REPUBLIC OF MALI 2011
PART 1, General Information
PART 2, BLOG, Pictures and Gallery
PART 3, VIDEO CLIPS
PART 1, GENERAL INFORMATION
Capital City; Bamako Population: 20 million
Currency: West Africa CFA Frank
Days in Mali: 40
Languages: Official Language is French, National language is Arabic, but 80% speaks Bambara, Fula, Dogong or Maraka
Mali, one of those countries less travelled by overlanders. Landlocked and mostly in the Sahara region. The country is mostly flat except in the south western part. Mali is one of the largest countries in Africa with a relatively small population. Bamako, Timbuktu, Djenne, Mopti and the Dogon region around the Bandiagara escarpment are must visit areas. We were incredibly lucky to meet Ogo who invited us to meet his family in the Dogon area well known for its unique cliffside villages. We spend 3 amazing days in the village. Mali consist of 8 regions from the Sahara Desert to the far south where most of the population lives. Agriculture and mining are the 2 main sources of income. The natural resources include gold. Mali is the 3rd largest producer of gold in Africa. Others are uranium, phosphates, salt, and limestone. We have been told Mali has more than 18000 tonnes of uranium. Since 1992 (after the 1991 coup) Mali is a multi-party country. In 2012-armed conflict broke out in Northern Mali claiming a new state called Azawad however a year later Mali government forces together with French troops recaptured the area. Since 2015 the conflict has escalated again in particular between the Dogong and Bambara people and the Fulani people who seem to work together with al Qaeda. But this has been denied and it appears that the real problem is Cattle stealing, banditry and score settling. Islam was introduced to West Africa in the 11th century and remains the predominant religion in much of the region an estimated 90% of Malians are Muslim (mainly Sunni 5% are Christian and the remaining 5% indigenous such as the Dogong religion. Public education is free however enrolment rate is low due to families unable to pay for school uniforms, books etc. Medical facilities in Mali are extremely limited and medicines in short supply. Mali’s health system ranks among the lowest in the world. Malaria, Cholera and Tuberculosis are some of diseases Mali must deal with. Mali also suffers from a high rate of Child malnutrition. Over 2% of Mali’s adult population was affected with HIV/AIDS and we were told around 85% of Mali girls and woman have had female genital mutilation.
Mali is among the hottest countries in the world. Most of Mali receives negligible rainfall and droughts are very frequent based on the mean daily annual temperature. Late April to early October is the rainy season in the southernmost area. During this time, flooding of the Niger River is common, creating the inner Niger Delta. The central area has a hot semi-arid climate with extremely high temperatures year-round, a long, intense dry season and a brief, irregular rainy season. The southern areas have a tropical wet and dry climate. March to May is the hottest time in Mali.
Summer; 25 degrees at night to 48 degrees during the day
Winter; 17 degrees at night to 35 degrees during the day
Rainfall; 70 mm per year mainly July to September
Summer; 25 degrees at night to 48 degrees during the day
Winter; 15 degrees at night to 32 degrees during the day
Rainfall; July to September
Summer 27 degrees at night to 49 degrees during the day
Winter 11 degrees at night to 27 during the day
Summer: 27 degrees at night to 49 degrees during the day
Winter: 13 at night to 32 degrees during the day
Rainfall: July to September
Summer; 27 degrees at night to 40 degrees during the day
Winter; 18 degrees at night to 32 degrees during the day
Rainfall; June to September
Mali is one of the most rewarding countries in West Africa, a colourful and vibrant destination, dominated by the Niger River, the largest in the region. Mali’s landscapes, monuments and stories are amazing. Unfortunately since our visit in 2011 thanks to political instability, Tuareg rebellion, and the increasing influence of Islamic militants Mali one of the most interesting countries in West Africa is now more difficult to visit and only a few overlanders are venturing back to this fascinating place. Discover the world largest mud mosque, cruise the Niger river, the Sahara Desert North of Timbuktu, incredible landscape and friendly people, the remote villages of the Dogong country, the must see Festival in Segou, visit the markets of Segou and Mopti
Bamako the capital of the republic of Mali lies on the Niger River in West Africa. From the busy and colourful open-air markets to the many museums and eating places the town has a real West African vibe. Bamako has only a few paved roads hence very dusty or muddy after rain. Few signs make navigating interesting not helped by many one-way streets, must do’s are Point G Hill, National park of Mali, and the National Museum of Mali. Many markets but the few we enjoyed were Marche de Medina, The Fetish stalls full of stomach-turning rotting monkey heads, skins, and bones, near the Maison des Artisans, and the car market. Overlanders will find the sleeping camel the place to stay with their vehicles.
For many who crossed overland from Algeria in the 70’s Timbuktu marked the end of the arduous trek across the shifting sand dunes of the great Sahara. The name Timbuktu is in every overlander imagination and brings up images of dusty bazaars where spices and sabres and strange folk trinkets rattled and scented the air. However Today, Timbuktu is hardly the puzzling, perplexing romantic place it once was; but there are traces of the old days. Find them between the criss-crossing grids of sand-caked streets; see them in the muddy walls of the Sankore Mosque and the Djingareiber who sadly now have been destroyed in 2012 by Islamic extremist (like the Tomb of Askia in Gao). Timbuktu’s famous Djinguereber Mosque once housed the world’s largest library. recent damage to two of its tombs by the Ansar Dine Islamic extremists in 2012 I am not sure what happen to the library? Before the damage up to 2,000 people can fit into the prayer space, which also includes two minarets and three inner courts. Most of the mosque is constructed from earth, wood, straw, and other organic materials.
