User:Christa Sinz/letters/a trip to Mali

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Hello Everyone, I am finally sitting down to begin writing my travelogue of my most recent trip. Hello Everyone, I am finally sitting down to begin writing my travelogue of my most recent trip.

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Image:Christa in Africa-a trip to Mali.gif

Hello Everyone, I am finally sitting down to begin writing my travelogue of my most recent trip.


From Friday, December 18, 1998, until Friday, January 1, 1999, Fred and I were in Mali. Unlike most trips, where I write in a daily journal, I did not keep a journal of this trip. So, writing this travelogue will be difficult and it will most certainly be without color. I will try my best.

Mali is the largest country in West Africa and it shares Cote d’ Ivoire’s northern border. A good portion of the country is in the Saharan Desert. The country’s greatest threat is desertification, which threatens virtually all parts of the country, which are not desert already. The city named "Timbuktu" is actually in Mali. It is in Mali, where you can see the great Niger River, nomads on camels crossing the desert, and ancient mosques dating from medieval times, when the trans-Saharan trade routes dominated West African economic life. Other highlights include Mopti, a busy Niger River port. Nearby is D’Jenne, Mali’s best-preserved city from the medieval period. Also on the Niger River is Bamako, Mali’s capital city. Unfortunately, Mali is one of the world’s five poorest countries -- life expectancy is 44 years, average calorie intake is about 30% below the required minimum, and a mortality rate of about 15% among children less than one year old. Seventeen years ago, Fred was a Peace Corps volunteer in San, Mali. Fred currently lives in the Dominican Republic. He organized this entire trip back to his old stomping grounds. Fred speaks French fluently and can still speak the local tribal language of "Bambara." Needless to say, it made traveling fun and easy with Fred leading the way.

After school let out on Friday, December 18, 1998, we flew to the capital city of Bamako and were met at the airport by Valerie, a teacher at the international school in Bamako. We stayed in the Le Grande Hotel, just north of the city center. We coincidentally met up with 4 colleagues from ICSA, who were staying at the Le Grande. It was late and I was tired from a stressful week at work … so, I went straight to bed. Fred joined my colleagues for dinner before getting some sleep. The next morning was spent trying to find a ride to Mopti or to D’Jenne. The bus had already left by the time we got up. We were considering taking the night bus that evening when Fred met a Swiss man and his Austrian wife (Roman and Eva). This couple has been living in Africa for well over 30 years and has lived in Mopti/Sevare for many years. They were on their way back home after an extended visit in Switzerland. They were renting a car and did not mind if we rode with them to Mopti/Sevare. We finally got the show on the road around 1:00pm. We had an 8.5 hour drive ahead of us. As luck would have it, the sun was shining into the car on MY side … so, it became a very LONG 8.5 hours.

The scenery and climate is quite different from Abidjan. It is an arid and barren place. From the sandy, brown surroundings it is obvious that we are close to the desert. The plants are very hearty, woody, short shrubs. Harmattan Season is in full swing. This is the time of the year when the hot, dry, dusty winds blow south from the Sahara. With the window rolled down, you are immediately covered in an orange/brown dust ? your hair, eyelashes, mouth, ears, clothing, etc. The massive Baobab trees are the only things that spring up out of the otherwise flat and barren landscape. The Baobab tree is an important plant to the Malian people. Each part of the twisted tree is used for something. The branches reach out from the trunk in twisted and contorted angles … looking almost like roots in the air.

The river port town of Segou marks the halfway point. We stop at L’Auberge for lunch. The best place to eat and meet, remembers Fred from his Peace Corp days. L’Auberge was one of his main hangout places in Segou.

