Friday, March 23, 2012

Mali Fading Fast

     Mali has been one of the more stable West African countries over the last couple of decades but there is trouble in the north where the Tuaregs are pushing for independence and in the capital where a group of soldiers has staged an insurrection. The Tuaregs have been restless for some time, primarily for economic reasons. There is not much work in the desert anymore and that tribal group has suffered a great deal over the last few years. So what should concern the traveler about these developments other than a general concern about the welfare of other peoples? You can't go to Mali, or just about any other place, when the people are staging a revolt.

     What many folks are unaware of is that Mali is an especially fascinating place to visit. The name comes from a great empire that spread through western Africa and established several famous centers of Islamic learning from the beginning of the thirteenth century and endured for 400 years. There is much to see in the country even today. One might start with the famous place Westerners were banned from for centuries, Timbuktu. From its height as a center of trade for the many caravans that traversed the Sahara carrying gold and salt primarily and as a central place for Islamic studies in the madrases that were built there to the present there has been a dramatic change. For one thing, the desert is slowly encroaching on the city and its physical size is dwindling. For another, the trade and the studies have diminished greatly so the population has decreased from over 100,000 to less than 15,000 persons today. But the tourist can still get a feel for this historic cultural center. One can ride into the beautiful desert and visit the Tuaregs who still live in that challenging environment. Some of the mosques which served as learning centers eight hundred or more years ago can still be visited. The narrow streets still offer scenes which remind one of earlier days and even the market with its giant slabs of salt to be carried on the backs of caravan camels still exists though in greatly diminished form. This is not a place the traveler wants to miss.

     There were other centers of Muslim study when the area was the center of the Malian Empire. Djenne is almost equal to Timbuktu in interest. This is a place which rivaled Timbuktu in size and fame. Here too were places of learning and the Great Mosque which dominates the center of town is worth a visit in itself. It stands next to a wonderful market and the scene is perfect for great photography. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the building however so most tourists don't get a chance to see the construction of these sand-castle like constructions from the inside. Djenne is also the home of mud cloth.. One can see delightful examples of this craft hanging in the hot sun to dry. The most famous artists of mud cloth are native to Djenne.

     The heart of Mali is the Niger River which is also its major source of transportation and trade stretching from the capital, Bamako, to the edge of the desert in Timbuktu. A ride on one of the multitude of pirogues or panaches that carry goods and people along the river is fascinating because there are a variety of interesting and varied tribal groups living in the towns along the way.  The Bambara, Fulani, Songhai and others people the center of the country. The tribal Bobos provide much of the transportation on the river and also make the clay pots which hold the liquids that the people need and are traded for other goods. In the villages, the towns folks are welcoming in spite of the poverty and malnutrition that is evident almost everywhere one stops. Interesting and unusual mosques dot the landscape and travelers wave warmly to visitors from boat to boat on the river.

     One more absolutely essential stop in Mali is the Dogon area. This almost perfectly preserved traditional locale is an amazing place to visit. The hills where the Dogon people live which are referred to as escarpments are not easily climbed but a visit is a great experience. The people are known for their religious practices, their very unusual architecture and the art, masks and sculpture they produce. Their artifacts are greatly valued by collectors. A trip to the Dogon is not for the comfort traveler however. Get ready for a hearty day of climbing.  As is the case all over the Third World, one can anticipate that such traditional cultures will change markedly as economics and technology improve and visitors bring new ideas and customs in the regions. Mali, with its great tribal diversity, friendly people, varied crafts and colorful ports and towns along the Niger will delight the visitor. Go whenever the opportunity presents itself but not right now.

                                             Man with Fulani Hat, Mopti, Mali

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