Stepping out of the plane into Mali, I felt a bit disoriented. I was no longer in the Middle East; and, even though I had been to Tanzania and Madagascar, I had never been to West Africa before. It felt like completely new territory. It was late when I arrived, so I could not really process much except to muster enough concentration and alertness to get through the airport formalities. I had been warned that sometimes there are corrupt customs officials who want bribes in exchange for your baggage, and aggressive baggage handlers to add on top. Luckily for me, everything went smoothly. The airport was bigger and newer than I expected, and it was very clean. Still, it was small enough to only have two baggage trolleys.
When I got off the plane, there was a doctor who scanned my ear, and a bunch of people who flipped through my passport to verify that I did in fact have a visa into the country. I did a fingerprint scan, and they took a picture of me. I got my stamp after one question about what I do for work – “travail”- which I semi mangled out a comprehensible enough French response (thank you IB French – I somewhat remembered). The streets were very quiet and subdued due to the late hour. I got to my hotel, and I somewhat fell asleep. I woke up still disoriented to the sound of morning prayers, as I was really nearby to a mosque. I somewhat shook it off, and slept a bit more.
The next day, I experienced my first taste of Bamako and Mali on scooter bike. Bamako means the ‘back of a crocodile’. Mali means the ‘hippopotamus’. The city was frantic with pollution, noise and traffic. Everywhere I looked, I saw vivid colours and patterns on both women and men; and rhythmic music blaring from neighbourhood to car to motorbike. Everyone scattered to Bamako, because there is the most opportunity here. Bamako has 8MM approximately in population. It is crowded, noisy and full of life. My senses were hit hard – Syria felt very, very subtle in comparison. There would be many times during this trip where I would miss Syria and Iraq very much, but I would grow to appreciate Mali in different ways. Mali is kind of like that guy you do not really like in the beginning, but you fall more and more for his sweet qualities with each day. However, in the end, while you gain an appreciation for him, he’s not quite your person.
It is Friday. The shopkeepers, moneychangers, everyone basically works for a few hours. Then, they go home, clean up, dress and prepare for mid-day prayers at the mosque. I am lucky it is a sunny day because I have come during rainy season. There however is no more high season. Since political, territorial (tribal clashes), and terrorism-related conflicts (the crisis) unfolded in 2012, Mali has seen very little tourism. The media, I am told, exaggerates the dangers. There are dangers in the north. I am well aware since I had my eye on Mali in the first place to visit Timbuktu, aside from the people and crisis aspect (of course for my mental health journey). It is impossible at this point in time. A foreigner would likely be killed.
I am scheduled to go to Dogon country, and am told it might not be possible because of banditry. Bandit groups are robbing people on the roads leading up to Dogon country, and upon taking their money, burning their cars and killing everyone. So yes, there are some unexpected dangers. I am told though that terrorism is a very different thing. Terrorist groups want people to conform to a certain religion. If you accede, there is no problem.
There is peace in places like Bamako, but nobody wants to come. You see the strain in the shopkeepers’ eyes. There is dust all over their handicrafts. I am told that some hotels have re-purposed themselves into temporary shelters and restaurants for those who domestically travel from other villages. Every person beckons me into his shop. I feel guilty because I have no room to carry large handicrafts; the downfalls of long haul travelling. I politely say “merci” and go on my way. I am invited to tea (and would be continuously during my travels). There are three rounds to a tea session – each representing life, love and death. Like Iraqis, Malians like their tea sweet, but they add a lot of mint which makes it taste fresh and slightly bitter.
I visit a nomadic herder village just outside of Bamako. They used to span a large territory, but they have to move a little continuously and lose more land as Bamako continues to develop. Soon, they will have nowhere to go near Bamako, and will need to continuously move across the country. The poverty is rampant, but many people smile and laugh with this sense of abandon. People do not stare at me as much as I figure they would. Bamako once had a thriving tourist industry – Westerners were the norm. The children here help with farming and hard labour. In the cities, children go to school. They learn French and their local dialect in primary school. There are numerous local dialects depending on the city, village, tribe – and there are lots of ethnic groups across 10 defined regions. In high school, it is possible to learn English, German and Arabic. It is pretty good if you know 7 or 8 languages in Mali; then, you have prospects to work in tourism in other more desirable (‘safer’) neighbouring African countries or, to become a translator for the government, a business or an NGO. Tourism used to be sustainable, desirable employment for Malians, but that is sadly not the case anymore. My Segou-based tour group has only seen approximately 100 tourists through Mali this past year and a bit. They have, since 2012, branched out to other West African countries to keep their guides employed – specifically in Burkina Faso, Togo, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Benin.
