Friday, May 14, 2010

I'm going to Mali!


I'm going to Mali for a one week long work assignment in the capital city of Bamako and I'm really excited about it. This will be my first trip to what I would consider to be the *real* Africa and I'm going to do my best to make the most of it.


I have to admit that I have virtally no geographic knowledge of Africa and had to actually look on the map to find Mali.  It's a landlocked country but I was surprised to find out that it's surrounded by seven, count 'em, seven countries - Senegal and Mauritania on the west, Algeria to the north, Niger and Burkina Faso in the east and Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast to the South).  WOW!  I don't know any other country with that many borders!  The US has just two countries to deal with when it comes to resolving border issues - just imagine having to negotiate with seven different countries whenever border conflicts arise.

The two main geographic points in Mali are the Sahara Dessert which pretty much occupies the northern part of the country and the great Niger River.

One the greatest cities of ancient Africa sits alongside the Niger river,  Timbuktu..... a name that is often used as metaphor for exotic, distant lands: "from here to Timbuktu."

In reality, in its heydays during the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu's geographical setting made it a natural meeting point for nearby west African populations and nomadic Berber and Arab peoples from the north. Its long history as a trading outpost that linked west Africa with Berber, Arab, and Jewish traders throughout north Africa, and thereby indirectly with traders from Europe, has given it a fabled status.
Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahya, recall Timbuktu's golden age.

Today, Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage site and I would love to be able to go see it.  I don't have much time to spend in Mali and from little research I've done so far, travelling by plane....though time saving in most parts of the world....is not a reliable option for travelling in Mali.  Car or bus is the most recommended way to go and I think it's a 24 hour (yikes!) road journey from Bamako to Timbuktu.
The only other thing I know about Mali came from an image I saw posted up on the Lonely Planet website.  The run a regular competition for travel photographs and for one of the competitions, this was the winning photograph.  I will always remember it because the photographer equated this image of a Dogon village with a Hobbit village.  That comparison was quickly ingrained in my memory.  I was not only captivated by this image but also by the other amazing images of Mali in the album - check them out for yourself.

So what, who, where is the Dogon? 

As described in Wikipedia,
"The Dogon are an ethnic group living in the central plateau region of Mali, south of the Niger bend near the city of Bandiagara in the Mopti region. The Dogon are best known for their mythology, their mask dances, wooden sculpture and their architecture. The past century has seen significant changes in the social organization, material culture and beliefs of the Dogon, partly because Dogon country is one of Mali's major tourist attractions."
I don't know how far Bandiagara is from Bamako but if it's doable in the time that I have in Mali, I will definitely go there.  I have to see one of these villages with my own eyes and spend time with the Dogon people and their culture.

I have a bit of reading and planning to do so I can maximize my expereince in Mali in the short amount of time that I will there.  So excited!