Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Niger River Trip to Timbuktu - 2002

Niger River Trip to Timbuktu
Although it is possible to reach the fabled city of Timbuktu by modern transportation (car or airplane), we chose to go by pinasse on the Niger River. Although it considerably lengthened our time spent in transit (a 4WD vehicle can go from Mopti to Timbuktu in about 6 hours), the nearly three days spent on the river up to Timbuktu and two days back to Mopti were romantic, leisurely, and filled with scenes that could come right out of National Geographic.
On the 26th of December, we boarded the pinasse in Mopti, the main port city in Mali. Many pirogues (narrow dugout canoes) had already docked on the shore, with the fishermen hastily unloading their morning catch. Making the journey to Timbuktu were the Director of AISB where I work, her adopted 8-year-old daughter, a music teacher from Kenya International School, our guide, the three-crew members of the boat, and me.

The Niger, Source of Life for many
As we departed Mopti, boys and young men in pirogues were throwing out their nets in hopes of catching capitane and other local fish. Typically, these fishermen would be from the Bozo ethnic group, traditional fishermen of the Niger. One could spot an occasional donkey cart on the shores of the river, as well as women washing clothes in the river, and special pumps with hoses that enabled nearby fields to be irrigated. Women pounded millet in much the same manner that their ancestors pounded the grain staple food. Children from the Bozo and Fulani (ethnic group that traditionally are the cattle herders) villages enthusiastically waved and greeted us as our pinasse (essentially a larger version of the pirogue boat and with a domed canopy woven from grasses) passed by. Suddenly children would come out of homes or stop their chores including tending the nets, pounding millet, or tending cattle.
Occasionally, another pinasse would pass us by, typically equipped with a larger motor. Some pinasses were transporting tourists to Timbuktu, including a boatload of Asian tourists equipped with camcorders, cameras, and other fancy gadgets. Other pinasses heavily laden with local passengers, produce, motor bikes, and even sheep.
In order to reach our destination in a timely manner, we knew that it was important to keep the boat moving rather than making stops. Fish was often purchased from the fishermen just pulling up their nets. It was cooked over a hot coal “stove” right on the boat. On the same hot surface water was heated for tea or Nescafe. Spaghetti and potatoes were other common meals. For dessert we had watermelon – for some reason, it was especially fun to spit the seeds out into the water.
Although it took us longer to reach our destination, our slower motor enabled us to see and enjoy the abundant activity occurring both in the water and along its shores. Near the Fulani village of Seweri, we had the opportunity to witness cattle crossing the river, sometimes with only their head, horns, and humped back sticking out of the water.
The Niger River, especially in the flood plain area around Mopti, is an ornithologist’s delight, filled with numerous types of birds, many of which are migratory. White herons, finches and kingfishers lined the shores. Others swooped through the sky in a huge flock, changing direction and color simultaneously. At times the river became rather narrow, enabling a closer view of life along the shore.

After a supper of fish caught by a Bozo fisherman and some rice cooked right on the boat, we watched the sunset be replaced by a full moon and a glorious array of stars. With the moon illuminating our way, the crew navigated until we reached the seasonal Lake Débo. The tents we pitched provided some protection against the mosquitoes and other pests, but not against the chilly air. We got up a little after 5:30 am so our boat could cross the lake before the waves got too rough. Even though the lake was quite wide, it was also rather shallow, with patches of weeds already showing up in areas. One could also see piles of sticks anchored but floating, indicating good fishing or the depth of the water.
The first village we stopped at was Aka. It had a mixture of people from the ethnic groups Bozo, Balla (former slaves of the Tuareg), Fulani, and Songhay. Like most villages along the river, it had no hospital, doctor, or even a school. The mud brick structures had a definite Moor influence, similar to some of the architecture I saw in Djenne. I found it rather ironic and amusing to see TV antennae amongst some of these mud structures. Near the village we spotted wild monkeys in the tall weeds.

