SEGOU, MALI – Unassuming and affable, election candidate Astan Coulibaly would be unremarkable on the campaign trail in Mali, except that as a Chinese she has been hailed as an embodiment of racial harmony in the fractured West African nation.
The 54-year-old, born Yu Hong Wei in the eastern Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, is competing for a constituency in the city of Segou, 230 km northeast of Malian capital Bamako, in the Nov. 24 parliamentary election.
Now a naturalized Malian, she is thought to be the first Asian to go into politics in Mali.
In an election involving more than 1,000 candidates vying for 147 seats in Mali’s national assembly, Coulibaly’s candidacy is undeniably unique.
In Segou, the historic capital of the Bambara Empire and the cradle of the Coulibaly dynasty of kings in the 17th and 18th centuries, no resident claims to know of an Asian ever running for a seat in parliament.
“I’ve been in Segou with my husband since 1982,” Coulibaly said in fluent Bambara, Mali’s lingua franca. “I have only ever lived here. This is why I want to help our town and our children to get out of poverty.”
A 23-year-old ingenue when she arrived in the early 1980s, Coulibaly was welcomed in a country that was largely at peace with itself after a period of political turmoil and several coup attempts.
But today the nation is a melting pot of rival ethnic groups and tensions between the communities intensified during a 10-month Islamist occupation ended by a French-led military intervention launched in January.
The government in Bamako is due to resume talks with its northern populations this month with a view to devolving more power to its marginalized minorities, but racial disharmony remains an urgent problem.
“At a time when other foreign nations are throwing out foreigners we in Mali welcome a successful example of integration,” Nouhoum Keita, of the African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence party, said of Coulibaly’s election hopes.
Coulibaly runs a medical clinic in Segou, where she practices both modern and Chinese medicine.
Her manifesto as a candidate for the recently formed Movement for a Common Destiny party, hardly a radical piece of political philosophy, proposes the kind of changes that anyone would want to see in impoverished sub-Saharan Africa.
If elected, she said, she will launch initiatives that “will help many people in Segou, (improving) the lives of women, children and young people without jobs.”
Coulibaly met her husband, Amadou, a native Malian textiles student, in Shanghai in the late 1970s. “He asked me to marry him, and my parents finally agreed after some hesitation,” she recalled, reveling for a moment in the excitement of the romance.
The couple married in Shanghai in 1982 and came to settle in Segou.
Amadou has retired but his wife, ever the entrepreneur, has moved into real estate and haulage, renting trucks to Chinese construction companies and traveling to China at least once a year to shore up business relationships.
The couple have four children — the youngest is 13 — and their eldest boy, Ibrahim, says he supports his mother’s political ambitions “without reservation.”
Over three decades in her adoptive home, Coulibaly has become something of a celebrity in Segou, where locals often stop her in the street for a chat.
On the campaign trail in Dioro, 60 km from Segou, Coulibaly receives an enthusiastic welcome, and it is perhaps unsurprising that many supporters see her as means of access to much-needed Chinese aid and investment.
Coulibaly doesn’t rule out tapping her contacts to seek aid from the small but burgeoning Chinese business community in Mali. “There are more than 100 Chinese in the Segou region now,” she said.
But victory is far from a done deal for Coulibaly, who is competing with many grandees of the political scene, including the incumbent lawmaker, lawyer Mountaga Tall.
Tall has known her for years, and congratulated her on her candidacy. “I’m very proud that this is happening in Segou,” he said.