Ibn­bat­tuta: Mali by Road

Sunday Trust - - FRONT PAGE - Read more about this in the sec­ond in­stall­ment.

If you google Mali (repub­lic) these days, what pops up are dire travel warn­ings such as this from the US State De­part­ment: “The US De­part­ment of State con­tin­ues to warn US cit­i­zens against all travel to Mali be­cause of on­go­ing ter­ror­ists at­tacks and crim­i­nal vi­o­lence. Ef­fec­tive De­cem­ber 27 (2016) the Em­bassy will change its sta­tus to ‘Adult El­i­gi­ble Fam­ily mem­bers only’, mean­ing no one 21 years or younger will be al­lowed to ac­com­pany US gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees as­signed to Mali. This travel warning re­places the Travel Warning dated July 1, 2016.”

Mali has been trou­bled by lows­cale Touareg re­bel­lion for many years. These el­e­gant no­mads, who can be found all across the edges of the Sa­hara desert in West and North­ern Africa, as­pire to unite and cre­ate an Aza­wad state. The break up of Libya, where thou­sands of young Touaregs used to live and fight, led to an­other re­newed at­tempt to achieve panTouareg in­de­pen­dence.

Sweep­ing across the Sa­hara in pickup trucks, a rag­tag Touareg army quickly dis­placed the reg­u­lar Malian Force by oc­cu­py­ing Tim­buktu, Gao and other north­ern towns. This threw Mali into chaos, pre­cip­i­tat­ing a coup and a pronged cri­sis that led to rapid changes in gov­ern­ment. Even af­ter the French army had in­ter­vened by chas­ing the rebels back to the desert and restor­ing the in­tegrity of the Malian state, ter­ror­ist at­tacks con­tin­ued to desta­bi­lize the coun­try and scare off vis­i­tors, es­pe­cially west­ern tourists.

One of the most spec­tac­u­lar oc­curred on Novem­ber 20, 2015 when armed men at­tacked the lead­ing ho­tel in Ba­mako, the Radis­son Blu, killing 19 for­eign­ers. Two groups, Al- Qa’ida in the Lands of Is­lamic Ma­greb (AQIM) and Al-Mura­bitoun claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for this out­rage. The wide me­dia cov­er­age this re­ceived has neg­a­tively branded the coun­try, turn­ing a unique cul­tural des­ti­na­tion into no-go area.

Ibn Bat­tuta has al­ways been fas­ci­nated by Mali and no travel ad­vi­sory could keep me away. Though land­locked like Niger and mostly desert, Mali is abun­dantly wa­tered in the South by the rivers Niger and Sene­gal, that me­an­der through or near most of its ma­jor set­tle­ments, in­clud­ing Ba­mako, Sis­soko, Mopti and Tim­buktu.

An an­cient Car­a­van route, that has seen the rise and fall of the Malinke and Song­hai em­pires, the area has be­come a cul­tural melt­ing pot of Arabs and Touregs, Malinke and Soninke, Bam­bara and Fu­la­nis, that form the bulk of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, which is 95 per­cent Mus­lim. To add to this hu­man me­lange, in the cen­ter of the coun­try live the Do­gon eth­nic group, who are mostly Chris­tian or An­imists and are much vis­ited by west­ern tourists in their moun­tain hide-aways.

The rich cul­ture pro­duced by this hu­man di­ver­sity and in­ter­ac­tion has made Mali a place to savour for its food, dress and es­pe­cially mu­sic, where it has ac­quired an in­ter­na­tional fol­low­ing. Even in a largely modern city of about two mil­lion peo­ple like Ba­mako, this cul­tural her­itage still lives in the streets and the market, in the ca­noes that ply the river and fa­cades of res­i­den­tial build­ings.

From Nige­ria the best way to visit Mali is by road and your correspondent had the plea­sure to do this three times. The first time was by bus with some stu­dents on a school ex­cur­sion. On day one we crossed the bor­der at Il­lela, near Sokoto, and drove the whole night to reach Ni­amey, Niger. Nei­ther we the young teach­ers, nor the stu­dents, could af­ford ho­tels, so we camped in our bus out­side the Nige­rian Em­bassy in a leafy sub­urb of the cap­i­tal.

Next day we pushed on to Oua­gadougou in Burk­ina Faso, where we were once again forced guests of the Nige­rian Am­bas­sador. What I re­mem­ber most about this part of the jour­ney was our stopover in Bobo Dioulasso, the sec­ond largest city in the coun­try , where we had an ex­cel­lent lunch of Jolof rice in a pop­u­lar lo­cal restau­rant. The place was teem­ing with lo­cals all yap­ping in a lan­guage that sounded re­mark­ably like Hausa( it was Mossi, the most widely spo­ken lo­cal tongue). One of the street wisdom of travel, is to eat where the lo­cals do, it may not be fancy, but the food is likely to be bet­ter and cheaper!