Later on in the day we stopped in the village of Niafounki, home to Mali’s blues musician Ali Farkatouré. I was surprised at the large size of the town, complete with a bustling market. In the congested market, bras were being sold right next to a stall selling the to and other local foods, roots, enamel cookware, plastic goods, and huge hunks of dangling meat. In the street, women were baking pita-like bread in open stoves. Some of this was purchased, providing a break from the baguette bread we normally had for breakfast. In addition to the fish and vegetables purchased in the town, the local bread provided a wonderful supper. A little past the shores of Niafounki, we once again slept on the shores of the Niger.
Once again up at 5:40, we headed to our final destination, although slowed by rough waters. To get our fish for lunch, the crew parked the boat by a tiny village composed of temporary dwellings of the Songhay and Balla groups. We took this opportunity to meet the local people and stretch our legs. Some of the children were completely naked or scantily clothed. Others were dressed in ragged western clothes. Evidently not getting many light-skinned visitors, we were quite the curiosity to them. Small fish was being smoked over the hot coals. Chickens and sheep were wandering about. Prior to taking off, we gave the children (many with runny noses) some crackers and our empty water bottles.

For several different ethnic groups, the Niger River provided a livelihood as well as a source of life. The Bozo people are known as the fishermen. Especially prominent in the Niger River flood plain near Mopti, they can be seen throwing out nets or special traps to catch capitane and other fish. Their homes are typically made from mud brick, sometimes with a roof covered with grass. The Fulani traditionally are the cattle herdsmen. They wander in search for grass and water for their cattle. The Songhay are more common closer to Timbuktu. They often grow rice in the wet season and either raise cattle or fish, especially in the dry season. Some homes of the Songhay people are mud brick while others are more temporary. The Balla people, former slaves of the Tuareg people, are essentially a mixture of different ethnic groups stripped of their identity. Along the Niger, the Balla try to survive through fishing. Like their Tuareg counterparts, the Balla typically live in non-permanent domed tent-like homes and can be rather nomadic.

Along the shore, vegetation began changing from the grassy and almost marshy areas nearer Mopti to few to no shrubs in the sandy soil. Some trees were growing in the water, most likely on dry land during the height of the dry season. During the third day on the boat, the shore became sandier. One could see where the level of the water had been during the rainy season, carved in the sandy ground.

Ever nearing our destination, we spotted a hippo. At first only the uppermost part of its head and body was sticking out of the water. Then it gave a half-hearted yawn. Anxiously watching the unusual site until it was beyond our view, we were once again reminded why the slower river travel is also a more memorable method. The river’s edge began changing from the green provided by the flood plain to fringes of the Sahara. Tiny villages continued to dot the river’s edge. I found it so odd to see TV antennae in these remote and sometimes transient villages with no running water and solar panels providing the means of power for the televisions. A few donkeys and even some horses were seen, typically hitched to a cart or doing other manual labor.

At 5:05 pm, our cabin fever was relieved as we arrived in Koroumé, the river village nearest to Timbuktu. Several pinasses were docked, including some that had passed us along the way. After loading our belongings into a 4WD, we began the final 10km to Timbuktu – on a paved road! I was surprised to see rice fields along the tree-lined road, an area that at one time was part of the Niger. People were living in makeshift tents right off the fields and busy road. Some were riding donkeys. Other donkeys were piled high with grasses. Women were seen wearing cloth veils around their head to provide shelter from the sun and dust. Some trees even grew in water. Suddenly the trees gave way to shrubs and sand. We were in the fringes of the Sahara. The road as we entered the fabled city changed to sand, in some places rather deep. Almost immediately upon arrival, I went out to photograph the sunset. At first I could see the white sands right up to the pink sky. Then the Tuareg temporary shelters became silhouetted as the sun went down. I was pleasantly surprised that the temperature was comfortable. Our hotel was right on the edge of the Sahara. Outside, children were playing soccer. I could spot a school and some other more “modern” buildings.

