I’ve been listening to an utterly phenomenal book on CD this week: What is the What?, Dave Eggers’ 2006 novelization of the violent conflict in Sudan and Darfur in the 1990s and 00’s. As what has come to be called “creative nonfiction”, the book is the mostly true story of Valentino Achuk Deng, from his days as one of the original Lost Boys seeking asylum, to his days in a Kenyan refugee camp, to his odd but amusing friendship with Jane Fonda’s adoptive African American daughter in Atlanta, and beyond.
Eggers himself is a man of great conscience, wit and depth whom I’ve known about for years, partly because of 826 National, his nonprofit work tutoring and teaching creative writing to underprivileged U.S. children and teens. But to read or hear the pained but ever-hopeful voice of Mr. Deng in first person takes this book well beyond the realm of journalism or historical novels, making one feel that you are there– standing in the crater moments after a bomb drops, or trudging on mile after mile as your innocent friends are lost to lion attacks, starvation, gunfire or disease.
I highly recommend What Is the What?, but be sure to put on your big-boy pants before you start: it’s remarkably sad and harrowing, though without becoming overly graphic in the depictions of violence or generally gross moments in Deng’s life. That’s what great art can do: say more with less.
(And for those who wonder, …yes… that’s the same last name as Chicago Bulls basketball star Luol Deng, who is Sudanese as well, and a superb humanitarian in his own right. I doubt they are related… but I have not finished the book nor researched the matter, so who knows?)
What makes the book relevant to 2013 is that the civil wars and overall conditions in Sudan’s recent past are not so different from the present conflict in Mali, another sub-Saharan nation (though Mali is in northern West Africa as opposed to the northeast for Sudan). Both nations are sharply contrasted in their physical geography, as the desert regions of the north give way to the more desirable fertile plains and even jungles in the south. Plus the struggles in both nations are difficult to pigeon-hole as strictly religious, economic, political or tribal, for all four factors figure significantly depending on the particular leadership , cultural norms, or region being discussed. When
I started thinking in earnest about the problems in Mali this past summer, as a Vacation Bible School I was helping run raised funds to provide anti-malaria mosquito nets to Malian children. I recalled hearing a radio news story about an under-reported coup in that nation a month or two previously. So I took a minute or two on one of the VBS days to gently mention how civil wars can affect kids, who often become refugees or orphans even as they are confused over what the fight is all about.
In another way, though, I’ve had an ear turned toward Mali for decades, as I became a fan of indigenous African rhythms and musical forms through the interpretive work of jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and pop/rock legends such as Paul Simon (esp. on Graceland), Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel. Through those guys, I started going back to the “locals” occasionally, checking out the late Ali Farka Toure (the “John Lee Hooker” of world music), King Sunny Ade (Nigeria), or Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa) — not to mention lesser-known artists whose music seeped into my awareness through public radio shows [Afropop!] or recommendations. (For example… I just today learned that Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz did a whole album in 2002 called Mali Music with several Malian collaborators, including Toure’s nephew Afel Bocoum… gotta check that one out, cuz I loves me some Gorillaz!)
btw, apropos of nothing: I met trumpter/singer Hugh Masekela briefly on a Swiss train platform in 2008 after the Lugano Jazz Festival– a great lion of a man, full of life. As one of the few Americans present, maybe I was the only one with the brass balls to approach him and say thanks for a great show. But he was gracious, didn’t seem to mind a bit.
Back to the present: I noted with interest a CNN story this week that made direct reference to musicians involved in the present armed struggle in Mali, toward which France just committed some troops this week.
Why would a guitarist pick up a gun? Basically, wherever extreme Islam and sharia law try to take hold, music and art in all of their lovely forms are often seen as a threat and suppressed. While I consider myself a pacifist, or at least a firm believer in non-violent active resistance of the type that Gandhi and Dr. King used, I can certainly still do my part with a computer keyboard, video camera or credit card to advance the cause of human rights and artistic freedom in nations where they have to fight for what I tend to take for granted.
I will wrap up, then, by excerpting a portion of that opinion piece by Andy Morgan, a music journalist and former manager of current Malian rising stars, Tinariwen.
Mali’s conflict turns musicians into military
Andy Morgan, special to CNN
Fri January 18, 2013
[Article excerpts: ] It’s safe to assume that most people outside West Africa had never even heard of Mali until a few weeks ago. If they had, there’s a good chance it was thanks to some beautifully flowing song. Or if it wasn’t music then it might have been Mali’s priceless medieval manuscripts that drew their attention, or its majestic mud-built mosques, its filmmakers, poets, photographers and writers.
Like Jamaica or Ireland, Mali’s music and culture are its primary asset, its shop-window to the world, its “gold and cotton” as one famous musician put it.
Certainly, very few people would have included the words “Mali” and “Islamism” in the same sentence before April last year, when Islamist militia took control of over two thirds of the country and started amputating the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers and whipping women who happened to venture out into the streets ‘improperly’ dressed. With the arrival of French forces and the mass hostage seizure at the Algerian oil facility of In Amenas, Mali and Islamism are two words that now appear not only to be inextricably linked but on the front page.
Of course, the association goes back much further than April 2012.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) moved south from Algeria and into Mali’s remote northern deserts over a decade ago. [And since the end of the Libyan conflict, and subsequent flow of some fighters into Mali, they are now better-armed than ever. – Mark note]
AQIM proceeded to amass a fortune from kidnapping, smuggling and money laundering whilst undermining the local economy, disrupting social relations and destroying the local tourist industry.
It brought along a hardcore form of Islam inspired by Wahabism and a hatred of the West that was previously almost unheard of in Mali, a country which has long contented itself with gentler and more tolerant brands of Sufism richly tinted by local pre-Islamic beliefs.
AQIM also managed to hijack a rebellion against the central government in Bamako by the nomadic Touareg [a.k.a.Berber] people of the north that had been grinding on and off for the best part of fifty years.
…from around 2006 onwards, Touareg nationalism and Islamic terrorism became inextricably confused with each other.
…Now Mali’s hopes lie with the French, who intervened militarily on Friday January 11, after months of diplomatic wrangling at the U.N. and elsewhere.
So the world has a new front on the global war on terror and France has a new battle to fight in Africa. Within northern Mali itself, however, and throughout the Muslim world, this is not seen as a war on terror but as a cultural conflict…
[thus the reason well-known musicians are becoming soldiers… the point of the rest of the article being that they are trying to preserve an atmosphere of spiritual and creative freedom ]
- Making Sense of Mali (foreignaffairs.com)