Mali's Gift Economy

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“If you trust it”—the Malians’ hands all go down for two pounds on the table—“just do it!  If you have it, just give it!”

Teaching in the Gift Economy In the red-dust town of Kati, Mali, a meeting is underway between the leaders of the local Institute for Popular Education, who have just called out the chant, and a group of Western visitors who came to the West African nation for the 2007 World Social Forum.

At the Forum, 30,000 people came together in hot pursuit of alternatives to the reigning winner-take-all-and-screw-the-rest economic model. The case of West Africa is unusual. Here an alternative already exists, and has for thousands of years.

The Institute for Popular Education (IEP) and Other Worlds collaborated to document this below-the-radar gift system called dama, in which human beings have more worth than the market. The ‘co-visionaries’—as the Malians call it—are rendering explicit and publicizing a system that is well-known to most Africans and many indigenous peoples, but something short of a miracle to those of us in lands colonized by the Holy Profit.

dama is a vibrant economy and culture propagated primarily through a strong, though informal, women’s social network. Gift-giving is not based on exchange or equivalence between giver and receiver. The person who receives a gift will probably pass it on to someone else. Another person altogether, on down the line, will give back to the original giver. dama involves return, but from within a broadly defined community to which the gift has moved on.

Gifting, and the message to keep it moving, exist at most times and places throughout Mali. Nature as well as culture are understood in terms of the gift. For example, if a baby’s umbilical cord doesn’t fall off right away, one woman might say to another, “That father doesn’t give enough.” Even the primary greeting in Mali as in Senegal, ince, means at once ‘hello,’ ‘thank you’, and ‘I know my link with you.’

In its purest form, a gift economy is about the collective, allocation based on need, and abundance. Behind gifting is human relationship, generation of goodwill, and attention to the nurturance of the whole society and not just one’s immediate self and family. Maintaining economic and social relations outside of the market keeps cooperation and ethics thriving.


The Value of the Gift

A courtyard in Mali

A gift is never just a material object or service. One of its purposes is to maintain social connections. Be it a bracelet for the arm or a bed for the night, gifts are strings which create and strengthen friendships, family, regional community, religious grouping, and other social networks. dama reflects a worldview that society, indeed the world, is a web of relationships—not just between individuals, but between an inseparable whole. Gifting is not an economic activity so much as a spinning of that web, continually reinforcing interconnectedness and the collective. IEP educator and cultural worker Coumba Toure says, “Who we are is very much defined by how much we give to others. The objects are just the symbol. The highest gift is recognizing people and accepting to be connected to them.”

A second purpose of dama is to sustain and celebrate the values of sharing and humanity—what is known as maaya or ‘being human.’  “Maaya, the link we have between ourselves, is why dama works,” says Djingarey Maïga, president of the organization Women and Human Rights. “It’s the link with your neighbors, your parents, your relatives. If you can’t keep that link, you are not a human being.” She illustrates with the case of her children who, if they are at a neighbor’s house at mealtime, will be fed. If it is bath time, the neighbors will bathe her children as well. A common Malian expression explains maaya: “Life is a cord. We make the cord between ourselves, and you have to hold on to it. One should not drop the cord.”     

Thirdly, dama is an essential strategy for keeping the community well. Malians’ understanding of community is that it is only as strong as its parts. Only by all providing for each other will all survive and thrive. Wherever your gift ends up will be an important contribution toward everyone’s welfare. For example, one afternoon I pass a small cash gift on to my friend Madou. Yaye, a bystander looking on, immediately thanks me. “What you give Madou you also give me, because I will also benefit from his well-being.” 

Coumba says, “If you ask any number of people how they live, what they eat, where they get what they wear, you would quickly notice that most of it has been given by someone.” dama is a time-honored, well-honed means of keeping away hunger, prolonged illness, and early death. It provides the social safety net which the state—egged on by the World Bank and IMF—has neglected: a working health system, social security for the elders, education, and child care.

In addition to trying to prevent anyone from being too poor, yet another purpose of dama is to prevent most everyone from becoming too rich. While in the U.S. there often exists social reinforcement to accumulate as much as possible, with wealth and the wealthy frequently being revered, in Mali the cultural norm is to give away as much of your accumulation as possible, with generosity and the generous being most respected. The social pressure to give acts as a disincentive to hoard, or what we call save. Coumba offers, “Being rich here means that the person has abandoned his or her values, that he or she is not giving enough to the needs around. People really start worrying about what has happened to that person.”


Passing it On 

School girls in MaliIn one study in Bamako, each person gave an average of 1.5 gifts per day. Another study found that gifts account for 18% of total expenditures among Malian villagers, comprising the largest single category. Presents are passed along everywhere: a small household decoration, change to buy a school notebook. When a family’s harvest of millet or peanuts is ready, they pass on a portion to the homes around them. If a household is hosting guests, neighbors will typically send over food.

