AMINATA TRAORÉ: ‘Africans are not poor, they are robbed’

Aminata Traoré is one of the most respected and heard voices of the African community. For her the time has now come - more than ever - to create a new world. However, she fears that in the end bankers and politicians will choose business as usual.
This is Bamako, Mali. We are talking at the inner courtyard of the formation centre she founded years ago. While the morning is shifting towards noon and the sun is falling into pieces of shadow and light, Aminata Traoré and I are discussing the unstable situation of the world economy and policies. Traoré studied social psychology and psychopathology, taught courses at the university of the Ivory Coast and was Minister of Culture and Tourism in Mali from 1997 to 2000. Since, Traoré has been seen as a valued or feared voice in the social and political debate in Mali, in Africa and around the world. Her analyses are sharp and put down with the authority of a woman having passed gracefully the age of 60.
Aminata Traoré is Africa’s face on international forums of alter-globalists and social movements. She published four books on the disastrous consequences of the globalization for Africa and on the need to regain the own imagination. I ask her opinion on the financial world which she so often criticized. What does she think about the financial crisis, the worst one for over 50 years.
Traoré: “The Masters of the Universe have always stated we were dreamers, while they were the so-called ones with their feet on the ground. In the meantime it is clear that these ‘realists’ have brought the world on the verge of complete destruction. However, their swagger and arrogance have not disappeared. Today it is again the most vulnerable and poor people who pay for the failure of those neoliberal policies. In October last year, we were convinced that the situation was so bad that those in power could not possibly lie to us any longer; that they were obliged to admit that the famous invisible hand of the free market demanded too high a price, both socially and ecologically. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a wrong perception.”
The global way to deal with the crisis is being constructed by the G20 and the big development countries. Is that a hopeful sign?
Aminata Traoré: I do not see why I should be optimistic when exactly the same global decision makers are on top of things. They have never shown any responsibility for the workers,  nor for the poor in their own countries, let alone for migrants of southern countries. Above all they want to save their own interests, although this is less easy when the societal position of money is being questioned. Money was the only basis on which they could claim the power to rule the world. To be able to rule with filled pockets again, they will probably continue to steal the wealth of the South. This means that especially Africa will suffer, because nowhere else are natural resources so poorly protected.
The presence of the Brazilian president Lula in the G20 doesn’t make you more at ease?
Aminata Traoré: Lula has been considered as “one of us”. It is not out of the blue that all World Social Forums have started in Brazil and will always have a link with that country. Unfortunately, the reality of power forces him to make compromises in order to survive politically. His government is making several choices that could also have a negative impact on Africa. I’m now talking about the choice for bio fuels and GGO’s. The fact that Brazil currently is one of the emerging powers authorizes Lula almost automatically to speak on behalf of the Third World. But in reality these emerging countries are only the little brother of the old powers. They think within the same box of an exclusive market oriented logic.
Why is the voice of Africa so hard to hear?
Aminata Traoré: In the first place that is because we do not speak up. There should be a lot more noise from communities, but we are always concerned about what our donors will think about our points of view. Everything always evolves around the opinion and demands of our donors. That dependence feeds the political and economical corruption in this country. How can the voice of an active and critical society be louder than those millions of Euros promised by the European governments? That same dependence also explains why our governments will not leave the capitalist track, although the system is dying. It is a shame because now is the time to have a good look at the mistakes of our history, analyze why they have been made and how we can prevent them in the future.
Who should be making this analysis?
Aminata Traoré: I gather hundreds of women to talk about the crisis – something nobody else does because they can not write or read. They always react very curious and involved. They want to know what the financial crisis consists of and why it is happening. They talk about the food crisis and about how they could feed themselves in a different way. They look for answers to how they could invest in a common future again.
Do you expect more from women groups than from intellectuals?
Aminata Traoré: No, that is not what I mean. We are dealing with an intellectual terrorism that goes out from arrogant donors who believe all wisdom is theirs. The experience and wisdom of Africans is not consulted or used. The European Union spends a lot of money on Africa, based on research made by European research bureaus and experts and being executed by European NGO’s. Africa has a lot of brilliant minds, men and women with all the necessary experience who are perfectly capable of thinking creatively and redefining Africa. But nobody asks for their advice. Europe would be of incredible help if they would become a little more modest and grant us some space to think for ourselves, so we could assess all these years of “development” ourselves.
Should Europe stop its development aid?
