Mali gained independence from France in 1960, yet even today French is the language of government business, used on road signs and in state TV broadcasts.
But on Bamako’s streets, French is rarely heard, and out in the bush even less so.
Mali has scores of its own languages — which is why, for some, it rankles that the tongue of the former colonial ruler is the only official language.
A few lines in the country’s draft constitution are now fanning calls for change, albeit at the cost of reminding the West African nation of some of its many problems.
“It’s been 60 years since independence — is it normal that French is our only official language?” asked Ali Guindo, a resident of the capital Bamako.
“We have lots of languages here in Mali,” he said outside his home in Torokorobougou district. “It would be good to cement them in our official culture.”
The debate has been sparked by the unveiling last month of a draft constitution, billed by the ruling junta as crucial for saving Mali from jihadist insurgents.
As in the 1992 constitution it is designed to replace, the charter identifies French as the “language of official expression.”
But, in a change, it also says local languages are “intended to become official languages.”
More than 70 languages are spoken in Mali, a deeply poor Sahel nation with a fast-growing population of some 21 million.
Of these 13 are recognised as “national” languages but French is the only official one, meaning that it is used for government and regulatory business, said Amadou Salifou Guindo, a specialist in sociolinguistics.
Among the major local languages, Songhay and Tamashek are widely spoken in the north; Fulfulde in central areas by the Fulani, an ethnic group also known as Peul; Bambara predominates in Bamako; and in the country’s far south, Senufo and Soninke prevail.
– Difficult debate –
The few words in the proposed Article 31 have now fired up discussion, from TV talk shows to chats over tea in informal get-togethers known as grins.
Among the questions: is it time to elevate vernacular languages to the status of official tongues? If so, which ones? And how can this be achieved?
But these questions also have swirling undercurrents.
One is Mali’s relationship with France, the country’s traditional ally, which has hit rock-bottom since the junta came to power in August 2020.
Some have used the bust-up to seize on Article 31 as a means to phase out French and make Bambara, the most-used language in Bamako, the official one instead.
But to do so touches on the sensitive question of national identity, potentially alienating speakers of other languages.
“Malians are afraid of an official language being imposed to the detriment of others,” said Guindo the linguist.
Another problem is rather more basic: teaching children to read and write in their local languages, which are rooted in oral traditions.
Tech support: A woman uses a dictionary app to help her type a message in Bambara on her smartphone
Under former president Moussa Traore who was ousted in 1991, experimental schools were set up that taught in vernacular languages.
The “revolutionary” idea foundered on a lack of state investment, and the schools came to be seen by parents and teachers as second class, writer and publisher Ismaila Samba Traore said.
– French dominates –
Local languages are still being taught, but on a small scale.
At the languages faculty at the University of Bamako, department head Mahamadou Kounta teaches Bambara to around 20 students.
The work, he says, is akin to sowing seed.
“When our students graduate, they will be able to read and write in the national languages and they in turn will be able to work to perpetuate them.”
Traore, who runs a publishing company called La Sahelienne, has been in business for 30 years.
He is one of the few publishers in Mali to bring out books in local languages — typically educational works ordered by international NGOs.
Other than that, publishing remains overwhelmingly in French.
Changing the constitution will not by itself alter habits that have been entrenched for decades, Traore admitted.
“Certain processes cannot be achieved from one day to the other — you have to let things incubate,” he said.