A'Mazing Mali

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May 2nd 2006
Published: June 23rd 2017
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Geo: 12.653, -7.9864

After receiving our Malian visa in Dakar, we opted to take a flight (2 hours) rather than take a bus (2 days journey) from Dakar to Bamako, Mali. Reports from those who took the weekly train to Mali were also discouraging - one party got off and took a cab after 50 hours!

Bamako, both the capital and largest city in Mali is a dusty sprawl of 45 square km and home to over one million people. Two words can sum up our first impressions of Mali, "hot and dusty." We arrived at the end of the tourist season where temps rise to over 110 degrees each day. It is like being in Arizona in the summer time - yet there are no air-conditioned buildings where one can take refuge.

In order to avoid a repeat of the Dakar accommodations (reminder: "women of immoral purpitude"😉, we went to the other end of the spectrum and stayed in the Catholic Mission's hostel, run by Columbian nuns where we slept with a picture of a black Jesus on a cross looking down on us. Mali is another French-only country; imagine Jamie's delight when the Latin American nun at the hostel spoke to her in Spanish which Jamie is conversant.

Here in Mali, it can take one solid week to travel 250 miles, due to road and vehicle conditions as well as infrequency of public transport. Worse, many places can only be traversed with a four-wheeled drive vehicle. That, together with the fact that our French vocabulary consisted of "Bonjour," "Merci," and Jamie's Ballet vocab, meant that we had to swallow our pride as independent travelers and hire a car, a driver and a guide to take us across Mali. With our own transport, we could see a lot more of the country in less time. We met with Hama and Mody; two guides recommended to us and hashed out a 12-day itinerary for a tour of Mali. All the guide books recommend hiring guides for certain regions, so that is what we did. Basically, by having a guide we could learn more about local traditions and ways of life.

The only problem that arose, which took creativity to solve, was when it came time to pay Mody and Hama. Mali is simply not equipped to accept any credit cards, and the ATMs that do exist only take local bank cards. We couldn't do cash advances on credit cards (the one bank in the country that does them was closed for a few weeks). Coming from India, where the computer technology is everywhere, it was a real reminder that basic business tools and processes still haven't made it to the world's poorest nations.

One highlight for us was going to listen to live Malian music. We are fond of African music and we were taken to a night club where we heard a famous kora player, Touomani Diabaté, play with his band. The kora is a string instrument made out of a gourd that is then covered with skin. For those of you who will come to our home in Portland, you will find that you will also soon become familiar with African music!

The afternoon of our second day in Bamako we were driving along, and saw an extremely disturbing sight. Traffic came to a sudden halt in front of us on one of the main roads out of town. A big bus was in front of us blocking the view and a big crowd was gathering around the bus. Mody, our new friend, got out of the car to see what happened. Suddenly, the mob of people standing around scattered like a school of fish. They started running towards us, and we could see huge rocks flying through the air towards us. Our hearts raced as we wondered what was going on. Was it a riot? Should we get out of the car and run away?

Luckily, Mody came back, jumped in the car, and put it in reverse - fishtailing backwards like all the other cars. As the cars and bus cleared away, we could see people trying to destroy a minivan (the local mass transit here) with rocks and old oil drums. Mody told us that the driver of the van had just hit and killed a small boy in the street. He said that the locals don't trust the Malian justice system to look into the matter and resolve it. Passerbys prefer the expediency and finality of vigilante justice. This means, they kill the offending driver, and set the vehicle on fire. Mody told us that most of these local "bus" drivers don't have licenses and are dangerous. The crowd didn't wait to find out who was at fault (did the boy step out in front of the moving vehicle to cross the street?), they just assumed the driver was at fault and, therefore, should be killed. As we passed the van on the other side of the median (driving against traffic), we saw the dented shell of the vehicle and people working to destroy it. It was an incredibly frightening thing for us to see, given that we come from a world where people are innocent until proven guilty. Jamie wondered if any of those people who where throwing rocks had given any thought to what it would be like for them if they were the driver that day. Would they have minded being stoned to death by a mob? Justin surmised that given the difficulty of getting anything done in such an impoverished society like this one, people seize any chance they have to "solve" a problem (however unjust it may be). This is a reminder for us how different the world can be, and that everyone's definition of justice is different.

