The Gift Economy in Mali

For a hit of inspiration, watch this six-minute video on “dama” in Mali. Dama is a term for the cultural practice of gift exchange, which is a critical source of survival and human dignity in cash-poor nations like Mali.

The video, produced by Other Worlds Are Possible explains that dama is “based on the traditional value of sharing and ‘being human’, and is propagated primarily through a strong, though informal, women’s social network. Gifting is not based on exchange or equivalence between giver and receiver. Once most gifts are given there is no expectation that they will return in similar form from the giver. Instead the receiver passes the gift on to someone else.”

The Mali gift economy “includes most everything — a meal for a hungry neighbor, change for bus fare, a bracelet, all the needs of a woman in her first 40 days after childbirth, sharing the harvest, bathing the offspring of another who is off at the market.”

While it is encouraging to see the vitality of a gift economy in action, it is also sobering to see that it flourishes chiefly under the duress of globalization. “Dama serves as a social safety net that the state has neglected,” the video explains, because the state must struggle to meet the conditions of IMF and World Bank loans. Dama “maintains dignity, strong values, and tradition. It sustains social links and strong community. And it keeps alive maaya, the celebration of being human.”

The challenge is finding ways to build the gift economy so that it can be a flourishing, protectible alternative to predatory markets, and not “merely” a humane survival strategy.

The video alerted me to the other great work being done by Other Worlds (thanks, James Quilligan, for the tip!). The Albuquerque, New Mexico-based group is a multimedia education and organizing collaborative that focuses on positive, functioning alternatives to the current neoliberal world order. It has documented fourteen case studies of “just economies” in various sectors and regions, with an emphasis on gender.