May 26, 2003 - Southwest Texas State University: Burkina Faso RPCV Richard L. Warms' paper on What to do with a Pension: economic strategies of veterans in Bougouni, Mali

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Burkina Faso RPCV Richard L. Warms' paper on What to do with a Pension: economic strategies of veterans in Bougouni, Mali

Burkina Faso RPCV Richard L. Warms' paper on What to do with a Pension: economic strategies of veterans in Bougouni, Mali

What to do with a Pension: economic strategies of veterans in Bougouni, Mali

Richard L. Warms

Southwest Texas State University

Recruits and conscripts from Africa played a vital role in French domestic and foreign policy since the 19th century. The Tirailleurs Senegalais (Senegalese Riflemen), a unit of the French Army composed of African troops, was founded in 1857. By World War I, it had become a major fighting force(1). In that war alone, some 135,000 men from France's West African colonies served in her army. Of these, about 36,000 saw active duty in Europe(2). More than 100,000 African troops were used in World War II, and France continued to use African troops in her unsuccessful colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria(3).

Once home from the army, these men played ambiguous roles in their own societies. During the colonial era, many French West African intellectuals saw colonial troops as symbols of empire and held them in contempt(4). On the other hand, both political action and social unrest by veterans were critical elements in the battle for African independence after World War II(5). Today, some of these incidents, particularly the soldiers' rebellion at Thiaroye in Senegal are widely celebrated as important acts of resistance to colonialism(6).

If some of their exploits are now considered heroic, veterans themselves are frequently considered comical. In popular stories and songs, they are often treated as drunks and eccentrics made crazy by their war experiences(7). They are sometimes held in fear by those who did not share their experiences. While, in almost every town, there are some veterans who do, indeed, fit this stereotype, most do not. Many are prosperous and highly respected members of their communities.

This paper is based on interviews conducted in 1991, 1992, 1994 and 1995 in and around Bougouni, a town of some 20,000 people about 100 miles from the Malian capital, Bamako. The oldest veterans I interviewed served in Morocco in the 1930s and in World War II, the youngest were in the Tirailleurs Senegalais at the time of independence in 1960. In all, more than 60 veterans were interviewed.

In this paper, I analyze the factors underlying the prosperity of veterans who became important men in their communities. I describe the uses to which Bougouni veterans put their pensions and show that control of these pensions was a major factor in determining the lives of their possessors. Pensions, and issues surrounding their control led families to divide on lines of friction present in polygynous Bamana society. However, this tendency of families to divide was not absolute and could be contradicted by family wealth or status as well as the personal abilities of individual veterans.

While there were some notable exceptions, in most cases, the critical determinant of the prosperity and social success of the veterans was whether or not they received a pension from the French government. People who served the equivalent of 15 years in the Tirailleurs Senegalais were eligible for a pension. In some cases, an individual had to serve 15 calendar years. However, individuals might accumulate years by volunteering for dangerous or difficult assignments or being forced to serve in such conditions. In these cases one calendar year might serve as two or even three years for the purposes of progress toward a pension. The size of pensions was dependent on the rank a soldier achieved, with larger pensions reserved for those of higher rank. Injuries received during the course of service (whether in combat or not) as well as medical disabilities during or after service were compensated with additions to the pension, some of them quite substantial. Pensions are payed quarterly. The smallest pensions are currently less than one hundred dollars a month and the largest between three and four hundred dollars a month. In the economy of Bougouni, even the smallest of these pensions is enough to support a household at an average level for the town; the largest make their possessors relatively wealthy men.

In addition to the pension, soldiers who spent 90 days or more in combat receive a retrait de combattant a small sum paid twice yearly after the veteran reaches 65. While the retrait de combattant may be a critical help to an individual or family in need, it is not large enough to provide more than a small aid to income. This paper is concerned only with recipients of the veterans pension.

While some authors have suggested that veterans tend to spend their pensions largely in the consumption of European and American bottled drinks and luxury goods, this is not the case in Bougouni. Veterans did indulge in some local luxuries. They sometimes bought fine clothing for themselves and their wives. They had the walls of their homes coated with cement and their roofs made of sheet metal. On occasion, they built homes of cinder block. Veterans were unlikely, however, to own things such as refrigerators, water filters, elaborate furniture, fans, or gas stoves. Most, as Muslims, do not drink (at least not in public). Rather than pursuing European lifestyles, Bougouni's veterans tended to use their pensions to increase their wealth and status in ways typical of Bamana society. They arranged favorable marriages with several wives. They sired large families and tried to gather large circles of clients around themselves.

