Culture Bank Turns Mali Village's Art Into an Asset

August 28, 1997

This column appeared in the International Herald Tribune on August 27, 1997. By Perdita Huston Fombori, Mali—This village of a thousand souls is not easy to find. An unpaved road winds out of Douentza, a market town 160 kilometers south of Timbuktu, to where Fombori nestles in the cliffs of Dogon country. Fombori farmland is poor. Desertification and drought are ever-present. Young people drift away to towns, and villagers elders deplore the loss of Dogon traditions. Yet from this inauspicious setting comes a unique answer to questions of poverty and pride, a story o f democracy at the service of cultural preservation. A few years ago, Aissata Ongoiba, president of Fombori village woman's association, traveled into the Dogon hills to visit relatives. It was tourist season and her relatives' village had organized a craft fair, hoping to sell to the visitors who come to hike the Dogon cliffs and observe Africans' ability to survive in seemingly hopeless conditions. Carves statues and masks, beaded gourds, handwoven materials were eagerly purchased by passing tourists. Aissata took the story of this phenomenon back to Fombori. She told the women's group of her discovery, of how visitors value Dogon crafts. But, she cautioned, visitors also wanted to buy traditional ceremonial objects that should stay in the village. Like her country's leaders, she worried that Mali's national heritage was being sold off as little more than souvenirs. Her dream was to create a museum for ceremonial objects that would attract visitors to Fombori who might then want to purchase the women's handicrafts. During the next two years, constant meetings among the local women's organization, the town council, a district culture official, and two Peace Corps volunteers resulted in a small grant form a donor agency and the construction of a five-room mud and brick building. It was dubbed the Dogon Village Museum, and the townspeople elected a board of directors to oversee its operation. Alas, given its remote site, Fombori's museum failed to attract sufficient visitors to sustain itself. Also, villagers were reluctant to place family ceremonial art in the museum . What was needed was an incentive. In a village as poor as Fombori. the best incentive turned out to be credit. Why not link villagers' need for small loans with the museum? The museum's board hired a bank manager and placed him in charge of the initial loan capital of $391. Villagers could qualify for loans of from $5 to $40 when they put a family heirloom in the museum as collateral. The loan amount was determined on the basis of verifiable historical information on the artifact. Loans to be repaid within four to six months at a modest interest rate were to finance the museum's activities. Soon, objects never seen before began to emerge from Fombori's modest homes for display in the museum. The Culture Bank was in business. Mail is one of the world's poorest nations. Yet from it has come a treasure of an idea: how to preserve culture heritage by making it a living asset at the service of community development. Fombori's art is in a museum for its children to see. They watch with pride when visitors from afar come to marvel at their ancestors' art. Villagers do not sell their artifacts in time of need; they remain their property. The official inauguration of the Culture Bank consisted of much drumming and dancing. the consumption of five roasted goats and the display of villagers' finest outfits. From four years of village debates and construction work, a new institution had emerged form the least likely of sites. Aissata now shares her vision with Fombori's villagers, development workers and, at last, museum visitors like me.
The writer, a journalist and author, is serving as director of the Peace Corps in Mali.

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