2013
06.30

27-Dogon Country Mosques-14_815x768SYNOPSIS – Moving forward in Dogon Country.

Note:  The images were processed after I left Dogon Country, therefore I have grouped them thematically now rather than following the day’s events.  Today’s theme:  The Mosques of Dogon Country.

Step by step and sip by sip, today mostly had to do with endurance.  My system had calmed down and I slept more than 9 hours despite the violent wind which once again brought sand into the mosquito net on my roof top bed and sand into every crevice of my face.  It takes getting used to waking up with a sticky, sand-covered face  and pretty much being sticky all day no matter how much washing you do.

Between 6:30 and 11:15 AM, we walked 15km; down into shady canyons, up onto sunny plateaus, onward over rocks and gravel, over sticks and stones.  If you had told me that yesterday, I would not have believed that I could have walked this much.  15km is no sweat, but 15km in 35 degrees is.  We passed through two villages before reaching Degedege’s home village, our final destination for the day.  There was no path, but Degedege was on track as every so often, when we reached an impassable point, a stepping stone had been placed or one of those typical Dogon ladders made out of a two-branched tree, had been fastened.  One thing is for sure, without a guide you are lost here.

Life on these plateaus seems easier than life down in the valleys.   When there is a lot of rain, it simply washes off the cliffs and creates huge waterfalls, which increase the muddiness in the valleys even further.  I am told those falls are spectacular sights you can observe during the peak of the rainy season.  Imagine a 150km cliff which pretty much turns into hundreds of falls interspersed by dry areas.  At this point, just before the rainy season I can only observe the many black spots on the wall which indicate the flow of the water.

We finished our visit of Begnimato yesterday by a stroll through the Muslim quarter and then the Animist quarter.  If I had not been told that these are three distinct groups of people I would not have been able to tell.  Aside from the little church and the minuscule mosque nothing, at least on the outside, distinguishes these parts.

The hosts of the Auberge cooked a wonderful meal of fried potatoes, bananas and goat meat.   Too bad that my system was not yet stable enough to take this in.  I tasted just a bit of everything.   It was delicious.  My rooftop bed could be reached only by a Dogon-style ladder.  That is a tree trunk cut with small steps.  With my long dress and without practice it is hard to climb.  I realized how I got lucky once again that during my night of distress I had “real” steps to get up and down.  Today it did not matter.

Just before we reached Degedege’s home village Nombori, he suggested that I park myself once again under a mango grove rather than going into the village for the midday break.   That was just fine with me.   This grove is not as remote as yesterday’s and I soon had some surprised shepherds stare at me and a few kids crowding around my computer.  Too bad I don’t speak at least French.  A few goats and sheep as well as a cow also were not far; so there was an ever changing little crowd that did not seem to get tired to watch me either eat, sleep or type this blog.

Degedege’s grandfather is 109 years old and the chief of this village.  His second wife of now is only 60!  His first wife ran away after he did not grant her a divorce…  But Degedege said that nobody talks about that.  Private affairs such as this are off limits for discussion for the younger generation.   Degedege mentioned that many people don’t know how old their parents are or how they met, etc.

I have noticed before that people here seem to age really well.   In the Middle East I often observed that women my age looked 20-30 years older than I would have guessed.  Here it is about the opposite.  Women who I think are my age, are actually much older and even the oldest still are active and often do back-breaking work.   The men on the other hand, especially the older ones, are usually seen relaxing under their togunas, the places in the village set up with 8 or 9 poles and a thick thatched roof for various functions:   judgment, the elders, or special ceremonies .

As we walked across the plateau we passed some man-made wells which had been dug deep into the ground and were used for irrigation.   As I was at times dragging my feet today, I had to think of the women of some of these villages who used to have to walk 9km each way at 4AM every day, to fetch water before international aid made the digging of local wells possible.  In fact, almost every village we crossed had either wells or schools built through international projects.   Water is life.   Schools are the future.   Even though there is a well now in Begnimato, one well really is not enough.   The women still have to walk from all the corners of the village to just one source of water.   Because water is scarce the wells are usually centers of village activities. The kids are playing in the cool compounds and many women are there talking and fetching water.  Often they walk in lines back to their quarters all balancing huge buckets on their heads.   This is a great sight, but the women do not appreciate being photographed.   They certainly are defenseless at that moment, and I respect that.

I am ready to sleep off the rest of the afternoon watched over by all the boys and girls, shepherds and animals.   I will pretend I don’t notice.   And I am looking forward to visiting our next village, Nombori.  More tomorrow.

Good night.

 

2013
06.29

26-Dogon Country Granaries-8_871x768SYNOPSIS:  About high points and lows, about luck and coincidences.  About mothers and sons.  About another day in the amazingly remote Dogon Country.

Note:  The images were processed after I left Dogon Country, therefore I have grouped them thematically now rather than following the day’s events.  Today’s theme:  The Granaries of Dogon Country.

My mango grove was made up of five mature trees.  They must have been harvested recently since I did not detect a single fruit, but their thick foliage overlapped in ways that gave me shelter from the sun at least as good as any concrete building or any thatched roof.   I began to wonder when Degedege told me that there would be a mango tree for me to spend the 6 mid-day hours under and we began to walk and walk and walk away from the village, climbing down the cliff.  It was amazing!  When we arrived it turned out that the porter already had taken my backpack to the spot, a bucket with some water, a mat and a mattress!  A home away from the camp which is located on top of the cliff and now sun-bathed in ways that I would not survive very well.

