Sunday, January 18, 2009

Two Weeks in Mali, West Africa

We have been spending the weekend going through our photos and reminiscing about the two weeks that we spent in Mali. The trip was a joint venture between Women Worldwide and Adventures in Rock, and as such involved a community service project in a Dogon village as well as the world-renowned Festival au Desert, a music festival in the Sahara. Our traveling companions were Tina from Women Worldwide, Pamela from Adventures in Rock, and a fellow traveler named Susan.

The trip got off to a slow start as Boston was hit by a snowstorm and our flight to Paris was 5 hours late taking off. But luckily, we had a long enough layover in Paris that we were still able to catch our connection to Mali.

After spending a night in the city of Bamako, we met our guide Baini and driver Bouba (who called Craig "General" and saluted him every time he saw him). We started out the trip with some sightseeing in the Segou area. We visited Segoukora, the site of the old city. The small city was very quaint, and many children followed us (even holding our hands) as we walked around. It is situated on the Niger River, and we watched as women washed their clothes in its waters. We saw three mosques here as well. The mud-brick architecture was very interesting.

Next we headed to the new city of Segou, situated 10 km further up the Niger. We wandered along the Niger looking at colonial homes and government buildings. We went to an artisans' cooperative and watched traditional Malian mudcloth being made.

The next day we headed to Sangha, a Dogon village. We hiked along the escarpment and met many local people. The landscape was just gorgeous here, and it reminded us of the desert southwestern United States. We saw the cliffside homes of the Tellem people - the original inhabitants of the escarpment.

After visiting several Dogon villages in the Sangha area, we watched a Dogon mask dance, which was fantastic! Elders beat drums and cowbells while men and women in elaborate costumes danced frenetically. The drum rhythm was similar to the Fanga beat I had learned in my African dance class in college. Dancers walked on high stilts and some were wearing masks which towered about 15 feet in the air. It was absolutely amazing.

Then we traveled to Bandiagara, where we met Anna. Her Tandana Foundation does charitable works in Ecuador and Mali. She was the one with whom Tina from Women Worldwide had coordinated our service project, which would take place in the small Dogon village of Kori Maounde about 20 minutes from Bandiagara. Up until several years ago, Kori Maounde had no school. Students would have to walk long distances to other villages in order to attend school, or they would not go at all. A French couple who visited the village donated money to build a school. Daniel Dolo was hired as headmaster of the school, and he moved into Kori Maounde with his wife Marie and their two children. Kori Maounde is a poor village, and there is no money for school supplies. Daniel's idea was to plant a school garden that the children could tend. They could sell the produce at their weekly market to earn money for school materials.

Anna met Daniel's brother Timothy when she first arrived in Mali, and learned of Daniel's idea through him. Women Worldwide partnered with Tandana to purchase nearly 100 fruit trees. Our jobs for our three day stay included planting all of the trees, as well as building a water basin and digging a 31 meter trench (nearly 100 feet) to connect the water pump to the basin so that the children can easily water the plants.

On our first visit to Kori Maounde, Daniel and Timothy showed us around the garden. Within the past year, the students had planted several crops, such as onions, tomatoes, and spinach. They had had some problems with crickets eating some of the plants, but it had been a particularly bad year for crickets in the area. The garden was fenced off so that the donkeys and goats of the village could not enter and eat the crops. Anna had worked with the school to plant several papaya trees last year, and these were already starting to bear fruit. Timothy bought the first papaya from the students as a symbol of his faith in the project.

Daniel called off school during our visit so that the students could help us with the project. The village chief, the president of the parent teacher association, and other men from the village also pitched in. Everyone was very excited to get working. Daniel explained that our presence was helping to really motivate the villagers. Rather than just sending money, we had come to visit them, and the fact that Americans were interested their lives and futures really made them proud.

By the end of the first day of the project, the water basin and trench had been dug, and 54 holes had been dug and lined with compost for the trees.

As a reward for our hard work on day 1, the morning of day 2 of the project began with Daniel taking us for a walk to a nearby area which served as a hidden city of the Dagoga tribe. The long-abandoned cave dwellings here reminded us very much of the Anasazi ruins in the southwestern U.S. We also visited a nearby village where we studied an old forge which the Dogon used to use to melt iron out of the surrounding rock. The chief of the village led us to the forge, and in exchange for his hospitality, we were able to give him some antibiotic ointment for an infected cut between his toes. We were happy to be able to help, as these villages often have no access to medicine. The chief was having a hard time keeping his wound clean as he always walked barefoot, so Baini kindly gave him a pair of his own flip-flops. The chief was ecstatic and showed us great thanks.