Aminata Traoré: A lot of types of solidarity should be rethought: The solidarity between states, which is marked by a huge inequality, but also the humanitarian solidarity, which takes care of victims but never handles the problem. Europe should be honest enough to admit that all those decades of development aid have brought more money in for them than it has helped developing countries. Where they claimed to be helping, they destroyed. Your tax money is in the first place being used to fund our leaders, who please your elites.
What could Africa do?
Aminata Traoré: We should see ourselves through a different angle. Why do we think we are poor? Because others told us so. We are not poor, we are rich: we have our food agriculture produced by families, our clay architecture, social relations and traditions in which the sharing of food, water and wood was common. The society in which we felt comfortable has been defined by outsiders as poor and underdeveloped. That was the beginning of a process in which our own food was being replaced by inferior products full of chemicals. As a consequence, our people have been suffering increasingly from diabetes and heart diseases. Development entitled us to illnesses for which we did not have the right medicines and to expectations for which no democratic debate exists. African leaders should take up the courage to say no to a system that does not respect Africa, like some Latin-American leaders did.
According to you Africa is not poor, but you can not deny the real poverty, can you?  
Aminata Traoré: The people are not poor, but –as Jean Ziegles puts it – robbed of the care and services they are entitled to. There would be a lot less poverty in Africa if they had not forced us to produce cotton and then import rice. The problems started by joining that deadly foolishness of the international market. I do not claim there are no shortages, but I do claim that this shortage has been produced by a deceiving system trying to keep hold of us through all sorts of promises, even now when all is blocked and falling apart. These are the economical crimes that are being committed against the African people.
Some state that the unequal development should be solved by decentralization of the political power.
Aminata Traoré: Mali has been going through a decentralisation process for a long time now. It simply means giving the responsibility for the application of the known recipes for political and economical reform to local representatives. This way it is easier for the states to withdraw and let the market regulate itself. International cooperation then becomes a question of twin cities, but who keeps track of all of this? Who will be held responsible when mistakes occur or when no results are seen?
Doesn’t the central state absorb too much means?
Aminata Traoré: Without a state that creates institutions for health care and education, I would not be here today. My parents did not have the means, but the state made sure there was free primary education, a secondary school, free lunches and a library where I could study. Now that the state is withdrawing in favour of the market, parents have to pay for school, even when they can not sell their cotton. And this occurs more and more because the governments in the North keep funding their own cotton farmers. Those funds are responsible for the de-schooling of our society and for the death of women who do not have the money to go to a hospital to give birth.
What does it take to give Africans a dignified life?
Aminata Traoré: In the first place it takes self respect and a belief in our own capabilities. Real development needs the fertile basis of a lively culture that constantly feeds new solutions. You can even apply that to issues like concision. The material circumstances in Africa have changed so thoroughly that the cultural need for that physical intervention disappeared. The way we think about the female body has changed. But you do have to listen to the people, you need to understand them and give them the space to decide for themselves how they want to shape those changes.
Real development should also be based on a culture that found the right balance with the surrounding environment. Because every culture primarily is a transformation of the earth, the forests and the soil. Economics, ecology and culture are the three pillars that carry a society. From the moment that triangle is balanced, we can build a society that no longer robs people from their own dignity, knowledge and dreams. Then we can make a future for our own people. If we could have defined for ourselves what democracy is made of, we would have found ways to question and sanction our leaders for example. Because when the moral point of view is shared, the powerful are obliged to listen to the powerless.  
But it is impossible to return to the era before colonisation.
Aminata Traoré: Here in Mali, I can see a lot of youngsters who are converting to a strict Islam and apparently feel good about it. You can not call that ‘going back’ because I have never seen my mother nor grandmother do such a thing. Their need to learn more about the Koran and the Islamic religion and to adopt their behaviour to it, emerges from the emptiness created by digging holes into our values. No wonder individuals and societies seek alternatives that can offer security and solidarity.
Is it also a clash between a rural past and an urban future?
Aminata Traoré: There is no such thing as an inevitable, linear development from a rural past to an urban future. I do see the symbolic violence of a dominant culture forcing the whole world to become “modern”, defined by that same culture. That is the problem. It is not an inner fight between a rural culture and the necessary modernity. We have to make clear that nobody owns the monopoly on modernity and that we have our own, African modernity. In the end, it is not the city that feeds the countryside, is it. Who produces bananas, the yams, the grain? It is the villagers! But everybody admires the centre, the North and especially their products.

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