Bamako, Mali, was in 1968 a poor, socialist dictatorship, largely in the Sahel region of West Africa. After my tour of duty in Kampala, Uganda, a telegram came from the Personnel Division in the U.S. Information Agency, assigning me next to the U.S. Embassy in Madagascar. I felt that was too much out of the African mainstream. I was very young. I sent Washington a telegram asking for a more challenging assignment.
I never before that or afterward received such prompt response from Personnel. The morning after my telegram was sent, USIA sent a telegram to congratulate me for wanting a more challenging assignment. I was sent to Bamako as the Information Officer, the guy who handles press relations. Mali was ideologically aligned with the Communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, and received lots of aid from Communist countries. Local media followed the communist propaganda line. They daily pictured the U.S. as a wholly racist, imperialist, greedy capitalist country. I was a failure as the Press Officer in Bamako as none of our Embassy press releases were ever used in Mali’s radio or press.
However, I had noticed that Malians were very interested in space exploration, which was reported in the press and radio, with special attention to Soviet achievements. At the time, Moscow was way ahead of the U.S. in space. I cabled to the U.S. Information Agency in Washington to ask for a free standing U.S. space exploration exhibit. Then I sent a cable to NASA to ask if they had 16 mm films in French (the elite language of Mali) about the solar system, stars, U.S. space exploration, etc. Washington sent us a good exhibit of free standing cardboard-mounted pictures about space. NASA sent us two hours of excellent short 16-mm films in French about astronomy, the stars, the solar system and the U.S. space program.My boss, the Public Affairs Officer, sent a request to the Foreign Affairs Ministry to ask if we could hold the exhibit at various schools as an educational effort about space. We did not receive a direct reply, but one morning, the only and official newspaper, L’Essor, carried a front page headline which said the President and Cabinet had decided to permit the American Embassy to give an educational space show with films.
The exhibit and the films played at every secondary school in Bamako, indoors daytimes and at night on our portable, outdoor screen. Nights, we used the school soccer fields and got huge crowds of adults as well as students. The French Embassy told us that the Russian Embassy was ticked at the success of the program. I later received permission to use the auditorium donated to Mali by the European Union. It had a film projection booth, wonderful, but dusty and unused. The 16mm and 35mm projectors in the booth were solidly encrusted about a foot thick with a wasps’ nest. Rather than try to break up the wasps’ nest, we set up our little portable 16mm projector in the aisle and showed the NASA space films from there to a packed house.
Space technology reflected military prowess, so the Malians learned that the U.S. was formidable in space, though lagging behind the Soviet Union. That was an important message during our Cold War with the Soviet Union. Although Mali had little impact on the Cold War, our job was to support U.S. foreign policy wherever we were sent. Mali remains poor, but long ago overthrew the sort of Marxist and definitely dictatorial regime. Military coups cloud the country’s future, though oil has been discovered in Mali. The people are smart, hardworking, and entrepreneurial. They were noted throughout the West Coast of Africa as traders and merchants. Maybe one day, Mali will have the good government its people deserve.