Debate as resistance

Interview with Aminata Traoré, by Samuel Nja Kwa

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The intellectual, researcher, sociologist, and former Malian Minister of Culture and Tourism, Aminata Traoré, is leading the combat against the shortcomings of a forced globalisation on all fronts. Believing in the impact that culture can have in this respect, she and Ray Lema have launched the Réseau des intellectuels africains pour l’éthique et l’esthétique (the African Intellectuals’ Network for Ethics and Aesthetics).

What role can women play in the fight against globalisation?
An essential one. The debate on the place and role of women in Africa has been sidetracked. The same analytical model that was applied to the economy and society has been applied to male-female relationships in Africa. The status and role of women have been judged, denounced, and solutions have only been though out in terms of development. But Africa has not had the freedom to think, to choose, to decide for itself either in the field of agriculture, nor in terms of its industrialisation and commercial exchanges. It hasn’t been given any freedom in its thinking about male-female relationships either. A whole host of projects have been initiated to bring us out of our underdeveloped state, which has meant that African women have had to change to match the image of women in the developed countries.
This represents an indirect attack on cultures and that is why we say that this is an eminently cultural debate. As all women were expected to emancipate themselves according to the same models as Western women, the combat became intra-African. We were supposed to measure ourselves against our men, to outstrip them. We were led to believe that we were doubly victims, vis-à-vis the West, which is developed, and vis-à-vis our men, who were gaining all the advantages of development. In the Eighties, the structural adjustment policies left our men jobless, leaving the vast majority of employees destitute, to the extent that these very men who we were asked to better in their integration into modernity and development found themselves sitting at home. It was the women who hadn’t been to school, who were forced to do whatever they could to feed them! So the type of power that people want for women without asking them their opinion isn’t necessarily what they want!
Do you feel that your combat is understood when you oppose the international institutions?
I don’t have the words to qualify the international institutions’ relations with our countries. They are of an extreme gravity. From a woman’s point of view, I deplore the fact that the women’s organisations in Africa have not yet realised the nature of the processes that they are being invited to enter. But I cannot hold it against them because the same financial dependency that turns our States into mimetic institutions affects the women’s groups. The World Bank gives itself a clear conscience by talking about women when it has totally exploded our societies. The capitalist system applied in Africa is responsible for prostitution, for the privatisation of services. Women pay a high price for their men being made jobless. Today, I defend an alliance between men and women in Africa, as they are in the same boat. One group has no destiny without the other. Man is not my enemy. The system is our enemy. And I am convinced that there are very few fathers in our families, whatever their milieu, who don’t want their girls to go to school. For want of perspectives, people look for elements that discredit them, which mask Africa’s real problems. This continent has not had the freedom to identify its own internal problems and to sort them out, whether it’s the lack of schooling, female circumcision, or polygamy. Give us the possibility to debate amongst ourselves and to find solutions that we can assume. Unfortunately, there are always people who have such certitudes when it comes to Africa’s situation.
You advocate micro resistance against macro domination. What does this mean in concrete terms?
This resistance still has to be constructed. The mechanisms of censorship and self-censorship work fantastically well. 80% of Malian executives think the same as me. They are always telling me that I am right. But the problem is that the State doesn’t allow itself to criticise the system. The very same people who lecture on democracy, who demand that States consult civil society more, refuse to have anything to do with structures such as mine, the Réseau d’éthique et d’esthétique, which ask certain questions of them. The World Bank allows itself to tell the Malians about governance and democracy when it refuses to make its Africa policy a reference. These extremely powerful institutional players who, from day to day, dictate the type of policies that our leaders have to introduce, are above all responsible for sabotaging democracy in Africa. Then they are surprised that people get disenchanted with elections. People are beginning to realise that there’s no point in fighting for such and such a candidate from the moment that he or she agrees to carry out the same neo-liberal reforms that cut back jobs, condemn households to shortages, and force women to pay for drinking water, healthcare, and refuse collections…
And in Mali?