I sat down in disbelief after Degedege had left, listened to the wind, felt the breeze, followed the birds which talked to each other from tree to tree and was in wonderment how a day that had started so badly could turn into paradise just a few hours later.   Last night had indeed started as expected under the stars and the still waxing moon which shone a bright light.  But later the wind blew clouds, the moon disappeared and as if in harmony with the grumbling weather, my stomach began to grumble, too.

Before I knew it, I was dealing with  full-blown diarrhea!  When you live under a mosquito net on a rooftop, have to climb mud-brick stairs and find your way on monochrome mud-brick territory under a gray sky to the edge of the village, even if it’s just 150 feet away to find a tree to squat under, this becomes a “situation”!  The toilet of our encampment is actually just outside the gate, but like the architectural dilettantes in Mopti had put a layer of concrete on their mud-brick structure and so jeopardized its survival, this practice had followers here, too.  In this case, the once small hole of the squatter toilet had started to break away and gotten so big that I would have – at least could have – fallen in!  I had joked over dinner about the newspaper headlines from Dogon country:  “Tourist lost in Toilet!”  But now, this was no joke anymore.

By morning hour I was so drained, dehydrated, and weak that I thought I could not even get up. But I could.  I dragged out some electrolytes which I must have purchased somewhere in Egypt – all writing was in Arabic – and I tried to swallow fluids.  No food.  I negotiated another donkey ride.   The next village is only 3 km away and it was only  6:30 AM,  and I really should have walked this, but if I wanted to make any headway today, every little bit of energy conserved helped.   And somewhere along the way it hit me again…  I will spare you the details, but I have to say that there is only one other incident, 1988 in India when I had contracted dysentery when I had to humiliate myself to this degree whenever, wherever and in front of whomever.   I have had quite a few Western standards to let go.  This was another one.  It can’t get much worse from here.

Today, the donkey could only take us so far.  Our destination was a village on top of the cliffs which required 1.5 km of hiking up a steep cliff.   Can you believe it, I made it!  Step by step and sip by sip took on a new dimension today, but Degedege was hugely supportive.  He carried everything I had taken on – and that was only camera, water bottle and toilet paper on top of his backpack.  He stopped whenever I needed it and even took a couple of pictures for me.  The porters, as light-footed as you can imagine, each carried two big boxes with all of our water and food supplies and my backpack on their heads and like gazelles, they were up the cliff in no time.

Degedege is about my son’s age, and reference to one’s mother has no boundaries in this country.  I wonder if that is related to the fact that children here become part of the mother’s bodies practically from day one.  They are strapped to the mother’s back and rock with their mother at every minute of pounding millet, bend down with her, squat with her, walk with her and are breastfed as long as they want.  No strollers, no cribs, not much pampering.  Children just live their mother’s lives in the most intimate ways and mothers here work harder than I have seen anywhere in the world.  Remarkably enough, you see very little fussing among the babies.  Degedege could have made it no clearer today when he said to me that he would look after me as if I were his mother.   He did.

We arrived at Begnimato, the most remarkable village yet, and it wasn’t even 9 AM.  I pulled myself together and asked to stick to the program: visit the village, climb up another small cliff for a great overview and then start the midday rest by 10 AM.  I am so glad I did, or I would have missed a great show of animist culture!  Even Degedege could not believe that I caught this:  we were sitting at the cliff looking down at the village when to our right, two fully masked and raffia-clothed bush men jumped out from behind a rock, danced a brief dance and then ran on.   This is a ritual done to protect a certain important grape which children like to snack on and steal – at least this is what I gathered from Degedege’s broken English and somewhat limited vocabulary.   Indeed we heard children’s cries and saw large groups of children running from these two bush men.   That was the point:  scare them, so they stay away from this valuable crop.   This was quite something!

Begnimato is like many other Dogon villages, multi-religious.  This plateau village is located at the edge of the cliff and a bit like Old Jerusalem, divided into three quarters:   The Christian quarter, the Animist quarter and the Muslim quarter.   Our camp is in the Christian quarter – that is what we visited this morning.   There are pig stys (an animal forbidden to Muslims), there are small crosses at the entrance doors, there are women wearing clothes featuring Christ and the Madonna – that is Sunday’s best which one woman put on for me.

There is even a small church.  Unfortunately, it was locked and I am not sure I will get a glimpse inside.  People’s names here are Felicia, Bernard, Andrew, Martin, John, Jacob, David, Elisabeth and so on!   Other than that, these people are as Dogon as the rest of it and probably a bit like Degedege said of himself yesterday:  on the outside, they are Christians, but on the inside they are still animists.  At least you see vestiges of animist practices – decorating your doors with protective symbols, etc.   The chief of the village is an animist.

People here cooperate on all the tasks and feel like a community.   One thing is off limits though, and that is marriage between the groups.

What I heard over and over again in this short visit was the cry for the “white people” or tourists.  What has happened to you, one woman lamented.   Where are you?!  She explained that because of the tourists she used to buy oil in the neighboring village, rice in another, chicken in a third to prepare meals at her little restaurant.   No tourists, no purchases; the trickle-down effect is unfathomable.   Degedege brought it to a point:  right now in this broken economy, there is still one person working somewhere, somehow.   But now there are 20 people eating off of that person’s income.   He also pointed out that only the very young and the very old are left in Mali – many of the middle generation have disappeared in search of work in neighboring African countries, which creates a strain on the families left behind without fathers.

