Luke Harding writes: Last year Suleiman Kané hid his radio under several crates of fish. He also buried his satellite dish at the bottom of his fishing boat. The Islamists had swept into Gao, and were advancing rapidly across northern Mali. And so Kané stopped listening to music – an offence under sharia law – and avoided the rebels as far as possible.
A year later he and his large family are waiting to go home. The satellite dish is back in its old position, hooked up to a solar panel on the roof. Next to it is a bike, some firewood and a folding chair. His 15-metre-long floating home is moored at Mopti, Mali’s biggest river port. Kané’s two wives, five grownup sons and innumerable grandchildren – two with hacking coughs – are camped on the bank.
It is at Mopti that the shimmering Niger, west Africa’s great river, converges with its tributary, the Bani. West is the languid town of Ségou; north, and a three-day journey by boat, Timbuktu. On the turquoise water, fishermen in wooden pirogues are casting nets. Eagles whirl in the haze. Closer to town, people are washing clothes, mopeds and a shiny blue Mercedes.
French and Malian forces took Timbuktu 10 days ago, turfing out the jihadists who had run the Saharan town since last March. Paris also freed Gao and Kidal. Kané welcomes the return of the French, Mali’s old colonial masters. “I was born in 1939 and I remember the colonial period,” he says. “The French did a good job back then. They were fair.” He adds: “So far as I’m concerned they can stay.”
Everyone here has tales of rebel rule. Isate Kané (no relation to Suleiman) says one of her relatives was killed in Gao by a stray bullet. Kané says she was forced to wear a veil, but didn’t mind too much, since she kept her hands warm under it on chilly mornings. Far worse, she explains, was the predatory sexual behaviour of the jihadists. Most were lighter-skinned Tuareg or Arabs, with one or two black Malians. “One woman crossed the riverbank to bring her fish to market. This was in Gao. Two rebels chased her,” she says. “They wanted to rape her. She ran back to the bank so they shot her with a sniper rifle. She was pregnant.” The rebels took other women as sex-slaves, she says, sometimes killing them. She adds: “Whenever we saw them, we hid.”
Kané and her relatives – about 55 people, crammed on to one slow-moving barge – are waiting to travel north. The women are preparing lunch: a paste made from baobab tree fruit, millet and fish. “We eat fish and sell fish to buy rice,” she says. Nile perch – the Niger’s most delicious variety, known as capitaine – costs 1,500 CFA a kilo (£2); carp is 300 CFA. The Dogon, a tribe of animists, trade fish for baobab fruit, she says.
The river’s inhabitants tend to do the same things their parents have done, with jobs passed down along family lines. The fishermen are Bozo; the boys herding cattle across the waters Fulani; the rice planters Songhai. The Tuareg – blamed by many Malians for the country’s post-independence woes and a series of bitter rebellions against the capital Bamako – are nomads. How can Mali achieve peace? “By killing all the Tuareg,” Kané replies. [Continue reading…]