Written by sociolingo on 11 Sep, 2004
In Bamako I had seen people have their feet henna'd for celebrations such as weddings, Tabaski and big fetes, but I had never had it done myself. I was staying in the rural village of Zebala and one day I talked to my American host,…Read More
In Bamako I had seen people have their feet henna'd for celebrations such as weddings, Tabaski and big fetes, but I had never had it done myself. I was staying in the rural village of Zebala and one day I talked to my American host, Lucia, and mentioned this. She said that she'd always wanted it done too. So we arranged with the daughters of some Zebalan friends of hers to prepare our feet for the coming Christmas fete. What an experience!
The two young girls arrived at about 8 am with lots of old cloths and plastic bags. We had no idea what we were in for! We sat in state in the mosquito netting covered veranda of my friend’s house. The girls discussed with us what patterns we would like on our feet. The discussion was in Minianyka and French and got quite complicated. The girls started cutting strips of white first aid plaster. With these strips they made complicated designs on the sides of our feet and the top of our feet, leaving the soles blank. Once they were happy with their designs they mixed a paste of henna powder bought from the local shop with water. This made a khaki green 'mess'. This paste was then applied to our feet. Our feet were wrapped in plastic bags and bound up in rags. Then they left! We were told they would be back in the evening. The paste on our feet, together with the plastic bag made walking very difficult, so we just sat. We had decided that this was going to be like a 'spa' day, a day for refreshment and renewal. So we had brought puzzle books, and other reading matter out to the porch with us.
Later on two little girls of about 8 years arrived and asked if they could 'do our hair'. This involved washing our hair and then drying it…and for Lucia who has long hair…plaiting it. This was great fun and there were a lot of giggles. It was getting very hot and one of the girls ran off and arrived back with a huge palm leaf that she used to fan us with. We felt like royalty. Eventually the two big girls arrived back to check if the Henna had 'taken' by unwrapping our feet and scraping a little off. It had. So, they then they scraped all the paste off our feet. To our amazement the skin where the paste had been was orange. They then made up another paste with a powder they had bought in the shop and water. I don't know what the powder was. They warned us that this new paste would tingle a bit but that it wouldn't be for long. They applied the new paste to our feet and wrapped them up again. After about an hour they unwrapped our feet, scraped the paste off and then took the first aid plaster strips off. Our feet were BLACK! We had intricate patterns along the sides of our feet and a design on top. The soles of our feet were completely black, as were my toenails. The girls admired their work and then ran off home to get ready for bed as it was already dark. Lucia and I walked over to her friends compound to show them their daughters' handiwork and our feet were admired by everyone by the light of an oil lamp.
The black feet lasted for a long time. We had to be careful not to use soap on our feet so that it lasted longer. The black toenails lasted a lot longer! Next time I will get them to cover my toenails with plaster.
Written by HELEN001 on 27 Mar, 2006
As far as I was concerned, a nice relaxing 3 days lounging in a pinasse on the Niger River was going to be a bit of chill-out time—catch up with ‘the diary’, write a few postcards, read, and watch the world go by. Conserve my…Read More
As far as I was concerned, a nice relaxing 3 days lounging in a pinasse on the Niger River was going to be a bit of chill-out time—catch up with ‘the diary’, write a few postcards, read, and watch the world go by. Conserve my energy for Timbuctou and the Festival au Desert. I think most of us felt like that as we slid away from Mopti towards the delta region. We pointed out every boat, every fishing trap, and every village. We saw the most amazing variety and number of unfamiliar and beautiful birds. We took our first tentative steps along the narrow wooden ledge (strake) running the length of the boat so we could use the precariously positioned toilet cubicle at the stern. We ran aground. Nearly everyone we passed on the riverbank waved to us. We waved back and we waved back and we waved back. Then we drew up a rota system and took it in turns to wave in pairs. After the novelty of the first few hours things quietened down. Diaries were retrieved, novels opened, cameras cleaned, nails filed, and eyelids closed. We stopped at a village to buy wood for a fire, ‘parked’ up on a beautiful white sandy beach, and watched another one of those African sunsets. The warm evening hummed with insects punctuated by the occasional small splash from the river—a fisherman or a bird. Suitably uplifted and looking forward to dinner round the campfire, we dragged our tents up the slope and into a clearing in the dunes. What we didn’t know, but were about to find out, was that this is cram cram country! The tranquillity of the evening was about to be shattered by yells, shouts, and multi-national profanities that could all roughly be translated as, ‘What the dickens is that chaps?’ Well, it is cram cram, a grass with the most horrible barbed seeds that stick to anything and everything. They are only minute barbs but they’re like tiny cactus thorns once they’re stuck in you. Hard to find, hard to remove, and hurt like hell. They get into every fold of your clothes, down your sleeping bag, stuck in your mosquito net, and in your hair. Wet your hands before you pick them off clothing and blankets—it’s slightly, but not much, easier. It was no comfort really to learn that if you have an upset stomach and you drink water that has had cram cram boiled in it then you will feel just right as rain. It doesn’t help the suppurating sores left by the barbs of the wretched stuff however. Anyway, we had a great dinner and all spent a companionable evening round the fire picking cram cram off each other. We’d been warned we would be getting up early the next morning but I hadn’t realised it would still be dark, and absolutely freezing. More profanity and more