Veterans also invested invest fairly heavily in creating "plantations." These were gardens of fruit trees and vegetables and they ranged in size from less than one hectare to as much as 13 hectares. Some of the veterans reported that they had purchased gasoline powered pumps or other agricultural equipment to promote production in their plantations. It was impossible for me to determine the sums of money that might be made with such gardens, however, in some cases, it was probably considerable. The market for garden produce in Bougouni is small. But, many veterans reported that their gardens included citrus trees. Citrus ships relatively easily, and, during my visits to Bougouni in December and January, there were frequently trucks in the market being loaded with oranges and limes.

Another area of investment by veterans was in education. Most veterans did want to have their children educated in the official government school system and most pushed their children to complete their education to the highest grade level of which they were capable. In some cases this included university and technical schools, some of them in other African countries and in Europe. Several of Bougouni's veterans have children who are at universities in France or who occupy government positions in Bamako for which they were trained in Europe.

Bougouni veterans generally did not invest in either manufacturing or commerce. The first of these is easily explained. The economy of Bougouni offers only very limited opportunity for investment in manufacturing. The sole manufacturing operation is a government-owned cotton gin. The lack of investment in trade is slightly more difficult to explain. Trade is a traditionally acceptable occupation throughout much of Mali and Bougouni is a market center, but in the 1990s, virtually no pensioned veteran is involved in commerce. There are exceptions: one veteran currently owns the stationary store in Bougouni, but he began in this position as a civil servant (the libraries in Mali were government controlled until the coup of 1991). Another runs a restaurant table in the taxi station. Others had briefly been in trade or transportation but had gone bankrupt.

Several factors help explain the failure of veterans to participate in trade. To a certain extent, participation in trade in Mali is a family matter. People who are born into a trading family have a far easier time making the connections necessary for successful trading than those who are not. Few of Bougouni's pensioned veterans come from trading families.

Non-trade origins in themselves, however, would not exclude them from commerce. In fact, most Malian traders do not come from commercial families. As I have shown elsewhere, they gradually join the trading community by diligently nurturing client relationships with powerful existing traders. Such merchants say they lend goods and money to and conduct business with people they trust. These relationships are built over long periods during which many aspiring traders travel to weekly rural markets building up a record of dependability that will enable them to gain access to larger and larger amounts of credit and better opportunities for profit.

Pensioned veterans were unlikely to develop such relationships since, having served in the military for fifteen years, they returned to their society as middle aged men. It would be unusual for them to be able to devote the time and energy needed to establishing the patron/client relationships that are at the center of commerce in Mali. Some veterans have the capital necessary to begin to trade on their own, but real success requires much more than capital. It requires the connections necessary to be allowed to participate in profitable business deals. Veterans are generally unable to build such connections and so are locked out of lucrative trading opportunities.

With the exception of expenditures on beer, wine, and other bottled beverages, which as Muslims most Bougouni veterans with pensions did not consume, the expenditure patterns of veterans are very much the same as those reported by Saul in his study of household expenditures by veterans in a small village in Burkina Faso (1989).

The similarity of expenditures of most Bougouni veterans camouflages vast differences in their experiences. Some veterans had a relatively easy time returning to their villages and families. They were able to use their pensions effectively and prospered accordingly. Today they are among the most important people in the Bougouni region. They are chef du quartiers, heads of villages, or individuals widely considered to be che koro ba. Others achieved similar status, but only after long struggles. Still others live in relative obscurity, occupying positions of no status in the area. Perhaps the most critical factor in veterans' post-military experience was their position within their family of origin. Veterans' life experiences were deeply affected by the dynamics of polygynous Bamana families. This effect, however, was mitigated by the effects of family prestige, wealth, and individual initiative.

When men joined the Tirailleurs, they were removed from their homes and from the social structure of their families and villages. They were thrust into a radically new order. While soldiers, of course, did not entirely shed their old identities, treatment in the military had more to do with rank and achievement than with the social position of one's family of origin and one's individual position within that family. Soldiers, however, eventually had to return home, and doing so meant reinserting themselves in the social order they left. How they did so depended largely on their position within their family of origin and the position of that family within Bamanan social structure.

