Mali #1: Introduction

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



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