Taking Your Time in Mali
It is best to let go of any rigid plans or expectations of time while in West Africa. Musa Chowdhury leads the way through the vast plains and long-standing history of Mali.
Arriving in Bamako
With my trusty tripod strapped to my backpack, I head out from Bamako, the capital city of Mali, and test my skills of gesticulation and negotiation. My first task: to figure out transportation options to the smaller, rural towns and villages. This morning I hoped to get an early start before the sun would have a chance to come out in full blazing glory. Arriving at the bus station, and speaking not a word of French or Bambara, I approach the ticket window asking for a schedule for the buses to Segou. Getting conflicting information from the various people behind the ticket window, I deem it best to simply wander around and follow the locals’ lead.
With my very conspicuous camera around my neck, I can’t so much as buy a sachet of mineral water without attracting the attention of curious and playful children. One girl looks at me with huge doe eyes, whispering in Bambara, ‘enichi’. At that moment, I know that her face will leave an indelible print in my mind’s eye. I do not want to scare her by pulling out my camera with its very ominous-looking lens, but she reacts with a surprising calmness for a young girl.
Arriving in Segou, about 230km from Bamako, I am anxious — no — desperate, to get off the sweltering bus. No breeze, no open windows; just an overcrowded hotbox. Local travellers board the bus with resigned looks of the discomfort that awaits. I can barely take stock of the myriad photographic opportunities on the bus as I am dripping wet, and instead try to distract myself by gazing out the window — my first glimpse of the infamous African brousse, or bush. Colours start changing from dull browns to shades of vivid ochres and terracottas.
Eager to stretch my legs and recover from the insufferably hot bus experience, I head to the Bani River, one of the two major lifelines to the town. Sunset brings a relaxed vibe to the town’s bustling fishing industry, and the light dims as I meander through the winding streets. The honks of cars are thankfully absent, and boisterous whistles of cicadas fill the evening soundtrack. I am struck by the colours, textures and styles of the houses. The dry, crackled, rust-coloured dwellings provide stark contrast to the life-giving Bani River. The red ochre colour of the houses, streets and fields is enhanced by the lighting of sunset.
The Fulani women are the jewels of their society in strength, colour and vibrancy. From their colourful beaded hair to their striking mouth-ringed tattoos, they are proud of their strong devotion to Islam, their ornate amber beads and gold bangles, and their invaluable contribution to family and village. As the backbone of their society, the Fulani women work tirelessly at home, doing the chores of child rearing, washing and cooking. Many of them must find alternate means of providing for their families and cannot simply rely on their husbands for all the necessary provisions. Kadija Yanoga, a young Fulani woman, strikes me with her innocent, serene aura. In her piercing eyes, I see a quiet, enduring strength. Her hands, stained as a result of years of hard work dying indigo clothes, and her back, supporting her sleeping baby boy, are testaments to a hard and noble life.
Hurry Up and Wait
One of my foremost goals for this trip is to photograph the largest mud structure in the world: the Great Mosque of Djenné. Its Sudanese architecture and forbidden aura compel me to make it to Djenné.
In the pouring rain, I carefully avoid the mud puddles and make my way to the bus stop. Buses do not go to Djenné except on market days, so I will need to take the bus headed for the larger town of Mopti, get off midway at Carrefour Djenné and hitchhike. Worried that I am not understood, every time the bus stops I ask, ‘Is this Carrefour Djenné?’ It soon becomes a joke on the bus. The locals start beating me to the punch, reassuring me with a ‘not yet’ at each stop. I ask how much farther, and no matter where we are, the response is, ‘Just small, small more.’
Screeching to a halt in the scorching midday sun, the bus drops me at the intersection of the main road and the offshoot to Djenné. Looking around, I see a cluster of tiny family-run food stalls lining the road, waiting for passing travellers. This junction is certainly not a grand thoroughfare of transportation. After another hour or so with no other vehicles passing by, a beat-up station wagon finally pulls up to the intersection, and out climbs the driver, eager for my business. Just as eager, I approach the old man and ask how much to Djenné. We establish a price and after loading my backpack and getting in the car, I suspect that something is not right. I soon learn that we are not going anywhere just yet. We have to wait until there are enough people to make the 30km trip to Djenné worth it for the driver. The old man smirks at me and says, ‘We now just wait for seven more people to fill the car.’ In the prior hour that I waited, not one person stopped by to go to Djenné. How long will it take to fill the car with seven? Getting to Djenné is beginning to seem like an improbable dream.