Almost all soldiers I spoke with had come from polygynous families and their actions reflected the structure of these families. Points of fraction and cohesion in polygynous family life can be seen in their behavior. For men, the fundamental split in polygynous families is between full brothers and half brothers. With respect to the outside world, these are equals. In general, a man should show solidarity with all his family members when any of these are in conflict with someone who is not a family member. However, men who are sons of the same father but of different mothers represent different factions within the polygynous family and, as a result of this structure, are rivals. This idea is neatly captured by the Bamanan notions of fadenya and badenya. Fadenya, or father-childness describes the relationship between children of the same father but different mothers. In Bamanankan it is synonymous with envy, jealousy, and competition. Badenya, or mother-childness describes children of the same mother and father and is synonymous with solidarity and unity.

A veteran who had a pension faced a choice when he came back from the army. He could rejoin his family of origin, and in Bamana society, that would be the normal expectation. Or, he had the possibility of starting a new family relying primarily on income from his pension. Starting a new family was a fairly radical move. It meant establishing a new home and almost always bringing additional members from the family of origin to live with him. This not only challenged the authority of the head of that family but, since establishing a new household meant alienating additional people from the original home, it may challenge the original family's very existence.

The establishment of new families by veterans, however, was indirectly promoted by French policy. Colonial authorities were concerned with reintegrating the veterans into society and preventing them from forming effective resistance to French rule. In the first half of this century, this meant returning veterans to their villages of origin as rapidly as possible. After World War II, however, as veteran groups gained a degree of political power, French authorities made city land easily available to them and attempted to provide them with jobs in the colonial administration. Many Malian cities have districts where land was made available to veterans. Bamako, for example, has Quanzanbougou. Bougouni has "Meeker" a quartier that is informally called after a French commandant who made land there available to veterans on very reasonable terms. Beyond this, veterans were interested in educational opportunities for their family members and such opportunities were generally only available in reasonably large towns and cities.

In these circumstances, veterans' choices generally reflected their position in their families of origin and can be understood in terms of fadenya and badenya. The head of a Bamanan family is generally the oldest surviving male member. Veterans may have thought of themselves as acting independently but once they were back, they were first and foremost members of their families of origin. Pension moneys were not their own, but belonged to their families. Thus, veterans were generally expected to turn their pensions over to the heads of their families. Since, by the time of their return from fifteen years of service, veterans were generally at least in their mid-30s, their fathers had died or were extremely aged. Control of the family usually rested in their generation. If a veteran were in position to become head of the family and keep control of his pension, he generally went home. This was also true if the head of the family was an elder full brother. The critical factor is that in either of these cases, pension money would stay under control of their family segment. The pension would thus contribute to the unity and solidarity, the badenya of their segment of the family.

If, on the other had, control of the family had fallen to an uncle or an elder half-brother, veterans were faced with a different situation. The older half-brother, as head of the family, would generally demand complete control of the pension. Veterans, justly feeling that they had worked extremely hard for their pensions, were loathe to give them up. The pension would then become an instrument of jealousy and division, in short, of fadenya. Under these conditions, veterans either did not return to their homes, or did not stay at them long if they did return. Instead, they established new residences generally in Bougouni, and brought their family segments to live with them. In this way, they retained complete control of their pensions, but at the expense of family unity, and in some cases, of the family itself. This pattern was so pervasive that only three of the 35 pensioned Bamanan veterans I interviewed deviated from it. These deviations shed interesting additional light on the issue.

The first individual who did not follow this pattern was a pensioned enlisted named Sibidie Sinayoko. He had served for five years in the Tirailleurs but completed his service in the Malian army. He returned to his village with a relatively small pension. At that time, his father had died and the leadership of the family had passed to his elder half brother. However, Sinayoko had an elder full brother who insisted he live with the family. Sinayoko's pension was given in full to the head of the family, and it did cause infighting. Sinayoko and his children felt that it rightfully belonged to them and resented the demands of the rest of the family. Immediately following the death of his elder brother, Sinayoko moved away from the village and began to construct a dwelling for himself and his children in Bougouni. The second individual, Kaka Diakite, came from one of the most prestigious families in Bougouni. He returned to his family, headed by his elder half-brother, and lived there, seemingly in peace, for many years. Eventually he moved to a family house in the town of Bougouni, but he told me that this was what his older half-brother had asked him to do rather than what he wished himself.

