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Mali: when farmers become curators

Samuel Sidibé, director of the Mali?s National Museum explains how cultural heritage and development can work together

Published on 8 March 2010

Author(s): Unesco Courier No 4 2001

Type:  News

For 20 years, Mali has been waging a war on the archaeological plundering that plagues the country. Everyone has followed the president to the front lines

Today, the archaeological site of Jenné-Jeno is no longer looted. Not far from there, the villagers of Nombori have even founded their own museum. And they’re not alone. In the Mopti region, the inhabitants of Fombori have taken the same initiative. People who could have been tempted by looting to improve their difficult lot have become curators! These few startling examples go to show that Mali’s efforts over the past two decades have paid off, even though looting is a long way from being wiped out. The story goes back to the 1970s. Before that, most of the trade in art works involved wooden statuettes and masks, which were the only items with an aesthetic and commercial value in the west. Then, looting started to grow at a dramatic pace. Mali, with Nigeria and Niger, has become one of the West African countries whose archaeological heritage has been hardest hit by illicit trafficking. A 1989 study by the Bamako Institute of Social Sciences says that 17 percent of the 834 sites listed in Mali’s Dogon country have been targets of large-scale looting, of which two percent have been lost forever for research.

Ancient cultures shrouded in mystery
In the inner Niger delta, hundreds of “Djenné” terracotta statuettes, named after a city1 near Jenné-Jeno, have been scattered among private collections and museums around the world. The famous “Bankoni” statuettes, which are named after a village in Bamako’s suburbs, share the same fate. The priceless bronze figurines from the Méma sites, in the Ségou region, have fared no better.
The genius of Mali’s ancient oral civilizations was chiefly expressed in statuary, one of our most precious sources of information about the past. For example, one of the few statuettes found during a scientific archaeological excavation of the Jenné-Jeno site has revealed that earlier inhabitants buried their dead in large earthenware jars and practised other animist traditions. But we still know little about the Bankoni, except that their civilization flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries. Looters were the first to discover all these sites. As a result, the ancient art-producing cultures remain shrouded in mystery, despite the high number of pieces sold on the art market.
This market is basically supplied by so-called antique dealers who in turn are supplied by their own networks of looters: farmers or organized gangs. The antiques are exported to France, the United States and above all Belgium, a hub of illicit trade.
Early on, Mali’s officials realized how serious the situation was. Under the impetus of the country’s current president, Alpha Oumar Konaré (head of the national historic and ethnographic heritage division from 1976 to 1978, minister of culture from 1978 to 1980), a legal framework was set up allowing for an effective campaign against looting and trafficking. A series of laws was passed, starting in 1985. Two years later, Mali ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention (see p. 21).

International co-operation: the missing link?
The next step lay in raising public awareness. Several meetings bringing together 50 to 100 people from all walks of life were held, especially in areas most beset by the problem. These gatherings provided an opportunity to explain the new laws and how important archaeological sites are to our national history and cultural identity. It was not always easy. The rural population, victims of repeated droughts since 1974, sometimes turned to looting as a way to survive and did not always accept or understand our approach. But we persevered. In 1993, we took a new step by setting up cultural missions in Bandiagara, Djenné and Timbuktu. Their purpose: to continue raising people’s awareness and encourage them to get involved in protecting their heritage. Near Djenné and Tenenkou, for example, villagers recently staged a play and held a temporary exhibition about heritage. Some have even volunteered with the police to guard archaeological sites.
In cities, the media helped the campaign along by running many articles on the subject. During a 1994 exhibition on the “Niger Valleys” held at the National Museum, many visitors discovered the extraordinary richness of our archaeological heritage and the dangers that threaten it. Mali has not hesitated to arrest, prosecute and imprison some lawbreakers, which also sends out a message to our citizens on how serious the scourge of looting and trafficking is.
But the nationwide campaign has its limits, so long as foreign demand remains strong. International co-operation is a must. In the framework of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, Mali and the United States signed an agreement in 1997 restricting the illicit import of the Niger Valley’s archaeological heritage and of items from the tellem caves of Bandiagara2. This accord is the only one of its kind in all of Africa. Mali would like to establish bilateral co-operation with other importer countries, such as France, which has already joined the UNESCO Convention, and Switzerland and Belgium, when they ratify it.
As far as professional co-operation goes, Mali took part in the regional workshops held by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Arusha in 1993, Bamako in 1994 and Kinshasa in 1995, which brought together museum professionals, law enforcement agents and customs officers. In 1997, we also participated in the international workshop in Amsterdam, aimed at strengthening solidarity between source and importer countries. The Icom’s Red List was drafted during that meeting (see box).
International solidarity is more than critical to curb illicit trade, develop archaeological research and set up education programmes. The weakness of financial and human resources in a country like ours, which is confronted with tremendous challenges such as poverty, prevent us from implementing all the programmes necessary to stop the looting. Rich nations must say no to selfishness. The heritage of poor countries deserves as much respect as that of the wealthy ones. The battle is far from won.
1. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988.
2. The cliffs of Bandiagara (Dogon country) were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1989.

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