Mali #12: Journey back

April 20, 2009

Have you ever looked up at the twilight sky and seen the alignment of a planet or the moon, maybe a familiar constellation, and remembered seeing the same orientation somewhere else under vastly differently circumstances? Essakane at night

I experienced that feeling a week later back in Kampala, my home away from home. Venus aligned with the crescent moon shone brightly at twilight, and I was brought back to Essakane immediately. I had a bright smile as I climbed my hill of a driveway still missing Mali.

A few memories came back. The peace of the desert… Essakane down time

The friendship facilitated by a cup of tea… Tea tea tea

The stories that stoic yet friendly eyes tell in the desert… Moussa

An ancient rite only salt can tell…

Salt: up close and personal. By Jenn Hallock

Salt: up close and personal. By Jenn Hallock

Friendship in the big city… NYE

The solitary footsteps of a scarab beetle soon to disappear in the desert wind… scarab

And so have my footsteps come and gone in the amazing desert, a desert scarcely aware that I came. Nonetheless, my memories and dreams will often linger there for all my days to come.

I’ve always been fascinated by those who feel rooted to a place, for whom wanderlust is a pathology of the soul. All I know is that my trips allow me to unearth parts of myself that I’ve long since buried as dead, showing me who I can be. They are, in many respects, processes of rebirth. – Kira Salak in The Cruelest Journey: Six hundred miles to Timbuktu

Advertisements

Mali #11: Djenne and the road to Bamako

April 19, 2009

We left Essakane, a place where the world was what was only around us, a place where we disconnected from the expansive reaches of the Internet or mass telecommunications, a place of music and mind-wandering and comradeship.

We arrived back in Timbuktu for breakfast and paid a quite melacholic, but in Tuareg fashion, stoic, good-bye to Mohamed. Driving out of the city, I knew that I was leaving a place with a firm sense of identity, history, and in many instances poverty. Despite the US travel warning or probable warnings from some Tuaregs to other ones in Mali about us Others, the threats and fears of different identities interacting went unrealized at Essakane while the converse prevailed – friendly interaction and relationship-building.

More and more people within it have problems defining their own identity, of determining their own social or cultural affiliation. They feel lost, and are increasingly susceptible to the suggestions of nationalists and racists, who tell them to regard the Other as a threat, an enemy , the cause of their tiresome frustrations and fears.” -Ryszard Kapuscinski

We left through the city arch and arrived at the port. I had romanticized the whole notion of the salt caravan since learning of it and really wanted to purchase some raw salt. And then I stumbled upon loads of it at Timbuktu’s port very much to my satisfaction! We had some more tea with Moussa while waiting for our ferry and then headed across the Niger river to the other side.

Salt with a story

Salt with a story

On the road of utter desolation (no people, sandy air, gnarled trees) we continued south towards Bamako from Timbuktu port to Douentza. Randomly, farkas (donkeys) would be sitting in the road in numbers and patterns to the degree we were driving as in an obstacle course!

Donkeys like the road. Other animals run when we come.

Donkeys like the road. Other animals run when we come.

We gave a ride to a Sardinian hitchhiker who spoke French and Italian but not English. So… to communicate, Jenn and I spoke to him in Spanish, which he did speak. All in Mali. Fun permutations like this make traveling all the most entertaining.

At one point we came up behind the Bandiagara escarpment before sunset.

Approaching the Bandiagara escarpment

Approaching the Bandiagara escarpment

The view was absolutely stunning. Peul and Dogon men and women walked on the road as we passed, often with baskets atop their heads or men herding animals. Listening to Malian music only accentuated the experience as we continued driving. And I have seen immense amounts of car dust before in both Mongolia and Peru, but never have I been so caked in dust after this particular car ride! People cluttered the main highway during the night and we often had some close calls. I can imagine how dangerous the roads are for all people involved.

We stayed overnight in Sevare and headed to Djenne the next day. Djenne is essentially an island with the world’s largest mud mosque.

