Excavating the Histories of Mali’s Women Activists: A Look Into “Decolonizing African Women’s Archives” with Project Archives des Femmes du Mali

written by Olivia Andrews ’24

Though Mali gained independence in 1960, Malian women were still restrained by the oppressive holds of colonial and patriarchal barriers, excluding them from reaping the benefits of the recent political progress. Looking into the histories of Malians during this time, one may find references to the spectacle of the women’s movement, drained of the individual stories of those who took part in the fight. The Project Archives des Femmes du Mali identified this issue and has taken on the role of excavating the erased narratives of women activists in post-colonial Mali. Sprouting from founder Oumou Sidibe’s encounter with Aoua Keita’s book Femme de Afrique: La Vie d’Aoua Keita, Sidibé felt empowered to liberate the histories of the many other women who took part in the fight alongside Keita. Sifting through homes, storage rooms, granaries, and even a cooler, Oumou Sidibe (Archive Founder), Madina Thiam (NYU), and Wes alum Devon Golaszewski (UCLA) sat with Malian women activists as they opened a window into their pasts, re-encountering documents bursting with histories longing to be heard. With the help of the documentation center and public research library Centre National d’Information et de Documentation sur la Femme et l’Enfant (CNDIFE) in Bamako, Mali, the Project Archives des Femme du Mali has successfully collected, archived, and digitized thousands of papers and photographs from the generation of Malian women involved in anti-colonial activism during the 1950s and the feminist socialist reform projects that ensued after that period. In turn, the project has liberated women’s archives that were previously in hiding and, as a result, helped unravel the violent history of erasure within Mali.

As a student in Professor Laura Ann Twagira’s course “Queen Mothers, Unruly Women: Histories of Gender and Sexuality in Africa”, I got the pleasure of speaking with the panelists on an intimate level before the panel. In class, we split up into groups of three, pairing each group of students with a member from the archive project. In these small groups, students talked through their topics for an upcoming case study paper on women’s and gender history in Africa and asked questions about how the team went about researching women’s histories.

Following class, I attended the panel “Decolonizing African Women’s Archives: Project Archives des Femmes du Mali”. Madina Thiam opened the event by providing a history of women’s anti-colonial activism in Mali. First, Thiam outlined the interest in internationalism as a means to break out of the colonial shackles of France and introduced Aoua Keita (1912-1980), a woman who is often wrongfully isolated and identified as the only mobilizer of women during this time. The centerpiece of Thiam’s discussion was Malian women’s visions of the post-colonial future through an awareness that their independence had to overcome both the shackles of colonialism and sexism. The audience got to hear this sentiment firsthand through an audio recording from the Congress of the West African Women’s Union, a gathering that celebrated pan-African unity and joined women across Africa in imagining remedies to their struggles. From there, Thiam walked through tensions within the movement that emerged from differences in social status, particularly around the topic of polygamy, as priorities differed between the class of elite women who were educated in Western institutions and working-class women who had less formal education. Thiam concluded by discussing the dismantling of the women’s movement. As the male leadership in Mali orchestrated the infusion of rumors and divisive methods into the circles of women activists, they used colonial tactics of “divide and conquer” and exile, reinforcing the wounds of colonial oppression that women had not yet been able to heal from.

After Thiam, Oumou Sidibé led the audience through the archive project’s process of collecting archival materials. To start, archival materials from the women’s movement are not accessibly located and safely preserved in state buildings, but rather kept in the homes of the women who participated in the movement. In fact, women did not want to give their materials to the national archives out of fear that they would be discarded. Even if women were willing to contribute their materials, the national archives of Mali rejected the incorporation of women in the history of independence within their collections. With that, to get access to the archives, the team first had to establish trust with the women and graciously accept whatever materials the women felt comfortable offering. Sidibé shared a beautiful anecdote about one of the activists, Bachata Dijré, who initially ignored Sidibé’s calls about personal archives and kicked her out of her home. The turning point here was when Oumou said she was simply trying to see how Bachata was doing, allowing a genuine dialogue to take place that eventually blossomed into a trusting and loving relationship between the two. From here Bachata gave Sidibé a small portion of her materials, but in awe of how they were archived, Bachata offered even more. This happened multiple times, as the more time the two women spent together, the more trust was gained. From here, Bachata referred Sidibé to other ladies from the movement who also contributed their documents to the archives.

Though Project Archives des Femmes du Mali is a digital archive today, that was not the original plan. Devon Golaszewski walked the audience through the process of archiving – extracting documents from paper bags, rice sacks, personal libraries, and coolers and then carefully collecting, preserving, and digitizing them. The digitization of these documents came from the requests of family members of Malian women activists who wished to maintain control over their work and allow family members to enjoy the original copies of their histories. Through CNDIFE, the materials were categorized and digitized. With the help of UCLA’s Modern Endangered Archives Program (MEAP), the digital archives will go to the UCLA library website next year where they will be globally accessible to ALL who wish to explore. In the future, the archive project will have workshops, training, and grants for 10-15 Malian women researchers.

The tenacity of the archive project team, coupled with the generosity of the Malian women activists who shared their histories, has spawned a remarkable exchange of trust and knowledge that will advance the way Malian history is rendered. The work carried out by the Project Archives des Femmes du Mali reaffirms the importance of excavating African women’s voices before they are completely erased, in an effort to recover the history of gendered politics within the liberation movements.

Olivia Andrews, Class of 2024, oandrews@wesleyan.edu