Mali is 80 percent Muslim; Timbuktu was a major Islamic centre along with being a crucial city in the trade routes during the Middle Ages. So, I feel the Middle Eastern undertones, which makes me feel comfortable. I feel some familiarity after having travelled the Middle East so frequently this year. I see African aesthetics and environment, but out of nowhere, I will see Islamic influences – minarets, hear prayer calls and see women in hijabs. I am told that Muslims here are polygamous. Men can have up to four wives. The first wife will always be chosen for you by your family, and will be of the same caste. Christians will only have one wife. Divorce is frequent though because of arranged marriages. Fathers usually name the first child, and then it rotates back and forth between the parents as the family grows. Village families are literally a tribe as the more children conceived means more hands to help out with labour. Infertility still remains a problem for many women, and they will feel shame upon themselves if they cannot bear a child. They will seek out natural herbal medicines and voodoo doctors to try to remedy this (more on the idea of voodoo later onwards).
Thursdays and Sundays are when Muslims will get married (I would later see a lot of this on a Thursday in Sikasso). Christians will typically get married on Saturdays. Regardless of what religion they practice, I see brides wearing white dresses.
Mali follows a patriarchal system. Girls at a young age are trained to do chores, cook, and take care of children, as their final duty is to become a housewife while the men usually provides for the family. Sometimes, women will bear a professional obligation as well – i.e. I noticed in the market that there were a number of women running stands. Males however have a higher opportunity to continue with education, while females will just end up joining their husband’s families as carer of the children and house. In some villages, some women are destined to a craft – pottery, carpet weaving, metal woodwork, etc.
The next day I end up in Siby village just 60 km southwest of Bamako. Siby and Bamako share the same land, and lot of the people are from the Bambara ethnic group. I see 2 to 3 ‘tourists’, aka brusquely referred to as the ‘whites’. I too am a ‘white’. Nobody can tell if I am Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc. I am either main land Chinese or white. It turns out that most of them are expats who are bored of Bamako, and want to visit the Saturday market. The Saturday market is bustling in Siby, but I am not there to visit a market. I want to hike up the cliffs that span the green valleys. The cliffs are everywhere, and extend all the way into Guinea. The rainy season has turned Mali’s valleys into a lush, green haven spanning for miles, far beyond what you can imagine. They will stay green until November to December. When dry season comes, everything will turn yellow. I ask about animals given all the green. Most animals have migrated into ‘safer’ countries because of hunters. All that remains are gazelles, monkeys, snakes, and smaller animals like birds, rabbits and iguanas. These animals also face danger from humans, as most of them are sought out as a means of medicine for voodoo.
I hike up to Kamadjan arch. It is spectacular – you can just hear the breeze of the trees and that is about it. Malians will climb these cliffs to get to viewpoints and caves where they will meditate for however long they need. The Malians are a very, very spiritual people. It is saddening because long before political (i.e. the coup) and terrorist-related troubles (once again – the crisis), tourists would spend evenings on this arch, camping to watch sunset. It is too dangerous now. The wrong person could see you as a ‘white’ from a mile away, and everything could go wrong from there. My guide comments on a lot of places I want to go to. He has not been to Timbuktu since 2011; it has been a terrorist stronghold for a while. He and his wife have friends in Timbuktu, and they advise never to visit. Some of those friends lived in Bamako for a while when it was really dangerous in Timbuktu, but resettled back when things started to calm down slightly. People missed home, and wanted to get back to their lives even if the journey there was dangerous. They survive, even though they know life at home has changed markedly. It reminds ever so slightly that there is no place like home.
My guide is from Dogon country. As little as two weeks ago, banditry groups hit the area. And then, in the north, it is a convoluted, complicated mess – involving tribal wars, politics, and terrorism. When the Tuareg rebellion began, it immediately escalated into an international problem with multitudes of layers involving many parties outside of Mali. I speak to some villagers in Siby. They brush the conflict aside slightly, and say Mali overall is mostly safe. “Where are the tourists” – they ask; “everyone has the wrong impression because of media”. The same conversations of misconception play out like they did in Iraq and Syria. Everywhere, they miss seeing more foreigners in their country. Tourism was an industry that employed so many, and it was wiped out just like that.
A few days on ground, I am told that I cannot go to Dogon country anymore. The random villager killings have increased. If a foreigner is killed, that will be the end of tourism for Mali. So, my time in Dogon is diverted to Sikasso in the south. In the meantime, I head to the ancient city of Djenne – my closest alternative to Timbuktu, and a place still that drew me to Mali initially in the first place. The bus ride from Bamako to Djenne is long and hot – almost 11 hours with continuous stops and engine breakdowns. Insect repellent proves to be useless, because by the end of the trip I have about 20 bites up and down my arms. The bus is claustrophobic and chaotic; everyone stares deeply at me, and I feel mixed emotions of fear and irritation. But for me, this is part of letting go. This discomfort is normality in another part of the world, and I have to learn to adjust. At each of the stops, vendors pile into the bus to try to sell their goods. It adds to the heat, odour and the claustrophobia. I just zone out to help desensitize myself, until I realize I have get off to show my ID. I am told that people who do not have their ID card have to pay off the police to get back onto the bus. Corruption is rampant across the country.
