In Bamako, the women are beautiful

1 h 04 min
Production : ISKRA - La Sept ARTE
Langue : Français, Bambara
Image : Couleur
Son : Mono
Format : Digital Betacam, DCP, Fichier numérique
Versions disponibles : VFR, VENG

A meeting with the women of Mali, land-locked country of the Sahara with an illustrious and complex past wich today has one of the poorest populations on the planet. In Bamako, the capital, as in the rest of the country, women try to balance the demands of tradition and development.

INTENTIONS by Christiane Succab-Goldman, director

Paris, December 1994

An amateur camera in the subway, some intimate notes about two yellowed photos. “She called me Naïny, she said my name was Peul... She was from Mali and I was from Guadeloupe...” A song in the head, the prospect of a trip to Mali, all these reminiscences are the beginnings of the film.

Bamako, March 1995

The notes of the personal diary are scattered throughout the film like an inner voice. Reality gradually blurs the memories of the past. This is the beginning of another friendship with a modern Malian woman. Through her, there are so many other Malian women to discover. They are graceful indeed, they radiate strength from wherever they come from and whatever their background, their languor is only the modest side of their dynamism, they take time for elegance and endurance. They are this mixture of modernity, tradition and discreet humour. Seydou Keita, the photographer, has been fixing their image on his shots since 1945. His photos punctuate each sequence of the film where these women let us perceive in all sincerity a little bit of themselves. History has left vivid traces in their memory: Independence, relations with Eastern countries, the bloody events of 1991 when they had to face the military’s weapons to bring down a dictator and experience democracy...

Christiane Succab-Goldman

“Behind the Malian women in our film are these African women who, each with their own specificity, want to take their full place in today’s society.”

by Anne-Marie Grozelier sociologist, secretary-general of the social laboratory

What do we know about Africa? Few things, flashes, almost news stories that occasionally break the silence that surrounds it: the massacres in Rwanda, AIDS, the famines in Ethiopia, the American landing in Somalia, the massacres of elephants in Kenya, the devaluation of the CFA franc, without forgetting the escapades of an Amine Dada or a Bokassa, still present in our memories.

Who is telling the story of Africa today? After explorers, missionaries, ethnologists, NGOs, members of the Peace Corps, experts from the IMF and the World Bank, African women are beginning to make their voices heard, or rather to speak up and tell the story of Africa.

“The voice of African women is much more tonic, more demanding than one might imagine, even if their way of saying things doesn’t resemble that of Westerners,” noted Suzanne Kalalobé, a journalist.

For a long time silent and ignored, African women are beginning to come out into the open in every country on the African continent.

“The potential for work, creation, and innovation of women in Africa is fantastic. If it were released it would become fabulous,” René Dumont once said. Would women be the future of Africa? What a paradox when we know what their common lot is still: forced marriage, polygamy, excision, illiteracy, quasi-slavery in some cases, etc... When we talk about all the economic, social, cultural and religious blockages that combine to prevent women, especially in rural areas, to emancipate themselves and to oppose the degradation of their living conditions over the last twenty years.

And yet, “women are spearheading the generalized crisis that is worsening in most African countries”. They are the ones who enable Africa’s survival. Women are the last bulwark against the mistakes of the incumbent intelligentsia which does not thwart - if not prolong - the mistakes of the neo-colonial order and of the leaders supported (if not put in place) by the former colonial power.

Thus, women in the Sahel have ensured survival through their savings. Elsewhere, income from their yam fields was able to compensate for the collapse of cocoa and coffee prices. Finally, in Mali, they contributed to the fall of Mobido Keita by their presence in demonstrations and riots.

While it is true that education and health made great strides in most African countries in the early years of independence, this did not last. On the contrary, delays, or rather gaps, have widened. Lavish hospitals were built, leaving dispensaries in the countryside and in the slums. Military expenditure is putting a strain on budgets, while public health requires water, minimum hygiene conditions, and basic foodstuffs. Road infrastructure for private cars has been developed, but public transport is stagnating. The issue of transport, which is vital for economic development, remains the weak link. Bicycles and especially carts are lacking. Once again, women are there to make up for it. They ensure the sharing of goods. With practically no tools at their disposal, except in some countries such as Cameroon, Senegal and southern Mali where some of them can be seen using hand carts, they carry wood, water, seeds and harvest them on their heads. Behind Epinal’s image of the African woman with a sumptuous head carrying a calabash or an extraordinary stacking, it is the heart of Africa that circulates.

It took time for the IMF and the World Bank to admit that they were the driving forces of development that needed to be relied on, the entrepreneurs on whom it failed to invest. The world of international experts in suits and ties, masculine and somewhat macho, who were already finding it so difficult to overcome their double prejudice, agreed to talk finance with women who were not integrated into the official economic circuits, most of whom were untrained, not to say illiterate, and often spoke only their language.

Behind the Malian women in our film are these African women who, each with their own specificity, want to take their full place in today’s society. Of course, the film presents them in a mainly individual approach, but what makes their strength is also and above all the collective dimension of their action, their associations. Whether among the Fulani, the Bambara, the Mossis, the Dagaris, the Bantu and other sub-Saharan peoples, women organise themselves in a universe that is their own, very real, but which largely escapes the men. Some people have been able to say that they constitute a quasi-alternative economy which, in fact, allows the survival of countries that the IMF considers bankrupt.

