Mali - Snippets of Information

  •  This is a landlocked country. The majority of Mali is located in the southern part of the Sahara Desert. The Senegal and Niger Rivers make the south of Mali the country’s most fertile region.
  • French is Mali’s official language, but Bambara is the most frequently spoken language in Mali. There are a dozen other national languages.
  • The religion here is 98% Moslem.
  • Mali’s Ghana Empire was West Africa’s first black empire. The empire’s wealth came mainly from the country’s position in the cross-Saharan trade routes.
  • Sundiata, Mali’s Lion King (or Lion Prince) was the founder and first ruler of the Mali Empire from which the country today takes its name. In his reign from 1235 to 1260 the empire stretched all the way to the western coast of Africa.

Who Colonised Mali?

France seized control of Mali In the late 19th century, during the Scramble for Africa, making it a part of French Sudan. French Sudan (then known as the Sudanese Republic) joined with Senegal in 1959, achieving independence in 1960 as the Mali Federation. after Senegal's withdrawal, the Sudanese Republic declared itself the independent Republic of Mali. 

Is Mali a Poor Country?

Mali is one of the 25 poorest countries in the world. The average wage in Mali is $1.25 per day, and more than half of the population currently lives below the international poverty line. Two-thirds of Mali is desert, and much of the soil is too poor  to grow crops they need and due to low wages, many people suffer from malnutrition. The average birth-rate of six children per Mali woman is the third highest in the world. 

Is Mali Safe to Visit?

Mali is currently a scary prospect, as it’s nearly all coloured red on the FCO advisory map. The southwest corner which includes Bamako is orange (essential travel only). Jihadists have closed once thriving tourist routes for several years now. Sadly, the infamous Timbuktu is as off limits as “He’s Off to Timbuktu”  has always implied. So sadly, is Dogon Country. I’ve been advised that Djenne, Mopti,Segou and 'original Dogon country' are all safe to visit, but it seems that this is not entirely true!

Mali’s president requested aid from France in 2013 as Islamist fighters captured many of the main northern cities, including the city of Timbuktu, and began destroying many ancient shrines. United Nation peacekeepers were deployed that same year and more than 100 have been killed in Mali since then. It is considered one of the deadliest United Nations assignments. A new Islamist group linked to the Fulani tribe has emerged in central and southern Mali in the last two years. It recruits by protecting local villages from bandits and corruption in the government.

The Capital, Bamako

The traffic in Bamako is horribly heavy, there seem to be roadworks, but no evidence of any work (a familiar story) and the pace is excruciatingly slow.

Dinner in the most beautiful restaurant, in my hotel. It wouldn’t look out of place in London, Paris or Moscow, gorgeous crisp tablecloths, lamps and the wall covered in framed prints. There are five waiters all sporting bow ties. It’s a shame the cooking doesn’t measure up to the promise of the surroundings and the (very expensive) menu. The turbot fillet is definitely not turbot and is badly overcooked into the bargain.

Getting Into Mali

There's currently no consular representation in London, so visas have to be obtained from Paris. It's expensive and time consuming. Once you have the visa it's straightforward. I flew in from Niger.

Where Did I Visit in Mali?

I made visits to:

Getting out of Mali

I’m flying out on ASKY to Lagos today. As ASKY have cancelled half my flights booked with them so far, I’m not holding my breath. Or rather I am. But all is well. Though the departures board lists my flight as going to Conakry and not to Lomé, where I’m supposed to be changing planes. ‘It’s a mistake, ignore it,’ says a man in a yellow vest.

I'm travelling north from Djenne to Mopti and then back to Segou. The land on the journey to Mopti is yellow, punctuated by isolated escarpments, paddy fields and pools covered with waterlilies.

Mopti

Mopti is a picturesque fishing port on another island in the Bani River, but it is linked by bridges and a very busy road. The Bani feeds into the Niger, just a few minutes down river. Most of the taxis here are horse carts, piled high with goats bikes and charcoal, as well as people.  Mopti has a mud mosque too, smallerthan the one at Djenne, but it’s main claim to fame are the many colourful fishing boats and the larger vessels transporting people and slabs of salt upriver, to Timbuktu.

