2013
06.15

 Pottery Village Kalabougou-Burning Fire_985x768SYNOPSIS:  Excursion in a pirogue down the Nile to the pottery village of Kalabougou.  Watching the women make pots, grind pigments, take care of their kids, and build the once-a-week open fire.  Watching the men do nothing much.  Greeting all the kids and bringing the latest political news.

It is quite ridiculous when I have to hire a pirogue meant to hold 20 tourists, just for myself.  The bad news for me is that I have to pay the price for 20 – at least I do.  I am not even trying to bargain.  I spend as much as I can afford on excursions and save in other areas – street food for example rather than restaurants.  I am reminded of the American philosophy to shop until you drop to save the economy.  I always found that strange.  But here it makes sense to me.   Every dollar I spend will be stretched a long, long way.  The boat captain who took my $45 dollars today will probably feed a family for a month!

There used to be many of these tourist pirogues.   They differ from the ones the local fishermen use by having a roof.  Tourists like me cannot stand the direct exposure to the sun quite the same way the locals can.  This is the only one left with a roof.  The cushions that used to line the benches had been locked so far away that they could not even be located today.   It was a bit of an uncomfortable ride, but it was short enough.  Just under an hour NE from Segou and we reached the pottery village of Kalabougou. 

Just like the villages I saw yesterday, this one does not have electricity.  Mulai, my guide explained to me that everything that needs electricity, for example phone chargers or TVs, is operated by batteries.   This village seems to be cut off so much from TV or radio that Mulai had to spend several minutes in each hut we visited to fill in the locals on the current situation of the war!

Of course the first order of the visit was to find the chief or one of his two representatives to pay my tax.  This one was not cheap for local standards:  $7.

Mali has a culture of long and extensive greeting rituals.  When Mulai walks into a hut, there are about 8 full sentences exchanged in the greeting ceremony before you can get down to business.  Occasionally, women walked up to me to greet me personally.  I have adapted to this ritual by just saying whatever I think of in response to whatever they are saying to me while smiling and making big inclusive gestures.  It seems to work.  I think the woman who is greeting me is just going through the ritual assuming that I do my part as required.   And in principle, I do.  The greetings go something  like this: 

How are you?  Fine how are you?  How is your family?  Fine and how is yours?  What about work?   Fine what about yours?   How is life in general?  Fine and how about yours? 

When you leave you say goodbye not just to the one person but again to all in his/her larger family context and wish them well.  One woman took a particularly long time to shake my hand and kept on talking.   Mulai translated that she added:  The village, for such a long time, has not seen any white person.  Thank you for coming to Mali at this time and thank you for coming to my village.  I hope that this is a good sign for the village’s future.  Welcome.  

That was very touching.

I could tell by the reaction of the kids that they were no longer used to seeing a white person.  Some of them probably had never seen one as far as they could remember.   I am often surrounded by kids who don’t quite know what to do – frankly, neither did I – and who follow me.   I figured out a way to amuse them and to give us something to do:  I hold out my hand to every one of the kids and shake it – not something customarily done around here – and say “Hallo” to each of them.  Pretty soon they repeat the “Hallo” back to me.   This quickly attracts many more kids who also want to shake hands.  They also started to scratch my hands and arms today, probably to see what this white skin is all about.  What worked particularly well is when I have too many applicants to shake hands with:  I offer each kid just one finger and then shake ten kids hands all at once.   They think this is hilarious, and it sort of is.

This village provides the local utilitarian and decorative pottery for the whole region.   Each family, and that means each woman, specializes in one particular shape.   The trade is handed down from one generation to the next.  You see young girls already participating in the process.  All the finished pottery is piled up in the big village magazine and transported by pirogues up and down the river to various pottery markets.  One of them I had seen in Segou.  

This is simple pottery, thick, heavy, and all done by hand, meaning hand-coiled.  There is no pottery wheel, not even a kick wheel.   Some women have rotating disks sitting on the ground on which they put the pottery while they are working on it.  The clay comes from the surroundings and is dug up by the men fresh every day.  A woman can produce dozens of pots in the course of each day.   Typically, she will do housework such as cleaning and cooking in the morning and spend the afternoon making pots.  I was told that women who don’t make pottery are dead.   In other words, a woman works until her last breath.

The pottery is sun-dried and then painted with a juice that has been produced by grinding down a special red rock from the area.  Nobody was painting today as it was the big once-a-week firing day.  This village does not use kilns to fire – the pots are too big and there are too many.  They converted an entire area of the village into an open fire pit where each week 3-5 big circles of pots are stacked up.   I was a bit too late to see the raw pile of pots.  Already, piles of straw, leaves, and twigs had been heaped up onto the pots in a clearly pre-determined order and in nice layers.  The men had provided the firing material one donkey load at a time.  The women were busy stacking the flammables.  These fires were big and they burned hot!  Even from a distance photographing I could feel the heat.   Yet, some women were still adding kindling to the pile once it was fully aflame.  The fire smolders for quite a while after the hot flames die down.  After the first pit was lit, and I had taken a lot of pictures already, I decided to help the women piling up the final layers of material for the second pit.  This was dusty, hot work.  I only helped for about 15 minutes – the other women had been at this all afternoon already – and it was more than enough for me.  I was completely dust covered, sweaty and dirty.  They thought it was pretty funny that I pitched in.

Unfortunately, I missed the painting and glazing parts of the process – I have seen that some of the finished pottery looks rather glossy, other pots have a mat finish.  Some pots are in yellow-red tones, others were black.   Mulai was not of much help explaining the process.  He does not understand pottery that well.  But at the end I picked up a shard of a broken pot to take home.   The actual pottery is way too heavy to lug around for another month.  Perhaps, that can tell us more about the process once the experts at WCC’s ceramics studio have a look at it.

By the time the third pile was aflame you could hardly breathe in the village and the sky was covered in smoke.  Thankfully, this does not last very long.  But it was just as good a moment to leave.  The pirogue ride on the river was interesting.   So much of the daily life of the Malians is happening in, on and next to the river.  But it looks like I will soon spend three leisure days on the Bani River; plenty of time to talk about water then.

Good night.