Archive for January, 2009

Mali #6: Mopti to Timbuktu…by P-nasty

January 30, 2009

After another night in Sevare, we headed up to Mopti (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mopti). Two people on the trip started the day off with epistaxis (bloody nose). DRY air everywhere. Mopti is know as the Venice of Mali. Why, I do not know since there are not canals entering the city. I did read that there are three islands connected by dykes, though. We started loading the pinasse, a canoe-like form of transport that Malians use to go up and down the Niger River that we would use for 3 days. We would be less packed in the pinasse than the typical one. And since the “bathroom” on the pinasse is essentially a make-shift outhouse with a bottom hole that goes into the river directly, with endearment we named the pinasse “P-nasty.”

P-nasty in Mopti

P-nasty in Mopti

P-nasty kitchen, our excellent cooks, with outhouse in the extreme background

P-nasty kitchen, our excellent cooks, with outhouse in the extreme background

Before we boarded, we first bought material for our turbans. These serve many functions and are worn by Tuaregs and other Malians – that is, they are not necessarily specific to one group of people. They protect from the sun, sand, and provide warmth at night when desert evening chills appear as the sun sets. As we started up the river, villages began to appear here and there, beautiful sand/adobe mosques standing as the distinguishing feature of many settlements. Peul, Bozo, and other groups dotted the shoreline every once in awhile. Since these groups are often semi-nomadic, both abandoned and new villages were present. Distinctive architecture and clothing helped Jean identify which groups lived at some sites.

Abobe mosque in small riverside village

Abobe mosque in small riverside village

 

We left the boat later on in the day to buy some chickens from a Peul village on the shoreline at one point. Extremely poor, the residents showed some curiosity and skepticism towards us, understandably. We saw how fish is prepared there (mostly in dried form), and Jess fielded medical questions in French once people found out that she was working in Bandiagara as a medical student.  

We often passed fishermen as we traveled upstream. Since a motor is a luxury, our presence rarely went by unnoticed. I noticed only one motorboat that was not on a pinasse during the three day trip. At one point, we bought fish for our dinner from some fishermen right on the river. The capitaine (fish) here had been superb so far; however, it was hard not to think about what was actually in the water that the fish consumed. I was reading about the amount of human waste in the water and telling Jenn about this. She told me to look to the cooking area of the pinasse where the cooks were bringing in water from outside the boat. For cooking perhaps? Phew, no, we later found out as we watched where it later went – not the stew pot.

Stopping at a Peul village

Stopping at a Peul village

The sunset came as some of us sat on the boat’s roof while trying to get across Lac Debo before dark. The ashen, charcoal sky of the east took over the heavens as the sun bid us good night…and good luck since we were now stranded. The boat’s motor went caput! Now what would a trip be without a broken motor in the middle of a lake in a rather remote part of the world? Watching the sunset and fishermen brought peace to the uncertainty.

Fishermen on Lac Debo at twilight

Fishermen on Lac Debo at twilight

 

 

Head lamps came out and card games began. The sound of another boat, our savior for the evening, approached at one point hours later. Merci! We arrived at a shore around midnight, our guides set up the tents for us, and we fell asleep to the sounds of Malian music on the radio of another fishing boat docked nearby. We needed to get up in less than 5 hours to get an early start on the water.

 Sunset on Niger River

 We spent all of January 6th on the water. A nap on the top of the pinasse was a nice highlight to my day. Although warm and mostly sunny, a breeze kept me needing a sweater comfortably all day. As we continued north, we saw less trees and more sand. At one point a hippo spouted some water and startled us. Maybe we shouldn’t have been though – “Mali” means “hippo” after all. We stopped in the town of Niafunke briefly, the first sizable town we saw since we left Mopti. Staying overnight on a random shore, we went to bed early in anticipation for a 4AM wake up call for the home stretch to Timbuktu port.  

 

We couldn’t leave until 5:30AM because it was so dark, the darkness obfuscating the rocks dangerous to the pinasse. We simply slept on the boat in the meantime. Motor troubles appeared again, probably due to tainted gas, so we stopped at Dire to get more.

