Monthly Archives: July 2011

Ségou and Bla

In 1620, Bozo settlers founded the town of Ségou, later the capital of the Bambara Empire which stretched along the Niger River. The Empire based its economy on the slave trade and was therefore often at war with its neighboring tribes.

In 1861, El Hadj Oumar Tall, a Muslim Tukulor from Senegal, defeated the Bambara and forced the population to convert to Islam. El Hadj Oumar Tall often left his son Ahmadu in charge of Ségou while he continued his conquest of neighboring towns and tribes, until one day he  blew himself up with his own dynamite. Ahmadu ruled Ségou until the French, in league with his local adversaries, chased him away and took control in 1890.

In Mali, El Hadj Oumar Tall is blamed for wrecking the region through brutal warfare and preparing the way for French victory.

Today, Ségou is an important agricultural region. Its people excel in pottery made from the mud of the Niger River and weave the locally grown cotton and wool into cloth, blankets, and carpets. Most people live on less than $2.00 per day.

Early in the eighteenth century, the founder of the Bambara Empire, Biton Mamary Coulibaly, established Bla as a supply outpost for ammunition and grain. The verb, “ka bila,” literally means “leave behind.”

Today, the small town of Bla serves as a crossroads for goods heading north and south.



In the 1880’s, Bamako was a small fishing village of several dozen mud huts built safely away from the banks of the Niger River.  In the local Bambara language, Bamako means crocodile river.  The original people, the Bozo, are still known as expert fishermen.

By the 1980’s, Mali was in its third decade of independence from its French colonial masters.  The world recession and the oil crisis aggravated by the Iran-Iraq war brought on a period of despair in the region.  The country had mismanaged its economy.  World prices for its commodities had fallen.  Drought had devastated its pasture and agriculture. 

But devastating as the droughts have been for the region, the greater obstacle to economic stability and growth has not been meteorological but political. Agricultural subsidies for cotton in the USA, for example, allowed American farmers to export their produce for one third of its cost to produce.  Cotton accounted for 5-10% of the Mali Gross Domestic Product.  By one estimate, the sheer weight of the US trade volume lowered the world price for cotton by 25%.  Other subsidies had similar impacts on world prices of basic food stuffs:  European subsidies for sugar, Asian subsidies for rice, Italian subsidies for tomatoes, Dutch subsidies for onions. 

Trade losses as a result of agricultural subsidies in developed countries outweigh the benefits of all foreign aid to Mali and the rest of West Africa.  These subsidies keep the individual Malian farmer in a perpetual state of poverty and subsistence.

East Africa Crisis Appeal

Over 10 million people are at risk in East Africa due to conflict and some areas being affected by the worst drought in 60 years.  The DEC East Africa Crisis Appeal will support the work of its members in affected areas of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan.  Your donations can help provide life saving aid such as food, water, care for malnourished children and medical treatment.

Please donate online here.


In 1979, the Ivorian economic miracle had reached its peak. The country was the world’s leading cocoa producer and Africa’s biggest exporter of pineapples, coffee, and palm oil.  “There is no room for cut-rate Africanization,” proclaimed President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, as he funded the country’s aggressive expansion with foreign debt. 

The President was already laying the groundwork to transform the village of his birth to the country’s political capital.  In a country where the dominant form of transportation was walking, a six lane highway cut through the rainforest between Abidjan and Yamoussoukro, or Yakro, as many called the tiny village.

By 1989, Yakro would be a city with government buildings bounded by deciduous trees and street lights brighter than the stars.  A five-star Hotel President would welcome guests with a first-rate golf course, restaurants, and a nightclub with European delicacies flown in from around the world.  Sacred crocodiles would be fed live chickens daily in a moat around the presidential palace pond.  A sacred elephant would wander the palace grounds.  And the city would boast the
largest church in the world, The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, rising 518 feet from the jungle floor.

Today, after more than a decade of civil strife, Yakro no longer functions as the capital city of Cote d’Ivoire.    

Facing the Son, A Novel of Africa 


By legend, when the first French colonists arrived in the late nineteenth century, they asked a woman what she called her village protected from the sea by a large lagoon. Not understanding the question, the woman replied, “T’chan m’bi djan,” or “I’ve just been cutting leaves.” Those first French settlers, assuming they had been understood, named the region Abidjan.

In 1931 after a wharf was constructed, the population expanded. In 1933 after the settlement was designated the capital of the French colony of Côte d’Ivoire, population grew further. Soon the sleepy backwater became an important outpost. By the 1940’s Abidjan had developed a reputation as a meeting place for smugglers and international spies.

In 1951, the French built the Vridi Canal connecting the Ebrié Lagoon with the ocean, thus establishing Abidjan as a strategic West African port. Before long the town became a city, responsible for nearly half the trade of the region and was nicknamed the Paris of Africa for its skyscrapers, its love of music, fashion, art, and literature, and its burgeoning population of immigrants from its West African neighbors.

The French administration occupied the desirable Plateau section of town where they built their hotels and embassies.  The natives settled near the factories and warehouses in places like Treichville.

Following independence from France in 1960 was a time of great pride and optimism and economic growth throughout the city and the country. By 1979, the agrarian economy was sagging under the combined weight of two devastating droughts in the north, a crushing sovereign debt, and a culture of corruption.


… consists of about one fifth of the earth’s land area.  Roughly one billion people live in 62 countries and territories and speak between 2,000 to 3,000 languages, with up to 8,000 dialects.  The earliest humans lived here at least seven million years ago, as did the earliest modern humans, homo sapiens, about 200,000 years ago.

Long after those earliest humans originated in Africa, their European descendants, divided by language, religion, and state, returned by sea.

Over the course of four hundred years the Europeans staked claims and eventually divided control of the continent by drawing lines across the African map, lines that ran through desert, mountain, jungle, and tribe.

When the Europeans eventually returned control of the continent to the natives, they left behind their languages, their religions, and their carelessly drawn borders.

Facing the Son, A Novel of Africa

Ivory Coast

Reprinted from

For more than three decades after independence [in 1960] under the leadership of its first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast was conspicuous for its religious and ethnic harmony and its well-developed economy.

All this ended when the late Robert Guei led a coup which toppled Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s successor, Henri Bedie, in 1999.

Mr Bedie fled, but not before planting the seeds of ethnic discord by trying to stir up xenophobia against Muslim northerners, including his main rival, Alassane Ouattara.

This theme was also adopted by Mr Guei, who had Alassane Ouattara banned from the presidential election in 2000 because of his foreign parentage, and by the only serious contender allowed to run against Mr Guei, Laurent Gbagbo.

When Mr Gbagbo replaced Robert Guei after he was deposed in a popular uprising in 2000, violence replaced xenophobia. Scores of Mr Ouattara’s supporters were killed after their leader called for new elections.

In September 2002 a troop mutiny escalated into a full-scale rebellion, voicing the ongoing discontent of northern Muslims who felt they were being discriminated against in Ivorian politics. Thousands were killed in the conflict.

Although the fighting has stopped, Ivory Coast is tense and divided. French and UN peacekeepers patrolled the buffer zone which separated the north, held by rebels known as the New Forces, and the government-controlled south.

Politics: Civil war in 2002 split country between rebel-held north and government-controlled south; 2007 power-sharing deal brought peace; 2010 presidential poll led to stalemate.

Economy: Ivory Coast is world’s leading cocoa producer; UN sanctions imposed in 2004 include an arms embargo and a ban on diamond exports.

Facing the Son takes place in 1979 during the reign of Felix Houphouet-Boigny before the country was split along religious lines.  

Facing the Son, A Novel of Africa