Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mali Journal II : The Dogon Country

We stayed in Bamako just one night before heading to the Pays Dogon, a series of dozens of villages along the Bandiagara escarpment, a 200 km stretch of granite and laterite cliffs in the south of the country. The Dogon are one of the West African ethnic groups that have most successfully held onto their indigenous culture. Although now they are comprised of Muslims and Christians as well as Animists, they maintain vibrant wood carving, cloth weaving and dyeing, architecture, and dance and music traditions. After another day long bus ride we arrived in Sevare, a town north of Bandiagara that is commonly used as a starting point for trips to Dogon. Ian called the guide that we had arranged our trip with previously and he said he could pick us up right in front of the bus station. A few minutes later a large man in a Renault station wagon pulled up to the curb and rolled down his window to greet us. He introduced himself as Hassimi and asked me how we were doing. I said fine, except that it was a bit hot. He laughed and replied, "Ohhh yeah, it's really f***ing hot, dude!"

This response might have seemed crass and a bit off-putting if not for the extremely friendly and jovial manner with which Hassimi addressed us. His English was not fantastic, but certainly understandable, and like most West Africans who speak English he was not entirely aware of the gravity of the f-bomb in the west. He invited us to stay in his compound for free and discuss the itinterary for our trip. We made sure we were all on the same page as far as his rate (quite reasonable) and what we were interested in seeing, and shook hands feeling good about the next couple of days.

The next morning we got up, had breakfast and were on the road by 8 o'clock. The first village we went to was named Banjugu, and as we first saw it the stone and mud buildings tucked into the confines of a rocky cliff rising before us in the distance, we knew that what we had been told about the beauty of the Pays Dogon was no exaggeration. We followed Hassimi into the village while he explained the manner of construction of the buildings, and told us of the legend of the Muslim saint who converted the village to Islam by building a full mosque in one night. The Dogon had fled from the jihads waged by the Fulani to convert the different ethnic groups of West Africa, and lived in the cliffs to protect themselves from attackers. According to Hassimi, unlike the Mandinka, Bambara, Wolof, and other West African tribes, the Dogon muslims were converted by persuasion rather than the edge of a sword.

As we walked around the village, Hassimi pointed out various natural rock ledges and tables that the village people used as meeting places, workshops, and even one spot that functions as a court--Banjugu, the first village to convert to Islam, also practices Sharia law. As we walked through the narrow streets we marvelled at how naturally the buildings fit into the rock formations; everything is built in tandem with nature, rather than in spite of it. What we found remarkable, however, the village residents found mundane. Women continually asked us why on earth we would want a picture of the side of their house, or of children sliding down a slick stretch of rock warn even smother by the repeated friction of their bony behinds. Even the beautiful Friday mosque, build entirely out of mud and sticks, was every day to them. It is easy to let the vibrancy of the lives of these villagers belie the fact that they are extremely arduous. Hassimi showed us to a small spring about half 1/2km from the village on a steep rock path. It was less a spring than a never-emptied puddle of cool, clear water, fed by an underground stream. To get water in the dry season, women have to go to this spring and fill their buckets cup by cup, then carry the full buckets on their heads over that same treacherous rock path and up countless stairs back to their compounds.

After leaving Banjugu we had lunch in Bandiagara before continuing to the actual escarpment--where every view suddenly became a stunning panorama. After a few stops for photos we came to the village of Telli, the first village on the southern end of the escarpment to have the characteristic clay buildings built into the side of the cliff, similiar to the structures at Green Mesa in Arizona. Hassimi showed us the different types of buildings--granaries, stables, fetish sites. He also pointed high up the cliff, sometimes closer to the top than the bottom, where in small cracks there were tiny little mud huts that seemed absolutely impossible to reach. These are the dwelling places of the Tellem, some dating back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries B.C.E. The Tellem were a race of very small people related to the pygmies of Central Africa. Hassimi said that it was believed that the Tellem were able to reach these huts so high up the cliff by climbing vines that covered the cliffs at a time when the area was more lush and green. Some Malians believe, however, that the Tellem had supernatural abilities, including the ability to fly.

