Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mali, the Country (2001)

As many of you probably know, Mali (West Africa) is a very poor country - the third poorest in the world. The vast majority of people live in small villages, many of which don't have electricity. The
Peace Corps and other agencies are working at improving the health of the people (the average life expectancy is about 43 years old) through the creation of wells, schools and clinics, but much needs to be done yet. Newly democratic (early 1990's), Mali is still learning how democracy fits in its traditional way of operating. The people are very proud of their heritage and culture and probably have some of the best preserved cultural practices in Africa. Like so many other countries in Africa, Mali was colonialized by the French; however they fought fiercely until the bitter end and never accepted
the french domination. With the exception of the Dogon people, most Malians call themselves Moslem. However, even that has not ever been fully adopted - the animist beliefs and traditions are still very strong. Bambara is the native tongue of the Malians - even educated people who know french would rather speak Bambara, especially within their family. Outside of Bamako and the other "large" towns, the average person doesn't even know french.

Even though the capital city Bamako has over a million people, it is more fitting to call it a sprawling village. With the exception of a few paved main roads, most of the city's roads are extremely bumpy dirt roads. During the dry season (from November through May) the roads get very dusty; during the rainy season, the potholes or bump indentations (or sometimes the entire road) fill with terracotta colored mud or water. Within Bamako, you will find a couple of tall buildings (a bank and a hotel), but most are modest. Most homes inhabited by the expatriates and others of "wealth" are larger, have beautiful flowering trees and gardens and have a swimming pool (nearly necessary in the hot season). By contrast, the typical Malian home in Bamako is smaller and is either made of crude cement bricks or the typical building material for Mali - mud bricks. While you will find a few cats around (we have some who indeed "cat fight" behind our house), the typical animal you will find roaming the streets are goats, sheep, chickens, donkeys and cattle. They graze on whatever they can find, including the multitude of plastic bags littering the streets. Unemployment is very high. Most live on what they can somehow make during that day. Paper money bills worth about a dollar or so are the most popular (and difficult to hold onto) monetary amounts. Prices are not fixed; nearly everything's prices are negotiable, with bargaining expected. People get around by a variety of means; donkey and cart, moped, walking, bicycle, baché's (green Peugot vans that are crowded to the max with people), taxi, or 4WD's.

Outside of Bamako life is a lot quieter, but not easier. Homes are almost solely built from mud bricks. Gathering water might be a chore. Clothes are washed by hand by the Niger River or other nearby water source. Just like in the pictures, almost everything is carried on the head, carefully balanced. Families practice sustenance agriculture. Even young children are expected to help out in the fields, prepare food, or care for their infant siblings. Nutrition is poor and people (especially the children) die from preventable illnesses, diseases or injuries. Even in the heat of the day you will find the women carrying on laborious manual labor. Families typically live in a walled compound, complete with a sparsely windowed (no glass) simple house. Animals freely roam throughout the active courtyard. Here, the typical transportation would include walking or using a donkey and cart.

The traditional arts are still very much alive in Mali. On the radio (the main means of transmitting information) you will hear music in the traditional style. The kora and balaphone are two popular instruments. Singers tell of Mali's history or reveal some other important message. Very rarely will you hear music that is Western (US or Europe) in origin. Music (like the Bamabara language was prior to the French) is passed down or learned through listening. Most women and some men still dress in boubous and other traditional clothing. Maskmaking, sculpting, and textile decoration is still done the way it was in past generations. Each ethnic group (such as the Bambara, Dogon, and Tuareg) each have their own preference for art materials, style, and technique.

Once a large impressive kingdom, Malians are very proud of their culture and history. Extended families are very important to the Malian society. One's honor and dignity directly correlates with that of the family. Polygamy is still practiced, as is female circumcision (even though it is forbidden by the government). Social customs (such as maintaining social harmony through joking) that go back for centuries are still practiced. The people are extremely friendly and warm. People greet each other in Bambara, asking how their family is, children, parents, and inquiring about the health or well-being of all. Hospitality is also stressed, with families providing meals for guests that they themselves could not afford to eat. If someone's car does not start or you are having difficulty carrying something, you will find plenty of eager helpers.

Mali is not without its problems. Litter (especially plastic bags) fill the streets and river banks. Sewers are open and unsanitary. Malaria sickens countless numbers of people, with cases being especially serious for those unable to access or afford malaria medication. Other diseases from unsafe water and other sources sicken people. Medical care in the villages is rare or nonexistent. Schools are understaffed, crowded and have little to no supplies. Lingering effects from the devastating drought still plagues the country.

In addition to pride, Malians also have hope. They are grateful for the assistance that some international agencies have provided, especially in the area of agriculture. Recent discovery of gold may finally provide Malians with the necessary resource to create improvements in roads and other items. The internet is providing Malians with a direct communicative link to the outside world. The African World Cup soccer event in 2002 to be held in Bamako and surrounding towns will bring the country needed revenue. In addition, tourism, epecially to Djenne, Timbuktu and Dogon country is steadily increasing, bringing needed revenue and exposure to an otherwise poor, unknown country.

Mali is difficult to capture through words only. I am constantly documenting what I have seen - the beauties of Mali (and the unusual) through photos, artwork, and video.

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