I wonder if Mali will be capable to substitute any sort of industry which gives them some income – mangoes, perhaps?  The mangoes I have eaten here except for the very first one in Bamako are beyond belief the best in the world.  They are huge and juicy and filling.   It is perhaps a good omen that I spend my 6 midday hours in a mango grove.   I so hope that this blog will encourage some people to come here!  Tourism was this country’s life blood.

I have to stop as my battery will only get me so far – it’s only mid-day.   I will snooze for a bit more and then visit the rest of the village and hopefully have a look at a good sunset.   It is windy – never a good condition for the sky around here as the dust gets kicked up so high.

A roof-top in the encampment will be my home tonight.  I hope to recover soon.  Tomorrow we have 15 km ahead of us and no more donkey cart.   I cannot quite picture this yet, but things have a way of working out, somehow, always.

Good night.

 

2013
06.28

 

25-Dogon Country Landscapes-2_832x768SYNOPSIS:  Step by step – a walk through Dogon Country Villages. About African life and traditions and adaptations of modern technology to the “bush”.

Note:  The images were processed after I left Dogon Country, therefore I have grouped them thematically now rather than following the day’s events.  Today’s theme:  The Landscape of Dogon Country.

Step by step.  It’s a sandy, shifty road traveled mainly on foot or by donkey cart.  But there are the few motorbikes and the very occasional car, too.   And even a horse or a camel once in a while, both status symbols and indication of the owner’s wealth.

Step by step.  Lucky for us, the wind is coming from the back.  It feels like a gentle push of encouragement, and it blows all the sand passed us.   Those who come the other way have to fight it and this fine sand in your eyes and mouth is nasty.

Step by step.  I am holding up my hands to keep down the swelling.   I can’t make fists any more.  It is only 7 AM, but the heat is already enough for rashes to flare up and my hands and feet to rebel.

Step by step.   It could be so much worse if I actually had to carry my backpack.  Packing “light” when you carry computer and camera gear, is not easy.  And I did pack light, but in this heat nothing is light.

Step by step.  This is actually a good day.  There was a small storm last night again, probably around 2 AM. I saw it. I don’t hear much since I plug my ears, but I saw the lightening and was up immediately.   Already, the wind had picked up and there were rain drops.  “Elisa?”  I heard my name called and two guys appeared out of nowhere with flashlights in their mouth, taking down my mosquito net and bed in no time and moving it under the roof.  I don’t even know who they were as their faces behind the torches were as dark as the night itself.  Within minutes everyone had moved from the open air and silence fell over us all again – it was a very small storm.  Really, a lot of wind, but only a few drops.  We could have probably weathered it and dried out quickly.  But you never know.  The storm brought the wind and that makes today a good day.   I think it’s going to be only 40/105 today.  That is promising.

Sip by sip.  Don’t forget to drink.   1.5 liters by noon.  1.5 liters by evening and more if I remember to drink.   Sip by sip.  Degedege is carrying my water bottle.  I have the camera, he has the bottle.  All else is on the donkey cart which is going to follow us.  I am lucky.

Step by step.   It’s only 8 AM, it’s still cool.  I can do it.  We won’t do any walking between 10:30 AM and 4:30 PM.  You would have to be a native to be able to do this.  I understand now, why the women practically sway when they walk. Nobody walks fast in this country.   Everyone sort of glides or sways along.  You have to lower your pace, at least in this season or you can’t make it through the day.  Step by step.  It’s only 3 km but the sand is slowing us down further.

And there is Teli our first stop.  Wow!

First a few minutes of sitting in the toguna, the meeting place for the elders – there was nobody there – and a few more sips of water.  Then a stroll through the village and then up, to see the famous Dogon cliff dwellings.    Dogons used to live up in cave dwellings with just a few projecting constructed structures.  The cliff overhang protected them from the rain and from the wild animals.   But as the animals receded (or were they hunted to extinction?) the Dogons moved down bit by bit into the valley where their new village is and where agriculture is easier.  These caves and cliff structures were abandoned and are now – along with the entire Dogon Valley under UNESCO protection.  Sometimes, they were also abandoned because people converted.

The whole setting reminded me very much of the cliff dwellings I had seen in the American South, was it in Arizona?  What was the name of that?  I think these were Anastasi cliff dwellings.  If I just had google, I could check…

Stone by stone.  You are climbing up.  There are no paths, there are no marks.  Everybody who comes here (or better came here) comes with a guide.  They know the way.

Stone by stone.   Up is even harder than along the sandy road but it is only a short distance.  You are not permitted to enter the caves, not in this village. Some fine mud plaster sculptural details were visible on some house:  Snakes, horse-men, the turtle, the crocodile.  Each of these creatures feature heavily in Dogon Mythology.

One house, the chief’s dwelling still had beautiful earth-tone abstract decoration painted on the entrance façade to set him apart from the mud-colored houses of the others.   Above the chief’s house, there were big birds nests.   Degedege explained to me that the arrival of these birds signals the coming of the rainy season.  You need no clocks in Africa.  You get up with the sun and you go down with it.   You know by the change of animals passing through (lots of migrating birds) what season is coming and you know the tasks that go with the season.

Pounding millet is one of the big, time-consuming, back-breaking tasks for the women.  During the rainy season they will be too busy to do this.  Two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon is typical for every woman leading a household.   They have their babies on their back, who get rocked back and forth to the thumping of the wooden posts into the wooden barrels.  Girls join the women in all of their tasks from fetching water to cutting wood to pounding millet at a very young age.