We finally make it to Sevare shortly before 10pm. We arrange for the driver to bring us to D’Jenne the next morning. We find a hotel, grab a bite to eat, and go to sleep. The next morning (Sunday), we arrive at the pirogue that will take us across the Bani River to the ancient city of D’Jenne. Pirogues are long thin canoes usually paddled by hand ? a man with a long pole actually "pushes" us across the river (just like in Venice). D’Jenne is a town built in the 9th century on an island in the Niger River Delta. Little has changed here for centuries. Almost all of the houses are made of mud and have thatched roofs, making the town blend in with the environment. We find accommodation at Chez Baba. We share our mud-floor, thatched roof, open window room with two other travelers from Australia. Of course, the toilet is across the compound and is just a hole in the ground. They actually do have a shower here ? in an outhouse. We head out to explore the hot, dry, dusty, brown village and are immediately accompanied by several children. One, named Mohammed, stuck around for both days of our visit. We affectionately named him "Jordan" after he named me "Cardija Sisi." He said that "Christa" was too difficult to pronounce. He could not speak any English or French …just Bambara. Jordan managed to show us around town and get us to see many things we would not have discovered ourselves. Later in the day, a deaf-mute took us to see the blacksmiths of the village as well as many other artisans and craftsmen. We saw pots, bike parts, car parts, jewelry, etc being made. Of course, as in Korhogo, the blacksmiths work using very traditional methods. It is so fascinating to see them work on their craft while sitting on the floor of their simple mud huts. The town was quiet and peaceful that Sunday morning. But … by late afternoon and early evening, the western tourists started showing up by the busloads. They were all coming to see the village on Market Day ? Monday. Fred found it important for me to see the village for an entire day before Market day and then to see it on Market Day. I am so glad that we did that. The transformation is unbelievable!

So … Sunday evening the four of us get ready for bed. We lay our sleeping bags and blankets out on the floor and very proudly hang both our nifty mosquito nets from nails in the ceiling. I traipse across the compound to a spigot where I wash up and brush my teeth. Ben and Leonie find a much simpler method … they just brush their teeth in the room and spit out the window. Both Fred and I are very excited to have finally arrived in D’Jenne and we are even more excited about our rustic accommodations. We crawl under the mosquito net and get comfortable. Throughout the night, I kept getting bit by mosquitoes. I couldn’t understand it … we were under the mosquito net! So, I get up and spray some DEET on me … hoping that will work to keep the mosquitoes away. It didn’t. Then I realized that there was a hole in the net right by my head. The mosquitoes found a way into our "protected haven." I fix the problem and am finally able to sleep. The next morning I wake up with over 15 bites on my face, an additional 11 on my neck, well over 30 on one arm, and many more scattered all over my body. Of course, all of the bites were swollen and red and ITCHED!! Boy, was I ever a sight! There was not one mark on Fred! This annoying night in D’Jenne will prove to be an important night later in the trip.

We are told by another local child that the people from far away places will start to enter the village at around 10:00 am to set up their space in the open-air market. Some people travel for many hours just to come to this weekly market. The market is always held in front of the giant well-known mosque ? also made completely out of mud. (Each year after the rainy season, many buildings have to be rebuilt or repaired … including the mosque. The rain just destroys them.) The square is already a busy place as the local "merchants" set up their tables or lay out the blanket upon which they will display their wares. Ben, Leonie, Fred and I make our way to the edge of the village. Now, D’Jenne is on an island and there are no bridges. So, everyone coming to the village must come by pirogue or by ferry. As we stand there, we can see donkey and horse carts in the distance, coming from every direction. They are all crossing the pathless, sandy landscape … coming to a halt only once they’ve reached the water’s edge just outside of D’Jenne. There, they stop and wait in one large indiscernible group, waiting for their turn to cross the river. It was absolutely amazing watching this massive traffic jam on the other side of the river. The pirogues were loaded down with men, women, and children each carrying bags full of potential income. The large carts were also balanced on pirogues with the wheels hanging over either side of the pirogue just centimeters above the surface of the water. The cattle, donkeys, and horses then swam or walked across the river alongside the pirogues carrying their owners. What a sight!

On this side of the river, the town was bustling with activity. Donkey carts were racing back and forth down the streets … to and from the market … each time bringing more goods and people. Soon the once large and empty square was transformed into a crowded, colorful, and busy market place. Women wearing colorful traditional cloth sit in groups on the ground with piles of chili peppers, fish, millet cakes, fruit, and vegetables spread out in front of them. Throughout the day, children can be seen playing nearby and toddlers can be seen nursing while the mothers are engaged in conversation, trading, bargaining, or selling. The men are also busy selling medicine, empty plastic water bottles, cigarettes, pots, tools, meat, and other wares. Several men are at the large grills grilling fish and other slabs of meat. It is unbelievable how much was carted across a virtual desert and then across a river (by small pirogues, no less) and into this town. Every time I looked around, I kept thinking "… and in a couple of hours all of that needs to be carted back."

