Exploring Mali - Exodus' Michele Cook reports
Of all the countries in West Africa, Mali has the most highlights despite being one of the poorest countries in the world. it's also one of my all time favourites destinations. Michele Cook reports.
A landlocked country and independent from France since 1960, French is still the common language although many tribal languages are also spoken. The name Mali comes from the Bambara word meaning hippopotamus and if you are lucky hippos may be sighted along the River Niger - I was lucky enough to spot a family of them during the trip. The best time to visit Mali is from October until March when the average daytime temperature is around 30 degrees centigrade but in January at night along the river and in the desert, temperatures can drop to 8 degrees – so bring a fleece!
Our journey began with a drive to the colonial town of Segou. Famous for some beautiful old French buildings and pottery. En route we passed many huge baobab trees with cylindrical beehives hanging from the branches. On board the local ferry we crossed the Bani River, a tributary of the mighty Niger, to the amazing town of Djenne located on an island.
Djenne is famous for the largest mud brick building in the world, a mosque built in Sudanese style at the beginning of the 20th century. At the end of the rainy season (which lasts from June until September) the locals hold a mud slapping festival to help restore the building! Officially all mosques in Mali are closed to non-Muslims. The country converted to Islam at the end of the 13th century. Djenne has many religious schools known as medressas where the children learn the Koran. As the Koran is written in Arabic, and they speak French, so they memorise the contents but are unable to speak the language.
Every Monday the town of Djenne is transformed from a quiet peaceful town to a bustling hive of activity for the weekly colourful and vibrant market. Historically Djenne was an important commercial centre with gold, slaves & kola nuts once exchanged for salt from Timbuktu.
The cuisine in Mali is not one of the highlights! The staple diet is millet porridge often served with a glutinous baobab sauce or a sauce made from dried catfish. Mmmmmm, worth trying once! However thanks to the French, most food served in hotels & restaurants has a French influence & many of the business people in Mali are Lebanese so there are also some great Lebanese restaurants.
There are some beautiful African handicrafts to buy in Mali. Shoppers should come prepared with extra spending money for all those souvenirs and handicrafts! Amongst the handicrafts are: textiles including mud cloth and Mopti blankets, jewellery including the Tuareg silver cross, pottery, carved wooden objects and Tuareg leather boxes. Mali uses the CFA Francs and it’s best to bring Euro to exchange.
From Djenne, we boarded our pinasse, a traditional long motorized boat. On our journey we camped along the banks of the Niger for three nights, visited Bozo fishing villages, sighted a family of three hippos, enjoyed the birdlife and had plenty of time to generally chill out on board.
We also visited Nia Funke, home of one of Mali’s greatest singers, Ali Farke Toure, who sadly died last year. After our river cruise we clambered onto our desert truck to the Festival of the Desert. The world music festival in the Sahara was founded by the Tuareg in 2001, it’s a 3 hr drive from Timbuktu and definitely worth the drive!
We saw some great bands including Tinariwen, a group of Tuareg dressed in their traditional robes & play electric guitars. Abdullah Diabate from Segou & Tiken Jah Fakoly, a reggae band from the Ivory Coast. The festival site resembled a film set with Tuareg riding their camels. The music continued until the early hours and coal fires were provided on the sand dunes to sit around and locals came round with trays of a sweet tea plus there were bars where one could enjoy a cold beer!
During the day there were many activities to enjoy including camel racing, a Dogon masked dance and an expensive craft market! The festival this year attracted over 4,000 visitors and had over 25 bands playing, and is growing year after year.
After all the fun of the festival we jumped back in our truck to the fabled city of Timbuktu. A place that many explorers struggled to find and didn’t return home alive! Gordan Laing was the first European to reach the city but was slaughtered by the Tuareg as he tried to leave!
Timbuktu was once the nerve centre of trade and learning, its golden era lasted from the mid 15th to the end of the 16th century when the Moroccans took over. The sites to visit include the three mosques (from the outside only), the explorer’s homes & the market.
From Timbuktu our journey continued back to Mopti with its busy harbour and markets. Tribes from all over the country travel here to sell their goods and the salt slabs quarried by the Tuareg is brought here by boat. It’s a fascinating town for people watching.
Our last port of call was the Dogon Country located along the Bandiagara Escarpment, home to over 500 villages. Traditionally the Dogons are animists but many are converting to Islam as it suits the modern world better and there are some who are Christian. The original inhabitants were the Tellem. Nobody knows where they came from and where they mysteriously disappeared to. The Dogons arrived in the 14th or 15th century, many of them farmers and the main crops are millet, rice, sorghum & onions, which were introduced by the French.
The Dogans have many traditions and customs which include:
- The greeting in Dogon country is: How are you? How is your family? How are your onions! They pound the dried onions into a paste & roll them into small balls to use as a flavouring.
- For some reason, the Dogon week is five days long, which means that market day is a different day each week. After a good day at the market women make millet beer known as konja.
- The animists have many interesting beliefs, each home & village is shaped into the form of a human being!
- Women in the village have to stay in menstruation huts every month, which they love because for one week they escape all the household chores.
- Togunas are low roofed meeting places for the elders. The roof is low to prevent any fights breaking out if an argument erupts.
- The Dogons are famed for their carved wooden granary doors but sadly most of the originals have been bought by western antique collectors. However some of the more traditional villages still have their impressive carved wooden doors & locks in situ.
- Male Circumcision plays an important part in their lives. The circumcision ceremony takes place every three years when the boys are aged between 8-11 years at a special place. During the ceremony the boy sits on the middle stone, the blacksmith who performs the snip on the front stone & the villager with an animal to be sacrificed on the stone behind! The boy is not allowed to cry otherwise he shames his family. A race is then held with three main prizes: millet is seen as the most important in life so this is given as the first prize, second is animals & third is a woman!
Mali is a fascinating country to visit with some of the most friendly and hospitable people you will come across anywhere in the world. However, it is a very poor country. Leave behind your western comforts, bring along a sense of adventure and you will have a truly memorable experience.
Michele went on Exodus’ Timbuktu and the Dogons trip.
Please note: Festival of the Desert & Festival of the Niger take place on January departures only.