Monday, June 28, 2010

Where the Dark Ages Never Ended

According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, each year the U.S. State Department releases an updated Trafficking in Persons Report which investigates the prevalence of slavery and human trafficking in each country as well as that government’s relevant policies. This informative publication classifies each country according to a three-tiered system according to their compliance with the Act’s standards; whether they 1) have enacted laws prohibiting trafficking in persons; 2) implement these anti-trafficking laws with vigorous prosecution of offenders; 3) punish those found to be guilty of anti-trafficking laws; 4) provide protection and social services to victims of human trafficking; 5) ensure safe and humane repatriation of trafficking victims and reintegration into their home society; 6) prevent practices identified as contributing factors to forced labor and human trafficking.

The State Department grades each country on a scale of 1 to 3 depending upon their compliance with the standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. A grade of 1 means that the government of that country is in full compliance with the law’s standards in combating human trafficking and is actually making appreciable progress in implementing those policies; a 2 means that that country does not meet the law’s standards but it is at least making some sort of progress; a 3 means that that country does not meet even the law’s minimum standards and is not making any serious effort to improve. For example, Denmark is graded Tier 1 in this year’s TIP Report, Brazil is on Tier 2, and North Korea is classified on Tier 3. Foreign governments have an incentive to comply with the Protection Act because if they are classified on Tier 3 in two consecutive publications of the TIP Report, they can be liable to trade sanctions and prohibitions on military and economic aid.

The 2010 TIP Report is fairly critical of the anti-trafficking efforts in Mali, placing this country on the Tier 2 Watch List:

The Government of Mali does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Despite these efforts, such as assisting with the identification and rescue of 80 child trafficking victim and drafting new anti-trafficking legislation, the government failed to show evidence of progress in prosecuting and convicting trafficking offenders, and did not take action on five pending cases of traditional slavery. Therefore, Mali is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year.
Furthermore, Mali receives this precarious designation because of a “very significant” absolute number of victims of human trafficking within her jurisdiction. The Malian government is now under great pressure to act, because if a country is placed on the Tier 2 Watch List for two consecutive years without any written plan to improve its anti-trafficking policy it should be demoted to Tier 3 and subject to foreign aid restrictions. The one factor keeping it from an ignominious Tier 3 designation is that Bamako has committed “to take additional steps over the next year” to come within full compliance with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

When nudged by the international community, the Republic of Mali has demonstrated its willingness to at least sign onto the global anti-slavery consensus. Among other accords, the Malian National Assembly has ratified the United Nations Supplementary Convention on Abolishing Slavery, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress & Punish Trafficking in Persons, the ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labor, the ILO Convention 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labor, the ILO Convention 182 on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. A cynical observer of international law would point out that a self-interested government should always sign such non-binding agreements so long as doing so carries no political or economic costs, only benefits in that government can more easily do business with human rights-minded governments and businesses. Even if a government ratifies a treaty, to sign onto a multilateral agreement without any potent enforcement mechanisms of investigation, prosecution and penalization of violators is more or less an empty gesture. If you take a look at those sections of the Malian criminal code pertaining to slavery and human trafficking, the law’s inconsistencies with these treaties and protocols and simple logic should be so obvious that they jump off the page.

To begin, Mali’s anti-slavery credentials rest almost entirely upon Article 242 of the Malian criminal code which prohibits individuals from “entering into agreements or contracts that deprive third parties of their liberty”. This law only applies in cases where two people have made an agreement to enslave someone who is not a slave already; it essentially only bars the signing of illegitimate contracts. Article 242 does not restrict the ownership of a slave. It does not restrict the commerce of someone who is already a slave, someone who was born to a mother who is a slave, or someone who has inherited the debt of a deceased father and can then be forced into indentured servitude. Furthermore, the cornerstone of the code’s anti-slavery law does not stand in the way of two people signing a contract which deprives one of the signers of their liberty; i.e. debt slavery or indentured servitude. Thus Malian law only prohibits the expansion of chattel slavery and grandfathers those forms of slavery which already exist, especially the traditional form of slavery prevalent in Tamashek societies.

Mali’s legal tool against sexual slavery consists of Article 229 of the criminal code which prohibits “the sexual exploitation of children and forced prostitution of adult women”. Nevertheless, there is no law which prohibits the forced prostitution of female children, adult males or male children – categories which constitute substantial portions of the sexual workforce. The code also fails to curb the sexual exploitation of adults so long as it does not include a financial payment and therefore does not fall under the definition of “forced prostitution”; e.g. holding someone captive as a concubine or sex slave . In other words, Article 299 prohibits only the most conventional forms of sexual oppression and fails to encompass the broad range of services which perverts and pedophiles will pay for.

Mali should also receive credit where it is due for banning “all forms of child trafficking” in Article 244 of the criminal code. And when I say “credit”, I mean the sound of one hand clapping. The gist of Article 244 is that it is illegal to transport un-related children across international borders – but if a pimp were to take a girl from her family in village and rent her out as a domestic servant in Bamako, wait until she turns 18, and then transport her across the Senegalese border to sell to a prostitution ring in Dakar, there aren’t any legal avenues to convict that pimp on trafficking charges. While child trafficking might be the most sensational form of the crime, for Malian human trafficking law to not even recognize commerce in adult men and women is a disgraceful omission.

Taken together, the aggregate of extremely limited anti-slavery and anti-trafficking laws establish a legal code so porous and so weak that some of the most reprehensible forms of human bondage – the traditional slavery of the black Bella by white Tamasheks, the forced prostitution of female children, the forced prostitution of boys and men, the holding of unpaid concubines, trafficking in adult men and women – can be practiced without fear of legal repercussion. And this is just the range of horrors that can be committed in the open with technical legality – all forms of human bondage can be practiced freely so long as law enforcement agencies never make any arrests and the courts never actually prosecute offenders. Over the past year Malian gendarmes have made a grand total of two arrests for human trafficking charges (both suspects were released without trial), and the Malian criminal court system has not prosecuted a single case of slavery or human trafficking.

It should come as no surprise then that slavery still exists in Mali as plain as day. It is common for a relatively well-to-do Malian family to have one or two servants who do all of the work around the house, in the garden and in the fields and never get paid. The Bambara term for such a person is jon – “slave”, and there is no euphemism in this literal language like “indentured servant”, “maid” or “butler” for a non-chattel unpaid laborer. Of course, if you ask the waritigi if their unpaid workers are in fact slaves, they will laugh and tell you “Yes, but they can leave whenever they want!” And if you ask a servant what he or she thinks about his condition, he or she will probably tell you something along the lines of “I have a place to live, I have food to eat, there are no problems!”

Don’t think that unpaid servants just accept their place in life because of a deep-seated inferiority complex; without understanding the absolute insecurity of the food supply and the utter lack of opportunity in the Malian economy it is rather difficult to sympathize with the father who sells his sons and daughters to a slave dealer. In the year 2010 the vast majority of Malian subsistence farmers are tilling their sandy, rocky soils with the same iron hoes and picks that their ancestors have used since the advent of the Iron Age circa 500 B.C. Without mechanized farm tools agriculture is an extremely labor-intensive vocation, and in such a barren environment work in agriculture holds out only meager rewards. Especially in the Northernmost reaches of human settlement in the desert provinces a man can toil in the fields all year and see only two or three rains, maybe he will harvest enough millet to feed himself, his two wives and 10 of his 14 children. This farmer could feed all of his children this year – but then he would starve himself. He could buy more millet at the nearest market – but he doesn’t have anything to sell or barter. He could take out a loan to pay the food bills this year – but without any form of monetary income there is no way that he could ever pay off a debt with monthly accumulating interest. So you have to understand that the people who sell their children into slavery are not necessarily moral cretins, the fact is that sometimes they truly have no other choice. To the most desperate, entering into indentured servitude is actually a step up; a typical slave working for even a moderately wealthy patron is guaranteed two square meals a day.

