12-Village Life Mali-Children and Animist Symbol_995x768SYNOPSIS:  With Mulai, my local guide, I took off on his motorbike to visit the dam in Markala, 35 km NE of Segou. But the highlights of the day were visits to two distinct African villages along the way.

Was there any evidence in the two villages I saw today that we are in the 21st century?  I have to strain. I bet there was somebody who had a cell phone.   There had to be.  But I did not see anyone.  There was evidence of the 20th century – some people had motor bikes.  But most of what was going on that I observed in my two one-hour visits was as if time had stopped sometime in the 19th century.

Mali is divided into various administrative provinces, but small villages retain distinct local hierarchies and networks of authority.  Any visitor to any village is expected to introduce him/herself to the chief of the village first.  For me going alone, that would have been a challenge – how on earth would I communicate?  How on earth would I find the right person?  The chief’s house was not recognizable, nor in a distinct location, nor marked in any way.  Mulai knew and I just had to follow.   But I wondered.  If there is a tourist visiting, I am expected to pay the so-called tourist tax.  This is a fee/donation paid to the chief but designated to the entire village.  It entitles the visitor to walk around and, in theory at least, to take photographs.  But these two villages were so off the tourist pass that there was not even that.  As everywhere else I had to ask permission for every photograph individually.  I did that with a big smile, pointing to my camera and monosyllabically saying “Photo?”  Mulai always translated this into the local Bambara language.  Overall, I got positive responses.  A few people declined.   Very few asked for payment.  I got good pictures.

Welcome at both of the chief’s houses was cheerful.   In the first one I was immediately invited to look over the millet production that was in progress.  The son of the chief was pounding greenish looking millet in a hollowed out tree trunk with a wooden pestle.  It turned into gray powder which his mother put through a sieve.  If the millet was not fine enough, back into the trunk it went for more pounding.  In the second chief’s house I was invited to some “cake” which turned out to be a plastic bowl full of that same millet now cooked into a ball of grits-like consistency enhanced by a very slimy sauce of spices.  We were invited to wash our hands in a small bowl first and then you use your fingers to scoop up the paste.  It is so slimy that the sauce will run down your fingers (even Mulai’s who should know how to do this right) and so you use your tongue to lick it off your fingers and hand.  It was an interesting and chili-hot, tasty experience. 

Just down the road there was the high-tech “mill”.  One guy out of his house ran an electric grinding mill powered by a generator.   Local women were lining up with their bowl of millet and it took only seconds for each to go home with finely ground powder.  When I saw the generator I realized that there was no visible evidence of electricity in the village.  Does that mean that there is no television and no refrigeration either? 

Several people throughout the village were working on repairing their homes.  All houses, ovens and granaries, stables and even the mosque were constructed out of sun-dried mud bricks.  They are smoothed over with a plaster mix whose secret it is to contain not only the customary straw and mud, but also Shea butter produced from the local Karite tree. This makes the mud water repellent – brilliant!

There were several incredibly deep wells in the first village, each of them busy hubs of women’s activities – fetching water and doing laundry.  The second village was situated directly at a Niger offshoot and all water activities moved there.  Not surprisingly, as the first village “specialized” in the millet production, the second was known as a fishing village and also the one with the highly revered blacksmith.  Not only does he rank among the most respected craftsmen, he will also be called in when there are disputes among the villagers.  The first village was a purely Bambara village, the dominant ethnic group in this area.  The second also had Bozo people – the tribe specializing in fishing.  Altogether the first village seemed more agricultural whereas the second was the more hands-on craft village.  One small hill was topped by four ovens which were being repaired by two women for the pottery that was going to be fired the next day.  Saturday seems to be universal pottery firing day around here.  I wonder if that has any spiritual significance.

And speaking of that, in the first village only, I observed strange objects placed around areas where the narrow roads opened into junctions or little plazas.  Mulai ordered me not to specifically photograph these.  He actually admitted that he is somewhat scared of them – they are local, animist signs of protection for the village.  If you look carefully at one photo with a group of children, I made sure that in the background the most interesting of these objects – a highly polished round stone placed on a small platform – is visible.  And right next to the mosque, you will see some beehive mounds – the second form I observed.  In the second village I saw no such things. 

As we drove through the area full of mango orchards, wild growing shrubs, yellow dried out grass and plowed but barren fields, I had observed that most of these fields had dozens of small mounds placed at regular intervals.  In the village I figured out what they were:  All year long the dung of the animals is collected and placed onto the fields, one donkey cart at a time.  When it comes time to plant – which should be soon – the dung is evenly distributed and worked into the ground as fertilizer.  Nothing gets wasted.   The fields are plowed by a hand plow pushed into the ground by a person and pulled by two oxen.  Just like the olden days.

Most villagers were greatly amused when I would show them the photos I took of them in the little window of the digital camera.  I am sure this was the first such camera they had ever seen. 

The road between Segou and Markala is paved – a clear indication of its economic importance.  Most roads around here are not paved.  Along the way we passed two military camps, one for the local Malian army, a nearby one for German soldiers here to train the Malians.   We were passed by a multiple-car army convoy including trucks full of soldiers,and pickup trucks with movable machine guns mounted in the back, of the sort I had seen everywhere in Iraq.  If international news reports are on the mark, the Malian army is getting ready to become eventually self-sufficient to fend off the threat of Islamist takeovers from the North.   I guess a lot of work needs to be done.

Markala is the location of an ambitious colonial dam project which works up to a point and has been a great failure in other respects.  It was supposed to help irrigate a huge area of land – nearly 80 years after construction it is still operating at less than 20% capacity.  It was supposed to supply the French with cotton but now is helping to produce more locally needed products such as sugar cane and other food crops.  Photography was not allowed.  The dam was guarded at both ends by police checkpoints.  On the side where the water is dammed, it makes the already huge Niger river look like an ocean!

This was a most interesting and rewarding day.  The problem was that I had to be out in the sun for 7 straight hours!   Even though I put sunscreen on twice, I could tell that my head was burning even under my head cover.   I had to borrow Mulai’s scarf to make myself an even bigger turban for the 1-hour ride back on the motorcycle which puts you out into the sun even worse than when you are walking around in villages.  But I survived! 

So far I am holding up.  I am coughing a lot – my lungs have gone into protective mode.  But that’s OK.  It reminds me of Pakistan where both Nicola and I sounded like hacking wolves for two weeks.  It’s the dust.  What can you do?

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. I am struck by your picture of a “historic mosque”. It sure does not look like a mosque. Did you see it in operation? Today was Friday, so there must have been communal prayers.
    Ann was wondering about the interplay between animism and Islam. My guess is that there really is no “interplay”. What we have is an animist culture with a thin overlay of a few Islamic rituals. As you know, standard, not extremist, Islamic doctrine requires the animist pagans either to accept Islam or be killed. It looks like the population accepted just the minimum of Islam to permit them to call themselves Moslems and live.

    Elisabeth, your whole travelogue is just fascinating. Thank you so much for bringing me into close vicarious contact with such an alien world.

  2. What an opportunity to experience village life in Mali. I am going to read up on the animist religion in Mali and how it interfaces with the major religion there, Islam. Interesting…
    Your whole trip is raising many questions…for me mostly about the interplay of culture and religion. How did it evolve into what it is now or was it always that way. It must have set the Islamists’ hair on fire to see how the Mali people live!! I am sure the people are very, very happy they are gone. Hopefully for good.

  3. I wonder how much the dust contributes to the regional mortality. I see TB is prevelent, but malnutritian and sanitation contribute more to health issues than dust I assume.