The next morning, we toured the rather sleepy Timbuktu. As the wind kicked up the sand, it was rather difficult to imagine that even 30 years ago the Niger River ran through Timbuktu. At present Timbuktu only receives about 100 mm of rain a year, coming down in short but torrential rainfall. The sandy streets were wider than those in Djenné. In fact, some were quite wide. All were covered with rather loose sand, some with animal droppings. The soft, fine, white sand made walking a little more difficult and required drivers to go faster in order to not get stuck. Unfortunately sections of the city and even the bushes in the desert were littered with plastic bags and other rubbish of modern society. Women were baking loaves of bread in outdoor ovens, sliding their pan through sand before slapping a lump of dough on them and then into the oven. Indeed, the rather flat bread did have a slightly sandy texture. Other women were pounding millet. In addition, I saw a man making mud bricks by hand, much like his ancestors probably made. The occasional man with a turban covering his face and some tourists going to specific destinations were also observed. Given the fame and mystique of the city, I was surprised that there wasn’t a more organized tourist souvenir presence, such as postcards, T-shirts with Timbuktu on them and even the Tuaregs selling their work.
Many of the homes had old doors adorned with silver decorations and small red pieces of red cloth behind the silver shapes. Some buildings had fancier wooden Moroccan-style windows, especially on the second floor.

First we toured Djingareiber (meaning “big mosque” in Songhay), the oldest mosque in Timbuktu. Architects from southern Spain built the mud façade structure in 1325. Taking off my sandals, I entered a mosque for the first time. The hallway was rather dark, with the only light coming from the entry. Many of the 390 pillars (stone covered with mud) had oscillating fans attached to them. Although the temperature was currently quite pleasant, the fans were likely essential during the oppressive heat (sometimes over 47°C) occurring much of the year. In one of the rather dark passageways, three wooden pieces protruded from the wall, now worn smooth by the multitude of hands touching them for purification. In the 16th century the mosque, preferred for Friday worship, was expanded. A separate worship area was designated for the women. There also was a covered courtyard that was a popular place for prayer during the week. Every morning a man still goes up the minaret to perform the call to prayer, without the use of loudspeakers or other artificial means. From the rooftop we had a good view of the city including the encroaching Sahara Desert.

Although Timbuktu currently is a fraction of its religious dominance held during its golden age, there are reminders of Islam all around, including over 300 holy men buried all over the city. In fact, Timbuktu might be considered as an alternative place to come instead of making the journey to Mecca. In addition, the city still is part of the salt route. The very heavy and hard slabs take 18 days to arrive by camel in Timbuktu from the salt mines deep in the Malian Sahara.

After touring the mosque, we proceeded down the sandy streets. We passed the preserved home where René Caille lived. In front of the mosque Sidi Yehia, a group of girls played a game, singing and dancing in a circle. Although not impressive in terms of size or overall architectural beauty (it had no minarets), the mosque did have wooden doors adorned with silver symbolic ornaments including the moon and stars. We then went to Boctou’s well, the place where Timbuktu was founded. The city is named after Bouctou (whose name means “lady with a big navel) and Tim means “well (or water).” On the same property as the small well was a modest museum. On the door were two circles, with the larger top silver circle representing men and the smaller bottom circle representing women. A narrow ring connected the two, representing the mysterious link between men and women. Near the top of the door was a dove-like design, signifying peace. Next to the dove were small raised circles representing the number of children the family had. Other symbols are unique to the family, protecting the family. Inside the museum there was a nice collection of Tuareg musical instruments. According to the guide, women make the instruments and play the string instruments, while the men often play the drums. I was particularly interested in the N’djerbâ, an instrument that looked like the forerunner of the violin, complete with a bow shaped more like a hunting bow. In addition to instruments, the small museum’s collection also consisted of clothing. The gofa was a dress worn during the initiation ceremony, typically after being married. Quite similar to the Tuareg women I saw perform at the Ambassador’s residence in Bamako, the women would interweave gold items into their hair. They also would wear ankle bracelets. Such a costume often was an heirloom, passed down the generations.

