During my vacation I was in the Paris-Dakar rally. From Bamako to Kayes, front row, next to the driver… racing to shut the window quicky enough each time a new little blue or red shiny thing showed up and then left us—quite seriously—in the dust. The race vehicles, mostly 4x4s and boxy-looking trucks with huge wheels strapped on the back, come out of nowhere when the bus’s mirrors are bent at unusable angles… from our seat behind the driver, through the glass we would catch just a glimpse of something foreign: did that say ‘Volkswagen’? And over there, pulled over along the side… is that a white guy wearing shorts? What’s going on?
Quietly, I suffered an identity crisis along these lines: I’m with them, right?—I grew up in cars! I know what all those logos on the side mean! Hell, I can drive! But did I just pay about $14 to spend ten hours in this seat of the bus, rumbling over the unpaved stretch west of Bamako, going back home… to Selibaby? Hmm. Yes. I certainly did.
Leaving Mali was cheap; getting there cost a little more. My introduction to the country came through the transport hub that is the Bamako airport, arriving on one of the middle-of-the-night flights. Half awake, descending the stairs of the plane at 4 am and standing for a few minutes in the puddle of people that gathered at the bottom, sleepy and waiting for direction. 100-plus passengers in either elaborate boubous (Africans) or khaki outdoor-wear (Europeans/Americans) eventually locate the glowing entrance to the airport and—as a unit—cross the runway and try to fit through the narrow door at the same time. Whereas American airports are sprawling, difficult to navigate and require endurance and GPS, African ones are too compact, built too long ago, and require only extreme varieties of patience. Inside we cut each other in line for passport control, and borrow pens (no one ever has pens; a continental problem) to fill out the customs cards that always ask too much information for “tourism purposes.” Then it’s to the luggage claim, then squeezing through those still rooting for bags in order to get your own scanned one last time before exiting, and then verified as yours... Not such a bad system, except that one looping baggage claim, one scanning machine, one luggage verifier and one exit door (and couple hundred people) all share a space that rivals that of an elementary school cafeteria. (Talk too loudly and they’ll hear you at the table across the room.) Admittance outside feels like it should come with a certificate; instead I changed money in the parking lot and spent twenty minutes bargaining with a taxi driver for a near-normal price for a ride into town. Arrival at Bamako Peace Corps house: 5:45ish.
After eight hours of sleep I woke up and Julian—another Mauritanian I had planned to meet—had left a note on my things saying he’d gone to breakfast. The plan was to leave for Dogon Country the following day, so today we would just kill walking around Bamako. There is nothing particularly capital-like about Bamako: no big green spaces, no monuments that I came across and only a normal amount of solidly-constructed government buildings, French-colonial leftovers. There is (almost) everything typically West African: taxis about to die, sheep about to die (four days and counting to Tabaski), and no place to walk. Items for sale displayed above the door, next to the door, seeming to fall out of the store, through the door, running into the people selling things in the street… (possible marketing motivation: if they can’t get around it, maybe they will buy it). There’s a van with a milk advertisement on the side, six inches to my left, and I wonder how exactly it would feel to have a tire run over my foot, what bones would break exactly, and how I would ever get through the crowd to hail one of those busted taxis to take me to the hospital. Dramatic, okay, but not entirely unrealistic. The milk van shimmies through, slides by a couple of donkey carts, crushing no toes, at least not mine. Bamako has all the fruits and vegetables I’ve ever seen in Mauritania or Senegal, all the brands of tea, all the noise, all the everything. It also has open sewers: I can’t decide whether it’s better or worse than the Mauritanian situation of no sewers at all. They smell; to sidestep the traffic sometimes means jumping a few feet over one of them. And all those Mopeds! Don’t the Moped drivers ever worry? I like the Mopeds. I see girls steering stylish models, skirts pushed up to the knee, and in one case, a guy rides on the back. Is he holding her purse? Bamako is busy: what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in action… there are bars and concerts and people everywhere.
The next morning, people pack into our bus going east. A bit after leaving, already sold-out, it picks up more passengers; they sit in the aisles. It’s cool to have seats. I don’t know why Mauritania has no buses. It’s ten hours to Dogon Country; we’ve met a former Malian Peace Corps volunteer back to do some research for his graduate degree, and he helps us figure things out. He sits in the row behind me and Julian, speaks some Bambara with a surprised seatmate… I work out those stupid Sudoku puzzles while the speaker over our heads plays loud Malian pop. When the bus stops, girls climb the stairs and hawk whatever they’re selling in single-serving plastic bags, 100 CFA for some little muffin things or a bag of yogurt.