Moreover, before you recoil in philosophical disgust at the notion of owning a slave, the Western reader should try to understand the appeal to a moderately wealthy Malian. Let’s say that Agalay the Tamashek Salt Merchant makes 1,000,000 CFA (~$2,000) a year driving his camel caravan from the salt mines in Taoudenni to the market in Timbuktu and back with food supplies and dry goods for the salt miners. Agalay spends most of his life on the road, and though he inherited his family’s longstanding land claims in the village where his wives and children live he rarely has any time to work in the fields himself. Planting season is coming soon, and Agalay’s wives tell him that the soil is so hard that the young children cannot break it up themselves. So one day at market he sells a load of rock salt, takes his profits and goes to the slave auctioneer to buy a boy strong enough to pound his caked fields into submission. A boy slave costs around 10,000 CFA ($20), maintenance amounts to little more than the costs of millet and water, and this addition to the family labor force can easily increase the productivity of Agalay’s farm to a point that their millet yields are significantly greater and his own family members have more time to sit and drink tea. In an economy where labor is one of the prime determinants of food security, buying a slave is widely accepted as a sound investment.

Historians contend that the institutionalization of slavery began in earnest in West Africa around 500 B.C. as people began to mine and smelt iron ore and fashion it into blades for hoes and picks. The advent of this technology marked a profound turning point in the means of production, for the amount of food harvested by iron-wielding societies was able to support a much larger, more stable population than that harvested by those who tilled the earth with only stone, bone and wood. Iron Age societies were so relatively productive that they could develop job specialization, a distinct warrior class armed with lethal blades and arrow heads, and both the time and the resources to raid their primitive Neolithic neighbors. As much as iron tools made agriculture so much more efficient for the yeoman farmer, iron weapons made agriculture even more efficient for those who could command slaves to do that labor in their stead.

Though slavery was prevalent in Mali before the advent of Islam, the trade in human chattel expanded greatly with the expansion of the Caliphate across North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. The Arab merchants of the rapidly expanding Caliphate recognized their empire’s reach into Africa as an unparalleled business opportunity. Though Quranic law condemns the enslavement of Muslims by other Muslims, and since the Arabs were actively converting the Berbers and Tamashek nomads living in their African territories to their new monotheist faith, the most immediate non-Arab subjects were off-limits to slave traders. However, the Quran has little bad to say about the enslavement of pagans and idolaters, so the Tamasheks turned on the animist black African tribes with whom they had longstanding trade contacts. From at least the 8th through the 19th century, Tamasheks made a living conducting raids on the Songraï, Dogon, Bobo, Bambara and Fulani tribes – among others – and transported their human chattel across the Sahara Desert for sale to Arab slave merchants in Marrakesh, Fez, Tunis and Tripoli. Over the course of twelve centuries up to 9 million slaves were trafficked across the Trans-Sahara Slave Trade, with a fair portion of those human goods originating from the territories which now comprise the Republic of Mali.

The Trans-Sahara Slave Trade benefited not only the white Tamasheks, but also the ruling and commercial elite of West Africa’s black-skinned tribes. Perhaps one of the best examples of Africans who profited from the slave trade would be Mansa Musa I, the Mandinka ruler who developed the desert trade routes and made the Mali Empire into one of the world's wealthiest kingdoms in the 14th century. During the reign of Musa I, the wealth of slaves in the royal palace was lauded by contemporaries as a display of imperial majesty.

The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta writes of the Malian Emperor’s grandeur :
“(the sultan) has a lofty pavilion where he sits most of the time… There came forth from the gate of the palace about 300 slaves, some carrying in their hands bows and others having in their hands short lances and shields…”
Mansa Musa’s harem of female slaves was only slightly smaller but even more opulent:

“The Interpreter brings in his four wives and his concubines, who are about a hundred in number. On them are fine clothes and on their heads they have bands of silver and gold with silver and gold apples as pendants. ... A chair is there for the Interpreter and he beats on an instrument which is made of reeds with tiny calabashes below it praising the sultan, recalling in his song his expeditions and deeds. The wives and the concubines sing with him...”

As we all know, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade instigated by the Portuguese in the 15th century eventually penetrated inland and played a major role in exacerbating warfare and enslavement among the various tribes of the Niger basin. Yes, the enhanced demand for slaves at the Gorée and the Cape Coast castles certainly exacerbated tribal warfare and slave raids far inland. But especially for the tribes of what is now Mali who bore the brunt of the Trans-Sahara slave routes, the advent of Westerners into the slave trade only worsened a longstanding practice. Even as the European slave ships continued their human commerce over the next four centuries, the Tamashek still rode their camel trains across the Sahara to sell the bulk of their slaves to Marrakesh, Fez, Tunis and Tripoli.

Though the Islamic Caliphate, the Mali Empire, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British slave traders have come and gone, slavery is still a major institution in the Tamashek culture of Northern Mali. The open air slave markets are no longer, the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade has slowed to a relative trickle. Nowadays, the Tamasheks’ human property is largely maintained by hereditary master-slave relationships between established Tamashek families and the Bella or Black Tamashek. The Bella are an ethnically mixed group with genetic origins in all of the black tribes which the Tamashek raided to gather their primary goods for export. Over the centuries the slaves of various tribes married and had children with each other and the white Tamasheks, but they now speak the Tamashek language and have largely assimilated into their masters’ culture as a distinct and easily-distinguishable underclass. Some Bella stay with their masters simply because they have no land of their own, there are absolutely no other job prospects in the dying settlements abutting the rapidly-growing Sahara Desert.

The Malian human rights group Temedt estimates that there are thousands of Bella living as slaves in Tamashek Country. Since the Census obviously does not count a population of slaves that the government does not recognize to exist, exact figures on the number of slaves cannot be found. But across the border in Mauritania – where the rigid caste system of light-skinned Moors and black-skinned Haratani is roughly equivalent to the traditional set up of Northern Mali – slaves and former slaves number about 500,000, or approximately 20 percent of the national population.

"The Bella people are free to leave their masters if they wish," said an anonymous official in Mali's Territorial Administration department. "If people came out to declare openly that they are slaves then of course the state would do something."

Indeed, under a regime in which the State does not enforce slavery contracts the Bella slaves are technically free to move as they wish. But in a remote Tamashek village 100 kilometers from the nearest major road, if a Bella slave does not have money to pay for transport, or access to his own camel or a Land Rover (and he most certainly does not) then he is effectively tied to his master’s land. Despite the daunting logistics of escape, some Bella slaves still take the initiative – it’s not like they have anything to lose. A few years ago BBC covered the story of runaway slave Iddar Ag Ogazide:

“Today I am a free man, I am no longer a slave. I am among men who are the same color as me who consider me as a man. I earn 1,000 CFA (~$2) a day, and that covers my needs,” he says.

The idea of a salary is something Iddar is just getting used to, having dramatically escaped from his life in the hamlet of Intakabarte, outside Gao, in February this year. According to Iddar, his grandmother was brought as a slave by the Tuareg Ag Baye family, and from then on she was listed as taxable property on the Ag Baye’s religious tax form. Iddar says he was inherited by his master, beaten several times, and never received pay or an education.

The final straw for Iddar came when his three-year-old son Ahmed was taken away to work for a niece of the Ag Baye family. “I decided I would have to go and get him so I hatched a plan. I told my master that I needed to take Ahmed to his grandparents,” he says. “I said we would both return the next day, but we never went back.”
The Northern provinces where the Bella slaves live are full of rugged terrain with just enough precipitation in a good year to grow a little bit of millet – the most drought-resistant cereal crop known to mankind; there are no commercial cotton or sugar farms where a freed Black Tamashek can find jobs in agriculture. And due to the rigid caste system, a Bella can’t just waltz into a Tamashek village and lay claim to untamed land. The only real viable option is to head farther North into the uninhabitable sands of the Sahara to the salt mines of Taoudenni.