We returned to Kori Maounde and ate lunch at Daniel's house, and then headed back down to the garden. The students were incredibly friendly, and each greeted us with a "Bon soir, Madame" or "Bon Soir, Monsieur!" with arms politely folded in front of them. Each of them wanted to greet us (greetings are very important in Dogon society) and shake our hands. We felt like rock stars. By the end of the afternoon, the PVC pipes in the trench were connected and water flowed for the first time into the new basin. It was very exciting to see the project progressing.

On the final morning of the project we transported the seedlings to the school. There was a water hole (leftover from the rainy season) behind the school, and to conserve well water, students watered the plants from the water hole whenever it exists. Craig led the students down to the water hole and back while singing field songs with them. "Come on, let's go!" he would shout. "Come on, let's go!" they would happily parrot (none of them knowing any English whatsoever). "Going to get the water!" he would continue, and they would echo. It was so great to watch; he was the pied piper with over a hundred kids in tow. They made about 4 trips to the water hole, and the kids
returned to the garden to moisten the soil in preparation to plant the trees.

Planting the trees was the culmination of our efforts, and the children (who had been very hands-on throughout the whole process) were eager to help. After getting all of the trees planted, Craig coordinated another trip to the water hole to get one more round of watering in. The village mason put a final skim coat onto the water basin, and the men of the village filled in the trench to bury the pipe.

Daniel lined the kids up in the school courtyard, and each carried a small broom from their homes. Like an army, they charged forward, sweeping the courtyard and kicking up clouds of dust. After the sweeping was complete, we gathered pieces of trash and plastic from the ground. We filled up a large plastic bag with debris which we took away from the village and disposed of in Bandiagara.

As a reward for the children's hard work, Craig and I presented a frisbee to Daniel and taught the kids how to play. The kids formed a huge circle in the schoolyard and threw and caught the frisbee with great delight.

The village chief thanked us for buying the trees and for visiting the village and motivating the villagers, young and old, to participate in this community project. They had wanted to prove to us that they would be willing to maintain the garden after we left. The chief asked Allah to bless us in our lives and work. We said goodbye to everyone and promised to send them photos from our visit. After three days, we had grown very attached to the village, and we were sad to leave all of our new friends.

In the evenings, we went to a local dormitory for middle and high school students in Bandiagara. We met Aminata, a woman who runs the dormitory and sees that each of its 85 inhabitants and fed and cared for. During Anna's stay in Mali, she has been volunteering in the evening to give voluntary English lessons to the dorm students. For three consecutive evenings, we were her special guests. The students were very polite and greeted us as we arrived. The classes took place outside the dormitory by the light of a single fluorescent bulb. We wrote phrases on a portable chalkboard, demonstrated dialogues, and quizzed the students. Anna was a natural at this and we tried to learn from her example. We had been a bit nervous about our ability to connect with high school students, but we needn't have worried. They were enthusiastic learners, and made us feel right at home. The students were very sweet and wanted to be pen pals with us. We are looking forward to hearing from them. (I am also looking forward to using some of these teaching techniques in my volunteer work with Somali Bantu refugees at home.)

On our final night in Bandiagara, we ate dinner at Timothy's house. We ate the first papaya to be bought from the Kori Maounde garden, and it was delicious. We reflected on how much fun we had had in the past three days at the village, and were happy that with the community's help, we were able to finish the entire project during our stay.

The next day we headed out of Bandiagara bright and early (5 am) for the long drive to Timbuktu. We really had a lot of fun on the journey, joking and laughing as we bounced down the road. We had to catch a car ferry to get to Timbuktu, and we explored a small Bozo fishing village while we waited for our turn to cross. When we got to the other side of the Niger River, it was a short drive to the city. We met up with a group of 16 British travelers we had met in Bandiagara, whom we had expected to meet again at the festival. They explained to us that they were not going to the festival after all, as the British government had advised them not to go. Because of this warning, their tour group was no longer insured, and they were unable to continue. Needless to say, they were very disappointed. Nobody knew exactly what the supposed threat was, except that it had to do with kidnapping of westerners.

We were immediately worried that the U.S. government might issue a similar directive to us. Having come all of this way and to be within two hours' drive from arguably the most remote music festival in the world was unfathomable. We weren't worried about the potential threat (the State Department has had a travel advisory against Mali for years, and the odd chance of a real threat was far outweighed in our minds by our desire to go). Rather, we were afraid that we wouldn't be allowed to go.

With this thought heavy on our minds, we explored Timbuktu in the gorgeous waning late afternoon light. It is a city steeped in history, and gained its name because it was once the site of a well ("tim") which was tended by a woman named Bouctou. Tuaregs would show a silver pendant known as the "Tuareg passport" in order to identify themselves and gain access to water from her well. It was an important city because salt caravans from the Sahara could load their salt tablets onto boats on the Niger here, and it became a crossroads for Tuareg trade.