Children at the port of Dire

Children at the port of Dire

 

 

I sat on the roof and pondered the immense, sparse landscape extending out from either shore. Apropos the moment, Coldplay’s “Viva la vida” came on my iShuffle as I sat alone on the roof. There is a part of it towards the end of the song that I think captures the expansiveness of the desert as a distant voice echoes behind lavish, sweeping tones like a shifting sand dune. I gave a smile, did a sweeping 360 of the world around me, and took another nap. Breezy Niger joy

 

We arrived at the port for Timbuktu, the city of legend in the Western mind. “To Timbuktu and back” they say. Half as much was true so far. The port had a rough-edged feel to it not unlike ports the world over. Les pinasses lined the bank as travelers and tourists had arrived in the largest drove Timbuktu sees this time every year. And there at the top of the port was a lone, ostensibly random, unexpressive Tuareg man, foreboding to me in stature. I made a comment to Jen, something to the effect of “Yikes. I wouldn’t want to see him mad.” Needless to say Mohamed later became a quick friend and was our host and guide for Timbuktu and Festival au desert in Essakane. 

Camel time outside of Timbuktu (me)

Camel time outside of Timbuktu (me)

 

After passing through the gates at the entrance Timbuktu by car, we exited the town shortly thereafter and met our camel rides to Taochouk (spelling probably incorrect), a dispersed area of about 1000 Tuaregs a few kilometers in the desert outside Timbuktu. A beautiful desert sunset of orange, pink, and lavender hues enchanted us as we humped along the camels for a half-hour or so, laughing all the while. Tuareg children with beautiful blends of North African features led the camels along with some Tuareg men.

Tuareg boy

Tuareg boy

This was only the beginning of an unforgettable Tuareg immersion…

Mohamed and two young Tuaregs in his family

Pre-camel departure: Mohamed and two young Tuaregs in his family

   

Mali #5: Pays Dogon

January 22, 2009

We left Sevare for a day trip to Pays Dogon– Dogon country. We exited Sevare on the back roads to avoid  the police (fear of bribe demands). First we visited Bandiagara, the unofficial “onion capital of the world,” where Jess had just finished a four-month stint for her research project on severe malaria. We visited the site of the Bandiagara Malaria Project and received a short tour while Jess picked up some supplies.

Jess and her coworker, a nurse

Jess and her coworker, a nurse

The air in this part of country – dusty, red, almost suffocating as one drives.  Gnarly trees look at you letting you know that they have seen dry earth, felt the scratchy, strong winds filled with sand and grit. Kids smile calling out tubab, the Malian version of East Africa’s muzungu directed towards foreigners. Occasionally we saw adolescents of children playing foosball on tables roadside or off in the distance. Entering closer to Sanga we passed a dry river bed that in the short rainy season floods over the road creating a transportation barrier. The first thing we saw when we entered Sanga was a “fetish” of which pictures could be respectfully taken, it representing a welcoming to guests.

Hogon of Sanga at his home

Hogon of Sanga at his home

Before going into the various Dogon villages we visited let me give you a brief, hopefully accurate, account of Dogon country. The escarpment where Dogon country populates is 235km long stretching from Bandiagara to Douentza. On a clear day, one can see Burkina Faso (60km eastward) from its edges.

The Tellem people came to the plateau/escarpment around the third century before the common era. They are described as a pygmoid people and were short in stature. Their livelihood consisted of hunting and cultivation. When the Dogon arrived from Mande (near present day Bamako), the Tellem fled to Burkina Faso, Dogon legend being that the Tellem fled in the form of wind. Now some Dogon are believed to have this power.

The Tellem buried their dead in caves in the cliffs of the falaise(escarpment), a feat to be sure when you see these caves. The Dogon continue to do this with a rope and lever process with the aid of some risk-takers who climb the cliffs. Of note, the Dogon homes in some way represent the style the Tellem left before them.

Tellem caves and village

Tellem caves and village

The Peul people attack the Dogon (I believe around the 1300s). Given that Peul were more hunters by practice compared to the Dogon agriculturalists, the defeat was rather swift. The Peul brought Islam to the Dogon and many converted, but many Dogon fled to the plateau from the plains and cliffs and had more autonomy.

Today about 35,000 Dogon people live in Pays Dogon. Depending on who I heard the story from or what I read, tradition relays that there are 4 or 8 Dogon ancestors leading to the present day groups of Dogon. God chose the hogon, the Dogon leader, a descendant of the ancestors of the arrow. The hogon represents the living after the dead and serves as an intermediary between them as the life of the living depends on their relationship with the dead.