We spent the night at a rustic hotel, or campement, in the nearby town of Ende. Hassimi took good care of us, in that every place we stayed was clean and pleasant, and the food was always excellent--cous cous with a chicken stew over it, sheep in a sauce over macaroni, et cetera. The next morning we walked around the village, visiting various textile and jewelry makers. Zach and I both picked up some striking blankets of mud-dyed Bogolon cloth and Dogon hats, which are made of cloth sewed together with three tassels on top, a bit like a European jester's cap. Ian bought a couple of Dogon shirts, which are made of woven cloth dyed with indigo. After shopping, we tour the old Dogon village in the cliffs, and Hassimi shows us the Hogon house. The Hogon is the head chief of the village, who makes all final decisions and has crucial roles in ceremonies. If a Hogon dies, a new one cannot be chosen for three years. New candidates must be the oldest members of a high status family, such as the founders of the village. Once chosen, the Hogon is carried to the house where he will spend the rest of his life. Everything he eats must first be tested by a tortoise--if the tortoise refuses any food, it is not fit for the Hogon. The Hogon can only drink pristine food and water brought to him by a clean woman-a virgin. This is entirely for cleanliness purposes, as the Hogon effectively takes an involuntary vow of chastity when he is chosen.

The next day we moved on to a new campement to park the car, then began a day-long hike, first to a Dogon market, then a village nestled high up in the cliffs. The market was a quite an experience. One of the primary items sold at Dogon markets is millet beer, sold in either plastic bottles or large bowls made out of gourds. Dozens of women with big pots doled the stuff out to men in various states of inebriation. One was wearing a full Santa Claus beard and wig. A young Japanese man approached me to say hello, explaining that he had been on a tour of West Africa for several months, and had been in the Dogon for a week or so. He then introduced me to his guide, who spoke no English or Japanese, and was completely wasted. He kept trying to tell me about Malian politics in slurred French and hinting that I should buy him more alcohol.

We wished our Japanese friend good luck and continued on a trail that went alongside a stream up into the cliffs. The trail was flanked by millet fields and massive acacia and baobab trees, making for yet another spectacular landscape. We made our way behind women from the market still carrying baskets and goods on their heads. How they do this every week is beyond me. We reached the village at dusk, and Hassimi explained that it is divided into three sections, one Muslim, one Christian, one Animist. No section, however, has any type of toilet as their villages are built on solid rock, so certain sections of the village are best avoided.

The next morning we did a tour around the village, during which Hassimi points out small fetish sites in animist compounds where families will sacrifice millet and blood to their various gods. It is very interesting, but we are not allowed to see much, as most of the sites are very sacred and all but the most venerable village members are forbidden. We end the tour in the Christian section, market by a small mud church and, like the animists, numerous pigs penned up in compounds. The last compound we saw had a myriad of hunting trophies mounted on the wall, including drying baboon carcasses, snakes, and the skulls of various other primates. From here, we move on to another steep, rocky path further along the cliffs. After few minutes of hiking we came to a large Animist village once again perched at the edge of the cliffs. Here there are even more fetish sites, including some larger ones that Hassimi told us are forbidden to all but the oldest men in the community, who go there during festivals to sacrifice and eat meat. If any but these elders eat the sacrificed meat, the Dogon believe they will die as surely as if they had ingested poison.

From here we took a long downward path to the village where our car was parked, taking in more amazing views as we went. Things got steeper and a little trickier, with perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment being a crevasse probably 50 feet deep bridged only by the local Dogon ladders--logs with steps roughly carved into them. The couple of cracks serving as mausoleums full of skulls and bones that Hassimi pointed out in the sides of the cliff were somehow less than reassuring, as well. After another hour or so we made it back to the village unscathed.

