Notes by Llyn Clague
December 30, 2002 to January 17, 2003
30 Dec 2002 Flight to Bamako || 31 Dec 2002 New Year's eve || 1 Jan 2003 Cloth market || 2 Jan 2003 Villages and names || 3 Jan 2003 Village education and fishing folk || 4 Jan 2003 Segou's rugs, dyes, and fired pots || 5 Jan 2003 Dejenne || Hymn to the Gudron || Djenne house, mosque, and tour || Bocoum's story || 6 Jan 2003 Djenne market || 7 Jan 2003 Timbuktu and camel ride || 8 Jan 2003 Mopti market, fish, boats, and rice || 9 Jan 2003 Douentza's wild elephants and Fatima's Hand || 10 Jan 2003 Rough ride through Dogon country || 11 Jan 2003 to Segou on the Gudron || 12 Jan 2003 Bankoani family visit || 13-16 Jan 2003 Dancing with marionettes, Bamako, and departing
Flight to Bamako, December 30, 2002
We arrived on Air France at 10:30 p.m. local time, some two hours late, and 22 hours after the taxi picked us up in Hastings-on-Hudson. Our Woodstock group met in the Paris airport: Alice and I, Jack and Fran, and Phil. We were seated near each other at the front of the last cabin of the plane. Through a rear stairway the French police brought on board a man who was apparently being deported. The man took exception: at first it was only a mild disturbance in the last row as he tried to get up, to get away. He began shouting. A couple of plain-clothes police and airline personnel tried to subdue him. They would succeed for a few moments, then he would rise up again and they would try to force him back down in the seat. He yelled, hollered, called out to the passengers: "Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!" Help me, help me, and a lot else I didn't understand. The cabin was probably two thirds Malian, and as the episode dragged on ten, fifteen minutes, the crowd got more involved. People stood or kneeled on seats, looking toward the rear, discussing the scene. "Shameful ... not right...." Then a Malian who was sitting near Alice and me walked down the aisle toward the rear: with a movie camera. That blew it. The flics came rushing up the aisle and tried to take his camera, or at least his film. Abruptly the crowd got a good deal more involved. I say "the crowd": it was the Malians. The whites on board: our group, a US diplomat I'd spoken to casually in the airport lounge, tourists, missionaries: were quiet as church mice. One woman in bright red on the far side of the cabin from us, half way back, shouted out several times. A middle-aged group in the middle right next to us, and others further back: spoke up for the cameraman, more and more noisily ... and abruptly Air France announced that the plane was being cleared, everyone was to return to the lounge with all their hand luggage. By now there were half a dozen police, and the number was growing.
We evacuated the plane. I thought the evacuation: "for security reasons": was to give the cops the opportunity to detain selected people on the ramp. In the lounge there was, of course, a great deal of talk about the event. I tried to eavesdrop, but much of the Malians' discussion was in local languages with the occasional "c'est tout" or "voilà" thrown in, or in African accents which in the general noise I couldn't understand. The cops: police nationale: had grown to maybe 20, hard-faced as all police. Oh, I forgot one exchange on the plane before we evacuated: A cop stood by the Malians near us and I overheard, in a hard tone, him say, well, it's like that, somebody has to pay, why not him ... or you... Sounded very threatening.
After we re-assembled back in the cabin, we waited for more than hour more while they unloaded all the baggage and separated out the bags of the people who: in the words of one steward: "had chosen not to continue on this flight." He said there were 11; we wondered how many were voluntary. The cameraman, the woman in red, the middle-aged group near us: all were not on board.
However, the ruckus at the back of the plane started up again, almost immediately. It didn't last long. A few high right arms, heavy blows.... There were now two men they were trying to deport. In a few minutes, out our windows, we saw two bodies carried down the rear steps: horizontally. They were loaded into a police van, and that in effect ended it, except for the wait and the inevitable men-standing-around-talking. An amusing touch: one police van was all that was needed. But up drove a second; then a third; and they huddled together, as if they had to stand around talking like their men.
This episode is as good a place as any to suggest the antipodes of communicating and memorializing this trip: the crucial element in arousing the police and the passengers was a camera; yet the camera: without extensive staging: would not convey the quiet, but lasting, shock that the event had on all of us. For that we need context: words. The challenge for me with this set of notes is not exactly to "compete" with what became ubiquitous photography of our experiences, but to offer a dimension that, perhaps, pictures cannot fully convey: context, interiority, and interaction.
It was a baby-screaming flight arriving, as I said, about two hours late. At the Bamako airport I was struck at how dark it was. There were a few lights around the terminal, but the runways were largely dark. The terminal itself was a simple block structure. Inside we trudged forward in two rough lines to passport control. Jack first saw a sign with our names on it: a welcome sight. The man holding it, Nahun, was a porter sent by Joie Gray to shepherd us through customs. Joie and her husband John were our hosts and guides for our stay. We collected our baggage and loaded part of it onto a cart, Nahun helping. Alice and I were the first through; I went with him wheeling the cart outside. People, mostly men, were hanging about, looking for the odd job and tip from tourists. We pushed through the crowd, near the parking lot. I met Mary Nell, Joie's colleague, a young missionary from Lexington, KY, Nahun left me with the cart and went back inside to get the rest of our party and the luggage. It was a pleasant, warm night, and my first impression was that the crowd: compared to what I remembered of Lagos twenty years ago: was peaceable, unthreatening. I chatted with a young man who wanted to speak English rather than French. Later, after Nahun had come back and we emptied the cart so he could take it back inside for the rest of the luggage, the young man came back with a fistful of American change, saying he had $4 and could I ...? He wanted paper money. Mary Nell said, "Count it," but I gave him (deliberately) a fiver, feeling generous. Then a man on crutches with a missing foot begged for change, and when we loaded the bags into John's truck several of the hangers-on, unbidden, helped. I gave one 50 cents of my new change: and he came back to me saying that wasn't enough, and I got irked and refused to give more. My come-uppance, maybe, for an uncalled-for generosity.
We piled into the truck and drove off. The hotel was white block stone on the floor, cream walls, very spare. A man in a blue robe warmly welcomed us. Our room: white stone, extremely spare. A bed, one bag stand, a board across an ell for a desk, with one straight chair, walls completely bare except for a TV on a shelf over our heads and a tiny, tiny picture maybe 6 inches square ... of a scene of a road and trees that looked European. The bed was gloriously hard, with a brilliant multi-colored wool blanket, the first of the many wonderful fabrics we would see everywhere.
In the morning, in the corridor going downstairs, I noticed three Malian prints on the wall: simple, beautiful, very graceful drawings. A great contrast to the European picture in the room. I discovered later they came from Segou, and indeed later bought some very similar prints.
After breakfast Joie and Mary Nell picked us up in the truck and we drove to the main market. Fabrics, jewelry, masks ... tremendous concentration of people and things of an open-air market. I won't attempt to describe it in detail: photographs will give a much better sense of individual people and items, although I'm not sure even a camcorder can capture the atmosphere, the noise, movement, kaleidoscopic effect one feels being in the middle of the turmoil, the flow... I bought two masks, with Joie bargaining the price down from CFA27,000 to CFA15,000. Mostly we just looked. And were besieged by sellers and beggars. As the FBI guy said in the Bond movie, "Great disguise, James ... a white face in Harlem." We could hardly have stood out more starkly if we'd been starkers. I don't so much mind walking away from the hawkers, but the child begging with an upturned grimy hand, an old blind woman's hand on his skinny shoulder ... the silent plea with the dark brown eyes that I can't meet.... That's much harder. But then there are the others, dozens, hundreds ... bowls, palms, all turned out.
Scenes: A young woman in a yellow robe with a black pattern; on her head a blue plastic bowl, smaller than backyard swimming pool stateside, heaped with carrots sticking up every which way, like the unruliest of hair, brilliant orange.
The one-donkey two-wheeled (not four) cart: a pair of auto wheels on an axle with a V-frame supporting a flat wood platform, sometimes covered with tin, usually without sides, and a pair of poles forward to harness the donkey or, rarely, a pony. And a dog trotting underneath, at the rear, its muzzle over the axle; not missing a step.
Joie says people go out on the Niger River: one of the great rivers of the world, one of the early cradles of mankind, site of some of the great past civilizations: go out in boats, dive to the bottom and bring up pans of sand for use in construction; load the boat, and when it is just short of sinking paddle it back to shore, and unload it by hand: how marginal a value can you get from human labor?
On the walls surrounding the cultural center run by an American woman, which also house the US Embassy commissary: there is no razor wire. Not even barbed wire.
We went to dinner at "Le Tombouktou," a "hotel/restaurant/conference center." It was a distance out of town, in a kind of suburb, but very "rural," to say the least. We drove on a main (i.e., paved) road: gudron in Bambara, a word that in time was to have a great deal of resonance. We went a few miles, hunting for a left turn, which we eventually found with some difficulty. This road was paved for a bit, but soon we were on a dirt road, very bumpy and full of potholes and cracks. Another turn, a few twists, and we arrived. On the horizon we saw the lights of Bamako, the Niger a black swath between us and them. We were shown into a room (after we took our shoes off) filled with mats and pillows on the floor and rugs and hangings on the walls. Obviously known to the staff, Joie discussed what we would have. First, a taste of a very strong ginger drink, which both Alice and I liked, though it wasn't to everybody's taste. Then the ginger drink mixed with a dark red fruit drink. Dinner was two pots of beef stew with heavy gravy and a round bread that was a cross between a dumpling and a roll. We were told, there is a ladle for the stew, tongs for the bread. Ensued a discussion about the etiquette of the right hand: eat only with the right, never the left, even hand your passport to the gentleman-policeman who has stopped your vehicle ... with the right, so as not to dis him.