From lunchtop roof in Tireli

From lunchtop roof in Tireli

Many features of the hogon make him unique. The hogon is licked by the snake every night (Lebe cult) and does not need cleaning. His family is the sacred family and now they mostly live in the cliffs, because they cannot live among the regular people. Yet, they can visit the villages during the day. Typically he is the oldest man in the village and inherits the position in this way.

In Dogon country, women do all the work while the men drink tea and sit. We witnessed this in each village we visited. Some very few women are considered to inherit sorceress powers matrilinearly, and they have unique standing. Women are allowed to have a private plot of land to do with what they wish, but only after they finish their work as determined by the male chief of a particular family clan. (The chief of the family unit and subunits is the final decision-maker in a family, deciding things like work schedules and duties, when to eat, etc. He can be a grandfather or uncle, etc.) Tying in to women’s roles in the Dogon community is the legend of the mask.

Dance of the Mask - Tireli

Dance of the Mask - Tireli

Dogon are known for their masks and the Mask Dance. The story goes something like this. Once a Dogon woman found a mask one day while out on the field. Laying on an anthill and surrounded by birds circles the hill, she picked it up and hid it in her granary and used it to scare people as needed. Well, the men did not like this! One day while the woman was out working, a group of men (the ones who drink tea and sit around) stole it from her granary. Now owning it, it became a representation of a form of women’s subservience to men and hence a form of gender subjugation.

More Dance of the Mask - Tireli

More Dance of the Mask - Tireli

Technically, a “sister of the mask” can wear one of the designated masks representing women, but this role is now fulfilled by a man during the Mask Dance. In my pictures, the “sister of the mask” is represented by a mask with a woman holding spoons.

We walked around Sanga and met the hogon of this village. (Not all villages have hogons. If they are still practicing African Traditional Religion, then a hogon will be present. Predominantly Christian or Muslim villages will manifest animism in architecture or behind closed doors we were told.) At first we were not supposed to talk to him (except Jean our Dogon guide could) and were not to take pictures yet. Because he is considered sacred, no one can touch him. (No handshakes or slaps on the back.) As a gift, we gave him kola nuts, which are a typical, necessary action.

The house of the hogon (associated with the cult of Lebe in Sanga) serves as a conduit as the spirits of the dead come in and communicate with him. The white splashes you see on the house are made from gruel made from millet leaves. After introductions we could take pictures after some exchanges with Jean and him took place.

Next, the togona was explained to us. It is a meeting place for men and has a low roof so that if men get angry and rise up they hit their heads on the ceiling. Supposedly this diffuses anger and replaces it with pain. Tradition has it that any man who rises in anger will die within a year. The height of the togona represents different things, and I didn’t collect the same answer from everyone. However, one interpretation described 3 layers of grain leaves representing masculinity. It may also mean harvest years depending on the height or the village’s approach to representation.

We walked through Sanga, past the menstruation huts, and along the escarpment ridge. The menstruation huts house women during their periods, reason being that they are considered “dirty” then. Incidentally, it is a time for women to take reprieve from their harsh daily activities. There are secret rites associated with the huts and only the women in our group could visit the huts.

We had a stunning climb down a path cutting through the escarpment down to the village of Banini. We drove onwards to Tireli, passing through Ireli. We saw Peul and Dogon farmers along the way. At Tireli, Jean’s birthplace, we stopped for lunch and tried local millet beer from an empty calabash. The view from the table was beautiful. Afterwards, we saw a Dance of the Mask, which Jess asked for when designing our itinerary.

I cannot post the videos I took but the masks each have a story and tradition. These include the masks of the bird, ram, hyena, antelope, deer, goiter (you read that right), priest, water,  police, young women, and the servants of the mask (represented by women giving water to the mask). The mask of the tall (name not known) represents the building of edifices in Dogon country. A famous mask, Kanaga mask (and associated head sweeping action), represents the sky and earth meeting to join.

We left Tireli before sunset and we drove back up a less steep portion of the escarpment, the sun painting the eastern dunes rust and eastern sky lavender. I took note of the unique terrain as we passed Dogon and Peul on charettes while we continued back to Sevare for a night’s rest.