Ben, Leonie, Fred, and I hire a car to take us back to Mopti. Our driver ends up being a scrupulous finagler and we manage to get taken for a ride … in the literal and figurative sense of the word. This 130 km ride ends up taking twice as long as it should and ends up being an adventure. Among other things, we run out of gas three times before finally reaching Mopti. By the third time, we decide to get out and push the car until we can find some gas. Luckily, within 2 km a generous elderly man fills our empty water bottle with gas from his motorbike and we make it to Sevare to get gas.

We check into our hotel and head off to Bar Bozo, in the hopes of catching the sunset over the Niger River. Mopti is one of the main tourist hubs in Mali. The town stands on an area of high ground, surrounded by swamp and water every rainy season, and linked to the mainland proper by a 12 km causeway constructed by the French during colonial times. Walking down the streets of Mopti becomes an adventure in trying to pleasantly say "no thank you" 100+ times within 2 km to the constant barrage of Malians offering their services as guides … guides for just about anything under the sun. The next day, we finally ask to speak to Issa Ballo. Issa is a guide for the Dogon country. We got his name from several friends in Abidjan who hired him as their guide and spoke very highly of him. We decide to hire him as a guide as well. This was the best decision we ever made … for many reasons … not the least of which being that after hiring Issa, all we had to do was say Issa’s name and all of the other Malians offering their services immediately left us alone. It is obvious that Issa is well known and respected in Mopti. Mopti has a busy and colorful harbor. On the banks of the river, amid all of the garbage and sewage, there are merchants selling their wares, men repairing fishing nets and cardboard boxes, families preparing fish, men bathing, women washing clothes, and children playing. Over-loaded pirogues leave on journeys up and down the Niger River. Many of the pirogues have a makeshift covering on them, which protects the passengers from the sun and which provides additional storage space for luggage. In the evening, Fred and I hire a small pirogue to take us out on a two hour ride along the Bani River. We have the opportunity to observe fishing village life from the water and we also stop and visit a few villages along the way. Then we enjoyed the most amazing sunset over the Bani and Niger River!! It was beautiful and very peaceful. It was nice to be able to watch the buzz of Mopti from a distance and it was nice to see the Ramadam moon come into view.

On Wednesday morning, December 23, 1998, Issa picks us up at our hotel and we set out towards Djiguibombo, the first village in our Dogon Country trek. It is a long ride down unpaved orange roads. By the time we reach Djiguibombo, we are covered from head to toe in an orange dust. Djiguibombo is on the top of the Bandiagara Escarpment (or plateau) and is our drop off point. There we enjoy a restful lunch as the heat of the mid-day sun wanes. We plan to head down the escarpment in the late afternoon. The escarpment extends 135 km in a northeast direction. After eating lunch, I wander around the village and climb onto the roof of the chief’s compound. From up there, I have a great view of the arid plateau and don’t even get the smallest indication that whole worlds of villages lie just over the edge of the plateau, at the bottom of the cliffs. While wandering through the village, the rhythmic pounding of millet fills my ears. I see several women on the outskirts of the village threshing and pounding the millet. They do the threshing on the village edge because the millet husks make a mess. The pounding of the millet into flour can be done within the compound. The millet grains rest in a hollowed out tree stump … the inside made into a smooth bowl through hours of millet pounding. The women use long (about 1 meter long) naturally crooked and bent wooden poles for pounding. One, two, or three women stand around one wooden bowl, taking turns letting their poles fall onto the millet grains. As they throw their poles back up into the air, they add a rhythmic clap before catching the pole and letting it fall onto the millet again. Often, there is chanting and singing to accompany this daily ritual.