cram cram. It wasn’t until mid-morning, that people felt warm enough to come out from their blankets. Then it was out with the books and diaries while the sun babes roasted on the roof. It was hard to believe it had been so cold earlier. Our lunch was prepared and cooked on board by our wonderful cook, Batoma, who managed to produce the most amazing meals for over 20 of us on a charcoal stove in a tiny space at the back of the boat. There was beer and coke in the cool boxes, teas and coffees when needed, snacks and, when the radio worked, a bit of background music to put us in the mood. The waving rota system was working well and things were cruising along just fine. Or so I thought. There were a few little ‘incidents’ during the afternoon, nothing nasty, just some people saying or doing something slightly out of character.We’d only known each other for a week, so I thought maybe I was just imagining things. It was actually somebody else who said it first, ‘Cabin fever’, and he was right. He had been referring to his partner who hadn’t sat still the whole afternoon. She jogs, she’s fit, she’s a fitness junkie, and she was starting to go through withdrawal. It wasn’t only her either, others were starting to feel a bit trapped on the boat and not just for reasons of fitness. There was very little opportunity to be alone. A couple of minutes before bed, maybe, but not too far because its pitch black and there’s the cram cram to think about. Now I like a bit of solitude myself and although I don’t need a daily fix, I could certainly sympathise with them. Then there were a few who just wanted to be ‘doing things’ and I too have days a bit like that. So, by the late afternoon of the second day we were roughly divided down the middle. Those who thought 24 hours had been just right thank you very much and can we get off now? And those who thought, I wish they would get off then I could really stretch out here.Me? I was fine. I actually found it quite hard to read because I kept being drawn to the view instead. Upstream from Mopti the Niger is very wide with the odd cluster of islands every so often. Downstream it splits into two main channels with numerous smaller branches spread out across a vast area known as the inland delta. In the centre of this network of streams and rivers is Lake Débo, roughly 30km in diameter. Extremely shallow and crossed with the help of channel markers, this lake draws thousands of migratory birds every winter. Quite a few of us had bemoaned the fact that nobody had a bird book—some of the birds were stunning but we could only identify a handful at best.Lake Débo is best crossed as early as possible in the day because a wind blows up later that can make it even more hazardous for shallow draught boats to cross. Once across, the landscape starts to have more of a desert look to it. The Bozo village huts are overshadowed by tall palm trees and the odd sand dune appears. There were some fairly large stands of what looked like eucalyptus trees at intervals along the banks of the river. These are part of an aid project to provide firewood and to help prevent erosion. The regimentation of the planting looked slightly out of place in such a wild landscape but the evidence of why such a scheme is needed is everywhere you look. The native trees are scarce having been chopped for firewood and the desert is creeping further south every year.We stopped off at Niafounké, the village home of the great Malian musician Ali Farka Touré and a place of pilgrimage for a number of people on the boat. It was the Muslim festival of Tabaski and I’d like to think that this was the reason why the decibel level of the music coming from the radio station was considerably higher than any recommended safety standards. It was loud. I mean very loud. So loud that after a quick look round the obviously affluent village with its mud brick houses and clean level streets, it was back down to the river for a quieter wander around the waterfront and to admire the patterns painted on the pointy end of the boats. There were two of us and as we headed back to the river we heard voices shouting. Two guys were on the other side of a wall standing in a cloud of smoke waving and gesturing for us to go over. It was not for the faint-hearted because once we started forward we realised that we were making our way through what looked like body parts. Well, it was horns, skin, hooves, and miscellaneous stuff really. Obvious why when we looked over the wall there was the most amazing barbecue made out of an old iron bedstead complete with a couple of beautifully roasted sheep looking and smelling marvellous. We had the usual exchange of pleasantries accompanied by a frenzied football commentary coming from a small TV set in the house doorway. After taking photographs and admiring the barbecue, pieces of cooked meat were cut from the sheep and presented to us. It was beautiful, tender, succulent and tasty. The ‘veggies’ on board were disgusted and the heavy duty carnivores were drooling and threatening to eat the ‘veggies’ if they didn’t get something other than bloody fish again.
For me though, I think the real highlight was at the end. It was sunset when we eventually docked and I have never seen anything like the thousands of birds, like swarms of bees, arcing swooping and twisting around that huge sky. They were like clouds. It was quite incredible to see.
Written by HELEN001 on 28 Mar, 2006
"Right, how about we go for a wander, have a cup of tea somewhere and then do the shopping OK?" We’d already been out in the morning and sampled the delights of the Post Office, the Internet and the Manuscript Museum but that hadn’t exactly…Read More
"Right, how about we go for a wander, have a cup of tea somewhere and then do the shopping OK?" We’d already been out in the morning and sampled the delights of the Post Office, the Internet and the Manuscript Museum but that hadn’t exactly involved much in the way of sight-seeing and we still had to go shopping for food so it sounded like a plan to me. As there were hardly any people around it was quite strange wandering the back alleys. We didn’t bother using a map, when we came to a choice of alleys we just went up the most interesting looking one. Occasionally there would be a glimpse through an open doorway to a courtyard beyond, usually crawling with small children and men, just sitting around.
