Day 43 - 8 Mopti Cisse Rally- Cisse Car 8_1024x752SYNOPSIS:  About a political rally in Mopti and a concert that almost was.  About looking like a journalist and therefore being able to act like one.  What was nature’s message?

Even without an animist bone in my body I could tell that nature had just spoken loud and clear:  I had not seen anything like this ever in my life.  Not this close.  Not in slow-motion.  Not at an opportune moment like this.

That this was a special day was clear from the start.  The electricity which typically turns off by 6 or 7 AM at the latest was immediately switched on again and it stayed on for the entire day. The power of politics!  Dominique said this was the first day since March with a full supply of electricity.  There had been one day in March and one day earlier in the year but she did not recall the reason.  The occasion today was clear:  Soumaïla Cissé, the mayor of Mopti and one of the two or three more serious frontrunner candidates for president in Mali – the other 25 may be serious too, but nobody knows them and therefore they most likely won’t have any bearing on the election which will be held in a few weeks – was having a big rally in his hometown.

All day long we had heard the drums and the beats of music being tested since the Hotel Doux Reves is just yards from the stadium, the location for the event.  Dominique glowed and reveled in the sound of music.  For years Malians had to hold back, duck down, be careful.  In order not to aggravate the political tensions between the invading and occupying Islamists and to not provide targets for them or their sympathizers, the government had ordered live music concerts to be suspended.  But tonight, interspersed with political speeches and certainly following the political rhetoric, there would be a live concert!  Several bands and dance groups, professionals and lay people had come together for the occasion from all over the country and were setting up equipment, warming up, getting ready for the big moment.  Even a Dogon mask dance was planned!   Those are special dances performed in Dogon Country only.  You can also “order” them for touristy occasions and pay about $750 for one.  I was going to get one for free!

Degedege made it possible.  He showed up with his friend Sandy from Bamako who was part of the party organizing committee for this candidate.  Sandy I guess just thought it was “cool” to have a tubabum he could show off and took me under his wing.  Degedege and I got taken to the VIP section, the shaded area of the stadium with seating under an overhang an hour before the stadium opened to the general public.  He gave us cooling fans with the candidate’s picture and I bought a shawl with the man’s face on it as a souvenir.  I like this kind of “real life” souvenir much better than the touristy stuff, even though by now, I admit it, I bought a carved wooden Dogon granary door – it just fit into my suitcase, how could I pass that up?

We watched the various bands practice and time flew by.  Now the doors were opened and people in their white party T-shirts featuring Cissé’s face poured in.  The VIP section had already filled up with important looking people nicely dressed in either local dress or in full outfits made of cloth which had Cissé’s face on it.  I wish I could have gotten my hand on one of those, but those were tailor made and not for sale. 

Sandy stopped by once in a while to see how we were doing.  At one point he invited me beyond the metal barrier onto the stadium floor which quite clearly was reserved for the politicians, the participating actors, and the journalists.  He invited me to photograph whatever, whomever, and however close I wanted.  I felt rather self-conscious but got some good pictures that way.  Eventually I went back to Degedege.  It was too bad that I had these privileges and he had to stay behind.  But he did not mind, as long as he could borrow my camera once in a while.   He would then hop and bend around in preposterous looking photographer’s poses and take pictures of who knows what.   We had fun, each in our own way.

Then the ceremony began.  Cars pulled onto the stadium tracks and made two full rounds with people cheering on the one with Cissé standing inside waving to all of his presumed supporters.  I don’t know how many people were just there, like me, for the concert.  I actually suspect quite a few…  A motorcycle round followed the cars and finally the bands marched in, including the Dogon dancers each already performing, dancing and bouncing as they came in.  We sat across the speakers’ podium and right next to the alley the various dignitaries would come down to enter the stadium.  Security forces were stationed between us and a metal door and controlled who got in and out.

Various preliminary speakers took the microphone – the first an Imam, opening the ceremony with a “Bismallah” – a prayer in the name of Allah.    Only in Mali can you have the Bismallah spoken right next to big African ladies wildly dancing, green painted semi-nude rappers rapping and animist Dogon masks lining up to perform!  Thankfully, each speaker was only talking a few minutes, each speaking act interspersed with loud music and another group or individual taking center stage – that is the grass in front of the speakers’ booth.   And all of this displayed on an oversized screen for those who were in the margins of the stadium.  This was a professional event, choreographed carefully and there was money behind it, apparently lots of it.

