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Malian Group Taps People Power

'Sofas of the Republic' members near kiosk where people from the rebel-occupied north discuss post-attack conditions, Bamako, Mali, April 23, 2012.
'Sofas of the Republic' members near kiosk where people from the rebel-occupied north discuss post-attack conditions, Bamako, Mali, April 23, 2012.
Nancy Palus

An arts-based organization in Mali's capital, Bamako, is raising donations for victims of violence in the north by showcasing witness accounts of the region's rebel takeover.

Formed a day after the March 22 coup d’état, "Sofas of the Republic" - a moniker drawn from the Bamanan term "sofas," soldiers of West African anti-colonialist Samory Touré - advocate citizen action against bad governance and the corruption that has gripped Mali for so many years.

Even though there was a grumbling about systemic national problems and events unfolding in the north, one member of the group says few Malians actually bothered to do anything in response. "The coup d’état gave us all a slap in the face, and we formed this group to ensure that people don't stand by silent ever again."

While many West Africans say the coup shed light on a system of rampant government corruption and prolonged neglect of social services such as health and education, Sofas member Ousmane Dadié Touré says all Malians share blame for the current situation.

"We have all contributed to making the situation worse with our non-reaction," he says. "Even the population has never reacted. We were all sitting there, waiting and looking at things happening, and therefore we are also responsible for the bad governance and all the issues going on in the country."

Touré says Malians must demand a new kind of leadership.

"We don’t need people who are going to come and fight for their own personal interests instead of the interests of the large majority of the population, as it’s supposed to be," he says.

Although Mali's political circumstances differ from those in neighboring Senegal, the Sofas share a key similarity with Dakar's trailblazing, hip-hop-fueled Y’En A Marre ("Fed Up") movement, in that they have no political attachments.

"We are non-political - we don’t belong to any political party in the country," says Touré. "It’s just a group of conscious people who got together, who are trying to see what role they can play in saving Mali."

For Sofas member Mariam Doumbia, that role is to encourage women watching from the sidelines to get involved.

"We are not Malian just by virtue of what’s stamped on our national identity card," says Doumbia. "It’s by showing up and committing ourselves when Mali needs us - committing our time, talents and other resources to helping the country."

Doumbia joined members of the group to collecting funds for communities in the north, where rampant looting took place after Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants seized control several weeks ago.

In kiosks in the center of Bamako, people from occupied regions share stories and show photos of the damage, all as part of efforts to generate donations.

Dicko Mohamed, a native of Timbuktu, one of the regions currently held by rebels, shows photos of a looted bank, school and hospital, where documents are scattered everywhere.

"They are trying to [destroy] all the things that show our identity," he says, presenting the images on a laptop. "Everything that binds Mali and the north."

Although circumstances in Timbuktu remain difficult for his relatives, he says, the Tuaregs won't force them out.

"They will stay, even if they must die," he says.

Sofas members call it unthinkable that neither Mali's political leadership nor members of the military junta will come to the aid of northerners facing such dire conditions.

It’s another case in which citizens must not sit silently by, they say.

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