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Map of Mali

Leader: President Brigadier Moussa Traore

Economy: GNP per capita $190 (1981 est)
Monetary unit: CFA* franc (*Communaute Financiere Africaine, linked to French franc)
Main exports: Cotton, groundnuts, livestock and dried fish
Main imports: Machinery and transport equipment, foodstuffs, petroleum and petrochemicals

People: 6.9 million (1981 est)

Culture:Religion: Islam

Language: Official: French,with Bambara used in schools. Others: Sarakolle, Senoufu and Arabic
Ethnic groups: Bambaras (majority),Peul, Toucouleur and Taureg

Health: Infant mortality: 150 per 1,000 live births

Percentage of population with access to drinking water: 37 (urban) 0 (rural)

Sources: World BankAtlas, IMF International, Financial Statistics, Africa Guide, State of the World’s Children.

MALI lies at the heart of the Sahel, that vast tract of Africa which is dying of thirst. Since the 1970s poor rainfall and crop failure have become a way of life in this part of the world and tackling drought is now Mali’s number one preoccupation.

Poor harvests and the death of thousands of cattle have brought ruin to the farxners and pastoralists who make up the bulk of Mali’s production. Many have gone to the towns looking for food and work. Food imports have shot up while exports of cotton, cattle and peanuts have atrophied.

Mali, once so proud of its attempts at self reliance is today a sorry sight: international debts pile up and there is little money left in the foreign exchange coffers. Yet the potential is there. The former colonisers, the French, drew up plans to make Mali the breadbasket of West Africa, a possibility backed up by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation which considers Mali to have the best agricultural prospects in West Africa. These hopes lie in the waters of the largest river in West Africa, the Niger, which runs in a great loop through the south and east of the country.

The Niger is to Mali what the Nile is to Egypt. Along its banks live most of the farmers and fishermen. As well as providing a link between the regions of the country, its waters feed the largest irrigation scheme in West Africa at Mopti. This was originally created by the French to increase the cotton supply for export, but Mali’s first President Momadou Keita ordered a switch to rice production to meet the need for food. Mopti is also the site of a project to boost Mali’s fishing industry, for only a fraction of the Niger’s fish potential is being exploited.

Downstream from Mopti lies what for most Europeans is the most well-known town in the Sahel: the mythical, mysterious Timbuktu. For centuries it was the focal point for desert traders, and it remains the place where the southern merchants meet the northern nomads. Timbuktu is still the main producer of salt in the region.

In the West, dams of the Senegal river will expand both irrigation and hydro electric power. The power will help develop a smelting industry based on newly discovered ores.

But in spite of the potential from the two rivers, Mali’s agriculture is in poor shape. Rebuilding it is a priority not only for the government but also for the international aid organisations. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the government has agreed to some far-reaching reforms, including the abolition of the state monopoly on grain trading.

Putting through the reforms will place President Traore’s administration on the line, not only with the people of Mali but also with donors like the US Agency for International Development, who have recently invested $10 million in a scheme to boost production of the staple food, millet. And the Agency, like the IME, does not want to burn its fingers.

Denzil Phillips

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Fair in villages but large rural-urban gap
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Food imports and heavy debts
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‘Better in farming than pastoralist families
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[image, unknown] Military regime reliant on France and the US.
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19% for men, 8% for women. Local languages now also taught
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Some political prisoners
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Very low at 45 years. Malaria and bilharzia are both widespread

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New Internationalist issue 145 magazine cover This article is from the March 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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