Jenn

Escarpment near sunset by: Jenn

My recapitulation of Dogon culture is amateur and only partially verified, though much of it came from our Dogon guide. For those with a penchant for anthropology, go here for an introduction to these and other facets of Dogon culture I didn’t even mention: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogon.

With rapid information exchange in the 21st century version of globalization and religious changes, we saw Dogon culture amidst rapid generational change and rupture. More on that  in a subsequent post when I write about parallel conversations with Tuaregs.

Sanga with women pounding millet

Sanga with women pounding millet

Mali #4: Bamako–>Segou–>Sevare

January 19, 2009

On January 3 we started the long journey to Sevare.

Loading one of the two 4x4s in Bamako

Loading one of the two 4x4s in Bamako

We hopped into our 4x4s and headed out of Bamako, seeing its largest building, a bank mimicking an adobe architectural pattern seen throughout the country. One our drivers had an exchange with a police officer that created a traffic jam. All I know is that our driver left the car, created another jam, and yelled at the officer to give him his license back. Bribe involved? I will never know!

Tallest building in Bamako

Tallest building in Bamako

We stopped for lunch at the Hotel l’Esplanade in Segou, a large town on the Niger River.

Lunch at Hotel l'Esplanade

Lunch at Hotel l'Esplanade

Right next to our hotel residents of Segou were washing their clothes with river water.

Cleaning at the Niger River bank at Segou

Cleaning at the Niger River bank at Segou

As we passed small towns on the roadside throughout the day on the only major paved road heading north, I noticed children running, sleepy towns with no one out, and extremely tiny mosques. These mosques reminded me of clapboard churches in rural northern Wisconsin or Minnesota, structures worn by time where tradition lingers in even the tiniest of places. Mali is the first place with a predominating architecture of this sort I have seen. (Other parts of East Africa where I have traveled or Ghana have distinctly different architecture.)

 

The charettes on the roadside always brought me a smile. One website defines charettes as “wooden carts pulled by sad, bony horses or donkeys.” Throughout the trip, charettes definitely outnumbered cars if I was to count the mode of transportation of people on the roads. Police and tolls were present on the highway, but we proceeded without incident. A good thing, because our passports were with a head tour guide to get a month-long visa which we couldn’t get before we left Bamako due to office closings for the holidays.

 

I learned from Jean that the granaries in the villages as seen from the side of the roads were granaries. Traditionally, they have to be filled before a man can marry additional wives.

 

We arrived in Sevare late at night and stayed at a quaint, clean, basic hotel, Auberge Canari, owned by a French woman (http://www.auberge-canari.com/ but I think the website hasn’t been established yet).

 

We slept well. The next day would be especially interesting: Dogon country, legendary to anthropologists.

Mali #3: Bamako

January 17, 2009

My friend and I flew from Uganda to Bamako, Mali via Nairobi, Kenya. The flight was 6h40min from Nairobi which initially surprised me. The land looked parched and the sunlight halted by Saharan dust as we landed. We disembarked the plane on the tarmac and felt the rush of 33ºC and dry air on our skin. A small airport, we navigated it smoothly. After a dubious visa experience, we met our friendly guide, Jean, who spoke only the smallest amount of English. (Mali is a francophone country.) 

Shek, Abdulli (both our drivers), and Jean (our guide) - picture taken in Pays Dogon

L to R: Shek, Abdulli (both our drivers), and Jean (our guide) - picture taken in Pays Dogon

He took us to Jess’s apartment on quite well-maintained roads compared to Uganda. I took in the new architecture of the environs, the yellow, red, and orange colors of the land, bushes thirsting for water. Immediately I noticed that women were driving the motorcycles, which I would never see in Uganda. At one of the first stoplights, I noticed a catatonic man randomly. The cars were older, classic compared to ones on the Ugandan streets.

Bamako street with Mercedes yellow taxi

Bamako street with Mercedes yellow taxi

 We arrived at Jess’ apartment, colorfully decorated, and we waited for her to return from Point G where she works.

