Mali Travelogue

The following travelogue was the result of a two-week long educational trip to the heart of Mali, West Africa, which took place between Dec. 30, 2007-Jan. 13, 2008.

Greetings from Mali!

I am in Mali until mid-January, exploring the country's geography, landscape, people, and learning about its history and culture. As a scholar who has been studying the Portuguese-speaking world, and in particular Lusophone Africa, I feel that it is necessary to become acquainted with other parts of the continent and thus, hopefully, expand my frame of reference and explore other links, (dis)continuities, and networks among various African nations that are not just those inherited from European colonialism.

Bamako, the capital of Mali, is a highly laid back city with very friendly people. One could describe it as an ensemble of villages that add up to 1 million people spread across a semi-arid valley crisscrossed by the Niger River (the longest in Africa after the Nile and the Congo). It is indeed poor, as well as dusty and polluted. Mali in fact figures near the bottom of the Human Development Index. By the same token, it boasts one of the richest histories and cultures in Africa. Three major kingdoms flourished here during the Western Middle Ages and Renaissance: the Ghana Empire [not to be confused with the modern Ghana], the Mali Empire, and the Songhay Empire. During the latter two, the cities of Djenné and Timbuktu became major hubs in the North/South and East/West trans-Saharan trade routes as well as renowned centers of humanistic learning. Here, salt and horses from the North were exchanged for gold, ivory, and slaves from the South.

For many centuries these kingdoms (and others in this region), as well as the postcolonial state of Mali as we know today, have had their destinies closely linked to the Niger River and the Sahara Desert (historically, culturally, politically, and environmentally). Today, Mali is predominantly an agricultural nation that is stable and peaceful. It is probably best known for its music. Malian "world music" artists such as Salif Keita, Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, and dozens upon dozens of others, have brought Mali to global attention and much pride to their nation. During my brief stay in Bamako I have already listened to several of these super stars as well as others live.

New Year's eve in Bamako was one of my life's most unforgettable. Madou (new friend, informant, and guide), Jim (a good friend from Minneapolis and travel companion), and I all went to a great bar/dance club with live music (Le Hogon). The bar is an open-air patio under the stars. We were treated to some of the most prominent figures of Malian music, among them: Amadou & Mariam, in addition to Toumani Diabaté and the Symmetric Orchestra (who incidently will be at the Dakota jazz club in Minneapolis in a few weeks. [Speaking of globalization!]). There were hundreds of people; locals dressed to kill and many Westerners — a good number of us intermingling. There also was a group of young French men, whom I think were gay, who had traveled by land from Paris to Bamako and sold their car here. Isn't that something? I danced like I hadn't danced in many years. I was even doing fancy choreographies on the dance floor with some of the young Malian men who were there. It felt comfortable dancing as two men together or two women or as a group.

The hotel where I am staying, Le Djenné, is located right in the middle of a modest and very typical residential area. It is considered the most beautiful hotel in Bamako, not for its luxury but because it showcases Mali's rich and exuberant arts and crafts. This particular hotel is owned by former Minister of Tourism and Culture, Madame Aminata Touré. She has been single handedly transforming the neighborhood where the hotel is located by taking the initiative to bring electricity, water, and also paving the streets with exquisite stonework. She has also encouraged local NGOs to station themselves here. She believes firmly in the enormous potential for cultural tourism in Mali and is intent on changing the infrastructural and mental conditions for that potential to flourish.

Changing topics towards the geopolitical, on the way down here from Paris I met a US soldier (a young kid from N. Carolina) who told me that he was on a mission in the Sahel region where Special Forces are training the national armies to deal with potential infiltration from Al Qaeda (the training has been taking place in Timbuktu). He seemed sweet yet a little naive. We had a nice, friendly, and informative conversation. I told him of the importance of knowing the local culture and realizing that given the specificities of religious and cultural practices in this region of the world, as well as it own history, it is unlikely that religious terrorism will take root here.

Trans-Mali Express

My friend Jim, our driver Sadibou, and I have been traveling across Mali for several days now on our way to Timbuktu where the Festival in the Desert will take place on Jan 10-12. Our journey is taking us through the most important historic cities in the heartland of Mali, where the Inner Niger Delta is located, namely the cities of Segou, Djenné, and Mopti, before we enter the Dogon Country — home to one of the most unique civilizations in Africa. We've been moving from the semi-arid Sudanese savanna to the marshlands along the Niger. The term "Sudanese" here does not mean the country of Sudan that we know today. The term "Sudan" means the land of blacks in Arabic and this term has been been used for centuries to designate this wider region of Africa. During colonial times the French called this region the Western Sudan. At the time of independence in 1960, the newly independent Mali reclaimed the name of the ancient empire of Mali.