After dinner Joie suggested we go around the room, each telling his story. Joie started: born in India of missionary parents, grew up almost entirely outside the US, was schooled at home for some years, went to high school at Woodstock; college in the US was a huge shock. She knew early on she wanted to go back overseas; she and John have spent the last 25 years in Burkina Faso and Mali, roughly evenly split. Alice spoke next. Woodstock was a profound experience for her (age 7 to 11), followed by the shock of middle school in US, further living overseas in The Philippines, Malaysia and Japan, interspersed with sojourns back at "home," which didn't much feel like home. My story was different: a completely American upbringing into early college, followed by a profound junior-year abroad experience, in which I learned "two and a half" languages fluently and felt a kind of deep affinity for other cultures. Jack followed: his father became a missionary in China right out of college, 1931-37, found himself "on both sides of the Japanese lines," then went back to China 1947-51, first in nationalist China, then about a year later under the Communists. Jack recollected as a 9-year-old riding his bike on th levees through the rice fields...
Jack was as far as we got that evening. These life-stories, especially of the "M-Ks," missionary kids, touch on a powerful common force: like a tidal undertow beneath the surface of the sea -- in these "Woodstock lives," that is, the experience of growing up outside their home country, of always looking at what the adults called "home" from afar, a place that often seemed strange and alien when occasionally visited.
After dinner, to bring in the New Year, we went back to our hotel, where Joie had arranged for us to have the roof to ourselves. On only the third floor, we nevertheless overlooked the entire city. At midnight fireworks went up all over, a "democratic" display, uncoordinated, sporadic and sustained. We commented that it was so different from the worldwide televised New Year's celebration of 2000. The charming thing about this celebration was: unlike, say, the dropping of the ball in Times Square: its uncentralized nature. Unprogrammed, undirected, spontaneous. And it was a New Year's celebration this little group won't soon forget.
This morning we're visiting Joie and John's home. No razor or barbed wire on the walls, though they do have a day guard and a night guard. A honk, and the former opens the gate. A simple stone/tile/plaster house, one story. Big picture of charging elephants on one wall, on another a single elephant with ears extended. Wood carvings of animals on a couch-side table: kneelling camel, with a single hump, an African lion, a calf, a couple of sheep. But the personal touch that to this day amuses me was the "welcome" mat these gentle and kind people had lying in front of the kitchen door: NOT YOU AGAIN.
We went to a market for cloth. It was a large area under corrugated tin roofs. We walked in on a little path between stalls. The structure was supported by poles, arm-thick verticals, one- or two-finger-thick cross-pieces, all tied together with rope, string or strips of cloth. The tin roofs largely kept the sun out, except for occasional coin-size spots. John estimated there might be 80 stalls; it seemed like endless competition among the vendors. Each stall was hung to the roof with fabric: quite an inventory for each: and we were virtually the only whites there. The array and choice was remarkable. We (mainly the ladies) sampled at several stands: look ... examine ... move on, with a promise to come back ... look ... examine ... ask a price... We slowly worked our way deeper and deeper into the market, up a mild hill, on a very rough, rocky path where you could very easily stumble if you didn't watch your step. Individuals bought here and there; heading back down the hill, Alice spent considerable time negotiating with, and buying from, a woman whose face resembled Bernice's: Bernice, the housekeeper in our home when I was a child. Bernice, a "second mother" to me, a woman who, in those pre-grade school years I probably spent more time with than with my mother. A woman with high cheek bones, "finely chiseled" features, calm eyes, light chocolate skin. The vendor was younger than I consciously remembered Bernice (probably an image from my teens), perhaps about the age Bernice was when I was four or five. As Alice negotiated I sat on a bench and watched her movements. At one moment her gray-and-white robe fell off one shoulder, and I had a vivid image of stroking her back with a hand that was half adult, half child.
We drove out of Bamako and visited two villages, Mountougoula (note: most of the names are transcribed using French orthography) and Fulani. Joie started us off with little phrase sheets, beginning with "Good morning," "I ni sogoma" in Bambara. And the reply: a woman always says, "Nse," a man "Mba," either followed by "i ni sogoma" in return. Joie drilled us: How are you? "I ka kene?" How is your family? Your neighbors? The people of Bamako? The people where you came from? The people of America?
The answers to all of these was, "Toro tay." It means roughly, "O.K., nothing bad." No matter what they ask you, the answer is, "Toro tay." What Joie didn't tell us was that they might ask us all those questions, and then some. Just keep saying, "Toro tay." And if that isn't the answer to the question (like, where are you from? or, what is your name?), "they'll know," she said, "you're trying."
Which is what often happened, amid much laughter as we struggled to grasp the question and remember the (simple) answer.
All of us were given Malian names, after and by the people we met. The first of these took place in Mountougoula. I'm getting a little ahead of myself, but here is the full set of double names:
Joie: Fanta Coulibaly
At Mountougoula we first saw a young woman and her baby. Then Karim Sacko, a tall slender man in his thirties, a long-time friend of the Grays, very smart (Joie kept telling us afterwards), friendly, outgoing. Jack Day was the first to get his local name: Samba Sacko. Several other men materialized, plus children. We chatted for a while: I say we, in Bambara it was of course Joie, John and Mary Nell: then piled back in the trucks and drove to nearby Fulani. At first we saw almost nobody, then a young woman in a round cooking house spoke with us. It appeared that someone had recently died and many in the village had gone to attend a service. A man came and showed us around. We took pictures of the young woman, with big smiles, standing beside a head-high kind of mortar and pestle: we were beginning to learn how much these people pounded (instead of grinding) their grains and fibers. We also walked through a house Joie and John had planned for themselves as a residence in the village, but never used. More intriguing, we saw a workshop that John had set up for the villagers. The tools: for example, a lathe, saw, jigsaw: were peddle-driven, in a way like old sewing machines but with bicycle parts: bicycle pedals, chains, sprockets. It was very ingenious. The villagers made souvenirs and trinkets to sell.
Next to Fulani was an open-air market which we wandered through. Cabbages, hot peppers, tobacco, bicycle parts... Probably a hundred items or more on sale, and this was just a local market.
Leaving, we met the previous village head, half-blind, old, "confused" as Joie put it. But he claimed to be a "veteran," so he and Jack, who served as a chaplain in Vietnam, posed together as anciens combatants (along with 8 to 10 kids crowding in beside them to get in the picture). Jack asked him what war he had served in; the answer apparently was, "many."
A third stop this day, after another bouncy trek of a couple of miles in the trucks, was in a single-family courtyard, where I got my local name from the man of the family. He and I posed together, holding hands in friendship. We were all introduced to his old mother, who was squatting on the ground shelling shea nuts. In a bit we: our group, plus Brema Traore: gathered under a shelter called a gwa, a thatched roof on poles, with open sides and two benches at a 90 degree angle, and were served food by his wife, with several kids hanging around on the outside. Brema Traore, who sat on a small stool, took the lid off a large bowl of millet couscous and ladled sauce on it from a second bowl. He washed his hands by dipping them in a small green bucket, which was passed around to all of us in turn. Then we reached into the common bowl (right hand only!) and ate with our fingers. It was the first meal this group had eaten completely in local style: no plates, no utensils, no individual serving: everything out of the common dish. As a first time, it felt messy, the heavy sauce felt greasy on the fingers (and if you weren't careful, you could burn your fingers at the center!) We each had a few bites, then rinsed our hands in the green bucket again, without soap.
It was not possible, Joie said quietly, for us not to eat with him, since it was lunch time and the food had been prepared in anticipation of our visit. (Not that we weren't hungry.) Worse: Joie needed to get back to Bamako to have a crown replaced, but in addition to staying for lunch, we couldn't leave without a visit with two men of neighboring family "villas." Along with Brema Traore, all three were Christian believers in the village and strong supporters of the Grays' missionary work. Compromise: instead of going to visit the other two, a child was sent to bring them to us. These villagers, with their simple and largely unvarying daily rhythms, apparently really didn't get the idea of promptness, e.g. of replacing a crown at exactly 3 p.m., of fixed appointments, rushing to get there...
The two men arrived, introduced as Beney Doumbia and Seriba Diarra. There followed a moment that became very moving. Beney and Seriba offered Christian prayers (not particularly short), and Jack said one in return. None was translated in full, but the gists, as communicated by Joie in low asides, were as follows. Beney expressed good will and friendship, and the hope that though we might not see each other for a long time (!), we might continually be in each other's thoughts. Seriba apparently reiterated some of these thoughts, then offered a prayer for world peace. May, he said, the kings and rulers hear, and not engage in war and fighting; we are poor, and in need of many things, but the Lord is bountiful. After Jack's prayer, Brema continued the wish for world peace, and ended with a metaphor: Satan covers us in darkness like a blanket, and we need to seek the light; but we don't always do it.
Sitting under the gwa, our eyes wandering outside where the sun beat down, we listened to their voices against a backdrop of near-complete silence, of the utter absence of motors, the engines of modern life, except for a lone plane passing far overhead, reminiscent of radio and TV where our government leaders were actively, vociferously threatening: even promising: war. The contrast between the scene in front of us and memories of the violence just behind us was indescribably stark.
Warm goodbyes, then an excruciatingly bumpy ride back across hard-rutted roads until we came to the blacktop. We went to a restaurant that served pizza all around (for Fran, a creme caramel) as mid-afternoon snack, while Joie went next door to the dentist.
As I reflected on the day, I found it hard to capture, in these physical descriptions, the emotion of meeting these villagers, of capturing their warmth, the shy smiles of the young mothers, the laughter of the children. With my big-city background, I unconsciously expected at least occasional looks of suspicion, even hostility. But we encountered none. Admittedly, these are people Joie and her team have worked with: and helped: for years. Still, the absence of any hostility was like the absence of razor wire on villa walls. On the contrary, it was a moving experience to reach through a few carefully mimicked phrases in a foreign language, through many smiles and laughs, shaking many rough black hands: through to a simple l evel of good feeling and good will. And I walked away with a symbol, perhaps superficial yet evidently not empty to our hosts and certainly not to me, of a degree of reaching through: I had a new name.