In front of Jess' apartment - Sally reading

In front of Jess' apartment - Sally reading

Being New Years Eve, we knew we would be going out. People don’t go out in Bamako until 1AM generally, so we were in for an especially late night. Mitra and I fell asleep at dinner but awoke again. We visited some of the local hotspots and brought in the New Year in style in one of the most unique, international NYE celebrations I have had. We even had Lebanese mafia in Bamako at one of the clubs. The city was ALIVE at night in general but especially on NYE.

JH]

Jess and Jenn on NYE photo by: JH

 

JH]

Jenn and me on NYE photo by: JH

Time out: Jess is the Fogarty scholar at the Mali site. She put together a phenomenal trip for us in Mali. Furthermore, she was sick most of the time with different ailments, and still managed to lead us, translate for us, and remain even-keel all the time. We are indebted to her. Her blog can be found at: http://southernbelleinthesahara.blogspot.com

On New Year’s Day, we slept in. I awoke to some music from the mosque next door to Jess’ apartment. The men there were very kind to us when we met them after Jess introduced us and said hello. We had lunch at a Lebanese-owned café, where I had a nice omelet and pain au chocolat, the latter to which I am addicted. The streets played lively West African French music, and I found it friendly like Uganda. We spent the afternoon at a hotel pool lounging and had one of my favorite dinners in Mali at Le Pili Pili – a Côte d’Ivoirean restaurant. The kedjenou (seasoned meat and vegetable sauce/broth) was phenomenal (recipe at: http://www.foodbycountry.com/Algeria-to-France/C-te-d-Ivoire.html#Kedjenou_Seasoned_Meat_and_Vegetable_Sauce). I awoke the next morning to muzein of the mosque and an extremely dry mouth and nose, something I would experience every day for the rest of the trip. And, in fact, 3 people in our group of 9 developed bloody noses in the morning during our time there.

Mitra and I headed to the Musee National to learn some more about Mali. First, we had a nice French-inspired lunch where I tried my first jus du baobab. Made from the Baobab tree, this drink had a taste incomparable to any fruit juice I have ever had and it was, as my friend Chris Deal would say, delish. We headed into the textile/masonry wing first. We were prohibited from taken pictures unfortunately, but I saw the evolution of textiles there, the introduction of indigo coloring (known among the Tuaregs and Dogon particularly), and other archaeological finds.

Malian textile/history wing of Musee National

Malian textile/history wing of Musee National

Next, we visited the West African contemporary art wing. I really liked the Côte d’Ivoirean art which utilized sand, fabric, stone and rich colors on a canvas-like background. I bought a small painting from an artisan in Mali that is not abstract in nature but similar in terms of media. The other paintings heralded from Senegal, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Togo (fascinating bead work mosaic-like art), Congo, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Much of it took forms I had never seen, so I am glad to have had the opportunity to see these different approaches and perspective to contemporary art in this region. We met one of the trip members, Sally, at the musee and then Jenn (Fogarty scholar in Zambia) and Jess met us at the museum entrance.

We headed next to the Grand Marche. The main market included everything – art, jewelry, food galore, basic home items. The colors and antiquity of the place held a certain charm, certainly feeding a haunting, Western romanticism of such places. We left the market to see the traditional medicine stand. Known as the “fetish market”, adherents of some African Traditional Religions can purchase hedgehogs, monkey skulls, and dead parrots among other things you and I would never see in local Whole Foods. I spoke with a vendor there a bit but did not take a picture per a recommendation from the guide book. Some of the animals are black market and endangered, so I was purposefully reticent in expressing my fascination with the market and the items’ meaning and uses.

Tailor in foreground (Grand Marche)

Tailor in foreground (Grand Marche)

Side note on Bamako: this city is very expensive. Jenn, who goes to Columbia University for medical school in New York City, pointed out that Bamako’s prices are akin to those of NYC. Most dinners were ~$10+ equivalent. One night I paid the equivalent of $7.25 for a can of widely available Perrier – soda was only slightly better at $4.25 equivalent. There are clearly 2 starkly different worlds in Bamako when it comes to food with no middle ground. The wealthy and everyone else. Needless to say, I liked everything I had in Mali, whether it was basic food that most people ate or the nicer French and imported food and drink that were easily obtained in Bamako.

