obtained it in Russia – or, rather, in the Soviet Union – and Russian can still be spoken, or at least understood, at every government office, up to the very top. Even ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré trained in the Russian city of Ryazan at an elite training facility for paratroopers.
Situation in Mali
To earn the kind of affection Russians enjoy in Mali, the Chinese had to build a bridge across the Niger; the French to start the current war of liberation; and the Libyans, reportedly, to buy half the country, starting with the five-star hotels, and build an exquisite district of government buildings, from scratch, as a gift to the people of Mali.
Today’s Russians have inherited this affection after their Soviet predecessors – and don't use it: barely any Russian companies in the country; no visible activity from the diplomatic corps, which number about four and live on a curfew stricter than a Victorian boarding school’s; no soft-power effort. A local expert on early Tolstoy, now a political party boss, is reduced to discussing Russian pop stars who make Lindsay Lohan seem demure because his sole window into contemporary Russian culture is state-run Channel One. And back in the day, the Voice of Moscow radio had separate shows in the local Bambara and Fulbe languages.
Now, telling people in the streets that you're from “Russia” won't get you across the language barrier. It is still “the Soviet Union! USSR!” that rings a bell – after all these years. As the Friday prayer showed us, the Malians do take their community involvement seriously. And we find ourselves incapable of giving answers to all those who ask why Russia is now so bent on ignoring the geopolitical community it had going with Mali since 1960.
“We really thought it was going to be the Russians and not the French who would save us from the Islamists,” our guide says. “We really thought that!”
...At the advice of a friend (thank you, Sasha!), I brought over a handful of small matryoshkas – Russian nesting dolls – as presents. I hand one to a three-year-old in the slum where I set up a one-man office (me and my cellphone) while my colleagues photograph and film everything that moves. The kid fixes me with a sphinx’s stare and ignores the matryoshka, which I have to press into his hand after demonstrating how it works. But minutes later, I spot him rushing to show off the disassembled toy to his mom, dropping the smooth pieces along the way and backtracking to pick them up.
Well, you've got to start somewhere.
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