Our next main stop involved visiting the manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba library. In the small room lit by a single fluorescent light were precious religious manuscripts. Many of the aged handwritten manuscripts were stored in glass bookcases or a metal cabinet. The most rare or old manuscripts were enclosed in a glass display table. Others were simply piled on the table. Efforts are being made to gather religious manuscripts all over the country to be preserved and stored at the Ahmed Baba center. Ahmed Baba, for whom the library is named, was a highly intelligent scholar deported to Morocco to use his scholarly skills. Refusing to offer his assistance, Ahmed was exiled in Morocco for 14 years. After being freed by the prince of Morocco he went back to Timbuktu where he preserved manuscripts and wrote many more.
After the typical noon siesta, we began preparing for a late afternoon camel ride. I proceeded to put on my hiking shoes when I realized that something was in my right shoe. Thinking that it was merely some debris accumulated during our boat trip, I stuck my right hand in the shoe toe area to scrape out the debris. Unfortunately the “debris” stung me, providing an instant combination of burning, throbbing, and pain. Instead of touring the market, I spent the time at the clinic in Timbuktu, receiving treatment for an unknown (it disappeared as someone shook out the shoe) insect. With my right ring finger bandaged and still quite painful, I was determined to still to on the camel ride. Starting a short distance past the hotel, we mounted our camels and began the slow and bumpy 40-minute ride into the Sahara. The surroundings included scrub bushes, thorn bushes, the occasional desert beetle, and lots of white sand. As we got closer to the Tuareg encampment, we could see small herds of goats, some Tuareg men in their traditional turban, and some children playing. Unfortunately we also saw behind a sand dune a pile of alcohol cans, obviously left by some tourists. Not only did the cans litter and mar the landscape, they also served as a terrible example of tourist invasion and alteration of the environment.

Shortly after we arrived, we were led by our Tuareg guide to a group of women, all of whom were dressed in indigo cloth. With their bronze-colored skin, fine features and smooth black hair, their appearance contrasted sharply with members of other Malian ethnic groups. They began singing a response echo began by one of the women. Two women played simple drums balanced on two flip-flops, whose tension and pitch was altered with the addition of small amounts of water or sand. The old woman who expertly drummed the rather repetitive rhythm especially intrigued me. Next to her was a toddler wearing a shirt but nothing on the bottom. Flies covered the child’s light-skinned face that was struggling to smile. As the women began clapping a rhythm, I could see the blue dye of the indigo on their hands, giving credence to their nickname “blue men of the North.” A few men in traditional Tuareg flowing clothing (also blue) and turbans revealing only their eyes began a mock sword demonstration.
Following the customary sweet tea in tiny glasses the size of shot glasses, we were obliged to look at the goods created by the Tuareg salesmen. Some laid out leather boxes, others silver jewelry, others had embellished swords and knifes with leather sheathes. I bought a small camel leather spice purse whose symbolic etched designs were colored by dyes from local plants. We then made the camel ride back to the city. Walking by moonlight, our Tuareg guide led us to a nice restaurant. Here we had a meal of lamb, and a wheat grain in a shape of a bun, similar to a large dumpling. A flavorful sauce enhanced the dish. After eating we greeted the staff members of the travel guide series Lonely Planet that had been traveling throughout Mali gathering data and photos to make a guidebook. Across from the restaurant we could see a monument being constructed. Called “Place de la Famne de la Paix” (place of the flame of peace), it is the place where 10,000 people watched as 3,000 weapons of Tuareg rebels and the Malian army were burned in 1996.

Return River Trip
We stopped at the village of Sebi for fish. A number of older men were gathered around a circle, playing Wali, a popular Songhay strategy game using stones and sticks. The men were quite involved in the game, throwing down sticks or smooth stones in succession. Showing them the short clip I had videotaped of the game action, the group was quite enamored, pointing out their position on the LCD screen and a particularly strategic move. Another man was repairing a small fish net would typically be placed in shallow water for one or two days. Just prior to leaving the village, we were asked if we had any medicine to give. Uneducated about the correct usage and risks of medicine, the villagers of this remote village believed that western medicine was like magic candy and could automatically be of benefit.
We stopped for fish at the village of Dagna. Even though we stayed in the boat, we were treated to an unusual sight – boys were sitting atop small bundles of carefully tied sticks, using a pole to navigate the shallow water. In a carefree manner, the boys seemed to enjoy their little game. A couple expertly stood up on the bundle, balancing them. The whole situation reminded me of the ingenuity of Malian children – they can have fun with simple things and will make the toys out of nothing if necessary. That night the boat continued traveling until 10:30 pm, navigating by the full moon, which was occasionally partly veiled by thin clouds. As I huddled under my blankets in the small tent, I could hear dogs and the strong waves lapping against the shore and parked boat.
The next morning, or second day on the boat, we got up around 5:40 am. Breakfast consisted of the bread from Timbuktu (slightly sandy) and jelly. We saw many birds, including the small birds that flock together, simultaneously changing directions.

