BAMAKO: People have added a new word in their vocabulary: « Mozilla »! (Event report)

Arky and I during Firefox OS presentation

The Airbus A319 was taxiing hastily to runway 24 of the W terminal of Orly airport, second busiest in Paris. We had a delay, exceptionally, like every flight to Lisbon I took recently. But you know aircraft are much faster than they have to be because they need to fit with schedule and other traffic. So the crew can make up the delay during flight and land exactly at ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival). Well I really didn’t care much when I would land in Lisbon; the only thing I know is that I am going to be flying to Bamako six hours after landing in Lisbon. If only we could loop in the air until about time to continue my trip, it would be great! Again, no, we cannot loop with that kind of aircraft because you might spill some coke on that lady’s dress and spoil the flight for all the passengers.

Who is afraid of looping? Not me. I have a hectic life when nothing much happens, let alone when I am preparing for a Mozilla trip, especially under the tropics! Mali is not an easy trip. I have never been there and you have to undergo yellow fever vaccination and take prophylactic measures against malaria plus a few other things a fragile “Westernized” body cannot do without to stay fit and healthy. Don’t tell anybody but I am just too scared of injections! Look, planting a metal object that is sharper that a sword into someone’s arm is not medical, it’s cruelty. But since we are humans, nobody cares. If I was a cat or a dog, the RSPCA would take the doctor to court for mistreatment. I went to have that injection anyway because Mozilla make me crazy and fearless, and I hate to think something, anything can stop me when I am going on an important mission! I asked the man at the medical center to warn me the second before injecting that liquid into my body. He laughed and said OK. A second after, he asked me if I was ready to pull my sleeve back down. I said yes, after you’re done. But he was already done, he said. And I felt nothing. I am still wondering if I really had an anti-yellow fever injection and why an act that lasted only half a second would cost more than $80!

Phew, the first hurdle is behind us now, and not the least! Not the last either. Next target, the visa to Mali. Yes now most West African countries require visa for entry to Europeans just, some say, to apply reciprocity, since those countries not only require visas for Africans but also are applying tough measures to make it quite impossible to get a visa! Not only that, but the huge amount of money they ask as visa fee is “not refundable” if your application is rejected, which is much too often the case. Now imagine the business! Great!

Finding the Malian embassy in Paris was not an easy task. It’s not even an embassy but what they call the consulate of the republic of Mali. There was no information of the so-called website of the consulate in Paris. Most links did not work and nobody answers the phone number provided. Super! I had to write to one of the organizers of the Malian symposium to ask them if they knew someone who knows someone who knows someone who works at embassy. Fortunately, I had many replies by people who know someone who knows someone who knows someone whose friend knows someone who works at embassy…And that person just happened to be retired but I got his number. When I called Mister Maïga, he was so nice and told me where the consulate was and that I did not need anything but a passport and the visa fee. What about vaccination? They will ask you on arrival. Humm funny… So people can board the plane without vaccination? Oh well, I have it anyway…

The consulate was in quite some remote area in Paris. But they were well organized and very friendly. It took me about an hour and a half to get the visa since I come from the Province* but I also have to pay an extra €20 for express delivery. By noon, I was already diving into tubes and jumping into trains to catch my train at Paris St-Lazare station. As usual, I jumped into the train at the very last second then we departed for beautiful Normandy. There were quite a few mini-hurdles to overcome between times but that goes beyond the scope of this report. But the biggest obstacle is yet to come. Since my budget was approved less than a week before departure, booking a flight was going to be a marathon! Most flights were either sold out or just too dear for a “Moztrip” as we want to save for the future! But also I experienced those weird website manipulations that make you believe that prices are going high and you should book now. (*Out of capital city)

Hey, have you ever tried booking a flight on those websites many times in one day? Have you noticed that any time you come back, prices are going higher and higher? Yes, you’re being tracked. They do that to force you to buy now by making you believe the next time you come, prices will double! Just try deleting cookies and see what happens! I was desperate to have a cheap flight to Bamako, but given there were only four days before departure, things started to get worrying. I did not want to buy a more expensive flight, yet I had to fly to Bamako on Friday August 1st! I finally booked with the help of a nice person from Reps Council but someone had to go to the airport to pay so I can have my flight. That was done just 24 hours before departure.

