Mon. Oct 26th, 2020

Travel: Africa: A Journey To Northern Mali |1978-12-7

Ogobara Chief of Sanga

Timbuktu may have been reduced to a sleepy town of five thousand people, but northern Mali, rich with history and art, remains one of the most fascinating corners of the earth; its location at the crossroads of several trans-Saharan trade routes makes it an ethnological melting pot of people as diverse as the Berbers, Arabs, Tuaregs, Bambara, Fulani, Dogon, and Mande. One very colorful route to Mali is that of the fabled Atlantic-Niger train from Dakar; the 650-mile trip from the Senegalese capital of Bamako, the capital of Mali, takes all of 18 hours and starts at a pace so slow that suburban Dakarites don’t bother making the trip to the station, they simply jump aboard the moving train as it creeps around a bend. However, the good feeling of African life aboard the train more than compensates for its lack of speed. The night traveler can enjoy the relative privacy of sleeping cars, but during the day the Atlantic-train turns into a traveling circus as joyfully exuberant people laugh, sing and play cards while others pray or sleep on the train’s floor [sometimes, even in the restroom]. Among your fellow passengers you’ll find sheep, fowl, and even pet monkeys, and as the car rattles through the scenic African country-side, mothers breastfeed their babies, and the air is filled with the smell of such favorite delicacies as mangoes, peanuts, fried chicken, rice, and fish-food sold by clusters of vendors who swarm to the train at each stop.

Once past the cool 60-degree micro-climate of Cape Verde, the temperature soars to a sweltering 100, and one notices the vegetation change. After Tambacounda — a small town on the edge of Bambara territory, near Mali — the lunar baobab forests and vast shrub expanses of the Senegalese brousse give way to a rugged landscape of rocks.

Bamako’s market place is of special interest, teeming with a good many of the city’s approximately 150,000 population, it is a colorful symphony of exotic jewelry, leather-crafts, fabrics, and other assorted wares. Gourmets have a choice of sampling local cuisine in cafes or dining more formally in some of the city’s fancier restaurants; either way they have a chance to be serenaded by Malian griots, extraordinary perpetuators of the Mandinka musical tradition who alone make the trip worthwhile. In 1969, at the First Pan-African Festival in Algiers, these Malian griots garnered the highest praises.

Bamako also has good night clubs, as I discovered rather unexpectedly: to see more of the country, I joined a group headed north on a truck provided by the Tourist Office, but when our driver suddenly disappeared, we seized the opportunity to sample Bamako’s night life by dancing with lithesome Malians to — of all things — Latin rhythms. The next morning, wearing a big smile, our driver finally showed up and explained that he had simply gone to bid his girlfriend farewell!

Women Pounding Grain Near Segou
Women Pounding Grain Near Segou

Enroute to the Niger, we were covered with a crust of dust from the ochre used to decorate houses there; ochre, brown, white and black are the landscape’s four dominant colors, a stunning combination, especially when seen against the bluest of skies. Toward Segou, former capital of the Bambara Kingdom, magnificent fortified villages surge on the horizon; these villages abound with an impressive variety of art objects representing a wide range of techniques and cultures. Despite the ochre dust, our trek was a wonderful experience filled with interesting sights and sounds: women pounding grain rhythmically, children flashing warm smiles, itinerant Fulani fiddlers treating us to impromptu recitals — we felt welcome wherever we stopped.

River scene in Mopti
River scene in Mopti

Mopti, the Moslem port on the Niger, is a hub of intense activity: Women washing themselves in the waters of the river; stevedores loading boats destined to go upstream; all, amidst the pungent smell of spices and fish, Lebu fisherman mingling with Tuareg, Dogon, and Bambara merchants in a constantly moving kaleidoscope of colors. One marvels at the beauty of Fulani women with their heavy gold earrings and indigo lips, and at the splendor of the sunset dancing its reddish hues on the clay pots and multi-colored boxes set along the river’s bank to dry. While some Visitors may prefer the “modern” bank where men discuss affairs of the day in Syrian cafes or the colonial hotel, more adventurous souls are attracted by the mystery of the Medina, the old quarter which picturesquely extends around the mosque on the other side of the Niger.