As I head back into the compound, I meet up with a small group of half-dressed young boys practicing their marksmanship skills with a slingshot. I sit and watch and then ask if I can take their picture. I show them the picture in the screen of the digital camera and the camera instantly becomes a conversation piece and an obsession among the small village children. Soon, I am surrounded by over 20 small boys all showing me their skills in using the slingshot or their own toy with the hopes that I take their pictures as well. Several children challenge me to play with their tricky toys. It takes me a LONG time to finally manage to keep the bamboo ring standing long enough for me to take a few steps behind it. I manage to get the ring to roll and to continue the momentum using a stick to hit and guide the ring. This is a much more difficult toy to master than it looks. I thoroughly enjoy interacting with the many children of varied ages and they are certainly amused by me and my lack of skills in playing their games. I become concerned that I might be offending the village elders by my playful manner with the small children. So, I talk to Issa about it. He reassures me that the village chief actually commented on the fact that he enjoys that I am interacting with the daily lives of the villagers … not just looking at them from afar and keeping my distance. This, of course, gives me the permission slip to continue to play with the children. I desperately try to learn 4 games and toys and love every minute of it. In the late afternoon we are ready to head down the escarpment. The Dogon, numbering 300,000, are farmers who live by the ancient rhythms of their ancestors, little touched by modern ways. Although a few Dogon settlements have been opened to tourists, most exist as they have for centuries, tucked away in Mali’s high plateaus and hidden valleys, secluded from white explorers, even from other Dogon. The evidence of that solitude can be heard in 35 Dogon dialects. Our guide, Issa, is Dogon and he can speak several of the dialects. It was always amazing to witness his interactions with the villagers. It was very commonplace for a villager to cross our path and to exchange words with Issa. Without breaking stride, the villagers hailed Issa with an elaborate greeting that touched on Issa’s health, that of his family, and of his livestock and faded as the villager kept walking away, still conversing.

Religion permeates not jus Dogon art but everything they do, including the design of their villages and homes. Dogon villages extend from the north to the south traditionally laid out in the form of a human body. The head is the togu-na (the men’s shelter and meeting place) with eight wooden posts supporting a thick (6-8 foot thick) roof of dried millet stalks. The pillars are frequently carved into figures representing the eight mythical Dogon ancestors (four men and four women created by the Dogon God Amma). It’s a cool place where the men lounge, smoke, tell jokes, take naps and discuss matters of the village. Women are banned. Instead, they have special houses where they stay during menstruation; these two outlying houses form the hands of the "body." The design of Dogon houses is unique. Each house, collectively built and made of rock and mud-brick, consists of a number of separate rooms with flat roofs, surrounding a small yard and inter-linked with stone walls. The granaries, with their conical straw roofs, stand on stone legs to protect the maize or other crops from mice. The villagers’ houses represent the arteries and veins of the "body" and are also in the form of a body themselves: the circular kitchen represents the head, the central clearing is the torso, the bed chambers on either side are the arms, and the entrance way is the genitals.

It is about a 2.5 km climb down the escarpment and then an additional 2 km hike to the first village, Kani-Kombole. There we are given a bucket of cold water and told that we can go behind a waist-high mud-brick wall to wash-up (shower). The area behind this wall also serves as the toilet. So, I take my turn at squatting down behind this wall to go to the bathroom and then to shower. Feeling clean and refreshed, we all sit down for some dinner. Issa’s best friend, Mohammed, is also making his way along the villages as a guide to a young couple, Inken (German) and Steven (Japanese-American). So, the six of us team up for the duration of the trek. Fred and Steven immediately hit it off because they both have the "Peace Corps" in common. Inken and I occasionally speak German to each other and that is nice for both of us. Inken and Steven live and work in Ghana. After dinner, Fred and his sore knee go to bed. Issa and I stargaze for several hours … we were never able to find the Little Dipper. Later, I also head up to the roof of the chief’s mud hut to go to sleep. Dogon ladders are actually just notched tree trunks and are leaned up against the side of a hut. It takes a bit of practice to master maneuvering these ladders. By the end of the trip, it was second nature for me. Desert climate is a new experience for me. It is excruciatingly hot in the daytime and terribly cold at night. During the night, Fred freezes on the roof and can’t sleep because he only has a blanket to sleep with. And I can’t sleep because Fred is snoring soooo loud. I also feel a bit guilty because I was toasty all night wearing just my underwear in my cozy mummy sleep-sack. The next morning we eat breakfast and head off to the next village, Teli, for lunch.

