Communal Accountability

Despite what you read about the civil war and conflict in the north of Mali, I generally find Malians to be a very peaceful group of people. I can’t say that Malians are calm – you will often see strong emotional reactions to circumstances or situations, but they seem to rarely resort to violence to handle their sticky situations.

Since being in Mali (for 2.5 years now), I have only witnessed from a pretty real distance two fist fights. One was an actual fist fight between two 20 something boys who were drunk and battling over some girl. The other was an older man who was also drunk and threw one punch before the situation calmed down again to be a blow of words. In comparison with my experience in Canada, and in my other travels in countries in Africa, Malians most strongly rely on their words to resolve conflicts.

When someone is upset, or a situation has come up that is stressful and could in other contexts warrant a physical encounter, Malians gather together. When you have a car accident, or their is a family situation, or a love triangle that comes to a head, people gather. You will see the two parties surrounded by a large group of people, and the group will look to find a solution together. The idea is that not only can these people testify to what did or did not occur, they can also apply a communal justice based on the moral compass of a small group of people. I have never been part of these “circles of justice” before, as typically when situations like this happen I try to keep a safe distance in case tensions rise and the situation gets more intense. Besides what am I going to offer this nuanced situation, as a foreigner, who doesn’t fully understand the language, the customs, or culture? The answer? Not much. So it has always been better to take a step back and let the Malian social networks do their thing.

The other day though, my bike was stolen (you can read about it here). Me and my team jumped into the car and went to get it back. When we found him, I was fuming and ready to fly off the handle on this skinny young guy who would not know what hit him. But, as I jumped out of the car, one of my closest Malian friends took one look at the guy and gently reminded me “don’t be too hard on him. Look at him. Take your bike back, tell him it’s over, and let him go home.” And a light switched.

I very calmly asked him why we took my bike and why I thought it was unacceptable. My neighbour gave him a lecture on how if you don’t honour your word, you don’t have anything to rely on in life and he should start acting like the man of his house thinking of his family and not just his own self. And then we told him to never come back to my house, that his employment was over, and let him go on his way.

I can get so frustrated with how difficult things can be here sometimes. It is hard for me to remain calm and hold on to perspective when I let myself feel like there are people lurking trying to take advantage of me. It can cause me to be short with people and frustrate easily. And having my bike stolen was the perfect situation for me to pop. But I had a light switch available to me, that I didn’t even see coming. A dear friend who objectively could speak reason into the situation and helped me to deal with the situation in a very calm and respectable way.

I have always put a lot of pressure on me to know how to manage my own self, without needing to rely on others. But in this beautiful instance, all it took was a small nudge of support from a friend and the situation played out way better than I would have ever been able to manage on my own. I have always appreciated the communal accountability that I see happening around Mali, but I know have a better sense of the true power of this beautiful cultural expression.

I ❤ Mali.

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