We left Bamako, in two trucks instead of the 9-person van we'd been using around Bamako, John driving one, Mary Nell the other, and all our suitcases, sleeping bags and other paraphernalia in back. Our ultimate destination was Segou, the second city of Mali, but stops were planned along the way. With us we also took an office colleague, Bocoum, introduced as the "dentist's assistant." The ride to the first village stop took about 3 hours. Alice, Phil and I, along with Bocoum, were in Mary Nell's truck. During the trip Mary Nell and Bocoum carried on a considerable conversation in Bambara, amid much laughter. With Mary Nell, this was something I had noticed in Bamako and the villages: she chatted easily and fluently with all the young men we met. Bocoum, in his early 40s, was older than many of the youngsters she talked with in the markets or on the street, but the fluent Bambara and moderately exuberant spirits were a constant. Mary Nell was a pale blonde from Lexington, Kentucky, 27 years old, with an advanced degree in theology with an emphasis on missions. She arrived in Mali 18 months earlier and, as I did when I was a student in Sweden, in less than a year became fluent in the local language. It's as if she blossomed in Bambara: she laughs more, banters, jokes, is more outgoing than in English: she is full of a free, easy confidence. I could so easily identify with and appreciate the difference: she has found: or created: a kind of new persona for herself. Over pizza Jack asked her a question. "How many marriage proposals do you get?" When our laughter died down, she said, "Serious or joking?" Then answered her own question: "Serious, two or three. Joking, four or five a week." A new persona, a different relationship with men, a far cry from what the theology student from Lexington, KY, experienced at home.
The first village was Baroueli. We pulled up, went into a largish enclosed compound, and soon were ushered into one of the buildings. Wire chairs were produced, several men appeared, including one in a green pants suit who was the father of this family. They were renting, new to the neighborhood, he having been promoted from school principal to the administration in the school system, and the Grays were eager to catch up with their news. Introductions all around: in our local names, with their eyes lighting up in recognition at each one. A bowl of food was brough by women and girls, who however did not sit with us. Then a table. A pail of water went around for us to wash a hands. A similar meal: millet couscous and a sacuce with meat poured over it; also a pasta dish. Right hands again (hot! hot!: and one man waved a fan over the dish to cool the food), scooping up the food in our fingers. We tyros (or tenderfeet) couldn't help dropping grains on the floor. I began to notice how the Malians did it: they made a ball in the palm and bit off maybe half the ball, then ate the other half. The ball seemed the way to keep from dropping bits, getting grains between your fingers, or on the backs...
After lunch, the back of one truck having been emptied of luggage, a couple of Malians and Bocoum got in the back of the truck while the leader came in front with us. We made a brief stop to greet le prefet; sitting in a rough circle on a terrace in front of the school, when he was called away to the telephone. Then there was some talk of spending the night: this seemed to be a common invitation. Oh, since you're here, you're so welcome, you'll spend the night... According to Joie, this expectation was voiced frequently by Malian villagers. And while I had some difficulty grasping the fact that it was not purely pro forma, evidently they really would like: even half-expected: that we would accept. More than once, Joie had to do some deep explaining that, no, we couldn't stay, that we were expected further on.... Or however she phrased it.
It happened as we reloaded into the trucks. Bacoum and I were idly chatting in French. He asked me if it was cold back home, yes, I said, there's snow on the ground. He said, I experienced snow in Gorki ... you lived in Gorki?... How long?... And we discovered, to our mutual astonishment, that the other spoke Russian. He had lived in Gorki 7 years, I in Leningrad 7 months. From then on we spoke mostly Russian with each other. It seemed miraculous to each of us to find a living person from that past part of our lives, a part so distant from here. It never occurred to me I would find a fellow-Russian student in French West Africa (though in the USSR I saw many black African students: the Soviets went out of their way to offer them scholarships during the Cold War). And Bocoum, I'm sure, never expected the Southern Baptist Missionaries to produce a former Russian graduate student.
We started up, headed for the river. First we made a stop in Sougoula, a tiny village where we were shown a school. Several more local men appeared, our man in the green suit was still with us, and, Joie told us, a good friend and recently promoted to a senior administrative position in the school system, having been a principal for many years. We walked into a simple schoolroom: blackboard built into one wall, very rough wood school benches built very differently from ours. Instead of rows, each pair of these benches had a common pair of boards between them that served as the desk, so that the kids, 2-3 on each bench, faced each other over the desk. Or, better, shared the common desk between them. We were told that there were 23 kids in the class, but that some parents had trouble raising the tuition. A lively conversation in Bambara ensued, with almost no translation, Joey and Bocoum on one side, the local men on the other. Somewhat amusingly, we, the visitors, for whom ostensibly the visit was arranged, were utterly superfluous: it was a serious discussion about getting supplies and support; how to help parents pay the school fee. Bocoum, who worked for Plan International, an NGO dedicated to the development of children, told them essentially: when the people from Plan International (from whom the village was requesting aid) come, don't tell them your troubles, tell them your successes and progress. Work out your troubles yourselves.
We drove the river, at least an hour further, past huge baobab trees, through a mangrove woods (woods felt kind of magical, a close, richer feeling, compared to the arid open scrub-and-savannah land that dominated the central Malian plains), along a track that at two points was just barely wide enough for the truck, sharp branches etching deep scratches in Mary Nell's doors.
The roads... let me tell you a little about the roads. Right from the airport Monday night the drive was hard and bumpy, on unpaved streets with large dips and bumps. Out here, some of the roads were not much more than tracks, and the ride often involved grabbing a seat back to hang on. And while I'm at it, a few words about the trucks. We had two 4-wheel drive trucks, John's white, Mary Nell's green, that seated 5 (3 in back, a bit snugly), and bays in back for our luggage. We were 8, 9 or 10, depending on exactly who was with us (e.g., Bocoum drove with us to Segou), whether we had a guide or not, and so on. Those of us riding tended to alternate day by day between the trucks (except Joie, who stayed in John's), and we traded off the coveted front seat (better view, more room if were 5).
By the time we got to the river it was 3:30 or more, and time was becoming a serious factor. Dark fell about 5:30 or latest 6 pm, and we simply could not do these back roads in the dark. The plan was for us to cross the river in a pirogue and visit a Bozo fishing village on the other side. In the end we didn't cross the river. A man oared across in a pirogue (a narrow wooden canoe-like boat); we took pictures; Phil ventured down the bank to the river's edge and got himself a short ride in the pirogue. More pictures, and we headed back. At the school a couple of the guys in back got out. Back in Baroueli, we abruptly stopped and the principal-turned-administrator in the green suit introduced us: first Joie and John, then "their visitors": to several old men in the village. It turned out that Joie and John had long been wanting to meet these elders, and that this meeting could turn out to be a real benefit to them.
One last stop, greetings all around, introductions by local names. This was the local doctor, trained at the medical school in Bamako. Joie and Bocoum were trying to sell him on their dental clinic. He: since much of this conversation was in French, I could follow it: was more interested in a vision clinic, and especially he wanted supplies. Help would be great ... if you can bring me anything ... what I need: antiseptics, bandages, common medicines, "consumables." They said they didn't have those things, they reiterated their interest in bringing the dental clinic to his village, and in the end he agreed that that, too, was needed.
Later Joie described the dental program. Every 4 months for a year, for two successive weekends, the dentist and Bocoum as assistant would spend two days in the village. They treated everybody immediately: opened the mouth, applied a quick-acting anesthetic, and mostly pulled teeth. Recently: in two days, 164 mouths, 232 teeth. (Think about that: if, by the time they get set up, do the explanations and calming of fears, it's two 8-hour days of actual dentistry, that's just over 10 mouths an hour, or one every 6 minutes on average.) They don't have time for more prophylactic or long-lasting care. Apart from the fact that it takes much longer to do that than pull teeth, the villagers don't believe in "covering" (i.e., filling) teeth; they believe it traps the sickness in, Joie says. They find people, including kids, with infections that have gone down into their jaw bones and in the worst cases begin leaking out through the skin. The dentist is Joie's personal dentist ("I support him," she says, because she has to see him so often). On one of her visits to him several years ago he said he would like to do something as a volunteer to help the poor; hence this program got started. They do two villages a year, then move on to new villages the next year.
In Segou Joie had engaged a guide who met with us last night at dinner to finalize plans for today. Last night in jeans and a Western shirt, this morning he showed up in a flowing white robe and carrying an intricately carved walking stick. Long on bonhomie, sometimes a bit sketchy on specific information, he was full of enthusiasm. He took us first to a large building where women were weaving rugs. The room was mostly empty; it appeared the women were going to a baby-naming ceremony, an important event in the community.
So we soon moved on to a Bogolon artist's studio. The artist and 6 fellow students had decided, when they finished art school, to set up workshops in the traditional fashion. In his he and his colleagues prepare mud cloth in the traditional earth tones and the traditional blue of indigo. He spent the morning showing us the entire process from preparing dies, dying the fabrics and transposing his designs to prepare the finished tapestries/pieces of cloth. We even did some designs ourselves on scraps of cloth. It was a wonderful experience. Then he showed us pictures of some of his work, that made us all breathless. We were lucky: even privileged: to get such an introduction and insight into his work.
The studio had probably a dozen people working, and the demonstration was very thorough. After it we were shown books of photos of the artist's work, beautiful pieces, with great variety and: interestingly, since Picasso, Gauguin and others were strongly influenced by African and other "primitive" art: showing in some works influences of European cubism. I wandered off and chatted with a French girl who was re-painting a design on a piece of cloth. She was, she said, on un projet for two years, not unlike your Peace Corp. A young Malian near by turned out to be the English-speaking interpreter (the artist spoke French). He was studying English at the university in Bamako, and in fact was leaving the next day. He asked, a bit touchily, why I didn't learn Bambara; I said I was trying, but I'd only been in the country a few days.
