On Tuesday afternoon, May 1, 2012, after a sleepless night listening to distant machine gun chatter and popping of small arms from my hotel here in Bamako, capital of Mali, I was working in my room when a sharp "bang" rang out uncomfortably close to my window. Then came two more loud sounds. I got up and crept along the wall to the edge of the window where I peered out to see what was happening. There, just off the street about a hundred feet away, a young man hung from a rope in a densely branched mango tree, knocking the ripe fruit off with a metal pole. Mangoes fell—bang, bang, bang—on the corrugated iron roof of a shed. Humbled, I returned to my desk, thinking I need to get hold of myself.
I've been visiting West Africa since 1985, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and then as a travel writer. I've been to a dozen countries in the region, but this is the first time I have seen a coup in action. Come to think of it, I've never heard a shot fired in anger.
As I write, soldiers of the ruling junta, the "Green Berets" of the regular army, have put down a takeover attempt from Mali's former presidential guard, the "Red Berets," loyal to President Amadou Toumani Toure, the democratically elected leader who was deposed in a coup on March 22. Toure was weeks away from retirement and elections that would have replaced him. I've taken risks in my travels—just driving Africa's roads or finding safe food and water takes a bit of fortitude—but war correspondent I am not.
I came here to finish research on a book about the colonial borders of one of Africa's most celebrated nation states. Until six weeks ago Mali was the gold standard of African democracy, historic center of three of the continent's greatest pre-colonial empires, and home to one of the most distinctive and lively music industries anywhere in the world. Last February, just weeks before Tuareg rebels, aided by Islamist groups, overran Mali's vast Saharan north, the Tuareg rock vocal group, Tinariwen, walked off a stage in Los Angeles with a Grammy for Best World Music Album. But now I find myself in a Mali melting at the edges and burning from within.
Of all the countries on this struggling continent, Mali is one I thought would never fall victim to an African cliché—a military coup, the second in six weeks. On Saturday, two days before the Red Berets went on the move, I saw a billboard here in Bamako that took my breath away: the silhouette of Mali—a country famously shaped like a bowtie—against a desert yellow background, eyes in the north weeping tears upon a question mark in the south.
Since Monday afternoon, when I first heard small arms fire around the state television station three miles from my hotel, I've been looking nervously out my window at the gleaming white presidential palace atop Koulouba hill, former residence of the French governor, dug into Koulouba's iron-rich red soil. I glance at the hill now and then, fearing that I will see the palace burning. Over the years I've spent a lot of time on Koulouba, working in the archive on the palace grounds, which houses Mali's oldest colonial documents, papers the French failed to destroy or take with them at independence in 1960. In those archives, and others across the region, I figured out that the French left behind no paperwork to legally justify the borders that frame the eight countries of French West Africa, all former colonies, with Mali at the center. There is no evidence that any official, French or African, actually walked the political lines to clearly lay them out at independence. This is a big part of what brings us to this mess, a Mali that has no clear government leadership and whose very shape is now stamped with a question mark.
In the north of the country, Mali's military has fallen back to Mopti, an old market city at the confluence of the Bani and Niger Rivers, 176 miles south of Timbuktu. Mopti now marks Mali's northern frontier with the so-called Azawad, the state that at least one Tuareg group has declared for itself in Mali's north, a region populated by many ethnic groups beside the Tuareg. MaliJet, an internet newspaper in Bamako, reports that nearly all agents of the Malian state, including the police, have fled areas around Mopti, "leaving people to themselves." So, in effect, Mali's northern frontier is not a line, but a blur, where one struggling power fades into another along a zone of both shared and contrasting ideas of religion, history, and culture. This is how frontiers looked in Africa before Europe started drawing lines on maps.
I met over the weekend with Ali Ongoiba, a Malian historian I've known for 10 years and who is curator of the archives on Koulouba hill. He was despondent. "Mali is in terrible difficulty," he told me. "I have no idea how we are going to fix this."
Late Monday night, as fighting raged in parts of Bamako, the grit of a Saharan dust storm shrouded the palace on Koulouba. I could see little out my window, though the soundtrack of gunfire was unmistakable. I turned on the television to check the state broadcasting station for news. They were showing a French documentary about the biology of earthworms.