I can only assume that it was the women who were responsible for the wonderful cooking smells coming from these houses. Eventually we came across what was described as Bouctou’s Well. Legend has it that Timbouctou was named after the woman who used to look after a Tuareg well. The Tuareg for well is tin hence Timbouctou. Other people will tell you that Timbouctou is actually the Tuareg word for "depression in the ground," and the name is therefore self-explanatory. So take your pick. I just hope Bouctou was paid well!! The unspectacular and very dry shallow hole in the ground that may or may not have been the original well if that had even existed was in a large walled area between buildings and there was a sign up saying that the space was being developed into a museum. Around the well were scattered a couple of different types of desert tent and a more permanent reed dwelling. Some small trees provided a bit of shade and there was an extremely over-priced souvenir stall. On the other side of the alley from this ambitious project was the front door of an explorer called Berky. If only he’d known what he’d be missing eh?It was actually quite good to be able to have a look at a bread oven or take photos of a pile of fresh-made mud bricks without someone looking at you as if you’re mad. The few local people we saw were usually female, dressed in their glad rags and all really friendly. At one point a highly excited middle-aged man in immaculate flowing robes came running towards us in the street with his arms outstretched shouting the most effusive greetings in French. For a wild moment I wondered if we’d met before because it was like he was greeting old friends. "You go to festival yes?" he asked. "You see my clothes yes?" At least that’s what we thought he asked us. The first part we could cope with but we had to get him to repeat the second bit."You see my clothes?" he repeated then turned and walked away from us. Except that he didn’t walk he flounced. It was bizarre, a short middle-aged bloke from Timbouctou was mincing up and down the street in front of us. We just stood and stared. He stopped in front of us threw open his arms again and the word "Fashion" exploded from his mouth. Then it clicked. "Fashion show," I said back to him, "at the Festival. You make clothes for the fashion show?""Yes yes," he replied, beaming " and you see my clothes yes?" He told us that this year, as in previous years, his clothes would be at the fashion show and he was so pleased that we would see the show. We told him that we had heard about the fashion show and were looking forward to it. He then abruptly turned and ran off shouting "Must go. Very busy. Much work many things. I go yes?" After that we decided it was time for tea. This is not always as easy as it sounds in Mali and it was becoming sort of obvious that Timbouctou was going to be a real challenge. A handful of shops selling mattresses, a few street traders selling piles of wilting green leaves, not a café in sight and we didn’t bring a map. Terrific! We asked about and when people could help they all seemed to point in the direction of the Grand Marché. We walked around that building I don’t know how many times before we realised it was the Grand Marché.
Although I knew it was less than 5 years old, I hadn’t really expected the market in Timbouctou to look like a derelict three-storey 1960s office block. So we were standing on the broad steps of this building when we noticed a piece of A4-sized paper stuck on the concrete wall with a bit of masking tape. Written in fluorescent green felt pen was the word CAFFE with an arrow pointing to the bottom of a concrete staircase. Inside the style was definitely of the concrete brutalism school of architecture.
The staircase had a twin on the other side of a large, high-ceilinged atrium overlooked by walkways running along the upper levels. Even though light entered through the atrium ceiling it was dark and gloomy. In short, it was like being in an uncompleted suburban shopping precinct but instead of builders material lying around it was full of rubbish. Not rotting rubbish, just stuff like boxes, sacks and planks of wood. That’s actually when we realised it was the market. Having seen the Manuscript Museum that morning I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect the market building to be, if not equally vernacular in design, then at least to have some aesthetic merit. The stairs led to two floors of small shop units, all shuttered and locked. Suddenly a small head appeared around a concrete wall and giggled. Another head appeared just above the first but immediately disappeared at the sound of a voice echoing behind them. There was another giggle from the first head then it too disappeared. The voice came again, Come. Come.’ So we did, up a small flight of rough concrete steps onto the roof. Timbouctou in magnificent disarray was spread all around us. Immediately in front of us were a few plastic tables and chairs shaded by reed matting. The giggling head and its companion were nowhere to be seen but standing gesturing us towards a table stood a young boy of about 15 years old. "Come come," he said gesturing again. The view was excellent and the toilets a pleasant surprise. This makeshift rooftop café was just the perfect and only place for afternoon tea in Timbouctou. Afterwards we came across the Maison des Artisan which gave us the opportunity for a bit of invigorating and intensive Tuareg Trader Dodging. Silver jewellery – maybe, an indigo dyed blanket – possibly, but do I look like someone who needs a Tuareg massage and just what is a Tuareg massage anyway? It was time to go. We passed a sign for the local driving school and wondered where you went once you’d learnt how to drive. Around town small shops and workshops had been set up in abandoned freight containers. How did they get to Timbouctou and why leave them? How come spaghetti seems to be more widely available than cous-cous in the shops and restaurants? Why did the army barracks have two armed sentries at the main gate of their camp when there was a huge hole in the wall round the corner? And just who was this guy Berky anyway? As we wandered back to the hotel we pondered these questions and although we had differing theories for each we did however, concur that Timbouctou may no longer be mysterious for reasons of inaccessibility but it was still deeply mysterious in other respects.
Mudcloth, or bogolan, refers to a type of rough-woven cotton fabric that has been died using a mixture of mud, tree-bark, and other natural ingredients. The rich earth-coloured cloth is then made into blankets, or items of clothing. Mopti and Segou are centres of bogolan…Read More
Mudcloth, or bogolan, refers to a type of rough-woven cotton fabric that has been died using a mixture of mud, tree-bark, and other natural ingredients. The rich earth-coloured cloth is then made into blankets, or items of clothing. Mopti and Segou are centres of bogolan production, but it seems somehow appropriate that some excellent quality mudcloth should be produced in a city built of mud. Now you see mudcloth items for sale in markets all over Mali but it is worth going to visit a good workshop because if the process has been explained to you, and you’re thinking of buying some, then you’ll recognise good quality when you see it.
Before being dyed, the cloth is woven into long strips about 30cm wide. There are only about five dyes used to colour the fabric; black, white, and various shades of brown, depending on the mix of ingredients. The process is a bit like batik in that wax is used to provide areas of resistance to the dye, and occasionally block printing techniques are used for repeat patterns. The skill in producing good-quality mudcloth is being able to produce sharply defined edges to the colours on what is a particularly absorbent fabric. Poor-quality, mass-produced mudcloth looks as if the design has been painted on blotting paper. Traditionally, stiff fibred brushes were used to dye areas of block colour and sharpen the edges. Today the craftsmen use toothbrushes.
