Mali needs heroes at the moment–even cinematic ones will do

Mali is short of heroes at the moment. War in the north has produced very few, only villains aplenty, some of them in uniform. The same holds for Bamako’s deep, existential political crisis. Many people have tried to seize the moment; few have risen to it. So it’s good to be reminded of someone like Ibrahima Ly. Ly’s been gone a long time, but Ibrahima Touré’s feature adaptation of Ly’s powerful novel Toiles d’araignées (Spiders’ webs) just won two prizes at FESPACO, Africa’s prestigious biennial film festival. I haven’t seen the film and we can’t find a trailer online (some shaky images here), but Ly merits the recognition, and Mali needs his memory. So who was Ibrahima Ly?

Born 1936, in Kayes, western Mali. Died 1989, in exile in Senegal, having fled the regime of Moussa Traore (1968-1991). In between time, he’d been a leader of African students in Paris, taught math in Bamako and Dakar, and spent four years in Moussa’s prisons. He’d published one novel, started another, and left us a model of dignity in suffering.

Ibrahima Ly was one of Africa’s first ‘prisoners of conscience,’ an early subject of Amnesty International’s Africa campaigns. He and a dozen others signed what might be Mali’s most important political tract, “la Farce électorale du 2 juin 1974.” The election might have been a farce, but Moussa was not joking. Prisons, beatings, torture followed. The thin man looking out at you is tougher than he might appear. Tough enough, even sensitive enough, to capture the pride torturers take in their profession. From Toiles d’araignées: “As for us guards, since our real chiefs left, we don’t have whips worthy of the name. We have to make do with strips cut from old truck tires. The country is screwed.”

Ly is not at the center of his novel, humanity is. More specifically, Mariama is. She’s a young woman forced into a marriage she rejects. Prison is the price of her rebellion. Mariama endures the electric shock treatments we know others went through, and she also endures the silence: “The screams worried no one in the country. Everyone had left pity, even compassion, behind and entered the harbor of indifference by the bridge of powerlessness, cowardice, and dehumanization.”

If that was true, Ly helped to change that. Words from a volume dedicated to his memory: “Diarama Ly. You’ll always remain with us. We’re preparing new solidarities, to provoke necessary ruptures. The duty of the generation will be accomplished.” Heavy words from a man who knew both dissidence and power. Alpha Oumar Konaré signed them in 1989. Two years later, Moussa was overthrown. Alpha won one presidential campaign, then another. He left office over a decade ago. He and so many others are silent now, in Mali’s moment, for reasons good and bad. Meanwhile, even if Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore shares a lot with Ly (militant, math professor, former prisoner of Moussa…), the country lacks the intellectuals it could once be proud of. Or so says my good friend Isaie Dougnon (who is one of them).

I haven’t seen Toiles d’araignées. But I suspect Mali needs it.

Gregory Mann

Gregory Mann is Professor of History at Columbia University. He is author of two books, ‘ Native Sons’ (2006) and From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel (2015).

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