Mosque at Djenne

Mosque at Djenne

It was originally a 12th century building, a palace if I recall correctly. We took a tour of Djenne by foot, wandering in narrow alleys and learning about the Tukulor style, Moroccan windows, and Sudanese interior designs of building. The mud humps at the top of some homes indicated the number of children born to that particular family.

Humps represent number of children in home, style has 3 influences

Humps represent number of children in home, style has 3 influences

We learned about the bogolan style of cloth dying, famed in Djenne in particular. Leaves are boiled to make the greener hues, while tree bark is boiled for the darker colors. Not surprisingly, we made some purchases. At the bogolan demonstration we had, Jean engaged in some le cousinage which I have described in an earlier post. The Peul woman seemed entertained by it.

We crossed out of the island and stayed at a nice but not-yet finished hostel. Jess, Jenn, and I climbed onto the roof of the Moorish styled manor and watched the sunset over Djenne as we talked about the trip and life in general.

Group awaiting dinner at our hotel

Group awaiting dinner at our hotel

We ate that night and learned why our group guides along the way always ate together (meaning of different ethnic groups) and with their hands. Communal eating in Mali means “leaving differences aside at the bowl.” And they didn’t used knives and forks because one does “not use plates/utensils because the meal is about the community, not the person.” I had never heard such an explanation before, and it made my reflections on Tuaregs eating with Dogon and Bambara more meaningful.

The next day we drove to Bamako, passing calabash fields, women separating chaff from the grain with the wind, road signs about AIDS awareness, genital excision, and polio, and cars stripped to their very framework. Waste not. Back in Bamako we started the post-partum blues of an amazing trip coming to an end. First, we had a tasty dinner at Le Rabelais and stayed out late on our last night. I distinctly remember dreaming about the desert that night, the nomads protecting us.

On January 14th, the day of departure had sadly come. Mitra and I made sure to get our fill of pain au chocolate and jus du baobab. Jess’ neighbor (an iman at the small mosque there) invited us all for a tour the next day of the Koranic school and main Bamako mosque, but Mitra and I had to get to the airport so we could not go.

Jean drove us to the airport and after some complication at check-in we gave him a hearty farewell. The sun had just set as we boarded, the aircraft door separating us from the hot, dry air one last night. I had a row to myself on the flight to Nairobi so I could lay out, sad to leave Mali, but even more thankful that I had been able to go.

Mali #10: [Interlude] Evolution of a turban

April 16, 2009

Captured by Jenn Hallock

Mali #9: Essakane

April 16, 2009

After our expedited tour of Timbuktu, we hopped back into the 4x4s and started the 2-1/2 hour drive out of the city, a drive into the harsh terrain of the Saharan desert.

You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself. -Alan Alda

We drove past Tuareg children and men, many who waved and others who stared. I could only wonder what they were thinking.  How long will this foreigner onslaught last? Will I meet one of them at Essakane if I go? What do they understand about this place? After heading on the gravel road north we were diverted (for security reasons) to another “road” – and by road I mean sand path. The new path provided far more entertainment as we jumped dunes and briefly found ourselves stuck attempting to summit one.

Sometimes your 4x4 gets stuck in rural Mali

Sometimes your 4x4 gets stuck in rural Mali

Up until this point, the sand was a dishwater blond filled with thorny bushes. This landscape dramatically changed one particular summit. In front us, the bleach white Saharan sand of Essakane welcomed us to the southern tip of the Saraha desert proper. A white concrete stage stood off in the distance and one extremely random cell phone tower not too far from it. These fixtures stay year round, signs of the human touch in a land seemingly bereft of it.

Stage in the far background

Stage in the far background

Mohamed had secured a close, safe camping spot for us and we met our 24h guard for our stay, an older gentleman with a wicked looking stick that looked like a convincing deterrent to theft!  (We had opportunity to watching him chase hawkers away on many occasions.)

Our camp for 3 days

Our camp for 3 days

In the afternoon on that first day, some of us walked along the ridge of the big dune facing the stage. A couple of Tuareg men faced Mecca around the time of prayer as we passed. I looked around at a brilliant world – mountains in the distance, fine, white sand for miles and miles, and the more-than-occasional stoic, hard-to-read Tuareg on camelback.