Like the Bella living under Tamashek patrons, the Bella toiling in the salt mines are not technically living under legal slavery; outside of the traditional Tameshek setup the species of slavery in this country more resembles the indentured servitude once practiced in the British colonies. Rare is the Bella who can afford a camel train journey to the northernmost reaches of Mali Inutile, so prospective salt miners have to find a patron in Timbuktu to front their travel costs. The miners need a place to sleep, they need to eat and drink while they’re up there, so the Timbuktu creditors who are financing the entire salt mine operation front the costs of room and board as well – since all the provisions have to be transported from the Timbuktu markets, the cost of living in the uninhabitable desert is remarkably expensive. So the salt miners have to work until they can pay off their transport, room and board fees – plus crushing interest; they are told by their creditors that they can pay off their debts after a few months of hard labor, and after that they can start keeping a share of the rock salt they mine as their own.

So the salt miners are technically getting paid – in salt. But they can only sell their salt to the same Timbuktu credit/transport/salt syndicate which sent them to Taoudenni in the first place, and the only things they can spend their money on are millet porridge, Nescafé, tea and sugar which the syndicate sells at gouging prices. It is perfectly common for the syndicate to arbitrarily lower the prices at which they buy the rock salt and to jack up the prices at which they sell goods at the company store. And of course, the Timbuktu creditors routinely raise their interest rates and saddle the miners with additional debts. The end result is that the salt miners find themselves working entire lifetimes as debt peons mathematically incapable of paying off their arrears, unable to pay for transport out of Taoudenni, forever stuck in the middle of a sea of lifeless sand.

A Bella miner details his plight, “We have nothing. We are constantly dependent upon the wealthy. I have to borrow money and work it off through the month. My family also has to live. Every time I go back to Timbuktu I have nothing left over. We work like slaves.”

Not all forms of Malian servitude are flagrant violations of human rights. In this culture there exists a traditional relationship between a teacher and a student in which the student works in the fields and performs domestic labor for his teacher in exchange for room, board and an education – from personal observation, I don’t think that this arrangement is all that bad. My jatigi Karitie Sanogo, for example, is the principal of the Sanadougou elementary school, and every year his family takes in one or two girls from neighboring villages where there are no schools. These girls work as domestic servants who are expected to sweep the house, wash the dishes and laundry, draw water, chop firewood, pound millet and all of the more strenuous household chores, and in exchange they get to go to school – which they certainly would not have had they stayed in village. It’s not like they wouldn’t be doing all this work otherwise; if they lived at home, their fathers would probably assign them even more labor. And by living with a salaried functionary these traditional servants also get to have a little protein and calcium in their diets. This traditional servile relationship between a student and a teacher need not be abusive or unfair, and in many circumstances it can serve to benefit all relevant parties.

The problem with the traditional Malian teacher/student relationship is that it can be all-too-easily perverted by shyster self-described “Quranic teachers” who round up boys in rural villages to bring to their madrasahs for an “Islamic education”. In days of yore, the madrasah school system would employ this traditional set-up; in exchange for an education, Muslim students known as garabouts would work the fields belonging to their marabout in order to provide themselves and their patron with sustenance. In urban settings with no fields to till, the garabouts would go door-to-door begging for their meals – a practice thought to instill a deep sense of humility and ensure future adherence to the religious obligation of giving alms to the poor. However, as Malian society has become more urban and commercial people have become more likely to give beggars small coins rather than food, and it was only a matter of time before marabouts realized the lucrative potential of running a madrasah. Now in the 21st century marabouts instruct their students to beg only for currency – they give each garabout a tomato paste can and a daily “tuition fee” to bring back to their master, usually beating each child who does not meet his quota.

At this point, in many places the Quranic school system has become so twisted into an institution of child slavery that there is only a façade of “Islam” and “education” left in the “Islamic education” which they provide; maybe at nightfall the marabout teaches his “class” a new prayer or two, but from dawn to dusk the garabouts hit the streets with their tomato paste cans begging from the productive classes of society. It should be fairly axiomatic that kids left unfed to panhandle all day do not spend very much time studying the Quran. “Teachers” who send their “students” to beg on the street are not teaching these kids how to read Arabic, they’re only hardly teaching anything about theology. The only lessons which garabouts take away from their “Islamic education” are that they are small, that they are weak, that they are incapable of fending for themselves, and that they must submit to the authority of their social superiors if they are to make it in this world and the next.

Madrasahs which provide this species of “education” are really less institutions of religious scholarship than they are amazingly profitable businesses. Any huckster who knows a few prayers can pass himself off as a “Quranic teacher” and convince gullible families from the villages to entrust him with their children. He has to build some sort of mud hut for all the children to sleep in. But the this madrasah doesn’t provide any food, it doesn’t provide any clothing, it doesn’t provide any school supplies – there are hardly any expenses involved in this operation except the cost of tomato paste cans and the livestock-class transport of the “student body” to a lucrative environment for begging. The marabout has to do no more labor than to train his garabouts to parrot some songs and how to target people on the street with the most money. All the marabout then has to do is sit around all day and wait for his “students” to come back at night with their day’s revenues. If a marabout is driving a flock of 20 garabouts and commands them to bring back a quota of 400 CFA a day, even if they come up short he can be taking in 5,000 CFA a day – 5 to 10 times a typical daily wage in this country.

Most of the time a garabout’s servitude is limited to a year or two of begging before his “Quranic teacher” sends his back to his village, but in many cases the madrasah system exploits these poor children in ways that are more unambiguously forms of human trafficking. On the most basic level, marabouts recognize the laws of supply and demand and ship their cash cows to those cities where the competition is less fierce and begging is more profitable. One time I was riding my bike to Koutiala and saw a cargo truck parked next to a madrasah, and feeling exhausted I asked the truck driver to let me hitch a ride; when I climbed into the cargo hold I realized that this truck was already filled to twice its capacity – the cargo was a hundred little garabouts with a hundred tomato paste cans!

The practice of transporting garabouts from one region to another and even across countries obviously has no foundation in the Mohammedan tradition – it’s a matter of discipline and labor force retention. If you recruit a Bambara “student” to a madrasah within walking distance of his village and he grows tired of begging strangers for his meals, he can always run home to the comfort of his mother’s food bowl; even if the garabout is brought to beg amongst another Bambara-speaking population, he can probably ask for directions and hitch a ride home. But if you take an eight-year-old boy who only speaks the dialect of Dogon used in one remote valley and truck him across the border to Juula-speaking Côte d’Ivoire, that kid will be absolutely dependent upon his marabout and will have no choice but to follow him wherever he goes.

Now that the madrasah system has become well-entrenched in the slimy business of human trafficking, it’s only fitting that they send their boy slaves into even seedier lines of work than begging. Some marabouts have run into trouble with the gendarmes because scores of their garabouts were nabbed by the police for pick-pocketing, and when the tomato can-toting boys were brought in to the gendarmerie they broke down and squealed that their marabouts commanded them to do it, training flocks of children to become petty criminals like Fagin and his gang.

Other unscrupulous marabouts exploit their human commodities in manners more closely resembling what Americans would imagine slavery to look like. A lot of marabouts have found that the most profitable way to take advantage of their captive “students” is to rent them out to large-scale commercial farmers who put them to work in their cotton fields. Some garabouts might sign contracts to make money for their master cultivating cotton or peanuts. Other garabouts are trafficked south to Côte d’Ivoire to pick cocoa beans.

The two most important figures to keep in mind in regards to labor conditions in the cocoa industry of Côte d’Ivoire are 40 percent and 90 percent; 40 percent is the share of the world’s cocoa beans which is produced in Côte d’Ivoire, 90 percent is the share of Ivorian cocoa farms which employ their work force under some form of slavery. The best article I’ve found on slavery in the Ivorian cocoa bean industry remains A Taste of Slavery, a 2001 piece by Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee.

SIKASSO, Mali - Businessmen called "locateurs" wait in the little bus station in this large border town, where crammed mini-buses leave for Ivory Coast every 30 minutes. They search the crowds for children traveling alone, looking lost or begging for food. "Would you like a great job in Côte d'Ivoire?" they ask, using the official name of the former French colony. "I can find you one.”