Services are rendered, too, mainly by girls and women: sweeping or washing dishes, running to the corner to buy sugar, tending a market stall, lending a chair or a pot, braiding hair. Women often care for the children of a neighbor who has to leave home to work.

During the rainy season, when the heavens open with a stupendous force, standard practice is that the closest household offers hospitality to an immediately drenched passer-by, inviting the friend or stranger in to dry off with a towel, share a cup of hot tea, and wait out the torrent. Community organizations regularly give small contributions of money or the loan of a conference room to another group. Town residents give lodging to those from their original village until the new migrants can get on their feet. The examples are endless.

Malian homes themselves are testaments to dama. One study found that households consist of an average of 11.5 individuals. They may include orphans, refugees of abuse, or those whose first (biological) family is too poor to feed them or too far from a school to educate them.

Gifts encircle each life cycle. When a woman gives birth, neighbors care for all her material needs for the first forty days, organizing themselves to share in providing meals, milk, and the like. At a baptism and wedding, guests show up with soap, a length of cloth, some palm wine, or a dish of food. On the seventh day after the death of a wealthy person, his or her family distributes food to the children of the area.

Signs of dama abound throughout religious practice, too. Every Friday, Muslim communities distribute milk and bread to village children. Catholic women organize themselves to feed the village priest throughout the year, each one signing up for two weeks at a time. The Rastafari Movement of Mali gives half of the produce of its community gardens to street children.

Lines of giving are complex and often circuitous. “You never know how it will come back. But you have to give because you can’t let the cord break with you,” explains IEP backbone Maria Diarra. She tells of helping a man in the community some years back. Now the man’s sister brings Maria’s family gifts of charcoal and food, gives them rides, and visits whenever she comes to Kati.

“Maybe the link gets broken in a larger community," says Coumba. "But when you are in a community where everyone believes that, it really does work.”


And in the World's Richest Nation...

Western academics are often tempted, as one of them noted, to delineate “a radical break between premodern and modern cultures, with the gift reserved for the premodern, while we must deal through the market and the state.”  We are to believe that, as capitalism developed and exchange systems spread, markets supplanted morals and gifting was destroyed.

Certainly the messages many of us got from childhood to accumulate riches and spend them on ourselves, strive to make that theory real. And yet, in the most consumptive nation on earth, gifts are given frequently, spontaneously, and without thought of reciprocity. One gift advocate offers this analysis: “We just don’t have the right glasses on to see the gifting happening all around us. We see it as exchange manqué or only a defensive position of those who aren’t capable of exchange.” 

In fact, people in the U.S. give infinite forms of services and goods to family and friends, neighbors, and strangers without calculation of return. We give where there is no emotional tie, no reciprocity, and often (in the case of a donation to a community organization, for example) not even a thanks from the ultimate recipient. We give anonymously; think of those multi-million dollar donations from unnamed individuals reported from time to time in the newspaper. We push strangers’ cars, give their batteries a jump in a parking lot, shovel snow from elderly neighbors’ walks, leave tips for waitresses we’ll never see again. We even donate organs. In 2005, people in the U.S. gave $260.28 billion to non-profits and charities,  and 61.2 million volunteered, with each person giving a median of 52 hours per year.


Escaping the Crocodile's Lake

dama is under threat by the neoliberal marketplace that is converting much of the gifting sphere to exchange relationships, monetizing the economy, and placing a dollar value on many forms of worth. West Africans’ challenge today is to keep dama thriving despite the expansion of markets, advertising, and cash transactions. A canary in the proverbial coal mine, dama is an indicator of how well cultural traditions can hold up under conditions of globalization.

What is certain is that dama will survive in at least a subterranean way, as do other gifting and solidarity economies throughout the world. Also certain is that dama and other non-market economies will remain strong and viable only if organized movements vigorously defend them.

Kadidiatou Baby, director of the Malian Association for the Support of Schooling of Girls, suggests that, “We can’t go fully back to the traditional economy. But we can organize people so they can better support each other in a parallel economy that nurtures society. You can exploit individuals easily, but it’s harder before a well-organized system.”

As free-market capitalism is being globalized, so are economies that function on a different logic, that of solidarity. Grassroots movements have organized community kitchens in Latin America, fair trade production in South Asia, clothing and book exchanges in North America, and open source software networks in Europe—to name only a few of the spiraling examples. They emphasize women's initiatives, ecological agriculture, ethical financing, and appropriate technology. The World Social Forum hosts a permanent solidarity economy network, and the U.S. Solidarity Economic Network held its first meeting in March, 2009. Brazil even has a secretary of state for solidarity economy.

“You know that difficulty usually gives way to creativity,” Kadidiatou says. “Sometimes people come out of the crocodiles’ lake alive. Go figure how they got out, but they do. Even if they leave with one less limb, they do. When you believe in the survival of humanity, you invent the response.”

For more information on dama, including a short video, check Other Worlds’ web site: . For more on gift economies, see .

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