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Poorer by the day

Tamasin Ford / agDecember 25, 2012

After the March coup, Mali has been in steady decline: unemployment and poverty are on the rise, the north continues to be shaken by Islamist rebel activities, and tourists - a main source of revenue - are staying away.

Sininta sits in her empty restaurant in Bamako.
Image: Tamasin Ford

Aboukar Sinayoko sits in the shade of his carpentry workshop, a cup of green tea in his hands. Usually his twenty workmen are busy operating the heavy machinery to craft furniture and handmade goods for customers all over Bamako - but not today.

Over the past few months, Aboukar had to let go 18 of his men. There just wasn't enough work coming in, he says: "We work here, and we do beautiful work. We are skillful. We do many things and can create a lot of things but we just don't have the means to buy the wood."

Aboukar is worried - about unpaid electricity bills, about the school fees for his 12 children. And all the time he has no idea when - or if - the next order will come in. "It's not easy. School is not being paid. This month they might be sent home because I haven't paid fees for two months. Since the beginning of term, there is no money, so they will come back home and sit here."

Aboukar Sinayoko, 43, a carpenter in central Bamako.
Sinayoko wishes the northern crisis were overImage: Tamasin Ford

After the March coup, a minority of separatists from the Tuareg - nomadic herders who have fought for independence for more than 50 years - took control of the north of the country. They were soon moved out by al Qaeda-linked rebel groups who swept through the vast desert sparsely populated by cattle-herders, and accused of looting, raping and imposing strict forms of Shariah law.

Thousands of people fled, losing their jobs and their livelihoods. And even those who were not uprooted by the conflict face a difficult time. The government has written off as "unrecoverable" more than a quarter of targeted revenue for this year. What followed, naturally, was a slashing of its spending plans.

"The crisis in the north is causing lots of problems here," Aboukar says, "especially to us, the people with lots of children, because the business is not working. I wish that the northern crisis was over … really that is what I wish."

Sinayoko stands in his carpenter's workshop off the main road in central Bamako
Sinayoko had to let go 18 of his staff - a lack of customers brought his business to a standstillImage: Tamasin Ford

Country 'not working'

In front of Aboukar's workshop on the busy main road, only two of the tailors at the clothing store have come in today. There isn't enough work for the others. It's the wedding season - usually the busiest time of year for tailors.  But with less money circulating in the country, people have less to spend. And if people aren't spending, businesses like this one suffer.

"If my business is not working it will affect my own family, my parents," says Dalla Sininta, the shop owner.  She used to go to New York and Paris to buy clothes and jewelry to sell in her shop, keeping up with the latest trends. But she doesn't have the money to do that anymore.

"In Africa you have to support your own parents," Dalla says, "so if the business is not working, it will be shame and a pity for me." Dalla runs three businesses, the clothing shop - "Top de l'elegance" - a small taxi service, and a fast-food restaurant.

Sininta sits in her empty restaurant in Bamako.
Sininta says the country is not workingImage: Tamasin Ford

The restaurant opened in February, a month before the coup. Business was going well last year, so Dalla invested her money into her third business - something she says she now regrets. It's lunchtime, but there isn't a single customer at any of the neatly arranged tables. The carefully placed orange tablecloths remain untouched.

When it started, the café brought in around $50 a day. But now, Dalla says it makes barely enough to pay the bills and her two staff. "The crisis affected my business a lot because of the lack of money. The customers don't come. People don't have money and the country is not working."

International support sought

250 kilometres north of Bamako, in the town of Segou, Modibo Ballo stands beside his brightly painted Pinasse - a wooden boat handcrafted with an arched wicker canopy. Segou is the capital of the ancient Bambarra kingdom, and the start of the tourism trail in Mali.

From here, visitors can travel down the river through the arid lands of Mali to Mopti and Gao, finally reaching the picturesque region of historic Timbuktu. Ballo had been taking tourists out on the wide, rambling Niger River for more than 12 years - that is, until the coup. "The last time I had a big group of tourists was in February," he said. "From that time, there haven't been any tourists coming here."

Balo sits on his pinasse, a river boat used for taking tourists down the Niger River.
Balo has been on his boat without customers since MarchImage: Tamasin Ford

It's a similar story all over Segou. Hotels are laying off staff or closing down altogether. Boutique riverside restaurants are empty, while the tourist guides and craft sellers sit around drinking green tea.

As minister of handicrafts and tourism in Mali, Ousmane Ag Rhissa can only confirm what citizens have been experiencing for a while now: "The impact is a pretty severe one because the tourism companies have hugely suffered from the effects of the crisis."

Tourism is Mali's third largest source of revenue. Coupled with widespread job losses as well as rising food and gas prices, many in Mali are nearing the edge of despair: "I just want the international community to help Mali because the Malian people need their help and they have to help us," Dalla said.

In the countryside and the capital, many are now laying their hopes on outside help, be it through negotiations or military intervention. And the hope endures that these hard times will not last forever.