…Most of the slave traders are Malian men, but women and Ivorians also work in the trade. Malians don't need passports or visas to enter Ivory Coast. In theory, children younger than 18 cannot cross the border unless they are accompanied by an adult, who must show identification. If the adult is a relative, no questions are asked about children traveling with him. If not, the children must have permission from their parents to cross the border. That's why the traffickers often order the children to call them "uncle" or "aunt." And a few bucks often can convince the authorities, as well. "The police sometimes check the IDs, and sometimes they are the ones taking bribes," said Felix Ackebo of UNICEF.

… Traffickers bring as many as 10 boys a month to Siaka Cisse's small, ramshackle house in Daloa, which doubles as his son's furniture shop. From there the 60-year-old former bus driver distributes smuggled children to local farmers. Disoriented and scared, the boys trust Cisse because like many of them he speaks Bambara, a Malian tribal language. Neither Cisse nor the farmers ask where or how the traffickers got the children.

Virtually all the boys are illiterate, but Cisse gets them to sign - more like a scratchy squiggle - a contract scrawled in French on notebook paper. It says they agree to work for about $180 a year. But they eventually discover they may not be paid that year, and that many will never be paid at all.

Cisse (pronounced SEE-say), who has 20 children of his own, said he receives only a small "gift" from each farmer - $1 or $2 per child. But a boy named Mombi Bakayoko said his master paid Cisse about $13 for him, and another $20 "transport fee" to the trafficker who brought him to Ivory Coast. Other boys said Cisse gets an average of about $12 per child.
And many more boys are sold as house slaves – though, of course, having a boy to work as a domestic servant in this culture is nowhere near as desirable as having a girl. Female slaves are less valued than males slaves for their laboring skills as they generally have less upper-body-strength and they are often pregnant with their master’s children; hence it should come as no surprise that trafficking in women is almost always related to some combination of domestic work and prostitution.

Mali is not only a source of but also a destination for trafficked women – particularly women from Nigeria. This phenomenon is quite puzzling, for transactional sex exists in every community, there is no shortage of native prostitutes in any Malian city, but for some reason foreign women are still being lured into the poorest of poor countries to serve as sex workers. The most compelling explanation for all of these Nigerian prostitutes involves that country's crushing income inequality, the massive exodus from the Nigerian countryside to the Nigerian cities, the obscene overpopulation and unemployment in the Lagos slums, a vast population of Nigerian urbanites desperate to find work abroad and a human smuggling ring with some ties to the Malian gold industry.

What happens is that a recruiter in Nigeria – usually female – searches out attractive women between 16 and 24 and tells them that she can help them find work abroad. The recruiter promises what sounds like a solid job with decent wages; e.g. waiting tables at a restaurant in Senegal, sewing dresses at a sweatshop in France. The recruiter convinces a critical mass of women to pack their bag and get on a bus – “Before the final destination we will have to stop for a little while in Bamako”, she tells them. The Nigerian women find themselves stuck in this strange Malian capital for weeks or months, and then they’re told that they owe their recruiter some unfathomable sum of money – maybe around 500,000 CFA (~$1,000) to pay for their transportation fee. Without any friends or relatives who can help them out, without any relevant language skills to even seek help, the Nigerians are a captive audience prime for exploitation.

Sometimes the Nigerians stay put and are forced into a local Bamako prostitution ring, but more often they find themselves on another car on their way to the towns which spring up next to the gold mines in rural Kayes or Sikasso provinces. These boom towns are full of other ambitious youth; men in their teens, twenties and thirties looking for fortune mining gold. In a town like Tabakoto there are about ten men who come seeking employment as a day worker for every one man that the mine will hire, but those men who do get hired hammering and picking and carting out slurry can come back to their boarding house with 2,000 francs a day. And for every 2,000 francs a miner earns, he will send maybe 500 to his family via Western Union and blow the rest on cigarettes, beer, whiskey and women.

“If you walk into a bar at a mining town, any place that sells beer at any mining town in Mali, you can find a Nigerian sex worker”, says a scholar studying the gold mines who wishes to remain anonymous, “There are Malian sex workers too, of course, but they are negligible compared to the Nigerians who are all systematically brought there under false pretenses, saddled with debt, and given no choice but to pay it off through prostitution. Every woman I’ve talked to tells the same story. At most of the bars in mining towns the women are sold a set rate: 1,000 CFA for a quick lay in her concrete room behind the bar, 2,000 CFA to rent a woman out for the whole day. The sex workers have to pay for their own food, they have to pay rent to the bar owner, they have to pay back their debt to the trafficking syndicate plus interest, and they have no means of saving for transport back home. There’s no way that this is just a coincidence – all evidence points to the existence of a targeted human-trafficking operation which is specifically ferrying women from Nigeria to work as prostitutes in the gold rush towns of Mali.”

“But is it slavery?” I ask.

“There is no legally-enforceable chattel slavery. But the sex workers in the mining towns didn’t come here by free will, they didn’t willingly sign up to become sex workers, and they certainly don’t have the freedom to stop being sex workers. That sounds like slavery to me.”

Human trafficking for the prostitution business happens at the local level too. Even in the sleepy rural town of Sanadougou where I’ve been living for the past two years, there has been a commotion about a half dozen young girls aged 4 to 10 who suddenly went missing the day after Eid al-Adha. I’m told that these girls disappeared the same day as a certain wayward son of Sanadougou who has grown up and moved to the big city where he runs a prostitution ring – the man came back for a week to visit his father for the Tabaski feast, and no one has seen the girls since he left for the city in his Mercedes. Everyone in Sanadougou knows who this man is, it’s pretty much common knowledge that he abducted six local girls to rent as child prostitutes, but no one is pressing any charges through the formal mechanisms of justice. Instead, the fathers of the six girls met with the dugutigi and the father of the pimp to relay the message that the pimp can either bring back the girls and pay each father 10,000 francs in indemnities – or the fathers are going to come to the city and murder him.

The Malian government’s inaction in the face of slavery is by no means representative of popular opinion; with the notable exception of the Tamasheks and those persons personally profiting from slave labor, the Malian public is unequivocally opposed to the ownership of people as property. When I engage Malians about slavery they condemn it as the epitome of human evil – but interestingly enough, as a rule they go through logical somersaults in order to avoid casting blame on their fellow countrymen. Popular opinion tends to apologize for the slave-trafficking of Malians by Malians along the lines of “Life is hard” or “Here we are poor”. When I ask who is to blame for slavery, they almost unanimously agree “It is the fault of the French!” The closest to soul-searching I’ve ever heard is when people blame the Tamasheks – who from the perspective of the Southern black tribes might as well be a foreign nation.

Even so, these popularly-held myths on slavery are light years closer to reality than the views promulgated by many high-ranking government officials – in particular those officials whose job it is to enforce the relevant human rights laws. The official position of the Republic of Mali is that slavery simply does not exist within its borders.

As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, “The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.” Likewise, if the Malian government is to ever comply with the human rights standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, it can start by acknowledging the fact that slavery and human trafficking exist in Mali, and that it is not the French but Malians – black Malians from their own clans and tribes – who are working as the recruiters, smugglers, pimps and patrons in the market for human property. If Malian officials continue to dig their heads in the sand and deny what is plain as day to everyone in this country, the U.S. State Department is going to eventually run out of patience and brand Mali with a Tier 3 designation.

Step two on Mali’s path to abolition would be for the National Assembly to plug up the loopholes in the criminal code which prohibit trafficking in children but not trafficking in Nigerian women, the forced prostitution of adult women but not the forced prostitution of young boys, etc. This would require only minor amendments to existing law which should not provoke much outcry from cultural conservatives – it is hard to imagine any fundamentalist cleric standing up and defending the prostitution of little boys.