In contrast to the way up to Timbuktu, the water was very calm on the way back. This provided a smoother ride, faster time and wonderful reflections in the water. After sunset, the sky became filled with a beautiful array of stars. The moon took its time to finally shine, but when it did it was full and bright. In hopes of reaching Mopti at an earlier time, we decided to travel a little longer by boat during the night before stopping for the night. Suddenly several fish jumped on the boat. Too small to eat, I threw them back in the water. Shortly after, several more jumped in. All total, we had 8 fish join us on the pinasse. At 9:30pm, we arrived at the sandy shores of a village. Since it was noisy and would not provide restful sleep, we decided to continue on, traveling all night in hopes of reaching Mopti by late morning. Late at night, the sudden landing of the boat on the shore awakened me – the boat driver had dozed off. It took the efforts of all the crew members to push the boat into navigable waters. At about 4 am, we arrived in Mopti and slept on the boat until a more reasonable hour.
After taking a shower and putting on clean clothes at Mac’s Refuge in Sevare, we finally felt human again. I recharged my camcorder and digital camera batteries, knowing that there wouldn’t be such electrical opportunities in Dogon. After a wonderful home-cooked Chinese-thematic meal including egg drop soup and sweet-sour pork, we went to bed early that night. The next morning we had a hearty breakfast including buckwheat pancakes (toppings included guava jam, bissop, mint, or maple syrup) and rice pudding.

We then left left for Dogon. The road which was a dusty construction path last year was now completed – the paved road made the trip to Bandigiara smooth and quick. Some notebooks and pens were purchased for the school in Kondou and the essential kola nuts were also purchased.
Three hours after we started from Mopti, we arrived in the large Dogon village of Sangha. The 4WD was parked and our bags unloaded. Proceeding with some porters who carried our luggage and boxes of bottled water on their heads, we started heading down the escarpment. The view was beautiful, but you also had to be mindful of your footing, especially with the many loose rocks and narrow paths. We stopped for lunch and a break in Banani. While waiting for our meal of sauce and rice, we had a coke and then went to a few shops full of Dogon woodcarvings. For good or bad, I didn’t bring much money with me and so I didn’t buy anything. The village seemed a little too touristy to me and the prices were high. We also observed a man who, in addition to having a mental problem, also had a drinking problem. He went around asking people if they had millet beer or if some money could be given so he could purchase some. Our Dogon guide Boubacar gave him a kola nut, hoping that the nut with a caffeine buzz would appeal to him for at least a while.

Late afternoon we reached the plains entrance to the village of Neni. While waiting for the masked dance to start, we were shown some museum-quality Tellem artifacts that a Dogon man had for sale. Admiring the good condition of the pieces and small size of the wooden spoon and bowl (the Tellem were the size of pygmies), we replied that we couldn’t purchase the pieces but thanked him for showing us. A few women were preparing for a funeral as well, putting on their best dress and jewelry. At the appointed hour we began our ascent to the main part of the village. Along the way we saw a colorful blanket carefully folded up and placed on a rock. Shanti (the impulsive and inquisitive 8 year old with us) was about to touch the blanket when our guide told us that the blanket was used during the funeral process and, as a consecrated object must not be touched.

Villagers and a couple tourists began gathering around the flat spot where the masked dance was to occur, climbing on the many rocks to get a good view. Drums invited the masked dancers to come forth, moving in rhythmical patterns. Aside from some variations, we saw many of the same type of masks as we did last year in Pelou, a village in southern Dogon. Most masks were carved out of wood, with a woven cloth covering the wearer’s back of head, a fiber bikini-style top covered with conch shells and colorful (using the resin from the l’anea resin tree) grass skirts, anklets and bracelets. I identified the rabbit, antelope, kanaga, hunter, and maison mask. Each type of mask seemed to have its own particular move, with the kanaga swooping its head/mask in a circular fashion and the maison mask leaping high into the air while balancing the tall mask. Showing its strength and control, the maison mask then carefully bent its head down until the tall thin mask finally touched the ground in front of him and then repeat the process tipping the mask backwards until it touched the ground in back of him. Next a hunter mask came out with a spear, engaging in a duel with an older Dogon man wearing a Fulani hat and cane. Adague, guardian of the environment, wore a fibrous mask with what looked like several eyes. It had a leather-like shield and an axe, and also engaged in the duel.

