By Rich Juro
It was with some trepidation that we signed on for a journey through Mali. This large landlocked country adjoining the Sahara Desert in the middle of West Africa is known nowadays more for its poverty and heat than for anything else.
This was just a few years before Al Queda dominated and terrorized much of the nation. We found an ancient civilization, friendly people, and a true test of Fran’s power.
We flew into Bamako, located on the banks of the Niger River. That waterway flows for many hundreds of miles winding through the savannahs of West Africa, eventually emptying into the ocean. It serves as the main channel for travel and commerce in the whole sub-Saharan area. Bamako itself is very unimpressive in appearance and functionality even though it is home to almost two million people and is the capital of Mali. For example, we tried to visit the national post office to buy first day covers for stamp collectors, but it was never open when it was supposed to be.
Leaving Bamako, we flew up to Mopti, the jumping-off point for visiting the more interesting areas of Mali. A city squeezed between the junctions of two rivers, Mopti has little room to grow even though it is the country’s main port. Maybe the inability to expand, whether for housing or trash, is the reason the city is home to an amazing recycling site. There are hundreds of little stalls where old metal from petroleum drums, machinery, containers, or anything else is melted down in small hot kilns and reshaped into new usable articles such as utensils and kitchenware.
The next day we drove a long distance to visit the home of the Dogon (pronounced “Doe-gone”) people. Over 1000 years ago, refusing to convert to Islam, they retreated to a high escarpment near the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The Dogon have continued to live for centuries just as their ancestors did. The equivalent would be like visiting England today and finding medieval Anglo-Saxons living as serfs in feudal manors without electricity, heat, or plumbing.
Stopping at a little village, we saw the simple mud huts that serve as homes. Only 2% of Mali is cultivated for agriculture; the arid land gives subsistence farming its true meaning. It’s a hard life. We watched a woman pounding grain with a large cylindrical club. I tried to imitate her actions but lasted only a minute.
The Dogon are animists, honoring their ancestors and the natural spirits. They have numerous taboos that exercise strict constraints over their daily lives. For example, menstruating women are banished to separate huts in the far end of the village so that others do not come into contact with them. Our guide, Temmay, grew up as an animist in a Dogon village, but when he moved to the city for further schooling he found it difficult to heed the long list of forbidden acts. For instance, when living in a large community of strangers, how was he to stay away from menstruating women if he didn’t know who or where they were? So what did Temmay do? His frank answer: “I became a Muslim for convenience!”
Temmay and I were enjoying a cold beer at lunch one hot day, so I asked him, “How can you drink beer now that you are a follower of Islam?” He laughed and replied, “In my heart I’m still an animist.”
The academic expert with our group was a professor at Dartmouth College. She had researched and published articles on the women of Nigeria who had started successful small businesses and were hopefully becoming a force of their own in their country’s politics and economy. As Mali is located just north of Nigeria, we appreciated her insights into the cultures of both nations.
A quick aside: we later went to The Gambia. Yes, the correct name of that tiny country on the West coast of Africa is The Gambia. We were surprised that our Dartmouth professor had no idea how to reach her cousin who lived in Banjul, the small capital city. Trying to be helpful, I accompanied her in her search for a telephone book. No such directory existed. But when a helpful shopkeeper asked who we were looking for, he said he had heard of the cousin and suggested we go to another shop where we would find a “person who knew everybody”. Sure enough, the know-it-all did know the cousin, told us she was a lawyer, and proposed to take us to the street where she lived. We took him up on his offer, and sure enough, our professor found her long-lost cousin.
A number of our professor’s former students had joined the Peace Corps. One of them, Ann, who was working in Mali, joined us for dinner one evening. She had grown up in a small town in Middle America and entered the service organization with dreams of making a positive effect on lives. Ann was assigned to a Dogon village and charged with bettering health by improving the water supply. The young idealist thought she might be able to help, but was soon disillusioned. Materials for new wells, pipes, and the like were difficult and expensive to procure, and the people were just not interested in developing a more reliable water source. So Ann adjusted her goal to a more realistic one: convincing the villagers to wash their hands more often in running water to prevent the spread of disease. This was a hard sell as the Dogon culture, probably because of the ever-present lack of moisture, just didn’t consider handwashing as a worthwhile basic habit. Ann was trying to persevere, but without conviction that she would make much progress.
However, there was one major change that Ann had made in her own life. She had fallen in love with a local youth, and they were now engaged. We couldn’t help speculating on the reaction of her parents when they met their future son-in-law. And we never found out whether Ann was planning on her wedding being performed by a Christian pastor, a Muslim Imam, or a Dogon shaman.
The next stop was the legendary city of Timbuktu. This was the ancient crossroads where camel caravans carrying gold, salt, and slaves from the black kingdoms in the South connected with the Arab sheikdoms to the North. The local Tuareg people led the convoys, and Timbuktu became wealthy as the center of trade. Eventually it declined in importance as ships plying the coastline proved more efficient. The town still boasts the largest mud structure in the world, a huge caravansary (inn and meeting place), although it does dry out and has to be reconstructed every other year.
We were introduced to a local Tuareg chief. He was quite tall, dressed in the traditional deep blue robe, and his smiling face had a dark olive complexion. He told us in perfect English: “I spent two years at the University of Colorado, where most people assumed I was Mexican.” Although there was now a paved road across the Sahara, he informed us that he still led camel caravans from the desert salt mines to the urban centers. The continuing success of the ancient mode of transport, he said, was because trucks get stuck when the blowing sand clogs their engines or large dunes block the road. Other people told us later that the camels would soon be outdated, but I prefer to believe that our Tuareg chieftain will be leading his caravans for years to come.
The next day our guide asked if we would like to meet a local diviner. In Mali, a diviner is not a person who finds water in the desert. Rather he is more like a seer from whom one seeks guidance, so of course we said we’d like to go. We drove for miles on unsurfaced trails through the dry desert. Finally our driver spotted a little wood hut in the middle of nowhere.
We stopped, and a little old man emerged slowly from the shack. Leaning on his walking stick, he told us through the translator that he would answer any question for a dollar. No one else stepped up, so I asked, trying not to sound like a smart-ass: “I have had the same spouse for forty years. Should I be looking for a young woman to be my second wife?” Please realize that both Muslims and animists in Mali are allowed to have more than one wife, so the nature of this query appeared not to bother him, but it apparently troubled Fran.
The diviner explained how he would arrive at the answer. First he took his long stick and drew five parallel lines like furrows in the desert sand. After he inspected them to his own satisfaction, he pointed to the crest of a small hill about 100 yards away. He continued through the translator: “There is a fox that lives atop that hill. At night he comes down to search for food. The fox crosses the patch of land on which I have dug these rows. In the morning I will come out from my home and examine the tracks which the fox has left. I will divine the answer to your question from the pattern left in the sand.”
It was time to leave. We piled back into the vehicle. As we started to drive away, the heavens opened and it started to rain in the Malian desert in February for the first time in 40 years. The lines in the sand would be washed away, and the diviner would be unable to look at the tracks of the fox. There was no point in returning to learn if I should take a second wife. Fran’s magical powers were demonstrably superior to the mysterious conjuring of the diviner of the desert. We continue to live happily ever after, and I have not even considered taking a new mate. Do you blame me?