Gao has an amazing pyramid shaped Tomb of Askia, which was built by Emperor Askia Mohammad I in the late 15th century. This is an assembly ground, a mosque cemetery, and two mosques were constructed following the West African tradition. The mosque is well-equipped with electricity, fans, lights, and a loudspeaker while it retains its old historical essence. I have been advised that sadly this now has been destroyed in 2012 by Islamic extremist Upon your return from Timbuktu a great stop over before heading to the Dogong area.
Mopti has been dubbed the ‘Venice of Mali’. It is a fabulous town that attracts ethnic groups, such as Fulani, Tuareg, Dogon, and Songhai, to sell food, spices, traditional goods, textiles, and many other great items. The market of Marché Souguni is an must do. Mopti is also the starting point coming from Bamako and Djenna to start your visit to the Dogong Country if you are not travelling North to Timbuktu. Besides the markets and the bustling waterfront do not forget the Misire Mosque.
Dogon people live in their traditional way at one side of the 125 miles long chain of sandstone from past more than 600 years. The Dogong is also known for housing even more ancient group of people well-known as Tellem, who are the people known for burying the dead individuals quite above the flooding areas. Watch huts that have flat roofs, tapering granaries, wonderful meeting places, and cemeteries on the top of the cliffs. Dogons are also famous for their appreciable dances and fabulous ceremonies. Spend some time in the villages and stay a few nights to learn about Dogon traditions, and see an elaborate mask dance. Other highlights include the rock paintings at Songo, and Amani with its pool of sacred crocodiles. Explore the tallest mountain in the Mali popular as Hombori Tondo, which is about 366 feet tall. Enjoy the amazing views from the Cliff of Bandiagara.
Home to one of the oldest surviving cultures in Africa. However, the caves in the Bandiagara Cliffs belong to an even older group called the Tellem, who used to bury their dead far above the frequently flooding grounds. Many centuries later, the Dogon used the caves to create an elaborate tunnel network which was used to hide and drive away intruders.
This ancient city is inhabited by oldest settlements in the West Africa since 250 B.C. It is situated on an island in the pleasant Bani River. The magnificent Grand Mosque, which is world famous for being the largest built mud structure in the world and none are more impressive. This mosque was completed in 1906 and is famous for being a historical and religious place. Today, the Grand Mosque is the centrepiece of Djenné’s Old Town and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Each year, the population painstakingly repairs and rebuilds rain damage to the mud during the Spring Festival.
This town is full of numerous mud buildings that retain their appearance since centuries. The markets are a must with vendors selling pottery, fabrics, delicious spices, and food. Also, visit the ancient Sacred Well of Nana Wangara.
Also called Chutes de Gouina located on the Senegal river in the west of Mali near Bafoulabe not that far from Kayes. They have been called the “Niagara Falls of Mali”. The river is about 500 m wide at this point and drops 16 m over the falls.
Location of Boucle du Baoule National Park with its prehistoric tombs and rock art situated throughout Mali’s oldest national park are just as impressive as the giraffes, elephants, leopards, and lions who roam its vast territory. Its Siby Kita boundary stretches nearly as far as the Mauritanian border.
PART 2 BLOG PICTURES & GALLERY
MALI BORDER TO BAMAKO
Early wakeup call but first must change the tyre. The temp at 6.30am was already 39 degrees. First the Mauritanian border post, which looked more like a chook pen with 5 people asleep in it. But it only took 30 minutes to check out plus the customary 3000 UM for the work they do. Off to the Mali border through 3km of no man’s land and we arrived at another shed. The situation was the same – all asleep but once they woke up the atmosphere was friendly and helpful. Usual paperwork and stamps, Custom, Police and Army. We thought we were finished and then we were told that after 60km we still had to go and see Customs and police again to get us registered in Mali and have our Carnet stamped. Anyway, we needed Mali money so off we went to Nioro. All done except the money as the banks were closed (Friday) and we left town. After 10km we are stopped and had to pay a toll ($1AUD) but we had no money! “No worries you are a tourist, we know the banks are closed so just keep going”. Try this in Europe or Australia? As we drove further south, we saw the landscape change. The Sahara divides the continent of Africa into North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The southern border of the Sahara is marked by a band of semiarid savanna called the Sahel. South of the Sahel lies the lush Congo River Basin. Most of the Sahara consists of rocky Hamada and ergs (large sand dunes). It has been reported that the Sahara is expanding south by as much as 30 miles per year, overwhelming degraded grasslands, taking over the Sahel, the dry tropical savanna that has defined the Sahara’s southern limit. Global warming and poor farming methods have been given as possible causes. One report states that all of Africa could eventually become a massive desert. This spreading of deserts is known as ‘desertification’ and the phenomenon is occurring in other desert areas worldwide. This was also the time we saw people starting to burn wood again.