At some point, I finally reach Djenne. Djenne is a gem, but once again you have to look hard to see the purity and natural beauty. It is a quiet town that revolves around fishing and rice. It too used to be booming with tourists, but now hotels and restaurants have either turned into ghost towns or have had to repurpose their businesses. I see two other ‘whites’ during my time there, and I am the least geared up for “fotos”. The one guy has three SLRs strapped over his shoulder. I think to myself – I am too fussed to even carry the one. I wish sometimes that I left it at home since it weighs the same as a small baby. All of us have guides, so I am not so sure how many backpackers struggle their way through anymore unless they have travelled Africa extensively. From travel forums, it seems like a nightmare. Sometimes buses will skip or divert to different locations without ample warning, and if you do not know the local language (beyond French), it becomes a nightmare.
The great mud mosque is the shining star of the town. It is immense, tall and striking. You can see it from a mile away. I visit inside, and it is dark, yet spiritual. The entire ground is made up of sand that it is overturned once a year. The citizens of Djenne have donated rugs so that individuals have a means to pray on. A mud mosque requires lots of continuous maintenance, and so now, other cities and surrounding villages have chosen to develop cement mosques. The architecture across the country is fascinating in general. Everything looks like free-form pottery; this of course makes sense since a lot of the houses use mud, or a mixture of mud and something else (like the plant ingredients that make up shea butter). I would later onwards see villages devoted entirely to pottery in Segou.
The market buzzes around the mosque on the day I arrive, and even more so the next day because Monday is the day when people from villages all around come to hawk their goods. I visit some villages just outside of Djenne, and as I am riding from village to village, I see packs of families coming in from the countryside with all their goods piled high on top of trucks, or horse and carriage. I find the people in Djenne and the surrounding villages to be earthy. They are connected with the animals, the land, and the water. It is their way of life. In the markets, you see nothing but colourful produce – chillies, corn, onions, tomatoes, cassava root, ginger, garlic, yams, and eggplants. There are herbs from all the trees and plants you can think of, or not think of because you did not know they existed. I see these little round balls of soap-like butter, and learn that they are balls of shea butter, like what I find in lotion back at home. Similar to Syria, I see the French occupation influence again – I see beignets frying in the streets, and piles of baguettes everywhere. The street food is not entirely that interesting – omelette sandwiches (which are really delicious, mind you), the aforementioned beignets, little drinks in bags (Junebelle); but the energy of the markets is very interesting – just frenetic and chaotic. You cannot close your eyes or allow your mind to rest for a minute.
Everyone knows each other in Djenne like family. People wave and smile here much more than in Bamako, and love it when you greet them – “ca va, bonjour?” or “i-ni-chay” in the Bambara dialect. If you know someone, you stick around to talk for a while; but even between strangers anywhere, there is a loud, energetic exchange of greetings. Every greeting sounds like it is a coming together of old friends who have not seen in each other in ages. The children here have learned the irresponsible ways of over-tourism from back in the day. They ask for photos, candy, and they grab your arm and pile around you. Some are more polite, and will ask to shake your hand. I smile and speak with them, but I learned my lesson in Egypt when I first started travelling. If you give something to one, five hundred more will come. They repeatedly call me “tu-bahb”, which I am told refers somewhat to ‘white’ or ‘tourist’, but actually means doctor, as the first Westerners that many of the origins of these ethnic groups would have seen were doctors. It gets abrasive after awhile, but I try to shake the feeling off. Kids will be kids, even if it means shouting “tu-bahb” at me from across the river.
I photograph the occasional person, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. I always feel that taking a picture of a person or the inside of their house puts them on display. I know I can ask, but there is still discomfort. That starts to lessen by the end of the trip. I find I like it when women especially are very proud of their own craft. When I visited this one pottery village in Segou nearer to the end of the journey, each woman (and only women engage in pottery) was so prideful of the pieces she was making. I started feeling a bit more prideful of the portraits I was taking.
Along the way, I find myself intrigued by Fulani tribal woman. The married women have permanent blue tattoos around their lips, some more pronounced than others by personal choice. This tribe stretches across to the east as far as Ethiopia. Women as young as 9 (they can marry that young) and up to twenty will get their face tattooed when they get married. I am told however that this is an old tradition. Some girls will refuse now to get the tattoo because of its permanence and the pain, and well, divorce is more common. This is not exclusive to the Fulani. Some Bambara and Dogon women will tattoo themselves as well. A lot of women seem to use henna around their feet as well. Malian woman are stunning. The way their colourful cotton dresses flow, and they wrap their headscarves is so elegant, even if just to work and walk around doing their day-to-day. You see the heavy loads they carry over their head so naturally; they have been carrying those same heavy loads since they were children. I do end up buying a tailor-made dress for really cheap, but I feel like a potato in it. I cannot carry the dress off with the same mixture of confidence, swagger and grace.
The countryside is a nice way to spend some time. It is very peaceful and quiet, and it allows my mind to be at ease. I had been having emotional breakdowns thinking about things at home again. I needed desperately for my mind to slow down. Getting back to Djenne hit my senses hard. I find myself concentrating really hard on where I need to walk. The streets are very narrow, and they twist into complicated alleyways – it would be impossible for me to get my bearings here in such a short time. Because it is rainy season, there is mud and puddles everywhere. On top of that, there is garbage everywhere, and shoulder-to-shoulder people, scooter bikes and cars. But, people are used to this. There are signs everywhere telling people not to dump trash in French, but these seemed to be ignored. I am told that the signs are the extent of government involvement in trash. There are no major public programs to pick up litter off the streets, and people will just dump or burn their trash everywhere.