The Niger River

Between Segou and Timbuktu, the gradient of the river decreases drastically and forms the Inner Niger Delta. The delta is approximately the size of Belgium. The decrease in the slope causes the flow of the river to slow, resulting in numerous marshes, lakes, and streams. When the region floods, during the rainy season, it creates excellent conditions for fishing and farming.

We take one of the covered boats (known as a pinasse) round the harbour and out into the stream, gently motoring along watching the toing and froing and dusk time casting of the nets as the sun goes down. We reach the meeting of the waters, where the Bani converges with the Niger before turning back. Some acquaintances of Ibrahim have joined us – refugees from Timbuktu. One of the brothers was kidnapped at the end of last year by the jihadists, held in captivity for two months and released one month ago. He doesn’t seem that distressed by his ordeal and says, as a fellow Moslem he was well treated. They just didn’t like him installing mobile phone masts - white man’s business.

Sevare

Sevare is a United Nations security force base just outside Mopti. There are huge car parks full of trucks (and tanks) and my hotel is patronised by United Nations personnel. Mainly Russian men as far as I can gather.

Aaaargh - How Close Did I Come to Kidnap?

Were taking the road back to Djenne and then on to Segou. We haven’t gone far when the car breaks down. Clouds of smoke and the oil and battery indicators flashing red. It doesn’t look good. I feel very exposed sitting here on the edge of the road, not moving. Ibrahim is scaring me silly, shouting down his phone and at the world in general. Then he’s pacing saying ‘This is serious, this is very serious. There’re no other people around. We should keep you moving. Stay in the car.’ The Rescue Remedy will be coming out shortly. There are numerous horse carts rolling past, but no-one will stop to help push - Ibrahim is hopeful that a bump start will sort the issue in the short term. I’ve seen the smoke and I’m not so sure. Motor bike riding volunteers are eventually co-opted but sadly, I’m correct.

Rescued by the Army

Eventually, a rescue car and a mechanic arrive separately. I’m not sure how the rescue car has been arranged, but it’s driven by a soldier with an AK 47 and the seat covers proclaim they are for VIPs.  And it only takes us to the army check point, 30 kilometres outside Djenne. Ibrahim has gone into indecision mode; I have no idea what’s going on. He’s offering me options and then rescinding them almost immediately. Another hire car from Djenne? Fine. Nothing with a.c. Fine, we can drive with the windows down. No one wants to drive a car from Djenne to here. Public bus? No thanks, I’ve seen the driving. The car is temporarily repaired and can go to Segou, but we have to stop every few kilometres, so it can cool down. No thanks.

A rental car is found, and a price agreed. But then it transpires that the driver just had another job to do first. It will take him about two hours. We’re back to Yusuf driving slowly. A car will drive up from Segou to meet us. Then another car from the same company is on its way to Djenne and we will swap with them and take their car back to Segou. They will proceed in a rental car from Djenne.

I’m sitting in the army base, mud walls and sacking roof, waiting to see what actually happens. At least I’m less likely to get kidnapped from here. I hope. The solders eat their lunch (lucky them), stretch out and snore. Eventually the car arrives, but no, the occupants refuse to get out and wait for the rental car from Djenne. I have to stay here till this car has gone to the river and returned. Needless to say, the rental card driver has lied about his whereabouts. He’s not even on the ferry yet.

Segou Under Sufferance

Finally, at two o’clock we’re on our way to Segou. Ibrahim is driving and sulking because I’ve told him I’m not very happy about proceedings. Especially the being terrified part. The original driver sits in the back snoozing - more snoring. I try and do the same, after a very late lunch. Except he’s now awake and talking very loudly in my ear.

Segou is reached just as the sun is setting. My hotel is on the river, the room is teeming with mosquitoes (‘Why are you worried - it’s not malaria season?’ asks the owner, and the Wi-Fi is down. There are some residents working for UNICEF there. They tell me they’ve been strictly forbidden to travel north of Segou and wouldn’t dream of going to Djenne or Mopti. There have been attacks on the Mopti road this week.

Segou

Ibrahim’s touring me in a pick-up, while they, hopefully, repair the car. The colonial quarter has Arab, almost mogul style buildings, pastel coloured and well-spaced out, in a pleasant area. Each one is named after a region of Mali and now they’re used for administrative purposes.