Once we packed up all our things we got back on the road to Sevare--about a three hour drive. Although we had a great time, there was definitely the sense that we had just scratched the surface of a very rich culture. I sat drowsily in the car looking at the magnificent scenery that sped by, amazed to think I didn't even know this place existed before I came to West Africa, and this is just one very small ethnic group out of hundreds in this region. Living in The Gambia can make the world feel very small sometimes, but you don't have to venture that far away to get a sense of the magnitude of things.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mali Journal I : The Road to Bambako

To celebrate a year in The Gambia and my 25th birthday, I decided to take a trip. Initially I had planned on going to Guinea Bissau, and had looked into travel routes, destinations, and costs, and just about had the whole thing planned. Then the president was assassinated by the military. A few months later, several major political figures thought to be contenders for the vacant presidency were also assassinated. So much for that idea. Instead, I began researching another country that had caught my interest: Mali. Mali is the home of Bamako, one of West Africa's great music centers, as well as the fabled city of Timbuktu, and some of the wider stretches of the great Niger river. It all seemed pretty extroardinary to me, so my friends Zach and Ian and I decided to go on a two-week trip starting on the 17th of October. These next entries are a journal of that trip.
The border between Senegal and The Gambia south of Basse is not exactly a fortress. The large shell of a former customs compound is now left empty save for the daily use of the small mosque built for border guards. Across the road from this tiny house of worship are two drab, dirty concrete buildings which house the few guards who protect the The Gambia from the throngs of Senegalese who are itching to jump the border to...steal peanuts, perhaps? Although peanuts, like just about everything else, are as or more abundant in Senegal.

Upon crossing the border, there is nothing that indicates that you have entered a different country. The red laterite road full of potholes, the scrub brush and intermittent bush mango, baobab, and other tall trees, the white-vested, black crows and vultures--none of these bush inhabitants has any concept of the border created by Europeans with no regards to tribal boundaries transport routes. After ten or so kilometers of that familiar Senegambian landscape, we arrive in Wellingara, the nearest travel hub to the Gambian border. Dispite the fact that Wellingara is about the same size as Basse, it is almost immediately evident that things are more organized here. There are two internet cafes with good connections, there are numerous 2 and even 3 story buildings, and the car park is well organized, with benches, labelled areas for different destinations, and even printed tickets. Many transactions are actually one in French, as well--I rarely if ever hear any type of business done in English in the Gambia outside of the capitol.

We buy tickets for a sept-place (seven seat station wagon) from Velingara to Tambacounda, the hub used for trips to eastern Senegal and Mali. After a few minutes of waiting our car fills, and we embark on the paved road. I can't help but thinking that this can't last--the red, rocky destruction of West African transport will return shortly, but, save for a few areas under construction, the whole 100+km trip is on asphault. And, to boot, once we have passed the Velingara police checkpoints, there are no others. It is the smoothest trip in a non-Peace Corps vehicle that I have taken in a year.

Tamba is quite small on the map, but to our surprise, the town is a bustling little urban center by West African standards, with good multi-lane roads and two large car parks. We spend the night in the Peace Corps transit house, which is very comfortable, with running water and electricity, and eat at decent restaurants, one of which has fast wi-fi. Yet another example of what decent infrastructure can do.

The next morning we continue to the border town of Kidira in another sept-place, and have to take a taxi from the car park to the immigration post on the senegal side. This process is pretty straightforward--a short ride, a passport stamp, and we are on our way to the Malian side. Here, things aren't quite so simple. We ask our taxi driver to take us to the immigration post to buy a visa, but he gets confused and takes us to the police station. We explain again and he takes us where we need to be, but then he wants more money because he went to both places. We finally negotiate him down, but he's a bit pushy while we wait for the immigration official to write out and sign receipts for the visas we will have to get in Bamako. He wants us to pay more than we negotiated, but luckily the bystanders all agree with us, so he has to relent. After all is said and done, we skip the taxi ride back to the car park and jump on a bus headed to Kayes, the first sizable city in Mali.