For pounding millet, often two women are bent over one barrel alternating in a coordinated rhythm.   I joined a couple of women yesterday and pounded with them for about 20 minutes – speaking of exercise!  They are getting this.  My arms hurt just from this much.   4 hours of it daily?   These women are strong!  Some of them make grunting sounds, others clap their hands together every so often.   Usually, you see whole groups of women gathering for this work in shady areas.   It can be a lonely monotonous job, otherwise.

Step by step on to the next village.  But there was the donkey cart!  I rode it for a while.  It’s not much faster than a human being as it also has to struggle through the sandy road.   But I could let my legs dangle and instead of focusing on my steps could drink:  Sip by sip.   It’s after 10 AM now and really hot.  You have to remember to drink or all is lost.

And so we reached our next stop:  Enne/Ende.  There is nothing new here to see – the cliff dwellings above this valley village are even more inaccessible and wider stretched than in the last one. It is truly impressive!   The village is known for it’s bogolan production and it’s indigo cloths.   But the bogolan was not well done.   It lacked the sophistication of the Segou workshops and the quaint folk nature of the Djenne bogolanfili.   But I got a typical Dogon hat – for when it’s “cold” here. It’s really just two square pieces of indigo stitched together and then worn in some funny triangular fashion, one in particular for the hunters.

Dogons hunt.  Not all the ethnic groups do.  Bozos are strictly fishermen, Bambaras work in agriculture.  We came across one of the great hunter’s houses of the village.   He had not seen a white person in such a long time that he insisted to put on all of his hunting trophies for various photographs and then demanded a hefty payment.   How could I refuse?  It’s been such a long time, such a long time – he repeated over and over to my guide, pointing at me.  He was quite the character and I know I would have had a lot of fun with him could I speak the local language.  He certainly made my guide laugh out loud.

And so went the day.

It was now almost noon and definitely time to retreat.   The former buzzing tourist encampment still has a lovely straw-covered roof top where I spent one hour sleeping, eating and then blogging.    This is the only stop on our 7 day tour which still had a vestige of tourism culture left:  It had a solar powered electric line hooked up to a battery box which had an outlet where I could actually charge both my computer and my camera battery.  I wish this had come on the third day of our trip, but better than nothing!  So the four hours were time to recharge for all of us.   It’s not like the locals don’t use this technology, they do, but they recharge their cell phones, not computers or cameras and that does not require an outlet.

Step by step and sip by sip, we will be walking to the next village around 5 PM where we will spend the night, so that in the early morning hours we will be right there, to explore, before we will be roasted again and move on.

In anticipation of a good night’s sleep under the stars and the still waxing moon of Dogon Valley,

Good night.

 

2013
06.27

NOTE FROM DAVID

The mysteriously missing DAY 19 Post is posted now, in order of days, and so should appear below.

Elisabeth is off again for a week, on vacation from electricity.  She scheduled posts, which should appear on a daily basis, until she arrives at Timbuktu.

2013
06.27

24-Dogon Country 3-Degedege_732x768SYNOPSIS:  Entry into a mysterious world: Dogon Country with my new companion-guide Hamidou, also known as Degedege.  One hour of “work”, four hours of rest – the pace of Africa in June.

Note:  The images were processed after I left Dogon Country, therefore I have grouped them thematically now rather than following the day’s events.  Today’s theme:  The People of Dogon Country.

I finally understood why the driver who took Degedege and me into Dogon Country had left the car running during all the small stops we made on our way.   When he turned it off at our final destination, it would not start again, had to be pushed and then broke down for good ½ km further down the road!  That was a close call.  What would we have done with all of our “cargo” on the road under the open sun in 50/110 degrees?  I know that I would have had a heat stroke.  Thanks, Pantheon, that was a masterpiece!

Dogon Country  you can read much more about it online – is a 150 km escarpment which features dozens of traditional Dogon villages either atop the plateaus, down in the valleys, or along the rocky cliffs.  One can do one-day excursions or spend weeks here.  I opted for one week.  Typically, these visits are done on foot.  This actually, in my deluxe version of this trip, includes the rental of a donkey cart to carry our water supply, some foods which the guide will cook, my luggage, and in between valley villages, the occasional ride on the cart to make things easier.

And my deluxe version also included the “bush taxi” which I mentioned, broken down at the end of the day.   That meant I was able to avoid taking a shared taxi from Mopti to Bandiagara and then hiring whatever transport to make it into Djigui Bombo (you just gotta love those names!) from where the actual hikes begin.   In Djigui Bombo I was given the option to hike or to ride the car all the way down into the valley along with our cargo.  Guess what, at 10:30 AM it was already so hot that the mere thought of hiking atop sandstone cliffs gave me a headache.  I chickened out and took the car down.   After about a 1 hour hike through the village it was time for a 4 hour rest, which included a salad lunch, a nap and writing the blog.   Between 11:30 AM and 4:30 I now find myself just trying to survive every day. So far, so good.

We are going to stay one night in Kani-Kombole, which is home to one of those now familiar mosques.  Since it is situated behind the rainwater pond, it is really picturesque.  The village itself is not particularly exciting but since this is the first of my Dogon villages, there are a number of features which are typical which I am encountering here for the first time:   Each of the villages has a meeting place for the retired men of the village, the elders.   They hang out all day long, let their children work, and are there for advice, input, litigations, and just for reverence.  They are usually a jolly bunch and I have encountered them in other villages.  But Dogon villages are famous for their wood carvings.  Those are typically doors on granaries or houses and pillars on those meeting places, also known as toguna.