After a few days we arrived in Bamako late that night after we had to stop to pay toll twice more but the same answer. I know I promised Clary never to drive in the dark while in Africa, but I did it again. And yes, you guessed it, we were stopped for offending traffic rules. (BUT THERE ARE NO RULES!) I was told I should not try to overtake on the wrong side and try to sneak into the front of the queue. I wasn’t, I was lost, and I am having to deal with cars left and right of me, traffic coming from the right and left, people ignoring red traffic lights. A million motorbikes that constantly beep the horn. And 50% of the cars and motorbikes have no lights. “Officer, I am so sorry.” “You speak French monsieur?” “No Sir no Parle François”. The officer then said, “Okay Sir, it was a serious offence but as you are a tourist I let you go this time”. I responded with “Mercy, Mercy monsieur”. He was friendly and laughed but really if you have ever seen chaos it is here in Bamako. We crossed the Niger River at around 8pm and knew we were only 1 or 2km away from the Sleeping Camel. And after 13 hours behind the steering wheel in unbelievable heat, we finally made it. Clary is really struggling with the heat and feels sick. But after a nice long shower and a few cold beers. I felt a lot better. Clary was also starting to feel better. While we are parking the truck, a very loud hello from a bus driver (Overlander truck) we met in Ethiopia last year. It is a small world. The nights in Bamako are stinking hot night, but after we got up at around 6am it looked cloudy and would you believe we then had thunder, but no rain. However, the temp dropped, and it became quite a bit more bearable. The Sleeping Camel is going to be our home for at least the next week we think, because the Visa procedure will take a while. The place we are staying is not far from the Niger River and the city centre. It is run by one Aussie and one English guy (Bill and Matt). Both are ex Overlander truck drivers and saw an opportunity here in Bamako. Bill told me that times are tough as most governments have travel warnings for the area, stopping tourists from coming. In fact, by doing this, the local people suffer and the terrorist wins. Anyway, for us it will be a week of Visa hunting for Togo-Burkina Faso-Benin-Ghana. Next, we have some jobs to be done – some welding and the repair a tyre.
We explored the area around the Sleeping Camel, did some shopping and visited the Niger River, which is only 500 meters from our camp spot. As the Auberge has a small pool and the temp was 49 degrees we spent a lot of time in the water (the water was hot!) perfect to do nothing and laze around, clean the filters on the fridge and do some defrosting as the fridge/freezer in the living quarters really struggled with the high temperatures.
Having said this, the trusty old 80-liter Engel fridge in the front cab worked perfect and supplied us with ice cold beers and water. The Bamako population is around 2 million, but unofficially it is around 2.7 million, which includes people from Ivory Coast, Niger, Chad and now Libya. Bamako is the largest city of Mali, and is currently estimated to be the fastest growing city in Africa (sixth fastest in the world). The name Bamako comes from Bambara, which means crocodile river. Bamako is relatively flat, except to the immediate north where there is an escarpment, being what remains of an extinct volcano. The Presidential Palace and main hospital are located here. Late one afternoon we copped a dry thunderstorm and a huge sandstorm. Another night we woke as it had started to rain and with the roof open, we got wet! It was beautiful to cool down from 39 degrees, so we just laid there getting wet. Unfortunately, it did only last for 10 minutes and then a gale force wind started and then everything was covered in sand. we needed to get to the Ghana embassy to get our Ghana Visa. Ghana has changed the rules and you now must apply for your visa in the place of residence or citizenship, which in our case is Australia or Holland. Not something we need and the cost of getting this done by using DHL is very high. Anyway, we made an appointment with the ambassador; played poor and explained we are retired people with little more than the truck we drive in. We asked him to make an exception for us and issue a 3 months multi entry visa. With an extra fee and 4 hours later, we walked out with our visa. The next Embassy on the list was Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso has been in turmoil and with the violent demonstrations in this country we expected a tense visit, but it was not. Very friendly and helpful and we were given the appropriate form to fill out. They explained of the cost for the multi entry visa and we were asked to come back the following day to hand in the forms and all going well, the visa should be issued that same afternoon. Ogo, our friendly Mali friend who we met while having a beer, drove us around town and as a thank you we took him out for lunch. The lunch was very tasty and spicy, but something did not agree with us and we both became frequent visitors to the toilet. It became so bad that while we were at the markets doing shopping, Clary had to dash out to the car and remain seated till we got back to the campsite. Ogo explained to us today that the US Embassy moved out of town for more security and to be away from the large mosque. However, Muhammar Ghadaffy had a better idea and purchased the land opposite the new US embassy and built a huge mosque right in front of it. While he was building the mosque, he also purchased the Sofitel from Accor and two other large hotels, transferring the names of each to Libya Hotels. Further, he built the government centre for the Mali Government. This is not finished yet, but it is already completely paid for. Unlike the old Sofitel where work now has stopped and the Chinese workers are waiting to be paid by the Libyan government. The funny thing is that if you want to stay 4-5 star in Bamako you will fill Ghadaffy’s wallet, unless you stay at the Radisson Blue. Also ironic is the fact that Holland has a travel warning to Mali, but we hear that the Dutch Crown Princess Maxima arrives in Mali this week for a Women’s conference. In the following days we sorted our paperwork