We returned to the weaving hall. The women still hadn't left for the baby-naming, but more of them were on hand and working. We went into a side building where 3 or 4 young women were sitting on the floor carding (i.e., cleaning and fluffing) cotton and spinning it into thread. Phil and Mary Nell, with digital cameras, took their pictures and then showed them their own photos in the viewfinder. Exclamations, smiles, laughs: they were entranced. I wondered if they had never seen themselves in pictures before, or more likely, had never seen photos immediately after they were taken, and in the camera itself. Back in the large weaving room, a similar scene was enacted, taking digital photos and showing them to the subjects. It certainly was a great way to reduce or eliminate resistance to being photographed. As we were leaving there was a scene of 7 or 8 or 9 women climbing onto a one-donkey two-wheeled cart to go to the baby-naming. They wore bright dresses and bead scarves for the celebration. With a lot of laughter they wanted Bambara-speaking Mary Nell to join them for the photos. (Weeks later, as I edit this, I can still see, and hear, the squeals of laughter.)
Afterwards we drove through the old French colonial district. Spacious villas overlooking the river, instantly bringing to mind the colonial elite, in my mind's eye with their white suits and white bush hats : probably too English and all wrong, but in any event long gone. Now all are government buildings, and rather run down at that.
After lunch our white-robed, broad-gestured guide led us down to the river and we climbed into a pirogue. The same kind of long, wooden, canoe-like boat we'd seen on the river the day before. This one was perhaps 30 feet long, 4 feet wide at its widest. We sat on wooden seats with a matted roof over our heads to protect us from the sun. We pushed back from the shore and in the rear the boatman yanked on the starter of a genuine 12th century outboard motor, and off we went across and up the river. An hour later we bumped our prow against the shore and walked a few hundred yards to a village where, we knew, they made pottery. It was Saturday, a day they fire the pots preparatory to taking them to market.
But not in your brick-lined, gas-fired kiln. Instead, stack the pots in an oval, 50 to 60 feet around the base, some 5 feet high, lay over a fretwork of branches and twigs, and cover the whole thing with hay. Light a match: "fire pots." There were 3 piles, lit one after another, the first right after we got there. Needless to say, they burned fiercely, flames leaping 20 feet in the air. It was dramatic and very exciting. Cameras flickered as furiously as the flames, while the intense heat kept everybody at a goodly distance.
When the fires banked we toured the village and were invited to sit beside the chief, an old man with a scruffy white beard who was gently tapping on a block of wood with an adze. He was making an adze handle; several finished handles lay beside him. As did a transistor radio with an aerial leading up into the tree over his head. We paid the chief our respects; our guide paid him CFA400. The chief invited us to spend the night. This was another instance where I wondered exactly what that meant: did he really mean for us to stay? Or was he sophisticated enough to know that we were highly unlikely to accept, that thus the invitation was purely a gesture? In any event, Joie gently explained that we were not prepared to stay ... but maybe next time.
As we walked out of the village, women were already pulling pots out of the embers, using long poles each with an iron hook on the end. They dipped the pots in water with juice from crushed shea nuts added , which hardened them and gave them a sheen. The water hissed like snakes.
We motored in our pirogue back to the hotel with only one small adventure. The engine tangled with a fish net and conked out. It was not far from dark and were over half an hour away from home. The boat had no lights, and the river had no buoys or other markers. And was full of sand bars, low islands and other half-seen obstacles. Does anybody have a knife? Jack produced a small Swiss army knife. The boatman cut away threads. And cut away threads, while we floated lazily, twisting slowly in the mild current, and night came closer. The photographers took magnificent pictures of the sunset, and he cut away threads. Finally he freed the motor and we slipped into our landing spot on the beach before it was entirely dark.
Sunday. Last night Norm Mundhenk joined the group, flying in from Dakar. Friends of Joie met him at the Bamako airport and rushed him to the bus station, just barely in time to catch the evening bus for Segou. We drove from Segou to Djenné, where Bocoum lives, and we stayed at his home. The evening we spent here is a flat-out privilege, as indeed are so many of the visits we are making to the homes of Malians. His mother and a sister, her child and another child live here, 4 people in all (excluding Bocoum himself, who lives and works in Bamako, although it must be he who owns, or at least supports, it). His nephew also happened to be in town this evening.
We arrived in mid-afternoon and were given a tour of the house. It is large. Built of mudbrick, floor, walls, ceiling. You come through the front door, through a foyer, and into a the main courtyard, which is easily 25 feet by 25, and is open to the sky. Several rooms off it, often with the pattern of a door into one room and at right angles an opening, no door, into another, which has no direct access to the courtyard except maybe a window. These rooms are 10 feet by 8, or 8 by 8. There is a deep-water well (more than 50 meters, which is significant, because that is supposed to give water safe to drink) in one corner of the courtyard. First Bocoum took us outside, around back, through a metal door and into another central courtyard with similar rooms off it. It is part of his property but not connected from the inside. We went up rather narrow stone steps with different-sized risers (we so assume that steps will be uniform!) and walked around the second-floor roof, L-shaped, with a 3-foot wall and also rooms off it. He offered us to stay in this part if we wished, but we ended up all staying in what I'll call the main part of the house, where his family lived. There we also toured a 3-sided roof around the courtyard. The left bar of a square-bottomed U had a 6-foot wall abutting the house we'd just seen; the bottom bar ran along the street between the house and the city hospital; the right bar (over the front door/foyer) gave onto a room with a side room on both sides. All of these rooms were available to us. A consensus emerged that "the girls" would sleep upstairs, "the boys" downstairs.
Song of the Open Road
We did a lot of driving, something like 2,100 kilometers on the entire trip. Almost every day we drove at least a couple of hours, often three or four. Few roads in Mali are paved, and the gudron, or paved road, has a music all its own.
An ancient "tricolor" car: flaky white, green left rear fender, spots of red showing through like embers. On top a wire basket hold-all, with bamboo-like boxes. At a checkpoint the driver gets back in, closing his door with a tap from the outside.
Near town: bicycles, mopeds, motor scooters, people walking, one- and two-donkey carts pulling hay, wood, people.
A huge modern truck, gleaming blue, filling its half of the road almost to overflowing..
Dry, dusty, flat, tawny landscape, with many small trees and brush. Hamlets, off the road at varying distances, built of mud brick, thatch, sticks holding up a gwa.
A modern jeep, gleaming. One-donkey cart, its flatbed loaded with sacks of grain. Two one-donkey carts carrying wood. The wood is gnarly, crooked, doesn't lie flat. It is tied in airy bundles; on the carts, the bundles are piled ten feet high on the platform. On the road's shoulder, they lean out and it seems a miracle they don't tip over.
Coming into, and going out, of each village, in series: 1, 2, 3, 4 ... 4, 3, 2, 1: "jumps," i.e. speed bumps or "sleeping policemen." They are almost invisible as you approach at 60 mph. For the unwary driver, teeth-jarring for self and passengers. But they save on speed-limit signs, and work better.
Red van with luggage and a motor scooter on top.
Large truck with blue front, slat sides, 5 guys crammed in the cab and a dozen more in back, on top of wood, supplies, sacks.
Donkeys grazing at the road's edge.
Man on a motor scooter, putt-putt, in a white robe, bright blue turban.
The road is empty for miles. An oncoming car maybe every 5 minutes on average.
2 one-donkey carts, piled 10 feet high with hay.
Small white Peugeot truck with a flatbed and a large box on it, going slowly in front of us around a curve, waving us to pass.
Express intercity bus, huge pile of belongings on roof.
Local bus, "Bittar Trans," green and white, a van designed for 10p with 4 rows of seats 4 across, jammed with people, baggage on top.
Bicycle with 2 large sacks strapped on behind the seat.
3 women riding on a one-donkey, with bright multicolored robes and headgear.
Another bicycle with 2 people, also with sacks.
Bundles of firewood, sacks of charcoal, beside the road, for sale.
Van, 2/3 yellow, 1/3 green, piled with furniture, bicycle on top.
One-donkey cart, with a second donkey trotting along beside, in training.
Woman walking, with rolled-up rug on her head; another with firewood; another with a tub carrying vegetables.
Man sitting roadside, on haunches.
Heavy blue truck stacked high with cotton, bulging like a foothill, covered by a yellow canvas.
Modern tractor (only one I ever saw in Mali), squat and muscular, its rear-wheel fenders like shoulder pads, pulling a shiny new tan wagon.
Man on a moto carrying: count 'em: 7 automobile tires, 2 on each handle bar, 2 behind the seat, one around his neck.
White van with a blue stripe, 5 goats tied down on the roof. Rear leg of one goat sticks out behind the driver.
The bathroom was on the roof (i.e., the second floor), in the corner between the left bar of the U and the bottom bar. No door, a cloth hanging. Maybe 6 feet square, no window, the floor sloping to one outside corner where water drains. In the other outside corner an open hole in a slightly raised platform. The waste falls down a chute built in such a way as to reduce smells and contamination. Water is brought up by bucket for washing.
We went out for a walking tour of the city. Our guide spoke slow, clear, careful French. He said 13,000 people live in Djenné, which is now a Cultural Heritage site, so everything must now be built and repaired with mud brick. Which has to be restored every year due to the rains. Mostly narrow streets: we walked between ocher walls. One thing new is sewers down the middle of the streets. This is for waste washing water, not toilet waste. But the sewers are open, and there isn't enough flow to keep them clean. The guide said that a UN agency helped with money to build them, but not enough money to cover them over. There is, to me, a medieval feel, like the "old towns" of Europe capitals from the 12th century or earlier, except that they are in stone; in the old days, however, even toilet waste went down their open sewers.