Peace in the desert

Peace in the desert

A camel promenade led by the Tuaregs and then some West African music followed by speeches about the festival kicked off 3 of the most unique days I have had traveling. On that note, I do not know exactly how to describe these 3 days, how to divide up the experiences. But here goes an attempt which is painfully abbreviated as I reflect on memories months past.

Camel race commencing the event

Camel race commencing the event

Picture 1,500 people, mostly Tuareg and West African but with a substantial number of European (and sparse American) faces in the crowd. Imagine dancing along to Salif Keita, one of Africa’s most famous music artists with Tuareg children huddled next to one another all around you. Meanwhile, the sun is setting, creating silhouettes galore. Sunset set

Camels are in the crowd with a Tuareg father and son watching the stage. West African tones with subtle European/Moorish influences fill the night sky in a land where the nearest settlement is farther away than the eye can see. If you can start to picture some of these things, then you can begin to immerse yourself in the desert.

Spheres of influence intersecting

Spheres of influence intersecting

Groups from Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Mali, Libya, and Niger dazzled us each night with a prelude before dusk from local Tuareg groups off the main stage. Guest performances by a Brazilian guitarist and a Dutch woman brought slightly less enthusiastic applause, but applause nonetheless, from the Malian crowd.

Time was a relative notion in that remote desert landscape with young people from another world. Yet it was there that the gap between cultures was naturally bridged.” -Jolijn Geeks on a trip to Mali

How did we spend our daytimes? After eating breakfast at our campsite, we would walk, read, relax, or go around with one of the Tuareg guys, all who become friends of ours quickly. When you hear desert, you may think of the heat. In fact, we spent more time chilled than hot. I would wear a wool sweater and coat comfortably until 10AM and then again after 5PM. Between those times it would get very warm. I have to say, putting your bare feet in the sand at dusk, even late at night is one of the most relaxing, primal feelings.

An ad hoc market went up with brilliant wares and some kitsch. We frequented it and became known, especially since there were so few Americans there, as in no more than a dozen as far as we could tell after 3 days. The travel warning had done a good job staving off people as we were told 6000 people attended last year compared to this year’s 1500.

Some of my favorite evenings were spent around a bonfire, drinking the grin with the group. To keep warm, we all huddled together closely each night. I think that’s another thing that humanized the experience all the more. By humanized, I mean the friendship and affection brought people together closely and quickly. Part of it was functional – warmth from the cold of the desert evening, but part of it was just because of friendship and trust.

The group huddle-cuddle

The group huddle-cuddle

It’s interesting really – Tuaregs and Bedouins are known for their supposed ferosity and stolid nature. But become friends and you see another world, a world of kinship, loyalty, and affection. A simple satisfaction in the routine of our days with Moussa, Mohamed, and the others made leaving difficult.

Cousins Moussa and Mohamed

Cousins Moussa and Mohamed

Tuareg women had far less visible presence at the event. Any reason why would be speculative, but they, like the men, were friendly, joyful, and extremely close to the other women in their group. When they led music, the characteristics of their voices truly mesmerized me.

Wonderful tones of the Tuareg women

Wonderful tones of the Tuareg women

It was the typical illusion of space – the belief that whatever is far away is different, and the farther away it is, the more different it is. -Ryszard Kapuscinski

Melancholy lingered in the air on the incredibly fun last night. Sally, Mitra, and I from our group stayed up the latest with the guys. Moussa had me practice some card tricks. Mohamed gave Mitra, Sally, and I jewelry gifts, an extremely generous gesture, especially in light of his family’s difficult economic situation. I think the most moving part of the entire visit with Mohamed and the guys happened when the normally reserved Mohamed said to me, “You are my brother.”

Brothers in Mali

Brothers in Mali

For 3 days we were.