After the masked dance the funeral began. The funeral could be thought of more like a memorial service, in that the dead person had been buried for some time already. This was a chance for friends and family from distant villages to gather and remember the dead woman. According to our Dogon guide Boubacar, the funeral (a non-masked ceremony since it was for a woman) typically would last for five days. The mostly woman funeral procession began dancing and singing in a line in the crowded area. Drums accompanied the singing, occasionally enhanced by the sound of plastic whistles. In a small area near the drummers, a man and woman took off their sandals and began dancing as if communicating with each other. Then the woman began dancing solo and blowing a whistle, with the sleeping baby tied to her back bouncing up and down. Although I would have liked to stay longer, it was time for us to leave and set up our base in Kondou. Lit by the moonlight, the walk to the village was pleasant.
Although the accommodations were quite simple, the hotel was packed. Tables in the sandy courtyard were filled with tourists from Germany, France, and other countries. People set up tents in the courtyard or on the flat roof of the hotel buildings. People were waiting in line to wash up in the outdoor stalls with a bucket and others wanted to use the outdoor bathroom stall consisting of a hole in the ground behind a beautiful carved wooden door. Our hotel room was simple as well, consisting of a table, two windows, a fluorescent light, and a cane bed with a thin mattress and single sheet almost covering the mattress surface, and inch-thick foam for a pillow. Looking around the room, I could find no electric outlets. I became even more grateful that I had the opportunity to recharge batteries while at Mac’s Refuge in Sevaré. Luckily many of the hotel guests that had been rather noisy during the night left the next morning. For the next two nights the hotel was much less congested.

In the morning we left for the villages of Youga Nah and Youga Dogourou. I choose to ride on the cow cart, anticipating a challenging climb. A few boys joined us, indicating that they had nothing better to do. While trekking up the rocky escarpment, we encountered an older man who was blind, weaving a shallow bowl out of local grasses. After purchasing a bowl and giving the kindly man a kola nut, we continued our trek upward. Periodically we paused for a few moments for a mini-break, drinking water and capturing a panoramic view of the plains and escarpment climbed so far. Even in these steep, rocky areas one could see evidence of millet stalks and other crops carefully planted and then harvested in the tiny areas of ground. In a small opening between some stone houses was a narrow loom, with the sizeable amount of the white fabric already accumulated around a narrow bolt. In another spot in Yougou Na, we saw a fetish, which essentially looked like a tall mound of mud covered with white millet porridge.
Continuing our trek, we reached Yougo Dougourou, the village where the tradition of mask originated. Climbing up a little further, we reached the toguna where we found the hogon of the village. Small in stature, the older man with a white beard and eyebrows, simple indigo cloth shirt and cotton Dogon hat, and held a carved walking stick. He walked and spoke with a commanding presence. The hogon and another man in the toguna began drinking millet beer, a favorite to the Dogon. Boubacar gave the gentle hogon a few kola nuts, accepted a drink of the beer from the large calabash, thanked the hogon for his hospitality, and then we continued on. Nestled in between the Tellem dwellings high in the cliffs, was the place where the hogon originally lived. After spending some time marveling at the architectural wonders of both the Dogon and their Tellem predecessors, we made our way back down to the village encampment. Here we rested, had a coke, read, and had lunch before heading back to Kondou.

Our final trekking day consisted of visiting the Kondou villages up on the escarpment and the important place called Arou. We began climbing up the rocky hill right behind the hotel, up to Kondou Ginna. Like the typical Dogon village, granaries (used for storing grain and other valuables) were made out of mud, with a thatched conical roof protecting the contents during deluges of the rainy season. To protect the precious contents from vermin such as rats, the granaries are raised from the ground with piled stones. At one granary, the beautifully carved window was opened, and the young girl who had climbed up the ladder began hauling down some of the millet to make into food. Homes were more often made out of rocks and/or mud and had a flat roof.