Djenne, the former trade metropolis of western Sudan, is a gem well worth the few extra miles of difficult road it takes to reach it. Its isolated location and the fact that one has to drive through a muddy branch of the Niger [at the risk of stalling] to get there has discouraged mass tourism, consequently, Djenne has preserved its pristine look. Enroute to Djenne, one passes villages, surrounded by palm trees like oasis in a vast plain with sprawling nomad encampments. Local people take a delight in telling tales of ancient kings and mischievous princesses, reminding us that, in the 14th century, the region was a part of the great Mali Empire. Night-time arrival in Djenne is an eerie experience: there is an intensity about the mosque square that recalls such great mystical cities as Fes and Cordoba; the moon casts ominous shadows on the ground, and even the most common sounds take on another dimension as they penetrate the night air — a voice calls, another responds, a horse neighs, and in between there is an almost magical silence.

I dumped my sleeping bag under a clump of trees determined to get some sorely needed rest, but floating through that resounding African night came the beckoning rhythms of distant music, and I soon found myself following the drum beats to where a gathering stood. In the middle of a circle Bambara girls challenged each other with intricate choreography, a sight so fascinating that I forgot all about sleep. The following day our driver had disappeared again, but this time not for a romantic romp. It turned out that he had collided with a wild buck whose horns became entangled in the truck’s radiator grill; this did not Kill the animal, but he subsequently did, placing it on the roof of his vehicle with a future feast in mind. Unfortunately, police caught him skinning the buck, and threw him in jail. After much heated discussion with local authorities, we not only succeeded in freeing our driver, but also managed to secure for ourselves half of the meat, which we then roasted for lunch and shared with a group of Fulani herders.

Fulani Herder
Fulani Herder

Fulani men are the epitome of elegance: tall, stately and nonchalant, they wear conical or embroidered hats, makeup and stupendous jewelry as they come to market places to trade milk for spices, show off, socialize and flirt. As chivalrous as they are handsome, they seem to prefer reciting poetry and making eye contact with ladies [or men, for Fulani males commonly hold each other tenderly by the hand] to indulging in carnal pleasures.

Because the Niger was at a low ebb, I had to skip Timbuktu — not until the summer, four months hence, would the river swell. However, I abated my regrets by making an emotional pilgrimage to the Dogon, a people whose art and philosophy I fervently admire. Living but a few hours away from the Niger, the Dogon have long been among Africa’s most secret people. They came from the South, centuries ago, and established their home in the impregnable rock dwellings of the Bandiagra cliffs; in so doing, they expelled the area’s aboriginal inhabitants, the Telem Pygmies, who then migrated to the Central African forest. Hidden in their strongholds, the Dogon maintained their ancestral religion, remaining impervious to Islam. Their seclusion was not total, however, for they were visited by explorers and missionaries who pilfered their art and brought it to Europe where it inspired such cubist painters as Braque and Picasso. Certain aspects of Dogon culture have crept into anthropological literature, and the fascinating revelations made by a blind sage named Ogotemmeli to French writer Marcel Griaule, show us that Dogon cosmogony is among the world’s most elaborate.

From Bandiagara — which is located at the foot of Dogon country, and features magnificent examples of traditional African architecture — one takes a winding road to Sanga, the main village of the Dogon plateau. Along the way one sees at first veiled Tuaregs trekking lonesomely in the dust, then, as one ascends, myriads of orchards crop up, and in the heart of Dogon country Phrygian-capped peasants nod silently as they lead their small donkeys — and time seems frozen.