I try very hard to turn my mind off to all the dirt and dustiness, and remind myself that being afraid of germs is a privilege. I get a bit immune to it after this short period in the country, but I always rush into my purse for my hand sanitizer, soap, or at the very least a water tap. People here dust off their hands and just move on. They gracefully pick up cooked and raw food with the swift motion of a hand, proceed to touch animals, handle their kids, and move on. I notice their toes, because they all wear flip-flops and sandals. Their toenails are busted and full of dirt. I will see women in sandals just walk right through muddy puddles.
Life in this part of the world is difficult. I can see it in people’s eyes. The work is long, monotonous and backbreaking under hot and unsanitary conditions. For African women, life is hard, tiring and sometimes very unhappy I am told. I do not even need to be told, I can see it in the crease of their foreheads. I do ask what makes people happy. Given all the conflict that has occurred in the country, the resonating answers are family, community, religion and peace. Of course there is nothing material about their answers. People are happy when there is lots of joking between the ethnic tribes – with no war and conflict. I ask what Malians do for fun. They like to play cards. They also are very in tune with music and wooden-carved instruments. Music is akin to spirituality and expressiveness. I listen to a lot of Malian music during bus and car rides. It is very soothing and rhythmical. Some of the Malian singers sound like water. The music is that peaceful. Traditional Malian music however resonates with the older generation. The younger generation learn to play the instruments, but do not play them as well. They are attracted to what I am told – the “digital”, the “bling bling”.
People are also content if they are healthy. I ask about malaria during a conversation. Malaria is still high, but there are lots of natural herbal remedies, and people will use mosquito nets as a precautionary measure. Malaria feels as regular as the common cold here, and is mentioned with a lot of passiveness. Medicines like Malarone are also available, but at a very high cost. Health care is public, but is still very limited and comes at a price. In the villages, mothers and grandmothers act as the ‘doctors’ with natural remedies. In one village near Segou, I watch a travelling doctor give polio vaccinations to children. Where vaccinations are available, children will get them. Village chieftains will fight for healthcare and education as part of their ‘seat’ and ‘say’ in the government. Seeing a village where children are getting vaccinations and access to education means the chief is doing his job. Sometimes, these things come with interference from an NGO, but I am told though from some villagers that an NGO will push their agenda without really listening – i.e. they will build a well for the PR, when the village really wants a school.
I see how tight-knit communities are in places like Djenne. You walk into someone’s house in the middle of the day just to chat and spend time with each other; walk through the markets with each other; talk across stalls to each other. There is no complicated plan that takes weeks to conceive. You want to see someone, you can see that person even if it is to chat about nothing, and just sit in his or her house for twenty minutes. There is so much closeness here. You can see that everyone has each other’s backs. They will look out for each other’s children, take care of each other’s chores if needed, and be there for each other without even really asking. There is no such concept of “you message first” or “these complications with my family or job prevents me from talking to you”. And so, similar to Syria and Iraq, these tight-knit communities can help each other through distress. They can get through things like war, terrorism, and sadly, rampant poverty because they have each other. They are deeply, deeply intertwined and connected.
Mali has suffered through intense political strife and humanitarian crises that has in some ways, severely impacted its people. But, it’s one of those countries that fell to the wayside under the intensity of conflict elsewhere – in other parts of more high profile Africa (where terrorism hit even harder), or the Middle East amidst Arab spring, etc, etc. I mean, a friend commented to me that she did not even know Mali existed, as she looked through my pictures on social media. I kind of felt impatient – and responded that there is a lot more to Africa than safaris. I mean, I am not an expert by any means – this is my first time to West Africa, and not everyone pores over travelogues like it is their only means of survival. For me, the ability to leave Toronto every so often is survival right now; that is how much I do not resonate with home. But, of course, most people just love the pretty pictures and will never actually read harder into the words behind them. People love positivity; the more you portray your life as ‘happy’, the more they will resonate with you. I think it is fair enough for me to make that generalization now. Case in point, I posted one ‘smiling’ photo on social media recently, and it got more ‘attention’ than anything I have written in the last year.
Anyways, I did not mean to come off mean, but I just did not want to explain this to anyone who I knew would never make it to this side of the world because of ignorance and a propensity against taking risks. And well, going to Mali is not really taking a risk, if there is a whole wall of safety behind it to begin with. But, maybe that’s the problem. I need to explain what I see with patience, and let go of my irritation of the ignorance, and then that will help to open peoples’ eyes. Or, as Jon always pushes, just let go of the fact that our friends and family will never want to go to places like Mali, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and everywhere I am going next, but they still may want to listen and ask questions. I need to let go because after all, nobody really gives a shit, right? I am doing this for me, not them. Why should I care so much? I guess I am not at a stage yet where I can answer that question. I guess I still care if people care, otherwise I really have no purpose to exist (you know, me and my validation problems).
