Love in the time of Shariah

From West Africa, Rukmini Callimachi touches the world

Many media organizations do not cover Africa on a full-time basis. In the sphere of what makes for global news, it doesn’t have the must-cover political impact of the Arab Spring or the economic clout to demand constant attention. Time and again, however, AP’s long presence there has proved to be a critical force in covering and breaking stories that resonate in other parts of the world.

That commitment to coverage has provided Rukmini Callimachi, AP’s West Africa bureau chief, the access, knowledge and expertise to cover the spreading Islamist movement in Mali and other parts of Africa–that and her tenacity, resourcefulness and courage. Callimachi spoke from Mali about her quest to find individual stories that paint a vivid picture of the region.

Rukmini Callimachi
West Africa Bureau Chief

95 lashes in Timbuktu

When Mali closed its airports and borders after a military coup in March, Callimachi drove overland and negotiated her way past panicked guards to get an exclusive from the family of the coup leader. When rebels took over the northern part of Mali, Callimachi’s article shed light on a new al-Qaida stronghold and the atrocities and harsh rule imposed on the area. In Timbuktu, cleared of Islamic rebels by the French military, she relayed hair-raising tales from a moderate community’s close brush with extremism—including that of Salaka, a young woman given 95 lashings in the city’s marketplace as punishment for a love affair. Her story is shared here in Harouna Traore’s photos and Moustapha Diallo’s video, which includes audio recorded by the village butcher during Salaka’s whipping.

Photos from left

24-year-old Salaka Djicke reflects on the horror she endured during 10 months of Islamist rule in her hometown of Timbuktu, Mali, Wednesday Feb. 6, 2013.

AP Photo / Rukmini Callimachi

In this picture taken on Wednesday, July 18, 2012, Zali Idy, 12, poses in her bedroom in the remote village of Hawkantaki, Niger. Zali was married in 2011.

AP Photo / Jerome Delay

Halime Ali, 13 months old, lies in the plastic bucket of a weighing scale to have her weight checked for signs of malnutrition at a walk-in feeding center in Dibinindji, a desert village in the Sahel belt of Chad, Wednesday, April 18, 2012.

AP Photo / Ben Curtis

Child Brides In Niger

In Niger, Callimachi spoke to young girls to learn of the connection between hunger and child marriage. “At times of severe drought,” she wrote, “parents pushed to the wall by poverty and hunger are marrying their daughters at even younger ages. A girl married off is one less mouth to feed, and the dowry money she brings in goes to feed others.” The story sparked a group of mothers on Facebook to send food to the village in Callimachi’s article, and to try to figure out how they could educate the girls, who are shown here in photos by Jerome Delay.

Malnutrition In Chad

Callimachi writes perceptively about solidly entrenched problems, including the hunger that plagues the region. From a remote village in Chad, she filed a story on stunted growth, a lasting impact of malnutrition that retards the mental and physical development of more than half the children in the country. She quoted the teacher in the village’s only school: “They come to school having had nothing more than a glass of water. They can't make it till the end of the day. Some fall asleep in class. Others vomit.” The photos that accompanied Callimachi’s story, shot by Rebecca Blackwell, show the shocking effects of childhood malnutrition.

The al-Qaida Manifesto

When the other reporters left Timbuktu after French forces drove the invading Islamists away, Rukmini Callimachi decided to find out more about where al-Qaida had lived and operated during their nearly yearlong occupation. In one building, under a pile of trash, bloody bandages and empty ammunition boxes, she found a leather ledger that turned out to be an unprecedented window into the terrorist operation: the step by step strategy al-Qaida was following to conquer northern Mali.

The Last Camel

Callimachi traveled to a remote and dangerous part of Niger (staying at a guesthouse in Dakoro where, two months later, aid workers were kidnapped by al-Qaida) to tell the story of Wantala, a nomad forced to sell his camel, his only livestock—and his only wealth—to feed his family.

Readers in the United States banded together to help Wantala, organizing a Facebook group that came up with $4,500. Callimachi helped track down the nomad–a quest chronicled on Twitter under the hashtag #WhereIsWantala. The money was used to buy Wantala not one camel, but two, and seven goats and eight sheep. These photos tell the story from Callimachi’s initial encounter with Wantala to his reception of the unexpected generosity of a group of strangers.

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    A Tuareg man smiles as his camel rises from lying down at the livestock market in the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012. Eighty percent of Niger's people and 100 percent of the landlocked nation's rural population depend on livestock for income. They live in a precarious equilibrium with the sky above them. When the first rains come, they head north toward the Sahara desert where the grass is said to be saltier and packed with minerals. They time their movements according to the clouds, waiting for the second major downpour, before making a U-turn back to the greener south. If they miscalculate, they can end up stranded. As the grass turns yellow, their animals become too weak to walk.

    AP Photo / Jerome Delay

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    Nomads stop for the night between Dakoro and Bermo, Niger, Monday, July 16, 2012.

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    Tuareg women on their donkeys leave the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012.

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    Men walk through the grain market in the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012.

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    A Nigerian taxman records the sale of a camel at the market in Bermo, Niger, Tuesday, July 17, 2012. It is with livestock that a man here settles disputes, pays the dowry for his future bride and leaves inheritance to his sons.

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    Tuareg and Peul nomads gather at the market to trade livestock in Bermo, Niger, Tuesday, July 17, 2012.

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    Camels, one with a blue eye, wait to be sold and purchased at the livestock market in the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012.

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    Tuareg nomads carrying their traditional swords and Peul herdsmen wearing their signature hats scan livestock in Bermo, Niger, Tuesday, July 17, 2012.

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    A Peul man walks with the severed heads of goats, which will be grilled and eaten as a delicacy at the livestock market in the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012.

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    Goats that have just been sold are loaded on the rooftop of a truck in the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012.

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    Carcasses from various livestock lie in a pile outside the market in the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012.

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    Herdsmen gather at the livestock market in the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012.

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    Livestock merchants leave Bermo, Niger, Tuesday, July 17, 2012.

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    A Tuareg nomad carrying his traditional sword has a hook fit to his camel at the market in Bermo, Niger, Tuesday, July 17, 2012.

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    Helpers prepare camels just purchased for their new owners to take with them at the livestock market in the desert village of Sakabal, Niger, Sunday, July 22, 2012.

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