Departing Bamako, for the largest town on the Sahel (the part of Africa just below the Sahara Desert), Djenne, gave us a good impression of how isolated and desolate life in Mali can be. Being here in the dry season, things are quite brown. We are told that during the rains, green appears everywhere. It was a hard sight to imagine. As we drove across country, we passed by village after village sprouting up from what seemed like uninhabitable lands. Yet we say many people walking with their products to a far off village market. These are places where a quick trip to the supermarket is not a reality given distances and the price of gas (~$4-5 a gallon...huge given the average wage). We passed by villages that seemed to have no people: maybe they were in their homes hiding from the heat? After 9-hours of driving in a non-air-conditioned car (but with very cool Malian music on the tape deck), we arrived in Djenne, a town on the Bani river - which is only a river during the rainy season; now the parchment-dry riverbed seemed scorched earth. Yet we saw kids with fishing baskets on their way to catching fish somewhere.

Djenne was founded in 800 AD and in the 13th century, became Muslim under the Mali Empire. Given its proximity to the Niger River, it was a major way station for the gold, ivory, and lead being transported to the Mediterranean by way of Timbuktu. The town's center point is the Grande Mosque, which fixes Djenne as the center of Islam in Mali. Djenne is home to 16,000 Fulani and Bozo tribes people. We are not joking, Bozos do exist in this world and they traditionally catch fish (Tell that to your angler friends!).

This city is every 5-year old's dream: the entire city is made out of mud and straw baked hard by the sun. Essentially, the town closely resembles every sand castle you ever built at the beach...ahem...as a child, of course!

Actually, the town is also known for the "Sudanic" style of architecture (see photos). Some structures that were built in the early 1900's, like the mosque, are still standing. People of all faiths were allowed entrance into the mosque until 1995 when, sadly, an Italian television company (Barbara, we hope this wasn't your company) desecrated the site by filming a commercial of swimsuit clad models in the sanctuary. Thereafter, only Muslims are allowed entry.

But it gets better: every year, a new layer of mud has to be applied to the houses and buildings (because the rains wear on the surface previously applied). This chore is made into a celebration where the entire town comes out to put a new layer of mud on the mosque. Indeed, as we were going through Senossa, a village near Djenne, we came upon a crowd of townspeople smearing new mud on the local mosque (see pictures) as well as each other. There was a festive spirit in the stifling air as people clambered over ladders to daub a dark grey mixture on the walls.

Splat! Justin felt the thump of a big mud clod on his back and heard squeals as a gang of kids ran away. Apparently, they felt he wasn't in the spirit of the day because he was too clean! Luckily, they spared Jamie.

Here we also picked up our guide for the remainder of our trip - Bahamadau. Yet, we were staying in our friend Mody's home in Djenne. We had a room on the 2nd floor and it is made out of mud. The conditions are very basic and very tidy...yet you lean against the wall and dirt rubs off on you. Justin called it our 3-room suite (yet it was not like the suite Jamie got us into in Portugal). There is a main room, a storage room to one side and on the other side, a room that has a wall with a hole where we can bathe from a bucket. While taking sponge baths, we've noted that when wet, room gives off the aroma of damp earth. All toilets in Djenne are on the 2nd floors of the houses with a drain leading out to a tank in the walkway below. We're told they scoop out the drain's septic tank every two years and use the material as fertilizer.

Because it is incredibly hot here, we slept on mattress pads on the roof, under the stars and to the songs of the bleating goats (Jamie has become quite fond of the goats). We woke up to the "thump-thump" sounds of women pounding millet in the big mortars and the roosters with their built in alarm clocks.

It seems that the houses don't have any furniture beyond some low stools and maybe a mattress to sleep on. Things are simple and basic, reminding us how full life can be without so much stuff.

We've noted that perhaps life here is dictated by the extreme heat, at least in the "hot season" (now) when, we're told, it averages 107 degrees F· (42 C·😉 in the day. We are moving s-l-o-w-l-y, especially when it gets to be 111 degrees F·, and taking in plenty of water and salt to prevent dehydration. Since bottled water is expensive here, we are purifying (chlorine or iodine treatment) the 2.5 gallons we are drinking each day.

Walking around the narrow alleys of this termite mound-like town has provoked a few observations:

First, the t-shirts. It seems like every other person is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with vaguely familiar slogans like "Make-a-Wish Foundation Annual Tennis Tourney" or "Wilkinson Family Reunion." Since it is quite doubtful that many people in Mali play tennis, have the family name of "Wilkinson," how did they get a hold of them? If a warm, fuzzy feeling washes over you as you think "Western charities," you're only partly right. People buy these clothes from consolidators here who get a hold of the garments in bulk after they are sent by American churches and other non-profits. We can't help but wonder what well-meaning, church-goin' folks back home would think if they knew about the commercial route their charitable donations had taken.