I was greeted with great fanfare as once again, I am the first tourist this village has seen in years.  Chris, who just came through Dogon Country, came from Burkina Faso and hit a few more Southerly villages than I will.  Here we are no longer known as tubob or tubabum, but in the Dogon language as anisera.

Dogon Cosmology is complex and centers around Sirius, or the Dog Star.  Animism is definitely driving  this region even though many people are Muslims and nearly all villages have mosques.  I asked Degedege about this and his answer is telling:  I have a Muslim name (Hamidou), he said. Outside, I am a Muslim, but inside, I am an animist.  I don’t go pray much either, he laughed.  And when we saw some very conservatively-dressed women in black chadors (picture that in 50/110 degree weather), he shook his head and said:  They are crazy.  

No wonder, Islamists have an issue with this country if his attitude is typical, and I think it is.

I am fascinated by the amount of original art everywhere.  From the doors to the poles on the stalls in the market, to the post where the chief’s horse is tied down to the drinking fountains for the animals.   Much of it is still made of wood and beautifully carved even though much of it has also been sold over time to unscrupulous tourists… 

The tourist lodge, once a thriving little compound, is deserted.   I have made it my “home” again for a night.  I have a bed made of bamboo, a wooden day bed on which I can recline, and I asked for a school desk from a bunch that had been stored in a corner for repair.  So, I have a bedroom, a living room, and an office. Some of the locals walk through the compound as a shortcut and look in, greeting me with amazement.  After all, there is a white woman sitting at a children’s desk typing away on a computer in a village that does not have electricity…  I will see how I can pace myself on my battery reserve.  I will do my best. 

The pillars of my little villa are painted in earth tone colors showing geometric designs typical in Dogon masks and art.  I am sitting here sheltered from the sun, which is still beating down in full force at about 4 PM. There is only a short window of bearable daylight between about 5 and 6:30 when the sun goes down and darkness sets in fast.  That makes for about 5 hours of activity every day if the guide is willing to get going early enough:  6-10 AM and 5-7 PM. That is fine by me.   Perhaps, the nights will be clear around here.   The moon is waxing at the moment and might provide some nice light.

I think I will have a good, slow time in Dogon country!    Good night.

2013
06.26

 

23 Mopti Town-1 Merchandise_1024x762SYNOPSIS:  Another day in Mopti to take care of business, and seeing some sights.  Holding out in vain for some internet connectivity. 

Mopti has another sizable mosque in the so typical Sudanese mud-brick style for this area.  In contrast to Djenne’s mosque however, it is relatively new.  And in contrast to Djenne, the techniques of mud-brick making had been corrupted and almost lost which messed up the mosque to a degree that its survival was in question.   The Agha Khan Foundation was called in and not only helped to remove the layer of concrete that some architectural dilettantes had applied to the structure, but conducted workshops to retrain artisans who now can continue in the age-old, tested mud techniques.

It was a nice structure indeed but off- limits as every other mosque in Mali so far.  Two young guys immediately attached themselves to me after Chris and I had parted ways, each in search of money.  They spoke English and were obviously trying to get me to look at their shop.  As everywhere else, the tourism industry is gone and dozens of merchants in the artisans market sit around all day in their dark stalls – remember, no electricity in Mopti after 6 AM – and there is nobody to sell anything to.   Everything just rots away under a layer of dust.

After that sad market experience, I passed Mopti’s local history museum which was, of course, closed.   But I had been spotted as a potential customer and was told that if I waited for a few minutes, somebody could be found who would open the museum for me.   If there is anything I have in this town it is time.   It was worth the wait.   The museum was small, but featured great information on the various famous mud-brick mosques in Mali in not only French, but also English!  It had small models of each of them which was very helpful in picturing the layouts of the structures which is always not only off limits, but also typically raised on a platform, and thereby hard to gage. This was great. 

By the end of the day I had money, had seen the mosque, visited the museum, had purchased a Fulani hat – a very traditional hat for herders for my excursions into Dogon country, and had mangoes to eat – literally the only thing I have eaten in two days except some bread for breakfast. It is just too damned hot for anything else.  This was a good day and could have been really great if the internet would have worked as promised.  The electricity came on like clockwork, no storm in its way today.   But I had barely finished some Skype time, when it was gone.  I set my alarm for two hour intervals all night, but that was it!    That was not exactly what I had stayed on for a full extra day.  But what can you do but resign yourself to the facts?  At least yesterday I was able to send on most of the blogs written in Djenne.  And tomorrow I will be heading into another big black hole of civilization:   Dogon Country.  When I emerge, I hopefully will have better luck in Mopti to which I will return for one reason only before turning north to my final destination, Timbuktu – the internet.  I hope it will come through for me then.

Good night.

2013
06.25

 

22-2  Hotel in Mopti-1_969x768SYNOPSIS:  A day of rest, planning, and internet catch up – more or less.  Another tubobum!

After three days in this tiny pirogue I was just as happy to be out of it.  We had arrived in Mopti as predicted after all.  The water levels were sufficient and only once were we in some sort of danger when on our  last night, the crew kept on going beyond dark because they wanted to reach a certain spot and therefore did not see the storm coming…  It started so abruptly, that is the wind all of sudden blew out of nowhere that our boat almost tipped over.   All along I had been skeptical at the assurance that this kind of a boat does not tip and had tied all of my belongings to the posts of the boat.    The sudden moves me made now certainly could have put some of our cargo over board.   The waves on the Bani River all of a sudden felt more like the open ocean than this shallow water.   It all only lasted for about 10 minutes until we safely reached the shore, but I was almost angry at the crew for having put us into this situation in the first place.   They could have stopped at dusk as they should have.  