The next thing the National Assembly has to do - perhaps the absolutely most critical step in abolishing slavery - is to write new laws criminalizing the practice of slavery. The relevant Malian law now reads like what the United States Constitution would do if the Thirteenth Amendment were repealed; it explicitly enshrines the equality of all persons under the law, it requires due process regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, but it does not actually have any legal mechanisms to prosecute the quintessence of inequality and dehumanization. Malian anti-slavery law has to go above and beyond Article 242’s lame proscription of “entering into agreements or contracts that deprive third parties of their liberty” – if any anti-slavery law is to have any deterrent effect it has to entail severe legal punishments, it has to at least allow the courts to sentence slave-owners to lengthy prison sentences and to forfeit their assets.

However, even if Mali acknowledges the existence of slavery and bans it outright, the anti-slavery laws will remain little more than freedom on paper unless the State actively investigates and prosecutes violations. This should not be a daunting task. All a detective would have to do to make a case that could hold up in court is walk into a bar and talk to the prostitutes, drive to Taoudenni and have a conversation with the salt miners, find any single Bella servant living among the Tamasheks or the ubiquitous tomato can-toting garabouts begging on the street. Slavery is so widespread and so painfully obvious in this country that if just one gendarmerie made even the slightest attempt to enforce human trafficking laws, in a single day they would be able to make hundreds of arrests which could eventually result in convictions. From June 2009 to June 2010, the total number of human trafficking arrests in Mali was 2, and both were released without going to trial. This inactivity cannot be excused by a lack of solid leads or financial resources – the only possible explanations are either that the gendarmes are either completely uninterested in doing their jobs or that they themselves are complicit in the trafficking trade.

Consequently, the effectiveness of any further anti-slavery or anti-trafficking laws – in fact, every single law in the Malian criminal code – would be made a thousand times more effective if the Ministère de la Justice were to conduct a thorough, genuine campaign to root out corruption in the gendarmerie. After all, even a code of perfect laws is not worth the paper it’s printed on so long as offenders can walk away free by simply waving bills in front of the investigating police. The Malian government has to start conducting sting operations in which undercover agents drive across border checkpoints posing as human traffickers with vans full of undocumented Nigerian women, and once the border guards have their bribe in hand the undercover agents should show their badges, take out their handcuffs and arrest the corrupt police who profit from the smuggling of black market slaves. Until the State eradicates lawlessness and gangsterism amongst the agents of law enforcement, no citizen will ever be safe from the peril of illegal enslavement.

And let’s say that one day the Republic of Mali actually acknowledges the existence of slavery, reforms its inadequate anti-trafficking laws, explicitly prohibits slavery as a felony offense, begins to actively investigate and make arrests and secure convictions of slave owners, slave traders and human traffickers. Even then, the government would have a generation of work set before it in transitioning this very significant slave labor force into legitimate forms of free labor; this would entail providing shelters for emancipated slaves, providing some modicum of social services until they can help the new freedmen line up employment. For the legions of sex workers imported from abroad, the government would have to cooperate with the relevant embassies in order to repatriate them back to their home countries; the government would have to assist the children intentionally trafficked beyond the limit of their language skills back to their home villages. For the garabouts and all of the other child slaves who were denied schooling, the State would have to provide them an education. And mind you, Mali is a country in which the government has only just begun to pave the roads in some neighborhoods of the capital – the services which this country needs to provide to its underclass in order to transition from slavery to free labor are beyond those which it provides for anyone at all.

At the moment, the international community is waiting for the Malian government to publicly recognize that slavery exists in their country. I’m not going to hold my breath.

Abolishing slavery will inevitably bear the wrath of the Tamashek slave owners, the Timbuktu slave traders, the salt creditors, Ivorian cocoa farmers, the crooked “Quranic teachers”, corrupt border guardsmen, brothel managers and pimps with vested interests in the trade of persons. In a part of the world where governments regularly fall by coup d’état and elements of the slave-owning tribes are waging open rebellion, it is difficult to not understand why statesmen would be inclined to play it safe in order to preserve the fragile Republic.

But it really is in the interests of Mali – not only the victims of human trafficking but every single man, woman and child in this country – to do away with this wicked institution. Bamako’s official stance of “hear no evil, see no evil” is a policy of untenable cowardice which if it continues on this track for much longer could result in Mali being grouped with Zimbabwe, North Korea and the laughing stocks of the world as a Tier 3 human rights offender – an ill-fated mark which would lead to Mali being cut off from American aid. The people of Mali are floundering in the world’s most devastating poverty, they desperately need economic development. What they cannot afford is to preserve this vestige of medieval feudalism in order to keep a handful of petty despots at bay.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Roads? Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads!

Mali is one of the best examples of what Oxford economist Paul Collier would categorize as a “non-developing country”; after half a century of the government pushing for industrialization, a thorough IMF structural adjustment overhaul and a steady flow of World Bank development loans and NGO grants, Mali’s GDP now stands at $8.8 billion and has been growing at an average rate of 4.7 percent over the past ten years. This might sound like a fairly decent growth rate, but if you consider that the GDP of this nation of 13 million people is less than half of Michael Bloomberg’s net worth of $18 billion, as far as nations go Mali’s $8.8 billion amounts to peanuts. And when you consider that Mali’s population of 13 million has also been growing 3 percent annually, GDP per capita has only been growing around 1.7 percent per year. And since such a disproportionate amount of these final goods are being bought and sold in the cities, and even in the cities at least 30 percent of the masses are absolutely unemployed and can hardly even buy cheap staple foods, and the vast majority of the rural population is barely eking out a living in the subsistence agricultural economy, that 1.7 percent annual GDP growth per capita really only represents growth in the wealth of the small urban elite. So yes, Mali’s economy is in fact growing – but it is only growing for the handful of bankers and bus drivers and cell phone dealers and government employees who have any money to begin with; meanwhile the rural peasants are reaping smaller harvests, the urban poor are able to purchase less food, and malnutrition and even starvation are becoming increasingly common. Such a trend of nominal financial expansion fueled by growing public indebtedness and deepening inequality surely represents growth in the amount of money changing hands, but it can hardly be described as economic development.

Collier would explain that there is a rational geographical explanation for why Mali’s economy is going nowhere fast, because it is a “land-locked country with bad neighbors”; that the Malian people conduct such little trade because man-made barriers preclude exports to foreign markets. If you look at a map of the region, you should be able to understand how the Niger River has served as the primary trade route between Bamako, Ségou, Mopti, Timbuktu and Gao for more than a millennium – the waterway has been such a vital artery that in Bambara it is known as Joliba, or “the Big Blood”. And likewise, the river should serve as the natural trade route for contemporary Malians to transport cotton, peanuts and shea butter from Bamako up through the northern provinces of Mali, down through Niger, Benin and Nigeria to Port Harcourt and cargo freighters bound for the markets of the world.

But downstream from Timbuktu, the Niger River flows through politically unstable territory prone to unchecked banditry, and even if Malian goods make it all the way to the coast the Nigerian customs agents demand egregiously high bribes in exchange for export licenses. The next best alternative would be to truck Malian goods across Côte d’Ivoire to the seaport at Abidjan – but overland transportation is significantly more expensive, the rebel militias in Northern Côte d’Ivoire demand hefty extortion fees from all vehicles traveling through their territory, and the port in Abidjan is manned by equally corrupt kleptomaniacs. The port in Accra is arguably the most efficient and professionally-manned in all of Africa - but there is no Malian-Ghanaian border so that would require paying customs duties twice. Senegal is relatively stable and bribery at the Dakar seaport is somewhat less rampant – but anything grown in Mali is also grown locally in Senegal and can be trucked to the port of Dakar much cheaper, so Malians have to slash the prices of their own goods in order to compete. Altogether, completely unnecessary transportation costs and institutionalized bribery jack up the cost of running an export-oriented business to such an extent that it is quite challenging for anyone in Mali to sell their goods abroad and make a profit. Even though there are foreign consumers who do want to buy Malian cotton, peanuts and shea butter, with such constrained access to foreign outlets these wares stay to glut brackish domestic markets where the prices of locally-produced goods remain depressingly low.