After each colour has been applied to the fabric, the wax is peeled away and it is then soaked in a natural dye fixative. The strips of cloth are then sewn together to make the finished item. Items of clothing, such as trousers and over-shirts, are simple in shape and use the width of the woven cloth sewn together as the guide for sizing an outfit. The designs vary from bold repetitive patterns, such as cowrie shells, or more delicate representations of stars and animals. Each of the designs and symbols used on the mudcloth has a meaning and, in common with some Bedouin cloth, often tell a story.
Stars are an important symbol, as they show how much the nomadic tribes people rely on them for navigation. Cowrie shells, as a long-gone form of currency, are often used on marriage blankets to symbolise a wealthy union. There are also symbols for the points of the compass as well as ritual animistic designs. The more contemporary designs showing village scenes tend to be of the type mass-produced for the tourist market, and are often made into bags and wall hangings. "Workshop" is probably a bit of a misnomer, as all aspects of the production of mudcloth in Djenné is done in the family home. The bark and mud mixture is prepared in the kitchen and left in pots in the rear courtyard, the colouring and sewing is done wherever there’s space, and the fabric is dried on the roof.
The house is also the shop and display area, which is usually upstairs away from the family living area. There is no pressure to buy, and the craftsmen seem to be quite happy even after they’ve shown you their whole stock and you say you need to think about it. Neither is there much in the way of advertising either. There are a number of good mudcloth workshops in Djenné, and they are signposted... but very badly. Once you get into the rabbit warren of back streets, the signs become a bit sparse. Even if there were signposts the workshops themselves do not have signs, so it’s probably best to ask. The workshop of Pama Sinintao produces excellent mudcloth, and it can be found close to a couple of competitors just before the bridge on the road out of town.
This stunningly located plateau village is situated at the end of a 4km track that turns off to the right of the main road heading from Bandiagara towards Mopti. The two imposing rock formations that flank the village can be seen from some distance so…Read More
This stunningly located plateau village is situated at the end of a 4km track that turns off to the right of the main road heading from Bandiagara towards Mopti. The two imposing rock formations that flank the village can be seen from some distance so the turn off should be easy to spot. Songho is famous for its rock paintings and more contemporaneously it is held up to be the way forward in the development of sustainable tourism in Dogon Country. Although predominantly a Muslim village, Songho is one of the traditional sites used for circumcision ceremonies. This custom continues today and every 3 years boys from around the area will live for a number of days on a ledge 100m up the cliff face. Food and millet beer is left for them by the women who, as with most rituals, are forbidden from participating. On entering manhood after the circumcision, each boy chooses an animal that is special to him and that he will never hunt or harm. Highly stylised symbols and drawings of these animals are then painted on the cliff walls in red, black, and white. These paintings are wonderful, the rock face is a palimpsest with recent paintings painted over older paintings, painted over the barely visible hints of even earlier paintings.
After the ceremony there is also a race, and the winner receives a sack of grain and his choice of a wife. Further up the cliff face there is a huge ledge where ceremonial dances take place, and a cave where musical instruments are stored and only brought out for the Sigi ritual. This is a particularly important Dogon ceremony that takes place every 60 years, and it is somehow linked to the cycles of a star called Sirus or the Dog Star. This has led to some wild speculation about how the Dogon could possibly have known that Sirus was not one, but three stars, years before astronomers knew that there was even a Sirus B. We are not alone and all that! Anyway, the view from the ledge, particularly in the late afternoon sun, is excellent–you’re looking down onto the village with the two rock formations in the background. Even if you’re not good with heights it's worth standing as close to the edge as you can bear.Walking round the village, you will be shown some beautifully decorated and thatched granaries; clan compounds; the fetishists house; and the togu-na (or meeting house) of the elders, a thatched open-sided structure built intentionally low so that no elder can stand and look down on another during discussions. You will see home-spun examples of Dogon cloth either dyed in deep indigo shades or left in its natural creamy off white. Every female in the village seems to have their own individual pattern of complex hair braiding. It is actually quite difficult to absorb and understand all the information in one go. Easier to understand, because of the topical and more familiar nature of the subject, is the issue of sustainable tourism. Travelling through Dogan Country you realise that one of the attractions of the area is that there are relatively few tourists, and they’re generally well dispersed. You also know that the more word gets about, the more tourists arrive, the more outside influences there are, the more it effects the traditional social structures. In the case of the Dogon, it would be a particularly rapid process–not necessarily all bad, but it’s the speed of change that could irreversibly damage Dogon society, not the changes themselves. With the support of the Mission Culturelle based in Bandiagara, the villagers of Sogho benefit from their active interest in the development of their village.
The tourist tax paid for entry to the village (CFA1500) is triple the price of that paid elsewhere in Dogon Country. With the proceeds of this tax, the villagers have had the capital to embark on modest tourist and communal projects. They have built a small camp, totally in keeping with the size of the village, that is owned by the villagers communally (CFA 2000 single/double, camping CFA1500). You can only be shown round by someone who comes from Songho, and a portion of their fee is put in the communal fund. Both these strategies ensure a flow of income for further communal projects that, whilst they do not bring financial rewards, they provide improvements in living conditions. Solar panels are being discretely installed on some of the less traditional buildings, there is a new school, and the track to the village is maintained using money from the communal fund. Now, whether this strategy will help to decelerate the rate of change in Songho it is difficult to say, but at least it’s being given some thought.