Teli is a village at the very base of the high, steep rock cliff that forms the edge of the high plateau. The cliffside dwellings above Teli have been virtually abandoned for the more prosaic settlement down on the flats. We trudged into the village where naked boys and girls ran out to greet us, shouting "Ça va? Ça va? Ça va?" The shy ones hid behind houses and peeked; the bold ones took our hands, leading us through narrow lanes where chickens flapped underfoot. The children were eager to show us their various toys made from baobab fruit, palm leaves, and sticks. We rested in this village and then ate lunch. I sat in the clearing of the chief’s compound with several women and small children. I was invited to eat the millet porridge out of the big pot sitting on the ground amongst them. It looked freshly prepared, so I dunk my hand into the porridge and pulled up a hot sticky clump. Then I dunked my hand with the porridge into a thick, even hotter, green baobab leaf sauce before scraping the food off of my hands with my teeth. It was delicious!!!! So, I joined them in their feast. About 4 women and 6 children all stuck their hands into the same pot. I think I was the only one who washed her hands. So, after about 5 or 6 handfuls, I noticed that I was eating quite a bit of sand along with the porridge … obviously sand from the many hands. I also decided that there was just a bit too much snot crusted onto the children’s hands in order for me to continue enjoying the porridge with the family. I stopped feasting. After resting a bit, we wandered up the cliffs. The cliffs are stippled with old granaries, huts, and burial caves built by the Tellem, a people who lived on the escarpment before the Dogon arrived. The Tellem were obviously some of the finest climbers in the world as these burial caves are virtually inaccessible today. We could see these caves only from a great distance. It was an amazing site. Trying to imagine reaching those high, narrow slits in the sides of the cliffs was difficult enough … and then to imagine hauling a body up there … WOW!! The Dogon bury their own dead in the same area, occasionally appropriating a Tellem cave. When a Dogon dies, masked dances are held following which the body is run head-high through the village. It is then lifted up with ropes to one of those caves. We climbed up to the lower granaries and abandoned homes. Many of the granaries are still used to store millet and to keep it safe from rain and from animals. From a distance we saw a still active fetish hut and clearing (part of the animist religion). Skulls and bones from various animals were mounted into the sides of the mud hut and cliffs. The climb up high in the cliffs was amazing! Of course, every village we stay in has only crude mud huts with no running water, electricity, or any other other modern conveniences. The toilet is usually just a space behind a waist-high mud-brick wall and occasionally there is even a hole in the ground.

Everyday we travel in the early morning … rest during the midday sun … and travel in the late afternoon again. So, in the late afternoon we head off to Begnimato. Shortly after arriving, I go to bed because I have a bad headache and feel nauseous. The next morning we take time to wander around the village before heading off to the final village of our trek, Dourou.

Dourou is back up on the plateau. So, after hiking for 8 km on the flats, we have to climb the cliffs back up to the top of the plateau. Dourou is a unique village in Dogon country because it actually has three parts to it, representing three religions. There is a Christian, a Muslim, and an animist population all co-inhabiting this village. Each religion has its own village center and just a few hundred meters separates each of the three parts of the village. It was Christmas Eve. So, we opt to stay in the chief’s compound of the Christian part of the village. We had the most amazing and interesting evening. Dourou lies on the edge of a very rocky, barren cliff. You can see the edge of the Saharan desert from the village and the rest of the landscape looks like something you could see in Arizona around the Grand Canyon. Absolutely amazing. Very desert-like and below the cliffs, the land is very flat … you can see for miles. There are only a few scattered mud-hut villages on the vast landscape below us. Issa makes us lunch and pours Fred some millet beer. Dourou is known for its abundant production of millet beer. Later in the evening, we heard the church service being conducted in the mud church. Then the villagers walked (with the accompaniment of music and chants) from the church to the village center where they continued to celebrate x-mas well into the night. Each of the villagers were dressed in his/her best clothing and really had a festive spirit. Men and women of ALL ages were involved in the festivities. Everyone dancing around a center group of people playing various instruments made from wood, gourds, shells, animals skins, etc.

During the night a village elder from the animistic part of the village passed away. We heard the wailing of the women in the village and then witnessed the carrying of the body head-high through the village at the crack of dawn. It was an intense and emotional experience. That morning we were sorry to see our trek in Dogon Country come to an end as we hiked for a few hours to Bandiagara, where a car was waiting to take us back to Mopti.

Everywhere we went through the Dogon country, I heard women pounding the eternal millet, singing in the cadence of their teamwork. As Fred and I were leaving Dogon country we commented on how "untouched" these Dogon are. It seems as though the world around them could completely come to an end and they wouldn’t even notice. They live so independent of the modern world. They have everything they have ever needed and they seem completely content. They do not need us or any of the inventions or diseases we bring with us.

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