THE LAST RESOURCE, MALI | Exposed to evil

The bankrupt factory and the abandoned women

David Dembélé


In the olden days you would meet Mali women in their households, in the fields, working in the agricultural processing plants, in administrative offices, shops, at market stalls, or in hairdressing salons. Now you can phone many of them directly from the hotels in town.

At Ségou, two hundred and forty kilometers from the capital Bamako, Mali’s biggest festival, Ségou Art, is held in the first week of February. The cultural event in the town, -known as the capital of the balazans after the tall trees that shade it-, brings hundreds of tourists and festival-goers to the locality every year, but sadly has not managed to cause an economic upturn. Although attractive and located centrally, the capital of balazans, one of the poorest regions of Mali, is becoming steadily poorer.

Employment is scarce. About twenty people work at Moulin du Sahel, which produces rice, but most of its staff is from the capital, Bamako, and only four employees are women; the same goes for the local sugar and cotton mills. In 2017, the government promised to start seven more manufacturing plants ‘within a year’, inter alia for the production of maize and noodle products, but in January 2019 there was still no sign of such activity.

Another problem is posed by the increasing drought, which has reduced harvests to one third of what they once were. As a result, men are increasingly leaving the area. According to a 2017 census called EMOP (‘modular and permanent survey,’ in translation) by Mali’s National Institute of Statistics INSTAT, the poverty here -like on average in the rest of the country- has been constant for years. However, when split between male-headed and female-headed households, thirty-seven percent of women said life had become worse. There are still some rains between December and June, and they rake in what they can, but afterwards there is little to do and then the men tend to seek greener pastures in Bamako. Some return when rains start again; others don’t.

STREAMER In 2017, the government promised to start seven manufacturing plants ‘within a year’

Fatoumata, in her late twenties, is one of several women in Ségou who have moved away from their families and community to Fana, a small town ninety kilometers to the south on the way to Bamako, where she and the others do sex work in local hotels. “This is better than the way I used to live,” she says, “my husband did not bring any food or money home. After my divorce I became free. I can feed myself.” Cheerfully: “One of my clients has given me a smartphone and now I am connected to the entire world.”

Places inconnus

In the small town of Koulikoro, sixty kilometers from Bamako, the flagship Huicoma cottonseed oil mill, that had nourished the entire region -both with cooking oil and with employment- for nearly forty years, has closed. Still to be seen in the old Kolebougou quarter, between the main street and the river Niger, the eight-hundred meters wide Huicoma premises are overgrown with wild herbs;  passing cows, sheep and goats seek shelter under its dilapidated roofs. Up to 2009 over a thousand people worked here, non-stop, with neighbours complaining about the incessant noises and whistles of the oil presses. What remains, more than a decade later, is silence and a penniless people.

Penniless women, rather. Most men have gone, according to local administrators to ‘places inconnus.’ Much less people live in Koulikoro now than there were in 2009, when a census estimated the population at over 43,000. But the women, especially those with children, often have no choice but to stay.

Hawa (26)’s husband left in 2010. She now pays the rent and school fees for her child with money she makes in bar-hotel ‘Mathioly’, deep inside the sandy streets of the Kalaban Coro quarter of town. This brothel, formally a hotel with rooms for ‘passing visitors,’ employs about twenty so-called waitresses: women who serve alcoholic drinks besides their actual work of providing sexual services to customers.  It is a Sunday today and Hawa starts work at six PM. “I don’t like it, but I must,” she says, as she boards a taxi after having told her story at her home, which she shares with her small son in another part of town.

Mathioly is not the only brothel in Koulikoro. Coulouba (25) with her beads and her sticky red suit works at night club Le Bateau, located a mere five minute drive from the Huicoma facilities, ever since, in October 2013, her fiancé went to a ‘destination she does not know,’ abandoning her and their child. “I wanted to start a small business, but couldn’t get a loan. I then chose to do this instead.” Asked if she likes the work she does now, she says no.

