A thousand days – a lot can happen in a thousand days. In Mali, a lot has happened in a thousand days. As I leave this poor, landlocked African country – seat of ancient mystery – I have a lot to thank her for. First and foremost, I want to thank her for my little boy. He is not from Mali, and he may never return, but he will always carry this magical place in his imagination. The great barren expanse where the Tuareg ride; the eerie earthy music that drifted over an ocean and became the blues; the smells of burning wood wafting above the river at sunset; the spirit to be kind and gentle in the face of adversity. When my little boy arrived, he wasn’t even crawling and could barely sit up. Here in Mali he learned to crawl, learned to walk; he learned to run and to dance. He learned to speak and sing, his tiny three year old tongue managing three languages now. And he learned to be happy. He’s a joyous little boy – he doesn’t look out across the harshness and see poverty and violence; he sees other children finding the joy in simple things and other mamas providing for their babies. He sees donkeys and birds and butterflies and grasshoppers – as he should, as I should too. He is my anchor. When my wife and I despair of the poverty and when we rage at the violence, he reminds us that it is still possible to be happy even in the face of such great obstacles. He became all this in Mali, and I will be forever grateful; I owe a lot to this place.
I’d also like to think that Mali is a better place for me having cast my shadow across her for a time; and I cast a long shadow. From Bamako to Douentza to Timbuktu and Gao and beyond – this country knew I was here, and for this I am proud.
When I arrived Mali was languishing in the worst crisis of her history. Coup, counter-coup, rebel advances, civil war and Al Qaida ‘government’. But, as the old African adage goes, “you eat an elephant one bite at a time.” We started working – elections, local reconciliation, community mobilization, civil society advocacy, countering the toxic ideas of Islamism and promoting a final and we hope lasting peace. All stepping stones to cross the river. And cross the river we did. Over the last thousand days I discovered an amazing, resilient people full of love of country and love of life. Despite all odds and standing up to the greatest evil of our time they seized their country back. Through community meetings, theater competitions, concerts and work programs. In spaces recovered from the terrorists – plazas that had been used for punishments and buildings that had hosted the emissaries of evil – rebuilt and returned to the people, they debated and discussed, reckoning with the past and planning for the future. In Bamako a movement of young men and women found its voice and its role, speaking truth to power as they told their elected leaders what was expected of them. And through it all we learned; through book clubs and seminars, advocacy work and exchanges we wrestled with the great ideas that do not change; ideas of liberty and reason, tolerance, legitimacy, democracy and free-market economics – ideas that know no master and no religion – the laws written on the hearts of men that defy all attempts at censorship.
And I made remarkable friends; politicians and youth leaders and Imams and civil servants who strive for a better country for their families. Artists who continued to paint and sculpt throughout the occupation. Librarians who spirited away to safety the precious libraries of Timbuktu from right under the noses of the jihadis. People, voting cards held high, waiting in the lines to have their opinion heard. Women, copies of the peace accord open to their language, discussing what it would mean for them and their children. Marabouts under a tree reading Ibn Tufayl and struggling with the great ideas of the past.
Mali still has a long way to go. As we saw from the Radisson attack, the forces of hate are angry at her recovery. They want to plunge Mali again into darkness. This won’t happen. I know this, because I now know this place and her people; they who did not surrender once will certainly not surrender this time; they will again fight – for peace, liberty and prosperity, for a better future. And they will fight to be an example to other places, like Syria and Libya and Yemen and Somalia; showing that recovery is possible after the dark night of extremism has been vanquished. It has been my honor to fight with them for a season, to put my shoulder to the yoke beside thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands as we harnessed the powers of liberty to pull Mali from its morass.
Now I leave – and that’s OK. Nothing is forever; and I’m confident that I am leaving this country a better place, in the hands of a more empowered people. I know this, because I also leave Mali a better person. And I go gratefully.