The previous government’s performance was more than mixed. I tried to be a researcher, a citizen of Mali and the world, and I, like all other Malian citizens, thought that after the fall of the military regime, this political regime would be on the same footing as the Malian people, would debate about Malians’ real problems with regard to paid jobs and the education and health systems. I thought that, thanks to a coalition within our country, we would be able to negotiate certain things before putting them to the financial institutions. In 1991, the third Republic was condemned to adopt the same structural adjustment programmes as the military regime. I am not surprised, therefore, that there is so much discontent after ten years. But I reproach this regime for having deprived us of any debate about globalisation, about the nature of the reforms that it was condemned to carry out.
As long as these criminal institutions have a free rein in Africa, there is no point speaking about democracy because there will never be a participatory democracy. And the people we elect to power will not be able to represent and defend the interests of the most deprived members of the population.
I hope that the new government will not play the same game as the former President, who was careful to make a good impression on the international stage, whilst doing nothing to contribute to the construction of this type of citizenship at home, which would have allowed his successor to count on a real civil society, which is cruelly lacking in our countries today. They prefer to confine the people in internal wars that have no perspectives or stakes. Everything is limited to us.
How do young people react to your discourse and to your literary works?
My first book was published in January 1999, but I have never had the right to a television debate in my own country. It is only thanks to the foreign newspapers that people manage to read what I have to say. In addition to the young people who actually buy Le viol de l’imaginaire, which is relatively expensive for them, those who read my writings are starting to come to the debates I organise. I have above all created the « Forum pour l’autre Mali » (Forum for the Other Mali), a debating forum that brings together over three hundred and fifty Malians, including executives, artists, intellectuals and a lot of young people. They won’t eternally be able to muzzle people, to withhold information, to control the national television. Satellite television now allows people to see the resistance movements that are forming around the world on TV5, CFI or on the radio RFI. We are wasting time in this domain too. Our governments cannot continually bully the people.
The spearheads of your combat are our difficulties concerning water, healthcare and generic medicines.
Once power relations become firmly established, the rest of the debate is simply a detail, because we know very well that we don’t give ourselves the means to negotiate. It distresses me that the citizens of the North are the best equipped to defend the interests of the African peoples.
Access to medication is a real tragedy in Africa. In the effort to disengage the State from these key sectors, it was decided that even the hospitals had to be cost-effective, which means that everybody has to pay. A pregnant woman in difficulty, whose husband is jobless, who has no income, has to have parents or friends who can pay for her. The medication exists, the doctors are there, but if you can’t pay, you die. I find that scandalous! And politically, this system is capable of destabilising everyone.
The North subsidises its farmers, closes its borders to our products and imposes structural reforms on us so that the multinationals can come like predators to depose us of our rare enterprises that work, notably electricity, water, and telephones! This selling off of Africa can go on forever. But why don’t our leaders show themselves to be wiser, more visionary? Why don’t they say that, deep down, there is a flaw in the system. There are flaws everywhere. Africa is paying a terribly high price and the elites in power prefer to smooth things over. We have no choice, but with the people we can have one. We have to say no somewhere down the line!
Is the NEPAD an alternative?
It is a project set up by African States who believe what the rich nations tell them. It’s a shame, because I think that this is a historical socio-political context. The world environment could have enabled us to build a much more solidarity-based vision of Africa’s realities. But their greatest concern is to seduce the rest of the world. They drew up their project in their offices with a handful of so-called expert, handpicked Africans. This project was presented in Washington, in Japan, in Europe. They first of all sought the approval and the go-ahead from the rich countries, and then spoke of an appropriation by the Africans. The need for fresh money and the desire to please the West are considered more important than any alliance with the African populations. We may well tell them we don’t agree, but they still try with their seminars and meetings, injecting money in different areas, and thereby achieve their ends. It’s a form of auto-flagellation: we recognise our failings, we admit that we managed things badly. The West says, « Great, it’s not our problem anymore ». We are in fact telling them what they want to hear and that’s why it works. That’s also why we are profoundly saddened.
