Ibnbattuta: Mali by Road
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