Many people have recently turned their attention to Mali as Canadian soldiers arrive in the troubled West African nation to begin their first substantial peacekeeping mission in decades.
But few will watch with greater understanding, or interest, than the citizens of Ste-Elisabeth, Que.
For more than 30 years, the 1,500-person farming community an hour east of Montreal has formed a deep and improbable friendship with the town of Sanankoroba, a rural Malian community some 30 kilometres south of the capital city of Bamako.
In contrast with the Canadian Forces’ multimillion-dollar mission, Ste-Elisabeth’s project is funded by wine and cheese dinners and craft sales — and run by retired farmers.
And while critics of the Mali peacekeeping mission have questioned the wisdom of risking troops’ lives in a place where the chances of securing lasting peace seem slim, Ste-Elisabeth’s residents say their successes prove a huge budget isn’t needed to make a difference.
The connection dates back to 1985, when the non-profit Canada World Youth put out a call for towns that were interested in hosting a Mali exchange program.
Ste-Elisabeth put up its hand, and the resulting exchange went so well the two communities decided on their own to continue the friendship.
Since then, Ste-Elisabeth’s residents have chipped in to help purchase livestock, farm equipment and computers for Sanankoroba, launched community agriculture and infrastructure projects and provided micro-loans to local entrepreneurs.
In 2013, they raised $30,000 to purchase a small red tractor and fly it across the ocean, as a gift from one small farming community to another.
“Ste-Elisabeth has become known across the world as an example of the twin cities model, where volunteers working with their own means have been able to do as much as some NGOs,” said Solange Tougas, 68.
She, along with Ghislaine Poirier, 78, Andre Coutu, 81, and Guy Lavallée, 75, are four of the 11 volunteers who anchor the town’s Mali outreach efforts.
All four say the ties between the two communities run deep.
During the 1998 ice storm in Quebec, the people of Sanankoroba raised $100 to send to Ste-Elisabeth — a significant gift considering most villagers make less than $2 per day.
And when Lavallée’s wife died, the village held a religious ceremony in her honour, timed to take place simultaneously with her funeral in Quebec.
At first glance, Ste-Elisabeth appears to be an unlikely candidate for such a partnership.
There are few immigrants in this sleepy Quebec village, where tractors kick up dust in the fields surrounding the modest wooden homes that line the main street.
But while most “twin cities” projects exist in name only, this one has flourished.
There’s a certain connection through farming and a shared official language, even though 80 per cent of the population speaks Bambara, not French.
But they say what keeps it going are the friendships that have formed over the years, many going back decades.
“When we visit, it feels like our village, with people we know,” said Lavallée, who last visited in March. “I’m better known there than at home.”
Since the twinning began, 32 Malians have come to visit Quebec, most to take courses or workshops in areas such as accounting, business administration and garbage management.
More than 50 Quebecers have visited Mali, some more than 10 times.
In the beginning, the group received funding from various organizations, but that funding has long since dried up.
Now, they keep it going with donations, fundraising efforts and a number of outreach efforts to keep the community engaged.
“You have to believe in it,” Poirier said.
While Sanankoroba is not immune to the poverty and political instability that has hit Mali, the committee believes its efforts have made a difference.
While the early projects focused on agriculture and food security, in more recent years they’ve joined with other regional partners in Quebec to focus on entrepreneurship, infrastructure and garbage management.
Tougas is especially proud of the fact that women, who often struggle to gain access to opportunities in Mali, now occupy many of the village’s leadership roles.
The committee pays 75 per cent of the salary for a co-ordinator in Mali who oversees the administration of the projects, all of which are proposed by the Malians.
The Quebecers, for their part, try to help with technical expertise and start-up capital.
“There are people out there who land and try to tell them what to do,” Tougas said. “Us, we work together.”
Sanankoroba, in the country’s southwest, has been largely spared the bloodshed in the north, where various factions are battling over land, smuggling routes and ideology.
Nevertheless, a certain fear has filtered down.
Lavallée says the police are largely ineffective, allowing bandits to rob and terrorize the local population.
And the Quebec visitors avoid going to places populated by tourists, in light of recent terrorist attacks that have struck Bamako in recent years.
While the peacekeepers probably won’t be anywhere near Sanankoroba, the committee members agree they’re happy Canada is stepping up its efforts to help Mali.
The question, they say, is how.
While she has no military expertise, Tougas says that based on her experience, she’d encourage the Canadians to focus on training rather than dictating solutions.
“When the whites pull up in their big fancy vehicles, I’m not sure it does much,” she said.