The third individual, Sidiki Diawara, lives in a small village about 20 miles north of Bougouni. When he returned from military service with a substantial pension, his elder half brothers were in control of the family and he determined to move into Bougouni rather than submit to their control of his pension. However, on his arrival in Bougouni, he found that family dissension, internal rivalries, and financial mismanagement had forced the family to the brink of bankruptcy and disintegration. In this circumstance, he was able to reach an agreement with his eldest half-brother whereby he allowed his brother to remain head of the family for ceremonial purposes but took over the day to day running of family affairs himself and retained functional control of his pension.

These three cases expose much of the dynamics of family life in Bougouni. The first illustrates the tension between half brothers that is part of the fundamental dynamic of Bamana polygynous families. Envy and jealousy can and frequently do result when a pension that may be the bulk of total family income must be given to elders who are not full relations. The family is at the same time a locus of support and solidarity and of strife and dissension. Sinayoko told me:

When I came home, I went to live with my family at Manakoro but my elder half brother was the head of the family there. If you see that I've had to move [here to Bougouni] it was because he made too many problems for me and I suffered too much. It was all because he wanted me to give my pension to him and me, I wouldn't stand for that.

Sinayoko's case was, in fact tragic. He had no connections in Bougouni and was unable to convince most of the members of his segment of the family to join him. In 1992 he was living in a single round hut on the edge of town and spending a sizeable percentage of his income on drink. He died in 1994, alone in town, having failed to convince his sons or other family members to join him.

The second case shows one critical factor that can mitigate against the structural dissonance in the family, that is wealth. Kaka Diakite could easily return to his home despite the fact that the family was controlled by an elder half brother because his family was wealthy. His pension provided only a small portion of the total family finances. The total pool of wealth was shared out with what the veteran perceived as justice. Simply put, this veteran could easily have lost a source of income that was larger than his pension if he chose to move away and keep it. In an unrecorded interview, Diakite told me that he had always given his pension to his elder half brother and that his brother had always dispensed the money wisely, and provided well for him and the rest of the family.

The influence of money is also shown by the cases of veterans who were wounded or were the victims of disabilities after their service. Echenberg notes that in the years following World War II, those who had been wounded were among the most militantly anti-French of all veterans (91:144). In Bougouni, at least, time and relatively large pensions have softened their recollections. Though they were not entirely without bitterness and anger, the wounded veterans with whom I spoke had generally positive things to say about the military and their lot in life.

Kaba Diakite was virtually blinded by an explosion during a combat operation in World War II in North Africa. Most of the blind in Mali eke out meager livings as beggars, but Diakite has been extremely successful. He married four wives and became the chef du quartier. He told me that he received the highest pension in the city and that in spite of his injuries he thought well of his time in the military. He said:

Everything depends on God. It's all what he holds in store for you. It could be that it was my injuries that led to my happiness. I can't know that. I have many people to feed and if it wasn't for my pension, I couldn't feed them(8).

Kourouko Diakite, was far less successful than Kaba Diakite. He became blind some years after his military service, and he has only a relatively small pension and no position in town. In spite of this he has married three wives and fathered 18 children. His analysis of his situation was quite clear. He said:

Win or lose in a situation, that depends on the situation that you left. If you had nothing and you went somewhere and you left with at least something, you've got to say you've won. For me, no matter what the level of my pension, I've got to say I've won, that the military life was good for me. If I hadn't been in the army and I'd become blind, like you see me today, I would be in front of the mosque begging. But the little pension that I have protects me from that.

The third case shows that individual personality can also mitigate against structural dissonance. Sidiki Diawara was able to return to his home because, through the coincidence of his family's collapse, his pension, and the force of his own personality he was able to seize control of his family. I should point out that this seizure of control was entirely within the personality of the individual. Diawara had been repeatedly decorated in his military career. He explains what happened on his return to his village like this.

