Saturday, September 11, 2010

Memories of Mali and Senegal.

Me, a goat, and the Grand Mosque in Djenné, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

S
ometimes opportunities come up that you just can't turn down. For the globetrotter in me, that opportunity came in the form of work assignment in IMF office in Bamako,Mali. Of course, I can't go to just Bamako so I decided to stay back for a week and travel through the country. I have to admit that I knew nothing about Mali except that Timbuktu is there. So, I started my reading and as I got to learning about the country, I decided that a visit to Mali would not be complete unless I did a trip through Dogon country. But Mali is not on the typical tourist map so finding a guide was a challenge but my persistence paid off!


What a phenomenal time I had in Mali. For just a few days, I was basically embedded in typical Malian village life. To a large degree, I was still very much the observer - language barrier had a lot to do with that so I was severely limited in my ability to fully interact with the villagers. I was curious about so many things and I would have really loved to have been able to converse with them without having to go through an interpreter but I still had an amazing time....even sharing the occasion laugh or two,

Mali is the poorest place I've been to so far in all my travels but looking beyond the poverty, I met some of the nicest people in the villages. They were extremely welcoming and courteous....often going out of their way to ensure my comfort.



The children were especially endearing. Everywhere I went, they would rush up to me and often I was surround a small group of them as I wandered through a village. On many an occasion, I would have a child come up to me and gently touch my skin. I think it's because Asian faces don't show up often in the villages and they were just curious about how my skin felt. So cute!


Travelling through Mali during rainy season presented its share of challenges like the times I had to wade across the *streams* that often ran across the path we were walking on.  But, what's adventure if you don't tackle the challenges head on so if there's a stream that's blocking the walkway and the only way to get to the other side is to swim, well then, I will swim.

Food was a challenge.  I had the runs for the entire time I was in the Dogon but nothing that Immodium couldn't tackle.  All the food that I ate was well cooked so I don't it was the food that did me in.  What I think did me in was the dishware and utensils I was eating off on and with.  With no clean, running water in the villages, I don't think the dishes, forks and spoons were all that clean.

Seeing the Grand Mosque in Djenné was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.  What an amazing building - all built by hand by applying one layer after another of mud.  The day I walked by the mosque, workers were already busy re-mudding (is that a word) the building to replace whatever had washed off during three months of constant rain.

Discomforts aside, I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a small glimpse into the life of a Malian village and it was truly an unforgettable trip!  I'm not very with words so you must excuse me if the only way that I can describe the Dogon villages is to use the words *cute* and *fascinating* - apt descriptors for a place like Songho with its graineries and circumcision paintings. 

Not surprisingly, I didn't spend any time touring Bamako.  During the time that I was working, all I saw of Bamako was along the 10 minute drive that it took to go from the hotel to the office.  On my return, I did arrive back mid afternoon but in all honesty, the only thing I wanted to do was take a hot shower to wash off all the layers of dirt that I had accumulated in a week of travel.  I will have to see Bamako another time.


Contrast Mali to Senegal and it's like night and day.  Where Mali is poor, Senegal is well off, relatively speaking.  Where there were no culinary delights in Mali, Senegalese food was truly enjoyable - I loved every bite of everything  ate.  I only really had one day in Dakar which I spent with my colleague and friend Talibah.  We crammed as much as we could into one day of touring.  I did spend a day in Dakar on my way back to DC but it rained like cats and dogs all day so at the last minute,  I had to cancel a planned trip to Pink Lake.  Perhaps a good excuse to one day go back to Senegal.


Visiting Gorée Island was memorable for me because of the impact it had on Talibah.  Being African American, I think she was able to connect to the roots of her heritage and she realized what pain her ancestors had to endure.  It was special for me to be able to share the moment with her. 

A visit of the House of Slaves aside, Gorée is just such a quaint little place.  Cobblestone streets, colorful buildings all surrounding by beautiful blue ocean.  I really enjoyed walking the streets.


Not to mention the fact that we both got our hair braided (me, just a few strands) by two women, in the outdoors.....no fancy schmancy hair salon for us.  Nope, hair done right on the street.  And oh what fun we had! 

Though a trip to Senegal and Mali was not in my travel plans for this year or anytime soon, I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to go.  I returned with a desire to see more of Africa.  Who knows what kind of villages I will end up in next time!