The art of survival. In Mali, drought turns Tamachek to craftmaking

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE recurring droughts of the past two decades have seriously disrupted the life ways of nomadic peoples in Mali, West Africa. Many have been forced to move from the country to the city in hopes of better survival. One such person is Moussa. Moussa is a Tamachek herder who left his nomadic life on the edge of the desert and moved to the bedraggled city of Gao, on the Niger River.

``Prior to the drought my life was with many animals,'' Moussa said. ``Then our animals died, so we made gardens. But now there is no water for gardens. We have nothing but our crafts.''

Indeed, crafts represent a whole new livelihood for the Tamachek people, who now comb the marketplaces across Mali looking for customers for their colorful mats, leather boxes, and cushions. Today about 200 Tamachek women and men market their wares through World Vision, an international relief and development organization.

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For the past year, Moussa and other Tamachek from eastern Mali have received assistance from Janine Rands, a community development consultant with World Vision. With her help, they organized a sales exhibit last November at the National Arts Institute in Mali's capital, Bamako. On display were some $10,000 worth of traditional Tamachek crafts. The seeds for this impressive display were sown the previous year, when Ms. Rands moved to the extremely remote town of Anderamboukane, southeast of Gao.

``The people there were so hungry that they'd sell their mother's heritage for a pot of grain,'' she said. The ongoing drought conditions have foiled the traditional herding and farming lives of countless people throughout Africa's Sahel region, turning many of them into refugees and beggars.

``Shortly after I arrived, a Tamachek woman brought me a mat she had made,'' Rands said. ``I gave her some money for it, although I wasn't sure how much to pay and worried that I was robbing her of a family heirloom.'' The woman went back to her friends and told them. They quickly came to Rands with their work.

``Pretty soon,'' she recalled, ``I could not afford any more purchasing myself, so I began sending mats to a friend in Bamako, who sold them to the [foreign] community there.''

After four months of these long-distance sales, it was clear the demand was more than could be met on an informal basis. Rands and her friend knew they had a possible development project on their hands.

``We decided that an organized market could encourage new mat production and generate much-needed income for the Tamachek,'' she said. ``Crafts are a serious survival possibility for them - a 50 kilogram sack of millet costs 400 CFA francs ($16), and the average price a woman receives for a mat can buy two sacks of millet. That will feed her family for a month.''

To launch the crafts development project among these peoples, Rands talked to the women who make the mats, finding out how much leather and grass they use, how much the supplies cost, and how much time the work takes. She then introduced the idea of producing many mats (and eventually other crafts as well) and entrusting them to her to sell on a consignment basis.

``Producing on a production level is new among the Tamachek I work with,'' Rands commented. ``They have always produced on an on-demand basis - primarily for use in their own homes, and secondarily for limited sale or trade with other people in the Tamachek community.''

The markup on all goods is 33 percent, with 75 percent of the sale price going to the craftsperson and the balance covering transport and exhibition costs. Although the project is subsidized by World Vision, which underwrites the salaries for a driver and Rands's assistant, the goal is for the project to be self-sufficient. The Tamachek have applied for a state license for their craft cooperative.

Challenges, however, remain.

The resources - primarily animal skins and grass - needed for matmaking and other crafts have been in short supply because of the droughts. This makes production costly for the Tamachek. But Rands believes the problem is surmountable.

``Once the co-op is firmly established,'' she says, ``it will buy materials in bulk from local merchants and set up a supply shop. Hopefully this will add incentive'' by reducing costs.

According to Rands, the hardships of drought so reduced local buying power in southeastern Mali that until she began purchasing crafts there, ``the incentive to produce them had dropped almost to zero, and many young girls were no longer being taught the traditional crafts.'' She believes the craft co-op can make a specific contribution to this problem.

``Because the current market for this work is [among foreigners] in Bamako and beyond, the project brings money from a totally new outside source into Mali's desolate region,'' she said. ``Also, it encourages the continuation of unique and beautiful traditional crafts.''

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