Malian Cultural Festivals Continue Despite Sanctions

Mali has long been known for its music, dance, and cultural festivals, despite an ongoing insurgency that has halted most tourism. Two military coups since 2020 and delayed elections led West African nations to impose economic sanctions against Mali which Europe has supported. But as the festival season kicks off, participants and organizers are still finding reasons to sing and dance.

Véronique Djehinan Lou is an interpretive dancer from Ivory Coast living in Niger.

Lou was invited to Mali’s Fari Foni Waati dance festival this year, arriving by bus on January 9. That same day, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, imposed travel and economic sanctions on Mali, closing land and air borders between Mali and its West African neighbors.

Lou is unsure of how exactly she will get home to Niger. In the meantime, she performed as part of a group dance piece in an auditorium at the Blonba cultural center, packed with adults and neighborhood children alike.

She said she found a festive atmosphere in the country, despite the sanctions.

People aren’t even worried about that, she said. The government, they work for themselves, and we the artists we are doing our thing. We’re just one voice. We’re the voice of the people. We don’t know when all these problems will be solved, so we are doing our activities, we continue our party.

Before the 2012 takeover of northern Mali by Islamist militants, the country was known for its cultural festivals, which were a frequent attraction for tourists. But these festivals have always been popular with Malians, and even though tourism has nearly ground to a halt, the festivals have for the most part continued.

New festivals have popped up in the years since unrest began. The Ogobagna Festival is a week-long Dogon cultural festival held on the Niger riverbank in Bamako, in its seventh year.

Amassagou Dougnon is the president of the organizing committee of the festival, which he hopes can be a place for people to unwind.

There has been this embargo, he said, there has been worry of “what will we do tomorrow?” Culture is a neutral means of expression. No one is afraid to come here, because it’s a place of culture, a place of exchange, a place of dialogue, and this is the best kind of place for people to gather to talk and de-stress, he said.

The Fari Foni Waati festival depends on participants who come from other countries in the West African region as well as Europe to perform original dance pieces alongside Malian performers.

Drissa Samake, the managing director of the Blonba center, said that even though many participants could not make it to Bamako this year because of the travel embargo, calling off the festival was never an option.

He said that it’s during times when the country is facing crises that it’s even more important to hold these cultural activities.

He said, nothing can unite so many people during this period like these cultural events. It’s important to us to strengthen this sector, that allows us to create what we call social cohesion.

The Festival on the Niger will be held next weekend in Ségou, Mali, and Festival Agna in Koulikoro takes place later in February. Both will bring together musicians from around the country.

How Mali’s current political situation will progress remains to be seen, but music and dancing is sure to continue.

Source: Voice of America