Mopti presented itself as a buzzing port town.  Pinnasses and pirogues of all sorts and sizes and in various states of disrepair were going in all directions filled with either cargo or people.

I was glad that my hotel was about 1 km down river and in a quiet ramshackle neighborhood which once must have strived to become a wealthy suburb.  The name of my hotel quite poignantly was Ya Pas des Problemes, but it was quite obviously shouldering all the problems of the rest of the country.  A once thriving hotel described in glowing terms in my guide book had dusted over with neglect.  But it was operational!  A huge guy at the reception, named Blazer, for a change, greeted me warmly and was there to solve problems.  He even gave me a ride on his motorbike to the nearest bank to find out if I could exchange money. I am running dangerously low now. 

Mopti was on a ridiculous schedule of energy savings:   Electricity would come on (in Shahallah) at 6 PM and be turned off at 6 AM.   So much for a day of rest in an air conditioned hotel room…  The pool I had been looking forward to was of course empty and the roof-top bar as dusty as the rest of the hotel, but still had a refrigerator which during the night worked hard to preserve some luke-warm soft drinks.    It was so hot, that all I managed to do in the afternoon was to wash my clothes which had gone through some rough times on the boat.  It took me about as long to wash them as it took for them to be dry!

I was still washing clothes when Hamadou, my Mopti contact showed up!  How did he find me?!  Well, word goes around.  I was going to ask Blazer to call him later, but it goes to show that you really don’t need a phone in certain parts of the world.  Hamadou was a sophisticated English speaking guide with an international guide license (Mali actually initiated some sort of state-wide guide exam after amateur guiding had gotten out of hand during peak tourist times).   He was the only person I was able to find on line.  I had been emailing with him for quite some time from the States and he had been helpful, if cautious at all times.  He had been the one who said that the Bani River would be too low for a boat ride.

I was going to honor his help by contracting with him for the next stretch of the trip – a hike through Dogon County.  But he obviously had been discovered by others before me – most of his time now was spent with the military translating for them – during mostly night hours, when there was electricity.  But he had a crew of guides who worked with him and by the end of the day I had signed a ridiculously overpriced trip to Dogon Country.  I have to admit, that part of this overpricing is that you are constantly dealing with middle men and with unknown quantities.   Nobody spells out the prices for specific services, it’s always a “package” and when you change one part of it, as I tried to do, I ultimately screwed myself over since a new package miraculously was substituted which I guess, it is the deluxe treatment and it is what I experience all around me, the expectation that I somehow make up for the loss of all the business over the last 2 years…  I was very upset for almost the rest of the day and then resigned to the fact that my life overall will not change even if I overpaid $200 and that the deluxe treatment ultimately may just be again the right and only choice as my health and my energy level are deteriorating at alarming rates. 

Instead of recovering at Mopti in a climatized environment I spent most of the day on the roof top pampering myself once again with cold compresses (is that an English word)?  And who did I run into?  Another tubobum!   Another real tourist:  Chris, from Australia/Canada (another two passports type of a guy).  We had made the decision to come to this country for exactly (and I mean verbatim) the same reasons.  Except, that he had hoped to go mountain climbing and I was heading for the cultural attractions.   He had given up on his plan once he had hiked through Dogon Country (we are going in opposite directions) and I am happy to say that at half my age he was as low in energy and as beat by the heat as I was.   So we lounged around talking on that dusty roof top shadow of a restaurant.   It was great to exchange some of our experiences and some of our treats:   A muesli bar for tonic water, for example; a mango for some soap.   It takes so little to make you happy when circumstances are dire enough.   J

He was even lower on money than I was as he had relied on his master card for cash.   And as crazy as it is to carry loads of cash around as I do, it is way preferable to the credit card.  He has no chance between here and Bamako, likely the only place where his card is worth anything.  But he figured out that Western Union transfers are a great option and I might have to explore that as my cash is now down to the bills printed before 2006, only exchangeable on the black market.

As I was sitting and typing I could tell that the sky in the far distance turned a dark brown.  It was only 4 PM and that should not happen.  It turned out to be as violent as I have ever seen one, similar to the ones I experienced in Iraq where I thought I had accidentally put on sun glasses in the morning…  The winds were howling, the trees bent and broke, and metal window shutters smashed against the windows.  It was cathartic!  And in the wake of the storm came the rain!  For about 20 minutes it gushed down like there was no tomorrow.  This must have been one of the first rain storms for Mopti.   The rainy season is just starting here.  And the change this rain brought was phenomenal:  The air smelled fresh, the temperature dropped by at least 10 degrees and everything seemed clean.   This was very similar to the storm I had experienced in Djenne, but there it was the middle of the night and the storm drove me off a slippery muddy roof into my stuffy, hot room.   Here, I could experience the beauty of the rain – the kids were dancing in the street and it was just the greatest thing to have.

Needless to say that it messed up the scheduled arrival of electricity.   And then we only had 1.5 hours of it, neither enough to post nor enough to cool down sufficiently in my room. So, I left the lights on and worked through the night as the electricity kicked in for a couple of hours at a time – not exactly restful, but productive at least. 