The guide explained the mosque, its history, its hierarchy of imams and 2 or 3 subordinate levels. We passed schools; there are 7 what are called "universities," except that they start at under age 7 and the students can go into their twenties or longer (a very few, who become teachers or functionaries in the mosque). 6 of the 7 are Kuranic (or Koranic), one secular (French). The kids in the former we saw on the street, learning Kuranic verses by heart orally and how to write them in Arabic. Each kid had a slate; when a verse is memorized and written without error, the slate is washed, dried in the sun and ready for re-use. But the kids are not even learning contemporary Arabic, which might be useful in the world, much less anything related to the modern world. When I asked him later, Bocoum said he went to both kinds of school, Kuranic in the morning, "white" (secular) in the afternoon. Iasked him what percentage of kids went to each type; he seemed weak on statistics, saying "a lot" or "most" did both.
At one building the guide described construction in mud brick, showing us two kinds of brick. The older method, from the founding of the town in the 1200s, made oval or cylindrical bricks, using sheanut butter (as it's called) as mortar. The newer method, introduced by the French approximately in the 1860s, created rectangular bricks. The former were considerably stronger, but were hand-made, whereas the latter could be made much faster with a wood frame. At this particular site we saw cylindrical bricks probably a couple of centuries old, while the rectangular bricks, some already crumbling, had to replaced every few years.
This comparison signified for me a possibly larger conclusion, that instead of getting better, life in Djenné was actually getting worse. Rectangular bricks can be made faster but deteriorate faster, requiring constant refurbishing: running, as it were, just to stay in the same place. The drains down the center of the streets represented "improvement," but they didn't drain; they left stagnant puddles and trash in them: they are, in a word, squalid. I asked John Gray if he thought life in Djenné was better, worse or about the same as in the past. He didn't want to give a definitive answer, but he noted that the population is much greater now than it used to be. Though an agricultural economy, Djenné now seems to be too large even to feed itself.
As we left the building site a woman in gray came out of a mud house, begging. John gave her a coin, CFA100 or CFA200. She called repeatedly after him, thanking him.
After the tour of the city we returned foot-sore and tired. Wire-mesh chairs were set in a rough semi-circle. A TV in one corner with excellent reception except for a few momentary interruptions showed a soccer game between Egypt and Côte d'Ivoire. We sat, relaxed, went to the bathroom, washed up.... Alice, who had better things to do than watch soccer on TV, walked to the right of the front foyer and sat with Bocoum's mother in an anteroom to her private room. The old lady sat on a mat on the floor spinning cotton: spinning rapidly. Alice tried it; later, as she put it, "I had no thumbs." Very frustrating, but, amid much laughter, the women consoled her: Bocoum's mother said she had been doing this since she was ten.
After a while dinner appeared, two large communal bowls of to (pronounced "toe"), a millet spongy porridge, and smaller bowls of a rich gravy and chunks of meat. The washing bucket went around, and half of us grouped around each bowl, eating with our fingers. A second course arrived, small noodles and meet. Bocoum alone of the family ate with us.
After dinner Malian tea was to be served, but Bocoum excused himself to take Joie into town to make a phone call (to confirm our arrangements for Timbuktu), which took longer than expected because the lines went down. Nothing much happened for a while. 7:30. 8. 8:30... we sat around, suitcases were moved to men's and women's, people did whatever. 9, 9:30. The game ended. Joie and Bocoum returned. Bocoum organized tea. Toward 10 we were all seated. Bocoum started a kind of story-telling, each of his guests describing their lives, "telling their stories." Joie and I translated. I won't record our group's stories here, but Bocoum told us quite a bit about himself.
Meanwhile, Bocoum's nephew, sitting beside Bocoum, making Malian tea (an intricate process) and discreetly passed out rounds of the tiny glasses with its strong ginger-sugar flavor. The tea seemed to complement the narration and reflection.
He was born in 1961 in a nearby village. His father was a catechist (his word; I'm not sure what it means). The family, of the Fulani people, moved to Djenné when he was small. He did all his schooling here, through the ninth grade, then went to the French lycée, where it took him 4 years to finish instead of 3 because he was suspended (when Joie asked if he deserved being suspended, he said, "Yes."). He went to university in Sevaré and also lost a year there. The students went on strike and refused to take the final exam. The strike was over jobs: previously, if you got your university degree, you were guaranteed a government job. That year the government added a competitive exam to qualify for a job, and the students protested. However, Bocoum finished among the top 3 in his class and was awarded a scholarship. He went to Gorki (the awardees apparently had no choice) and spent 7 years there, one learning Russian and re-taking basic subjects in Russian, then 6 years in an institute. He returned to Mali in 1990 and had trouble finding appropriate professional work. He worked for the government for a couple of years, set up his own NGO (non-governmental organization) to combat AIDS through education, and did that for another couple of years. In 1998 he joined Plan International, dedicated to the development of children, intending to stay 2 years, now there 4. In a year or two he intends to undertake further studies and try to get a better-paying job (he also got married two years ago). He began working with Joie on the dental clinic: the dentist, it turns out, is Bocoum's cousin.
Bocoum's nephew told us a bit about his life. There was some active discussion about AIDS, and after 11 pm we went to bed.
I lay awake, having difficulty sleeping. This home was probably one of the richest in Djenné, yet I was appalled at the absence of even basic amenities. No furniture: no tables, no chairs except the wire chairs half falling apart; no running water apart from the deep well with a pump; half the rooms with no electric light, others with just a single fluorescent bar above the door; floors unleveled; no glass (windows), just openings grates. Bocoum brought out mats and/or inch-or-two thick foam rubber sheets to sleep on. We put out our sleeping bags, on these on the floor, in one of the rooms off the courtyard with its side annex. Joie and Alice slept under the stars (Athe most enormous stars": Alice), all the more visible for little lighting, in the house or on the street. They talked "until Joie got warm and Alice couldn't stay awake."
Comment: ceremonies: tea, greeting, eating: whatever they are, we're hardly conscious of them in our own culture, but they are among the first things we notice in another. Tea is about the only food-related activity that the men do. It's basically simple: boil water over charcoal, put in the tea and a lot of sugar; but then it is poured back and forth many times, teapot to plastic cup or other container, back and forth, a high thin stream, slowly back and forth ... ceremonially ... and the process makes a foam. Finally it is poured into tiny glasses about big enough to hold 3 shots, filled about half way, and served. Like earlier this evening, it is delicately sipped during conversation. Then the process is repeated. The tea leaves are re-used, so that rounds 2 and 3 produce less bitter, and if anything sweeter, tea.
Greetings: a fascinating, intricate ritual for meeting people. Joie's language lessons gave us a glimpse, but as I watched the process it seemed even more intricate, and in some ways intimate:
Good morning. Good morning.
Then it can get turned around, the same or similar questions being asked and answered in the reverse direction. The exchanges can go 8,10, even 12 rounds, very cheerfully. It is of course highly ritualized, but it does establish a kind of rapport between two people, an interreaction; it also identifies each of us as part of a larger group (or groups), or community, and in that sense establishes a social context. It is a lot of fun to watch (and listen to); it is the path that Mary Nell uses superbly in bantering with the young men we run across, and it is so utterly different from our American (or Western) cryptic, almost impersonal, hi-how-are-ya, which hardly requires a response. I came in my mind to compare the Malian greeting to creating a cat's cradle between the hands of two people, versus a slap, or at most two, at a ping pong ball with a paddle.
The next morning it was market day at Djenné. I'm not partial to markets of any description, from malls down (or up). But we spent a fascinating hour wandering up and down (or down and up), threading our way through a maze of stalls. It was so lively: constant chatter among the different merchants; people seeing old friends and acquaintances and catching up; children of all ages, including infants strapped to their mothers' (or sisters') backs. So unlike our department stores and malls, where the salespeople are essentially isolated from each other except for coffee and lunch breaks: here there was a tremendous, continuous amount of socializing.. Some people had come from far away, far enough that they had come the previous evening, set up shop and spent the night on the square. Others must be regulars, in their spots every week. And the products: a great many agricultural products, of course, but also cheap manufactures for the household, toys, knickknacks, simple tools. The saddest: red and yellow pills. I asked Joie what they were. Tetracycline or other second-hand chemicals, of god-knows-what potency, expiration date, etc. But I stepped back mentally, and imagined this market: women selling vegetables, that man striding past in a long yellow robe: five hundred years ago. It is a mistake: as Phil put it later: that tourists often make, to think that what we see is "like it was in the past," for the contemporary is mixed in with the traditional, like vegetables and pills. Yet there is still a certain timeless air to such a market.
After lunch we drove out of Djenné: very, very slowly, over a very, very bumpy street: we suddenly stopped. Norm Mundhenk went into a building. He had tried, on his way to Mali, to get a yellow fever shot in Yangon. They told him they didn't have the serum, but they would be happy to stamp his health card. So now, having gotten the stamp (in order to get into the country), he thought it might be a good idea to get the real thing, the shot itself. What a concept.
We continued our direction northeast to the Sevaré/Mopti area, where the next morning we would catch a plane to Timbuktu. We stayed overnight at Mac's Retreat, a B&B run by, yes, Mac. An M. K., long-time resident in Mali, recently divorced, running an establishment high upscale for the area, targeted at the white tourist. Like, not only was the water safe to drink, but so was the ice. (Still, no hot water in the drip-shower.) And Mac ran a tight ship, not to say a rigid one. It was a major breach of etiquette to be late for dinner.
I find it hard to write poetry in this context. Partly it's a lack of time, of opportunity to go to an interior place. This activity is about going, doing, seeing: about visiting a physical and social world and gleaning some insight and feel for it: and these notes are reportage. Inner feelings are not absent, and interiority is inherent in the life we the outsiders are observing all around us. Yet it is hard for me to find appropriate means of expression for them. Maybe this suggests the marginality of contemporary poetry. Or my lack of fluency. In any case, this story is mainly about Mali and Malians, not mainly about us.