The bus system is definitely something of a change from what we are used to. The closest thing to a bus in The Gambia is a large gele-gele as full of rice sacks, goats, chickens, and market goods as it is people. In Mali, there are numerous bus companies, some of which even have air conditioning, if you are in the right place at the right time and want to pay a little extra. Goats and sheep are still allowed, but they are tied up in bags and put below with the luggage-an arrangement I am sure they find most comfortable. Our bus is not air conditioned, but we all have more than adequate leg room, and as long as the bus is moving there is a pleasant breeze. Unfortunately, like most vehicles in West Africa, the bus makes frequent stops for seemingly assinine reasons. At one point it seems we stop for twenty minutes so the driver and porters can sit and chat with some people on the road, and the passengers in the bus nearly drown in their own sweat.

We arrive in Kai in the late afternoon, and immediately buy tickets for the next morning's ride to Bamako. We ask what time we should arrive, as we had been told the bus usually leaves at something like 5 A.M. We are told to be there at 3:30. There are a number of taxi drivers standing next to the bus station, and we attempt to explain where the Peace Corps house is- down the block from the prison and near the river. The drivers speak French and Bambara- neither of which we know more than a few phrases. Mandinka is close to Bambara sort of like Spanish is close to Italian, so Zach and I try to explain things as best we can. Zach says the house is closed to where people are locked. I say it's close to where wicked people are. Ian tries saying "prison" with a French accent- "pree-zon," basically. Finally, I point to a scooter and say, "If I steal this, and the police catch me, where will they take me?" "Ohhhhh, "pri-son!" They all exclaim. We sigh and get in the taxi.

After a pleasant night spent hanging out with some Mali volunteers at a local bar, we get a few hours of sleep before getting up far earlier than I think is ever really necessary. We have arranged for a taxi to pick us up, and he arrives right on time. At the bus station, the staff members yell out the name of everyone who has bought a ticket, butchering each of ours in new and interesting ways. The bus has screens, and after upon embarking at 4:30 they begin to show an episode of the American series Prison Break in French. Ian has seen the show and explains a bit to me, but I am fast loosing consciousness, so we both put in our ipod headphones and pass out. When I wake up around 7, the porters are handing out raisin croissants and small bottles of cold generic cola. It seems like a strange combination, but I eat and drink and look out the window for awhile.

The landscape in Mali is a definite change from Senegambia. Before the border and even most of the way to Kayes it had been that same combination of short shrubs and grasses with occasional tall trees. Past Kayes, it slowly becomes more and more like the American southwest- short shrubs with no tall trees except around villages, rocky hills rising in the distance, and sandy, sun drenched expanses of land. The architecture changes as well, with much fewer thatched roof buildings, replaced instead by corrugated iron roofing over clay or mud brick houses. When we arrive in Bamako that afternoon, we are amazed at the large hills surrounding the city. It strikes me as kind of a West African Nashville- a city known for its music nestled in the hills. We have arrived at our first destination, and are excited to get a feel for this whole new country.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Year Approaches...

Every bumster, every pushy salesman, every nosy lady with a flaccid breast hanging out to feed a screaming infant--they all ask me the same sequence of questions. "Which country?" "Are you piss-corpse?" "Can you take me America?" And finally, "How long since you come here?" After I add up the months for this last one and reply, I usually get a flood of praise for how well I speak Mandinka or for how long I have been working for the betterment of Gambians. Either of these might be flattering if they weren't part of a pitch to get money or a ticket overseas. But these exchanges do serve as a continuous count-down of my service, so I am pretty much always aware of how long I have been here. My reply is edging ever closer to that big twelve-month mark, and I have been trying to take stock of what that means to me.

First of all, it means that my term of service is not quite half over. It's funny how it can seem like I should be almost done and that I just got here simultaneously. There is still over a year to try to get new projects done, see different parts of the Gambia, meet new people, and who knows what else. On the other hand, we are no longer the new group in the country, with one education group sworn in and a health and environment group on the way next month. My swear-in group is in a sort of limbo between the doe-eyed rookie and the crusty veteran.