Downtown is the usual colourful bustle of markets and rambling open shops. There’s a Christian quarter with a solid gold coloured church. The riverside (I’m properly on the Niger again) is the most fascinating part, with boats unloading salt, wood and sand onto donkey carts, alongside the fishing village. Adobe houses are being rebuilt in cement blocks. Not nearly so picturesque and not so cool either, but considerably cheaper, as the walls don’t have to be repaired each year.

The Artisans of Segou

Then the artisans of Segou. A family millet brewery (there are several in the Christian area) potteries along the riverbank (the famous annual festival site is just up from here) and calabash decoration (red hot pokers are used, the fires kept hot with small fan belt bellows). The mud cloth production is the most interesting. The beautiful geometric designs are based in local message symbols and created with natural dyes. Glue is used batik style and the patterns are painted on in mud, which combines with the dyes to create black shapes.

A Pinasse on the Niger River

Later, another pinasse trip along the frenetic riverside where washing, boat loading, pottery making and fishing all take place. There are a couple of very flat islands. People live out here in straw dwellings when the water is low. The cattle are swum across - sheep and donkeys come in boats. This is also a centre for mud brick making and they are laid out on the banks in neat rows. Five hippos watch us warily from a distance. They are right to be cautious. They shot one not long ago, as it killed a fisherman. The sun goes down over the islands.

Segou Secoro

I’m told the car is recovered enough to go to Bamako, where it will be properly repaired. The right parts aren’t available in Segou. If there is a problem, they will get another car out. This isn’t totally reassuring. It’s a slow journey, at a steady 80 kph to nurse the car along, even though it’s now a very good road. And there’s rather too much vibration for my liking. Ibrahim says it’s the road surface. It looks pretty even to me.

We stop at Segou Secoro, the capital of the Bambara kingdom, established in the mid-1700s. They’ve restored the old adobe palace, with its seven chambers, and there are two delightful little mud mosques. Also, children on every corner chanting ‘cadeaux’ with outstretched hands. There have clearly been a lot more visitors here.

Back to Bamako and then Nigeria.

The Mud Mosque at Djenne

The mud mosque at Djenne has been on my bucket list for years and for some time looked like an unattainable goal. It doesn’t disappoint - it’s three towers and wood decorated facade rising majestically behind the market square.

Travelling from Bamako

My journey began at the capital, Bamako (with a diversion to original Dogon country, where the four million inhabitants live along the banks of the river Niger, so I’m back on the same river again. Bob’s also back, as driver Yusuf is playing Bob Marley. Guide Ibrahim has a shower of short dreadlocks and a very cheerful personality.

It’s a long drive north to Djenne, through mainly rural scenery - this is very much a country that makes its living from agriculture. Villages with tiny mud mosques and many of those pretty round granaries. It’s a good paved road up to Segou Beyond here the ride is distinctly more bumpy. There’s still a peage though. Across the river Bani there is more grass with baobabs and fan palms Calabash fields surround the town of Toane-the fruits are huge and green and there look to be enough to supply the whole country with bowls.

Now the houses are mud cubes with flat tin roofs set in compounds surrounded by mud walls. Most of the store houses here are rectangular. And there are small and beautiful mud mosques. Stumps of harvested maize, millet and sorghum give way to yellow savannah. The rainy season finished in August.

Travelling in Stealth

Ibrahim tells people off when they ask my name and tells me not to give away any information about my movements. He says you never know when details will get passed onto bad people. It doesn’t exactly make me feel comfortable to hear this.

Rice grows near the meanders of the Bani river, horse carts painted in gay primary colours drawn up on the edges. The road follows a raised embankment to another crossing this time by ferry.  Djenne, is on an island in the Bani. My guide in Djenne is called Ibrahim, not to be confused with my main guide Ibrahim who is still with me.

The Mud Mosque

The mosque is, a satisfyingly giant sandcastle like structure, that definitely lives up to the hype. But I’m not allowed to enter being a non-Moslem. It was allowed until two Italians were caught kissing inside and compounding the transgression by wearing shorts, so I have to be content with scrambling over roof tops for excellent views across to its trio of minarets and the lofty adobe walls. It towers across the main square and the market. The first mosque on the site was built around the 13th century, but the current structure dates from 1907. Mud is cool and easy to work but has its drawbacks. Teams of volunteers gather, with due ceremony, to reinforce the walls before each wet season and then gather again to repair and smooth away any defects when the rains have finished. The process is replicated for each of the many smaller mud mosques in the region too.