Another cause of Mali’s economic stagnation which Collier failed to acknowledge is that the same factors which hinder a “land-locked country with bad neighbors” from participating in the global economy – political instability, insufficient trade routes, institutionalized bribery, graft, embezzlement and outright theft – also play a major role in stifling domestic commerce. Despite being fellow citizens of the same country, the Bamakois urban elite, the Malinke gold miners in Kayes, the Senaful cotton farmers of Sikasso, the cliff-dwelling Dogon of the central plateau, and the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara Desert represent distinct markets effectively more segmented than the nation-states of Europe. And the separateness of the various markets of Mali is not predestined by geography or ethnicity; it is directly related to more human factors like the fact that the 23rd largest country in the world has only 18,709 kilometers of roads – less than Jamaica, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

Part of the transportation problem in Mali exists, of course, in the complete and utter lack of physical infrastructure. There is a modest network of one-lane paved roads known as le guidron connecting the major cities, and there are some decent one-lane dirt roads connecting some of the larger market towns… and that’s about it. In the region of Ségou in which I live, there is a guidron that goes from Bamako to the city of Ségou, down to Bla and San, then up to Mopti and the Northern provinces; there are also two guidrons from Bla and San which converge in the city of Koutiala in the next province South. An equivalent would be if Ohio had a one-lane paved road from Cleveland to Toledo, a second paved road from Toledo to Cincinnati, a third from Cincinnati through Columbus to Cleveland, and the only routes to Akron or Canton or Youngstown were made out of dirt.

Unless it happens to be situated along one of the roads between cities or market towns, a rural village in Mali is effectively isolated from the national economy because there is probably no route to the nearest car-worthy road that can be honestly classified as a “road” in its own right. When I bike to visit my friend in the village of Zamblala 40 kilometers away, I’m going down a mountain biking trail over gullies, through sand traps and around ditches which is only distinguishable from the rest of the scrubland in that other people have traveled this way in the past. Some sections of the “road” from Sanadougou to Zamblala are so completely identical to the rest of the expanse of sun-baked mud that I have to know to go South at the big termite mound and Southwest from the old baobab tree towards the pile of rocks. Parts of the “road” to Zamblala are so narrow and it makes such sharp turns that I couldn’t even drive down it with my late Jeep Wrangler – it is only accessible by bicycle, motorcycle, donkey or foot.

That doesn’t mean that people from Zamblala don’t come to Sanadougou to do business. They do. On Sanadougou’s market every sixth day, Zamblalakaw tie a few chickens to their handlebars or pack a satchel of however many onions they have to spare and bike the nonexistent “road”. Since there is no car that services this little village, what they can sell at Sanadougou’s market is limited to that which won’t be damaged en route – usual market mainstays like tomatoes, mangoes or bananas can only be sold at home. So though the soils and the climate are identical, due to the lack of transportation infrastructure Zamblala’s economy is considerably more oriented towards autarkic subsistence and less towards commerce than the economy of Sanadougou only 40 k away.

And when I speak of commerce among rural agricultural communities, I refer to an exchange so miniscule that American readers might wonder why people even bother. When a Fatimata from the neighboring village of N’jesu ties a satchel of peanuts, balances it on her head and spends the morning walking the 16 kilometers down the “road” to the Sanadougou market, she really only has a window of two to three hours to sell her peanuts before she has to spend all afternoon walking home. And I emphasize that in an agricultural community where everybody has been growing more or less the same crops for generations, the market is flooded with surpluses of the same products that everyone is trying to sell to people who already make these same things themselves. If she’s lucky, after a busy day hawking at market Fatimata will have sold 150 francs (~38 cents) worth of peanuts – enough to buy a box of tea and a small bag of sugar, and then she has to walk the 16 kilometers back the cow path to N’jesu before nightfall. In a rural Minianka village, most people like Fatimata partake in such incipient trade only once every six days.

Sanadougou is a rural market town serviced by a significant dirt road that is relatively well-maintained and large enough that the trucks from the textile company CMDT can come to buy the cotton farmers’ harvest and bring it back to their mill in Koutiala. Sanadougou’s farmers benefit from these roads as they provide the infrastructure necessary for them to sell a cash crop. Farmers come to Sanadougou from smaller villages by donkey cart over the little dirt paths...

... and at the Sanadougou market CMDT agents weigh and buy all of the cotton so the can fill the storage containers carried back to Koutiala by truck. Hence the improved dirt road from the guidron to Koutiala to Sanadougou develops the commercial economy of the market town, and this economic expansion allows global capitalism to at least penetrate the economies of villages like Zamblala and N'jesu.

As consumers, Sanadougoukaw benefit from the improved dirt roads in that they can buy things that no one makes locally; tea, sugar, instant coffee, plastic cups and bowls, black marketed Goodwill clothing, bootleg “medicine” from China and Nigeria, ginger, green peppers, plantains and bread. But local producers who came to market on foot or bicycle now have to compete with vendors from Koutiala selling the same tomatoes, mangoes, onions, cucumbers, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, etc. that they sell – only they were grown in the more fertile Sikasso region which means that the imported goods are generally larger, richer, and overall superior products to what is grown locally. The net result is a form of domestic mercantilism in that rural farmers earn their modest monetary income by selling their cash crops to urban industrialists, and these cash crop farmers spend all of their money on urban merchants’ cheap manufactured goods – only the most miniscule commerce is conducted between rural villages.

Would economic activity expand and diversify if USAID were to swoop in and pave the road from Sanadougo to Koutiala? Or even the cow paths from Zamblala and N’jesu to Sanadougou? There would be some more money in circulation in the area if USAID were to hire local men to do all of the menial labor – but more than likely they would hire a contractor from Bamako with one of the few steamrollers in this country, and contractors almost always come with their own team of workers. And maybe motorcyclists would be able to drive a bit more efficiently and save ever so slightly on their gas bills. But other than that it is difficult to see how paving the way to rural backwaters is going to carry much economic benefit; road construction per se does not guarantee the arrival of more customers unless it allows for bigger and better vehicles to ship new products that they are willing to buy, fresh blacktop does not necessarily mean that more vendors are going to travel to a particular market with more variety and quality of goods unless there actually exists demand for those goods at the end of that road.

The relationship between economic growth and road construction is not at all like that between the chicken and the egg – economic growth must come first, for there is no way for the benefits of road construction to outweigh the costs otherwise. And those new roads must continue to generate additional economic activity and tax revenues indefinitely, because roads must be regularly maintained in order to remain functional. In this harsh climate which alternates between extreme heat and extreme dryness to torrential rains, a paved road that is never re-tarred will develop pockmarks which develop into potholes and the entire mass of blacktop will crumble into black pebbles and dust in less than 10 years.

So a road cannot just be a one-time cadeau from a foreign NGO, it needs to be necessary infrastructure whose regular upkeep can be justified in the annual budget of the cash-strapped Ministère de l’Équipement et des Transports in order to be sustainable. And the le Ministère de l’Équipement et des Transports is never going to be able to finance road construction and regular maintenance until le Ministère de l’Économie et des Finances receives a greater regular flow of cash into its coffers, and that is not going to happen until the commercial portion of the Malian economy finally experiences sustained growth. Only then will the state be able to recognize the trade routes which facilitate that new economic activity and allocate its scarce resources towards infrastructural development.