Even though French is the official language, there are at least a dozen languages spoken and at least a similar number of ethnicities. Bambara is the dominant language and it belongs to the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo linguistic family. Bambara is a related language to those spoken in neighboring countries Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso, etc. It is very useful to have some knowledge of Bambara (everyday words, phrases) since French, in practice, is not as widely spoken, or at least not fluently spoken in the country or in the city. English does not get you very far at all here. It is probably one of the few remaining parts of the world today where English is almost useless...

From a religious standpoint, the country is 90% Muslim, with pockets of Animism and Christianity. The Islam practiced here is not at all fundamentalist. One could characterize it as fluid, gentle, at times culturally hybrid, at times secularized. There seems to be no overt anti-American sentiment. It is a hospitable multi-cultural nation where different ethnicities peacefully co-exist, for the most part. In the past, there have been tensions between the central government and the nomadic Tuareg peoples of the Sahara.

In Segou we visited the ancient capital of the Bambara kingdom, which existed between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, it is a very typical West African village where guided visits are provided for a fee. We also spent a couple of hours at a cooperative where the famous "bogolan" (or mud cloth) fabrics are produced. Here we learned about all the steps involved in the weaving, pigment production, dyeing, design, and symbolic meanings of the intricate patterns utilized in this magnificent art form that is equally cultivated today by women as well as men. We also witnessed the production of millet beer in the Catholic neighborhood in town. Since Jim is a professional brewer, it was indeed a treat to witness the various steps involved in preparing the millet, fermenting it, boiling it, etc, before it is ready to be consumed. I can attest that it is delicious and extremely safe to drink since no bacteria can survive in it. In Segou we also had the chance to navigate at dusk the placid waters of the Niger River on a pirogue to a visit a village of famous women pottery makers.

As I mentioned in my previous message, Djenné is one of the major cities of Mali's ancient empires and one of the marvels of Africa. Its primary attraction is the largest mud structure in the world, which is the Grand Mosque of Djenné. We were privileged to visit this spectacular structure, which has been declared Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Djenné is a town of 16,000 people on an island in the Inner Niger Delta that is made almost entirely of mud, exhibiting the typical architecture of the Sahelian region. It is the major religious center of Mali and it boasts 42 Koranic schools. Despite its historical and religious importance, today Djenné is only a shadow of its golden age. One could argue that it stands as a metaphor for the country or the continent as a whole in terms of the contrast between its ancient grandeur and its severe contemporary poverty.

Mopti is located at the crossroads of Mali where all major roads and rivers intersect. It is the gateway to the Dogon Country and the place to start one's trip to Timbuktu by boat or by jeep. The hotel where I am staying is mobbed with Westerners of many nationalities, most making their way to the Festival in the Desert, north of Timbuktu, considered the world's most remote music festival. (More on the Festival in the Desert in a future message.)

The Dogon Country

I am about to conclude one of the most educational and adventuresome trips that I have ever taken. I feel that it has been an excellent introduction to the complexity and richness of Malian culture that will enhance and expand my frame of reference regarding African cultures. I would like to briefly share with you some of my impressions on the most fascinating people and landscape in all of Mali, and by far one of the most interesting in Africa, the Dogon.

Dogon Country essentially entails a plateau that ends abruptly in an escarpment that is more than 100 miles long opening up to the plains that lead to Burkina Faso in south central Mali. Its people have been historically animistic with a palpable Islamic presence and some signs of Christianity. Most of the population is concentrated in small villages perched along the escarpment, which lives off agriculture (millet for subsistence and onions for export) and livestock (goats, sheep, and cows). It is believed that the Dogon fled the ancient Ghana Empire in the 11th century to escape from Islamicization or that they migrated in successive waves from the Manding regions in Western Mali since the 14th century. A troglodyte population, the Tellem, had already occupied the escarpment in tiny dwellings carved into the rocks at unbelievable heights (the escarpment measures from 100 to 300 meters in height). These ancient people were displaced by the Dogon and are believed to have migrated to central Africa. Today, the Tellem dwellings have become burial sites for the Dogon.

The Dogon language in more than 90 dialects apparently has no direct connection to the languages surrounding it, even though it belongs to the larger Niger-Congo linguistic family. Its cosmogony is extremely rich and complex, and what most impressed the first Westerners who studied Dogon culture was their purportedly advanced knowledge of astronomy. The Dogon were studied for the first time in the 1930s by French anthropologist Marcel Griaule, bringing the world’s attention to this mysterious culture.

