One of the highlights of any trip to Mali is the Great Mosque of Djenne. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is the largest religious building in the world. It was built in adobe and once a year the inhabitants of Djenné organize a spectacular party while completely renewing the plaster on the exterior of the walls. In front of the main facade is a huge mound of mud that is frantically replenished by the excited youths who collect it from the Bani River nearby. Here, shells are mixed with cereal and water to get the correct consistency, before being applied to the walls by the hordes of people enjoying the festivities outside.
Bamako, Mali's capital, is a city that impresses. It is dirty, messy, filled with many people screaming, flailing, dust, and its hot. But in the end, it leaves you with a very special souvenir. I arrived in Bamako with the legendary BK, the train Kayes to Bamako, which actually comes from the border with Senegal.
In Kayes, I had two choices: to continue on a bus that would take me on dirt roads and probably take a half day to reach Bamako, considering it had rained a lot, or take a train. The train was just about to leave. There were only tickets were in first class left.
Once everyone was on the train, we were told to get down, and that the train would leave the next day. When at last we left, it took 24 hours instead of 16, to cover something like 800 km, and the train stopped along the way. People ran to the field to use the bathroom and vendors came on board with food like roasted carnitas or cold water. Finally we arrived and found a place for religious missionaries, which is also a hostel for travelers, to say it is safe and clean place to stay. Bamako has many fascinating things to do and see. Soak up its pace, its music, sit in the street to eat with people who will usually invite you to street parties when there is a wedding or a christening, do not hesitate to participate.
The first day of the trek through the Dogon country, having fallen from Mopti by the Bandiagara cliffs, we reached the village of Banani. It's a tiny village, typical of Dogon country, with dry mud houses, which are re-building each year, with more mud, as rains almost destroyed. The houses are very small, the whole family lives in one room. There are other small buildings that seem to house, they are not, are barns. That saves the small crop of people, hopefully now get extra income with tourism. Perhaps you and your guide planned to eat because the people can't take food from visitors, though there isn't enough pay for them. Our guide wasn't very prepared as he forgot to bring sugar for the tea, nor anything to put on the bread, nor rice for the remainder of the trip. It is important to talk well with him before leaving, to avoid surprises. Obviously not going to bring meat to go for a walk five days. But cans of tuna, nuts, are in Mopti, where salts.
Mopti is a city in Mali, located on the Niger River, on the road to Timbuktu. It is made up of three islands, but the most interesting is the old town, with its houses of dried mud and lively market. It is called the Venice of Mali. People mainly speak French as a foreign language, a bit of English, but I don't think they have any Spanish. Many people speak up to five African dialects and are used to understanding foreigners so you will have no trouble getting to your hotel, finding food, and you can get on with your trip. Just so you know, the buses do not leave Mopti at a specific time. You get a ticket at the station, with a number of 1-60. If you're No. 1, 59 more people are needed before the bus will leave ... They are also slow. The best way to keep travelling is by the river. There are numerous official and unofficial guides, and in the low season, they may be annoying because all they ask you if you have a guide, a boat, or plans to continue to Timbuktu. Ask at several agencies, and ignore them. You can take a boat to get to know the nearby towns, or hire a guide to visit the fabulous Dogon country. The prices are quite expensive compared to what I saw in Asia or Latin America, but you can put a mattress on the roof, it is cheaper, but do not forget the mosquito net!
We started off the cliff of Bandiagara. Bandiagara is high and is the largest city in the Dogon country, named for the impressive cliff. There are two main spots to hike up and to hike down. I start going down, down to the meadow, where the most remote villages. There are no paved roads to reach the villages and everything has to go down the cliff, and the road is super narrow. Men can hardly even pass by each other so I wonder how donkeys and horses are used to carry things up and down. You may have planned a trip with your guide, but make sure that at the beginning, before lowering teaches you the wonderful view over the meadow. Depending on the season, it should be fairly dry. The winter is from June to October and is usually considered to be the rainy season. If you go in summer, it may rain, but remains fairly dry, the region is greener, and more beautiful. Going down the cliff, you'll find people carrying food for its people, some up to sell their crop up in Bandiagara, intersect in this mini course, sometimes a Pit! You descend to the meadow in an hour and a half. On the left you can see how water cascades down, if just rain, but do not swim there parasites!
The Dogon country is a beautiful region at the border between Mali and Burkina Faso. The village is next to the Sangha Bandiagara cliff, and some houses are built up on the mountain. The strange thing is that when you raise your eyes, you see some rather small holes in the mountain, 30 meters above the village. Those holes are there for the dead because when someone dies, they dig a hole in the mountain to send it up in peace. The village is near a beautiful waterfall, which falls from the mountain. It is really peaceful when it rains, and we were told we could go for a swim, but there were some fatal parasites! It is very beautiful, but I wouldn't recommend swimming. There is a small river that runs through the prairie, which will be safer for swimming, and villages in where you can stay,and where you get a bucket of water to wash yourself. Do not expect a shower, rather a can with water! At night, you can sleep in a room, but with the heat you offer to put a mattress on the roof of the hotel with a mosquito net is cooler and the sky is beautiful.
