"I believe my most important task is safeguarding the cohesion between the various ethnic groups in Mali. One of the available instruments is subsidising festivals like this one." In a Tuareg tent at the Festival au Desert, Minister of Culture Cheick Oumar Sissoko explains his policy. "Mali is rich with diversity. Without that, we would have no development," Sissoko believes. The largest population group, the Bambara, accounts for one-third of Mali's population. Then there are many smaller groups: the Peul, Bozo, Senufo, Soninke, Tuareg, Songhai and the Malinke. The Tuaregs live in numerous countries in the Sahara and have been fighting an armed struggle for more autonomy for many years. "The differences date from many centuries ago. We must welcome those differences and show respect for one another. We do that rather well because the people of Mali are extremely hospitable and socially oriented. The festivals have an important meeting function, and work very well."
Many of the population groups have their own languages, which the policy also takes into account. Sissoko: "Some would prefer to see Bambara as the official language, but we do justice to more people with French as the lingua franca. Tensions are avoided and it simplifies access to foreign economies. And that is of vital importance."
Tourism has become a factor, albeit modest, in Mali�s economy since the Tuareg insurgence came to an end in 1995. Djenné and the Dogon valley are now important tourist attractions. But tourism also erodes the indigenous cultures. "That is a difficult issue," Sissoko says. "A people like the Dogon also understand the need to modernise. Naturally, that has everything to do with their difficult living conditions." Does the rising, non-radical Islam in Mali also play a part? "It is true that the Islam is rising among the Dogon, but many people are able to combine it with animism. Everything melts together, just as mixed marriages are increasingly melting Mali's population groups. In that respect, we are no different than Europe."
Cheick Oumar Sissoko is also film-maker and winner of a 1999 Prince Claus Award.