Being a romanticist, I found Sanga to be somewhat of a culture shock; my imagination had not prepared me for a modern hotel with shower-equipped bungalows! Tourists do not always realize what a luxury such conveniences are in the middle of the terrible Sahelian drought — water from the showers must be drawn from a well at the expense of the villagers’ fields, an arrangement that is as inequitable as the fact that Sanga peasants must do with a daily plate of rice while the hotel menu features sumptuous French food. We struck up a conversation with a majestic old man who stood, clad in a blue robe, on the hotel terrace. He was the village chief, Ogobara, who also functions as a guide for the National Tourist Office. I found that out when he handed me a visiting card — so much for ancient Dogon traditions. Equipped with a prodigious memory, Ogobara seemed to recall all past visitors to Sanga, which prompted me to ask him about Ogotemmeli, the blind sage who had told Marcel Griaule so much about Diew D’eau, the Dogon water god. “Come with me,” Ogobara beckoned, “I’ll take you around the village. Ogotemmeli died, but his brother is still alive.” I followed him along the narrow streets of Ogol- du-Bas, the old, well-preserved part of Sanga, to the men’s palaver hut where he introduced me to Ogotemmeli’s brother. Before we proceeded from there, I learned that children had torn down Ogotemmeli’s hut, but that it had been precisely reconstructed, complete with animal skulls in the walls.

In Ogol-du-Haut, the religious section of Sanga, Ogobara pointed out the house of the great Dogon priest, Hogon, the Binu temple — still wet with sacrificial blood — and the square where Marcel Griaule was initiated. Then, pointing to a comfortable stone house, adjacent to the hotel, he said, “This is Germaine Dieterlen’s house. She comes every year from Paris to do research, but she won’t stay in the hotel so we had that house built for her.” Dieterlen is a French anthropologist, and the thought of Sanga as a second home for social scientists shattered yet another illusion of mine. Ogobara’s tour ended at his house, where he showed me beautiful sculptured door pieces — among the few pieces of art that have remained in Sanga — and photographs of himself with international visitors.

I arose at 5 the following morning to visit Banani and Ireli — the villages nested in the cliff on the other side of the Sanga plateau — accompanied by Ogobara’s sons, who attend Bandiagra high school, and act as guides during holidays. A pink dawn illuminated the plateau as we set off for Banani, and the almost overwhelming serenity of the early hours was broken only by the occasional chirp of a bird, braying of a donkey, and the quiet greetings of a passing peasant going to work with an axe resting on his shoulders. To reach Banani, we first had to cross the plateau hopping from stone slab to stone slab, then pass a grassy cove above which the Telem pygmies once lived. Suddenly the cliff that overlooks the Dogon villages and the plain loomed before us, and as the temperature began to rise, we began an almost vertical descent. Every day, old women scale the cliff with the agility of goats, carrying pails on their heads to fetch water from the plateau well — as grave and majestic as their surroundings, they seem as one with nature. Near a cave containing ancestral bones, we paused under a baobab to enjoy the spectacular view, and as I looked around I saw clearly how the villagers of Banani and Ireli have always managed to keep their areas safe from intruders. Today they still keep largely to themselves, ignoring tourists until someone tries to photograph them, then they show open contempt. Despite their continued isolationism, the Dogon have not totally escaped from the rest of the world: signs of modern times include airplanes depicted next to traditional religious subjects on paintings that adorn ceremonial houses, and Japanese plastic sandals are sold in the market.

By the time we reached the plain, in the early afternoon, heat waves from the earth blurred the horizon. Bare-breasted Fulani women exchanged pleasantries as they headed for Banani to sell milk, their intimate behavior contrasting sharply with Dogon guardedness. When we returned to Sanga that night, funeral week had started; hunters, wearing their famous crested masks, performed splendid dances to the haunting sounds of drums and rhombs as they joined other villagers in a celebration of their dead.

Timbuktu!, the Broadway fantasy, has come and gone, but the place that gave its name is still there, and it will remain there along with Mopti, Djenne, Bandiagara and Banani — little dots on a map that hold wonderful mysteries and spectacular art treasures. Should you have the good fortune to visit these historic places, your soul will be elevated, and you just might come away with a whole new outlook on life.

Keep reading this issue – next article

See a list of all archived Routes editions