Today, many visitors come to Dogon country to hike, back pack, take in some of the breathtaking landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the Southwest of the United States, in which the culture is symbiotically embedded. One cannot visit this region without a local guide who will also serve as a cultural informant and mediator. Each village has a series of sites that hold great symbolic importance for village life and spirituality. Its architecture is very unique. The granaries are the most archetypal with their characteristic “witches' hat? thatched roofs and amazingly carved wooden doors representing themes of Dogon cosmogony. Ritual masked dances are a common feature throughout the yearly cycles. However, with the gradual but steady increase in tourism, life here, as '"pre-modern" as it may sound, is starting to feel its impact. The Dogon, as materially poor as they are now have an important source of additional income, which is tourism (albeit small scale eco-tourism, cultural tourism, adventurous or solidarity tourism). The Malian government and the Dogon themselves urge tourists to not give children any money, pens, or bonbons, which many of them constantly ask for, at the risk of turning into professional beggars, thus becoming of metaphor for the relationship of dependence between Africa and the West. On the other hand, one also gets the impression that there are some signs of "performed culture" on display for foreigners, such as the masked dances on command for a total of US$165 dollars.

One of the cultural practices that strikes the visitor to Dogon country are the rituals of salutation which take almost a minute in duration or more among women and men of all ages and strata. The questions that are repeatedly asked are how is your family, how is your life, how is your house, your children, etc. These questions are exchanged in a rapid sequential fashion by both interlocutors, who utilize specific linguistic formulas that ricochet each time individuals or groups encounter each other along the way. Needless to say, one is expected to greet every single person one encounters at all times.

Dogon Country is indeed a poor area that has lived mostly on subsistence agriculture and livestock. However, it is now becoming increasingly dependent upon tourism. There have been numerous development projects in collaboration with the West in order to bring water to the villages as well as solar energy (the modest and charming hotel where we stayed was solar powered). One of the most challenging arenas has been that of female excision, which is widely practiced in Dogon culture. Consequently, there have been numerous campaigns to raise awareness about the terrible consequences of female excision not only for girls or women but for society as a whole.

The Festival in the Desert

The Festival of the Tuareg takes place every January on the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert, about 2-4 hours northwest of Timbuktu (depending on whether or not one has a flat tire or a motor meltdown). In principle, it is a yearly gathering of the nomadic Tuareg peoples of the Sahara where they meet to discuss key issues pertaining to their lives and where they celebrate their culture with music, dance, camel races, sword contests, film sessions, arts and crafts, as well as lectures. Since 2003 it has become a cultural site where the globalized world meets the Tuareg with the mediation of Malian private and government entities as well as the sponsorship of public and private organizations from the European Union, France, Canada, Catalonia, among others. One could also argue that this event brings the world’s attention to the plight of the Tuareg people, thus sensitivizing the West (in particular) to their socio-political travails but also cultural wealth.

Thousands of westerners coming from Europe, Australia, and North America converge with as many Malians to listen to three nights of mostly Malian music, or West African music in general (and a few Anglophone musical groups and others). However, as I discovered, most Westerners -many of them in their twenties, with numerous older independent travelers as well as tour groups, including from Brazil- seem to know or perhaps even care relatively little about Mali or Malian culture or music, per se. I think many are here in search of adventure and a sense of mystique about the idea of having a mini-Woodstock in an extremely exotic locale. Since all cultural information is provided exclusively in French or Malian languages (Bambara, Sorrei, Tamashek -the language of the Tuareg, etc), most Anglophones who seem to know little or no French are left in the dark about what is going on culturally. Yet, I see that there is a way in which people may come here for strictly hedonistic reasons and an open attitude about the different sensations and experiences to be had in an unknown cultural environment set in one of the most magnificent and haunting landscapes that one can possible imagine for a music festival. Yet, I do feel somewhat awkward about this particular global/local nexus. The Tuareg in general are rather poor, and as I found out, suffer from many diseases (tuberculosis, malaria, respiratory maladies) that in many cases they prefer not to treat due to cultural traditions or habits. Next to them, for the duration of the festival, are some of the most privileged people on earth who can afford to come this far for a music festival. Nonetheless, the Festival enables unique encounters among other marginalized minority groups that defy national boundaries such as the one between the Canadian Inuits and the Tuareg. During the festival the Canadian film "Fast Runner" was shown and at least one Inuit musical group performed, much to the fascination of the Tuareg, given the interesting similarities and differences between both cultures.

