I have just come back from a wonderful Womad music festival where I have my From Here 2 Timbuktu pitch. One question came up again and again from people interested in a trip with me to West Africa: security in the light of government warnings.
Having been going to West Africa every year for the past seven years, and feeling more at home, safer and happier there than I do anywhere else in the world, I sometimes feel like a lone voice on the beach pushing against the tsunami of western government rubbish coming towards me.
The other revelation I had at Womad was the benefit of the great African tradition of child labour. My friends’ kids took over the selling of my African wares. They doubled my takings from the previous year, people signed up to my raffle which was funding sending Kum in Cameroon to college next year, and they charmed the Womad public into taking more notice of my trips, which is the main point of the pitch. But the greatest joy we all got from my experiment with child labour was seeing the fun, the learning, the charm, the polite social interaction and the responsibility displayed by the kids.
With the recent riots in the UK, our youth rampaging the streets of our cities looting, torching and wrecking communities, for some reason, my mind keeps going back to WOMAD, and these two images – people’s fear of security elsewere and the benefit to the community of children being involved in the real world, learning the ways of the adult world they are about to join. And as ever I find Africa has a lot to teach the western world in its time of crisis.
What the English riots showed was the common thread between security, education and community. Take one of these things out and things get wobbly, take out two and, as WB Yeats said, “things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The UK needs to take a serious look at all three.
But I ramble, on to the title of the piece! A reliable source – well not that reliable, I saw it on her skype, – has informed me that Pakistan has warned against all travel to the UK. I can’t find proof of this, but the South African Government has definitely warned its citizens against travel to England
Anyone living in the UK will feel that this advice is over the top, unless you were unlucky enough to live in the streets and communities effected, for the rest of us it was on tv, in the papers, on people’s lips but not in our lives. A visitor would have to have had seriously bad luck to encounter anything, like the Malaysian kid Asyraf Haziq who was mugged while being supposedly helped by thugs.
So is the advice not to go to the UK warranted? Should Cornwall suffer because of rioting in Milton Keynes?
Well it’s what we are doing to the rest of the world.
Today – or tonight – you would be safer wondering the streets of Baghdad than Manchester or London.
But would the events in the UK seriously stop you from going on holiday there? Perhaps if you were taking a summer holiday to Hackney maybe, but Torquay I hear is very safe!And if I were to venture to London tonight, if I was going to accidentally enter an area where trouble is likely to flare, I reckon I’d (now) be warned off by the police.
We accept this logic in our own world. But the foreign world we assume is different, and our governments love to play on that.
For 3 years now Mali has been written off by western governments travel advice because of a supposed Al Qaeda issue in the remote Algerian border region of the Mali desert. This group has only ever been able to operate in the remote border regions of the desert, the problem has never infiltrated into the country proper because it can’t, it has no force. And yet Timbuktu, over 1000 miles from where this group are holed up – that’s the length of Britain – is supposedly dangerous to go to, despite nothing ever having happend there – no kidnappings, no riots, no murders of foreigners, nothing… oh I lie, a double agent Malian army general who had his hands in every pie of contraband was assassinated there. So now you and I should stay clear.
A favourite issue of mine is why isnt htis band of supposed Al Qaeda militants taken out? This band of bandits, between 2-300 and lightly armed, are no where near any settlements. I could take you to where they are tomorrow. If I can take you there, then so can the US and French military who are in place, we are told, to train the Malian military in “counter terrorism” (nothing to do with the uranium mines in Niger or the oil fields throughout the Sahara of course). And so could the Malian military, and the vast forces of the Algerian military who are VERY close by, and the Nigerian military.
One big question: why aren’t they taken out?
No one has ever been able to satisfactorily answer this for me. If we are in a war on terror, and if these guys are, we are told, in third place as bad people who want to do us harm,behind Al Qaeda in Afganistan/Pakistan and Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsular (I’d add the Bradford UK posse in there – you know the ones who blew up the underground, again in the safe haven of London – but apparently they don’t count because they don’t all wear towels on their heads and they speak good English, and they are a safer form of home grown terrorist), you’d have thought their elimination would make an easy success story in a war that has had very few.
I’d suggest the answer to why nothing is done is not far away from the reason Osama Bin Laden took so long to find and was only popped off once he’d lost his efficacy as a bogeyman, the Arab Spring had already made clear that the Al Qaeda ideology was waning as a force in the muslim world anyway, and we’d grown tired of Afganistan and bloody poppies everywhere.
What we’re not tired of is oil and uranium! And the Sahara has plenty of both.
The point I’m making is that in coming on a trip to Mali with me, or anywhere else that I go for that matter, you are taking a similar risk to going to Torquay now if you are French, or going to London in 2 months time ( now may not be wise) if you are American. I’d say you are taking less of a risk going to Mali, especially when it comes to security against your person. Crime is pretty non-existent in West Africa, and youth riots…unheard of.
To a Malian it is absurb that Timbuktu is warned against because over a 1000 miles away a group of bandits given the mantle of “terrorists” are oled up in a mountain drinking tea. To an American it is absurd for a foreigner not to not go to New York because of fear of a repeat of 9/11. To a Brit it is absurd not to come to Uk because of a few nigts of carnage. Ashraf Haziq can see te absudity of misplaced anxiety – fres from ospital wit metal in is mouth to bind togeter his broken jaw, e has refused to pandar to his moter’s fears about his safety in England! Even e can see tat e was very unlucky, and he refuses to let pot luck dictate is life.
In Africa, the people who really care about your security are your hosts – the communities you are travelling through, the guides and the travel company and the people taking care of you. The army and police are tere to ceck people’s documents, they don’t police te place – te community polices itself.
In all my travels in Africa I have had one incident where I could say I was in danger. I knew hundreds of miles before I got to the place tat tere was a possibility of insecurity. It was my local contacts, my hosts, my instincts which saved my bacon.
In Africa you are that most valued and respected of people – a guest! If somewhere is no go bacause of conflict or danger, you’ll be warned back way before you get anywhere near the trouble spot.
I’d say the same about most places in the world. I know when I have been to America I have felt very looked after by extraordinary hospitality. But I can honestly say that I feel safer travelling around in Africa than I would travelling around the UK or Europe or America. In these places I’m not fearful, but I’d have less faith in the community to protect me if push came to shove. Because we’ve lost the concept of community. If I was attacked on the London Underground I would not expect to be rescued by my fellow passengers. If I was mugged in a market place in Mali everyone would come to my aid and the thief would be hoping to get to the police station before the people sort him out themselves. I once caught someone trying to pick pocket me. He backed off, he didn’t run he just begged me with his eyes not to shout. He was scared of the community.
On day 3 and day 4 of the problems in the UK, the looters backed down because the community took things upon itself as the police had failed them.
As I always say, the biggest risk you take in coming to Mali would be at the airport from which you leave.