Far afield, Malians in China send votes – and money – homeward

Waiting to vote this weekend, Malian traders living in southern China say they want a president who understands the economic value of diaspora communities. 

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Voters look for their names on voter lists scattered on the ground at the main polling place in Kidal, Mali on Sunday, July 28, 2013. Even as far away as China, Malians turned out this weekend to cast a ballot for the west African country's future leader.

•A version of this post first appeared on Think Africa Press. The views expressed are the author's own. 

As the rain lashes down in the city of Guangzhou in southern China, a Malian trader named Moussa sits looking particularly glum in his sodden suit and shouting at his Chinese export agent. “Listen to me, trust me, it will all fit in a 20-foot container! I have to ship this tomorrow or it will not get to Lomé in time," he insists.

Moussa is referring to the thousands of pairs of jeans he has crammed into the back of a clapped-out Kia delivery van that will take his products to the port. “Sometimes, the Chinese don’t trust us," he explains. “We Africans see things differently to them – where they see no space, I put more jeans. I don’t need this mistrust today, because today I vote.”

Moussa is one of 648 registered Malians in Guangzhou (with an unregistered population believed to be much higher) who voted at the Malian consulate in the affluent Tianhe district of the city. For the Malian diaspora here, made up mainly of traders, this week has been a long time coming, with political rallies and meetings happening throughout the city for over a month.

The diaspora vote

Earlier, in a rather ordinary looking office building, hundreds of supporters of presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta – known popularly as IBK – were gathered together to discuss the coming election. One IBK supporter, Fatima, outlined how “for the diaspora, IBK is very important. He studied abroad and so he knows what it is like to be in the diaspora and how important we are for the development of Mali."

For Fatima, Keïta is the ideal candidate because “when he says he will do things, he does them. [Dramane] Dembélé and [Soumaila] Cissé are okay, but Keïta, he has experience. And this is what we need in Mali – someone who understands the history of our country."

Later on, Moussa and I walk towards the consulate through a labyrinth of skyscrapers, fountains, and fancy coffee shops. Moussa talks of his reasons for voting and about life in the diaspora. “My friends think I am a traitor." he says. “They say Mali needs businessmen like you back home. They say you should not be allowed to vote, you don’t live here, so can’t feel what happens when you vote.

“But that is because they don’t understand," he continues. “The diaspora, we give back more money to Mali than the World Bank, but our money is better because it doesn’t get swallowed by the government. Without us, Mali wouldn’t be working at all. In fact, what Mali needs is more people like me working abroad."

Indeed, according to the World Bank, in 2010 Mali’s diaspora generated $400 million in remittances, the ninth-largest remittance figures in sub-Saharan Africa. Those numbers are not to be laughed at when Mali's GDP is only around $11 billion.

Moussa reveals that will be voting for Dramane Dembélé. He believes that as a younger candidate, Mr. Dembélé understands modern economics and knows how vital the diaspora is to the country. “We need a new head," Moussa explains. “Look at what a mess we are in. The old people like Keïta think that France will save us. Forget that, we need new minds." 

A three-way split

Outside of the consulate building, I manage to speak to a Mr. Doucoure, Vice-President of the Malian community in China, who is also keen to emphasize the importance of Malians living abroad. “The diaspora is so important for the election," he says. “We Malians are all over the world, not just in Bamako.”

Doucoure goes on to explain that amongst the Guangzhou-based diaspora, he believes there is a three-way split between Mr. Keïta, Mr. Dembélé and Aïchata Cissé Haïdara, and that turnout is expected to be over 90 percent. “The Malian community in China are serious and this election is vital for our businesses here in Guangzhou and the future of our children," he says.

Whatever the result of the upcoming election, one thing is for sure – there will be a party afterwards in downtown Guangzhou. “We have our differences," Moussa admits, having cast his vote. “Malians know politics but we also know how to party. When the election is over we will be glad to start again. We can be calm because we will be one Mali again, the Mali we used to be, and we can drink until the morning."

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