The Dogons are a West African ethnic group, which was installed by the Bandiagara cliffs in Mali, to escape the Islamization of Senegal. Today, dogons still live in villages, culture is transmitted orally from old to young, and live in the culture of corn, onion, and most of all the thousand, the staple diet with which make flour, meal, and beer! People of many cosmogony, remained in the region without updating. In order to continue hosting many tourists without losing their authentic identity, this group of people created some camps in their community which welcome walkers and create profits that help to finance projects within the village. In addition each traveler pays a couple of euros to the elders serving emergency cash in case they have a problem. People rotate to attend the camp. In Tireli, a list of needs in made each year, which is funded by the degree of priority tourism revenue. Women can have a loan to purchase a breeding animal for livestock, seeds, or start a personal business. Tourism is a source of income and for which we must not give up their culture. They are a proud people, so they won't take hand-outs from the tourists. They want to work for it rather than simply receive it.
The Dogon country is an exceptional place. It is protected and holds a lot of tradition. It is situated between Mali and Burkina Faso under the Bandiagara prairie. You can't go without a guide. They are available at Mopti, which is the main town, leaving the Dogon country, I had a bad experience with a guide who was of Mopti. The Dogon people didn't know him, but there are some guides that they do know so you will have a nice experience if you go with one of them. If you do not go Mopti, Bandiagara to reach or Sangha, the people up the cliff, you can get guides, tourists are waiting, and after all, they are just young people you show the tourists around . What you have to determine and clarify with them, either writing on paper, are all the travel details. The people you will see, the exact duration, how many meals, what you will eat, because people are very poor and no food, then the guide has to carry food 3 or 4 days, and sometimes takes the minimum to save on what you give. Once all this done, the adventure begins!
The Niger River is the 3rd longest river in Africa, after the Nile and Congo. It begins by Guinea, then crosses Mali, Niger, before dropping into the Atlantic. In Mali, it plays an important role. With the bad state of the roads, or non existence in some places, the only means of communication between people and business is this river. It flows through Bamako, Segou, Mopti, Djenne, Gao and Timbuktu. In a country that is dry, they use it for washing, laundry or kitchen utensils, children come to play and bathe, and use it for irrigation and rice cultivation. In many cities, including Mopti and Djenne, you can go on a walk along the river. The more adventurous can get to Timbuktu by boat, which is 5 or 6 days from Mopti. The boat is called a "pinasse", the fisherman's boat that will take 2 or 3 people, until the big boats full of passengers and goods, animals and water supplies, can be used , but I don´t guarantee when or how to get there. Wear a sarong to keep you warm, and bring enough water for a full day. If you hurry, see Timbuktu by boat, and return with a bus.
The Niger river is the central artery of Mali. It provides fresh water, allows exchange of goods, people, and the cultivation of rice. There are nomadic towns by the river, that move with the harvest, by boat, called a "pinasse". You can use one of these pinasses from Mopti to reach Timbuktu in almost a week, if all goes well, but if you have a shorter travel plan, you can rent a pinasse for a day, or evening, and visit the villages around the River. You will see that even the young local children know this river very well, sailing alone and navigating with ease, without worrying about the flow or movement of sand in the bottom, that can block you halfway across the river if you're not careful! It's also possible to visit a fishing village, where you can see a great variety of fish. As there is little and it has to last, it is dried. It smells terrible, but is sent regardless to parts of the country with no access to the river. The main course is a lot of rice in oil, vegetables and fish from the river on top. It is usually very good and fresh. People from the villages like visitors, but try not to give anything to children, lest they become beggars. They love to know about your country, how you live, what you like. Most speak very good French, English not so much.
The train which goes from Bamako to Kayes, on the Mali and Senegal border, usually takes sixteen hours. It then crosses the border, and continues to the city of Dakar, taking another fifteen hours. In fact, it takes roughly 3 days, and is increasingly delayed. It might be that you take the train on Monday but in reality it's Fridays train that never showed up. For a European, it's weird, annoying and disturbing, but for Africans, that is just how it is. You have to relax and avoid doing anything last minute. You can almost never buy tickets last minute because everyone had to leave the week before. The train is overcrowded, with women and all their children and a giant pot of oily rice, that children are eating by hand, the rice falls on the ground, the train is a mess, the bathroom is a hole in the floor of the train, and generally, when the train stops, almost always without reason in the middle of nowhere, everyone runs from the train to go to the bathroom behind a tree. Some vendors appear out of nowhere to sell food and drinks. It is a very old train that was brought from France and other than the price there is not much difference between first and second class.