I mean, thinking back to even describing my Afghanistan trip to people at work made me literally want to throw things because of how ignorant they were about how Afghani people are generally (they are not backwards, but rather, very forwards, and the kindest as well). But maybe, when I go back, I will finally be able to let go of all this, and speak freely whether it feels like I am talking to a wall or not. And maybe, someone will care, and someone will actually stretch out of his or her comfort zones seeing that even a privileged shit like myself would go to different places in the world. Or, maybe they will not, and I will just have to be okay with “oh, your adventure looked so exciting” and “your pictures are so pretty” (barf) for the two weeks before I cease to exist again.
Getting back to Mali (before I go on my next bitter tirade, and this is really about Mali) – people are afraid of change and progress. They know what they know – to produce, go to the marketplace, exchange, and live a simple life. Farming, animals and fishing is Mali. Some of the younger generation have different views of course. They do not like the corrupt government and they want change. This sometimes results in ‘revolution’ and protests, but change does not come easy. The older generation is fine with the government if there is order, and no disturbance to their lives.
Evolution comes in other ways – like with traditions (i.e. with the Fulani woman and tattoos). As another example, boys used to get circumcisions when they were teenagers, so they could actually feel the pain (and thus then become a man). Now, mothers will more than likely have their baby boys circumcised when they are really young, because new generation teenage boys will resist the process.
I feel a little softness for Djenne despite its roughness. But, the people are really kind, and I love the tight-knit community. My time in Mali is short however, so I move on to Mopti. Mopti is the capital of the Fulani tribe, but many different ethnic tribes have settled into all these areas. Driving to Mopti, I see the cliff sides again, similar to what I saw near Siby village. Dogon country sees the same cliff sides, and they have built unique houses that encase those rock formations. Unfortunately, I will not see Dogon country this trip, or those types of villages, because they are specific to the Dogon.
Mopti used to be a terrorist stronghold – but the strongholds have moved to or grown strength in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu all up in the north. There is still a large security presence made up of the UN and Malian armed forces. I am told that Malian people want the UN to leave. The people believe they have created more political and conflict-related issues than security over the past few years. But, you can feel the heightened sense of military and police in the town. Even to enter a restaurant that was not a food stall, I went through a checkpoint and bag search. On our way out of Mopti, I see numerous tankers travelling towards the city. Apparently, they go back and forth from Sevare to the Mopti market every few days. This has instilled the fear of recurring war in people.
Mopti is a busy, dirty town, with red sandy streets. It feels really undeveloped in comparison to Djenne, but it is actually bigger than Djenne. The city faces the river, and everywhere you look, there are transport and fishing boats. It is considered the Venice of Mali. The transport boats lead to little villages on islands. Fishing boats dislike the rainy season because higher waters mean difficult access to fish. The villages love high water levels because it is their way of life – their housing, agriculture is dependent on the waters. There are bigger ships that carry transport cargo across Mali. Those ships have declined in movement however for fear of bandit attacks. Crew members may wire larger amounts of money to their ultimate destination. They will only keep small amounts for fear of being robbed and killed. Even now, regular boats limit how far they go into the river for fear of being attacked. I am told that a long time ago, tourists used to go on long boat trips down the river.
I do not know that I feel as safe in Mali as I did in Iraq and Syria. I am constantly with someone, and I think if I was told that I was allowed to walk alone, I would feel somewhat vulnerable and apprehensive to do so. I am very obviously out of place. In certain places, I feel very intensely stared at – especially in Mopti and Sikasso. Bamako is different because of all the expats. Djenne and Segou do feel friendlier, so it gives you a sense where tourists flocked to when the tourism industry was still thriving. And once again, because I am so conscious about walking into a puddle or a pile of mud or trash, I can barely keep my eyes upwards. Some of the places I stay at (to be economical) are really dark and dank; in the Western world, these types of places would likely be on the wrong side of town. I always lock my doors, and shut my windows. Insecurities aside, the places I visit in Mali are safe. The only dangers I face are mosquitos. I just got two more on my stomach of all places.
I visit the mud mosque in Mopti. It is not as grand as the mosque in Djenne. I do not have the opportunity to go inside. Many of the sites in Mopti (and across Mali) are closed to the general public now. My guide finagles our way into an architecture museum through connections. An old caretaker bitterly comes to open the door, saying tourists never come anymore. He gives me a look that completely says, “what the hell are you doing here”? The museum is completely full of cobwebs and dirt. You can see at one time a reception, and many beautifully curated exhibits and pictures existed. But, these are all covered now with dust.
Mopti is beautiful because of the riverside, and the floating villages. I take a boat ride along the river at sunset. It is bustling with fisherman boats, and village people returning from work. It is a spectacular sight to see against the orange and pink hued African sunset. I remember how much I enjoyed sunsets and sunrises in Madagascar. It feels very much the same here. Sunsets at home never feel this warm, but maybe I need to ‘look harder’.