at the Burkina Faso Embassy. We started to like Bamako and spend a day visiting the Recycling Markets, Grand Market and the general shopping area in Bamako. What a town, what a place for wheeling and dealing! Holland has the bikes and Bamako has the mopeds. Bamako has a hot and humid Sahelian climate and is very hot on average all year round. The average high, every month, is over 30 degrees Celsius. The warmest months being March, April and May where the temperature reaches an average of 39 degrees Celsius. But highs of 49 and sometimes just over 50 degrees Celsius have been recorded in the month of May. The music boom in Bamako took off in the 1990s, when the vocalist Salif Keita and the singer-guitarist Ali Farka Toure achieved international fame. It attracted many tourists, record producers and aspiring musicians to the city to try to follow in their footsteps. It is common to see musicians in the streets with djembes and percussion bands playing traditional Bamana rhythms. The music in Bamako is so diverse, we have seen singers and instrumentalists from Mali’s myriad ethnic groups; the Tuaregs of the Sahara, the Sonrai of Timbuktu, the Malinkes from the border region south of Bamako, the Dogon cliff dwellers, the Wassalous near the Ivory Coast, the Fulas of central Mali etc. Bars and nightclubs are numerous and decibel readings do not exist in Mali. Ogo’s history is very fascinating and he gave us his full life history over lunch. He was born in the Dogon area in Far East Mali. Once he finished primary school he came to Bamako on his own (12 years old) and went to high school. He slept for 1 year behind a carwash in the open (he made money at the carwash after school). He had only 2 wishes in life – he either wanted to become a tour guide in his own area (Dogon) or a journalist. He became a tour guide and made sure he could speak English (Mali has 200 languages, but French is the main language and spoken day to day and at school). His native language is Dogon. In fact, he finished up in Europe twice for a documentary about Dogon people. He liked Europe, but would never live there as he find it too much structured. That is, if you are late you get in trouble, if you like to visit some-one you have to call. For the Dutchies he was invited by a producer called Reinoud Oerlemans. I think the company was called Eyeworks. It was during this lunch he invited us to meet his family in the Dogon area. Our next job was to organize the Togo and Benin visa. You guessed 1-week Bamako became 2 weeks. Ogo explained to us yesterday, the history of the US Embassy and the new mosque built by Ghadaffy in front of the US embassy. So, we went to take some pictures of this unusual situation. But as we were taking pictures we were stopped at gunpoint and escorted to the US Embassy. Shit!
It was then that the US Marine Intelligence officer came out and told us off and wanted to know what we were doing in Mali, around the embassy and that I had to hand in my camera. “You are kidding me!” I said after some debate and ID presentations and a lot of running around by stressed army staff, the marine lieutenant told me I could hang onto my camera but had to delete every photo with any glimpse of the embassy on it. We did, and they checked, and we were free to go after an hour with the message that we could have been shot and should not be travelling in Mali on our own. Al Qaida was a real threat and it was not safe. “Okay, thanks for the info and we won’t do it again,” I said. I suppose it was not very smart to take a picture of the embassy and the mosque but in a city as poor as Bamako, to have a building half the size of the White House and a flag so large in must just about be visible in the USA, surely you are asking to be on the must-see list. During the rest of the week we went to visit the fetish markets, clothing markets and food markets. All make for a colourful scene in Bamako. We went from here via the National Museum of Mali to the view point but being so hot and dusty the view was limited. Before we arrived back at the campground, we made a quick stop at the banks of the Niger River where Mali women were doing the washing. and with a temp of 48 degrees, it was off for a swim to cool down. In the following days the temperature went even higher and for the first time on our trip, the temperature officially reached 50 degrees! In fact, we are not sure what the exact temperature was because 50 degrees is as high as our thermometer goes! This was at around 1pm. The same situation exists in Sudan. The official temperature is never broadcast at 50 degrees or over, because this means people are allowed to go home and schools close. After the (official) hottest Africa day this trip, today has become a working day; shopping at the markets, finding a good welder who has electricity, fix a tyre and do some cleaning up. We were starting to enjoy Bamako and we could have stayed longer, despite being hot, dirty, and dusty with far too many people, cars and scooters. Just as in the rest of Africa the taxi busses have lots of people hanging on the side or have 30 people instead of the max 15 inside. A small bribe will get you past the police road block; no license, no problem. Cars full of chickens, chairs, engines, tables, water melons, fruit and veg, goats, cows etc. and anything is possible. Motorbikes carry up to 5 people; mum, dad and 3 kids. No traffic rules, street signs that mean nothing, traffic lights are only there for decoration and one-way streets are there to be ignored. The dust here in Bamako is bad and the whole truck is full of sand. We also picked up our passports from the Benin Embassy. (last visa we required) We have made our final plan and we have decided to give Nigeria a miss. This is mainly due to the long waiting time to get this visa approved. We met an overlander here who has now been waiting for 3 weeks. My view is, they either want you as a tourist or not. Unfortunately, this means we will miss Cameroon and Gabon but having seen so much of Central Africa already, we thought, so be it. The plan now is to continue to Benin, back to Togo and Ghana and then via The Gambia and Senegal back to Mauritania, Western Sahara to Morocco. The good news is that calm has returned to Burkina Faso, so we will be able to cross the border.
