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close this bookThe Courier N° 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderCountry report
close this folderMali : An omnipresent sense of history
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThree republics to create one democracy
View the documentInterview with Ali N. Diallo, President of the National Assembly
View the documentProfile
View the documentInterview with Amadou Seydou Traoré, opposition leader and USRDA spokesman
View the documentThe magnetism of the unfamiliar... but unexotic
View the documentMali-EU cooperation
View the documentNGOs finally achieve tangible results

The magnetism of the unfamiliar... but unexotic

In West Africa, there is a dry, desert-like region which a river tried to bring under its sway. Instead of flowing seawards, the river's path went in the opposite direction to find this region, impulsively tracing a majestic loop of 2000 kiLomes before heading seawards. The Niger may not have provided an ideal site for Mali's major towns and villages, but it was considerate enough to form a major waterway between them which is navigable over almost its entire course. Its network of tributaries has resulted in the formation of large landlocked lakes whose waters are full of fish-a reminder of the times when the Sahara was one huge expanse of water. It has also resulted in the extraordinary Niger basin, a central delta area the size of Belgium, criss-crossed by lesser tributaries which reach into the smallest valleys. The river has created a diverse landscape which entices the visitor back. The land is steeped in history and if one wishes to learn its secrets, one has no choice but to study the empires of the past, forged it is said, by mythological deities and heros.

During the dry season, visitors marvel at the beauty of the plains, which stretch as far as the eye can see. They will be tempted to return to view the waters that will cover them for just a few months during the rains. This is when the towns and villages appear as islands in the flooded landscape. Later in the seasonal cycle, Nature divests itself of its watery raiment and prepares to welcome the egrets, pink flamingos and all the other richly coloured birds which have flown in from afar. The cultural life of this region is also imbued with a rare richness, combining mystery and individuality. Mali has a distinctive character: it is accessible but not adulterated by frippery, welcoming but not taken over, affable but able to treat everyone as its equal. There is no need to make constant reference to the past which existed before colonial times-the past simply exists, eloquent in its tranquil humility.

A survey of Mali should logically begin in Bamako, the likely port of arrival. But if one immediately journeys to the towns and villages that were the cradles of empire, one is better able to appreciate this young capital, barely 250 years old, whose history owes much to its smaller forebears. We arrived in the evening and departed at dawn the next day. So Bamako was no more than a blur. The River Niger, still known as the Djoliba in the capital, is crossed by two long bridges which offer a view over the wild river banks. Most of the constructions are brand-new and some have a style borrowed from their thousandyear-old 'Sudanese' architectural heritage. It would have been more romantic to travel by river to the central part of the delta but, despite the welcoming nature of the Niger as it flows through Mali, it is difficult to navigate over the Sotuba rapids, between Bamako and Koulikoro approximately 50 km away. When the waters are in spate from July to December, it takes no more than two days to reach Segou, three to reach Mopti, five to reach Gao and an extra day to arrive in Timbuktu.

Segou, the rebel

Our first stop after Bamako is Koulikoro, the departure point for Niger cruises. After the unusual houses of the bazo fisherman on the banks of the river, as one leaves Bamako, it is the river itself which is a source of curiosity, transforming the voyage into a wonderful promenade through a forest abounding in game. Then there are the thatched, circular mud huts. Those without a roof are built on piles and are often ovens for preparing karite-nut oil whose bitter-sweet fragrance mingles with the fruity scent of the mango trees which line our route. In Koulikoro, every day is market day. The market spills out into the road and then shrinks back to allow vehicles to pass. It is also a centre for hunters and poachers who come here to seek customers. Above all, it is the centre for the guilds of masons who jealously guard the secrets of traditional Sudanese building skills. For the visitor who cares to linger, the griots will sing the praises of the old magician-king Soumangourou whose spirit has haunted this small town for eight-and-a-half centuries. When he was overthrown by the hero Soundjata, he just vanished into thin air-in the land of mystery that is Mali, great kings do not die, they simply disappear.