I leave Mopti the next day for a long drive to Sikasso. We pass by many different tribal villages – cement and mud houses intermixed. Some of the storage houses remind me of the beehive houses I recently saw in Syria. I think to myself that in many ways, the world is so very interconnected. I learn some of the tribes –the Bobo and Malinke- are really rather savage and eat dogs. My stomach feels uneasy, and I think back to Vietnam and all the restaurants with dogs in their signage. It just does not make any sense to me, but once again I think to myself that the world is still so very interconnected. All these dots and pieces are linked together.
I see women walking along the roads carrying produce over their heads. Some of these women will walk for miles and hours to sell their goods. I am told that people in Mali can walk for 24 hours. If you are not sleeping, you are standing up doing something – selling produce, farming, fishing, building, pounding millet, cleaning, and the list goes on. Vendors will pay 100 to 200 CFA a week to set up space in a market to local authorities. Everyone has his or her own space. It is kind of naturally and peacefully allocated.
I ask about the economy now and then. China is quite involved in their supply-demand economics, which is not a surprise. They provide telephones and motorbikes, both of which seems to be in every person’s possession, even in the remote villages. A Chinese motorbike can start at 600 Euros. Mali thinks highly of China because telephones give them access to the world. They have now become less under the radar. But in some ways, this conflicts with differing views over change and progress. I thought Mali was really stocked with gold resources, but more of that has shifted to Burkina Faso. There are gold mines near Sikasso, where I will visit next.
Sikasso is near the Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast borders. At one point in time, these countries were all the same. The major ethnic group here is the Senufo tribe, but once again, Bambara, Dogon, Fulani and all other tribes will leave peacefully all together. Sikasso was never originally in my plan. I wanted to hike more, and I wanted so very much to see Dogon country and its unique architecture and people (they are renowned for mask dancing). But, I explore Sikasso nonetheless. It is a sprawling town. Atop the Mamelon de Sikasso (this small castle with a viewpoint), you can see the wide-spanning town that stretches far in all directions in what you believe to be the borders. Its market covers several streets. There is one part that even feels like a bazaar because it is completely covered and has many laneways. It is still dirty, but it feels a bit cleaner than Mopti and Djenne. This does not mean I do not get dust and smoke into my eyes and hair. That remains the same. Everyday I blow my nose, and I see a little black and brown residue. I slowly get more used to it.
Sikasso has two rainy seasons, and so the people produce lots of vegetables and fruit. It is referred to as the wet town. It is also a town of music given the diversity of all the ethnic groups that have settled here, even before the borders were split out between Mali, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. I arrive on a Thursday, and as I mentioned before, Muslim weddings occur on this day. The town is bustling with several weddings at once. I am told that strangers can attend anyone’s wedding. Families will account for this in chairs and food by over ordering chairs, and continuously making more food. A wedding can last from 2 days up to a week.
The next day, we drive 17km west to Missirikoro village, to hike and climb a cliff side and visit a cave mosque. The cave mosque is fascinating. You see carpets piled to the side, and village people will literally climb up the mountainside to find a nook and cranny in the cave to meditate. Some people will meditate and pray here for up to six months. You cook outside, crap in a bush, and then the rest of the time, you are in solitude. I am told that the mentality is that you are in “God’s wall” or more brusquely, “God’s prison”, and it takes time for him or her to hear your grievances. You have to have faith. Many people can pray in the cave, but of course they will not interact with each other.
The views are once again spectacular. We hike to the top using a via ferrata route with chains, ladders and ropes. I feel exhilaration run through me, as the wind whips around me. For a moment, I do feel alive again after having felt nothing but a connection to death for so long. In some ways, at points where there are heights, I still think of leaning my body forward and falling – truly letting go in every sense of the word. But, as always, I pull back. Everywhere you look there are arches, cliffs and valleys, with little spots of villages below. It is a sight I can hardly describe in word or by photographs. Sometimes I wish I did buy that drone, but I know that it would be just an added difficulty to deal with in most airports. I do find that over the last two months, my confidence and aggressiveness has somewhat improved, so maybe in time, I can handle a drone interrogation. Maybe in time (fingers crossed), I will know more than 5 phrases of Arabic.
Coming down, we walk for a while to a different set of rocks. These rocks have a darker vibe. People do not climb to the top; there’s negative energy with these rocks. But, sitting outside of these rocks is the village “psychiatrist” or black magic (voodoo) doctor. I ask what he treats. He reads you and your energy. He tells you what you need to bring for a sacrifice, and with that sacrifice he will transfer the negative energy to the trees. The trees will die shortly thereafter. This takes spirituality and belief. When I ask how this all relates to sickness, depression and suicide does come up. This means of spirituality applies to mental health here. The concept of mental health is not fully realized I think, but depression and suicide is acknowledged. I ask whether it interferes with Islam and religion. It does not so long as you do not wish negativity upon others. Oddly (to me) enough, people can pray and make sacrifices to God in this way, as long as it is positive. After some discussion, I decide that I want to try looking more into this in Segou – my last spot in Mali before I return to Bamako for my flight out. Jon wants me to look at the herbs for his psychedelics research, so I will visit the voodoo market as well.