Second, as we walk around with Bahamadau, our guide and translator extraordinaire, we constantly run into people he knows. The interaction always provokes a rapid-fire exchange of pleasantries of a length that far exceeds our usual "Hello, How are you doing?" We asked him about this and he said the exchange goes like this, "Hello, How are you? How are you feeling? How are your parents? How is your wife? How are the cows? How are the goats? How are the children?" It sounds beautifully sing-songy when done in Bambara, the local language. People are often twenty feet away from each other when they finish. Folks run through the entire sequence, especially in the part of Mali we visited next - Dogon country.

Up until the end of the colonial era, the Dogon were one of the African peoples who had most successfully retained their identity, culture, and way of life. Part of this is due to their extreme isolation - an inhospitable area on the edge of the Sahara desert. Dogon villages are carved into and built along the "Bandiagara Escarpment" a 200km long wall of sandstone created by the earth's tectonic movements during prehistoric times. Resisting Islam, even to this day, they continue to practice their animist religion from within cliffside villages.

After many hours of driving from Djenne that included a spell on dirt roads, we arrived in Dogan Country, at the peripheral village of Sanga. As we trundled towards Sanga, groups of young boys shaking rattles at us came into view. Bahamadau explained that every three years in Dogon country, a mass-circumcism ceremony is conducted for all young men between 9-12 years of age. Before this manhood ceremony, the boys solicit money and gifts from passerbys. Immediately after the mass circumcision procedure, the group runs a three kilometer race and the winner is presented with his choice of a bushel of millet; the second runner up gets cows; and the guy in third gets the wife of his choice! (Note the order!) If you ask Justin, running in 110 degree F heat after having that happen to you automatically qualifies you for manhood!!! Also important to note, this area of Africa still practices female circumcision. We dared not ask any women or even Bahamadau about this subject (though we know itis unfortunately pervasive throughout this region).

When we got to the village of Sanga, we picked up a Dogon translator as Bahamadau does not know any of the 160 village dialects. It was interesting at first, but later tedious, to have the guide translate from a Dogon tongue to French and then have Bahamadau translate it from French to English. The translator was also the required guide to the individual Dogon villages, which in the last few years have bravely opened their previously isolated communities up to tourism.

Certainly, Dogon villages became accessible to tourists for the economic benefit. Tourists, through the guides, pay the village chiefs a per-head fee when they visit. That way, tourism benefits the entire village in a meaningful way (a new water well, or books for the village school). To us, this is a welcome change from the individual begging that accompanies most of our previous visits to indigenous communities.

In some ways, this trip through the villages, and two nights spent there seemed a bit voyeuristic. However, it gave us a clear sense of survival in its most basic form. Waking up one morning at 5am, Jamie watched the women fill their buckets at the communal well and then lift them on their heads to carry back up the rock hills to their homes. It made turning on a tap at our camp site seem like a pure luxury.

In the pictures, you can see some cliff-side dwellings. These were carved by the Tellum people who lived there before the Dogon. They very much reminded us of the homes of the Anasazi Native Americans in Arizona. The two peoples have different continents and cultures, but incredibly similar architectural styles.

In the Dogon villages, Bahamadau pointed out that that there always four specific places: one was the hut where women live each month while menstruating (as is the case in many African cultures, the Dogon believe that menstruation is dangerous to men), a hut where women store their personal possessions, and another larger building where the family grain supply is stored. We were told that the village women are not allowed in that building lest they see how low the grain supply is...

Finally, there is always an area where villagers conduct sacrifices to appease their god, Amma and other various and sundry spirits of their animist religion. The direct translation into English of this activity - a "fetish" - seems odd to us, but nonetheless, that's what it was. We could see an area in each village that was stained white - where millet beer was poured, and red - where chickens or goats were killed.

We were told that in return for retaining the traditional physical structure of Dogon village huts (mud and stick houses with millet straw roofs), villages gain UNESCO World Heritage status (United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization). This earns the villages badly needed money for water wells or schools. So if you think that your community's building codes are restrictive, at least your neighborhood doesn't restrict you only to housing materials and styles that were used in 1400 AD!

During our travels, we seem to have the good fortune of having our trip coincide with a local celebration. As tourists, we could have paid $20 per person to see a Dogon mask dance (this particular number is normally done at Dogon funerals). But we decided to skip this contrived show - after our experience in Sri Lanka with the bored looking dancers. Unbeknownst to us, we were in a village on market day where they were having a celebration of the surrounding villages. This meant we were treated to local drumming, singing and dancing. The scene was colorful, as the African clothing is anything but drab in color, and the enthusiasm of the villagers was encouraging. Life is hard here, but through this celebration, we got to peek into the good side of life - how they have fun here. It is these moments that often make a trip for us.