BAMAKO TO DJENNA
After 7 days of R&R, visiting Bamako and visa chasing, we headed off towards Segou. Bamako traffic is hectic, but it did not take long before traffic gave way to donkey carts and foot-traffic. Also, the landscape changes, from mango trees, acacia trees and bushes, to a much harsher landscape once you head closer to Segou. Baobab trees become much more common, in fact you could have been driving in Australia’s Outback. After 243km we arrived in Segou and asked for our truck to be parked in the courtyard of Auberge L’ Independence just out of Segou. we explored the town and the waterfront and as it was so hot, we decided against a boat trip and instead, we had a drink and enjoyed the view of the Niger. The old colonial buildings in the government district are nice and show the French heritage. We visited the port area, but the port is fairly small compared to Mopti. We also planned to visit a craft centre just outside Segou, but this was closed. Segou extends for more than 4 miles (6 km) along the South bank of the Niger River. A historic town, it was the first capital of the Bambara kingdom, which flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries. Segou is in a densely populated region and has always been an important trading centre. It has a busy port and is full of colour. Next stop was Djenne, the town is UNESCO World Heritage listed and is situated on an island in the Bani River. To arrive in Djenne we needed the ferry (2 outboard motors and a plate of steel) to get us across to Djenne and because we were obviously tourists they charged us 10 AUD. Take it or leave it. The charge should have been 2AUD. We walked the city, visited the mosque and then settled near our truck in the middle of the village as we were too big to get through the arches to get inside the courtyard of the hotel. We did a deal with Hotel Campement to use the shower in return for taking a parcel to the small Mopti Hospital. Late that afternoon we did another walk around the city and we were confronted by the slaughter of a cow. Clary was very disturbed by the way it was done and, by the way they let it die. Anyway, the pictures tell the story. We purchased some food at the market and I have to say it is very embarrassing to have dinner with 30 hungry people watching you. Anyway, all we had was spaghetti, so it was not as if we were over doing it. Our lovely hosts the Iman and the continuous prayer kept us up till late, but it was a real African experience. More importantly we were the only tourists in town. I think that every boy in Djenne is either a tour guide or an English student looking for a conversation and consequently a tip. So many of the poor people make a living out of begging. The village of Djenne has the largest mud brick building in the world; it is the Great Mosque of Djenne. It was built using bricks of sun-baked mud, with mud for mortar, and is coated in a plaster. Using nothing but mud-derivatives doesn’t make for a very sound structure, so the building requires frequent repairs. To aid this process bundles of palm branches have been added into the walls to support the structure and act as a sort of scaffolding climbing wall for the repair work. Djenne’s traditional houses, of which nearly 2,000 have survived, are built on hillocks (toguere) as protection from the seasonal floods. Djenne is a traditional Mali village.
DJENNA TO DOUENTZA
After a few noisy nights in the middle of town (the locals did not leave us alone), and before we left Djenne, we visited the markets. The Colourful Monday Markets attract people from all around the region including Timbuktu. Djenne was an experience not to be missed. But the local tour guides drive you insane and in a way, we were happy to leave this town. Our first stop the town of Mopti. The main attraction is the harbour bustling with life. Also interested was the market near the Mosque in the old section of town. As a non-Muslim you are not allowed inside, but when you are willing to pay 250 CFA to some of the local guides they will let you climb on the roof of the neighbouring house to take nice pictures of the city. We are planning to drive till late tonight following another long day and rotten track to Timbuktu. We drove till sunset and being in “Bandit and Kidnap country” Clary heard every noise! The Tuareg men are handsome — tall, willowy, almost elegant in their manner. Called the “blue men” they wear denim-coloured robes and cover their heads and faces with turbans, showing only dark eyes and strong, aquiline noses. Although said to have quick, murderous tempers, we were wary of them as we met them in the bush, but they are good-natured and jolly as one sits around the fire with them drinking tea. No self-respecting Tuareg man allows his wife to work. On a continent where the women do 85 percent of the labour, this is a rarity. The Tuareg men do the herding, load the pack camels and brew the tea. I fell asleep, but Clary stayed awake for a long time. We woke up a few times due to the people’s noises, but no one wanted to kidnap us! As we woke up we were again given some warm camel milk, which we accepted, but after people asked us for a cadeaux we were happy to give this away. We were warned we would be disappointed and it was not worth the long drive! Not to mention the security risk we were told about. Holland, Australia, UK and USA all have a travel warning. This is mainly due to the Tuareg rebels. Incidents have been reported all around the Mauritanian border through to Gao in the East near the border with Niger. Unlike the rest of Mali, government control is minimal in the area and banditry remains rife with the threat of kidnappings high. Above all else, we wanted to visit Timbuktu. Every-one in the world has heard of Timbuktu but few know where it is. For most, it is the end of the world. The town lays in the north of Mali 15km north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Starting out as a seasonal settlement, Timbuktu became a permanent settlement early in the 12th century. After a shift in trading routes, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves and became part of the Mali Empire early in the 13th century. Different tribes governed until the French took over in 1893, a situation that lasted until it became part of the current Republic of Mali in 1960. Nowadays, Timbuktu is impoverished and suffers from desertification. Several initiatives are being undertaken to revive the historic manuscripts kept in the city. I have to say we were bitterly disappointed (we were warned) after having seen the North West and Middle of Mali. The streets are filled with sand and the place looks shabby, but yes, if you come from Europe you are in an isolated place. We did visit one of the oldest mosques and it looked like the mosques we have seen in Sudan. It also has a museum, but we are not museum people, so we skipped this. We did some shopping at the grand Marche (undercover market in the middle of Timbuktu), drove past the Flamme de La Paix where in 2009, over 3000 weapons were burned at the end of the Tuareg rebellion. As police would not allow us to travel any further north (for our own safety) we decided to leave