The kids in Songho are different from the kids anywhere else in Mali in one respect – yes, they still follow you about calling you "toubab" and asking for sweeties/pens/cadeaux, only in Songho they sing a charming musical version of the requests instead. To be fair, the adults were actively discouraging the kids from this behaviour. There have been suggestions that limits should be placed on the number of tourists visiting Dogon Country at any one time in order to lessen their impact on both the environment and the culture. When you find yourself in some of the cliff villages picking up other tourists sweet wrappers, falling over the deep ruts made in the track by four-by-fours and children blowing bubble gum then you wonder if there might be something to this suggestion. So, have I got any right to even ponder the idea of restrictions if I’ve been lucky enough to have already visited the area? And so the debate goes on. I loved Songho, the setting, the deep gold colour of the sandstone, the dramatic rock formations, the cliff painting and the atmosphere of the place. How can I not recommend it?
Written by HELEN001 on 04 Apr, 2006
Don’t you think some of the signs you see when you’re travelling are great? There are those hand-painted individually crafted signs which advertise services and merchandise for sale or hire, and then there are the more stylised roadside public information signs. I quite often find…Read More
Don’t you think some of the signs you see when you’re travelling are great? There are those hand-painted individually crafted signs which advertise services and merchandise for sale or hire, and then there are the more stylised roadside public information signs. I quite often find myself taking photographs of signs when I’m away on a trip. I’m not obsessive or anything – I don’t have trunks full of photos of foreign signs. I just like the idea that you don’t need to be able to read script if you can read signs. Although we get hand-painted signs at home they’re not always pictorial. In countries like Mali, these hand-painted signs usually have the minimum amount of script but are highly pictorial. From a Government or NGO point of view, if you want to get information across to people, nearly three-quarters of whom are illiterate, you use pictures. Even if literacy rates improved dramatically, with over 30 languages spoken in Mali, it would still be more cost effective to use pictorial means to disseminate public information. From a small trader’s point of view, pictures are the obvious way to tell the greatest number of people what service you provide or what products you sell. This is art born out of necessity and makes a significant contribution to the cultural identity of many countries worldwide. Mali is no exception.
Take a walk around the shopping area of any town in Mali and look at the paintings on the walls to the side and above the doors of many shops and workshops. Regardless of whether I could speak any French or not, I would have no trouble figuring out which shops sold spark plugs, bread, ceramic floor tiles, tinned sardines or plastic kitchen utensils. Neither does it matter that the paintings are often out of proportion, two-dimensional and idiosyncratic; they do the job. Tombouctou was particularly fruitful when it came to signs. One of my favourites was a driving school advertisement depicting a set of traffic lights, a stop sign, a pink saloon car of indeterminate make and a somewhat incomprehensible right of way type sign. It’s interesting that in Tombouctou there are few if any stop signs and no traffic lights at all, yet these images are used to signify learning to drive. A barber’s sign in Tombouctou also had me momentarily puzzled. Two nearly life-size men’s heads had been drawn onto a piece of ripped sheeting which was tied onto gate railings. The head on the left hand-side had a smart hair cut and trimmed beard while the one on the right hand side was a bit of a scruffy looking tyke. I wondered why the guy on the right looked more like the "before" than the "after" picture. Then it dawned on me – the barber must have been a Muslim. So the "before" picture was actually the "after" picture because the advertisement had to be viewed from right to left. OK, so maybe I was a bit slow – I know that picture books and comics, when in Arabic, are read from back to front and right to left. I’d just never thought about applying it to "before" and "after" adverts. You do really need to be in a country where there’s a staggeringly low literacy rate and a tradition of Muslim culture. It also helps if advertising as we know it, just hasn’t really happened yet. I can’t think of many countries I’ve visited that have that specific combination of factors so I suppose that’s why I was puzzled.
The Government and NGO sponsored public information signs appear at regular intervals along the side of the main roads in Mali as well as in the villages and towns themselves. By far the vast majority are concerned with public health issues, in particular the prevention of diseases such as malaria, dysentery and AIDS. So you get depictions of mosquitoes, mosquito nets, hand-washing, soap and this black bacteria-shaped splodge with an evil face that represents the AIDS virus. The messages are clear enough without the use of script. One of the most disturbing public information signs was a World Vision sponsored sign condemning the practice of female circumcision. It shows a young girl cowering as an older woman looms over her – instead of a tongue, the older woman has a scalpel pointed at the girl from her mouth. It is estimated that about 90% of girls in Mali are circumcised and moves are being made by the Government to stop the practice. It is now an offence for hospitals and medical practitioners to perform circumcision and a few villages have actually banned it. It will be a long haul for the Government because the practice has been going on for hundreds of years and has become part of the women’s cultural tradition. Indeed, it is the older women themselves who perpetuate the custom and that is why it is an older woman shown on the sign. It is hoped that through a countrywide education and public awareness programme women will, in time, reject this unnecessary and very dangerous practise.
There was one public information sign I saw that I loved, although you did need to be able to read a bit of French to get the most enjoyment from it. It was for charcoal stoves and the artist had painstakingly painted three different models of stove and the logo of the Strategie Energie Domestique (SED) in the top corner. The SED is a government initiative that aims to discourage the use of wood as a fuel and promote alternative energy sources such as imported charcoal or increasingly, bottled gas. It was the slogan painted along the bottom that got me – MA FEMME EN A ET LA VOTRE? – which means "My wife’s got one, has yours?" It was like going back in time and watching those old early 60’s TV ads for cookers. Your cooker is not only your status symbol girls, it’s the key to a happy marriage!
So, the moral of this tale is; read the signs. It may well be that as literacy rates improve and language and script become standardised, this "information art" could one day be a dying tradition. For the time being though, it is a contemporary and functional style of art that is worth looking out for.