In [the trade routes of the Silk Road, the Amber, of the Saharan] people encountered each other at every turn, exchanged thoughts, ideas and goods, traded and did business, made alliances and unions, found common aims and values.. Each person discovered in himself at least a small particle of that Other, believed in it and lived in this conviction. And so the three possibilities always stood before him whenever he has encountered an Other: he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up dialogue. – Ryszard Kapuscinski As far as the eye can see 

 

TB drug shortage redux

March 17, 2009

I wrote about the TB drug back in December: https://healingnumenor.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/tuberculosis-medication-shortage/.

I wish I could report the situation was improving. In fact, it has worsened. Yesterday, one of the doctors mentioned at a research meeting that the drugs were out in the National TB/Leprosy Control Programme (NTLP). Some of our doctors have dual roles in our research center and at the NTLP. Our research participants have access to medications. However, most TB patients are not enrolled in studies.

I’ll briefly explain the regimens and then the shortages.

TB medications: S=streptomycin; E=ethambutol; H=INH; R=rifampin; Z=pyrazinamide

New TB patients get either: (1) 2 months E+H+R+Z then 4 months H+R; or (2) 2 E+H+R+Z then 6 months H+E.

Retreatment TB cases typically get: 2 months S+E+H+R+Z then 1 month E+H+R+Z then 5 months E+H+R.

Mulago Hospital TB Wards 5&6/NTLP Clinic see about 25% of the nation’s TB burden and about 200-250 TB patients per month. The shortage is especially worse in Kampala then in some rural areas. (We’re ranked 16th in the world for TB burden in the 202/212 countries that report TB cases.)

As of this morning we had:

(1) NO R+H+E formulation for pediatric TB patients.

(2) 2-month initial phase of E+H+R+Z for only 12 patients.

(3) Only 15 one-month boxes of E+H+R for the retreatment TB cases.

(4) Hundreds of H+E but…..they were all expired.

(5) 1300 vials of streptomycin. However, given that it would have to be taken with E+H+R+Z (see #2 above) in the retreatment regimen, the surplus is of practically no use.

Later in the day, I found out that the Daily Monitor had a blame-game story on this: http://www.monitor.co.ug/artman/publish/news/Uganda_in_TB_drugs_shortage_81681.shtml.

I’m not in the position or have the knowledge to offer more on who is at fault than the story does, but off the record I have some hunches. Anyhow, the focus needs to be on the solution and future prevention of shortages as numbers of patients continue to suffer.

I emailed two human rights organizations after my tour of the NTLP pharmacy with one of the doctors and the pharmacist there. Tomorrow morning I am going to the NTLP clinic to see what it is going to be like to tell patients they have TB but that we can’t give them the medications. Tomorrow afternoon I am talking with a reporter and on Thursday there will be a press conference on drug shortages in general. I’ll post how these all go. Click on the comments below for an update.

Mali #8: Timbuktu 2/2

March 10, 2009

We started the drive over some dunes to get back to the road to Timbuktu. En route to the museums, libraries, and buildings on our walking tour of Timbuktu, we first stopped at the city tourist office to get our passports stamped. (Apparently there is a club in New York City that requires a stamp of Timbuktu to get in, but we could not find anything on the Internet to support that guidebook assertion.) Dust swirled around the streets and corners. Tourists and local residents dotted the streets, the latter occasionally obviously annoyed with our heightened presence in the town. Most stared with curiosity and kindness.

"Well" of "Bouctou" meaning "Large Navel"

"Well" of "Bouctou" meaning "Large Navel"

As we wound through the corridors of ancient streets, winds of history whispered around the corners. Unimpressive in stature, yes, the city still had a presence unique to itself despite all the warning we received in person and from the guidebooks that Timbuktu could be let down for many tourists. Our first stop brought us to Djinguereber, West Africa’s oldest existing mosque built. Built by Moussa, he paid for its construction with 200kg of gold according to our guide. It can hold 1,500 people, and unfortunately, we were not allowed to enter.

