Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Ordinarily, I write about the daily travails of my journeys. I have just this to say about my latest adventure. I chose to stay in my own backyard, so to speak, rather than some remote location in the third world. I decided to try and expand my horizons by doing something different with the shutter and lens: landscapes. I have traveled around the world in search of people in remote lands and of distinct cultures. It is not because I am drawn to how they live, but how they feel. It is what interests me in my life: my feelings in this life, not necessarily how I live or how I will live. There is always a piece of me I find there among these people. I learn about my life and my feelings when I find them, and the camera is the medium which helps me to connect me to them, and by extension, to myself. I discovered in the Arizona canyons that there is also emotional content in rock and sand, water and trees. It was a revelation. I found my feelings reflected or refracted with the light bouncing around these glorious landscapes. It is a new piece I found, and I know now I have to pursue it and integrate it in my life. Next stop: Iceland in September.
Friday, January 28, 2011
From Segou, we drive back to the capitol, Bamako. We stop at villages on the way. Each village has its own uniqueness, even though they are very similar as well. On the road, we stop suddenly, because Ogo tells us that once a year, the local villagers fish a pond. They jump shoving their inverted baskets into the water, sticking their arm through a hole at the top and feeling for fish. It is an extraordinary site.
Bamako is what passes for a city in this west African nation that seems abandoned by Africa and the rest of the world. Mali celebrated 50 years of independence from France last year. Its economy is entirely agrarian and the evaporating tourist business, mostly French, is essentially the only means of creating any economic activity.
I will remember Mali for its vast Sahel landscapes, its dusty and impoverished villages, its multitude of tribes and utterly dissimilar languages, people who have never seen anything of modern life other than our cameras. They call outsiders Anisera -- "people without a village" -- they think we are nomads who have no homes because we move from hotel to hotel and never stay anywhere for more than a day or two.
From Mopti, another long drive to Segou, but Segou is such a wonderful relief from the filth of our last stop. Segou is still dusty and dirty, but much cleaner. The market is colorful and busy and people are working hard. Segou is on the Niger and is the sun sets, the light is magic and colorful. The small river port in Segou is extremely busy. Men, women and children are packed into long river boats while other women and children with all sorts of objects and bowls on their heads wade through the shallow waters to load the boats with the goods that the Bobo nomads will need as they continue on their search to set up camp on their next stop.
We return to Mopti, this time to actually spend some time to see it. Mopti is rancid and filthy. Ogo tells us it is the largest fishing port in Africa. Mopti is on the Bani River, which flows into the Niger. We take a cruise in a river boat up the Niger and back for five or six hours. It is pleasant and relaxing. Along the river banks we see the Bobo tribes people. They are nomads. They live in makeshift villages in temporary straw huts to fish the waters until they will load all of their belongings back into their boats and paddle further to fish new waters.
We awaken to a cacophonous mixture of rooster crows, strange bird songs and donkey fits. It's magic. Our drive through the Sahel today will take us to Terelli, Ogo's own village. There, we are treated to the mask dancers in a colorful, euphoric celebration that occurs once a year to pay homage to the god of the sky for bringing rain during the rainy season so that the crops could be grown and stored to sustain the people through the summertime. The dance is done as a special favor for us and it is ebullient and genuine, not some cheesy touristy thing. The elders of the village preside over the performance. The masks are all different and symbolize different aspects of the Dogon life and beliefs. Ogo shows us the place that boys about age thirteen are brought to be circumcised. The circumcisions are performed every three years to eligible-aged boys. No women are allowed ever to this place. The boys will stay in this part of the village as their wounds heal. There is a great celebration when the boys return to the village proper. The celebration includes a race by these boys. As the boys are racing, the girls of their generation gather water in buckets and sit in a line with their buckets in front of them. When the first boy comes to the finish, he touches the circle for first place on the rock walls containing the ancient rock paintings. The second boy touches the second circle. The third touches the remaining circle. The boy in first place is given a house and grain. The boy in second place is given a cow. The boy in third place is given his choice of the girls for his wife. He will choose by using her water to wash himself from the long run.
We leave Djenne to travel to the cliffs of Bandigaria in Dogon country. The drive is harsh. There are no roads now. We drive through the desert. We are tossed, turned, rolled and whipsawed through the rough terrain. The haze that we had experienced earlier and now the sun is punishing. But when we arrive at the first Dogon village built into the escarpment, the journey proves well worth the difficulty of reaching this place. The village is called Chikaboomboom. The Dogon tribespeople built their villages into the cliffsides to protect against antagonistic Felani who kidnapped Dogon children and forced them into slavery. Now these tribes live in peace and some Felani even live in Dogon villages now. The harmonious relationship is celebrated in colorful dance ceremonies. Nevertheless, many Dogon still tatoo the faces of their babies with a burning hot knife, a practice that existed to identify a child stolen and enslaved. The views from all vantage points of the Dogon villages are breathtaking.
After a night in Mopti, we are back in the jeeps with fresh spare tires for a three-hour drive through the Sahel until we reach Djenne. Thhis is a town in which Tuareg nomads, Felani and Banbara tribes people live in villages around this dusty town. Djenne too has a mud mosque. It is the largest mud mosque in Mali and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Felani are animists. The Banbara are a mix of animists, christians and muslims. Djenne is a bustling and crowded marketplace. The women sit, breastfeeding their babies as they sell their wares: grain, cereals, vegetables, fish and all other variety of necessities for the local people.
There are few tourists in this country. The U.S. State Department as well as other foreign ministries around the world have identified Mali as too dangerous for travel due to Al Qaeda and drug traffickers. Our "campement" is stark. We do have toilets in the rooms, but no toilet seats. They must be operated manually by filling the bowl with water until gravity takes over. The bed is rock hard as is the pillow. At least we have mosquito nets. No hot water, of course.
The food is just plain awful. The local people eat rice or couscous with sauce for virtually every meal. Sometimes they have some chicken in the sauce. Fish is generally too expensive. We will have chicken with our rice, and sometimes capitaine, a river fish, as a meal that will be repeated every day and night while we are in country. The chicken is scrawny. There is virtually no meat.
During the days we venture out of Djenne into a Banbara and a Felani village. The villages are always similar. Small mud hovels with mud brick walls surrounding a small square of dirt to separate one abode from another. The villagers are all essentially related to one another. There are approximately 150 people in each of these villages.
Each village we see is dominated by a mud mosque. The mud mosques are dark and dreary inside. Numerous columns keep the structure in place making it impossible to see much of anything beyond any vantage point. Bats fly from perch to perch, a perfect dark living place for these fearsome creatures that are simply ignored by the locals.
The most immediate impression in these villages is the overwhelming number of small children relative to adults.
All of Mali is full of dust. It is desert. The dust has a strange way of softening the light and color, but not the harsh life these people live.