I feel a rush in my body, as I feel like something really interesting has come for me from the mental health angle. I had felt deteriorated again after a few highs from Syria and Iraq. Mood swings can happen with diet, routine, and structural changes; I totally get that. I was really depressed to begin with going into the trip, and for some time before that, on-and-off suicidal again. Certain aspects and experiences from both Syria and Iraq legs had helped me to alleviate that initial depressive episode. But, Mali was difficult for me. I felt down quite a bit when I was truly alone by myself. But there was something about Mali that really slapped me in the face probably because of how developing it is.
I mean, I did get used to the reality that I am really privileged when there were rolling blackouts and I had to wash myself with a bucket of cold water most days. Sometimes, you realize too late that there is no toilet paper and you forgot kleenex, so you just have to shake your parts off and pull your draws back up. I am also still really lonely. I mean, right now, I am writing in a blackout and there are at least 3 bugs crawling up and down my monitor. I am frustrated slightly because I had sent Jon some messages about my experience with the voodoo doctor, and I cannot get connected – first friggin-world problems – geez R.
But, a lot of the travels are coming together for me in my mind as to ‘happiness’ – the family connection in Iraq, the web of community in Syria, and just the sheer spirituality in Mali (not that all of those things do not individually exist in each country; it is just that these themes are more pronounced with each next place I go). Everything is interconnected and building a web in my head of things I need to pull myself out of being suicidal every few weeks. It will be difficult for me to build these things at home if they never had a proper foundation to begin with, but at least I can find something to narrow in on – find a reason to live and survive.
In Segou I see a voodoo or black magic doctor (the terms kind of interchange depending on the ethnic group) named Seiba. Once again, Malians believe in a multitude of things and it all interlinks with their religion. There is no separation it seems. I am of the belief that it is not quite the same way in the Middle East, but we can put that aside for now. Anyhow, I meet the man for all of a few minutes exchanging simple pleasantries. I blow on this stick, he stares at it and me intensely and then begins to jot down a flurry of script and symbols / ticks (referred to as cheeyen or toorabou – the truth that guides the sacrifice) on his writing board. The man literally reads me to a T. He picks up all my negative energy – about death and unhappiness, about my life and failed relationships (the breakdown specific to sex; these types of broken relationships are attributed to a male, these to female, etc), and how I never feel like I am enough; or that I have doubt and confusion around all the choices I make and I am regretful. It is eerie, overwhelming, and the room seems to move 100 miles an hour around me. I feel really anxious because of how true everything is; and I look away for a minute or two to blink back oncoming tears. At that particular moment in time, I am not sceptical. He read me – 100 percent. I did not have to describe my childhood, anything; it was like he knew it all. As I am writing this, my emotions are running high and I can feel the tears running down my face, but I keep on jotting down thoughts.
I find myself at a crossroads. The next step is a sacrifice to God for each of the things he describes that truthfully make me unhappy – things about myself, things about my relationships, things about my core. The sacrifices will be given to people (religious or impoverished) who will pray for me. Then, I will wash myself with herbs, transferring the negativity away. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but you have to believe. I rush back to my housing for the night, full of racing thoughts. I share with Jon immediately, but then find myself in a rolling blackout unsure of what he will advise me to do. But, maybe this is just something I have to decide for myself. It is rather the same as deciding if I will continue staying on meds, staying with a psychiatrist, or jumping off a bridge. It is all the same.
I end up talking to Jon later that night, and he agrees that I should do the sacrifice. In many ways, it is actually very philanthropic anyhow. Worst (but not actually) case, someone with very little will get something, and I will just continue figuring out what is next. I think about it some more and I decide for myself that I am going to go ahead with this sacrifice, but more on that later.
As the journey comes to close, I start to feel very fatigued. My diet in Mali is not great. I find myself eating baguettes or eggs consistently for breakfast, and some sort of sauce (peanut (Tiguadege – which is pretty delicious), tomato, okra) with rice, fried rice or couscous for lunch. The meals are very heavy, and I am not used to all these carbohydrates. I do not really resonate with how they cook their meat – the fish is fried, and other cooked meat is tough. I try to find fruit and cooked vegetables every day. Sometimes I am lucky, and sometimes I am not. Sometimes, I am so sick of eating dinner alone that I hide in my room and eat bananas and Malian sesame crackers. This has been contributing to my mood fluctuations of course. Basically, I am eating to support my medication so I will not throw up from nausea. But, I really miss cheese, more substantive greens and berries. Jon tortured me once over video call with a bowl of blueberries. Once again though, these are first world problems.
Before I return to Bamako, I spend some more time in Segou (beyond the sacrifice). Segou is also a riverside town, and it is quite beautiful to walk around in. It has a number of neighbourhoods and villages with old, red mud architecture, which I find fascinating. While here, I visit Farako, a pottery village. Only the women in this village will engage in pottery activities. So, if you are born a woman, and you do not go off for higher education, pottery is your destiny. It is mesmerizing to see them shape and mould the pots without many tools. Their hands and feet are swift and rhythmic. Even the little children are incredibly talented at grooving the mud. I think a lot about a really talented artistic friend back at home who recently started getting interested in pottery. I miss having a glass of wine with her.