I could tell that the A319 crew had received the clearance for take-off, as we approached runway 24. From my experience as a veteran flight simmer, I know every single phase of the flight, from cockpit preparation, performing of checklists to positive climb when PNF* calls: “positive rate” and the PF* : “gear up”! While some passengers are busy stuffing their bags and things away, others sending the very last text messages before they are asked to turn their devices off, I am completely into cockpit mode, checking flight parameters, calculating take-off speeds and stuff! Do not talk to me when “I” take off. I am really being serious! (*Pilot Not FLying; *Pilot Flying)

As soon as I made the last turn into the runway, I called cabin crew to get ready for departure. ATC clearance had already granted the right to depart on this runway: “TAP209, wind calm, runway 24 clear for take-off”. I pushed the throttle to its full power and the engines roared like a concert of hurricanes! Rotation speed was soon reached, and the plane was in the air seconds after. Paris is so beautiful from the skies but you will not see much from that airport, let alone when you’re flying west. I maintained runway heading while the aircraft was accelerating to climb speed. We soon reached our initial climb clearance and ATC cleared us to FL330 (Flight level 33,000 feet). When VNAV* and LNAV* of the autopilot took over the flight, I relaxed and tension dropped at last. (*Vertical Navigation; *Horizontal Navigation)

I have always loved planes and flying. And until recently, I wanted to be a pilot, a humanitarian kind of rural pilot whose only concern is to evacuate very sick people from remote places to the nearest hospital where they can get treatment, and a chance to survive. I don’t now why, when I was about twenty, I had that project in mind. I knew it would not be easy to afford a small plane, but I thought maybe I would build a dedicated website and ask for donations. WIth that noble cause, who knows – someone might just be generous and buy or give one so I can start working in the country. That idea lived on and I am still wanting to do that after retiring from work. How could I know at that time, that my beloved mother was not going to survive after she collapsed suddenly one night five years ago. There was nowhere in the region a qualified doctor could see her and within minutes, that was to become the saddest day of my entire life. Decades back, during high school years, I remember there was only one plane landing in the entire region. It was a two-engine small aircraft I could not identify, like I would today. The first time I attended this magic event to see a plane land, and then take off with the most terrifying engine roar I have ever heard, I decided that I would never miss that again! So I skipped classes every Tuesday and walked about three miles to the airfield before 10 AM! And that lasted almost two years!

Bamako approach by night is quite a challenge since I have never landed here in real life. In the simulator, GABS (Bamako Senou airport) is quite generic and basic. You don’t have the feel of it as for instance LFPG (Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport) which is modelled in the slightest detail in the Sim. Anyway, runway and navaids are accurate and that’s enough for me to perform an IFR* night approach. Approaching Bamako also make you quite nervous! That same week, an Algerian company lost a MD80 on flight AH5017 just a few hundred miles south of Bamako. The plane reportedly stalled after undergoing severe weather conditions, killing 116 passengers and crew members. When we started the descend phase to Bamako, I could not help looking outside to spot any clouds or lightning so we can bypass the threat right away.

The touchdown was smooth and emotional as Mali is a dream place for many West Africans. Not for the size of the skyscrapers or anything material but for the role Mali played in African history. The Malian empire from Middle-Age stretched between the Sahara and the equatorial forest, the Atlantic Ocean and the Niger is on modern Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and much of Coast Ivoire (*). It was an important crossroads between the nomadic peoples of the Sahara and the people of Equatorial Black Africa and was founded by the great Soundiata Keita ( ). Moreover, Mali is a culturally very rich country with greats artists like Mory Kanté, Salif Keita, Amy Koita, and Fanta Damba. The greatest kora players are mostly from Mali and Malian music has influenced far beyond the Bamabra culture.

Mali and Senegal not only share a long border, but they were actually one country under the name Federation of Mali. They split up soon but kept close ties and peaceful relations until today. Mali and Senegal still have the same motto and almost the same flag, minus the green star on Senegalese flag. You will not see any West African who would not be excited to be in peaceful and beautiful Mali.

I was greeted at the airport by Seydou, who dropped me at my hotel which was about 20 minutes away. Saydou was nice and had a very nice car and I soon understood that he has been collecting delegates from airport as I heard that Mozillian Arky was already in Bamako.