We continued on to the Bibliotheque de manuscripts al-iman Essayouti. This library nestled in an abode building across from the Djinguererber mosque houses so many scripts/scrolls. One scroll displayed in a glass case depicted Ramadan, Tabasky, and the pilgrimage to Mecca (Mohammed bel-Sharif, 15th century). Many manuscripts were found 6m buried for protection during old wars. If the father of one of the stashes had not left the location, so many of the manuscripts would have disappeared forever. Indeed, more are still uncovered. One of my favorite manuscripts functioned as a star map (14th century). Other manuscripts depicted issues surrounding law, inheritance, call to prayer.

Celestial map

Celestial map

We left the library and started learning a bit about architectural symbolism in Timbuktu. Some door and window style find there origins in Morocco. “Jealousy windows” functioned to deter men from eyeing married women as the jealousy window would be used after marriage.

Jealousy window

Jealousy window

At this point, you may be wondering what Timbuktu (Toumbouctou) actually means. “Tom” means “well” and “Bouctou” refers to the woman’s name (meaning “large navel” who found the well here a long time ago. History likely became legend, legend became myth, and so the story goes.

We continued on passing the house of 19th century explorer Gordon Laing before we arrived at the Musee Tombouctou Municipal. The supposed Tom of Bouctou was in the courtyard as well as representations of how milk and water were stored. A small museum held some artifacts of the local cultures over the ages, such as the heavy bangles placed around the feet of some women to prevent them from wandering away, we were told. Yikes.

We left and briefly walked into the former home of Heinrich Barth, another explorer. I bought a small beautiful, colorful illuminated manuscript with the  opening quote in Mali #7  written in Arabic from a talented artist. We walked a little more, passing the door outside one of the mosques that legend says will harken the end of the world if opened.

Door harboring the end of the world

Door harboring the end of the world

We left it shut. But we returned back to the car and opened that door, a door that when shut would next be opened in Essakane at the Festival au desert. The excitement continued to mount…

Mali #7: Timbuktu 1/2

February 6, 2009
Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, money from white man’s country; but God’s words, holy things, interesting tales, we can find them only in Timbuktu. -not attributed (from Timbuktu)-

After the camel ride I mentioned in the Mali #6 post, we ended in the encampment of Mohamed and some of his extended family members. I first talked with Abu, who is akin to a servant for the family. I had just read days earlier about mistreatment of the Bella by some Tuaregs in a book by Kira Salak (The Cruelest Journey)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Mali#National.2FRacial.2FEthnic_Minorities), but after a somewhat thorough private Q&A, it seemed he was very happy with the family. He appeared healthy and well-fed (which is not a small observation because many of the Tuareg men, although imposing appearing in their clothes, are rather emaciated if you see their arms). Abu had been working with the family unit for the past 8 years and hailed from Araouane in a more northern part of Mali. He gets a chance to visit his siblings there sometimes, too.

The idea of the salt caravan captivated me immensely and my desire to travel on one has grown since. I spent some time asking Mohamed about it in depth with the help of Jess translating from French to English. Every year around March, Mohamed and other Tuaregs make the caravan to Taodeni to the salt mines. (The caravan season runs March through April.) It is just over one-month round-trip there and back by camel to get the salt and chevre. And what a trip it is as told to me.

Before they leave on the voyage, Tuareg women sing a song for the men. A group of 3 Tuareg men (typically each 27-28 years old) will travel with 500 camels up north. Because of the Saharan heat, Tuaregs in general travel by star and moonlight only. Since there are no roads for the caravan, the guys use the stars as their guides. In Taodeni each camel is loaded up with 4 blocks of salt (depicted in a later post) at about 2 kilos mass per block. This salt is mined by some of their family members. When the caravan returns to Timbuktu, traders and residents buy the salt and the rest travels down river to larger market centers. Women and children stay in the desert encampment while the men follow the animals and go on caravan.

Tuareg women providing the music

Tuareg women providing the music

Abu Hadi is the name of the star the men track to get to the mines. They use a different star to guide them to Mauritania where they trade agate stone from Mali for fabrics and yet another star to travel to Morocco.