The first 250 kiLomes of the river's course from Bamako are enchanting. One's first real encounter with Mali's past come at Segou-when the balanzans come into view. The charming, independent city is close by. Segou, the Bambara capital, did not form part of most of Mali's empires. Indeed, the word Bambara comes from 'Ban-Mane', which means 'those who reject a master'. There are 4444 + 1 balanzans to announce the city, all of which are numbered except the last one, which still guards its secret. The balanzans conceal another secret: during the dry season they are covered with leaves, which they lose during the winter. A curious traveller might arrive at Segou with memories of Maryse Conde's fine prose (Segou, Robert Laffont, France, 1984). Her work is an epic fresco of life at the court of the Bambara kingdom in the nineteenth century. The city itself stretches for eight kiLomes along the river bank, with a promenade high above the river on an embankment from where there is an uninterrupted view over the water to the horizon. The richly coloured fabrics of the washer women create a dreamlike atmosphere, giving an impression of the shimmering tunics worn by princes, and the women who swim in the river are not given to excessive prudishness, another reminder of the city's enduring rebellious nature. The charm and cleanliness of the town are striking, its administrative buildings stretching along a grand boulevard lined with modern structures. We see in their profiles, the traditional architectural styles as well as a variety of colours. The whole scene is shaded by gardens full of flowers. It is easy to forget that Segou has retained none of its former architectural wealth. This was all destroyed by the organisers of a jihad who sacked this city of infidels who had never been won over to Islam or, later, to Catholicism. The city walls and the regal courtyards are all gone, so what remains is jealously protected: the sceptre and regal symbols of King Diarra, the kingdom's treasures and its secrets. On Mondays, market day, it is possible to see people kneeling at the feet of an old man. He is the custodian of the town's remaining riches, but will never reveal where they are held. Oumar Santara, one of Segou's intellectuals, is attempting to gain an insight into these mysteries in order to protect them better because, he says, the pillage is still going on. Mali's cultural heritage is being ransacked by outsiders. In some villages on the opposite bank of the river, it is still possible to find 13th-century coins in the village squares.

Trial marriage

Nearly 500 kiLomes separate Segou from Mopti. Midway between the two is San, barely more than a large village. San is bathed by the waters of the Bani, a major tributary of the Niger which it flows into it at Mopti. In the market, fine cotton fabrics can be bought, as can the skills of the blacksmiths. Here, however, there is above all an air of secrecy. The town's inhabitants are members of the Bobo people. The name translates es 'stammering', 'mute' being implied. This is the town which holds the secrets of fatal poisons- cocktails of poisonous plants and snake venom. There are also unguents of all kinds to relieve pain, alleviate scarring, and so on. San has another reputation, that of handing out severe punishment to adulteresses. This seems paradoxical when one discovers that women here enjoy exceptional sexual freedom during adolescence and up to the time of their marriage, and even afterwards. They enter into a trial marriage for three or four years, during which time they are free to 'play the field'. At the end of this period, on the occasion of a feast, they reveal whether or not they will accept their 'provisional' husband. If not, the woman regains her freedom and can start all over again as many times as she wishes. If she decides to become the man's wife, she chooses some of her husband's friends with whom she may 'have a fling' for two weeks, the aim being that she thereby lays to rest her unmarried freedom. She will then swear an oath of fidelity to her husband which she breaks on pain of being cast out of society and even, it would appear, at the risk of losing her life.

