Posted by: kristinej | February 9, 2010

February 8th

Warning – this is a really long post, but it’s super interesting, I promise!

I got back to Yirimadjo yesterday after spending a fabulous week traveling throughout Mali.  Becky, a friend Daline, and I left early Monday morning on a charter bus to Sevare, which is the starting point for people visiting Dogon country, Mali’s most famous tourist area.  Riding in buses in Mali is never particularly comfortable because while at one point they probably had air conditioning, they no longer do, but the windows don’t open and so the only fresh air flowing through the car comes from two overhead hatches that pop open.  Unfortunately, we were in the very back row, and the hatches remained closed for most of the 9-hour ride because the Malians in front of us insisted that the wind would give them colds.  Honestly.  I was pretty sure I would suffocate, and my discomfort didn’t improve when the 2 year old in front of me pooped his pants.  It also amazes me that while Mali is known for its music, these buses choose to play the music of shrieking griots, usually at volumes that have probably caused permanent damage to my eardrums.  But, I can’t complain too much because we didn’t break down along the way and we arrived in Sevare late afternoon, in time to shower, drop off our bags, and have a beer with some other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs).

Tuesday morning we got to the bus station at 7am to get a sotrama to Bandiagara where we would be meeting our guide.  Unfortunately we had just missed the first bus, so we waited around for a couple of hours before the next one filled up and left.  We met some interesting characters while we waited, and Becky made a new friend in a probably-drunk guy who spoke English, was singing Bob Marley, and traded his traditional Dogon hat for her green bandana.  Once we got to Bandiagara, we met our guide, Robert (not his real name – he was given that nickname when he was young because he was a good soccer player and there was a famous Italian player named Roberto).  Robert spoke some English, and fluent French, Bambara, and Dogon, so our tour was conducted in a combination of languages.  Our plan for the next three days was to spend each day hiking in the cliffs of Dogon country, spending each night at a campement in a small village.  Robert was there to show us the way, tell us about Dogon history and culture, and make sure that we didn’t accidentally step on any sacred areas.  Dogon country is an interesting area because though it is now a rather large tourist attraction, it has historically been pretty secluded from the outside world, and so has not been as influenced by Islam and Christianity.  It is largely animist, and most people do not speak Bambara.  A lot of the people who originally lived high along the cliffs have now moved down to the plains, but some remain in villages higher up, and you can see little houses carved out of the sides of the cliffs, where the pygmies used to live and which are now used as tombs or for storing grains.  I’ve never seen anything like that, and it was fascinating to look up and see these tiny little houses literally carved out of the red cliff walls.

We started our hike Tuesday after lunch, heading all the way down the first cliff.  The views from the top were incredible – to the right the plain stretched out as far as we could see, and to the left we could see the other cliffs that we would be climbing later on.  On the way down we passed through a couple of villages, greeting the few Dogon villagers who poked their heads out of their houses.  We had bought kola nuts, which we gave to important men in the various villages that we passed through as a sign of respect and a sort of thank you for letting us tromp through.  Occasionally we would pick up friends along the way – little kids who would take our hand and walk with us for awhile before running back home.

For some reason I had been under the impression that “hiking” in Dogon country would be more like a stroll across the plains.  While that is probably true for some trails and for the people who take cars from village to village, it soon became clear that ours was going to be a bit more grueling.  Because of the constant downhill and the weight of my pack (I was carrying bedding, clothes, etc, and several liters of water), my legs were shaking after about 10 minutes, which was not a good sign considering we were supposed to be doing this for 2 more days.  Once we got to  the bottom and hit flat ground it was a little better, but Robert took off at a pace that left us pumping our arms in an exaggerated power walk just to keep up.  Because it is still sort of cold season, the heat wasn’t really too bad, and the constant breeze made it pretty pleasant.

After covering several kilometers across the plain, we reached the bottom of another quite large cliff, and Robert barely slowed his pace as we began scrambling up the side. Luckily, this was the last part of our hike for the day, and when we got to the top we only had to walk a short distance to the village we’d be spending the night at.  As we walked to our campement, we were greeted by a group of men who offered us millet beer.  It was served in a calabash bowl, and we were supposed to pour a small amount on the ground before tasting it, apparently as an offering to our ancestors.  The men were amused when Daline poured a bit more than she intended and then explained that she had a lot of ancestors.  I was pleasantly surprised by how warmly we were greeted in all of the villages – I had been unsure how the Dogon people felt about having tourists come walking through their villages, but they didn’t seem too bothered, probably because the guides keep us on set paths and we do bring quite a bit of money into the local economy.