The government’s construction of new car and truck-worthy roads would facilitate the more efficient transport of goods to and from rural markets like Sanadougou; nevertheless, Ségou province is a relatively flat and traversable part of Mali where the construction of a road is at least a feasible endeavor – this cannot be said in other regions. The Dogons purposefully established their oldest villages on top of cliffs only accessible by exhausting, hours-long hikes through steep, narrow boulder passes so that they would not have to defend themselves from Fulani warriors on horseback or camelback. Improving transportation is particularly daunting in Dogon Country because this tribe deliberately chose to settle in locations as isolated as possible from the rest of the human population, where road construction is downright impossible. Some Tuareg communities roving in the middle of the Northern desert are so far from the nearest gas station that they can only be reached by camel caravans. And it would be a futile effort to pave roads in the Tuaregs’ desert where the sand dunes can migrate up to 100 meters every year – these people have spent millennia wandering in the desert precisely because they have cornered the Sahara trade routes without any formal transportation infrastructure.

If deficiencies in transportation are standing in the way of economic development and yet roads do not by themselves facilitate more commerce, what else can the government of Mali do to aid the free flow of goods in this country? For starters, the State could strengthen public integrity laws, conduct self-policing sting operations and fire all of those who are caught breaking the laws in order to root out corruption in the gendarmerie.

You see, the government could pave every road, street, bike trail and cow path from Kayes to Taoudenni, but moving goods from the country to the town and from the town to urban markets is still going to remain prohibitively expensive for farmers to participate in the market economy so long as the transport companies are free to gouge their customers as they please. There are laws on the books which regulate trucking and bussing operations, but they carry as much force as the Soviet Constitution so long as the owner of an offending vehicle can flash a wad of bills in front of an unscrupulous gendarme and drive away scot free.

A market town like Sanadougou is the final destination for some country produce, but it serves its most important function in the national Malian economy as a regional hub for rural goods to make their way to the cities. Farmers don’t stand to earn much selling food to other farmers who have food of their own but very little money, but they have the potential to make considerable profits if they can move their goods to the cities where all of those bankers and government employees and cell phone dealers and mill workers live who have to buy their food with their salaries and wages. Urbanites don’t just buy tea and sugar – they even have to buy peanuts and their staple cereals of millet and rice. And a Sanadougou farmer cannot transport 100 kilograms of peanuts 60 kilometers down the road to Koutiala by bicycle – he has to go by car.

There are two cars in Sanadougou; one car belongs to the Commandant who never drives it but keeps it propped up on blocks to flaunt his wealth before his houseguests, the other is driven every day by the “mobilitigi” Issa Sogoba as the most profitable business in the entire Commune. It is a 38-year-old German delivery van that was originally intended to carry two people and a small load of cargo; if this van could have been used in Germany for human transport (and it most certainly would not have) maybe it could have had seats for a maximum of 9 passengers. Issa Sogoba installed four rows of five 12-inch seats so that if one person sits shotgun and another sits with their legs around the stick shift they can sell seats for 22 passengers. I must emphasize that these 12-inch seats are only as wide as seats for small children and they run only 12 inches up the passengers’ backs; it is literally impossible for five grown adults to sit in this row with their backs alongside the seat, so when the car is at maximum capacity – and it almost always is – everyone has to sit at an angle with their arms interlocking and their shoulders in each others’ faces.

The only product that a Malian mobilitigi is selling is movement from point A to point B; timeliness, efficiency, safety and comfort are dismissed as unaffordable luxuries. The engine on the Sanadougou car can only ignite if the car is already moving, so Issa begins each journey with his apprentices and all of the male passengers pushing the overloaded van to a start. There are no functional breaks, so Issa can only stop the car by letting his foot off the gas and coasting to a halt. There are no seatbelts. The tires are so bald that there are no longer any visible treads – but that doesn’t prevent Issa from careening down potholed dirt roads at 60 miles an hour. The windshield is shattered into a hundred pieces but by some stroke of luck it hasn’t fallen yet. The driver’s side-view mirror no longer exists. There is no muffler and the tailpipe belches out plumes of black smoke. By all standards of common sense and Malian law, it is a danger to society for anyone to drive this car and no one should ever be allowed to charge people to ride in it.

But that doesn’t stop Issa from transporting the farmers and goods of Sanadougou and its tributary villages to markets in the nearby cities. Almost everyone riding in Issa’s car is going to the city to sell their wares, so the roof is so overloaded with sacks of millet and rice and peanuts that it tips noticeably to one side or the other. And Issa’s two apprentices are sitting with the sacks of peanuts on the roof so they can load and unload cargo over the course of the ride. Sometimes they carry a 25th and 26th passenger who sits with the apprentices on the roof, and a 27th and 28th stand on the rear bumper holding onto a ladder for support. And the passengers in Issa’s car are also traveling to market breastfeeding their babies, with their chickens pecking at people’s feet, and their goats tied to the roof where they urinate on whoever is sitting by the window. And on trips home from the city Issa often brings a drum of gasoline which he crams in the back – all but guaranteeing that if the car were rear-ended with any amount of force that at least the 22 human passengers with seats would be trapped in a fiery inferno.

Usually Issa’s car simply does not work because the fan belt dates from the early 1970s so every time it tears Issa stops for 40 minutes to melt it back together with a cigarette lighter. Given the fact that fan belts are available for purchase in every city to which he drives, it is somewhat amazing that Issa has never bothered to purchase a new one. But there is no pressing need to spend money on replacing broken parts when the old ones can be stitched into temporary semi-functionality indefinitely. After all, every other Malian transport company also sells tickets to vans and buses with 30-year-old engines that unambiguously do not work, so spending revenues on anything but bare-bone maintenance is considered an uncompetitive business practice. There is not even any incentive for chauffeurs like Issa to improve their services, because Malian customers are perfectly accustomed to waiting on the side of the blacktopped road for 2 hours in the 116 degree sun – they’re not going to complain, because they’ve never known any reality other than one in which buses routinely break down. Besides, a rural transport provider like Issa Sogoba faces no pressure to make his car more efficient or to otherwise reduce his fares, because he enjoys a perfect monopoly over the Sanadougou market.

I recently sat down with Issa to crunch the numbers of his business, and the results demonstrate just how profitable it is to run a transport company with zero competition and zero regulation. Issa bought his fifth-hand car in 1994 for 3 million CFA (~$6,000) – which was by any measure an act of highway robbery, though since no one in Mali could possibly save that much money he financed the purchase by taking out a loan from Kafo Jiginew on the terms that it be paid back in one year at 15 percent interest – which any objective analyst would classify as clear-cut usury. So I actually have some sympathy for the man in that he is a victim of an exploitative banking industry, and the rates that he charges were perfectly justifiable in light of the terms of his original loan.

In order to make 3,450,000 CFA so that he could pay off his loan within a year, Issa set his standard of filling his car with at least 22 passengers and their cargo on any leg of the journey. If one man is traveling to Koutiala with 4 sheep to sell at market, he pays 1,500 francs for his own fare and 250 for each of his sheep. Or if that passenger is bringing 2 sacks of peanuts, he has to pay 1,000 francs for each sack. Issa transports a disproportionate amount of goods in relation to passengers, however, because a lot of people in Sanadougou have prearranged sales with customers in Koutiala and only have to pay to send their goods. In all, Issa makes an average of 45,000 CFA in revenues on a typical trip to Koutiala. He pays for 10,000 francs worth of gasoline, and his two apprentices make 1,000 each day for loading and unloading cargo; this day’s operating costs total 12,000 francs. Thus on an average Wednesday – Koutiala’s market day – Issa makes 33,000 francs (~$66) in profits.

Fares, gas prices and apprentice earnings differ according to the distance traveled each day. On Monday Issa drives to the San market and makes a profit of 40,000 francs (~$80). On Tuesday he drives to Yangasso and makes 35,000 francs (~$70). Thursday he goes to Bla and makes 28,000 francs (~$58). Friday he drives all the way to Bamako and drives back on Saturday to make a whopping 46,000 francs (~$94). The commercial economy of Sanadougou largely depends on Issa’s transport services, so this schedule is carried out more or less indefinitely every week over the course of the year; when Issa himself cannot work because he is sick or has to attend a wedding or a funeral, one of his apprentices assumes driving responsibilities.