You know you sometimes get consumer lifestyle questionnaires through the post and there’s a section asking your travel preferences? Well, if I could be bothered to complete one then my ideal choice of holiday would be independent with a few good friends for about a…Read More
You know you sometimes get consumer lifestyle questionnaires through the post and there’s a section asking your travel preferences? Well, if I could be bothered to complete one then my ideal choice of holiday would be independent with a few good friends for about a month. Whilst it wouldn’t be my least ideal holiday, there would have to be a damn good reason for me to voluntarily go on an overland trip with a bunch of total strangers. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a problem with people, some of my best friends are people and some of those friends were once strangers I met while travelling. So, the aim was the Festival au Desert and two of us were planning to go. We didn’t think two experienced female travellers would have much trouble getting to Timbuktu independently and we started bucketing for flights to Mali on the net. Then all of a sudden it was only me going. I’d been looking forward to travelling with my sister again and I really didn’t want to go without her. Neither did I want to go alone, although I did think about it. I’m not scared or nervous about it – I just like travelling with friends. One night sitting at the computer I found myself idly googling Festival au Desert yet again. And yes, there were ads from one or two overland companies going to the festival but I could tell from the style of their websites, their prices and the accommodation that I’d have to become the type of traveller I’m not very fond of. Anyway, they were fully booked. However, midway down the page was a new ad. It was dead simple – something along the lines of Festival of the Desert 2006, Timbuktu, overland, places left etc etc. That was it and there were no further details on the link to the website. So I phoned the next day. Turns out new brochure still at printers so website not up to date. Anyway, I explained about wanting to go to the festival and the nice man on the phone explained all about it. There would be about 20 people travelling around Mali in the back of a large orange truck which, although classified as a passenger coach, looks not unlike an army truck. Twenty one nights would be spent either camping in hotel grounds, on hotel roofs, wild-camping or for a couple of nights only, hotel rooms. The trip leaves Bamako taking in Segou and Mopti by road, then 3 days by boat up the Niger to Timbuktu and on to the festival. Be prepared to dig. After the festival by road to Dogon Country for a three day trek followed by another road trip to Djenné. Then back to Bamako. You can book your own flights to Mali or they’ll do it for you but you’ve got to get your own visa. Everyone would have individual jobs to do as well as being a member of a cook group when required. And on it went. The more the guy talked the more I found myself thinking it didn’t sound too bad. I liked the idea that you’ve got to pull your weight, I liked the idea that you’d be in a vehicle that wasn’t closed in and protected from the elements, I liked the "responsible tourism" ethos and I really liked the friendly laid-back manner of the guy on the end of the phone. If there’s such a thing as an award for the most subtle sales pitch then he should get it. For personal reasons I asked if it would be possible for me to have a place held on the trip for a few weeks longer than the deadline for booking and paying. No problem. The following week I received the new brochure. Right, let’s see what it has to say about their Sounds of the Sahara trip. Now I’m not a holiday brochure sort of person (there’s only so many glossy wide-angled photos of hotel pools a person can take) but this brochure was really quite good. Not a hotel pool in sight and it wasn’t glossy either. The photos were excellent, a good mix of action, people and predominantly unfamiliar location shots. The only thing it could have done with was a smattering of "Itinerary? What itinerary?" shots. Trucks being dug out of sand, mud or snow, or maybe a couple of breakdown shots would be good for those wanting to know what it means when a trip is described as "challenging" or as a deterrent for those who could be described as "not a team player," bone-idle or both. I wonder if the absence of photo captions is an accidental or deliberate omission. I found myself wanting to phone up and ask where places in the photos were. Anyway, I found the information about my trip to be clear and concise and the pricing calculation to be simplicity. There’s little point in providing anything other than a basic proposed itinerary as it’s made quite clear that political and environmental change can happen overnight in some countries they visit. And it’s not just big stuff. When the date of the Festival au Desert was changed from 6-8 January to the following weekend just days before the trip was due to start, Kiwi Claire ( the trip leader) had to reorganise the whole itinerary and rearrange arrangements on top of all her other pre-trip work. The new itinerary worked well although the trip from the festival site to get people to their flights in Bamako was certainly challenging. One day was 16 hours of travelling over rough piste covered in thick layers of red dust with scarves over your mouths to help you breath. There were understandably a couple of snippy exchanges in the back of the truck on that particular day. Snippy exchanges on the trip were rare, although a few people who had been on previous overland trips said they thought this was because we were only together for 3 weeks. During the first few days Claire was great at making sure there were no "loners." Rotas and jobs were arranged in such a way that you’d have worked with everybody on the trip by the time it was over. Where there were decisions to be made about the itinerary they were put to the vote. It didn’t really take long for people to feel at ease with each other and again I think this was due for the most part to Claire. Neither were we bombarded with information in one dollop – instead we had informal briefing sessions at the start of each different stage of the trip. The trip leaders are not specialist guides so if you want to know about the birdlife, the geology or the education system then take a book or talk to a local. I’d rather be away somewhere like Mali with someone who knows how to treat anaphylactic shock rather than identify a yellow-crowned gonolek. Neither was there anything to complain about regarding the cooking and camping equipment. Even for the most inexperienced camper, the two-man canvas tents were a doddle