The village we stayed in that first night was beautiful – it was tucked into the side of the cliff and was so quiet and peaceful.  All of the buildings in the area are made out of stones and red clay, and our campement was just a simple compound with a nice patio and several rooms with flat roofs that you could sit out on.  There were only two other travelers staying there – two women from Canada whom we had dinner with.  At night we were given mattresses that we laid in a row on the roof and because there was a breeze and it was fairly cool we could sleep without mosquito nets.  We weren’t given pillows, but Robert propped the mattresses up on the concrete ledge of the roof and said, “There, you have a natural pillow.”  With little electricity and no major towns for miles and miles, the stars were absolutely incredible.  I honestly think that sleeping on the roof under the stars both nights was probably my favorite part of the trip.  In the morning we woke up with the sun and the sounds of cows, goats, and donkeys.

We hiked for a solid 4 hours that morning – down the cliff, across another sandy plain at breakneck speed, and up an even higher cliff to another village.  At the bottom of the cliff we were joined by about 5 boys who accompanied us up all the way up, hoping that we would tire out and pay them to carry our bags up.  We declined their help, but they kept following and as I was heaving myself and my pack up the side of the cliff I could hear the boy next to me whispering in my ear, “Give me your bag, give me your bag.”  Before this trip I already had a big appreciation for how hard Malians, the women in particular, work, but even more so in Dogon because Robert explained to us that any goods brought into the villages up there, including fruits and vegetables from the nearest market, had to be carried up those cliffs.  He said that sometimes women came up with 20 kilos of goods on their heads.  It’s all what you’re used to, he said.

Along the way we saw a man weaving cotton fabric, which was really interesting, though we couldn’t take a picture unless we wanted to pay him, which we didn’t.  Then, when we got to the village where we would be eating lunch and resting up, there were lots of people selling shirts made out of those cotton strips, as well as cotton fabric, clothing, and hats died with indigo, which is just beautiful.  Needless to say, I added to my ever-growing fabric collection.  Over lunch we had a good conversation with Robert about marriage and relationships in Mali.  He explained that he has just one wife because she is the love of his life, and “two wives means two problems, three wives three problems, four wives, four problems.”  He also only has three kids and they don’t plan to have any more, which is very rare here.  It was a refreshing perspective and one that you don’t often hear.  Overall, Robert was a really great guide and we had a fun time joking around and giving him a hard time, and he had no trouble returning the favor.

After a short nap during the heat of the day, we left the campement and hiked another couple of hours to another village where we spent the night.  That too was a nice place to stay, although of course it’s all relative: we still took bucket showers and used squatter toilets, but it was clean and peaceful and quiet.  The moon was so bright that night that it actually woke us up – it was like a spotlight shining on our faces.  Thursday morning we took off again, and finished the hike by climbing up the first cliff we had climbed down on Tuesday afternoon.  That afternoon we headed back to Bandiagara and then Sevare.  Friday morning we were at the bus station by 6:30AM to catch a bus to Segou, and though it wasn’t nearly as hot as the ride up, we stopped more frequently and as was bound to happen, broke down when supposedly the accelerator got stuck.  We all piled out and waited on the side of the rode while several men opened up the bus and peered in (does this sound familiar?).  It was past lunch time and we were hungry, so Daline brought out oatmeal packets from one of her three bags and we asked a local woman for hot water (as you can only do in Africa) and then mixed in the packets and crouched around the bowl, scooping up oatmeal with our hands, Malian style.   We left shortly after, and arrived in Segou midafternoon, bracing ourselves for craziness of the Festival on the Niger, one of Mali’s biggest music festivals.

We had signed up through the festival to stay with a homestay, and that ended up working out really well.  The family lived just two blocks from where the festival was being held, and we had a simple room and 3 mattresses and they were responsible for giving us breakfast each day.  We decided not to buy tickets for the big evening concerts, because they were $50, but there was still a lot to do.  Friday evening we hung out with some Peace Corps people for awhile and walked around the downtown area.  Saturday during the day we went to the artisan area, where we bought some jewelry and Tuareg cloth.   There were so many foreigners there and it made for great people watching because all sorts of different people come to Mali as tourists. Segou is a really nice town – it’s fairly large and has a lot of aid organizations working there, but it’s right on the river and some nice architecture and is a lot less crazy than Bamako. Later that afternoon there was a pirogue race on the river, traditional Dogon mask dancers, and an artistic puppet show.  Since we didn’t have tickets to go into the big concert, we just went to a restaurant down by the river where we could still hear the music and ate dinner there.  One of Mali’s most famous artists, Salif Keita, was the headliner, but throughout the 4 days of the festival there had been many other artists from Mali, other African countries, and Europe.  One of the things that I liked about the festival was that it was still very accessible to Malians – they had a much reduced ticket price and other free activities through the day so that people living in Segou could also enjoy it.

Sunday morning we had a smooth and pleasant 3-hour bus ride back to Yirimadjo, making it home in time to have lunch, unpack, and then run out to a baptism that evening.  I don’t plan to travel too much more during my time here because I feel like I’ve seen the best parts of Mali and it’s already getting hotter as we approach hot season, which will last into June.

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