Over the course of a year, Issa Sogoba’s transport business takes in 14,820,000 CFA (~$29,640) in revenues, he pays the apprentices 624,000 CFA (~$1,248) for their labor, he pays 4,914,000 CFA (~$9,828) for gas. Issa does not pay for the cost of maintenance because his brother Yahya is the town mechanic and services the family business for free. And he does not pay for replacement parts unless the engine literally cannot turn on; Issa told me that the most he pays for parts in a given year is 2 million CFA (~$4,000). During the first year this business was running he had an additional expense in pay off his loan to Kafo Jiginew plus the usurious interest rate to the tune of 3,450,000 CFA (~$6,900), but he has not had to pay for debt services since 1995.

So in an average year, Issa makes a profit of approximately 7,282,000 CFA (~$14,564) – this is by far the most lucrative enterprise in the entire Commune of Sanadougou. These profits of approximately 7,282,000 francs represent Issa Sogoba’s pre-tax income; after the Commandant, the Mayor and the two doctors, the mobilitigi is the richest man in a population of 16,000. In comparison, Issa makes more than 10 times per capita GDP in this country - which now hovers around 550,000 CFA (~$1,100); since the monetary income is disproportionately weighted in the cities, Issa's immense income is even more immense compared to the subsistence and tangentially-commercial farmers in a rural town like Sanadougou.

Issa Sogoba’s profits, however, can only be honestly evaluated in relation to the costs borne by his customers; i.e. the farmers of Sanadougou. If Amadou the millet farmer were to travel to the Koutiala market to sell his 4 sheep, he pays 1,500 francs for his own fare and 250 for each sheep. If these sheep look meaty and demand for sheep is high – say, as Muslim families prepare for the Eid al-Adha feast – Amadou could sell each of his 4 sheep for 40,000 francs (~$80) and his transport costs of 4,000 francs (~$8) only cut out 2.5 percent of his revenues. But if Amadou only sells 2 of his sheep and he has to pay for their fare back to Sanadougou, or he sells all of his sheep in the months after Eid al-Adha when demand is low, then transport costs up to 6 percent of his total revenues. If Amadou sells none of his sheep, then he just lost 5,000 francs. This might not sound like a lot, but in an economy where that sale of his best sheep might account for the entirety of his monetary income that year, 4,000 to 5,000 francs for a trip to market and back is no insignificant deal of money - with that sum he could buy a pair of mosquito nets, among other things.

And the 4,000 to 5,000 francs that Amadou has to pay for a trip to the Koutiala market only count as the nominal costs of transportation. If Issa’s car breaks down and Amadou has to spend an August afternoon waiting on the side of the road for someone to bike down with new engine parts, Amadou just lost a good chunk of hours when he could have been working out in the millet fields. If Issa is speeding like a madman as usual, slips on a patch of sand and can’t slow down because he has no breaks, the car might crash into a baobab tree, all of Amadou’s sheep might get killed and Amadou himself might sustain debilitating neck injuries which put him out of the labor force for the rest of the year. This is not a society where people sue for pain and suffering. When it comes to safety, Amadou the customer assumes all of the risk and all of the cost of potential injury to himself and loss of goods and Issa the mobilitigi only stands to lose a little bit of profits – even if he were to crash his car into a baobab tree, it would be a safe bet that Issa would be selling seats in his van again within a week.

Furthermore, if Issa gets caught by the gendarme checkpoints driving a car that violates every single regulation on the books, the cost of fines or bribery do not serve as an incentive for him improve the quality of his services because he doesn’t pay for them – that expense falls upon his passengers. When unscrupulous mobilitigis get nabbed for driving a car filled to 250 percent the maximum occupancy with a cracked windshield, without side view mirrors without a license, it is a standard practice in Mali for the apprentice to go down and tell every passenger to cough up “their share” of the bribe so the gendarme will let them pass. Depending on the severity of the offense and their ability to pay, passengers are told to give as much as 2,000 francs each. And without hesitation or complaint, Malian passengers simply do what they’re told and comply like cows marching toward the slaughterhouse – paying bribes is accepted as a routine expense of traveling down le guidron to the big city market. If Amadou the millet farmer would usually pay 4,000 francs in transport costs to sell his sheep at market, then institutionalized bribery raises those transport costs by as much as 50 percent. But in real terms Malian passengers have to pay three times for transport; they pay the mobilitigi once for the nominal fare, they assume all of the risk and cost of injury inherent in traveling in such hazardous deathtraps, and even though it is the mobilitigi who is breaking the law by not paying for new tires or breaks it is their passengers who pay for the fines and bribes. The people willingly pay for the unscrupulous mobilitigis to fuck them twice - and if they get nabbed by a corrupt gendarme, they pay to get fucked three times.

I avoid motor vehicular transport in this country when I can, but whenever I have no choice but to suffer with my adopted countrymen sitting in sub-human conditions and the car gets stopped and the inevitable shakedown falls, I ask my fellow travelers why they put up with such bullshit. The responses I get are quite Stoic; “C’est comme ça” or “Nous n’avons pas un choix”. Perhaps this is a cultural thing and patriarchal Malians are more accustomed to obeying their social superiors, perhaps 80 years of colonialism and 30 years of homegrown dictatorship have robbed people of any semblance of dignity and self-esteem. Two millennia ago such attitudes might have been considered virtuous, but in this day of free will, free markets and democratic self-government it breaks my heart to watch as grown adults just grin and bear it while they’re being cheated and exploited.

And when it happens to me, the storm clouds in my head erupt into pitch black fury. Maybe it’s because my hippie parents taught me to think of myself as a unique snowflake. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a society where people are encouraged to criticize the way things are so that we can remedy existing problems and pave the way for a better future. Maybe it’s because I come from a nation whose values were forged in the fires of dissent, protest and a Revolutionary War, a nation whose modern regulatory regime was conceived by a Populist movement that demanded protection from the price-gouging railroad trusts, a nation that honored the body of Rosa Parks with the same pomp as only the greatest of presidents in the Capitol Rotunda because she refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a bus.

But my style of rebellion has less in common with the moral majesty of Rosa Parks than the brazen vernacular of New York. When I'm on a bus, we get stopped for safety infractions and the apprentice tells me to cough up 2,000 francs to bribe the gendarmes, I raise my middle finger and tell him to perform the unspeakable on various farm animals. If he asks again, I dig my feet in further and tell him to perform even more creative and more obscene actions on those livestock. Eventually the apprentice realizes that the more he asks me to pay for bribes the more I am going to instill an image of him sodomizing a donkey into the minds of my fellow passengers, so he backs down and moves on.

Every time I put on such a show the rest of the passengers watch in bewildered astonishment. They’re used to paying these bribes week after week. They’ve never heard someone stand up to the mobilitigi before. It’s never occurred to them that they have the power to say “No” - and that refusing to acquiesce with the status quo is the first step to changing it.

Transport costs might lessen and more commerce might flow if the Malian government were to build more paved roads. But bringing goods to market would become even more affordable if the Malian government were to regulate their own law enforcement agents who are tasked with regulating the transportation industry in order to facilitate more commerce and economic growth. The underdevelopment of this economy is a scandal, and the blame lays no small part in the hands of those gendarmes who allow these modern day robber barons to flout the law with impunity in exchange for illicit enrichment.

In the meantime, Malian farmers have to learn to stand up for themselves. They have to organize so that every single passenger refuses to pay for bribes and chauffeurs themselves have to pay the penalty when they break the law. And the farmers have to learn to speak up to their transport providers and demand that they improve the quality of their services. If rural mobilitigis do not change their ways and begin to adequately maintain their cars, enteprising farmers should pool their money, take out loans and start their own competing businesses that break the local monopolies so that there is an incentive to improve services and reduce the price of transportation. And villagers of all stripes need to get into the habit of bringing their valid grievances to the traditional gerontocracy, the offices of la Mairie et le Commandant. Only when the compelling force of the State is exercised to protect the interests of the farmer over the exploitation of the middleman will the rural masses be able to break out of mere subsistence and participate in the modern commercial economy.