Timbuktu today, the famous Timbuktu. In legend a place of great wealth and wonder, yet also with a reputation throughout history: and even so described in some of the tour books today: of not living up to expectations. Very interesting, all the same. We were not met at the airport by our guide as Joie expected, so she had to negotiate an outsized fee to get us transported to the hotel. But the guide appeared, a large man in a neck-to-toe light blue robe, and after some palaver we crowded into a van and off we went. Our guide's name was Noukh (ANookh," for Noah) Yattara, a pastor of the Evangelical Baptist Mission. He took tourists around Timbuktu all the time, indeed it was a primary business for him. In time it became clear that, as an evangelical missionary, he had an agenda regarding Muslims.
Our first major stop was the Women's Development Center, an NGO run by the EBM. We walked through a courtyard and entered a building at the far side; as we walked in a roomful of women stood up. We lined up in front of a blackboard, and Noukh explained in English and the teacher, a Ghanaian woman, translated for the class. The Center takes in 90 women for 9 months' training in everything from personal health to how to get a job. 70 of the 90 are unmarried mothers; the rest are widows and divorcées. It was immediately apparent that the EBM was not reaching the main body of women: married or single, but Muslim: but rather the needy. Much later, over dinner on his roof, Noukh explained his strategy. The Center was EBM's "horse of Troy in this Muslim society." At a later stop on the tour, at the so-called "Christian cemetery," where all non-Muslims were buried, whether Christian or not, he said that there were about 120 Christians in Timbuktu: out of a population of 30,000. So EBM set up its NGO agreement with the government to offer assistance to the poor and especially the outcast. Every Saturday it provides free water from its well to whoever wants it: in this yellow-sand, border-Saharan environment, that is no small offer. When we climbed back in the van, we drove past a "village of misery," made up of squatters: the tents of nomads. They come to the city when there isn't enough water in the desert: and they have been there for 5 years.
The heart of Noukh's tour was the main mosque, built in 1325 and standing to this day. We removed our shoes and went inside. Noukh showed us the "false window," whose only purpose was to identify east. Under it was the hollow where the imam prayed. Directly behind the imam, where we were standing, during services stood the next level of priest, whose title I forget, who shouted the imam's prayers to the faithful. They stood in what amounted to corridors 4-5 feet wide, 8 of them behind the one we stood in. What was remarkable about the interior was huge rectangular pillars, perhaps 3 feet thick and 4-5 feet wide, with only 2-3 feet between them. In effect, they were more like walls with staggered breaks than pillars in an open space. The sense was of massive construction, very limited open space and from the worshipers' corridors no line of sight whatever to the imam.
Next to the hollow was a mounted spot not unlike a pulpit without a desktop, where the imam preached after praying. Noukh explained that in Islam there was no restriction on subject matter to religious or theological themes. In other words, any secular or political topic was OK, and sometimes imams railed against ... Christians. Noukh's agenda began to emerge. I won't describe the tour or his remarks in detail. One striking thing he said was that Muslims often trusted Christians more than their own. He stood us next to a clock that was covered with a grill and locked. He said he asked the imam (a school mate, it turned out) why the clocks were locked; the answer was, they were stolen otherwise. Islam, he went on, did not consider theft a sin. Hence a government minister, say, would choose a Christian as his chef de cabinet because Christians were more trustworthy. He added, that's what many people here think. (Later Joey confirmed this last: a common belief among ordinary people.) Meanwhile I am choking over how much we trusted those good Christians Ken Lay, Gary Schilling, Bernie Ebbers, Arthur Andersen, and our other home-grown financial wizards.
Noukh's most moving talk-let was, to me, a metaphor. He stood us in front of the "Door of Mysteries," a beautiful Moroccan-style door in a courtyard wall. What did we see? Beauty, integrity, logic, even spirituality. Then he took us inside, pulled aside a curtain where the other side of the door should be: and there was only a dark, empty space, and a blank wall. This is what Islam came to mean to me, he said, dark, dirty, empty, ugly. Whatever else there was on his agenda, this description felt like an expression of a life-moving experience for him: indeed, his conversion to Christianity, or at least the roots of it.
At the end of the tour he explained the special bargain between the government and the religious authorities over allowing non-believers into the mosque. On the one hand, there was a desperate need to attract tourists, and Timbuktu was one of the (few) fabled sites in the country. On the other ... there would be a payment to the mosque for each visitor of CFA2,600, "no questions asked (as to how it would be used)" ... and poof a man appeared with his hand out, and Joie paid for us.
At the end of the tour Joie asked Noukh for a recommendation of a restaurant for dinner. With a major music festival nearby and few restaurants, he said he wasn't confident giving one, but he would be happy to serve us in his home, and Joie accepted. We went back to the hotel for lunch; Phil, Alice and Joie went off to the post office (stamps), the police station (Timbuktu stamps in passports), and the airline (reconfirm), then: CAMEL RIDE! We gathered just outside the hotel at 4 and were enthusiastically met by a gaggle of men in body-length robes and turbans. They grabbed our arms and led us to their camels, with their high-front, high-backed saddles. We awkwardly swung a leg over and hopped on. There were no stirrups; you cross your feet on the animal's neck. (And if you don't do it right, your driver corrects your feet.) Then up: suddenly pitch forward as the camel lifts up its rump, then sway back as it stands up on its forelegs, and there you are, perched some 8 feet in the air, fiercely clutching the board-like front of the saddle with both hands. We set off, a-clump, a-clump, a-clump, amid much laughter and chatter. Each camel was led on a rope by its owner. We traipsed out about a kilometer, dismounted, looked at a tiny village and corral made of bushes and brambles for baby goats (Akiddiegarten," groan), remounted and jounced our way back. A good time was had by all.
We went to Noukh's for dinner. He spread mats and pillows on the roof of his home; we took off our shoes and sat on the floor in a circle around the common dishes. Out of consideration for our Western ways, he gave us plates and silverware. His wife prepared a very tasty meal including dishes of fish, chicken and meat (she, however, did not eat with us). After dinner he permitted Jack and Phil to go downstairs and use his phone to get on the Internet. In a wide-ranging discussion he told us a bit about his 3 years in the US at a seminary near Philadelphia. Indeed, at that moment his sons were in the US studying. We also talked about Mali, its development problems, women's health and related issues. To me the most staggering statement of the evening was that Mali controlled only 30% of its national budget. The rest came from outside sources: countries with bilateral agreements, multilateral arrangements (e.g., the UN), and NGOs. But all these, while designed to be helpful, even generous, all have their own agendas, which may be inconsistent, overlapping, and not in sum in the best interests of Malians. 30%: it's hard to control your destiny when over 2/3 of your funding comes from outside.
As we said goodbye, standing under the stars and looking up at a bright moon, Noukh told a story about his son when they lived in Pennsylvania. "Daddy, is that the same moon as we have back at home?" "Why, yes, son, it's the same." "How can it be the same, when everything here is so different?"
We got up at the crack of dawn: actually, several cracks before dawn, as the van picked us up at 5:30 in pitch black to take us to the airport. We flew back to Mopti/Sevaré. Norm left us here, flying on to Bamako and (if his connections worked) eventually on to the US and around the world back to Indonesia. Lisa Sproull, a new young missionary, met us and drove us 2 (well, a long 3) blocks to her house, where we had stashed most of our luggage prior to the one-day hop to Timbuktu. Several of us (men) rode in the truck's bay, prompting Phil, as we bounced on the dirt road, to quip, "Smoother than a camel." An old cigarette ad? Anyway, brought a guffaw. We had lost Norm, but we gained Lisa for for several days.
Later, we drove to Mopti, 30-plus kilometers, walked through the market. Much fresh and dried fish was sold here (right beside the Bani River). We passed a man stretching a python skin on a long board with small nails. Joie and Mary Nell conversed with him in Bambara; considerable back and forth ensued; a crowd gathered; we were introduced by our Malian names. Several people in the crowd cried out in recognition of common names. One woman on the edge, hearing "Brema Traore," looked at me with a shining brown flash of eyes and a big friendly laugh: welcoming, sharing a bond. I was unreasonably moved.
Joie also led us into a boat-making and -repairing shed at the river's edge, where we observed how, with a hand-operated forge, they made nails and (for sale) hair pins. We bought some of both: then it was all right to take pictures. Joie asked one of the young men who had done most of the talking with us to introduce us to the men nearby who built the boats; and a good thing, too. One of the latter took exception to us, but with the introduction our new-found friend guided us through the process of constructing the boats. They made the front and back halves separately, then nailed them together with overlapping wood patches. One thing that struck me (I've done a considerable amount of carpentry in my life) was, in nailing the seats from the outside, a boy heated an iron spike sunk in a wood handle over a charcoal fire; red-hot, the spike was pounded an inch or two into the boat's side as a starter hole. Why didn't they just pound the nails in direct: wouldn't that be easier, quicker, eliminating an entire step? I didn't get an answer.
We had lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Bani river, a tourist/upperclass enclave, with vendors and beggars hanging around the door. The scene from the restaurant, however, was vibrant. The wide river stretched in front of us, to one side was an inlet, a harbor, where boats: all of the pirogue type, although some must have been over 100 feet long and a dozen wide, real cargo ships. One had half a dozen barrels roped to its thatch roof. Goods were constantly being unloaded and moved to the market, which started on level ground a couple dozen yards from the water. It's hard to capture the vibrancy in a description: here photos, even stills, are more expressive. On the other hand, I don't think even a movie strip would adequately capture the jolt to the heart of a boy dragging himself along the ground like a beetle, scrabbling on his misshapen hands, dragging one useless leg behind him, begging for change. It was John who gave him CFA100.
We continued our general direction northeast, driving to Douentza, where we slept in a large Tuareg tent, white on the outside, with colorful patterns on the inside, as you lay on your back, wriggled yourself into your sleeping bag, fussed with the mosquito netting. This was like a campsite: 3 large tents, with bathroom and shower facilities, no hotel but a very upscale way to camp. A restaurant served dinner and breakfast and indeed supplied us with lunch the next day. They provided us each a foam mattress, a sheet, and mosquito netting. The cutest physical thing about the place was: this in a large courtyard: parking lanes carefully laid out with rows of rocks, painted white. But the all-out cutest was the 4-year-old daughter of the French owner and his lovely Malian wife, who treated us with great courtesy.