To this day it has the look of a biblical city. All buildings are made of mud, and the streets are sandy. We walked past the mosque just as the call to prayer was sounding (you can always identify a mosque by the sign of a crescent moon and star, as well as the loudspeakers fro broadcasting the call to prayer). We found the city to be absolutely charming and we enjoyed wandering around.

People here were a bit more standoffish at first; going about their business and not paying much attention to us. But if we said "Bon soir; ├ža va?" to them, they literally did a double-take, realized we were greeting them, cracked a huge smile, and came over to shake our hands. They would continue the greeting, and when it became apparent that we didn't really know French, we would all have a good laugh. It was a nice way to break the ice. We wandered through the market and bought Tuareg turbans. At the stall where we bought them we met El Hadj, a university student studying English. He was very friendly and we enjoyed chatting with him.

The next morning we headed for the festival in Essakane. The roads were nothing more than tire tracks in the sand, and we immediately got the feeling that we were headed somewhere remote. At one point we passed a sign which said "Festival Au Desert: Essakane" with an arrow. It was propped up on top of an oil drum with some rocks. We had Bouba stop and we all got out of the car for this perfect opportunity for a group photo.

We had some radiator trouble and Bouba patched it brilliantly by blending a pinch of cigarette ash (which he carried in a plastic bag for just such an emergency) with water, and we were able to limp the rest of the way to Essakane. We knew we were close when we saw army tanks and personnel carriers guarding the perimeter. Tuareg militias can be a problem north of Timbuktu, and the organizers of the festival wanted to make sure that security was tight.

We arrived at the festival site and it was surreal. Sand dunes everywhere, dotted with small tent camps. The tents were made of cloth and were held up by broken-off tree branches stuck into the sand. Craig and I were given sleeping mats and were shown to our 2-person tent. Pam, Tina, and Susan shared a separate, larger tent.

We wandered around the festival grounds, and found the modern stage and soundboard, which looked totally incongruous in this setting. We were pleasantly surprised to meet up with El Hadj from Timbuktu, who had decided to come to the festival for his own enjoyment. After dinner in our camp's mess tent, we headed back to the dune and got settled for an evening of music. The temperatures got down into the 40's. As soon as the sun set, it suddenly got chilly.

We put on our long johns, snuggled into our fleece jackets, and lost ourselves in the Malian music. The music had such a subtlety to it and it could lull you almost into a trance. The Tuareg turbans kept our heads and faces nice and warm. Though we were a fair way away from the stage, our perch on the dune gave us a nice overview of the whole scene. We could see the stage with people clustered around it. An occasional car would drive by, or random Tuaregs on camels would cross the flat area between our dine and the stage.

The evening culminated with a 2 hour set by Bassekou Kouyate and Amy Sacko, a Malian husband and wife team with boundless energy and a great sound. They rocked and we made sure to buy their CD the next day.

The next morning we awoke and ate breakfast in the mess tent, and then Baini arranged a camel ride for us. Craig, Tina, Susan, and I mounted our camels and a group pf Tuareg men led us across the desert. We had no idea where we were going or how long the ride would last. They led us through the festival grounds, past the stage, and over some dunes. We got to a point where all we could see in every direction were sand dunes occasionally dotted by the odd tree.

After about half an hour we arrived at small Tuareg camp made up of several tents. Our Tuareg escorts led us into the brightly colored tents and served us Malian tea, a ritual all its own. (I couldn't get the Police song "Tea in the Sahara" out of my head). We chatted with them about their lives. They told us to feel free to ask them anything. We should have had a lot of questions, but were so overwhelmed by these incredible experiences that we could barely think of any. They had attended Koranic schools and they wrote our names in Arabic for us. They showed us their lovely jewelry and "Tuareg silver" metalwork, and we bought several pieces from them.

We mounted our camels again and headed back to our camp. My escort handed me the reins and my camel docilely followed behind the others. He was very low-key. When we arrived at camp, my camel sat down to let me off. He bent his front legs first and I pitched forward as he sat, hanging onto the wooden saddle for dear life. Then the camel bent its back knees, and I careened backwards. They are definitely not the most graceful animals when it comes to lying down!

We ate lunch and then relaxed in our tent during the hottest part of the day. Later in the afternoon we headed back to the dunes to watch sunset. We watched with interest as American singer Zander Bleck shot a music video with the setting sun in one direction and the full moon in the other. We'll have to seek out the video when it is released. He sure had the perfect setting!