“Le Pays Dogon” is a set of villages that follow an escarpment in the east of Mali. Some are just on the edge of the cliff, others are set back on the plateau or sit just in the shadow of the cliff. To get there, you take the bus to Severey and arrange with a guide to take you the last hour or so to the first villages. And from there you hike. We hoped to do four days with our guide… We managed to find a guy who was willing to take us out the next morning in spite of our late arrival. So after bread and tea at Aly’s house (the wall decorated at equal intervals with African masks, a headlamp and a hamburger grill) we drive the last hour, the second half-hour or so unpaved. He lets us off at the top of the cliff for the descent. Easy walk down the hill? Hell no. Climbing. Worried about entire bodies plunging off the rock, nevermind squished toes now. But it was beautiful—all rocky with lots of trees. No one died. At the bottom the ground was sandy, baobabs spotted around… We walked to the first village, which boasted mud houses with thatched roofs. Wait a second. Sand, baobabs and mud… this sounds familiar.
What Dogon has that the Guidimakha lacks? Stunning landscape, cool pointy roofs on the mud huts, and Christians. Oooh yea. Christians. By day two we were familiar with Aly’s speech. He introduced every village with the same (monotone) line: “This village is divided into three parts…” Muslim, Christian and Animist. That morning we’d climbed the cliff (what Aly lacked in enthusiasm he made up for in speed). We reached the village at the top to hear singing and drumming (a wedding? a baptism?). Aly said we could go. Go? Go where? To this wedding? They don’t mind, he assured us. Then we realized where it was coming from—a little box of a mud building with a crucifix above the open door. No… thanks, though. It got weirder. We’d recovered from the climb enough for a tour of the village just as the service was letting out, so we stopped and said hello. A guy introduced himself as Daniel. Did my mouth just hang open? Daniel? I’ve never met any African Christians. Only a hint of an identity crisis in this case (I identify more strongly with the “American” label than the “Christian” one, I guess). After that I made it a point to restrict “machallahs” and “alhamdulillahs” in greetings; you never know. This particular village was my favorite one, I think, this village divided into “trois parties.” Our schedule usually included hiking in the morning and again in the late afternoon; the rest of the time we were free to run around while Aly assembled lunch. The whole village sits on rock, and if you look away you can see the flat sandy Sahel for a few miles. Back toward the village, from this particular boulder you can see down into maybe fifty compounds—close enough to feel a little voyeuristic, far enough to feel that you could maybe pick the whole place up and shake everyone out: animals, huts, plastic buckets; Muslims, Christians, Animists.
Julian and I edged around the rock to look down into a little gorge we’d hiked through: a shallow stream sat in the middle, next to the trail, and a few farmers and kids were carrying water from it to the plots on either side. In the walls that rose up on either side, Aly had said, pygmies buried their dead in the crevices… We split and I walked over to the Animist side of town and hung out with some little kids, because kids you don’t live with are so much more cute and fun. These kids are used to tourists; some of their moms and dads are the ones that manage the mud auberges where we stayed. That night before dinner one of the kids I’d met earlier, Vincent, reappeared. He asked me for some paper, so I gave him the back page of the Sudoku book, and with the precision of a 10-year-old he drew what he said was a Dogon warrior. (To me, it looked like a robot with a broom on his head). When he finished he flipped back through the puzzle book. I explained it to him, then he explained it to a couple of his friends… Julian and I—who had by this point wasted many labored minutes working these things out on the bus—figured he’d get it, no problem. It would figure… “Sudoku puzzle craze hits disadvantaged African children.”
Although I don’t know if it’s accurate to say disadvantaged. Certainly not advantaged, but at least a little more than some other kids. No one seemed ready to say definitively whether the tourism had been a good or a bad thing for the region. On our hikes we passed at least six small elementary schools—all brand new—and Aly would list the benefactor. This one’s the Italians, that one’s the Japanese… I imagined tour groups coming through, seeing there was not a school for one village, and breaking out the checkbooks. On the day before we left Dogon we walked through the streets of Aly’s village Innde and almost every wall was hung with mud cloth for sale. Did Malians buy this stuff? I asked (because we weren’t buying any). Sometimes, he said.
I bought exactly two things in Dogon: a three-inch high brass woman with her hands on her hips and a baby on her back, looking scary, and her husband, only because I felt bad breaking up the family. Although I have never seen a man carrying a spear, I see women with babies on backs everyday (even Al Housseynou Demba Cheik Sow is big enough for that now). At this particular auberge we found ourselves confronted with a veritable army of wooden people, a couple hundred, facing forward in height order, ready to strike if some other wooden army should advance from across the courtyard. It did not. I woke up in the morning to see the proprietor at work polishing every one… a slow process, but he didn’t look pressed for time.
Up on the cliff we’d walked to a village on the very edge: the Animist third, in this case, was separate, and hung onto a not-so-big slab of rock that you climbed down to. You wouldn’t have known it was there, but it was a living village: a withered old man hiked his way past us, up and out (with staff, not spear). This is where sacrifices are made (the sacrifice can sometimes be eaten, but it depends). This is where the village elder lived, who came out only once a year and could otherwise only be consulted with the village chief as intermediary (the last one died; new one not yet appointed). This is the hut where women go to spend the first three days of their periods in isolation. And these are the old houses of people who have died; Animists believe the spirit of the deceased continues to live in the house, so they are abandoned. These shells made up almost a fifth of the town that fit so snugly halfway down the cliff… I asked Aly what they would do when they started running out of space. He shrugged. Build up the rocks?