Phil was able to set up his computer and download the day's pictures almost every night, by now a ritual everyone looked forward to. At midnight the generator cut off, and those who were awake were left with kerosene lanterns and the stars. The quiet was very welcome. It was also a good deal warmer than Joie had anticipated, and we were quite comfortable. Dawn came in a soft pink light.
In the morning we set out with a guide "to find elephants." We headed to an elephant reserve, a huge area where elephants were supposed to wander through during the winter months from, and eventually back around to, neighboring Burkina Faso. We were warned at the outset that we well might not find them, but we set off bravely. Alice, Phil, Lisa and I rode in Mary Nell's truck. Considerable discussion derived from Alice's work at the UN regarding national censuses: how to count populations accurately, problems and issues country by country around the world, and so on. As we passed village after village, this rather ethereal conversation was brought down to a practical level: how many people do you think live there? And there? The estimates started low, but tended to be raised rather quickly. The discussants decided a household/compound would average 10 to 20.
We turned off the paved road and into the reserve. Immediately we were jouncing along a washboard road and, since our truck was following, in a cloud of dust. We came to a village and suddenly the road got crowded. A huge truck pulled out in front of us, going slowly, cutting us off from John's truck, then stopping in the middle of the street. We were at an intersection, a kind of Y. We were quickly surrounded by kids. Mary Nell rolled down her window and spoke Bambara, which was not these people's first language.
"Did you see a white truck?"
So we got reunited and drove out of the village into a rocky plain, with savannah-type brush, small trees and grass. The going was rough and slow, as we wound around vegetation and eased (or slammed) over rocks. We passed various herdsmen and villagers, some walking, some on bicycles, a few on camels. One young fellow rode a bicycle: leading a camel on a rope. Even he grinned, seeing himself in our eyes.
Our guide took us to a water hole, a pond in a hollow, where a good time was had by all. The irregularly oblong puddle was surrounded by rocks and a hill on the far side. Goats, sheep and herders were ranged on the hill; a couple of small herds approached on our side as we roamed around, took pictures. John sat near the sheep and look to be having a biblical conversation with them. We returned to the trucks and drove on. Flat scrub country. More winding our way around vegetation, over rocks, bounce/jounce/crunch. Our guide picked up a friend who evidently was helping him hunt for elephants; we called him "the sub-contractor." We stopped again, in the middle of nowhere, and the two of them went off ahead, scouting. We sat, aimlessly, waiting, for about an hour. Getting increasingly restless. First "the contractor" came back and said that elephants had definitely come this way, and were up ahead. He showed how the top of a tree had been eaten, and pointed to dung ... fresh. SHIT! We carefully took pictures: our proof, our prize, our triumph for the day. Maybe we didn't see elephants, but by God we came away with ...(!)
After the foolishness we moved on, picnicked under a bush, wandered around some more, finally decided that elephants were not going to reveal themselves, and that we should go on to Fatima's Hand and Mount Hormel. Exiting the reserve, we proudly took photos of ourselves with an elephant: the picture of an elephant on the sign at the entrance. And drove on.
We saw the Hand and the mountain from afar and drove eventually alongside and past it, taking many photos. It looked, with a bit of imagination, like a hand all right: but why Fatima? There were lots of Fatimas in history, but Fatima was Mohammed's first wife, said Phil. That conundrum conquered, we turned into a small village and our guide found a new "subcontractor" who said (apparently) that elephants were in the area. So we took off again, weaving and circling over a wide clear plain. At one point we came to a hamlet, and those of us in the rear truck watched people: first a gaggle of children, then adults, then an old man in a white robe and white beard: converse with the lead truck. Afterward Joie said that the old man actually spoke some English: but nobody knew the word "elephant" in any common language. It appeared somehow, however, that the beasts were "in the area ... 5 kilometers further ... thataway...." By now it was getting late, 4:30 or so, and we decided enough was enough. Dark fell at 6 and we needed to be on a real road by then. As we drove back, in the distance we saw an animal streaking: I mean, streaking, at an astonishing speed: across the plain. We guessed: deer, antelope, eland, gnu. Nobody was sure.
Thus ended our wild elephant chase.
After a second night under the Tuareg tent we left in the morning for Dogon country. We had reached our furthest point northeast; we now headed south and eventually west. We left Douentza with a different guide, this one as chatty as yesterday's was cryptic, although I didn't hear most of it, as he rode in Mary Nell's truck and this day Alice, Phil and I rode with John and Joie.
The Dogon live on: and in: hills and cliffs. There are some very dramatic cliffs, and mud-brick homes are built on and into the rock. Some, indeed, are cave-like hollows in the cliff-faces. Our plan was to drive along the base of the cliffs, on dirt roads.
Right from the beginning of the day the physical country was very different from the flat, seemingly endless plains we had been seeing. Reminiscent of Arizona mountains and mesas or, more remotely, the Dakota badlands, the earth jutted up dramatically and created a multitude of striking vistas. We wound through a village, then another. A particularly charming scene: we stopped in front of a slab of rock like black marble, canted at about 30 degrees, with kids using straw to slide down the surface, like sledding in snow. When we ooh-ed and out came the cameras, a bunch more kids, who had started for the trucks, whipped around and rushed for the rock, preening and posing on it with sharp shrieks and gleaming white laughs against their black skins.
Our guide took us twisting and turning through fields. The first sign of "difficulty" arose when Mary Nell stopped, ahead of us. We all got out and looked: no-o, we're not taking the trucks across that gully. Almost straight down about 4 feet, then up the other side. We found another way, but I could see that John was beginning to have doubts about what this guide understood about vehicles: like, what they could do and what they couldn't. The piéce de résistance: I use the term advisedly: lay shortly ahead. From the plain we were on a "road" that climbed a hill. This "road" is a challenge to writer and photographer alike. No simple photo can convey the utter jaggedness of each square foot, along the sweep of 300 yards, all pitched at angles from 5 to 20 degrees, and no brief verbal description can the bone-rattling pitching of driving a truck up it. Imagine a pyramid of bricks; now make each brick a different shape and size; space them irregularly; and curve the whole pile up the hillside. In a falling voice, John said, "Oh no...." We watched Mary Nell stop at the bottom, then slowly move forward onto the pile. The truck's nose dipped and its rear end popped up, then its nose angled up and its rear sank, all like a camel rising. The camel, however, only does it once; the truck kept repeating the motions, jerkily, no two alike, adding: beyond the up-and-down pitching: yawing to the right, to the left.
Slowly the truck climbed; we sat and watched, almost with bated breath. At the middle the hill got sharply steeper; the truck spun wheels; tried again; and stopped. John hopped out of our cab and took off at a run, across the plain and up the pile of rocks. He reached her truck. They put it in 4-wheel drive. The passengers, meanwhile, had gotten out of her truck. She started up again, and this time, slowly, successfully pulled up to the top.
John came back down and we put our truck in 4-wheel drive. I was driving at this point. Everyone got out of our truck as well, and I took it, with John beside me, very slowly, up the hill. The best description I can come up with is riding a bronco doing everything he can do to throw you, in exquisitely slow motion. John grimaced and groaned at the worst clanks, feeling the pain of his truck. At the top our chatty guide looked pleased. He took this route, he said, to see the countryside. No photograph could quite capture the shocked expression of John, the trained engineer, with his respect and even affection for a machine: not to mention the very real danger of breaking an axle or puncturing the oil pan and being stranded out here for a week to get it fixed: at the notion that we had done this "for the view."
We walked through one village in the late morning: a "goat park" in the square, a series of sticks covered by a roof of straw for shade where the goats sheltered, like a parking lot at the mall; a man barefoot in a tub stomping a mixture of mud and straw, periodically adding water, for what would be made into bricks; a pair of older men sitting on the ground in front of a mud-brick building, weaving bark rope, twisting strands of bark together and winding them around a small pole between their feet.
During the day Joie, Phil and Alice picked up on the demographic game of the day before, trying: with great hilarity: to guess how many people lived in each village we passed. The estimates tended to rise as the day wore on (whether due to closer examination of the building clusters or to the brain-scrambling jouncing of the drive I couldn't tell).
We had a picnic lunch under a large tree. Our guide earned our thanks by authoritatively chasing off the vendors who came at us from three sides. We continued. Mid-afternoon, the guide said, "... sand like you've never seen," and we went back into 4-wheel drive, which made driving much slower. And, indeed, there was heavy, loose sand that made the wheels spin and slew. I drove all day. Since the roads were a constant hazard, my ability to absorb the countryside and its habitats was considerably reduced. The guide: Mary Nell told me later: was full of information about every village we passed through. He chatted on and on: had been doing this for 15 years, knew many people we passed. One problem was we had a long way to go: we were due at Mac's Refuge in Severé for supper at 7 p.m., and heaven forfend not being on time. In all, what with the sand, the ditches, and the photo ops (oops, stops) we were averaging something between 15 and 20 kilometers an hour: and our guide, who wanted to show us many of "his" villages along the way, had little better sense of time than of vehicles' mountaineering capabilities. More than once we saw Mary Nell's back-up lights come on: he has missed a turn. We heard later that he was so engrossed in his story of the moment that he forgot where he was going.
Stupid sheep: a flock of half a dozen fled from the trucks: running straight down the road in front of us, veering not, to one side or the other. We laughed, we scolded them from behind thick windshields. A man ahead saw them, threw up sand and waved his robe at them, and they hared off to the left.
