“Tracy and I were working, and noticed some news reports coming through on the Internet that there were problems at the presidential palace,” says sociocultural anthropologist Stephen Wooten, recalling the moment he and his wife first realized that March 21, 2012, might not be just another regular day in Bamako, Mali’s capital. In the midst of a ten-month, Fulbright-supported residency in the west African country where he has been conducting research since 1992, Wooten had little sense that trouble would erupt in what has been “a fairly stable, fairly predictable place” for decades. Mali was considered safe, and Wooten was excited to have Tracy and their young children—August (six) and Wren (four)—with him. “I wanted them to see this world that’s enfolded me for a while,” he says. “It’s been terrific to do research in Mali, but it’s also been more important to me, in some ways, to create human relationships with people that consider me family, and that I now consider family.”
But just a few weeks before a scheduled presidential election, the family found themselves frontline witnesses to a military coup that has destabilized a nation often cited as a model of democracy. “Through the night of the twenty-first into the twenty-second, there was a military uprising, and the president fled the palace in the night,” says Wooten. “The military junta that was taking over closed the national radio and television station, which is the main vehicle for communication in Mali. Most people don’t have access to the Internet. We did, and it stayed up the whole night and throughout the days after the coup. But most people in Mali didn’t know what was going on at all—they knew something dire was happening, but they didn’t know exactly what. Through that night we heard a lot of gunfire. The military rounded up a lot of politicians—to keep them ‘safe,’ they said.” Among those they wanted was Soumaïla Cissé, a presidential candidate rumored to be sympathetic to Tuareg rebels in northern Mali, which put him in bad favor with the military junta. Cissé happened to live across the street from the Wooten family.
“In the middle of the night we started hearing gunshots and smashing windows,” continues Wooten. “We peeked out and we could see flashes of gunfire across the street. We now know they had come to get him, to bring him in, but he wasn’t there. So they proceeded to loot the house, to burn things, trash a bunch of vehicles. It was very, very scary—one of the scariest nights of my life. And it absolutely put me into papa mode, keeping everybody safe and sound, trying to weather the storm. We communicated with the embassy, and their advice was to shelter in place—don’t go anywhere, don’t go outside your house, wait and see what happens. So we did. Fortunately, the kids didn’t really get what was going on. Which was fine, because the memories I want them to have of Mali are of the community, village life, the amazing cultural richness, and the experience of living there. Not the coup.”
That cultural richness is what has drawn Wooten to the area throughout his career, initially to study the changing nature of farming systems in an agrarian society with a history dating back to the twelfth century. As a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, Wooten became immersed in the daily life of Niamakoroni, a village of about 300 people in southern Mali. He realized that here, farming goes beyond the process of food production. “People were farming for subsistence,” he says, “but they were also farming for life, for meaning. There’s a whole cultural phenomenon around farming—I began to study that, the art of livelihood.”
Wooten returned to Niamakoroni regularly as he completed his dissertation and joined the UO faculty with a joint appointment in anthropology and international studies. He came to see the village as more than a research site; it became a second home, a community where he had “a sense of belonging.” So much so that when he brought his family, the village welcomed them with a traditional celebration, a way of saying, “You’re here.”
“My project was to build on my previous research on art and culture in the rural areas by looking at how people in the urban areas understand and borrow from the culture of that rural world. I was interested in how people who may drive taxis or run pharmacies or bars understand and appreciate rural art and culture. There’s an element of thinking people in the rural areas are backwards, but mostly there’s a feeling that they are ‘the true people,’ the ‘heart and soul,’ ‘salt of the earth’ kind of thing. This is part of what attracts me to Mali—they have this art and culture, this way of making a living, which is independent. They also have a real devotion to family life and community life that’s face to face.”
After several long days of sheltering in place, the family was able to leave, using evacuation insurance to flee. “It was a difficult decision to leave so many friends and colleagues, but it was the right one to make,” says Wooten. Since then, the situation in Mali has deteriorated rapidly. Tuareg rebels took control of northern Mali following the coup and were quickly joined by an influx of radical Islamists, believed to have ties to Al Qaeda and possessing weapons obtained from Libya following the fall of Muammar el Qaddafi. Tens of thousands of refugees have now fled as Islamic extremists impose a harsh form of Shariah in the north, destroying sacred monuments and manuscripts dating back 700 years in the process.
Since returning to Eugene, Wooten has talked to friends in Niamakoroni. Despite the dire situation in the north, life in the southern Malian village goes on. “One of the things that characterizes life in rural Mali,” says Wooten, “is that it’s kind of detached. There isn’t a lot of direct contact between the things that are going on in the capital and the rural areas. Now, I guess, that’s for the better. It’s the rainy season, and they’re trying to make sure their crops get planted. They’re carrying on with the work of provisioning their families and building a community. But their pride has been wounded. What has become of a proud nation with such a rich, rich history? Their vision of their nation has taken a pretty big hit.”
As he watches the situation from afar, Wooten has every hope of returning to the country he has come to love. “The idea of ‘coming back,’ of ‘the return,’ is an element of Malian culture that is really beautiful,” he says. “Returning has always been such an important part of my connection to Mali. Coming back with a family in particular, with a wife and kids. People there have a wonderful way of talking about it. They say, ‘By coming back, you have made this village bigger. You’ve come to see us with your flesh and bones, and that makes us richer.’”
There is a custom of shaking hands in Mali that illustrates the importance of returning with one’s “flesh and bones,” Wooten explains. “The right hand is for polite things, like eating and shaking hands. So when someone shakes with the left hand, the result is that something is not right between you, you need to come back and make it right. It’s like a contract. When we left Mali this time, under the conditions of the coup, we didn’t even get a chance to go back to the village to say goodbye, we had to travel so fast. We said goodbye to our friends and colleagues in the city and shook their left hands. They understood how dramatic that gesture is, and that we weren’t abandoning Mali. For August and Wren and Tracy, I think it was the first of many trips and returns.”
—By Ann Wiens