I confess to having lost some sleep thinking that this event could be a perfect soft target for a terrorist attack, especially as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb attempts to spread deeper into the Sahara and the immense difficulty among regional governments to exercise complete sovereignty over such porous territory (which is one of the reasons why the US Special Forces have conducted training exercises here in recent times). Yet, I was told repeatedly that the Malian government had "securitized" a 50-mile perimeter around the festival and that there would be some military presence at the festival site (which indeed turned out to be the case).

The music, for those in the minority like me who happen to care, was top notch quality, featuring renowed Tuareg bands that are heavily blues/rock inflected and who tour the West, plus outstanding Bambara artists such as Basekou Kouyaté, whose soothing album "Segou Blue," which I highly recommend, was selected by the BBC, NPR, and the NY Times as one of the best world music albums of 2007.

Otherwise, the Festival in the Desert experience allowed me/us to commingle extensively with folks from various parts of W. Africa and around the world. There were many Peace Corps volunteers stationed around this region who were taking a break there. Jim and I brought our own sleeping bags and roughed it up in a large tent that was shared with strangers. The Sahara quickly gets very warm in the daytime and quite cold at night. The very fine sand only reflects the heat but does not absorb it. The sand dunes are spectacular, though this far south, one can still see shrubs and small trees. Fulani and Tuareg shepherds travel with their sheep, goats, and livestock throughout this whole region, and of course, camels (or to be more precise, dromedaries, with only one hump) are a very common sight.

Timbuktu, the Mysterious

This Festival has brought renewed attention to Timbuktu, which this year celebrates 1,000 years! As I described in earlier messages, Timbuktu was a major hub of trade and education during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance which started to decline with the shift of major trade networks towards the Atlantic coast of Africa as the Portuguese and other European powers started changing the geopolitical map of the world, particularly for Africa and eventually the Americas since the 1400s. Today, Timbuktu is a very isolated and dusty town that the world had mostly forgotten. However, there are signs that such reality is slowly changing given its historical importance for Mali, Africa, the Islamic world, and the West. There are approximately 130,000 Arabic- language manuscripts from the Middles Ages, the Renaissance, and early Modern times, covering a vast array of knowledge attesting to the significant scientific and humanistic knowledge accumulated in this part of the world. Many of these manuscripts were brought over by the Moors who were expelled from Al-Andalus in the late fifteenth century. Today, a large protion of these manuscripts are housed at the Ahmed Baba Center for Advanced Islamic Studies. In 2005 South African president Thabo Mbeki signed a cooperation agreement to build a state of the art library to house all these manuscripts and digitize them. This project is called the South Africa Timbuktu Manuscripts. What is staggering, however, is the fact that there are an additional 100,000 manuscripts stored in people's private homes. Thus, the research center is training members of these families in becoming professional transcribers so that this important legacy to humanity does not vanish into dust. Timbuktu also boasts some of the oldest and most important mosques built in this part of the world, in addition to many historical houses where important Arab and Western travelers stayed as they arrived in Timbuktu. One of the most interesting among these figures is Heinrich Barthe, an eminent nineteenth-century German historian and linguist, who was ahead of his time in his thinking. He was not only one of the few Westerners of his time to recognize that there was something akin to African history, but he also took it upon himself to study and become fluent in a number of West African languages, aside from studying the Arabic language and Islam, much to the consternation of his contemporaries.

From an environmental standpoint Timbuktu is located at one of the forefronts of global warming due to the encroachment of the Sahara Desert. This is a problem for Mali as a whole, but it is acutely felt in Timbuktu. Hence, the Malian government with the aid of international funding, resources and technology, has embarked on a variety of reforestation projects and canal building in order to bring precious water from the Niger River towards the city and nearby agricultural areas.

Still, Timbuktu does justice to its nickname, "the mysterious", "the city of 333 saints", "the middle of nowhere". Very dusty, very sandy, populated by warm welcoming people who wish fervently for a better tomorrow...

Mali constitutes one of Africa’s richest countries both culturally and historically and its people are also one of the warmest and most hospitable. It is also one of the more stable and relatively democratic nations on the continent. All of these factors will doubtlessly contribute to the continued growth of its relatively nascent tourist industry, thus providing a livelihood for part of its population. Nonetheless, such dynamic remains fraught with ambiguity as poorer nations of the south confront the various options for future development and sustainability with all of the advantages and disadvantages therein.