On Feb. 14, my husband and I moved to Bamako, Mali, with our 1-year-old. Seven weeks later, the baby and I found ourselves evacuees on a flight back to the United States.
We had been in our new house just south of the Niger River for only four days when, in late March, junior military officers staged an improvised coup d'état, reversing 20 years of elected civilian rule in Mali and plunging the country into chaos. Two weeks after the coup, whose purported intention was to restore Mali's territorial and democratic integrity, an army of separatist rebels declared independence of the northern half of the country -- just as my daughter and I changed planes for Washington.
Back in the halcyon days of February, Mali was one of those African countries you could convincingly assure your grandparents was safe. We used the standard line: Mali is a model of democracy and stability in the region. Sure, there is the "problem of the north" -- the latest in a long series of revolts by Tuareg rebels and the presence of an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cell -- but that's deep in the desert, a thousand miles away from the capital. (Mali is nearly the size of Texas and California put together.) My husband and I were excited to work on projects to strengthen justice and public-sector systems in the country -- he at the U.S. Embassy and I at the Earth Institute, Columbia University's regional center for West and Central Africa. Our daughter would learn French, Bambara (Mali's primary local language), and how best to eat a mango. Thanks to my previous work in Mali and other connections, we had many friends in Bamako.
But I cannot say I was not warned. "Mali is like the Niger," a close friend was fond of saying. "It looks so calm. But below the surface the current can carry you away."
Indeed, beneath that calm surface were signs of trouble. Following the Europeans' lead, USAID was working toward increasing government-to-government support, directly financing the Malian treasury. Yet expats commonly talked about corruption in Mali; a 2010 scandal in which officials at the Malian health ministry embezzled at least $4 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria serves a spectacular case in point. In our most cynical moments we mused that government officials had simply learned to play the aid game and knew what to say and do to keep the money rolling in -- nearly $1 billion in official development aid annually and millions more in mining investments. But the vast majority of Malians barely continued to eke out a living in the dust and sand. Thousands more were unable to do even that, dying in one of the worst food crises on record, brought on by droughts acerbated by climate change.
I think our ardent desire to believe in the symbol of Malian democracy kept us from dealing with deeper issues. The presidential elections originally scheduled to take place later this month were considered "low risk"; President Amadou Toumani Touré -- who resigned following the coup -- was in his last term and was expected to step down when the time came. I was among those who underestimated the crise de confiance -- the terrible lack of trust in politicians and deep concerns about corruption, nepotism, and what many in Mali called the exclusive "mafia" of the political class.