While in Mali, I have constantly been reminded of the tried and true traveller’s mantra of ‘hurry up and wait’. Waiting for transportation, however, provides the best opportunities for encounters with local people. The hours and hours of time spent at the desolate intersection of Carrefour Djenné allow me to establish good-natured relationships with children and their parents. I use my camera as an icebreaker — taking photos and showing them to proud parents is a way for us to communicate and bond. Faces light up with huge grins at the sight of a son or daughter playing mischievously for the camera.
The children are swift. Young toddlers surprise me with their agility and initiative. After plopping down on a bench in front of a family-owned tea stall, a little boy of no more than two years old wobbles over to a hot tea kettle, picks it up and carries it over to a tray of tiny glasses. He proceeds to choose a clean glass, and pours tea into it. He puts the tea kettle back and then walks over to me with the glass. I think about how many parents back home would cry out with fear of the boy getting burned. Kids entertain themselves, learn from their parents’ model and live with little fear. The proud mother scoops the little boy up into her arms and wraps him in her cobalt scarf.
Without any expressed reason, the driver suddenly starts the station wagon and yells for me to come over and get in. After waiting more than five hours and thinking that I would spend the night on the side of the dusty road, I am relieved beyond belief. My new friend, a 10-year-old girl, leans into the station wagon to say goodbye.
Out of Earth — Djenné Mosque
I arrive in Djenné in the late evening. I set my alarm for 4.30 the following morning. My main mission of the trip is right ahead of me — to photograph Djenné Mosque, both inside and out. Since 1996, non-Muslims and many foreigners have been forbidden from entering this UNESCO World Heritage site because a French photographer shot photos of ‘indecent’ models for a Vogue spread, inflaming the locals. I figure that the best and only way to get into the mosque is to go early, right before fajr (dawn) prayers. Tripod in hand and camera around my neck, I make my way from my campement to the mosque in pitch-black darkness. Electricity is not commonplace in this town or many others. I cannot see any of the deep ruts in the mud roads, and I have to retrieve my stuck flip- flop from one of them. My heart pounds as I enter the foreboding mud structure — I do not want to be thrown out for being intrusive or disrespectful. I rely on my ears and follow the meditation echoing out of the mosque and rippling into the narrow alleyway. The inside of the mosque is equally as dark as the outside. All I hear is the reverberant humming and occasional moments of joyful, rhythmic chanting. A tingle of eerie spookiness runs down my spine.
The immense mud interior arches look even more dramatic as the sun starts to rise and daylight peeks through the windows. I return to the mosque several times today to soak up the formidable experience of this historical and religious gem.
Piled into a rickety 4×4, it should be just a matter of minutes until we pull out of the mud square in the centre of Djenné. Securing my place next to the window, I hunker down for the upcoming trip and relish my proximity to the incoming breeze. Several men jockey around the truck with large parcels and burlap sacks. Two men climb up the side of the truck to pack the roof rack, using the window frame as a ladder. One by one, unwieldy sacks are thrust up the side of the rocking truck. Just when I think that not one iota more will fit on the roof, as the height of the roof luggage is equal to that of the truck itself, a donkey cart hauls a huge bed frame over to the side of the truck. Top-heavy loads are the name of the game. Bed frame? No problem, just stack it on top of everything else. Okay, now let’s make a move because the longer we sit at the truck stop, the more passengers will load into the truck to the point of practically sitting on top of one other. All of a sudden, squeals of discomfort and disobedience bellow out of three goats. The poor goats are dragged by rope around their necks toward the truck. What now? There cannot possibly still be space in the truck for goats! We already have chickens, babies and dried fish on our laps. No, they aren’t going to fit inside. The goats are hoisted up onto the roof rack where they bake in the sun for the six-hour drive to Dogon Country.
Dogon Country — The Sandstone Escarpment
Dogon Country hits me with an astonishing overload of the senses. It is home to a group of communities on the Bandiagara sandstone escarpment in central Mali. Perched on the sides of the stunning cliffs, ancient Tellem villages are still intact. The modern Dogon people have abandoned these hard-to-reach cliff villages and have settled on top of the plateau, or just below, on the plains. They continue, however, to make daily treks up and down the steep rocky cliffs to trade at the markets or farm their millet fields.