Later that night, I start the first part of the sacrifice. Because I do not want to detail everything Seiba said in brutal truth, let’s just say this first part of the sacrifice deals with a fractured relationship. From his reading, Seiba brings me:
- A chicken, to be fed to an impoverished family;
- 32 cola nuts, to be given to elders at the mosque;
- 6 litres of milk, to be given to children in need;
- 12 metres of white cloth, to be turned into a dress for a homeless person.
This first ceremony is quick. He grabs my hand and has me grasp the chicken fully over the other items. He then tightly holds his hands over mind, once again over the chicken, and we both speak. I speak about things that are wrong – almost a presentation of the sacrifice to God and those who will pray for me. Seiba articulates it all together. I feel a frenetic, chaotic energy. As I speak, I start sobbing uncontrollably, and it’s like Seiba leaves the room. My tear strands literally start running down to my dress, but I continue to focus on speaking. Seiba is speaking at a 100 miles an hour and still tightly grasping his hands over mine. No lie, but I feel a sudden gust of wind, and then we are done. I am not responsible for killing the chicken, but everything will be taken to the mosque. The second and third parts of the sacrifice will occur tomorrow, and I will tell those stories as they happen.
I feel so overwhelmed. My heart is still racing as I type this. Yes, anyone can be sceptical, but I felt so weird during and after everything that happened. And, it happened all so fast. Seiba said he would explain everything the next day, and he was on his way. The extent is that the sacrifice is given to God, and all those who received as part of it, will keep me in their blessings and prayers.
In the morning, I meet up with Seiba again to do the second part of the ceremony – the goat. The goat is important because it has to do with all that is wrong inside of me – all my mental instabilities, self-doubt and confusion – all things that have been detrimental to my happiness. So, it is important that I concentrate. Once again it goes incredibly quickly. I clamp the goat, and we both say our thoughts in a rush of whispers. The energy is not as high as the evening before. I do not cry this time, but my heart still races. I decide to be masochist, and actually watch them kill the goat shortly thereafter. The meat is divided to the impoverished. I worry slightly because of the lower energy and the lacking presence of whatever powerful feelings I had the night before that reduced me to tears. This particular piece of the ceremony was probably highest on my list. Nonetheless it is what it is, and I have to move on.
There is one more piece with a sheep that has to do with my toxic relationships. That will be left for another day. I have said my words to the sheep and clamped it as well. But the sheep is reserved for after Friday prayers. I will have left Mali by then. In the meantime, Seiba gives me an herbal tonic called ‘tonke’, and some mango root powder. The powder is from the grounded roots of dead trees that have blossomed again naturally. The symbolism of this is re-birth of one’s self, and the revitalization of any fractured relationships. If I wake up in the morning fatigued, then negative energy still surrounds me, and I have to keep on washing myself with the root powder. I end up ignoring my alarm in the morning uncharacteristically, and waking up with only a few minutes to spare before having to leave for breakfast. I feel disappointed because I knew I would not get out the “easy way”. But anyhow, my preliminary work in Mali with Seiba is done, and we can only see if things actually change from here. Even as I write this, my mind is still in a flurry of emotions. We promise to keep in touch after the sheep is killed, and thereon afterwards.
My time in Segou comes to an end, and I return to Bamako for one last day, and a few more glimpses of the city before I leave Bamako. I have been incredibly lucky. It has only rained once since I arrived. This of course adds to my last impression of Mali.
My experience in Mali had its up and downs, but similar with my journeys to Iraq and Syria, I felt my life started over again. Maybe, my life starts again every time I leave for another place, until my life finally starts over for good at home (i.e. I stop feeling suicidal). My emotions definitely ran high, and I felt like I was tested on a number of levels – emotionally, mentally and physically. Of course, that is the best way to learn – to be thrust way outside of your comfort zone and natural privileges, especially when you are bi-polar and your emotions are always on full throttle. I am going to be honest and say it has not been my favourite country, but there are places and people of whom which I have grown a soft spot for. Unlike Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan (all places of which I want to go back to), I do not know when I will come back again; but, Mali still has time to grow and continue developing. I had to remind myself all the time that is a developing country – and I desensitized myself slightly after awhile to all the garbage everywhere, and lack of sanitation. I was reminded all the time of my privilege, and that’s a good thing, because being in a place like Toronto makes you forget. I thank Mali with all my heart for that.
Before the crisis, I am told that parts of the country were developing into a place that was a bit demoralized. Tourists were dressing inappropriately, and drinking excessively in places like Dogon. Some locals fuelled that, and others felt completely uncomfortable. The crisis however has evolved Mali into a place that has regained its purity and humanness, away from the excesses of over tourism. I still have so much of the world to explore, so I do not know that I will get back here in this life time, but it was definitely a growing experience just to set foot here for a few weeks.
Mali will always have a place in my heart, especially for its spirituality and for that experience I had with Seiba, but it’s time to move onwards. I take a brief break from the Middle East and Africa for the next few days (for a needed reunion), but my time with Africa is not done yet at all. There are more stories to be told from here.