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Preserving the cultural heritage with diplomacy

Marionettes de Mali - Carine Ouvry- Bormans

By Alexandra Paucescu

What happens when a historian starts travelling the world with her diplomat husband?

It’s simple, she tries to find ways to use her knowledge by helping others and by preserving beautiful local traditions from the places around the world where life takes her.

Belgian Carine Ouvry- Bormans studied history and wanted to become a teacher, but then she married a diplomat, moved abroad and soon became an expert by experience in moving from one country to the other.

‘I lived as an expat partner in Kuwait, Vienna, Paris, Geneva, Nairobi, Kinshasa and now in Bamako, the capital of  Mali.  It is difficult to say which one is closest to my heart. However, I noticed that the countries where I was most active and involved into the local life were the ones closest to my heart. But honestly, I’ve found it most difficult to leave Paris and Nairobi.’

She tells me that between diplomatic postings, she worked as a specialised trainer for expats and their partners, in the Human Resources department of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of course, when you live a nomadic life for so long, you have the knowledge and wisdom that can be shared with others, who are still at the beginning. This naturally also led to a great project, which she undertook with her friend, Marie Geukens. Together they wrote and published “Expat Partner. Staying Active and Finding Work”, a book showing ways to stay professionally active while abroad (also available in Dutch).  

Yaya Coulibaly, Director of “La companie Sogolon” and Carine Ouvry- Bormans.

But teaching remained her greatest passion. ‘In every country where I lived, I got involved in one or more local projects as I noticed that this is very important also for my adaptation process.  It is not always easy though… The first year of posting in Bamako for example, I had to stay behind in Belgium, because of Covid.  I moved to Bamako after one year but I did not see many opportunities at first. One day I visited “La companie Sogolon”, a local theater, and met its director, Yaya Coulibaly. He was looking for support for making the archives of their ‘Marionnettes de Mali’.  As a historian, archives are very familiar to me and I knew immediately that this was my challenge!’ she says, enthusiastically.  

Because of her excellent relations with the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium, she received great guidance on this project and also managed to get in touch with two other museums, La maison de la marionette in Tournai, and Het huis van Alijn in her home town Ghent, to find out how to start archiving a collection of 24.000 beautiful but sometimes very ancient puppets in a dusty, chaotic environment.

Marionettes de Mali – Carine Ouvry- Bormans

It was imperative to preserve them also for future generations.  As the size of this project was enormous, she looked for and found  other volunteers in the expat community. They are all equally motivated and, twice a week, help her with tagging, measurements, photos and registration of all the puppets, while interviewing and recording the director‘s explanations, as he is ‘ a living library of Malian and African culture’.  Yaya has travelled the world with his puppets. It is a very old tradition in Mali and he loves his enormous collection. 

She proudly tells me that they are currently at puppet number 607! 

The puppet theatre travelled to Paris in March, on the invitation of  ‘Le Lavoir Moderne Parisien’ and Graines de Soleil. They were also in Brussels, last December (https://www.facebook.com/2247138438684076/videos/305850634790535).

Carine tells me that this project in Mali helped her lot to adapt to her new country of residence.  Interacting with people from so many different backgrounds has made her a much richer person and while the security situation there doesn’t allow her to travel outside of Bamako, just  by listening of Yaya Coulibaly’s testimonies, she succeeded to find out more about the very rich history and culture of the country.  ‘This way, culture comes to me’, she says. ‘By working with Yaya Coulibaly I became much more aware of the way society is a key factor in the roles we play.  He has four different categories of puppets and one of them is made of puppets that represent specific roles into the Mandé society (a mother, a godmother, a king,  a queen, a mayor, a soldier, a wise man, a storyteller, a fisherman, a farmer and so on).  

Marionettes de Mali. Carine Ouvry- Bormans

She also tells me that she is grateful for the diplomatic community, always supportive. ‘It feels sometimes like a family, as you don’t choose each other. It is there for you and you are part of it.  You help each other when needed, you share a time in your life together and then you move on to the next destination’.

That is maybe why this experienced and wise woman told me her life motto is to ‘be open to all new experiences and learn how to see things from a different angle – there is never one single viewpoint, so be curious and engage with people!’

Good advice for us all.

About the author:

Alexandra Paucescu

Alexandra Paucescu- Author of “Just a Diplomatic Spouse” Romanian, management graduate with a Master in business, cultural diplomacy and international relations studies.

She speaks Romanian, English, French, German and Italian,  gives lectures on intercultural communication and is an active NGO volunteer.

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