A 1 2-kiLome dyke, which seems to float on the water during the winter season, links Sevare, the crossroads of the major routes across Mali, to Mopti. Situated below water level, Mopti owes its existence to the embankments which protect it. The dyke offers a fine promenade which opens out onto the quayside of this bustling town. The streets are crowded and the settlement has a vitality and beauty, with coloured lights mirrored in the water. On land, the crowds drift in much the same way as the multitude of boats anchored in staggered rows along the riverbank. These stretch for hundreds of metres- as far as the eye can see. All this wealth of detail forms a tableau punctuated by the outlines of the slender fishing smacks (pirogues or dugout canoes). Despite their size, these vessels retain their uncluttered lines, always giving the impression that they are slicing through the water. The biggest of them are perhaps 50 metres long, carrying cargoes of up to 150 tonnes. This strange, animated scene, which resembles no other in the world, seems to have been staged as a way of reviving the buried images of the Mali of legend-provoking a memory of things unseen and prompting new sensations. Despite the fact that it is replete with Malian influences, Mopti did not develop until colonial times. Like Segou, it never really belonged to any of Mali's great empires, although it became their meeting point. It is a place where all the country's languages are spoken. Indeed, the word 'mopte' in Peal means 'place of assembly'. At Zigui's restaurant or in a cafe down by the port, one find groups of beribboned Tuareg artisans still with their belle servants (former slaves) in tow. One can watch the Peals, also followed by their servants, negotiating their deals. Some trade in gold jewellery, dogon or other ethnic sculptures. Others buy and sell the magnificent Segou carpets or cotton fabrics. Others still dabble in ancient archaeological artifacts (which it is forbidden to sell) and in sacred objects from all over the country. The town itself is an artifact: the apparent hotchpotch is regulated by an internal, almost natural organisation. The hundreds of boats, fishing smacks and other small craft are arranged along the river banks according to the goods they are importing. There is one place for fishing boats, another for furniture imports, and so on.

Mopti merits an overnight stay. In the curve of the great arc which forms the port, a soft light lingers on the congested river banks. It is not just the people who seem to tire of the day's hustle and bustle. The biggest boats with their gentle backwash, anchored in the mud until the next incoming tide, grow too lazy for their images to be reflected in the water and they seem to hold on to the last of the sun's glow, awaiting the first glimmers of moonlight

The Dogon region, poetry in stone

As one approaches Bandiagara, on the threshold of the cliff faces which bear the name of this town, the landscape changes. Most of Mali is flat, but here, we find ourselves in the high land. In fact, the altitude is only a few hundred metres, but the landscape is dominated by sheer and rugged rock faces. This is Dogon country where everything seems to be made of stone: the roads, houses and hills appear in matching tones of salmon pink. The inhabitants, too, seem to have been hewn from the very rock. At first glance, the landscape is unremarkable apart from the sight of all this rock, but as one's perception grows keener, shapes can be made out. At the foot of the slopes are caves that are still lived in. And in the most vertical part of the cliff faces, we can pick out regular, sculpted barrel shapes, combining to form an impressive design. These stone cylinders are the ancient dwellings of the Telems, a mysterious people who preceded the Dogons and were conquered by them. Nothing is known about their disappearance. Today, the cylinders are used as Dogon graves. Access is gained to them during funeral services, by means of a system of ropes. At the top of the cliff is Shanga, the beauty of the Dogon region. It stands atop a 400metre sheer drop which extends over a length of 200 kiLomes. Reaching Shanga from Bandiagara involves picking one's way through the rocky landscape and sliding over sandstone scree.

Before the Europeans arrived to colonise the country, no one had succeeded in subjugating the Dogon region. Was it really ever under the sway of the colonists? This region, whose beauty lies in its harshness, has no embellishments. And its language is as hard on the ears as the rock is underfoot. As everywhere, to feed themselves, the Dogons till the soil. But this must be carried on the backs of men and women over distances of several kiLomes and then deposited on the rock. Every onion bulb and every root pulled from this thin layer is a testament to the tenacity of humankind.

The Dogon region is like a magnet-it attracts pilgrims from afar who come to venerate El Hadj Oumar, the founder of the Islamic brotherhood of the African Tidjani-a military and religious leader whose life and disappearance are shrouded in mystery. It also attracts people because of the beauty of its works of art. Some of these, apparently of recent manufacture, are actually centuries old. For the custodians of the sacred objects, the interest of outsiders is viewed as a catastrophe. The artefacts are constantly pilfered and sometimes, their keepers commit suicide in their horror at such desecration.

Fine regalia

Djenne translates as 'the beloved of the waters' and is surrounded by two strekhes of the Bani river. Thus, apart from a short time in the dry season, when the river can be forded, it is an island accessible only by boat. The town has always been a rival of Timbuktu, the 'daughter' of the desert. Before Mopti was created, Djenne was the country's meeting point. The town is dominated by its mosque which is a masterpiece of Sudanese architecture. This imposing clay structure has been a magnet for the faithful since the thirteenth century. It has always been rebuilt in the same style, each version scrupulously identical to the previous one. The most recent reconstruction dates from the early 1900s.