As we approached each village, huge groups of children came running out to greet us. In some nonspecific way, they epitomize the joy and sadness of our peeks into life in remote villages. In Bahamadau's home, we asked his wife where their 2-year old son was. Her reply: "he is out." When would you ever get a mother saying that in the US? Village life is safe and quiet, so the little kids take the even littler kids out with them, completely unsupervised by the parents. Everywhere, kids come and greet us by shouting "tu-bob" (white person). Some then take Jamie's hand and walk with her for several minutes.

The children's smiles and laughter are infectious and they are quite playful. On the other hand, the small but apparent number of distended stomachs, indicating malnutrition is heart wrenching. Mali has the 8th highest infant mortality rate in the world at 108 deaths per 1000. To give perspective, the US rate is 6 infant deaths per 1000. Because of this, as in many third world countries, people have many children. Children are also the social security system - they care for you when you are old.

We are constantly asked, through out India and Africa why we don't have children. Being married for 4-years and not having given birth is very uncommon and considered odd. Jamie has had several, generous, invitations to bring her baby to Africa after birth to learn how to rear a child. Maybe they know something we Westerners don't? We'll let you know if we take them up on their offers.

We ended three days of hiking from village to village by climbing up the steep escarpment. We were met by Bamana, our driver, who took us to the town of Mopti. In Mopti, we watched the sun set over the Niger River and had a beer at "Bar Le Bozo." Early the next morning, we started a punishing 120-mile trek across the desert in a Toyota Land Cruiser truck to Timbuktu.

As we were pulling out of Mopti, we met one of the country's many police road blocks. Previously, we passed unhindered, but not this time - the police motioned the driver to pull over, get out, and come inside the station. We could see the cops arguing with our new driver through the "window" - an unglassed cutout in the side of the mud brick hut. Oh great, we thought - the cops are going to fine us for something (since they see tourists in the car). As we waited, Bahamadau told us that the driver was trying to negotiate the "tea money" - bribe - we would have to pay. Finally, the driver came out and we took off. He reported that the police told him his driver's license only allowed him to transport vegetables, not tourists! Obviously, the police must have needed that caffeine to come up with a lame excuse like that. They actually gave the driver a receipt for the bribe of $1.85.

As we bounced around the desert trail to Timbuktu, we could see why four-wheel drive was essential. Yet, we were told, the route was usually much worse. Several days prior, the entire trail had been scraped relatively flat by bulldozers before for our 'ol buddy Mumar Quadafi, president of Libya, who had just made a visit to the fabled city.

Timbuktu provoked wildly contradictory feelings in us. On one hand, it has its alluring history (both real and definitely apocryphal) of being a fabled post on the trade route between the Middle East & Europe - through the Sahara Desert - to the riches (gold, ivory, spices, etc.) of sub-Saharan Africa. But after looking around a bit, one emotion it provoked in us was sadness. It is really destitute. We were told that the only industry it has - the main employer - is tourism. If this wasn't discouraging enough, the sands of Sahara desert are literally lapping at the edges of town. Despite a reforestation effort that has been going on in Africa for years, the desert gets closer all the time. Presumably, in our children's lifetime, the town will be swamped by sand.

In spite of the drabness and depressing nature of Timbuktu, one highlight for us was going out into the Sahara (50 meters from our hotel) each evening when the temperature finally dropped to the nineties. Jamie enjoyed making sand angels and running her fingers through the fine, silky white sand. As we climbed around the sand dunes, we could see camel trains led by blue cloth-shrouded Tureg nomads who were coming back through town from the Sahara. It is possible that the camels were carrying slabs of salt from Toudenni, about 700 km north of Timbuktu, deep inside the Sahara. This famous salt mine/penal colony once provided this crucial condiment to European royalty. Now the slabs are used as cattle salt licks and in local cooking. Justin now has a place name to add to his oft used (perhaps irritatingly so to others) aphorism about "working in the salt mines."

One and half days were quite enough to see Timbuktu, so we arouse at 4:30AM for the return to Mopti. This time, it was in a manner almost opposite the rough, bumpy way in which we arrived - a leisurely three-day boat ride down the Niger river.