The next morning is less romantic! My loud phone alarm went off like a war siren. I jumped out of bed and rushed to find the basement. You never know where bombs are actually gonna fall. So you’d better shelter now and don’t waste time getting dressed. Phew, it was no attack warning, it’s only my loud alarm that I set the previous night as I am usually too scared to get up late. As soon as that alarm went off, the next one was my Keon. It was much louder and it would also wake you up in the very sad case you passed away during the night. Then I woke up. What did you expect?

The Malian Society for Applied Sciences (MSAS) and MaliWatch are non-governmental organization of Malian expatriates who have had the vision to “empower ordinary citizens of Mali to achieve better living conditions through educational and capacity-building initiatives that nurture the richness of knowledge, homegrown values and practices” ( They are very active in bringing knowledge, vision and initiative back to their country to contribute to its development.

The MSAS symposium ( is organized every two years in Bamako “to review the progress made by Africa-based research institutions and by the diaspora, to meet the next generation of Malian scientists, and to initiate the promising partnerships of the future with colleagues from around the continent and beyond”. I could not miss this great event I only heard about a few weeks before. I proposed to attend and present about Mozilla and Mozilla products but in my mind, I was thinking about creating no less than “Mozilla Mali”. My sessions were not only accepted but I was also given a whole day to organize a Webmaker training and Maker Party. My other sessions were:

– Presentation of Firefox OS: Stakes for innovation in Africa

– Localization of Mozilla products in African Languages: methods and tools

The opening ceremony on Sunday 3rd was an opportunity to meet all the members of MSAS and MaliWatch while we were waiting for officials to arrive. It was the Prime Minister of Mali himself, M Moussa Mara who was going to declare open the symposium. The members of MSAS come from the 5 continents, mostly the United States. They have almost all head about my coming to Bamako and everybody seemed to know me already. That was a great feeling and I was ready to give the best I could to meet expectations. In their letter of invitation, the MSAS also expressed the desire to see Mozilla initiate Webmaker events and related projects in every city in Mali. “We encourage you to emphasize collaborative opportunities with schools and media outlets… and partner with educational institutions in Mali”, they wrote.

Officials started to arrive when security was tightened suddenly. Civilians and military police from the Primature (PM office) were in every corner of the Centre International de Conférence de Bamako (CICB), the huge venue the symposium was held in. The CICB is very famous as everybody in Bamako seemed to know where it was, especially taxi drivers. Don’t try to guess why! Finally, all officials were there except the PM as protocol has to be strictly respected. He was going to be their last, and leave first! I was sitting behind the Mayor of Bamako 3rd District. Next to him other ministers and former ministers were facing the stage where the Minister of Higher Education and Research was already sitting along with the young Minister of Mines.

Many officials spoke after the PM arrived and he was the last to speak. He stressed the importance of the event for the government, and promised they will do their best to help MSAS and assist in every way possible. Then he declared the symposium open in a huge round of applause… He did not go back to his seat; it was time for him to leave. To my surprise he came towards us and shook hand with the Mayor, the he looked at me while I stood up and I shook his hand firmly with a big smile that was slightly exaggerated. I am not the kind of person that gets impressed by anyone, but it was kind of cool to say I shook PM hand.

I asked the PM if I could take a picture with him. He said no problem. Then I told him about me and why I was there. He said “you should come to the office so we can talk. I am interested…”. I grabbed the card he was handing to me and we shook hands again. Then my Keon alarm went off, louder than ever… 7:30 AM! I have been dreaming. Yes, PM sure shook my hand but he went on shaking hands with others and left immediately. Jesus Christ that dream was quite real. Let me check my camera to be sure I took a picture with him… Hummm, nothing. Whatever…

As soon as I had breakfast at the hotel, I went downstairs where we were collected every morning to go the venue. Tuesday 5th was my big day: Webmaker training in the morning and Maker Party in the evening. We held the training at the Digital Campus (Campus Numérique) at the University of Bamako. More than forty people attended the training but we only had twenty computers and many also had their laptops. The training was really exciting as many of the participants have never heard about Webmaker before. So they were all excited and so eager to learn. Although we had connection issues, I think most of them actually got a good grasp of what Webmaker is and how to use the tools.