After dinner we returned to our favored spot on the dune to watch the final night of music. We brought a few more items in our backpacks tonight to keep warm, including three pairs of socks each - two for our feet and another to wear as mittens. Pam brought me down to the front of the stage to get some close-up photos, but the amps were so loud that I couldn't stay down there for very long. The music started off more bluesy tonight, it seemed. We could definitely sense the link between Malian music and American blues. There was even a tinge of rap at times. The grand finale was Habib Koite, who brought the house down. He was unreal, and it was the perfect way to end the 2009 festival.

The music ended shortly after 2 am, at which time Craig got sick. The goat we had eaten for dinner hadn't sat well. He was sick a few times, and we made our way back to the tent to try to get some rest.

All too soon, Baini woke us up bright and early at 4 am so that we could get across the Timbuktu ferry and make it to Mopti by nightfall. It was an 11 hour journey and Craig was not feeling at all well today. The sun rose as we drove back to Timbuktu. When we arrived at the ferry, Bouba got into line. The car was in the sun and Craig started to overheat. We became quite worried about him, and even worried that he might have contracted malaria. Susan put a cold compress on Craig's head, and that helped immensely.

Thankfully, Craig was a lot better by the time we finally reached Mopti. We had wondered whether we would need to take him to the hospital for an IV, but he was able to hold down water at this point, so it was no longer necessary. We saw the Mopti hospital, and let's just say it's not the kind of place where you would want to get an IV. Mopti was, however, the site of the nicest hotel on the trip, and we were able to get the fine, baby-powder-soft white Sahara sand out of all of our belongings while there.

The next morning we took a pirogue boat down the Niger River and visited several Bozo fishing villages. Then we took a 2 hour drive to Djenne, the site of the world-famous Djenne mosque - the largest mud-built structure in the world. It was Monday, Djenne's market day, and the city was quite busy. The mosque was so massive that it was difficult to get a view of the entire thing. We climbed a nearby rooftop to get a better overall view.

We were thrilled to learn that they are now allowing non-Muslims to tour the Grand Mosque for a nominal fee. Tours had been suspended for a while due to a fashion show of scantily clad models which had been photographed inside and rightfully offended the Imam. But the mud coating on the mosque must be re-applied every year (the logs sticking out of the walls are used as a ladder during the application of a new coat), and this is costly. They decided that they would charge a fee to visitors to help to pay for the upkeep of the mosque. We had only ever seen the exterior in books or television shows, so we were quite curious to see the inside. There are 100 mud pillars and various pointed mud arches. Prayer mats line the floor. The mosque probably looks exactly the same as it did when it was constructed in 1907, except that now electric fans are mounted on the walls to keep the inside cool.

We finished our trip where we had started, in Bamako. We visited markets and the National Museum. We had a full day of sightseeing before heading to the airport for our redeye flight home.

Now we have traded the soft white Sahara sand for soft white snow. I miss the sand...


  1. thanks for the stories and pics, both beautiful!

  2. Anonymous3:00 AM

    Your post on your vacation to Mali especially in Timbuktu really Interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing us.

  3. What a wonderful diary of an amazing adventure! This is something I have to share w/ my 6th graders as we are studying Africa right now!

  4. Thanks, Elizabeth! Please feel free to use whatever information you wish, including our more complete travelogue

    We had a wonderful experience in Mali!

  5. I just found your photos of Mali! Thanks so much for posting them. You have done a beautiful job. We are celebrating our Missions Festival at our church and some missionaries to Mali coming to visit. My Sunday school class is working on a project to learn about and have a better understanding of Mali, its people and customs. Your blog and pictures have have helped me learn more and I would like to be able to share this with them. I see you gave permission to another commentor. I hope you won't mind another request. Thanks. Joy

  6. Thanks for the nice note, Joy! We're happy that you're finding our posts useful. Please feel free to use whatever you'd like with your Sunday school class. Thanks!

  7. Anonymous12:24 AM

    Nice blog, thanks! I really like it!

  8. Hello! I love you pictures, and I am especially drawn to the one of the Tuareg man pouring tea. I am a fiber artist who uses natural indigo (like that worn by the Tuareg), and I was wondering if I could use you photo as inspiration for some fiber/textile work that I am doing. The colors are very vibrant. I do not wish to reproduce your photo--just use it for inspriation. I am in a group of fiber artists, and we share our inspirations with each other. We have an inspiration thread on Ravelry where we share our inspiration pictures. I would love to be able to share your picture there, and I would give you full credit and even link to your blog if you like. I found your photos through a Google search for Tuareg. Your blog is wonderful! Thank you for sharing so much! Judy

  9. Hi Mama Jude,

    Thanks for your kind note. We are happy to hear that the picture has inspired you. Feel free to share the photo; thanks for asking permission. A link back to our site would be perfect. We would love to see any art that you create which is inspired by this picture.

    Steph & Craig

  10. The trip of a lifetime, it looks like you took in so much! I'm very jealous that you were able to see Mali first hand.