We had dinner that night at Rose de Sable eating wonderful tangine compliments of Dr. Sakai, an NIH researcher in Mali. After going out for a little bit, we prepared for rest. The next morning, we would leave for Segou and start our amazing journey northward towards Essakane…

Mali #2: History and Statistics

January 17, 2009

Before the trip, I knew nothing about Mali except that the fabled Timbuktu fell within its borders. Here is some brief history and current statistics to set the background for the subsequent posts about my trip.

 

The city of Djenne in Mali is the oldest known city in Mali, founded in the third century before the common era. The first Malian empire under Sundyata Keita started in the 13th century with its pinnacle during the reign of Mansa Moussa (1312-1337). Moussa brought 8 tons of gold to Mecca on a pilgrimage and depressed the price of gold in North Africa for years as a result. Conversions to Islam at that time were confined mainly to lands north of the Niger River to the Moors and Tuareg peoples, descendants of Arabs and Berbers respectively.

 

The Songhay Empire started in the 15th century. Timbuktu grew to over 100,000 people and was recognized as Islam’s holiest site in North Africa. It held one of the leading universities in the known world with 15,000 students. This became short-lived as Timbuktu was pillaged in 1594 and most of the social capital (artisans, scholars) was sent to Marrakesh, Morocco.

 

Subsequent fighting plagued the lands until the Bambara kingdom was established in 1712 creating the backbone of 2 Malian livelihoods today: farming and herding. The French came along, colonized Mali, intending to make it the breadbasket of their empire. They built Bamako up as the capital, but did not make much headway up north in Tuareg lands. Unfortunately, their colonization destroyed the dina, a traditional code of conduct among the various groups of Mali for land disputes. They also forcibly conscripted Malians for the World Wars and destabilized Tuareg society.

 

Present Malian history cannot be summarized succinctly, but as in many other African nations, effective and corrupt, democratic and autocratic, leaders have dotted Mali’s political map. Today’s president is seen as a better leader with the most transparent government Mali has had in recent history.

 

Mali stats from The Africa Report December 2008-January 2009 issue:

Pop: 12.3 million

Illiteracy: 68.9%

Exports: Rice, onions, cotton (Mali’s ‘white gold’), gold, salt, other minerals (including uranium up north and within Niger)

 

Current CIA World Factbook statistics:

22nd poorest country by GDP (Uganda is 19th poorest by GDP) – Mali was formerly fourth poorest not too many years ago

8th highest infant mortality rate at 104 deaths/1000 live births

21st lowest life expectancy at birth at 49.94 years

 

Others:

Median age for marriage of Malian women: 16 years (18 years old for child birth)

32% of births are attended to by a trained person

65% pregnancies are associated with anemia

High maternal mortality rate

90%+ incidence of female genital mutilation (excision of clitoris and other parts of the female external genitalia) – it is technically illegal now but widely continues

30% of Bamako’s population lives in peripheral shantytowns

 

There are more ethnic groups than these but here are a few you will see mentioned or photographed in my posts. Tuaregs – who speak Tamasheq – are in the north, fairer-skinned Malians, who are mostly nomadic. Songhay – mainly in the north are farmers, highly educated by Malian standards and influential but only 10% of the total population. Peul – are herders, around the entire country and semi-nomadic. Dogon (more in subsequent post) – live in north central Mali along the Bandiagara falais (escarpment) between the Niger River and the border of Burkina Faso, living on the plateau, in the cliffs or the nearby plains. Bambara – live Southern Mali and comprise 1/3 of the population of Mali. Malinke­ – live in the southernmost part of Mali, are largely hunters, and have secret initiation rites. Bozo – are fishers on the Niger River between Bamako and Gao.

Peul woman near Tirely in Dogon country. Notice her ear piercing. Many women have a good bar passing through their nasal septum.

Peul woman near Tirely in Dogon country. Notice her ear piercing. Many women have a gold bar passing through their nasal septum. The distinctive feature for women is the indigo tatoo surrounding the mouth as seen here.

Cultural Tidbits:

Le cousinage – a unique social interchange of greetingàasking about one’s family and ancestral originàgeographical provenanceàinsulting each other (=safety for releasing ethnic tension)àgreetings. We witnessed this between Dogon and Peul people. Dogon have more prestige and can demand something from a Peul, technically, at any time. We witnessed it in jovial exchanges.