Continuing further up the escarpment, we came to Kondou Kekeni. Here we saw some monkey skulls imbedded into the stone surface. Mindful of the knowledgeable advice or our Dogon guide, we did not take photos or attempt to touch the important site. Like in some other villages, residents had quickly laid out some wooden carvings, eager for a sale. They even offered us some millet beer; I took a sip of the warm locally-brewed beer. Boubacar also showed us a source of drinking water, located below a large sheet of escarpment rock. In order to preserve the quality of the drinking water, those wanting to go down to the water had to take off their shoes.

Finally we reached the topmost village Kondou Da, where we would spend some time exploring and resting. Just beyond the village one could see a green valley. It was a large garden with onions, tobacco, eggplant, squash, mangoes, calabashes, lettuce, papaya, spices, potatoes, and other items. Water was carried in calabashes from a nearby pond, seemingly protected by a crocodile perched on a rock. The crocodile seemed to be enjoying itself, as if it knew that the revered nature of the crocodiles would provide safety. Beneath some jutting rocks, Boubacar pointed out some human skeletons and bones. For lunch and our daily siesta, we stayed at a nice encampment, complete with cane cots and foam pads, flowers, and beautiful carved wooden doors. To pass the time, I enjoyed looking at the wooden carvings and artifacts in the small boutique. No one complained about the higher prices for cokes in remote villages such as this, since such items had to be carried up the steep, rocky escarpment. As we left the village, we encountered a fetish on a large rock, with the fetish rock upright and smaller ones around it. The number of fetishes spotted and placement of them was intriguing.

Following our siesta, we continued our trek to Arou, the place where the highest Hogon resided. People represented from each village come to offer sacrifices here for rain. The high Hogon is the important decision-maker for the Dogon, and even is consulted as a representative of the Dogon in political matters of the country. After climbing even higher, we finally reached the small home where the gatekeeper of Arou lived. Prior to going up to the ginna, the elderly gatekeeper told us that his wife was suffering from an eye ailment and wondered if we had anything that might be of help. All we had for her swollen eye area (which looked like conjunctivitis or similar eye condition) was some Tylenol. After giving her some advice/instructions, we proceeded up the rocks to the hogon and temple, with the gatekeeper going before us to announce our presence to the hogon. At the foot of a large baobab tree was a circular path. Boubacar instructed us to enter in a clockwise direction. The other way was reserved for people of special status. The Hogon was sitting in the low-roofed toguna next to the ginna. He welcomed us and indicated that it was an honor to have us as guests. The high hogon was simply dressed in white with the traditional strip-sewn cloth and a small white hat. Neither his placement, voice, or dress marked any significance; neither did he exert his authority in our presence. A rooster and hen were running about. The ginna temple in Arou was the largest ginna in all Dogon. It had 9 rounded points on top of the retangular-shaped façade, with 8 ostrich eggs on top of the points (one of the points didn’t have an egg). Even though there was a door opening, it was not possible to see inside the religious building. Above the door were 8 narrow vertical openings, representing the 8 ancestors. The hogon was presented with some money for photography, a small handful of kola nuts, and a reply of thankfulness. At that time we headed down towards the plains, taking the longer but less strenuous route near the village of Ibi. On the sandy road we saw a chameleon making its way to some dry grass. According to Boubacar, sighting of a chameleon is a sign of good luck. Grubby with sweat and dust, we all eagerly took a bucket bath that night before our meal.
With the Director’s large female wooden sculpture carefully placed in the 4WD’s luggage rack and our luggage in the back of the vehicle, we began our journey out of Dogon. Honoring our promise to the man we saw at Neni with the Tellem artifacts, we went to a small village near Neni and Ibi and went into his boutique. In these two rooms lit only by a few small windows, were Tellem and Dogon artifacts. After marveling at the wonderful collection of artifacts, we suggested that perhaps instead the man might want to charge a small amount to see the museum-quality pieces. Feeding and providing for his family now was more important to him than any delayed compensation of museum admission fees.