I am trying my best to keep this blog going.  Believe me, it’s not just for you – so don’t feel sorry for me.  🙂  It is for you AND for myself.  If I don’t write, I will forget.  So much new is happening every day that it literally jumbles all in my head unless I put it on paper.   And you all, with your loyal following keep me on track.   Thanks for reading (especially through the nasty hacking period which affected some of the images and email notices).   Thanks for your comments!  I look forward during my internet windows to reading them.   I think of you all bent over your morning coffee, in your offices, or at your home desks.  It is comforting not to be alone.

And with those thoughts in mind posting as much as I could, catching up on emails, and working on some of my images, at some point in the morning hours, I finally fell asleep for good.

Good morning.

 

 

 

2013
06.24

20-21 15 Boat Ride Bani River-ET_1024x680SYNOPSIS:   About the three-day trip from Djenne to Mopti with Ishmael, Mohammed, and Ibrahim on the Bani River via an unmotorized pirogue; a lesson in slowing down.

The sixty kilometers from Djenne to Mopti could have taken me 2 hours via another crowded bus, or it could take three days with a pirogue.  I was intrigued and opted for the latter. There were warnings that there would not be enough water in the river to do this trip yet.  The rainy season has not started here and the Bani River is too shallow most of the year to do this route with a fully loaded boat.  But the crew of two, Mohammed and Ibrahim, had made it to Djenne from Mopti, where they were stationed, so chances were good.   Hama had arranged this trip from Bamako through his endless network of friends and “brothers”.  These two guys had been waiting for me for four days since I have no fixed schedule.  I felt horrible, but they did not seem to mind.   There is no work, and waiting for some paid work is not unusual.

The return trip now had to be made with two additional people in the boat plus my 25kg of luggage.  This just about filled the small boat to capacity.   And yes, we ran into ground about a dozen times and the two had to pull the boat a few times around shallow waters.  But we never had to fully unload and reload, which would have been worse.   And we never tipped over, which ultimately would have been the worst case scenario, cameras, computer, and all.

Really, nothing happened for three days that is worth mentioning.  We slowly drifted along in a boat that had to be poled forward via a huge long pole by one of the crew members.  I have now observed this work for three days, and I cannot fathom how these guys do it!  I barely survived the 45/110 degrees under the sheltered reed mat doing nothing, pampering myself with a wet cloth on my neck and avoiding the sun at all costs.  How on earth did they do this backbreaking work from 5:30 AM through 7:30 PM without a single break!  Yes, they took turns, but they did not get a break from the beating sun and the one who could sit down would then usually cook, make tea, and most importantly shovel out the water which collected miraculously every 20 minutes in our boat…  I was told the boat had not been used for such a long time that the wood had shrunk and not expanded enough yet.  I would have called this a leak but I was not going to argue.  Only occasionally was the one who poled the boat aided by a simple sail that was hung up between a few sticks if and when there was enough wind. That did not happen too often.

There were long periods of silence and then the occasional spurt of conversation between the three men.  There was a lot of greeting between boats when we passed some of the Bozo fishers who eke out a living by fishing in this river.   River life unfolded as in a slow motion picture.   It consisted mainly of the typical shreek of the birds which hover along the shore, the mooing of the cows, the occasional call of a donkey.  It also featured a few villages, visible from afar by clusters of trees. Once we were close enough, we could observe women and children busily washing clothes.   When our boat would be spotted, typically one of the kids called out in excitement “tubobum” (a white one); and then other kids picked up the call.  Only once was I greeted with the more formal and polite “Bonjour Madam” which the kids learn in school.  I waved, they waved and we kept on gliding.   Occasionally, there were calls going back and forth between our crew and a fisherman to purchase fresh fish for the next meal.  And that was about it.

Twice a day we stopped at one of the villages, mainly to walk around for 10 minutes and stretch our legs.  These villages had not seen a tubobum in a long time and they were great fun to visit.  The kids followed me in clusters.  People typically were happy to be photographed and enjoyed seeing the picture on my camera screen afterwards.  Among the kids this usually lead to chaotic sessions crowding around my camera, pulling it, pushing and shoving and calling out  “… It’s me, it’s me, it’s me!”  Each village has its distinct ethnic character and setup.  Some are very communal, others very private.  I handed out Kola nuts to the elders and those who allowed me to photograph them, and everybody was happy.

We spent the nights ashore sleeping outside under the open sky.  Here, in contrast to the rooftops in Djenne, there is hardly any wind.  That means there are mosquitoes.   Despite pre-treated clothing and insect spray, I have now been bitten numerous times and for me that means swollen hands and ankles.  I pray every day that these are nice and healthy mosquitoes, or it could mean malaria.  On top of that I am reacting to the heat by breaking out in rashes all over and to make things worse, I am reacting to all the chemicals in the insect spray with eczema.   Let’s say, I am not all around comfortable.   But I am not complaining.  It is what it is and it’s worth it.  There is a good side to it: out here, there has been no dust storm and so I am no longer coughing.

I cannot say that I am getting used to the heat, but the adjustments are remarkable.  At one point or another I feel that the day has cooled down enough to enjoy it and when I check the thermometer it is usually around a whopping 35/95 degrees.  Because this is the time of the day that the sun is just coming out or has gone down, that feels “cool”.  It is all relative!

We have come closer to a real sun rise and sun set here – that means the sun is able to break through the layer of dust much earlier than in towns.  It also means that there is more of a sky.  But if you picture the sky, picture a donut.   The ring is the layer of dust and the center is the clear sky.  In the morning that center was even blue!  And at night I saw stars.  And the center grows at night as pollution levels go down and shrinks during the day, as pollution levels go up. And if there is wind, there is no center.