Before they can go on the caravan, men undergo “education.” They receive some home schooling in language and math. As boys, they have to successfully herd goats and sheep. Next they are taught to learn to navigate by the stars and read them. After successfully passing this rite of entry into manhood, they can go on the caravan.

Traditionally, the men must complete 3 round-trip caravans before they can marry. A man’s parents select the wife for their son. Most women “cost” 2 camels but a “good woman may cost 4-5 camels.” As you can imagine not all of the arranged marriages end up in bliss. In terms of divorce, Moussa, Mohamed’s cousin, told us that women inherit everything and stay with their family when divorce occurs. The husband leaves. Men or women can initiate the divorce. Men do not have multiple wives we were told, though I don’t know to which groups this applies. Men are typically 30-32 when they get married and women much younger at 18-20.

In terms of religion, Tuaregs can be Christian, Muslim, some drink beer, others only tea. The Tuareg identity, therefore, is not essentially tied to religion, though most are likely Muslim.

Before the infamous drought of 1973, the Tuaregs enjoyed great wealth. Since then when herds of animals were decimated, they have lived in quite a bit of poverty. Now, some like Mohamed and his family members, live near (but not in) Timbuktu to make money selling jewelry and providing tourism. He gently emphasized that they would prefer to live away from the cities. This last point particularly latched onto me for the rest of our trip there. Mohamed was a gentleman and professional in his guiding, yet all the time I knew this was not an ideal set up for him. Despite his closeness to us during the trip, he had a degree of detachment. You could see it in his eyes, not in his actions towards us. There was something melacholic, stoic in their gaze often and under the deep indigo robes, his thin arms, limbs bore the marks of poverty. Despite the latter, tourism was not the ideal answer. It made sense after a few days in the desert. I’m not simply being romantic about it, but it moves you in a silent, bizarre, peaceful way. The superfine sand between your toes. The stillness. Beautiful stillness. The cool touch of the sand at night, it’s warmth by day. Expansive sky. Magical stillness.

We prefer the desert because it is calm, tranquil. Mohamed, our guide

When we arrived at the encampment of Mohamed and family by car/camel, we were greeted by drum playing from the women. Mohamed danced, then I danced with a few others in our group. The flames from the solitary fire lept as singing and dancing took over the encampment. Shadows of other individual Tuaregs in the distance caught my eye every once in awhile. Abu served us the grin – the three teas I have mentioned in other posts. We ate a dinner then of couscous stuffed lamb and topped it off on our plates with a sauce made with the lamb’s liver, intestines, and carrots. Rice/millet pancakes accompanied the fare.

Dinner at the hands of the chef

Dinner at the hands of the chef

The men opened “shop” for a defined amount of  time, opening indigo cloths displaying necklaces, bracelets, rings, and gazelle bone pipes. Each mark on the jewelry had symbolism and I mapped out the symbolism of many of the items including a men’s bracelet and necklace I bought. The Tuareg passport necklace served/serves as a way for Tuaregs from different lands to identify from which city other Tuaregs come. After a time, they packed up shop and we continued hanging out with them. I liked it – defined marketing time and then shop was closed. We were still a bit of a shy group, so we talked among ourselves while the men huddled against one another around the fire telling riddles to each other and our guides. The women had already retired for the evening. The stars shined brightly, the desert sands reflecting the moonshine.

Men around the fire

Men around the fire

I woke up in the middle of the night for nature’s calling. My headlamp shined on one area after a short walk from my tent and caught dozens of eyes reflecting at me. First, I created a differential list of what animals they could be. Irrationally in my sleep haze and unable to remember if hyenas were in the desert (they are not at all) I FREAKED out and started running away to a different area, but I didn’t shout. Phew. The next morning I found that a herd of goats were placed behind a thorn scrub fencing centered around a shrub. Yes, that is correct, I ran with an adrenaline rush from goats. [Insert your laughter and comments here].

The next day we left the Taochouk Tuareg encampment of 1000, a geographically large place where Mohamed said, “we keep our hearts close but tents far” from one another. Timbuktu had some history to reveal to us before we were to head to Essakane.

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.