In the last town before the descent we saw a kid sitting on what looked like the sacrifice mound. A man who could have been his grandfather was spreading some powder on the house of the elder nearby, then breaking pieces of straw in half and holding them to the boy’s mouth for him to taste. And from the side another older guy leaned against the wall, watching… We walked further along before Aly explained: the boy was sick—the man with the straw was giving him traditional medicine, and the stalks of corn by the kid’s feet were the sacrifice.
We came down from the cliff through a crevice, which we first crossed with ladders: five or six thick branches zig-zag cut into stairs. On the far side we followed the trail into the crevice, backed down another log ladder, and climbed down steep rocks, grabbing whatever there was to grab. It was cool and shady, and the rock on either side framed the flatness the opened up at the foot of the cliff—kind of like looking through a window from a dark room to a bright afternoon. Aly, who could have done all this in his sleep, was a silhouette waiting just inside the shadow.
The last day in Dogon coincided with the first day of Tabaski; we spent the last night at an auberge sitting up while one of the non-working guides hung out and played guitar. He decided he wanted to drink—after all, tomorrow’s the fete—so he sent a little kid to the store (who else?) who returned with the gin in a plastic bag (what else?). Aly had admitted to not being “100 percent Muslim”—apparently this guy was not either. But still the next morning everyone from the certain third of town that observed the holiday was wearing their best clothes. Aly insisted we come watch the public prayer, so we did… women dragging little kids by the hand across the fields (running late) while Aly ushered the old people out to the field with his car. People were giddy to be dressed up: from what we saw, everyday clothes are old T-shirts and jeans for guys, wrap skirts for women. Today the women were wearing complete outfits with head scarves and the men new kaftans. Basically, they dressed up like everyday Mauritanians. (I saw only a couple of “grand boubous” that would pass for fete-wear in the RIM). But it was fun to see them so excited. And for all my snobbery I was still wearing the same pair of jeans I’d worn for four days and a dirty T-shirt. Not pretty.
We feted chez Ali: between he and his brothers his family killed four sheep. Four! Impossible to eat it all, the majority of it was smoked in a make-shift smokehouse… meanwhile Ali’s aunts turned millet in a giant pot, resulting in a brown substance like thick oatmeal… capable of being molded into the statues I didn’t see in Bamako… I’m sure they would dry well in the sun. The millet is eaten with what Malian volunteers not-so-affectionately call “snot sauce”—a sort of tasteless goo which owes its texture to too much okra. We ate it, because Americans are polite, if nothing else, and having lived in Africa for awhile we no longer ask questions about food. The meat from the sheep wasn’t bad—but they ate mostly the stomach and other such parts in a greasy sauce. We longed for the mechoui (grilled meat) we get at home.
We left that afternoon, but not before climbing up the cliff one more time—only halfway this time, to a series of connected mud rooms built into the space between the rocks above a village—the spot traditionally used for council meetings, circumcisions and other fun events. We stopped to look out for a minute. There weren’t many other tourists left in the town, and for at least today it kind of seemed like normal Africa. Albeit with Christians right over there.
In Kayes, after the rally cars had moved on, we lined up a pirogue for the last part of the trip, to Gouraye, on the river south of Selibaby. The boat pushed off in the late afternoon only to run ashore directly on the other side of the river, where a passenger disappeared for a half hour getting his luggage. Finally moving down the water, it was dark by the time we got to the underground rocks, but there was a full moon. The “chauffeur” stood at the helm and signaled his flashlight on the water, left and right, sometimes punctuating fierce hand motions with grunts, exasperated that the one steering in the back didn’t respond more quickly. After the rocks, the chauffer stepped down… It got late and the passengers slumped along the side of the boat wrapping up in blankets. Only a few people were talking, a radio pulled in some music, water lapped on the other side of the wood and the motor hummed, still going, but not in a hurry. The next morning found us at the Mali border with Senegal… In a few more hours the boat was drifting along between Senegal and Mauritania. At one point I thought we were being shot at; I didn’t realize until we pulled onto the bank and a guy jumped off and came back with a bird that the shots had come from us. Spreading the injured bird’s wings, the passenger posed for a photo, then sawed off its head. It looked like a heron, much too pretty to eat, I thought, but before long a woman on board was plucking off the feathers and cooking the rice... There are a lot of bird parks around here: could it have been endangered? Who knows. It tasted really good.
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(A few people who will go unnamed have noted that my vacation schedule seems to be only occasionally interrupted by school. That’s not too far off. This latest trip—about ten days in Mali—is justified by the following: winter vacation, the Muslim holiday Tabaski the tenth through thirteenth… and the week and a half between new year’s and fete day number one when nobody would come back to school anyway, which was officially called off. I’ve been back in class for two weeks now).