As the driver skillfully manipulated the vehicle through the narrow curvy roads up the escarpment near Banani, we decided to stop to appreciate the wonderful view. Before us were the villages of Banani Amou, Banani Kokoro, Banani Bassirou, and Banani Na, occupying spots below, on, and above the rocky escarpment. Driving further up the escarpment, we stopped at Komo Ouguro, site of a Tellem village in a cave. Once inside the cave, we were able to walk right up to the purely Tellem village. Some of the buildings made from mud brick were in ruins; others were rather well preserved. Each building seemed to be founded on a separate stone slab. Next to these small buildings, bricks still bearing the deep fingerprints of the masons were evident. I also saw some rocks with a deep bowl-shaped indentation, probably used for the extraction of oil. It was a wonderful opportunity to see Tellem architecture in a settlement occupied and used only by these mysterious people.

On the outskirts of a Sangha, we stopped at a place that initially looked non-descript to me. Here was a small version of the fetishes we had seen in some of the other villages. In addition, there were some markings drawn into the sand, with sticks and stones occupying strategic positions inside the long, narrow oval. Warning us not to disturb the fragile design, Boubacar then explained to us that it was created by a diviner. First the sticks, stones are placed and special symbols drawn in the sand. Based on the changes occurred as jackals walking through the design at night, the diviner interprets the results and makes predictions about what will happen in the life of the person seeking consultation.

Following a lunch at the Swiss hotel/restaurant Cheval Blanc, we drove out of Bandigiara, the main entry village into Dogon. Prior to our departure of the Dogon area, we drove past a village that was having market day. People, dressed up in their better clothes, were on donkey carts heading to or from the village. Some were hauling firewood and large bags of produce. Women, walking in colorful dresses, were carrying plastic buckets full of tomatoes and other produce. For quite some distance we met people either going to or returning from the market, eager to buy or sell goods.

Back to Bamako
Late afternoon we reached Mac’s Refuge in Sevare, where we once again treated ourselves to a shower and some home-cooked meals. The next morning we headed off on the long drive back to Bamako. As soon as the 4WD stopped in the Sevare gas station, a number of locals headed towards the vehicle in hopes for a sale of items including Fulani blankets, jewelry, hats, shoes, cigarettes, and produce.
Between Sevare and the town of San, we passed through villages also holding markets. Many people on donkey carts and the occasional horse-pulled carts were making their way to the market. Others were walking, carrying large loads in baskets expertly balanced on their heads. Boys pushed small carts with a pole full of chickens balanced on it. Other kids held up guinea hens, hoping for a roadside sale. Along the way we passed by seasonal riverbeds, now completely dry and sandy. On the road we passed large white passenger trucks, crammed with people in back and gourds, sheep, sacks, plastic bowls, and other goods piled high and tied down on the roof. Sometimes there were even people on top of that! Some larger trucks hauled sheep on the bottom, and large numbers of people filling every spare inch of the open area. Our driver had to constantly be aware of hazards on the road, including slow-moving donkey carts, potholes, and animals such as goats, sheep, cattle, and donkeys attempting to cross the narrow paved road.

In Segou, numerous signs indicated the upcoming COCAN, the all-Africa soccer tournament held starting in mid-January in 5 regions of Mali. New restaurants were built; lodging, stores and roads with streetlights were added. New soccer stadiums were erected. I hope that Mali and its citizens reap great rewards from the tournament, both in the immediate future and for some time to come.

As we neared the capital city of Bamako, darkness began to envelop the area. A curious white fog seemed to hang in the distance towards Bamako. The closer we got to the city, the worse the “fog” was. We then realized that the “fog” burning our eyes and making it difficult to breathe was created by burning garbage – a practice encouraged in order to clear the area of garbage prior to the tournaments. Our thirteen-day trip was now over. The next day we started school, adding with it all the familiar routines.

Mali is a country with people proud of their tradition. Despite the numerous cultures and ethnic groups, people generally co-exist peacefully. Life is not easy – most are in subsistence mode, barely able to make enough money or grow enough crops to support their family. Many things are still done as they were hundreds of years ago. New technology and ways of doing things are gradually encroaching, even into isolated areas. It remains to be seen whether the introductions will be positive or harmful to the culture, environment, and overall way of life. Although poor financially, Mali is rich in its diversity and warmth of people. Once again, I have had the pleasure and opportunity to witness this.

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