Are you an Afro-pessimist?
I wouldn’t occupy the position I am in if I was one. We are full of potential and I am in revolt against the nature of the system and its faculty to destroy hope in Africa. Everything that we could do for ourselves is spoiled by these institutions that keep a careful eye on any trouble. Even if we are democratic, they pull out their backing if we don’t follow their recommendations. The West only rewards those who begin to betray their people. How can we not revolt against such a system which gives the impression that people do everything for Africa and that Africa does nothing for itself? I am not at all pessimistic. I fight back, better in the West than at home. At home I do what I can through concrete actions to change my environment with the people in my neighbourhood. I mobilise opinion and I’m waiting for the day when the leaders will realise that I am not acting against them. I simply believe that for want of having sufficiently rich countries, we have learnt a great deal in forty years and that it is up to them today to draw as many conclusions as possible about what we know about the system, its nature, and the Northern countries’ faculty of always pulling the cover their way.
The Réseau des intellectuels africains pour l’éthique et l’esthétique, which you have set up with Ray Lema, brings together artists and intellectuals. Is it easy to have a federating discourse on questions that you often disagree on?
At least we have the merit of trying. I always feel that they are very talented. If there is a component of Africa’s societies today that contributes to this positive Africa, it is definitely its creators, and in all fields. But the deficit of information that we suffer from as Africans with regard to the real nature of globalisation means that these artists cannot participate in their field of competence or in the construction of an African opinion either. That is why this alliance between researchers, intellectuals and artists enables us to inject a new dynamic into artistic and cultural creation. We constantly pay homage to Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Bernard Dadié, all those men who revolted against the colonial system and who fired the Africans’ revolt, who enabled us to say right back then that another Africa was possible, different to the colonial and colonised Africa. Today, we need to rediscover the intellectuals’ and artists’ mission. That is why we are advancing at our own pace. It is a process of learning and sharing.
A young artist like Didier Awady, for example, belongs to the network. He has a truly dynamic discourse when he speaks to young people. The day when a critical mass of women and young people will know what we talk about here, Africa will necessarily change, and not in a violent manner, but through the ballot box. It is these women and men who need to mobilise to give power to people who are capable of standing up to all those who are plundering Africa of its riches and its prerogatives.
In reference to the book by the Cameroonian writer Célestin Monga, does Africa need a cultural adjustment programme?
It’s a false debate. Does that mean that our cultures are ill in the same way that our economies are ill? I don’t pose the problem in those terms. If there is an adjustment, it has to be the result of an initiative on the part of the Africans. African cultures have had all manner of accusations heaped on them, and that is why domination became possible and easy – because people tell you that your relationships with children, with women, etc., all need to be revised. And we believe it. But that doesn’t mean that everything is good in our cultures. It is our responsibility to revisit our cultural heritage to see what we need to put in the museums and which dimensions of these cultures should nourish creativity in all domains.
How can Africa’s leaders be made to understand that culture can be a development factor?
We first of all need to free them of their submissive attitudes towards any old expert from the IMF or the World Bank who comes to sell them any old nonsense. The path of begging and mimesis does not work anymore. They cannot trust culture when the solutions that are advocated by these institutions make them rich, for investing in cultures means investing in people, investing in reasonable means. Cutting oneself off from the grassroots today boils down to offering oneself up to the foreign investors with all that that implies in terms of debt levels. We call for our debt to be cancelled, but then mobilise other resources to enrich those who are capable of selling us any old thing, including the new information technologies. This sector is saturated and they are looking to conquer markets in the South. The Internet is a fabulous technological feat, but let’s be careful: no one needed to run campaigns to tell us that the radio, the car, or the plane were useful. We know so, we found out for ourselves, people appropriated these solutions for themselves. So why do we need a world IT and information summit to tell us that we are in an information society?

Aminata Traoré has published:
– Le Viol de l’imaginaire, Fayard, 2002, 224 p., 17 €.- L’étau – l’Afrique dans un monde sans frontières, Actes Sud/Babel, 2001, 192 p., 7 €.///Article N° : 5685

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