Second, it means that I feel that I am hitting a stride in a lot of ways--like dealing with the various solicitors I meet in the street. I make a real effort not to be one of those angry volunteers who always assumes someone approaching them is a creep only out for money. At the same time, I don't want to open myself up to every person who comes by and end up bitter at being cheated and molested constantly. I try to maintain a certain guardedness without being impolite until I can assess the character of someone new, and then I either open up or say "no thank you" and move quickly on.

One last thing that the year mark is making me consider is, "What I would have been doing if I were in the the States?" The standards for accomplishment in the U.S. are quite a bit higher than here, so in terms of actual, honest-to-God work, I would almost certainly have more hours under my belt. But what about the results? All I did in the year before I came here was sling bagels and coffee and wait tables. This made me a few bucks (which I mostly blew) but provided me with no real lasting accomplishment. All I can chalk that year up to is life experience. Since I have been here, however, I have been involved in a lot of projects that have the potential to change things for the better in a place where change is desperately needed. With village residents, I planted over 500 trees. I taught people about malaria and how to prevent it with mosquito nets and locally made repellent. I helped write vaccination records and weigh babies and child welfare clinics, and educate women about malnutrition.

None of these things is guaranteed to have an impact. The trees could all be eaten by goats. That's not a joke, it's a distinct possibility. The people who heard the malaria and child health talks may or may have not been paying attention. Even if they were, it might not change their actions. I could have done more with the time I have been given. Basically, all of this could amount to nothing. Some of it almost definitely will. But if just a few things take, if just one or two parents start taking better care of their kids, if there are a few more trees in a declining forest, if a few less people get malaria, or a few kids become interested in learning and thinking about things, then that means a lot more to me in the long run than having been a damn good bagel baker.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


New things should be coming in the next couple of days. I just added some new photos to my photobucket site from a TOSTAN declaration in which a number of villages met to resolve to abandon the practices of FGM, early marriage and forced marriage. A variety of cultural groups also attended, performing different types of music and dance. I have been trying to add some videos to my youtube site, but I have had some problems with downloading them that I hope to resolve tomorrow. I will also add an additional blog entry if I have time. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to drop me a line anytime, online or in the real world.

Cow Oil

I am at a loss for what to do with the bottle of golden liquid gifted to me this afternoon. "Cow Oil," the lady said. If I had been asked what the uses for such a product were before now I would have guessed some sort of ointment for a chapped udder. Now I know it as a cooking ingredient distilled from milk through a method as yet unknown to me. If seems to be pure milk fat. My Fula friend Maimuna Jallow makes a habit of giving me various agricultural products at the end of my visits, but the usual bottle of fresh milk or sack of peanuts has a more mainstream variety of uses.

I was given the invitation for the naming ceremony yesterday morning and promised milk and the aforementioned "ninsi tuloo." I had meant to make a trip to Mana Koto, the nearest Fula village, to check on the one-stringed violin I had commissioned from the local jali anyway so I rode over in the late morning. Upon arrival I made the rounds greeting in Pulaar as well as Mandinka. I know very little Pulaar, but people appreciate it when you make an effort, even if you can't carry on a conversation past the pleasantries. I brought my guitar, which always adds an extra air of prestige to any occasion. Having a toubab jali grace your wedding ceremony seems to be roughly the Gambian equivalent of having a minor celebrity grace your wedding or Bar Mitzvah in the states. I am fast becoming the Gambian Flava-flav.

After managing to turn down two of four offers for questionable food, I eat some millet porridge with sour (a.k.a. spoiled and chunky) milk and fried goat meat with onions and bread. The latter is actually quite good, and I manage to stomach enough of the former to pass for a polite guest. I play a few tunes which are deemed "sweet," and elicit the inevitable requests for lessons and offers to buy the instrument. I finally relent and attempt to teach one of the more polite men a few chords, but after ten minutes of clumsy fumbling he calls it quits. "Thank you, you tried."