It is common cause in Koulikoro that the increase in abandoned women is directly connected to the closure of the Huicoma factory and that the high number of women now engaged in sex work is in turn connected to unemployment and abandonment. According to the EMOP survey between a third and a quarter of Koulikoro households miss ‘a member of the household,’ who lives ‘outside’ the area. The same survey indicates that at a ratio of five to one, the missing household members are, overwhelmingly, men. A bit more than half of these, fifty-five percent send money home, but the survey does not indicate how regularly or which amounts. From forty-five percent of household members who left nothing is received. The number of households who rank themselves on the poorest level of the survey, saying they survive only with difficulty, is thirty percent. A similar percentage says life has changed for the worse in recent years.

“Women are not sufficiently educated, have difficulty accessing bank loans and remain confined to informal activities. Therefore, whenever there is social disruption, they make deplorable choices,” is the way local sociologist Ousmane Diarra sees it.

STREAMER Men are less courageous to sue for divorce

The shame of Mali

The women have in many cases also chosen to divorce the men who left. The divorce register in the city’s district court lists 560 cases registered between 2010 and 2018; whereas there had hardly been any divorces when the Huicoma factory was still active. Reasons given in the divorce cases are, in order: unemployment, poverty and marital infidelity. A former attorney involved in some of the cases estimates another hundred divorces alone in the last two years. “The main applicants for divorce are women. Men are less courageous to sue for divorce. They very often simply leave,” he says.

Aissata (23) has discovered that the men have a point. There really is more money to make in the capital than there is in the region. She has left notes with her picture and phone number in hotels and nightclubs close to Bamako, and commutes about three times a month to see clients. “I make 50 000 CAF (Central African Franc) every time I go there,” she says. With 50 000 CAF translating to about US$ 85, Aissata makes around US$ 255 per month: almost five times the income of a poor family in Koulikoro. 

Alou Coulibaly, former machinist at the Huicoma factory, feels great sadness about what he calls the “downfall” of his community. “At the beginning of the (Huicoma) crisis, more than ninety percent of us workers were married (and breadwinners.) Now our women are exposed to all the evils, including prostitution. Our children are also vulnerable to delinquency and banditry. Huicoma is the shame of Mali.” He hesitates when asked who is to blame for the downfall, only saying that he ‘trusts that the government still has our interests in mind.’

A good friend

The history of Huicoma doesn’t inspire confidence in this regard. Even if the shareholding documents of the former factory are hard to come by, it is common knowledge in Mali that the ruling Adema party was always the de facto owner. Government communications show that in 2005, ruling party leader and then Mali president Amadou Toumani Touré transferred the factory into the hands of his good friend Alou Tomota, who took only four years to completely ruin it.

STREAMER The president’s friend ruined the factory

Though the privatisation at the time had been lauded by then Minister of State Assets Soumar Aminata Sidibé as a “manifestation of the will of the government to implement (…) productive activities in favour of private economic operators in Mali (…) to ensure efficiency and competitiveness (and) strengthen and revitalise the Malian private sector,” efficiency was not the result of the operation. By 2009 the factory could no longer even pay its tax bill to the state. This may have had something to do with the fact that during the limited tendering process 85 % of shares had been sold directly to Tomota and that the offers of two actual companies interested in exploiting the factory were ignored.

Four years later, Huicoma closed its gate for the last time. A social plan for the workers, which had already been promised to compensate for retrenchments at the time of the privatisation, never materialised. “They even reduced the price of the seeds to make it work,” Alou Coulibaly recalls. “But Tomota did nothing to prove that the privatisation was good for anything.” The former Minister of Trade and Industry (2008-2012), Amadou Abdoulaye Diallo, concurs, saying that “the management (after the privatisation) was a total failure.”

People are dishonest

Rather than admitting that the increased poverty is connected to the kind of governance that caused the closure of the Huicoma factory in 2009, former regional governor Allaye Tessougué prefers to talk about the governments’ new anti-poverty plan. “The highest authorities have put the fight against poverty at the heart of our development policy. We are implementing the Strategic Framework to Combat Poverty (PRSP in French translation, ed.) There are employment projects in Koulikoro and elsewhere that help youths with some grants.” However, no such employment projects were observed in Koulikoro, nor in Ségou. Interviews were held with more than ten unemployed youths in both towns, but none of them said they had heard about the projects or the PRSP.

Alou Coulibaly still hopes that the government can “resolve this crisis and remove this big thorn from our side,” he says. “But people are dishonest.”

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CHAPTER 7: THE LAST RESOURCE, UGANDA | A very public secret