We were falling further and further behind schedule. Finally Joie said, " ... direct." To Sanga. This after he had not only missed a turn, but where we had to turn around in a field and head back to Banani, fortunately not very far. But the road up the mountain, from Banani to Sanga.... A steep, windy, twisty affair. Alice with her phobia of heights closed her eyes the entire way, although it wasn't a "cliff road" with a sheer drop on one side and a wall on the other. Its cute, unique feature was that part of it was a concrete roadbed, smooth as a baby's bottom, and part was raw rock or compacted dirt, rough as a racking cough. But it wasn't like half the road, then the other half: they alternated every 50 or 70 yards, with deep lips and dips, all the while climbing and hairpin-turning.
Finally, at the end of the day, after caves of homes and more vistas, we had an excruciatingly slow 2-hour trip from Sanga to Bandiagara, on an extremely bumpy road, with constant braking to what on the water they call "no-wake" speed, to ease over rocks, ruts or, moving slightly faster, rattle over washboard ribs, bouncing or shaking like marionettes. Finally, about the time we supposed to be at Mac's, we reached the gudron: the paved road: a word that resonated with a profundity of meaning I had never before realized it had. After a 45-minute drive in the dark we arrived, dusty, cramped and tired, back at the Refuge.
Over dinner John allowed has how this was his least favorite day of the trip.
We spent a quiet morning at Mac's, went back to Lisa's to pick up all the luggage we had left at her place, preparatory to a several-hour drive down to Segou. Lisa and Joie rustled up a picnic lunch, and we said goodbye to Lisa.
The drive on the gudron was rather long and uneventful except for the "song" itself of the highway. We had lunch under a large, spreading baobab tree and watched the sporadic traffic along the road.
In the evening, back in Segou, there were shopping opportunities, dinner at the hotel.
Our little group was, unfortunately, feeling the strain of the trip. John had chills and fever last night, which Joie fears is malaria. Phil came down with a fever that this morning read 101.4. Fran, who earlier had been fighting stomach upset, had a chest cold and Jack wasn't feeling too good either. Alice and I had been sniffling and coughing throughout the trip but hopefully had nothing "new" (i.e., nothing "African"). And everybody was tired.
The issue was that Joie had scheduled a night in a remote village for us. This promised to be extremely interesting: spending the evening with a family in their own village home, sleeping in their style, using the bathroom "in their style..." We were greatly looking forward to it ... but only if we felt up to it. And in the end we didn't, and Joie radioed a message that regretfully we had to cancel the stay.
After that we had a leisurely morning in Segou and left after lunch for Bamako. The road out of town was lined on both sides with large overhanging trees: a legacy of the French, and giving the feel of a French road. Joie thought the French had their first capital here in Segou.
Joie bought 75 kilos of rice and 50 of millet to take to a villager in Bankoani just outside Segou. This was a gift for the family that Jamie, a previous volunteer with the Baptists, had lived with for 2 2 years. She left to return to the States just as Mary Nell arrived a year and a half ago. On the short ride we learned more: the harvest just past had been a disaster, producing only 2 bags of rice because the rain never seriously reached them, and it wasn't clear how they were going to have enough to eat until the next harvest.
In the village we were greeted enthusiastically by a young woman with a baby on her back. We walked to a gwa under which sat an old man and woman. Wire frame/plastic ribbon chairs were quickly assembled. The old man said he was 97 years old and not able to do anything useful any more. (Later, seemingly just as absently, he amended that to 87.) The greetings: the cat's cradle: were extensive and intimate: how is the family? Your brothers and sisters? The neighbors? And Jamie: please give our greetings to Jamie. (Joie said later the old woman said this 8 or 9 times.)
A crowd quickly gathered, mostly children from infants to early teens, plus at least two women with babies. We sat in a semi-circle beside and in front of the old couple while Joie conversed and partially translated. Alice stood up and made friends with one of the women with a baby, getting some pictures of mother-and-baby that she had very much been wanting.
The old woman passed around a small plastic pail of water. Joie said quietly, pretend to drink. A bowl of to, a millet dough-like substance, and a green sauce appeared, with another bucket for washing hands. Joie again advised, you don't have to if you don't want to. She and John then politely ate a few handfuls.
A younger man of 30-35 joined the circle. He was introduced as Bakori Mare; he was what we would call head-of-household, the main provider. He had expressive face, wide mouth, clear eyes and surprisingly deep furrows in his forehead for such a young man. More cat's cradle. He joined the meal, and there was a good deal of conversation in Bambara. Looking out into the courtyard, I saw a couple of goats and sheep. A cow lay ruminating near a pile of hay. After a while Bakori asked John to step aside. They went into the house behind the gwa. Later, on the drive to Bamako, John explained that the house: which the Baptist Mission had built for Jamie: had developed cracks in the walls, and Bakori wanted John to fix it. John added (later, in the truck) that that was one of the things that frustrated him with Africans: if any time you (a toubab, a white) was involved, the African always came back to you to fix or repair whatever it was. Give him a radio, if it stops working he'll come back to you, it's broken: instead of taking the initiative to figure out what went wrong and fix it himself.
Bakori unloaded the two sacks of grain from John's truck, then came back to our little semi-circle. Joie and Mary Nell distributed the small gifts we had intended for the village in the bush whose visit that evening we had canceled. A pocket flashlight for the old man. Fabric for the old woman. Transistor radio for Bakori. Bubble gum and life savers for the kids. Reading Bakori's expression, I wondered if he felt condescended to, but later Joie said emphatically not: coming from America, it was very appropriate that we brought gifts. Useful, practical things, she said: fabric for clothing, flashlight since they had no electricity, radio for news...
As we took our leave, the young women and children crowded around us and with much laughter tested our limping Bambara to its limits and beyond ("Mary Nell! Help! What is she saying?") Bakori insisted on, in return, giving us a (live) chicken, which in a way saddened me, because the value of the bird to their meals was far greater relatively than it would be to ours; yet, more importantly I realized, was the gift in return for the sacks of grain. However much less in value, it still made for an exchange among friends, not a dole, a one-way street.
This was a very moving visit. There were many cross-currents. The warmth the family showed the Grays was manifest. Spirits in the family seemed high, but they were living on the edge: effects of drought continent-wide in Africa -- up close and personal. The Grays said Bakori had two wives and 9 children (how, John expostulated, feeling frustrated, could the man in those circumstances take care of so many?). Bakori had an older brother who had escaped the village, gone to school, learned to read and write, and now had an administrative position in the school system. That meant a salary, an apartment or house in town. Presumably if Bakori were actually starving, his brother would help, but still... Jamie, while living in the village and learning Bambara, had taught Bakori how to read and write: no wonder they had been so fond of her, had missed her so much.
The Grays offered their home to this sick little band for the remainder of our stay. Jack and Fran decided they would be more comfortable sleeping in the airconditioning at the Mission's Guest House, though they spent most of the days and evenings at the Grays'. John, Phil and Fran went to the doctor. John, fortunately, did not have malaria. Treatments ranged from antibiotics to cold remedies.
The artistic high point of the entire trip was a visit to a nearby village for a performance of music and marionettes. It was to be a long affair, starting in the afternoon and lasting until 2 or 3 in the morning. Many of us had doubts as to whether we would be up to it. In the end, Phil's fever dropped, Fran and Jack felt better, and everyone went except me: I ran a fever of 102.5 that day. Phil took extensive film of the evening, which he showed the next day on the Grays' television set, so I got at least a camera-eye's squint, in black and white (there was color in the film, but for some technical reason it didn't come through for that showing). The energy, the masks, the excitement seemed exhilarating, and I was very sorry to have missed it. Those who were there said it was a great evening, even those who took a nap or two along the way.
Phil contributed some comments later: "Our night [he wrote] with the marionette show in the village, started out with a 1.5 to 2 hour personal concert under a shed with a Malian singer playing a lute/cello instrument, accompanied by two drummers and his wife in chorus. Then the marionette show from about 10 til 1:30 am, which did include the masked couple grabbing Jack, first, to dance, and then making Joie get up and join in the dance, and after they sat down, I had to interrupt my video taping of the whole thing to get up and join the masked male dancer. Want video or audio copies? They also offered to give Jack the unmarried pregnant marionette dancer.
"Kids were quite used to tourists (we were not French like most of the tourists) in the towns and cities; and little boys kept wagging their fingers at me saying, 'No photo, no photo!' Kids in the villages were quite curious and gathered around somewhat like in India, as seen in the 37chief photo in the middle of the Mali Part 1 photos, but also a little scared of us toubabs (white folk) as in the sisters photo (192) near the end of the Mali Part 1 photos. We were treated as village guests for the marionette show and sat on chairs at a prime viewing spot along with others such as the village mayor -- but for the most part, after the fun and dancing began, the dancers (including a female line dance lead by the older women -- 80 years old -- down to the 10 year old girls, surrounded by raucous gyrating teen and younger boys) did their own thing, enjoyed themselves, and we were almost unnoticed in their joyous dancing. So it was a quite varied reaction between people just going on with their lives and kids seeming to warn or announce, ' The toubabs are coming, The toubabs are coming!'"
Mary Nell's mother came to visit her for a month. We saw less of Mary Nell during the days than we had on the trip, but the two of them joined us for dinner a couple of evenings.
Then finally it was on to the airport, as black as it was the night 2 weeks ago when we arrived. The exit process was a good deal more complicated than entry. As in all developing-country airports, there are a numerous checkpoints, starting with a languid heavy-set woman before we even got into the airport who glanced boredly at Alice's and my passports and said our visa was expired. Joie help.... Turn to the proper page, see that the visa was for one month from the date of entry ... and we pass on. A check-point in the check-in line to divide the flow into two lines. Check-in with 3, 4, 5, clerks seemed excessively long (but then that's not news at any airport). New point to pay the exit tax. Another check point for tickets and exit form. Up a set of stairs: and behind, waving through a glass wall, John and Joie, who'd waited close to an hour to see us off, wave, wave, mouth a final Thank you. Through security, down a flight onto the tarmac, and further security check, both hand-luggage and personal, at the airplane. Finally on board, a few minutes past midnight on January 17, and we took our leave of Mali.
Webber Philip McEldowney