town the same day tonight, while camping in the bush just off the track basically the same story as last night. Clary was worried because we had many locals in the area. Thankfully, just like last night, apart from people wanting to see our truck as we had water, electricity, oven, microwave etc., no-one kidnapped us. Despite the local hunter letting his rifle off while chasing a pig (we believe) all was fine. It did not take long before the local Tuaregs arrived and we were asked to come and join in for tea. Nomads around the world are famous for their hospitality, and the blue-turbaned Tuaregs are no different. Tuareg bandits might rob you out on the road, but once accepted into their camp you are perfectly safe. We did get invited for tea and we were part of the whole ritual. The women stay in their tents and rarely show themselves – although they don’t cover their faces the way most Muslim women do. No wine connoisseur is choosier than the Tuaregs are with their tea. They brew a heady mixture of Chinese green tea and lots of sugar in tiny pots over small fires, sample it, taste it, smell it, and debate its quality. Finally satisfied, they hold the pot two feet above a small shot glass and expertly pour the tea back and forth from pot to glass several times to create a head of foam before they serve the tea. Hot, sweet and strong enough to pucker your mouth. Communicating was difficult, however we did get the message from the locals that Ghadaffy was good and Obama and French president Sarkozy are not. Lucky our French is not that good, so we agreed with what they said? The next day we travelled south so we could meet up with Ogo and his family in the Dogon Country. But we can say we have been from here to Timbuktu. (a few months later 3 overlanders where kidnapped in Timbuktu and one was killed trying to escape) In a few days we will spend 3-4 days with Ogo’s family in the Dogon area in eastern Mali. The adventure will involve a 10km walk “I do not look forward to this and sleeping in huts and no water or electricity,” We are meeting him in Douentza.
After Douentza we entered Dogon Country following a very rough and deep sandy track south of Bamba. It was stifling hot but after a few hours, the sun disappeared, and the wind came up, making it with 42 degrees nice and comfortable but very hazy with all the sand in the air. The villages are like in fairyland and must be seen to be believed, high up on cliffs, half way up the cliffs, on top of the cliffs and at the bottom of the cliffs. Many are so well camouflaged that if you don’t stop and look for them, you drive straight past.
Tonight, Ogo and his family gave us a very good history lesson and spoke a lot about Dogon. (Ogo was the only one who spoke English, so a lot of translating went on). Below is a compilation of the history and background information we were told. All discussed with a real (warm) Dogon beer out of a calabas. There are mask dances that are held during the funeral ceremonies. And we were told that one of them was yesterday! There is also a Dogon Mask Festival, this is divided into the Sigui Festival and the Dama Festival. The Sigui Festival is held after every sixty years, while the Dama Festival is held once in twelve years. These ceremonies are conducted to worship the ancestors of the people of the community. At the time of the Dama ceremony, the male members of the community go to the caves to mourn for the death of the people they have lost in the past twelve years. During their stay in the caves, they also make masks. It is generally believed that the masks carry the souls of the people who have died in the past few years. The masks thus have the power to drive away evil spirits. The men wearing the masks perform dances for five days during the Dogon Mask Festival. There are Sigui masks that symbolize the binding of the spiritual world with the living world. These masks also depict the goddess of creation, Amma. There are hyena and water buffalo masks that come at the end of the festival and tell the people about the future of the community. The Dogon are an ethnic group living in the central plateau region of Mali, south of the Niger bend near the city of Bandiagara in the Mopti region. The population numbers between 400,000 and 800,000.
The Dogon are best known for their mythology, their mask dances, wooden sculpture and their architecture. The past century has seen significant changes in the social organization, material culture and beliefs of the Dogon, partly because Dogon country is one of Mali’s major tourist attractions. Among the Dogon, several oral traditions have been recorded as to their origin. According to this oral tradition, the first Dogon settlement was established in the extreme southwest of the Bandiagara escarpment at Kani-Na. Over time, the Dogon moved north along the escarpment, arriving in the Sanga region in the 15th Century.Other oral histories place the origin of the Dogon to the west beyond the River Niger, or tell of the Dogon coming from the east. Dogon art is primarily sculpture. Dogon art revolves around religious values, ideals, and freedoms. Dogon sculptures are not made to be seen publicly, and are commonly hidden from the public eye within the houses of families, sanctuaries or kept with the Hogon. The importance of secrecy is due to the symbolic meaning behind the pieces and the process by which they are made. Themes found throughout Dogon sculpture consist of figures with raised arms, superimposed bearded figures, horsemen, stools with caryatids, women with children, figures covering their faces, women grinding pearl millet, women bearing vessels on their heads, donkeys bearing cups, musicians, dogs, quadruped-shaped troughs or benches, figures bending from the waist, mirror-images, coned figures, and standing figures. Signs of other contacts and origins are evident in Dogon art. The Hogon is the spiritual leader of the village. He is elected from the oldest men of the enlarged families of the village. After his election he must follow a six-month initiation period, during which he is not allowed to shave or wash. He wears white clothes, and nobody is allowed to touch him. A young virgin who has not yet had her period takes care of him, cleans the house and prepares his meals. She returns to her home at night. The virgin will be replaced by one of his wives, but she also returns to her home at night. The Hogon must live alone in his house. The Dogon believe the sacred snake Lebe comes during the night to clean him and to transfer wisdom. The majority of Dogon practice, an animist religion, including the ancestral spirit Nommo, with its festivals and a mythology in which Sirius plays an important part. A significant minority of the Dogon practice Islam, another minority practice Christianity. The Dogon record their ancestry through a patrilineal system. Each Dogon community, or enlarged family, is headed by one male elder. This chief head is the oldest living son of the ancestor of the local branch of the family. Within this patrilineal system, polygynous marriages with up to four wives can occur. Most men, however, have only one wife, and it is rare for a man to have more than two wives.
