WEST WINDSOR, Vermont — “I grew up like all children in Mali. My father was a mason; we farmed a lot during the rainy season. I learned to farm and then at the age of seven I went to school with my older brother.” Mahim Toure was born in Bandiagara, a rural area of Central Mali. As a young child, Toure spent a lot of time helping the family complete the tasks necessary to a subsistence lifestyle. These included collecting food and water and tending to livestock. While Toure was young, Mali became independent from France, entering a period of sporadic political unrest that persists today. Coming of age surrounded by protests, coups and border fighting, he was deeply influenced by the suffering and injustice in the environment. From these beginnings, he grew into a motivated and passionate person, committed to helping people win human rights in Mali.
After completing school, Toure began a career in social work and advocacy that would last over 30 years. In addition to positions with organizations like CARE International and Save the Children, Mahim worked directly with the Malian government and the United Nations. Though schooling remained a very important aspect of Toure’s achievement, it is life itself that inspired Toure the most. Toure told The Borgen Project in an interview that “It was life’s difficulty that gave me the passion for the work I chose”.
The Importance of Education
With a Master’s Degree from the University of Dakar in Communication and Social Work, plus the command of five African languages and French, Toure possessed significant academic abilities. Because of his education, and the high standard of ethics and honesty instilled by his father, people trusted Toure from a young age to help people read important documents and do accounting. It wasn’t until later when Toure became a champion of human rights in Mali.
Toure explained that he “started to see gross inequities between educated and uneducated people, and how education is a path out of poverty, especially for girls. The fastest way for African countries to climb out of poverty is to educate girls. When you educate a boy, only he will benefit. When you educate a girl, you in fact are educating…all of her future children. Women are the key, they are the cornerstone of the family. And when educated women have children, they want them to be educated too.”
When Toure had enough money, he sponsored other children from his village and the surrounding area so they could attend school. He became known for supporting girls’ education and empowerment and spoke out about the eradication of female circumcision, which Toure’s translator and friend Heather Preece shared with The Borgen Project.
The World Bank considers gender equality one of its top priorities to achieve the larger goal of ending extreme poverty. It recognizes the many challenges women and girls face to obtain an education. Focusing on removing those barriers is the first step towards more educated and healthy communities. Individuals who have access to education are more likely to enter the workforce, making higher incomes and contributing to a country’s economy.
Living for a Community
Toure dedicated time to building up rural Malian communities similar to the one in which Toure grew up. In the early 90s, Toure worked on a project funded by Save the Children Canada, an organization working to improve the quality of life for children in impoverished countries. For this job, Toure traveled to many different villages educating people on local food sources that would add nutrition to villagers’ diets. On this project, Toure met Preece, a Canadian student volunteering with Save the Children, who remains a close friend though Preece now lives in Alaska.
Saving the Day
Unwilling to brag about heroics, it was Preece who told The Borgen Project about a few of Mahim’s more courageous missions over the years of working for human rights in Mali. In Toure’s very own village, he learned of a plan to sell off parcels of land that belonged to local villagers for commercial development. The families need the land for subsistence and were promised royalties in exchange for the land. After learning about a supposed deal, people signed written agreements. But since most people in rural Mali are illiterate, the families had no idea what they agreed to. The corrupt local government officials never delivered any royalties to the families.
When Toure became aware of what was happening, he gathered all the possible evidence and took it to a coalition of West African High Commissions, pleading the case publicly. Waiting many years, Toure faced death threats among many other challenges, but he did not abandon his goal. Finally, he won the case and the corrupt local officials were forced to return the stolen land and pay damages.
Following a military coup in 2012, Toure’s work for human rights in Mali was suspended for over five months. Without pay, Toure traveled into areas of Central and Southern Mali controlled by violent Islamic extremist groups to bring food and medical supplies to villages cut off from regular supply chains. In one case, Toure went to a village isolated by the rebellion to help a sick elder. To smuggle the man to safety, Toure floated the man down a river hidden in the bottom of a canoe.
Since the coup, Mali has seen an almost constant conflict between the Malian military forces, French military intervention and rebel Islamist groups. Though intended to stop the violence against Malian civilians, the separate military forces have accumulated humanitarian abuses. The Malian people witness and endure torture, rape, robbery and unprovoked murder. This comes from extremist groups professing Muslim values, former colonists under the guise of foreign intervention and corrupt governments.
Pursuit of Justice
After a lifetime of living for others and the improvement of Mali, Toure knew what justice meant. Toure explains that “Social justice is a political and moral principle whose goal is to create equal rights and a collective solidarity that allow[s]a fair and equitable distribution of wealth, be it material or symbolic, among the different members of society.”
When Toure was born, the life expectancy for a male in Mali was about 28 years. Now, it is closer to 60 years.
If everything were equal, Mahim wouldn’t have contracted a preventable infection after devoting so much time fighting for social equality. In a just world, those who spend all their energy gaining justice for others do not die slowly from diseases most people in developed countries can ignore. And yet, it is because of the inequalities and injustices that people like Mahim Toure, who did great things for human rights in Mali, exist.
On June 7, 2021, in Mali, Mahim Toure died from a serious chronic illness. He is survived by his friends and family, who are devastated at his passing but recall the life he led with pride.
– Kari Millstein