Running to Bamako

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Bamako Portal/Welcome to Bamako/Bienvenue à Bamako
Bamako Portal/Welcome to Bamako/Bienvenue à Bamako

“Well, you won’t be going back to Bamako now.” My father was so sure that I, or any sane person, would never consider travelling to an African country where a terrorist attack had just taken place that it didn’t even occur to him to ask if I planned to return to Bamako, Mali.

That is how the terrorists are winning.

I was in Bamako this summer helping iNERDE to run STEM summer camps and teach computer science to 4th and 5th grade Malian boys and girls. Mali is ranked by the United Nations as one of the poorest countries in the world, 176th on the Human Development Index. I did certainly see that life is difficult in Mali, no surprise there. What is a surprise is the extraordinary desire and efforts of the Malian people to improve their country. The students in my classes all understood the importance of their education to the future of their country and they worked hard. Despite the resource limitations in their schools, my kids proved themselves eager learners and adept at picking up the core concepts of computation. As my iNERDE colleague Rakib Ouro-Djobo wrote in this blog, we had the extraordinary experience of seeing the parents spontaneously coming forward to donate what they could to our program. We had encouragement, material support, and expressions of appreciation from the Malian government and many community organizations and individuals. The Malians are people determined to move their country forward.

Michael teaching computing in Mali for iNERDE
Michael teaching computing in Mali for iNERDE

This is exactly the kind of thing the terrorists want to destroy.

The Radisson hotel in Bamako is popular with airline staff on layover and visiting foreign NGOs. There were no high-value targets for the terrorists there. The target was the media; attacks against foreigners in Mali guarantees worldwide media attention. The horrors committed, the lives taken, are incidental to them. What matters to them is that images of terror become indissolubly associated with Mali.
The war they are fighting is one where, no matter what the outcome of their action, they win. Their objective is to inflict economic losses. The West responds dutifully to every new piece of their macabre theatre by bleeding more economic resources. A trillion dollars here, and a trillion dollars there for wars which simply produce two new hydra heads for every one slain. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was an extraordinarily successful terrorist even though he failed to kill anyone. More than 3 billion passengers fly each year. If the economic cost of having each airline passenger take off his or her shoes is only 15 cents, Richard Reid’s coup de theatre scores the terrorists 450 million dollars in economic damage every year.

In rich countries, the consequences are unpleasant – recessions and resources diverted from things like health care, infrastructure, and education to security and war. Cruise missiles cost $1.5M each; the 3 days that the French bombed Raqqa after the Paris massacres “yielded” a reported total of 33 jihadists killed … and the cost was how many millions per jihadi?

In a country like Mali, the consequences of a terrorist attack are catastrophic.

Sub-Saharan Africa has been making enormous progress in the last decade. Many countries in Africa have been growing faster than China at the apogee of its economic explosion. Millions of Africans have lifted themselves out of poverty and many are entering the middle class. Young Africans are demanding an end to corrupt governments and the creation of a society of openness and opportunity. They have been succeeding. Each step has required a hard fight, two steps forward, one back, at best. Mali has a democratic government, an open society with constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press and respect of human rights and dignity. Mali, a deeply religious, predominantly Muslim country, is rightly famous for its enlightened traditions and vigorous defense of freedom of religion and belief. Mali has been welcoming to the world, with an increasing number of tourists visiting its world heritage sites, enjoying its vibrant music scene, and exploring its diverse cultures.

That was Mali. The Mali I visited this summer is still this dynamic new Africa but it had suffered multiple, cruel setbacks. A separatist movement in the northeast was infiltrated and inflamed by Islamists. They installed a reign of terror. Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako poignantly tells the story of these fearful events in his 2014 film Timbuktu. The government was destabilized by these actions and, briefly, democracy faltered in Mali. A second blow to Mali was Ebola. Thanks to a well-organized and courageous intervention by West African governments and medical professionals and critical assistance from the United States and other countries, Ebola was contained and stopped, with only a single case reaching into Mali. Still, fear of Ebola combined with fear of Islamists was enough to end the flow of people and capital into the country and to divert scant resources away from economic development.

Abderrahmane Sissako's film Timbuktu showed the spirit of resistance of the Malian people.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu showed the spirit of resistance of the Malian people.

My daughter and I met a handful of expatriates in Bamako this summer, but aside from that it felt like we were the only foreigners in the entire city. We were the only “toubabs” at Bamako’s beautiful National Museum and Park. Young children stared at us with wide-eyed wonder, evidently never having seen a foreigner before. While we somewhat enjoyed our status as exotics, our rarity represents a disaster for the country. Economic growth requires investment and movement of people and goods and ideas in and out of the country.
Mali quickly restored democracy, calmed the northeastern region, chased the Islamists out and brokered a peace with the separatists, and stopped Ebola at its border. While it would have taken years to recover from these setbacks, everything was on the right track. Then terrorists shot up a club popular with expatriates in Bamako, a few months before we arrived. Bamako had enjoyed a reputation as the cool, laid-back city of West Africa, a place where Islamic extremism was unimaginable. The terrorists brought fear to Mali’s peaceful and tolerant capital city.

Now they have struck again. The roots of prosperity will wither as investment flees from Mali. People will die who would have had access to medical care, children will go to schools which can no longer afford the materials to teach them science, and workers who were doing well will not earn enough to feed their families.

When terrorists strike in France, there is a high cost, but the world still comes to France and France to the world, the economy still functions. In Mali, the same action brings economic and cultural suffocation.

This is exactly what the terrorists want. This is what they intended when they murdered at random in a hotel in Bamako. A prosperous Mali will always reject their twisted ideology. They believe that Malians cut off from the world and reduced to abject suffering will, having no hope elsewhere, be prepared to accept the false hopes they offer.

We are manipulated. We are played. How dangerous is Mali, now that terrorists have struck? In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, about 300 people are murdered each and every year. Why do we not call the mass shootings that have become commonplace weekly, even daily, events in the United States terrorism? Isn’t the difference just that the Islamists are better at theatre, they know how to feed a media frenzy, they know how to infect our consciousness with persistent fear.

There is an answer, an answer that will defeat terrorism. It is very, very difficult. More difficult than launching cruise missiles, spending a trillion dollars for a war, or requiring 3 billion people a year to remove their shoes. Do not be afraid. Do not provide endless advertising for terrorists. Be rational about the real level of danger we face. For example, in the United States, since 2001, 400,000 people have died from gun violence, 3,300 from terrorist acts. Irrational responses lead to self-destructive actions that harm us much more than terrorists. The terrorists are rewarded and the value of terrorist strategy is enhanced. The most powerful weapon we have against terrorists is ourselves, our will to deny them what they seek, our fear. There are many examples in history where overcoming fear first both saved lives and produced a better outcome.

Do not abandon Mali. If we succumb to fear and run from Mali, more innocent Malians will die than the terrorists could ever kill and we, also, will eventually pay a heavy price for our cowardice. We are one world. If we cut off one part the entire body sickens. I’m not running from Mali. Mali is a good place to be, as safe, or safer than any other place. The Malians are a warm and generous people, endowed with the courage to surmount the obstacles they face, to keep dreaming and to continue building a free and prosperous country. iNERDE’s education program is an important part of the free flow of people and ideas that Mali needs and will contribute to a prosperous future for Malians. I’m running to Bamako, now, and iNERDE is here to stay, unafraid, in Mali.

Michael Leventhal is Chief Nerdy Development Officer of iNERDE and also leads iNERDE’s computing education program. He may be contacted at