Formally, wives only join their husband’s household after the birth of their first child. Women may leave their husbands early in their marriage, before the birth of their first child. After having children, divorce is a rare and serious matter, and it requires the participation of the whole village. An enlarged family can count up to hundred persons and is called guinna. The Dogon are strongly oriented toward harmony, which is reflected in many of their rituals. For instance, in one of their most important rituals, the women praise the men, the men thank the women, the young express appreciation for the old, and the old recognize the contributions of the young. Another example is the custom of elaborate greetings whenever one Dogon meets another. This custom is repeated over and over, throughout a Dogon village, all day. During a greeting ritual, the person who has entered the contact answers a series of questions about his or her whole family, from the person who was already there. Invariably, the answer is sewa, which means that everything is fine. Then the Dogon who has entered the contact repeats the ritual, asking the resident how his or her whole family is.
Because the word sewa is so commonly repeated throughout a Dogon village, as we followed Ogo through the village we jokingly said a few times if he meets more people we will not get to the other end of the village till dinner time. The Dogon maintain an agricultural mode of subsistence, and cultivate pearl millet, sorghum and rice, tobacco, peanuts, and some other vegetables. The Dogon people now cultivate onions. The economy of the region doubled since and its onions are sold as far as the market of Bamako and even Ivory Coast.
In Dogon beliefs, male and females are thought to be born with both sexual components. The fore skin is considered female, while the clitoris is considered to be male. Rites of circumcision thus allow each sex to assume its proper physical identity. Boys are circumcised in age groups of three years, counting for example all boys between 9 and 12 years old. This marks the end of their youth, and they are now initiated. The blacksmith performs the circumcision. Afterwards, they stay for a few days in a hut separated from the rest of the village people, until the wound has healed. The circumcision is a reason for celebration and the initiated boys go around and receive presents. They make music on a special instrument that is made of a rod of wood and calabashes that makes the sound of a rattle. The village of Songho has a circumcision cave ornamented with red and white rock paintings of animals and plants. Nearby is a cave where music instruments are stored. The newly circumcised men must walk around naked for a month after the procedure so that their achievement in age can be admired by the citizens of the tribe. This practice has been passed down for generations and is always followed. They are one of several African ethnic groups which practice female genital cutting. In the Sangha region, the milder form is practiced. This means that only the clitoral hood is removed, which is similar to male circumcision. However, most of the Dogon women practice a Class 2 circumcision, meaning that both the clitoris and the labia minora are removed. Girls are circumcised around the age of 7 or 8 years, sometimes younger. Circumcision for both male and female is seen as necessary for the individual to gain gender. Before circumcision they are seen as ‘neuter’.
Due to the expense, their traditional funeral rituals or “damas” are becoming very rare. They may be performed years after the death. Damas that are still performed today are not usually performed for their original intent, but instead are done as a source of entertainment for tourists interested in the Dogon way of life. The traditional dama consists of a masquerade that essentially leads the souls of the departed to their final resting places through a series of ritual dances and rites. Dogondamas include the use of many masks which they wore by securing them in their teeth, and statuettes. Every village may have their own way of performing the dama rituals. It turned out to be a few very long days and late nights with singing and story- telling and we went to bed with a wealth of information about this very special group of people. We could not imagine that Ogo’s mum and dad never had a TV, Fridge or any electricity in their whole life! They climb the cliff probably twice a week, and carry water from the well 5km back to the village every day. During the discussions we touched on Ghadaffi, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, but the local villagers never heard of them. Ogo said he would speak about this more tomorrow. In fact, 90% of the people have never been outside the region. Ogo never kisses his mother because in Dogon culture this is unheard of. As the heat was still oppressive at 11.30 in the evening, we slept outside on a little matrass under a mosquito net on top of the house. (Mud Hut) With the sounds of donkeys, goats, chickens and other bird and animal life we eventually went to sleep. Every night we tried to work out how people can still live like this in the year 2011. What an experience we have had! One last comment. The chicken we had tonight was fresh as it was killed and cooked on the spot. Hence no need to keep it refrigerated. Ogo’s family warned us about the heat, explaining that the temperature hovers around 50 degrees every day at this time of the year. They are all waiting for the June rains when the temp comes down to 40 degrees Celsius.