to put up and a really practical design. Everything you needed to prepare, cook and clear up after a three-course meal for 20 or so people and a stash of basic foodstuffs was there. The thing that amazed most of us was how all this stuff fitted in, on and around the truck. It was like the Tardis. Of course, there’s one really important thing to consider on this sort of trip – the driving. It’s dangerous territory on those roads and we had nothing but praise for the skill of Claire, our driver/trip leader/mechanic/agony aunt who not only had to deal with some appalling driving conditions but also other drivers slowing down to get a better look because she was a she and she was driving a truck!I had a great time on the Dragoman Overland "Sounds of the Sahara" trip. I worked out that there was no way I could’ve done all that stuff either with my sister, or alone, within the 4 weeks we’d planned and it probably would’ve cost more. So now I find myself of being in a position I never thought I’d be in – I’m going to recommend an "organised" trip. If you want to go to the Festival au Desert and see a bit of Mali as well, but you have a limited time frame and budget and you don’t mind "basic" then, obviously the best way is to go with a travel company who will try their damnedest, by whatever means available, to get you where you want to be. From first contact to the end of the trip Dragoman Overland was excellent and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone except a sociopath. Details of next years Festival au Desert and Festival du Niger trip can be found at: www.dragoman.com. Close
Written by fallschirmhosen on 29 Jan, 2006
I felt relieved waking up on the last day I'd be in Timbuktu. I was glad knowing Aly had found a ride out of town, albeit an expensive one. Today also happened to be Thanksgiving Day. Yet, unknown to me as I left the hotel…Read More
I felt relieved waking up on the last day I'd be in Timbuktu. I was glad knowing Aly had found a ride out of town, albeit an expensive one. Today also happened to be Thanksgiving Day. Yet, unknown to me as I left the hotel and walked to the meeting place on the other side of town, today would be unlike any Thanksgiving Day I would ever experience.At 7am, Aly, Rod, and I all met at Hotel Boctou to take the Toyota Land Cruiser back to Mopti. Aly told us we'd have to walk to the car's owner's house, back towards where I had just walked from. When we arrived, Rod and I sat down in the small living area/courtyard in the house, while Aly went outside with the owner. Through the front doors we could hear Aly arguing with the man. Though, since Rod and I didn't know a lick of Bambara, we had no clue what was happening. Then, Aly and the man left without telling us where they were going.For the next 2 hours Rod and I sat in this man's house with his family staring at us, wondering who we were. They didn't speak English, and we didn't speak Bambara or French. So, we had no way of telling them who we were, and they had no way of telling us to leave. Slowly but surely, Rod became very agitated not knowing where Aly was. However, I was used to Aly's long absences and was not too concerned.Eventually Aly returned and took me aside to talk to me. He had never done this before, so I knew something was wrong. Apparently the owner of the Land Cruiser had pulled a "bait and switch" on Aly, quoting one price for the car but then demanding a higher price when it came time to pay. Aly, still insisting that we take this car, ended up selling his cell phone to get more money. But it was still not enough, so Aly asked me for some money. Not expecting to use any of my "emergency money," and not wanting to be stuck in Timbuktu, I gave Aly about US$75 and an additional 16000CFA (about US$32) and told him to spend it wisely. Again, after getting the money, Aly left.Around an hour later a young man came to the house for Rod and I, explaining that he was Aly's friend and we were to follow him. So, with our big bags, we walked back to the central part of Timbuktu. He did not say anything to us except that Aly was looking for a ride for us. At that point, I knew something bad had happened, that we had lost the Land Cruiser and Aly had no ride for us to get out of town, even with the money I gave him. I feared that Rod was snap at this point, especially since he did not know Aly like I did.We ended up going to the same house I had spent the previous afternoon in. Again, I played checkers with Aly's friend, and we stayed there for another 2 hours. At the house we met Jezabel, a French student studying in Bamako, doing research in Timbuktu, and also needing a ride out of town.Around noon, Aly finally arrived with a car. I had never felt more relieved, and was even happier to leave Timbuktu. Still, despite all this, I had not eaten anything that day, even though it was Thanksgiving, because we did not have any money to spend on food.The next 3 hours were spent on the dirty, bumpy road between Timbuktu and Bambara Maounde. We took a pit stop in Bambara Maounde at the same place I spent the night on the floor of the restaurant. There, the children recognized me as the crazy white guy who had spent the night there a few days before. Here, the driver asked us if we wanted any goat meat by waving a bone with goat meat on it and saying, "Chomp chomp?" Jezabel was the only one who ate any. After seeing how it was prepared a few days before, I declined.After the pit stop, I ate a few peanuts as we headed down the bumpy dirt road to Douentza, where the dirt road meets the one paved road outside Douentza. Before long, the few peanuts were bouncing around in my empty stomach, making me rather uncomfortable. Luckily, just as the sun set, we made it to Douentza, onto the paved road, and pulled over for another break.Here, at a tiny roadside shack at the edge of Douentza, with my filthy clothes and unshaven beard, feeling sick, and sweat pouring out of my body, I ate my Thanksgiving meal for 2005: a single plate of spaghetti and water from a Nalgene bottle. I ate the bowl of spaghetti in record time.After my Thanksgiving feast, we drove for another 3 hours down the paved road to Mopti. We originally had planned to make it to Mopti in time to catch the bus to Bamako. However, due to the delays we had in Timbuktu, we missed the bus. So, I spent the night at Campement Hotel de Mopti. Close
After another good night sleeping out in the open in the Sahara, I was a bit sad knowing I'd have to return to Timbuktu and face the noise, dirtiness, and confusion of being in that city.We spent the night at our Toureg guide's wife's brother's…Read More