Four hundred fifty metres up I stumble along my way, carefully navigating the treacherous rocky cliffs, their harsh environs juxtaposed with the ancient Tellem mud houses, modern Dogon village and vast Malian plains. The lighting from the dry, dusty evening sky adds the final touch of drama.
Approaching the escarpment, I begin to sense the awe-inspiring tenacity of the people who live day in and day out in some of the most trying environmental conditions. As a visitor, I have had the luxury of being able to observe, learn, meet and experience. This whole time, however, I have known that I would be leaving at the conclusion of a long trek. The Dogon do not leave. They have learnt to endure and thrive amidst the strenuously challenging escarpment.
Sprawled out on a threadbare mat on the roof of a mud house, I sleep under the patchy protection of a ripped mosquito net. I do not care. I am too enthralled by the magnificent view of the night sky. Pinch me. Am I in a planetarium programmed to display shooting stars every 15 seconds? Am I really sleeping under the stars in an animist Dogon village on the plateau of the Bandiagara escarpment? Not a couple of minutes pass before the honking of donkeys and the bristling of trees concretises for me that I am truly here. I ask myself how I can be expected to sleep with such stimulation.
The following morning I awake to the sounds of clucking chickens, though I wonder if I ever actually fell asleep. Trying to conserve water, I rinse myself in half a bucket of the stuff and look out over the plateau as the sun rises. A delightful dry, cool breeze greets me, and I cannot wait to continue hiking through the meandering, rocky cliffs to more Dogon villages.
Local guides are a must, and fortunately I have the best — Hassimi Minta, a huge yet gentle and warm-hearted guide who takes the best care to explain the intricacies of the religious ceremonies; the history of the Tellem and Dogon; the relations between Muslims, Christians and Animists; the architecture of the villages; and the daily social, political and economic life.
Living in peace, side by side, three distinct communities sit on the crest of the lower Bandiagara plateau in the village of Begnimato. One is Muslim, one Christian and one Animist. Each community has its own village chief, who resolves problems and helps the villagers care for one another as best they can. Family units are strong, and the number of children playing and working is striking. Knowing that the infant mortality rate is high and that children are equated with wealth, I should not be surprised by the large numbers of children per family.
The Mysterious Timbuktu
Timbuktu, the mysterious and alluring city on the edge of the Sahara desert, is my next destination. Getting there is as much adventure as being there, and the 24-hour journey to the surprisingly small city is exciting in its unpredictability. The long, hot, crowded drive is punctuated with countless stops due to flat tires, being pushed out of sand ditches, passenger pickups and prayer times. The last leg of the journey involves waiting at midnight for the ferry captain to wake up and shuttle us to the other side of the Niger River. My throat and nose begin to sting, and I realise the sand of the desert is in the air. I wrap my head in the same fashion as the local Tuareg people to protect myself from the stinging sand. The city is home to 50,000 people, its streets empty during the day due to the 44-degree temperatures.
I take a wander around the historic town for which 18th-century European explorers spent their lives looking, with many dying in the attempt. They were seeking the city famed for its ‘streets paved with gold’. With one of the world’s oldest universities and three illustrious mosques, Timbuktu has much to offer. The streets, paved not with gold but with mounds of hot sand, lead me through a labyrinth of tiny Bella tents, hidden madrassas and Tuareg markets.
Once visited by Ibn Battuta, a famous medieval traveller, Timbuktu was the centre for Islamic learning. Students would arrive from far afield to study law, literature, science and medicine. Today, private houses own old manuscripts passed down over the centuries. The museums in the centre of Timbuktu house some of the oldest Islamic manuscripts in the world.
Just a stone’s throw from the town centre, I find myself traversing pristine Saharan sand dunes while being called by the distant pounding of a drumbeat. Not sure whether my ears are being tricked by the brewing sandstorm, I decide to follow the beat and discover a group of boys jamming on their drums. Untroubled by the swirling storm ensuing on the not-so-distant horizon, or by the heat of the sun, the boys barely notice my approach. The history of Timbuktu comes alive, embodied in the boys’ carefree spirit of their musical passion.
All pictures by Musa Chowdhury.
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