Except for gris-gris men, Mali crisis hurts at market

Adama Kamara's market stand is neatly stacked with piles of dead animals he promises will change your life: parakeets to help you find a job, dog skulls to cure headaches, crocodile heads to make you better in bed.

Kamara is a gris-gris man, a seller of traditional west African remedies and charms, and he and his colleagues appear to be the only ones doing a solid business at this market in central Bamako, the Malian capital, as the long conflict rending the country's north takes a toll on the economy.

"The crisis in the north, that hasn't really hit us here," says Kamara between explanations of the powers of each dried-out, half-preserved species.

"People buy these things when they have a problem, and lots of people have problems now," he shrugs.

That is a glowing business report compared to many of the market's vendors, who say they have plenty of problems of their own.

Nearby is a section where artisans make and sell jewellery, clothing, fabrics and other arts and crafts.

The area was popular with the small but steady stream of tourists who came to Mali to visit destinations like Timbuktu, the fabled caravan city at the edge of the Sahara, and Dogon country, a dramatic cliff-side landscape whose people are known for their traditional mask dances and intricately designed doors.

But tourism evaporated when Al-Qaeda-linked extremists seized control of the north in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 military coup.

Tourism ministry officials say tourist arrivals have fallen from about 250,000 a year before the crisis to almost zero.

And while French-led forces have now pushed the Islamists from the cities they controlled, including Timbuktu, ongoing suicide bombings, land mine explosions and guerrilla attacks in reclaimed territory mean Mali is likely to remain a tourist no-go for some time.

"There aren't enough clients because of the crisis," says Moussa Yattassaye, who produces brightly coloured leather sandals at a small workshop inside the artisan market.

Aboubacar Camara, who makes a mud-dyed cloth called bogolan and is the spokesman for the Young Artisans' Association, says members' sales are down more than 95 percent.

"Before, we could sell 300,000 to 400,000 CFA francs (450 to 600 euros, $600 to $800) per week," he says.

"As soon as you finished with an American, a Frenchman would come. You finish with him, you see someone else from a different nationality."

"Now we don't even see them. We only see journalists," he adds.

"Because of armed bandits and hooligans, a bunch of tramps without jobs... we don't even manage to sell 50,000 CFA francs ($100, 80 euros) a month."

Camara, 30, says he worries Mali will struggle to restore its tourism industry.

"This destabilises the image of Mali abroad. Right now all the people who believed in Mali, who said Mali is a welcoming, peaceful, democratic country, now we're really disappointed because those countries are going to see that what they were saying, in reality it's not true," he says.

"These terrorist bandits... came and dirtied Mali's name."

-- Visa to America or Europe --

Korotoumo Daou, who sells beauty products from a small table by the street, says her business has also been damaged.

"Things started to get difficult not long after the coup d'etat. After that people stopped buying as many things," says the 27-year-old.

"It's getting a little better now since the French intervention, but it's still hard for us market women."

At the fabric stand next door, Safiatou Sidibe agrees and says she plans to leave for neighbouring Ivory Coast in April.

"The crisis has been very bad for sales," she says.

"People used to come from the north and buy things to take back there and sell, but they don't anymore because of the fighting," adds the 30-year-old.

"Me, I am leaving for Ivory Coast in two months."

Mali was already one of the poorest countries in the world before the crisis, and its economy shrank an estimated 4.5 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund -- a painful contraction after a decade of 5.7-percent average annual growth up to 2010.

The crashing economy is exacerbating the country's instability and adding momentum to the stream of refugees flowing out of the country, who the United Nations says number more than 150,000.

Gris-gris man Soumaila Kouyate, who works next to Kamara, says the most expensive item at his stall -- and the one most in demand at the moment -- is a horse's skull.

At 20,000 CFA francs ($40, 30 euros), it costs 20 times more than the parakeet corpse you grind up and drink to find work, and eight times more than the dog's skull you pulverise and rub on yourself to cure headaches.

What does it do?

"You write God's name on a piece of paper and put it in the horse's mouth," he says.

"Then you dip it in water and you get a visa for America or Europe."