DOGON TO BURKINA FASO BORDER
It was hard to get away, but we still had to do some hard and soft sand driving including some hilly terrain. It didn’t take long before we got lost trying to avoid the large sand hills, but with the escarpment on the right we knew we were not far off the track. The going was tough and slow, more importantly it was very hot and during the whole day Clary and I used 15 litres of water. The principal Dogon area is bisected by a sandstone cliff, the Bandiagara Escarpment which is 500m (1,640 ft.) high, stretching about 150 km (almost 100 miles). To the southeast of the cliff, the sandy Seno-Gondo Plains are found, and northwest of the cliff are the Bandiagara Highlands. Historically, Dogon villages were established in the Bandiagara area because of the Dogon people’s collective refusal to convert to Islam a thousand years ago. Dogon insecurity in the face of these historical pressures caused them to locate their villages in defensible positions along the walls of the escarpment. Islamic law classified them and many other ethnicities of the region, (Mossi, Gurma, Bobo, Busa and the Yoruba) as being within the dar al-harb and consequently fair game for slave raids organized by merchants, though it is often difficult to distinguish between pre-Muslim practices and later Islamic practice  as the growth of cities increased the demand for slaves across the region of West Africa. The historical pattern has included murder of indigenous males by Islamic jihadists and enslavement of women and children. The other factor influencing their choice of settlement location is water. The Niger River is nearby and in the sandstone rock, a rivulet runs at the foot of the cliff at the lowest point of the area during the wet season. However, one village we drove through had no water (well was dry) and a few others were running very low. All Dogon villages have several different buildings, i.e. a male granary; storage place for pearl millet and other grains. Building with a pointed roof. This building is well protected from mice. The amount of filled male granaries is an indication for the size and the richness of a guinna. A female granary – storage place for a woman’s things, and her husband has no access. It is a building with a pointed roof and it looks like a male granary but is less protected against mice. Here, she stores her personal belongings such as clothes, jewellery, money and some food. A woman is economically independent, and earnings and things related to her merchandise are stored in her personal granary. She can for example make cotton or pottery. The number of female granaries is an indication for the number of women living in the guinna. A Toguna is a building only for men. They rest here much of the day throughout the heat of the dry season, discuss affairs and take important decisions in the toguna. The roof of a toguna is made by 8 layers of millet stalks. It is a low building in which one cannot stand upright. This helps avoiding violence when discussions get heated. House for menstruating women – this house is on the outside of the village. It is constructed by women and is of lower quality than the other village buildings. Women having their period are considered to be unclean and must leave their family house to live during five days in this house. They use kitchen equipment only to be used there. They bring with them their youngest children. This house is a gathering place for women during the evening. This hut is also thought to have some sort of reproductive symbolic significance because the hut can be easily seen by the men who are working the fields who know that only women who are on their period, and thus not pregnant, can be there. Clary is having trouble with the heat, so we decided to get to a small village near the bottom of the escarpment where we were invited in by some locals and we could sleep on the roof of their house. We fell asleep and woke up to the noises of donkeys, goats, chickens and other animals. Today is our last day in Dogon land and Clary is looking forward to some better roads to keep the motor and the tyres a little cooler. We crossed the old track to Burkina Faso but were told to ignore it as it is used by bandits and smugglers, so we continued till the next track before turning south to Koro and the border. Looking back, we saw the escarpment in the rear mirror thinking what will happen to those people in the next 100 years when they are discovered by tourism. Unfortunately, we got lost and ended up back on the very rough smugglers road! Anyway, we didn’t see any smugglers or bandits, but we did cut 100km off our journey. We just had to drive back a few kilometres to get past the border post and advise them that we got lost and we apologized. (No problem was the response).
RE-ENTERING MALI FROM GHANA TO BORDER SENEGAL
We are continuing towards the border with Guinea for a visit to Siby and the surrounding area. This is where Mali was founded. We are now on the border with Guinea and the landscape changes from arid to tropical and it is much hillier.
Siby is in the middle of Mande country. We visited the Arch of Kamadjan where we were told the Empire of Mali was established in about 1300 AD. In this area, gold mining still exists. We were also invited into the house of a well know Mali hunter and he showed of his trophies. That was an interesting experience for us both. We really like Mali and its people. The country is large (largest in West Africa) and with only 10 million people it is sparsely populated. On our way west towards Kayes, we passed women and children washing clothes. The clothes were laid out to dry in the trees and bushes and Clary wondered how they could be so clean with all the red dirt and dust around. Most of the world knows Mali from the town Timbuktu, the first town you enter coming down the Sahara Desert. For us, Timbuktu was a big disappointment. We enjoyed the Dogon Country, Segou, Mopti, Sangha and Bamako much more. Last but not the least we enjoyed the non-corrupt police. The Mali people have been the nicest people we have met in West Africa so far. Last night we skipped dinner as the heat was oppressive an all we needed was cold beer, water and wine. Due to our late arrival in Kayes last night we decided to have a look around this morning. Situated on the Senegal River, with a population of roughly 100,000 people, it is a very typical African city with street markets and live animals everywhere. Kayes is nicknamed the “pressure cooker of Africa” due to its extreme heat. The town is surrounded by iron-rich mountains, which contribute to the rise in the temperature. Kayes is often described as the hottest continuously-inhabited town in Africa. The average daily temperature in the city is 35 Deg C (95 Deg F), with temperatures usually peaking in April and May at a daily average of 46 C (115F). The town lies on the Dakar-Niger Railway, and the area is rich in gold and iron. We filled up with much needed fuel and headed for the border with Senegal. We have been told to expect a nightmare full of corrupt officials, on the Senegal side. However, for us, we were stamped out of Mali in 10 Minutes and Senegal took 1.5 hrs due to the usual African complete chaos and disorganization. We had to drive across town to get the usual stamps from the various offices; no-one checks, no-one looks at your car and basically you do what you like! From here, we looked for a nice bush camp for the night.
PART 3 VIDEO CLIPS
1. Mali 2011
2. COMPILATION VIDEO AFRICA & MIDDLE EAST includes Mali