 

Griots – famed storytellers, musicians, who serve as living history of Mali. Largely an inherited position, though not exclusively.

 

Grins – one of my favorite intimate, aspects of Mali – men drink green tea traditionally in three cups. The first is “bitter like death”. The second is “sweet like life”. The third is “gentle like love” and the sweetest, most dilute cup.

Tea preparation has a defined method and is ritualized

Tea preparation has a defined method and is ritualized.

 

Food:

If you have means, exquisite French-influenced food at restaurants or supermarkets. For others, variations of couscous, millet-based grains, rice, onion sauces, mutton. Everyone has access to the best bread I have had in any African country I have visited, rivaling bread in the U.S.

Religion: 80% Muslim, majority from 2 strands of Sufi Islam. Remainder practices African Traditional Religion, Catholicism, or Protestantism. Syncretic blends of ATR and Islam are commonplace, and to a lesser extent with Christian traditions.

Information above taken from: Oxfam’s Mali: Prospect of Peace?, The Africa Report magazine, Bradt Guide to Mali, CIA World Factbook.

Mali #1: Introduction

January 17, 2009

I do not know where to begin. On one hand, I want to give as much detail and story about travels in Mali, spilling more words than the reader can bear. On the other hand, some things cannot be translated from experience to words alone. I could describe sunset in the Sahara desert, even give you a picture, but I cannot relay the experiential dynamics of the desert wind, a camel casually walking on the crest of a dune, the smell of green Malian tea boiling over charcoal on the sand at twilight, the sound of Tuareg musical drones in the background, the warmth of huddling together with people from around the world, the flutter of a brilliantly colored turban’s edge in the wind.

 

But I will try. I will for many reasons. First, I made good friendships and had wonderful cross-cultural dialogues. Second, the landscape is breathtaking. Third, I recommend Mali as a priority destination for all who are willing to take some measurable “risk.” Risks and security are as much of an illusion as they are a calculus of reality. Of this I am sure from my travels over the years in the U.S. and abroad. The U.S. State Department recommended we do not go to Mali, particularly to Timbuktu or north. There is some genuine prudence to that as I trust that they have intelligence that I do not. Yet, as the Malian host of the Festival au Desert said in his concluding remarks at the festival in Essakane (more below), “Your countries told you to not come here, that is was not safe. You can attest to the peace fostered here on which the festival was founded.” This spoken as we stood shoulder to shoulder with smiling Tuaregs, other Malians, and Europeans. Then he handed out passports, cameras and other belongings people had lost over the past 3 days that others returned.

 

“Fear of danger is a funny thing, too. It tends not to be around when it ought to be; it definitely has an agenda of its own. It’s ironic how danger doesn’t present itself when we’d expect, but instead creeps and connives to appear when we feel the safest.”

– Kira Salak “The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu

 

One more rumination before I get to the descriptive portions. A Westerner can easily wax poetically about the Other and distant lands. I serendipitously read “The Other” by Ryszard Kapuscinski as I traveled by pinasse up the Niger River. The ‘Other’ in academic jargon is the rather two-dimensional depiction of non-Westerners by Westerners from the pre-colonial period and onward – visiting foreign lands and describing peoples with a sense of exotic entertainment. Although I am an ‘Other’ to non-Westerners, there has been a sort of Western triumphalism woven in such descriptions in a globalized world. I will fall prey to this in many depictions despite my efforts to not do so, although I want to state it upfront to those who are sensitive to this. But, as philosopher and social theorist Levinas says, “the self is only possible through the recognition of the Other.” In my experience in Mali, this was certainly true as I learned more about myself, how I have been shaped growing up in the United States at particular point in history, simply by learning how others were shaped differently in their upbringing.

 

“Taking part in a multicultural world demands a strong, mature sense of identity.”

-Ryszard Kapuscinski

 

So now I will write about our trip, some history, our tales, peoples of Mali as I encountered them, and hospitality, difference and similarity.

 

“For in those days no one could be sure if an approaching traveler, nomad or stranger were a man or a god resembling a man. This uncertainty, this intriguing ambivalence is one of the sources of the culture of hospitality…”

-Ryszard Kapuscinski

Men praying in the afternoon on a dune at Essakane

Men praying in the afternoon on a dune at Essakane