Djenne Town

This is where Arab culture meets African - crenellations (one for each child on the houses) red Moroccan windows and mud walls line the narrow winding streets of the town. There’s an open drain running down the centre of each alley, so you have to watch where you’re putting your feet.

Round every corner goats munch, donkeys stand patiently in the shade and children call out ‘Toubabou photo’. (Toubabou means white or European person, originally from the Arabic for doctor.) The children arrange themselves in revolving tableaux, in what they consider to be winsome poses. A few tots burst into tears. Tourists are rare these days and they think I look weird. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the same accusation. The museum is empty, ‘They took the contents to Bamako in case bad people come’, is the less than reassuring explanation.

The Manuscript Library

There’s a manuscript library where there is ongoing work cataloguing all the local books and documents of historical significance and built to house them safely. It used to be staffed by ten people, paid from a British Library grant. It’s now manned by one volunteer. He seems to think I'm personally responsible for the ending of the funds.

Djenne Market

The market is a throng of carts and stalls, smells of dried fish and is a challenge to navigate. It occupies the main square in front of the mosque and several side streets, spilling onto the front of my hotel. I’m not going to write about the state of my lodging. No tourists, no money and no need to bother.

I think Ibrahim II has led me up every street in Djenne by the time I’ve finished. His wife cooks river fish and rice for our lunch at his house tucked under one of the many mud walls. The men share a dish, eating with their hands, Ibrahim II feeding his toddler daughter Mariam. I have a separate plate and cutlery. Ibrahim’s wife eats in the kitchen when we have finished.

Next, north to Mopti and Segou

Dogon Country Proper

Terrorists have come uncomfortably close to Dogon country in recent weeks and it has now been deemed too risky to see. A visit to Original Dogon country - now occupied mainly by Mandingo peoples - has been substituted. We're heading for the so called Cercle of Kati in the Koulikoro Region of Mali. Ironically, the Dogons originally left this land, to the south of Bamako, to escape the pressure to become Moslem. There is a small, but steady, stream of Dogons returning to live alongside the Mandingo and bringing their dancing and ceremonies with them.

I've travelled from Niger to Bamako and this is my first outing in Mali. The village I visit is typical of those in the area with mostly rectangular mud houses and circular thatched granaries. Some of the village elders own concrete houses with running water and electricity. There is a meeting room for elders to discuss problems – this has a low roof so that everyone is forced to sit and no-one can stand up in anger

The performance is a sequence of Mandingo and Dogon dances. The Mandingo have orange robes and hats with lots of bright tassels. Well that's the men. The women wear white 'grass' skirts. They throw themselves into the dancing, arms flailing exuberantly and caper, in pairs, in front of the drummers.

I'm seated in the audience, under a canopy, with the elders, dressed in their best clothes and ornate hats

Dogon Masks and Dancing

But the Dogon dancing is what I’ve come to see. The Dogons are famous for their ceremonial events, celebrated with traditional mask dances and the Dogon people have more than 75 different ritual masks.

They enter in a long swaying line, beating their own drums; the musicians peel off to stand to one side, they are wearing traditional triangular hats with pom poms at each side. And the dancers’ masks are colourful and extraordinary. One integrates a decorated pole that is at least three times the height of the bearer. The last performer is a stilt dancer; they all move with amazing dexterity considering their burdens.

It’s all over too quickly.  Everyone is exceptionally friendly, although I’m not allowed to touch the men or the masks, as they’re sacred and I’m a woman. And I wish they weren’t always so keen that the visitor should join in the shuffling line at the end of the performance.

Kamadjan’s Arch

The main town in this area is Sibya. It’s not very far from the Guinea border and has an escarpment backdrop that is, unsurprisingly, similar to the scenery I saw in north Guinea. But here the massif has been eroded into a variety of stunning crags and pinnacles and balancing boulders. Kamadjan’s Arch, I’m told, was created by a local king of that name. He hid in a nearby cave hermit-like, meditated and made sacrifices and then participated in a series of challenges. The first was to fire an arrow. It took one shot to create this spectacle; there is some debate as to whether he was assisted by black magic or not. Wikipedia says he carved it with one blow of his sabre. Believe who you like. It’s a very big arch.

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