I liked it best when we were gliding along in silence.  But the guys get bored, I guess, or need some stimulation to do their hard work and so they play music through their cell phones.  Some of it is great Malian music by some of their famed musicians, but others is Hip-hop and Rap and to me this just ruins it.  I try to tune it out.

2013
06.23

19-Villages-8_409x768SYNOPSIS:  About two local villages, my new name and the Friday prayer at the Djenne mosque.

I seem to be on a motorbike a lot lately.  It is the most common mode of transportation around here.  Ishmael, my local guide took me to two villages around Djenne today.   Village life here is very similar to what I have described in my visits around Segou already.

What I find most fascinating is that each village still has its power structure with the chief of the village on top – as a visitor you must see him first before roaming around – and that there are three other elders appointed in case the chief is unavailable.   The two villages I saw today, in contrast to the ones around Segou, have seen a lot of foreigners until about two years ago.   It showed!   I was hit up for money or something practically each time I was going to take a picture of a person.  It made me realize what a double-edged sword this is:  I come and bring money, through my village tax and can take pictures of this “unspoiled” life in the villages, but by doing so I am spoiling and contaminating it and ultimately, I am responsible for corrupting the villagers into beggars for money, pens, or kola nuts.

I have held back tremendously not to just whip up my camera when I see the picture perfect person walking down one of those mud alleys or when I see the picture perfect family or village scene.  This is a culture of extensive greetings and so I have greeted people first before asking their permission to take their photo.  I have lost many, many good photo-ops that way, but I just can’t get myself to violating the people by just overpowering them with my camera.   Asking them, of course, prompts their temptation to ask for something in return.  In one case, the precious kola nuts – the traditional exchange of value similar to the coco bean in ancient Aztec culture – was actually frowned upon.  The woman told me flat out that she did not want my nuts, she wanted money.  It is a catch 22!

Back in town, I focused on the main event:  It was Friday and that is the big Muslim holy day.   Since the Djenne mosque is the focus of the local worship, the Jami Masjid, or Friday mosque, on this day many motorbikes, cars, even buses ascended on the town carrying well-dressed male worshippers to Djenne.   As early as 1 PM, they came in and filed into the mosque where the sermon was already in progress, broadcast via loudspeaker across the city square.  At 2 PM came the call to prayer.

So many people arrived that the men spilled over onto the raised platform surrounding the mosque, which is also off-limits to non-Muslims.   I climbed the stairs to the deserted library and watched and recorded the spectacle from there.  There were hardly any female worshippers.  They only get one bay in this large mosque, yet none had to pray outside.   For the women and children life seemed to go on even during the main Friday prayer.   A lot of local kids had congregated, harassing the arriving men for handouts.  Most likely they were from one of the many Koran Schools (Madrasas) in Djenne.  Since they have no possessions, it is OK for them to beg.  One of the Koran school kids actually lives on the roof top of the house I stay in.  He literally owns one change of clothes, his prayer rug, prayer beads and his Friday outfit.  He looked great in it today and was just too happy to pose for a picture for me.  His name is Ibrahim.  And his spot on the roof is just a few feet from mine.

Speaking of names, I have been in many Arab Muslim countries, where every other man’s name seems to be Mohammed.  But here it is even more prevalent.   Everyone’s name is either Mohammed, Muhammad, Hama, Hamad, Hamadou, Hamidou, (all derivations of Mohammed), Ibrahim, or Ishmael.  There are so many of them that they keep each other straight by nicknames in their local languages.  And two of the Malian men I met, the guide from Segou and the kid from Timbuktu, both told me that any person who spends as much time in Mali as I do (a total of 40 days), needs to have a Malian name.  The first one I got was Fatumata.  When the kid from Timbuktu told me the same thing, I pretended that I did not have a name yet and he gave me… guess what:  The name Fatumata!  I guess, that is my name for now.  It is of course, the African version of Fatima, the favorite daughter of Mohammed.

Today it was time to say goodbye to Djenne.  As of tomorrow I will be going on a three-day boat ride in a pole-staked pirogue down the Bani River to Mopti.  That will be another change of pace.

I have to say that I almost got used to my new living standards. In the pictures for this post, you can see what I turned my room into.  First, I did not have a choice.  But secondly, I realized that the acceptance of my surroundings, the heat, the smell, the slippery bathroom floors, and the sand in my mouth and all over my clothes, all of this just became part of my life.  There was no point in challenging it or being upset about it.  There was only one choice and that was to embrace it, to improve it within my means, and not to allow it to get in the way of seeing the beauty of the people and this old town which in so many ways was stuck in the last century.

The rooftop had dried out after yesterday’s rain storm and I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of being out in the breeze again, looking up at the stars.  I was a white woman, a foreigner, an intruder, sleeping within feet of all these different men.  They accepted me by pretending they did not even notice. I had to think about this in light of the news of the sky-high number of rapes in India.  What a contrast!  I knew that if there was a storm coming, Ibrahim, the Koran school boy, would wake me and help me carry my things down.   These men cared, and they gave me space.  I knew I had my privacy and I knew I was safe.  I could not have pictured that a few weeks ago.

Good night.

 

2013
06.23

DG UPDATE AGAIN

With Martin’s guidance, I am enabled now to attach ET’s photos to her recent posts.  Thousand thanks, Martin!  So, you might want to revisit these posts to see what’s going on.

There will be one more post, tomorrow, then no more until ET returns from her wifiless wilderness wanderings.  That relief should come in about 3 days.  Think happy thoughts!  As the French might say:

Honi soit qui Mali pense.