We had the opportunity to briefly visit 5 villages on the Niger over 4 days and while I want to somehow find a way to share the experience, it is nearly impossible to put into words what I saw and experienced. Beauty, resilience, poise, style, and poverty, to be certain. Mali is like nowhere we’ve been before, and while I’m still searching for ways to communicate the experience, I’m doubtful I’ll find the words anytime soon.
I’m not yet comfortable being in a place where I cannot speak any of the many languages spoken here, but everyone has been welcoming, kind, forgiving, and patient. There is much laughter and plenty of stares, but mostly there is mutual respect and warmth. I am grateful for that. I’m relearning what I already know to be true: that a genuine smile is universally understood.
We traveled this past week with folks from work: another teaching family and their beautifully adventurous boys and the gracious and peaceful Dutch teacher, Attie. Nine of us, plus four guides, boarded the pirogue, a long wooden boat covered with a thatched roof to protect us from the scorching heat and potential rain. With plenty of couscous, rice, fish, and cabbage with tomato sauce to keep us fueled, we traveled up the river for four days.
The celebration of Tabaski, the most important Muslim holiday of the year in Mali, added certain excitement and flare to every place we went. Preparation for the festivities was in full swing and the energy was palpable in the villages and markets. Children donned their finest clothing, newly made for the occasion, and once again the color and style left me in awe. Sheep and goats waited to be slaughtered, roasted, feasted upon, and shared in those communities.
We drove from Bamako to Ségou on the first day, just in time to arrive for Ségou’s sprawling Monday market. People come from nearby villages to sell their wares. Although I’d love to walk around markets like these for hours, I’m still unaccustomed to the heat and intense energy that comes with the pulse of the crowd and the sun beating down on me. I’m sweating just thinking about it now.
We bought fresh baguettes, kola nuts, fresh shea butter for our sun-weary skin, and beautiful fabrics and jewelry. The artisan section of the market was sparse, and you could get a sense of what it used to be like prior to the coup. There are simply no tourists here now, and the artisans let us know several times how hard it has been for them. I’d like to think that the beautiful Tuareg necklace I bought helped that young man in one way or another, but I know the reality is not such.
On Tuesday, we boarded our pirogue with the crew from Papillon Reizen, and began the first of four lazy days on the river. It was a sun-drenched 4 days on the boat. The Niger isn’t always clean, and cooling off wasn’t as simple as a quick dip in the river unfortunately. We mostly covered up, stayed beneath the thatched roof of the pirogue, played cards with the kids, and drank beers that we attempted to keep cool in our cooler. We began calling it the box, rather than the cooler since its ability to keep drinks cooler was nearly impossible.
On our first day, Mali’s Independence Day, we traveled to boat races just outside of Ségou and watched the energy and excitement of the men working together to be champions in a tournament-style boat race. Another boat filled with women singing and playing instruments followed the racers to encourage them and excite the crowd of onlookers.
Every night we camped on the banks of the river in small, 2-person tents. We did our best to protect ourselves from the countless bugs that descended upon us by covering ourselves up and lighting a small fire, but mostly we shut ourselves into the protection of our tents at an early hour.
Each day we visited small, and in some cases, isolated villages along the river. Mali is such a large country with a relatively small population. The moment you leave a city or community, there is no one for miles. No suburbs or lingering communities. It feels utterly unpopulated outside of the stretches of Bamako. We traveled for hours each day, hardly seeing anyone along the way.
When we did stop, we were met with kindness and curiosity and kids swarmed us, anxious to get a good look at the four blond children landing in their community. They were just as curious about us as we were about them. River and Aviva became tired of the attention, though, and at one point River asked why they had to follow us everywhere we went. In one village, a woman talked in Bambara to me and Lysha will a brightness in her eyes. Translated, she said, “Welcome! We haven’t seen you in such a long time.” In other words, tourists haven’t visited in years, therefore we were definitely a spectacle.
Mali has a rich and vibrant history and has historically had a flourishing tourist industry. From the cliff dwellings in the Dogon region to the ancient manuscripts and Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu, people have been coming to Mali for years. Now, there is barely a trickle, and we are distinctly aware that even though the lack of tourism is hard for some, there is certainly a quieter, less invasive feeling to these communities because of the lack of tourism. For it felt like that to me: that we were invading these peaceful villages with our presence. By the end of our time in each village, we had the equivalent of several soccer teams of children following behind us.
Besides the gaggle of children curious to stare us down, we greeted village chiefs and gave them kola nuts and a small “tax”, watched millet being ground in giant mortars and pestles and saw goat and sheep meat being divvied up for sharing in the community on Tabaski.
Although I’m incredibly conservative in how I take photos, people invited and often pushed me to take their portrait, including an older woman who shooed away the young boys that tried to get in her photo. I took a family photo in one village at the dire request of another woman. I don’t know why this particular family wanted a photo or what they presumed would happen to the photo, but I politely obliged.
We viewed several mud mosques in each village and discussed the purpose of the green, swampy ponds in the middle of each community. We walked through a bustling pre-Tabaski market where the vibe was not Bamako, and we looked for ice in every village we stopped in with zero luck.
We hoped to spot a hippo, but only saw saw birds and heard their song each dawn at camp. We drank cold sodas at the local gas station and found shade under baobabs.
Mostly, we are stuck in Bamako, in all it’s messy glory. We have vowed to do a better job of exploring the city we live in and will get out into the country as much as the security situation allows it. I won’t put myself or family in danger by visiting Timbuktu or the northern regions just yet, but I will remain optimistic that things will improve in time for us to see more of what makes this country unique. Until then, we’ll venture out into these closer areas and know that even these little trips will teach us more than we imagined they could. Right now I’m operating at the I-don’t-know-how-to-explain level. I am soaking in the beauty and the muck and am letting it settle. I acknowledge that I don’t know anything and hope that from there the learning will happen.