When I was still in the army, my elder sister wrote to tell me about how unhappy she was. She told me that my elder full brother had died and my half brothers had sold all the family cattle. The half brothers had no money and everyone was farming by themselves. I told her that she shouldn't say anything, but when I came back, I called a meeting of all the family. I asked to assume my eldest half brother's role as head of the family to organize [the family fields] and said that I would be sure that the bills got paid. Thus, everyone could farm in the same field. For me, what my brother did was of little importance when compared to the reunification of the family.

Before I came back from the army, I already had a house constructed for myself in Bougouni. But I figured that if I stayed in Bougouni the family would fall apart. It was for that reason that I came back to the village. When I go to get my pension at Bougouni, I stay in the house that I bought there but I have never actually lived there. My elder brothers were in the village but everything there depended on what I said.

In Bamana culture, farming plays a central role in maintaining family unity. While individuals may have private gardens and fields where they grow vegetables for sale, the main staple crop, usually millets and sorghums, is grown using communal labor on land held by the family. The fact that Diawara's family had ceased to farm a field together indicates that it had virtually collapsed. His reorganization of the family and reestablishment of communal labor on the jointly owned field established his position of de-facto control of the family despite his junior position.


Folklore and at least some scholarly work tend to tie the receipt of pensions by veterans to their taste for European lifestyles and European alcohol. Echenberg, for example, reports that "The vast majority [of veterans] did not use their savings and pensions to accumulate power or property, or to live off rents or land" (1991:138). And also "One area of behavior where veterans were distinguished from the mass of the peasantry was in their desire for a modern European lifestyle" (1991:140). For the veterans with whom I worked in Bougouni, this was simply not the case. Veterans did, in fact, invest their pensions in productive capital, but it was generally capital within the conceptions and constraints of the culture and economy of Bougouni. While they did not invest in capital goods as Americans reckon these things and though their participation in trade was limited by their age and the structure of Malian commerce, in many cases they did manage to become important, well-respected men in their community. To some extent, military service alone gave veterans additional weight in their villages. Kouake Sangare, an unpensioned veteran in Bougouni put it like this:

For me, it really doesn't matter if military service is good or bad, it's something you have to do because it makes you someone [whose opinion] people have got to consider. People know me and every time there is something important [to decide] they call me and say, you've done military service, you must understand many things . . .

The critical factor that determined how veterans pursued their lives, however, was their position in their home family structures. Meir Saul notes that former servicemen had an ambiguous position in the Burkinabe community that he studied: they were at the same time innovators, introducers of foreign ways, and a conservative force, using their wealth to support what are perceived as traditional practices (1989:367). This is also true of veterans in Bougouni. Quarrels over pensions and power forced them to break up their families and establish new homes. However, once they had established these, they became masters of their own houses in much the same way their elder half brothers had been. Sidiki Diawara, the man who took over his family from his living half brothers perhaps puts it best. Now, having survived his elder half-brothers he is both de-facto and de-jure head of the family. Unsurprisingly, he is a staunch supporter of the right of the family head to control family finances. He said:

When your father is dead and everything is all right between half-brothers, there is no reason why the oldest should not play the role of father. Even today, there are children in Cote d'Ivoire who send money here when I ask for it to pay the taxes.


1. Balesi, Charles J., From Adversaries to Comrades-in-arms: West Africans and the French Military 1885-1918. Waltham(MA), 1979

2. Page, Melvin, Introduction: Black Men in a White Men's War. Pp 1-27 in Melvin Page, ed., Africa and the First World War. New York, 1987.

3. Echenberg, Myron, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857-1960. Portsmouth (NH), 1991.

4. ibid, pg. 2-3

5. Lawler, Nancy E., Soldiers of Misfortune: The Tirailleurs Senegalais of the Cote d'Ivoire in World War Two. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of History, Northwestern University, 1988. 483-510. Schleh, Eugene, The Post-War Careers of Ex-Servicemen in Ghana and Uganda. Journal of Modern African Studies. 6(2):203-220, 1968.

6. Echenberg, Myron Tragedy at Thiaroye: The Senegalese Soldiers' Uprising of 1944. Pp 109-128 in Peter Gutkind, Robin Cohen and Jean Copans, eds. African Labor History. Beverly Hills, 1978

7. For examples see Diop, Birago, "Sarzan" in Birago , Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba. Paris, 1961. and Diabate, Massa M., Le Lieutenant de Kouta. Abidjan, 1983

8. Interview with Kaba Diakité

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