Chinese candidate a Shanghai surprise in Mali polls

Chinese candidate a Shanghai surprise in Mali polls

SEGOU, Mali - Unassuming and affable, election candidate Astan Coulibaly would be unremarkable on the campaign trail in Mali, except that as a Chinese national she has been hailed as an embodiment of racial harmony in the fractured west African nation.

The 54-year-old, born Yu Hong Wei in the eastern Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, is competing for a constituency in the city of Segou, 230 kilometres (145 miles) northeast of Malian capital Bamako, in the November 24 parliamentary election.

Now a naturalised Malian, she is thought to be the first Asian - or at least one of the first - to go into politics in Mali, a claim which cannot easily be verified in a country whose historical borders have shifted as much as its politics.

In an election involving more than 1,000 candidates vying for 147 seats in Mali's national assembly, Coulibaly's candidacy is undeniably unique.

In Segou, the historic capital of the Bambara Empire and the cradle of the Coulibaly dynasty of kings in the 17th and 18th centuries, no resident claims to know of an Asian ever standing for a seat in parliament.

"I've been in Segou with my husband since 1982," Coulibaly told AFP in fluent Bambara, Mali's lingua franca.

"I have only ever lived here. This is why I want to help our town and our children to get out of poverty."

A 23-year-old ingenue when she arrived in the early 1980s, Coulibaly was welcomed in a country largely at peace with itself after a period of political turmoil and several coup attempts.

But today the nation is a melting pot of rival ethnic groups and tensions between the communities intensified during a 10-month Islamist occupation ended by a French-led military intervention launched in January.

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