Behind the lightness of the words and a certain distance tinged with modesty, the cheerfulness, the extraordinary humour and the great wisdom of the remarks, one can guess the determination of women who are claiming a place they have chosen in society. We can sense the determination of women who are aware of their strategic role in getting their country out of the bog and would like to claim to be part of the levers of control in their countries.

September 11, 1995

Anne-Marie Grozelier

MALI Historical reminder

Mali is the most traditional of the West African countries.

Straddling the Sahelo-Saharan zone, it has an area of 1,241,021 km2 landlocked between Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria.

With a great geographical diversity, 9.1 million inhabitants, Mali presents striking human contrasts: it is a crossroads of ethnic groups and cultures where 95% of sedentary blacks, Bambaras, Fulani, Senoufou, Dogon, Sarakolé, Minianka and Songhai, mostly farmers and 5% of whites, Moors, Arabs and Tuaregs, nomads clinging to their pastoral life in the North-East, meet and live in symbiosis. The bambaras form the most important nucleus of the Malian population, and their language is the majority language.

After independence, the country was governed by Modibo Keita, who firmly believed in African-style socialism (1960 to 1968). Confronted with serious economic difficulties, and as the situation deteriorated over the years, the army overthrew him. This is how General Moussa Traoré found himself in power from 1968 to 1991. Having become sole master of the country, he set up a single party and refused to establish political pluralism.

On 21 January 1991, a peaceful march of the Association of Pupils and Students of Mali protested against the dictatorial power of Moussa Traoré. The forces of law and order charged the crowd with unprecedented violence causing many deaths and injuries. Women take to the streets in large numbers alongside the students and their children, causing the “lion” to fall. Moussa Traoré was arrested on March 24.

After an interim period of one year under Colonel Amadou Toumany Touré who voluntarily stepped down from power, Alpha Oumar Konaré, historian and former Minister of Culture, was elected President of the Republic in June 1992. Since his arrival and the return to democracy, the status of women has legally changed. Do the reforms imposed succeed in alleviating the illiteracy rate and its consequences: high fertility among women, low productivity? Hope is reborn, and there is a sense that people would not want to make the same mistake again, and that women in particular are making their mark on this society at all levels.


KADY SANOGHO, educator Women do a lot of things in Bamako, that is to say in Mali in general. I could even say in all African countries. They are at the end and the beginning of everything, in fact. Because everything starts with them. For the simple reason that they are consulted, not much, for everything. You get the impression that women are in the background. But in fact, women have never been in the background. It’s true, even in the bush, she’s never been in the background. Because the patriarch, the head of the family, when you ask him a problem, he doesn’t make the decision. He says: we’ll talk about it again, it’s to consult his wife. The first one, if only the first one.

AMINATA TRAORE, sociologist They do not sink into illiteracy, and just because they cannot read and write does not mean they are in the dark... This is absolutely false. Most of them, I don’t say all women, it’s like everywhere else in the world, they are full of wisdom. And they have their references and they belong to social systems that have their logic. But it’s not by saying right away: they are illiterate so they don’t know, so we’re going to decide for them, so their rights, that’s it. Moreover, they don’t know their rights. We are going to create this and that, including clinics to tell them what... but whose right is it? Who defined these rights? In relation to what reality? In relation to what social projects? Who speaks for African women? It’s not them, that’s for sure.

M’BAM DIARRA, lawyer ( about the events of 1991) The women wanted to end it all because that day, maybe a little wind of madness blew over all the women of Mali and they decided to go up to Koubali. On that day, they did us the honour of telling us: “The women in front”. Indeed, we were at the front because the men who were saying “Women in front” had put themselves in the head that the army, given the great respect that we have in this society for women, that the army would never have fired on women. Although, and this is the paradox, although she is considered an inferior being, women are considered a being that must be respected. That is why the men had gotten it into their heads that the army would never have shot women. And we took off our scarves to gird our waists and we walked, we sang. We would say in Bambara: “Ante korole fe fo koura”, “We want more of the old, we need the new”.

It’s not uncommon to see women with drawn features, women who suffer from stomach aches, who say, “My stomach hurts. I have a stomach ache”, it’s not true: they have a ball here, it’s jealousy that eats away at them and they can’t show it because we are taught to dominate our feelings. We are told not to exteriorize and you keep everything inside you until the day that ball is going to strangle you and you are going to die on your bed. And the people who told you to bear everything will come and play surprised and say: we didn’t even know she was sick. What happened to her? She seemed happy, though. She seemed happy? But polygamy is the worst thing you can impose on a woman. It’s the worst thing.

JEANNETTE DIALLO, midwife Girls who marry, who have been excised, they have problems at the level, at the time of the wedding night with their husbands. Their husbands can’t touch them. So you have to call in either a doctor or a gynecologist or the woman who is assisting because in general, in Africa, when you are married, on the wedding night, you have a woman, an old woman who comes next to you, to initiate you, to initiate the man, to initiate the woman. So if the man now appeals to the old woman that he has not been able to touch the girl, then the woman, in general, she brings a pair of scissors or a blade to make the slit and then the husband approaches the girl.