A group of handicapped citizens had gathered on the lawn and the Dogon dancers were now grouped right next to the speakers’ booth.  But I was up there in the VIP section, why not down close to them to get better pictures?  My big-shot Sandy was nowhere to be seen.  I told Degedege that I would try to get out there again.  It seemed unlikely but you have to try to know.  I tapped one of the security people on the back and gestured to the lawn.  Like Open Sesame in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the gate opened!  Just like that!  No checking if I had a press ID, no checking if I posed a security threat.  I had a big camera, I was a tubabum, I must be legit. 

Knowing that the eyes of the entire VIP section were not on my back, I crossed the tracks, positioned myself close to the speaker’s booth and took pictures of the politicians for a while – just to look real.  Then I moved over to my actual target:  The Dogon Masks and the handicapped people.  As I was photographing them, I realized that the weather behind them began to look rather ominous. 

As I was busy photographing handicapped people it was finally the turn of Cissé, the man of the day, to speak.  With big fanfare he descended the VIP section staircase and stepped out onto the tracks and the lawn only yards from where I was.  Politely I photographed him even though I did not care about him much.  The Dogon masks were much more interesting and the weather…  Did nobody notice?! 

There was a sand-storm coming.  It is hard to describe how in just a couple of minutes the sunny blue sky can be taken over by a gloomy dark-yellow bulge that pushes forward without a sound.  I was in the middle of the stadium and saw how that ever-growing bulge had reached the top row of the stadium seats.  People there were screaming and running already.    Less than 100 feet further where I was, there was not a trifle of wind or a sound associated with the storm yet, but what was coming there was big.   And it came.  But how slowly it crawled in!  Like a giant genie on its knees.   Cissé went on babbling behind me.  Did he not care?! 

I had to make a decision – I was taking pictures of the cloud but also had to protect my camera from harm.  Where to go?  There was the row of cars that had paraded around the president.  I went up to one of them and asked if I could sit inside, pointing to the storm.  This way I was protected but could watch.  The men inside were surprised but let me in.  At that moment Degedege found me.  Since all hell had broken loose he was able to get onto the stadium floor.  People were now running  in every direction looking for possible shelter.  He dragged me out of the car and into the alley below the VIP section – it was not a bad place for cover but I could no longer watch.   We had reached the safety of the concrete alley just as the dust hit this part of the stadium.  The sand was big and crusty and came down with the force of hail in a tornado.  If you were still out there, good luck!

I lost track when Cissé finally stopped his speech.  He certainly did not get far.  I know that his speakers’ booth eventually collapsed along with the musical equipment stand.   Bits and parts of loose stuff flew around along with the harsh sand.  And then the torrential rain started.  It took less than 15 minutes for it all to be over.  But the destruction was thorough.  The grass was a lake, a playground now for some kids who splashed around in it.  Everyone hustled to get out of the stadium.  There would be no more speeches.  There would be no concert.

Thankfully, we did not have to board a bus or a vehicle, all of which were interlocked in desperate attempts to find a way out.   The hotel was only yards from the stadium and in my Keen shoes I did not even have a problem wading most of the way in water and mud. 

Wow!  If that wasn’t a clear enough message I don’t know what!  This presidential candidate had just received the blow of nature.  Is that how the Moptians or the many animists in this country interpreted this storm?  Or did they see it as a storm that confirmed the Islamists claim that music is the devil’s work and has to be banned.  I guess we each can take it as we see fit.  

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. Ok, already, the suspense is killing me!!! What kind of fresh hell transportation was inflicted upon you for the ride to Bamako? (I want to put a dollar wager that someone got sick to their stomach on the trip). Did I win?

  2. OMG. You have an uncanny knack for being in the middle of history as it unfolds. Your description of the cascading sandstorm is exactly how I imagined it to be. The fanfare about such a strategic speech is amazing. And your photos should be on the NY Times front page. Amazing stuff. Just when I think you can’t top yourself, you do.

  3. Well, we got to take our omens when we can get them. A sandstorm… yup, sounds like an omen to me. Problem is…in that Alice in Wonderland place there is no telling how it will be interpreted and from time to time the interpretation of what it signifies will change…and to what, well, that’s anyone’s guess.
    Apparently there was a haboom in Phoenix the other day…could have been the same day that yours hit in Mopti. Now THAT is an omen…the confluence of two sandstorms in two different places at the same time. Brrrrrr…I wonder how the stars and planets were aligned that day.
    Amazing how you can get “into” so much at a simple political rally. You always have such fun…with that knack for making an event a “happening”…you must just hate boredom!