In the afternoon, I proposed to hack the movie poster make on Thimble as a start. But they had to use local languages and replace everything with local names: actors, newspapers, the title of the movie etc… That was a big challenge for those who cannot write local languages. Yes, the Malian educational system, like many other countries is dominated by French, which nobody uses in real life in communication. I taught them a few writing basics as most African languages share the same alphabet with a few differences from one to another. Most of them actually finished their work but those who had connection issues were frustrated. I told them that it’s never too late anyway with Webmaker; you can always carry on another day with your saved make. But since they have not been able to create an account, they will have to start from scratch. So I urged them to take notes instead so they won’t lose twice…

The day was long and tiring but we were happy with what we’ve been doing. We left the room and took dozens of pictures. Many wanted to have a photo with me and I was happy to smile and say cheese every time…

On Thursday, I had the chance to present Firefox OS at the plenary session, which is a great advantage is it is the biggest room of the venue. And the majority of people attending will want to say there for Firefox OS, my beautiful eyes or the air conditioning… I was lucky Arky was in Bamako. He helped a lot during the Webmaker event, but I was expecting even more help from him as he has a lot of expertise that would be really useful. As my presentation was in French, I invited him on stage and we did everything together, with me translating what he said and also questions put to him by the audience. The presentation focused mainly on why Firefox OS is a breakthrough and what does that mean for African countries and the emerging world. Moreover, I wanted them to actually see the whole ecosystem around Firefox OS and why it was going to be easier to build apps thus the importance of learning to code with Webmaker.

The best part of the presentation was that we had a number of devices to show the audience. I had my two Keons. Arky had every Firefox OS device you could think of, including the gorgeous inFocus tablet that I was discovering myself. I had seen one in Mountain View a few weeks back but I was bricked and could not be powered! We invited people to come and have a look, touch and see for themselves what Firefox OS looked like and how it felt to see a new OS for the first time. Some were really excited to learn from me that they were no less than the first humans in history to see Firefox OS! And yes, it was true.

We had to stop the session because we exceeded to time given due to questions coming from every corner of the venue. We also talked about localization and the possibility to have many programs in local languages including the new OS. Arky would answer to more technical questions and I translated into French. His presence was more than crucial as you know how willing he is to always assist and mentor. He cannot possibly be thanked enough!

At the end of the session, many people who participated in the Webmaker event had told the organizers that were left a bit hungry for more and they needed another Webmaker session. I told the MSAS that I will come back especially for that. But they said they would like two or three more hours of Webmaker before I go back home… After consulting a few people, I agreed and we decided to have a session on Saturday morning for two hours and a half, i.e from ten to twelve thirty. The session was going to be held at JokkoLabs with is a kind of hacker space present in countries like Senegal or Burkina Faso. At the space, we had a projector, power and Wi-Fi for free and we would like to thank JokkoLabs for hosting the session.

The Saturday event was great. Wi-Fi was not perfect but many could actually create accounts on and start hacking. It went on for three hours and we took that opportunity to declare that this group was going to become Mozilla Mali. We appointed a few people to follow up on this and to prepare the formal creation of Mozilla Mali in the nearest future possible. I would come back to attend such a historic event of course.

We were lucky to have a crew from Africable TV, a pan African TV channel based in Bamako and present in Africa, Europe and the United Stated. Actually I was contacted by the producer of show name KOIDE9 ( a play with words that means “What’s new?”). He proposed to interview me at the hotel on Friday. I accepted and during the interview, I told him about the extra session at JokkoLabs. He was excited and said he would participate and also shoot for his show on Africable. I asked him to wait till I am back in France to air the show so I can alert many people. It is going to be one Friday at six thirty PM.

Then I had an interview with Colin Baker from “The Economist”, and that interview was aired on Friday 5th September on BBC World Service’s “Tech Tent” ( I also met with the Fulah community in Mali and we had a great talk. They told me how thrilled they were to see Firefox OS in Fulah language. And by the way, they have very old feature phones that are much too outdated. That’s why they insisted I took pictures of their “ugly” phones to urge Mozilla to step up the deployment of Firefox OS in African, particularly in Mali…

Ibrahima Sarr

Mozilla Rep

Le Havre, France

[Viiew all on Fickr page]

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