In the Dogon plain, Songho is a village where we were shown the square of male circumcision. Every three years the children are taken there, who stay there for 3 months preparing. During this training they paint images of totem poles, masks and other symbols on the wall of this natural shelter. Women and uninitiated children can not look or step inside this place (with the exception of tourists, as a servant ...). Funny how in these drawings they have integrated elements foreign to their culture, like calculators ... Gossips say that Mariscal found his inspiration here for his Cobi among other designs.
We returned to the river "traveler", the great Niger to discover from the deck of our pinnace hidden architecture, popular, humble perishable and out of the earth, merges with the terroir of that seems to emerge and form beautiful fairytale castles suggestive as Mosques. The architecture is actually hidden because it is tough to see it from the banks of the river. It is all among the lush vegetation covering the banks and there are some timidly slender minerets, so it is only in the case of the most remarkable structures. Architecture is popular here because the inhabitants of the small villages were the ones to erect these small buildings. The Architecture is perishable because the rainy season is severely punishing to the paint. The Architecture is quite humble, as it is built with faith, love and tenderness. We landed in small towns like Kotaka, Kuna or Buna and contemplated the different ways of construction, always evocative and beautiful, we were thrilled with the ritual that involves our shoes to enter the interior of these small wonders and we enjoyed very much watching with pride that locals show us their most precious treasure. The Niger, a river to daydream, mosques, tiny treasures to discover.
Ségou is a major city of Mali. From here, Bamako can be reached in three hours, when "all is well". Generally, something always happens. If you're traveling in Africa, it is best that you make your plans from day to day, because this way, you will avoid quite a bit of stress. Ségou is a quiet town on the banks of the Niger River. We wanted to visit it because was the former capital of the Bambara Empire, and we had read about its importance during the colonial era, when it was the administrative center of French settlers. A part of the city has a French colonial architectural style, and part traditional African style, with dried mud houses. The Bozos are an ethnic group of fisherman, and they have a very graceful and delicate way of fishing. They fish by casting their nets on the river. In its day, it was a rich city due to being located next to a major commercial river. Like other large African cities, Ségou doesn't necessarily have stuff to visit or do, but it does have a lively market filled with crafts, as well as a mosque, but the most interesting thing is to walk along the river, see the Bozos like fish and paddle by Niger, women washing clothes, children screaming and taking care of the goats, and just sit in the shade to talk to some of them.
The Dogon country is a beautiful region at the border between Mali and Burkina Faso. There is a meadow below the cliff of Bandiagara, right next to a river that is pretty green all year. There are not too many cultures there, and they valley people can eat the cattle. Still, there is very little food, and many go to work somewhere else because it takes more to live well. The region is being helped by international development funds, but if you look at the dunes in the background of the meadow, each day closer to the river, making it less arable land, and the possibilities of living there. The people are very friendly and nice. The old men gather in the village center, below the "arbre a simple word," the tree of words. It is a low wooden building that provides shade to come sit and talk about the facts of the people, make decisions and simply get together. The young people spend time playing in the streets, but the very young ones have to work in the fields, and there are some that go to school, but as it is very far, not many can go because it is expensive and they would have to leave their family.
The village of Dourou is located in the Prairie Dogon, between Mali and Burkina Faso, near the city of Bandiagara. This is an ethnic group of people that speak a particular language and are a minority in Mali. There are currently just 800,000. The culture of these people is very lively, and they make African masks which are seen in the markets of Mopti and Djenne. They are currently losing many traditions because they are very poor without job prospects, without development, nor sustainable tourism. Tourism is slowly developing, but it isn't everything. Some of the guides are not great, but others really respect the people and will teach you something unforgettable. All peoples are Bandiagara cliff above the prairie or below 500 meters. Dougou was the last village of the trek three days, and then had to go back up the cliff, by a very narrow path! The Dogon are animists and if you can attend a party at some people do not hesitate.
We stayed in Timbuktu last night, after a full day of off-roading in the Sahel to "The African Athens", the "Mecca of the Sahara", "The Rome of Sudan". These and many other names have enveloped this city in a magical aura, although, today, some insist on denying it this right. Timbuktu itself is a place where you can lose yourself, surrounded by the Tuareg, the peaceful streets (empty at noon because of the heat), its architecture, and its manuscripts that the local clans have kept generation after generation since the 13th century. One of its jewels is Djingarey-Ber Mosque, which I understood later and returned to enjoy the book, "The Architect of Timbuktu", about Manuel Pimentel. I recommend everyone read it. This mosque was built by Es Saheli, summoned by the emperor Kanku Mussa. Supposedly, it was inspired by the regional ants that pepper the fields, which I certainly believe.
During the 10 days of my stay in Morocco, we took a 4x4 along the former route of the Dakar across a very poor stretch of land, where we saw misery, as well as unforgettable landscapes with sand, sand and more sand. There were starry nights without light pollution, it's a shame I don't have pictures of it. And the best was riding a camel through the red dunes of the Tombouctou desert, of which I have kept the photos, and despite the quality, they continue to show such beauty.