Centre of the Malian empire, Djenne has retained all its finery, magnificence and prestige. It was annexed by the Shongoi empire at the end of the Middle Ages and its conquerors have always been seduced by the town's beauty. The mosque has been designated a World Heritage Site, and the entire town has protected status. For centuries, its architecture influenced other towns and cities in the Sahel and it continues to do so. The secrets of the knowledge and skills of its master masons are still jealously guarded, passed on only reluctantly to the initiated. The whole town is built around the mosque, revealing an interplay of balance and power. There are magnificent inner courtyards to which entry is gained through massive, ornate studded gates. The elaborate and finely carved windows, the intertwined leaves and scrolls of the arabesques and the moucharabies, all bear witness to the Moroccan influence. This has, however, been toned down and it now blends in with Djenne's indigenous forms of decoration and architecture. Whilst all Mali's former great towns and cities were known for their power and military glory, Djenne takes pride in having dispensed with brute force, its spirit protecting it from subjugation. All those who pass through take something of Djenne's spirit away with them.

Coca Cola kept at bay

Returning to the capital from where we started, we discover that it was colonisation that turned Bamako from a village into the large city that it is today. It inhabitants now number approximately one million. Although a city of recent origin, the site on which it is built dates back to the dawn of time. The hills overlooking the city are home to cave paintings and the underground tombs provide more evidence of a human presence dating from ancient times. There is then a gap of several thousand years in Bamako's history. In early colonial times, just two centuries ago, the village had no more than 700 inhabitants. Bamako began to be developed at the beginning of the 1900s and it is the only city in Mali to have a colonial atmosphere. It has not, however, lost out to change. The ministerial buildings at Koulouba hill, one of five dominating the city, or the Point G houses in the National Museum area, may not equal the beauty of Sudanese architecture, but they are elegant nonetheless. Their plain style is softened by their leafy gardens. The administrative buildings in the lower part of the city are often a fusion of colonial or modern styles and traditional architecture. These edifices are also made more attractive by fine gardens, which lend originality to the city. One of the most successful combinations is the great market, unfortunately in the process of restoration at the time of our visit and whose beautiful interior we were unable to appreciate. It is interior beauty which characterises this city in comparison with other African capitals. Despite its congestion and the density of its population, Bamako still has the atmosphere of a lively village. There is little of what one might term a 'social scene', but it is enough to be invited into the 'squares' or respectfully to visit the block-shaped houses which are still home to entire families and where discussion sessions (grins) last into the small hours. These sessions are enhanced with food and the omnipresent cup of tea. Bamako still prefers tea to imported beverages and to receive guests in the family home rather than joining in the social round in the hotel foyers so characteristic of major capital cities.

For those hesitant to venture into the traditional life of Bamako (although they would be assured of a welcome), there are many restaurants which make a good attempt at recreating a homely atmosphere. One is not, however, required to take part in the conversations. Two restaurants (the Djenne and the Santoro), which have opened recently, allow one to enjoy the pleasures of art and history. They are part of a wider project to promote Malian art and set up an organisation for artists and craftsmen. They contain areas modelled on the refinement of former imperial furnishing, interior design and architecture, as well as exhibits by Mali's greatest artists. Their creator, Aminata Traore, is an intellectual, art connoisseur and international expert. In Dakar or Abidjan, patrons of such establishments would probably be expatriates with perhaps a few local dignitaries. But at the Santoro and Djenne, prices have been kept reasonably low (no account having been taken of the 50% devaluation in the CFA franc) and the art remains accessible to middle-class Malians. Thus, the spirit of the 'grins' is preserved. The preferred beverage is still a cup of fragrant tea or perhaps a glass of refreshing juice. Whisky will never replace tea, nor will Coca Cola replace fruit juices. Mali is not a country which rejects other people, but it resists cultural encroachment, preferring the
familiar to the exotic.
Hegel Goutier