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Thoughts Turned to Timbuktu

For years now we've enjoyed importing textiles, leather goods and wooden art from Mali. This landlocked African nation's varied people groups all offer unique artistic, musical and cultural aspects, which together make Mali one of West Africa's most sought-after destinations.

Centuries ago, the northern city of Timbuktu was a glittering destination along the Saharan trade routes under the Ghana, Mali and Songhai empires. Before European sea routes were ever established, camel caravans moved gold, salt, slaves (yes, sadly) and other precious commodities through the desert. The nation adopted Islam in the 11th century, and as commerce flourished, intellectuals bolstered the book trade and created universities, libraries and the great mosques of Timbuktu and Djenne.

Today, Mali is one of Africa's poorest nations, with most citizens living on less than $1.50 a day. The artisan sector displays a richness rooted in the nation's history and an intelligent embrace of adapting artistry for modern function and global export, giving many families the opportunity to earn a tidy income while further developing their traditional craft forms. Most of our artisan groups are based in the populous south, but we have also worked with Tuareg silversmiths and leather masters on high-end storage boxes and jewelry over the past decade. Leslie took this shot of three lovely Tuareg girls while visiting Timbuktu in 2009.

Sadly, such smiles are sparse these days as we now see the relative peace of the past few years crumbling. As the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) fights for secession of the northern Azawad region from the south, the Malian government struggles to stave off human rights violations and starvation based in famine and displacement. To further complicate the internal conflict,  the Islamic extremist group Ansar Dine is fighting to cloak all of Mali in Sharia law, sealing the nation's varied people groups under one tightly-regimented theocracy.

We endure minor inconvenience when our shipments can't be exported from Bamako due to strife, but our artisan friends are living the nightmare of seeing their nation fall into the throes of conflict again, of seeing enemies around every corner and wondering what each day will bring by sundown. We could not ache more for these dear people who have wanted little more than to share the beauty of their culture with the world in exchange for a measure of peace and prosperity, to allow their children to eat and attend school.

Another terribly poignant aspect of this conflict is being felt deeply by our benevolence partner Caravan to Class. Founded to increase literacy in the marginalized northern region of Mali, particularly among the Tuareg, the organization built its first school in Tadeini, Mali, in 2010 as founder Barry Hoffner's 50th birthday wish. The organization successfully raised nearly $30,000 to build a second school in Mora, Mali, earlier this year, just as the violence precipitated. The exhilaration of seeing young Tuareg children embracing their first steps into the world of literacy has dissolved into horror as conflict consumes the communities and so many bright little faces disappear behind the wall of Sharia law.

Please keep all of the citizens of Mali on your minds during these difficult days. With conflict from within and pressure from without, the nation desperately needs stabilization and moralizing support from all those around the world who appreciate this beautiful nation's varied people groups, rich history and architecture, ethereal music and incomparable textiles and art.

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