At the crack of dawn, we started downstream in our small motorized pirogue - a narrow, but long traditional fishing boat. Besides Bahamadau, we also had the boat's crew: Umar (the captain/driver), Sila (the cook), and a third crewmember, Sala, who had a job title that kind of unsettled us. Justin quickly nicknamed him "Bail-boy." Sala's job was to constantly scoop water that leaked into the hold of the boat by using a cut-away Clorox bottle...for the entire three days. We hoped he was up to the job.

We quickly settled into a routine for the three days we were on the boat. We'd arise at 5AM and get on the river by 5:30 and spent the next 14-15 hours going down the river, enjoying the bird life, hippo sightings and village scenes. This was the end of the dry season in Mali, so the river was about 2-4 feet deep the whole way down. Sometimes we'd need to carefully follow the path of other boats, one-by-one, to avoid getting stuck on sandbars. After reading in the morning (Irvings's Son of the Circus for Jamie and Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong for Justin - both highly recommended), we'd have lunch of rice and fish that had been caught by Bozo fisherman on the river.

Throughout the day, children on other boats or on the shore would yell out in Bambara, "Tu-bob!" (White people) to us, and we'd yell back "Fara-fee" (Dark people) to them. The kids & some adults would then burst into peals of laughter. Also, we constantly came upon Bozo fisherman casting their nets into the river in hopes of catching fish. They'd do this from boats with sails made out of grain sacks. We can say in all seriousness that the river was full of Bozos.

In the afternoon, Bahamadau and Sila would join us for a mean game of "151," which is a Malian card game. Much to their chagrin, Jamie beat them several times over the trip. After lunch, Sila would serve up Malian tea in what looked like shot glasses. Essentially, the tea is made by constantly infusing and re-infusing green tea and sugar so that it is exceptionally sweet and strong. They serve this tea three times within a short period. Bahamadau told us that Malians say this: the first glass is "strong like death," the second, "Medium like life," and the third, "sweet like love."

Over the three days on the river, we spotted the 40-50 hippos (in groups of 3-5) taking shelter in the cool water with just their snouts and ears showing. Much to Justin's irritation, we never came upon a hippo that was completely out of the water so that he could
26 One of MANY Bozo Fishing Boats on Niger26 One of MANY Bozo Fishing Boats on Niger26 One of MANY Bozo Fishing Boats on Niger

Note sail made of grain sacks!
take a picture (maybe they thought he was the paparazzi?). Yet Justin wasn't about harass them to get out of the water to pose for a picture and say "fomage," mostly because that is mean (duh!), but also because hippos kill more people in Africa than any another animal; they get scared when people are between them and the safety of the water, and then maul folks. However, we did see some herons, egrets and kingfisher birds and, as we have throughout West Africa really cool lizards with an orange heads (see pictures)

At night, we'd pull over to camp on the side of the river - for three nights straight, the menu was pasta, couscous or rice and an indecipherable tomato sauce. With no city light for at least two hundred miles all around to dim them, the stars in the African sky were BRIGHT!

During our time on the river, we found out a bit more about Bahamadau: that he has never tasted ice cream; that is wife is giving birth to his third child in June (he's 32); and that he is personally quite religious - Islam. He says he never forgets to pray five times a day. He spoke at length about the ecumenical & tolerant nature of Malian society towards non-Muslims

We also noted how "wired" these guys were, along with the rest of W. Africa. They were always fiddling with their cell phones, and on the last night, we camped in a spot with cell reception: all four of them were chattering way with family and friends.

Certainly, mobile phones have altered the daily lives of people in developing countries much more profoundly than they have ours. For instance, with the advent of widespread cell phone use in the US, we all went from checking home/office answering machines for messages to the convenience of cell phone use. In contrast, they went from seeing only hearing from friends and family every few months to chatting with family while in the middle of a field in God-knows-where.

So arriving back on solid ground in the late afternoon of the third day, we went to take a much needed shower. We could have bathed in the river, but our public health minds made us skeptical of what was in there. After all, we had seen many cows and goats doing their thing in the rivers, not to mention all the people (our toilet on the boat was a hole right into the river). We opted to stay dirty and wait for a cold shower in a hotel.

So, we have decided that the best way to summarize our time in Mali is this: It is a country that is culturally, historically and visually fascinating, but emotionally it is depressing (for us). The desolation of the landscape definitely made us feel isolated (Timbuktu is definitely out there), but this was offset by the unabashed, genuine warmth we felt from Malian people. Despite the depressing aspect, we leave with a new found respect for the limits to which people go to eek out survival for themselves and their families.


9th November 2018

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