Amidou Sy looked across the hollowed-out stretch of desert that lies behind the Hotel Bouctou. ``Twenty years ago,'' he said wistfully, ``I used to jump off the terrace wall of that hotel into a lake.'' All that remains of that lake is a sunken well, at the bottom of a 30-foot-deep hole. Young boys climb up and down slippery steps fetching water for vegetable gardens their families have planted on the former lake-bottom around the well.
The families of Timbuktu - like those in the rest of Mali - are struggling to cope with the effects of two decades of exceptionally dry weather. Rainfall in the African Sahel has declined as much as 30 percent in the last 20 years, according to some estimates, and in certain parts of Mali, it is down 50 percent.
Nobody knows when, or if, the rains will return to normal. But in the meantime, the government - jolted by two severe droughts and famines in 1973-75 and 1983-85 - is trying to put its economic house in order to better cope with the new climatic conditions.
Mali's reforms are similar to those being adopted in other former socialist economies in West Africa, such as Ghana and Guinea. Apparently, they are following the lead of nearby Senegal and Ivory Coast - more private-sector-oriented economies which enjoy relative prosperity.
Mali's transition from a state-controlled economy has progressed in fits and starts since about 1982. But in the last couple of years there has been a major change in the government's view of its role.
``The government's attitude has changed dramatically,'' says a Western adviser for a multilaterally-financed plan to abolish the government monopoly on cereals marketing. ``Instead of seeing its role as one of confiscating grain from the farmer at low prices to sell in the cities, the government now sees its role as one of helping the farmer.''
A Western diplomat agrees. ``The government rhetoric on private enterprise and employment growth is very strong right now, whereas two years ago it wasn't,'' he says.
The change has come about largely because the government is broke. Mali spends about $20 million a year more than it raises in taxes and revenues, and often cannot pay civil servants' salaries, which consume about 80 percent of the budget. In February, teachers went on strike because they hadn't been paid for more than three months.
Western aid donors have teamed up to urge Mali to restructure its economy. ``The major donors are all unified on one tenet,'' said a Western aid official. ``We believe unless the economic environment is improved, it would just be a waste of money to pour more aid into this country.''
France, West Germany, Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and the European Economic Community are among those urging Mali to pare down its bloated bureaucracy, control government spending, and abolish or privatize some of its 55 state-owned companies.
In addition, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are urging privatization of state enterprises as a pre-condition for loaning Mali $200 million to help repay its $1.7 billion foreign debt.
Mali cannot afford to ignore the wishes of Western donors.
With a per capita income of $180, it is one of the world's three poorest countries. It receives between $250 million and $350 million a year in foreign aid.
But the economic reforms being pushed by Mali's donors carry a high political price tag for President Moussa Traore. One of his main problems is what to do with the thousands of civil servants being laid off by government cutbacks.
The government is urging dismissed civil servants to start their own small businesses, but most lack the training and the money to do so.
Part of a US Agency for International Development loan is earmarked for retraining civil servants, and several European donors are financing training in small business development. ``It's no longer a question of convincing the Malians that private enterprise is the way to go,'' says a diplomat from a donor country. ``It's giving them the tools and the skills to make that transition.''
There are several bright spots in Mali's future. The country's foreign debt situation is expected to improve with West Germany's decision March 4 to forgive a loan of 70 million marks ($42 million) owed for its portion of a hydroelectric dam. And the trade deficit should improve next year, thanks to expanded exports of Mali's two principal products, cotton and cattle.
Irrigation schemes to be completed in the next 10 years should water to 67,500 acres of land. Meanwhile, the World Bank, France, and the Netherlands plan projects to boost production in Mali's historically inefficient rice lands.
Private sector involvement in commerce is growing, thanks to a new commercial code that makes it easier to set up and run a business. Last year an anti-corruption campaign, instigated by General Traore, led to televised gripe sessions in which the public revealed the depth of discontent with this chronic problem. A special commission investigated the complaints and eight persons were convicted.
Finally, with the adoption in October 1985 of a national anti-desertification strategy, campaigns for tree-planting, land use management, and preventing brush fires have begun. And the Chinese are developing a ``greenbelt'' plan to halt the advance of the Sahara desert.
Another Western diplomat said, ``The problems Mali is experiencing are the result of past mistakes. But now they're on the right track.''