As the afternoon begins to heat up the men all sit in the narrow breezeway of the house chatting and drinking attaya. As I usually do at Fula gatherings, I feel a degree more separated than I usually do, as I can only make out tiny fragments of the conversations. Thus I have no idea what is going on when the men begin to file out and walk to a neighboring compound. My former guitar student tells me that lunch is ready in the next compound. "But we just ate." "Now we eat again." A brief walk sees us to the imam's compound, and the meal is initiated again with greetings and then a the mumbling of a small prayer with cupped hands extended to receive the blessings. It is benachin, not particularly bad or good, and I eat a bit more on ceremony. The Imam tries to talk to me in Fula. "Mi nani chet-do."- I speak Mandinka. This does not meet his approval. He is the kind of older, well-dressed gentleman who carries an air of importance around him heavy enough to break the backs of smaller egos. He ruffles like a bit like a bloated rooster and says something derogatory. I explain, to those in the group who understand mandinka, that I live in the nearest village, have lived there for less than a year and have not had instruction in or even much direct contact with their language. I am merely here because I was invited. I ask how many of them speak my native language. None raise their hands. "Language learning is difficult," I say, and that ends the conversation.

After lunch and prayers, I sit and fiddle with my cell for a bit, waiting for lunch to arrive. No reception bars. This village is off the road, and off all but the most detailed maps. Muhammadou, the compound owner, runs up to me excitedly and tells me that a marriage has just been arranged, and in a nearby compound the terms are being agreed on. He and Maimuna drag me over to see "their culture." We come to a hut with a low roof that we have to duck low under to enter. The hut is dark save for the light coming in under the roof and through the curtain that blocks the door. There are two four poster beds of rough hewn wood tacked together and covered with sweat-stained sponge mattresses. There are people sitting in every possible space, or so it seems until an ancient man and middle-aged woman scoot apart to make room for me.

There is a definite air of amusement at the stranger in their midst--the chet-do toubab, or White Mandinka. Maimuna tells them something that makes them all nod and say "Bisimilah"- Thanks be to God, or, in general usage, you are welcome. Then the negotiations begin. The congregation produces a pile of kola nuts and dalasi coins which are placed on a plastic mat in the center of the room, and the mother of the bride and the father of the groom sort through and discuss them. I add two coins of my own, which are met with many nods and grunts of approval. They then place the tribute in a plastic tea kettle usually used for washing hands and, well..."other" bathroom functions. After this a large wad of money is produced and it is contemplated thoroughly by both parties. Once it is deemed adequate it is passed around for all to see so that there can be no doubt as to the authenticity of the transaction and subsequent marriage. The cash is then also placed in an identical kettle, and the two kettles are passed around for some ceremonial reason. When they are passed to me I try to take them one at a time but am hastily told that this is improper, and I take one in each hand as everyone else does. Once they have been weighed by each pair of hands in the room, they are given back to the mother of the bride, who evenly distributes the kola nuts among the congregants and pockets the money. With that, the ceremony is complete, and the crowd disperses.

Back at the Bah compound, lunch is ready, yet for some reason I am placed in a separate room with my own food bowl. I can never quite decide if this distinction is to honor me or if they don't think I want to or am able to eat with my hands from a community bowl. Either way it is strange, as I ate from a community bowl less than an hour ago. My food bowl is enough to feed a family of four, and after eating two breakfasts and one lunch already I am in no condition to gorge myself, though the food is quite good. After finishing and insisting repeatedly that I can't eat anymore, I start to pack up my things to head home. "Wait, wait! Your milk! Your cow oil!" I had almost forgotten. A fanta bottle filled with warm golden liquid corked with a wad of blue plastic and a water bottle full of fresh milk are produced.

The next morning, back in Barrow Kunda, I wake up and make myself a cup of tea on my gas burner. As I sip it, my host brother's younger wife comes to the door with my breakfast of millet porridge. I thank her and take it, putting it on my cooking table, when I notice the golden bottle with the blue plastic sticking out the top. I grab it and go to my door, opening it, and ask my host wife to come back. "This oil, some Fulas gave it to me. What do I do with it?" She stares at it, thinking a moment. "I don't know. I'm not a fula."