After another good night sleeping out in the open in the Sahara, I was a bit sad knowing I'd have to return to Timbuktu and face the noise, dirtiness, and confusion of being in that city.We spent the night at our Toureg guide's wife's brother's camp. Waking up, I found our guide, his wife's brother, and his wife's brother's son sitting in front of me. The son appeared to be about 5 or 6 years old and mimicked everything we did and said. Unfortunately, he mimicked too much. At one point he picked up a used cigarette butt from the sand (that his father may have smoked), placed it in his mouth, and began pretending to puff away. In Mali, though, many people smoke, including young teenagers.After breakfast, we packed and left on the camels to head back to Timbuktu. Once we neared Timbuktu, our guide dismounted his camel and unhooked our camels from one another. He then handed us the ropes tied to the camels and said we would be controlling our camels. With just a few simple commands and pulls with the ropes, I was controlling where my camel moved. Of course, sometimes he chose to not obey me and walked through some prickly bushes to try making me mad. It worked--I didn't like the thorns cutting my legs.During this part of the ride, we asked the guide how to pronounce the commands "left" and "right" in his native Toureg language. Unlike the simplicity of "left" and "right" for us, his language practically had a full sentence of sounds for each command. Needless to say, I was unable to pronounce the commands.To have a little fun, the guide made a strange sound with his mouth, and then the camels began running very fast. It sounds like it is a lot of fun, which it is. But, because camels are not the smoothest runners, I almost bounced out of the saddle, off the camel. I guess that is what happens when you weigh as little as me.Shortly after that we were back in Timbuktu and the Sahara tour was over. I said my goodbyes to the Aussies and the guide and then met a friend of Aly's who would take me to him. I ended up spending several hours at one of his friend's houses, playing checkers and conversing with his friends. Unlike many tourists, throughout my trip I had been experiencing life in Mali just as normal people do. This afternoon with Aly's friends was no exception. Tourists in Timbuktu were out sightseeing, and I was inside comparing my life to theirs, playing games, and eating with my hands from the same bowl of food as they ate. I would not think most tourists do that.Aly, feeling bad that my trip had not turned out as expected, wanted to provide me with a comfortable ride back to Mopti. So, he found a new Toyota Land Cruiser that a man was renting out. Unfortunately, the price was rather high. For some reason, even though I did not care how comfortable my ride was back to Mopti, Aly insisted we rent this car. He ended up using the rest of the money I had given him for the trip. Therefore, he no longer had any money to pay for anything else for my trip. So, to get back some of his money, he asked me to help him find other people to ride with us. The search began, and we soon found an American (Rod) who was willing to come with us. But Aly wanted more people. We scoped out the main street in Timbuktu and approached people to see if they needed a ride. The last thing I thought I'd be doing on my vacation would be hustling tourists to see if they needed a ride out of Timbuktu.That night, after only getting Rod to join us in the car, I slept at Hotel Camping Toureg. Hotel Camping Toureg is owned by an American and is usually closed. However, you can email the owner (Christine Rabah at email@example.com) to have her open it for you. It sits on the far edge of town, near the Flame of Peace monument. A couple blocks away is the Sahara Passion Hotel, too. If you become very friendly with Christine, she will let you stay there for free, as she did with me. Despite the money troubles with Aly and I, I was happy knowing I had a ride out of Timbuktu. Or did I? (Read my Day 11 review to find out what happened next.) Close
I was not quite sure what to expect on my trip to the Sahara. I had originally hoped to ride camels TO Timbuktu, so I was not planning to take a ride into the desert on a camel. After the 3-hour ride the previous day,…Read More
I was not quite sure what to expect on my trip to the Sahara. I had originally hoped to ride camels TO Timbuktu, so I was not planning to take a ride into the desert on a camel. After the 3-hour ride the previous day, I had no idea what was in store for me in the desert. Perhaps see Toureg villages? Perhaps ride all day? I wasn't sure.I woke up and found my Toureg guide building a fire right in front of my feet. As I sat in my sleeping bag, he prepared tea for us, and then we ate a bread breakfast. Luckily, I brought oranges and the Aussies brought dates for us to eat, too. After eating, a group of three traveling Toureg salesmen stopped to try selling us souvenirs. We all declined.After breakfast, the Toureg guide tracked down the camels and put on their saddles, and then we began riding farther out into the desert. We began our ride at 9am, and by noon we were off the camels and resting in the shade. As expected, the Sahara sun is extremely hot. It is dangerous to ride in such direct, intense heat for a long time. Under the shade of a small desert tree, we ate a meal of pasta, then napped, admired the amazing silver ants (seriously, they look like metal ants), and napped some more.After napping in the shade for 5 to 6 hours, the Toureg guide went searching for the camels. Luckily, they had not wandered far, and we were soon back on the camels. At this time it was nearing sunset. We rode for 3 hours, saw the sun set, and then rode under stars. It is amazing to know that I rode on a camel in the Sahara under the stars.Out of nowhere, a small Toureg camp appeared. This was the place we'd be spending the night. After a round of tea, a meal of pasta with goat meat (and sand, of course), and another round of tea, the Aussie who spoke French began conversing with the Touregs. They explained to us that the salesmen who had stopped at the camp in the morning were not true Touregs, because true Touregs do not sell souvenirs. He, of course, was a true Toureg. About 20 minutes later, this same Toureg was then trying to sell his pipe to the Aussies. So, does that make him not a true Toureg?Like the previous night, it did not get too cold in the desert, and I slept outside my sleeping bag.If you think spending a weekend home and relaxing on a couch watching TV is relaxing, you have obviously never been to the desert. Napping in the middle of the desert, with absolutely no noise, no worries, and no rush to do anything is (by far) the most relaxing state you can be in. Though I wasn't sure what to expect at the beginning of the day, I found that day in the Sahara to be one of the most relaxing days of my life. Close