Postcard From Mali - Riverside Whispers From A Nation At War

The port of Mopti in troubled waters
The port of Mopti in troubled waters
Jean-Phillipe Rémy

MOPTI - Each dugout canoe that arrives on the banks of Mopti, unloads its passengers, cargo -- and the latest news. In this dry and cold season, it takes a few days to reach Gao and Timbuktu, which are further up the Niger River.

These two cities are now seeing a crucial phase of the military operation against Islamist rebels allied to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in the form of French-Malian airstrikes. The telephone lines and roads are cut off. There are no outside witnesses. (On Tuesday, French military forces confirmed that together with the Mali army, they had taken solid control of both cities.)

Back on the water, long motorized canoes carry gasoline, bags of rice, fuel and snippets of personal stories diluted in the conflict. A canoe captain from Gao is not sure about the intentions of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), who controls the village and is the object today of the French strikes, but knows exactly the price of the goods he will send the village by “pinasse” (motorized canoe) in a few days.

The three days by boat, upon reflection, offer an opportunity to mock the aberrations of the Islamic police, starting with the obligation to conceal their mystical protections, the amulets, including small leather bags tied under their clothing. “If they find an amulet, they will beat you, then they will attach it to a tree and shoot it. But if the amulet remains intact they will use it for protection,” the canoe chief chuckles…

Down below, the pointy bows of the boats are entangled on the shore, like the names of the cities where they stop along this busy river.

A man arrives from Konna, the first city taken over by Malian military a few days after the start of the French intervention on Jan. 11. He talks about the “smell of the corpses” of Islamic rebels who were killed by airstrikes, not far from the river. He talks about the unexploded shell that blew up the children who were playing with it. No independent journalist has been allowed onsite to verify these bits of information, relayed along the Niger River.

Also arriving by river are those who were displaced by the war, castaways if you will. Arriving a few days ago, penniless, Mohamed Toure, a hairdresser, has returned to Mopti after a year and a half of cutting hair in Timbuktu.

A “Satan cut”

Hairdressing has been dangerous in times of Islamist rigor. The first time he was arrested by Islamic militias in Tonka, south of Timbuktu, the only mistake Mohammed had committed was to perform a classic haircut on a client called the “plateau.” A style considered sacrilegious by the Islamic police militias. “I was about to finish when they arrived. They broke my mirror and my tools. They said I was doing the “Satan cut.” They locked me in a cell and then they whipped me, in front of everyone.”

In Tonka, a tiny town on the banks of the river, Mohammed has seen all kinds of Islamist leaders and watched them recruit local “children,” which have become the most virulent in tracking minor infractions to the moral code.

He was struck twice more. Once because he was caught with a cigarette in his mouth. A bit later, because he was suspected of listening to music. “I was sleeping and the children jumped the wall and woke me up by clubbing me.”

This he could stand, but in early January, tensions started rising in Tonka. “The Islamists began taking hostages, girls without headscarves, or boys caught smoking. Everyone began to fear the future.” It is then that the unemployed hairdresser – his tools had been destroyed – decided to leave his seven-months pregnant fiancée at his mothers house, whose out of wedlock pregnancy could cause them terrible problems, and jumping on to a pinasse where he enrolled as “apprentice” (paid little or nothing), in order to travel to Mopti.

Along the way, the boat passed through four checkpoints. At each checkpoint, the ship was forced to dock why local authorities conducted a search. At the first checkpoint, in Niafounke (the city of famed Malian singer Ali Fakra Touré), the Islamists that still held the city forced him to cut the bottom of his pants, following the precept that a man’s ankles cannot be covered.

In the second checkpoint, held by the Malian army, the soldiers mocked him and his pants cut at mid-calf. “Whoever cut the trousers, kept the fabric in his bag in order to avoid me from finding it and sowing it back on,” he laments. In the tiny hair salon near the great mosque of Mopti, where he tells his story, we laugh. These days, it’s not easy being a hairdresser in Mali.

In the north, the Islamist stronghold, you are whipped for a “plateau” haircut. In Mopti, on the contrary, everyone is quickly getting rid of their facial hair to avoid being taken for a “bearded person,” a potentially dangerous confusion in an area where the army ruthlessly attacks the “traitors.”

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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