Oua­gadougou was a bit of a sleepy cap­i­tal. The boule­vards were wide, but mostly un­paved (since this was many years ago, things may have changed) and the main means of trans­port were small scoot­ers that seemed more pop­u­lar with women than men. I’m try­ing hard to re­call what else was mem­o­rable about this sandy cap­i­tal, but all that keep com­ing back are dim im­ages of mango trees and the smell from lo­cal bak­eries.

When we drove into Ba­mako

In Mopti we spent the night in a small but neat guest­house, where the food, es­pe­cially the con­ti­nen­tal break­fast was sur­pris­ingly good. This is the thing about the French in­flu­ence, even in a small river town in the fur­thest reaches of West Africa, the baguette is fresh and the cof­fee for real!

early in the morn­ing, we were sucked into the hus­tle and bus­tle of an en­er­getic me­trop­o­lis. The town cen­ter is built on the banks of river Niger, with bridges con­nect­ing the two ends of the wide val­ley. Some­where in a quiet street was the Nige­rian Em­bassy, where we sought refuge as usual. This time the re­cep­tion was warmer be­cause the school had writ­ten to say we were on the way. Also, a class­mate of mine from univer­sity was a ju­nior diplo­mat at the Mis­sion. So we didn’t have to sleep on the bus and scav­enge for food on the street.

With ac­com­mo­da­tion and food sorted out, we took our wards to some mu­se­ums in the city, where they could re­late what we taught them about the an­cient times of King Mansa Mousa with real-life ar­ti­facts from that pe­riod. We also vis­ited old mosques and palaces from that pe­riod. Then we vis­ited the Grand Marche (Market) and some craft houses, where if you searched care­fully there was some glimpse of the past in the present. Malians are per­sua­sive sales­men, one could eas­ily buy fake sil­ver jew­elry touted as the real thing.

On my next trip to Mali, I did not have young peo­ple to worry about. We ac­tu­ally flew into Ba­mako with a col­league and then joined a group tour whose ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion was Es­sakane, 65 kilo­me­ters northTim­buktu, where an In­ter­na­tional mu­sic fi­esta, “Fes­ti­val au desert,” used to take place every year. Driv­ing north in an old, but ser­vice­able Land Rover, we broke our jour­ney at Mopti, a bustling river port town. Big tourist boats from here could take you up river to Tim­buktu in two or three days, but that’s ad­ven­ture for an­other day, if Al­lah wills.

In Mopti we spent the night in a small but neat guest­house, where the food, es­pe­cially the con­ti­nen­tal break­fast was sur­pris­ingly good. This is the thing about the French in­flu­ence, even in a small river town in the fur­thest reaches of West Africa, the baguette is fresh and the cof­fee for real! I have stayed in some fancy ho­tels in La­gos, where break­fast is al­ways some fried stuff and Lip­ton! As all old trav­el­ers know, it is not the build­ing and the fur­ni­ture, but the ser­vice with a heart that counts.

With most in our group car­ing not a hoot about his­tory, two of us de­cided to make a de­tour to the an­cient city of Djenne, con­sid­ered by some his­to­ri­ans as the old­est known city in Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Founded by Soninke mer­chants be­tween 800-1200 AD and built in the flood plains of the river Niger, where it meets the Bani river, it was in its hey­days a great com­mer­cial and reli­gious cen­ter.

But Djenne seemed to be dy­ing by the day. As young peo­ple moved to the cities and the old die out, sev­eral houses laid empty or in ruin. Af­ter a walk­ing tour of the crum­bling old town, we stopped at the old cen­tral mosque, which along with the one in Tim­buktu, is a UNESCO her­itage site. It says some­thing about its past, that the grand mosque in Djenne is largest and best pre­served mud build­ing in the world. It dom­i­nates the main market square and seems at odds with the small mud houses around it. Every year, as in the past, the males of the town, would bring new mud from the river bed for master builders to re­store it to its old glory.

I prayed in­side the cav­ernous grand mosque with rather few wor­ship­pers. We had lunch in a gar­den restau­rant, which catered to the stray tourists like us. I lin­gered in some of the cob­ble­stone streets of the small quiet town. Hawk­ers tried to sell me some hand­crafts in the market and side streets. But my mind was not in the present; I was over­come by nos­tal­gia and a strange sense of want­ing to be­long. With abun­dant rice and fish from the river and the flood plains, one could re­tire from the world in Djenne and merge into its thou­sand years his­tory.

But then Tim­buktu also beck­oned and be­yond it, the fa­mil­iar­ity of home.

Kayes to Ba­mako road in Mali

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