“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing. Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms. Strong and content I travel the open road.” Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road, Leaves of Grass
With our sons, high school freshman, Matthew, and university freshman, Jordan, on school break, and my semester’s work finished up, our family quit classrooms, libraries, apartments – really, most indoor quarters – to explore Mali. By foot and boat, in trucks and cars traveling down tarred and dirt roads, we traveled from Bamako to Dogon country and back. A dry, flat country, we marveled at its mud mosques, lively markets, ancient cliff dwellings, flowing rivers, roof top camping, star-strewn sky, warm and welcoming people, and adventure at each turn of the open road.
Our flight to Bamako gave one hint of the surprises waiting around each corner. Although our Air Mali tickets indicated a direct flight, we found out after take-off that we would stop in Conakry. For those of you keeping track of current events in West Africa, you know that Conakry is the capital of Guinée, which experienced a military coup just over a year ago. Its current leader, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who promised to restore democracy and not stand for election, decided to stay in power instead. Last September, at a political rally by his opponents, members of the presidential guard killed and raped hundreds. About two weeks before our departure, one of his aide-de-camps tried unsuccessfully to kill him, shooting him in the head. (Here’s the latest.) So it felt bizarre to be in the familiar trappings of a commercial jet, surrounded by dozens of well-dressed men, women, and children, touching down on the tarmac of a leaderless country. The only hint of it on the ground was the presence of soldiers in fields bordering the end of the runway.
Once in Bamako, we became absorbed in the home life of a French friend, André, who lives with a 20+ member Malian family. The children, ranging from 3-month old girl twins to 20-something young men, drew us into the fold the moment we arrived. Soccer games, dips in the shallow pool, reading Tom Sawyer in English, and delicious meals eaten from a common bowl (non-Malians were served our portions in calabashes or dried gourds) occupied our days.
Brian pulled out the ball of nylon string that has been in our backpack from Rwanda to Thailand and made string games for almost every child in the compound. It’s always to fun to watch people learn the patterns and create new ones on their own. Give the lack of a common mother tongue, smiles and hand demonstrations and all the other non-verbals served as communication.
In Bamako, a big, dusty city with low-rise buildings spread out for miles and miles, we took small day trips. We first visited sand-mining operations on the Niger River, then the presidential palace and nearby parks, national museum, and crafts market the next day. These short trips around Bamako gave us a taste of the city and helped us to get ready for the next bend in the road: a road trip up to Mopti, with 12 people traveling in a Peugot sedan and capped Mitsubishi truck with bench seats in the back.
The first day of our road trip took us from Bamako to Segou. We tried out the different seating options by rotating at pit stops: on benches in the back of the truck, seats in the truck’s cab, and those in the Peugot. For lunch we stopped at a roadside dbiterie or grill, where we feasted on grilled mutton with chopped onions and tomatoes, served on greasy paper set down on the mats that would become our picnic table for the next few days.
In Segou we set up camp on a hotel rooftop, where we listened to music wafting up from the restaurant and bar below. Other travelers would join us here and there, but because we were an even dozen, our gaggle of tents and voices dominated. This was our introduction to rooftop camping, something we did all over Mali. We slept in easy pop-up pup tents made of mosquito netting (thanks, Mark!) with thin mattresses between us and the flat, hard, mud roof. We set up the mats in the middle and took meals there and played card games and talked. We’d listen to the last sounds of human revelry before falling asleep, then wake up to donkeys braying (regularly throughout the night) and roosters crowing in the wee hours. Most stunning was the visual feast over our heads: a black sky with thousands of stars arranged in clear constellations was the last thing we saw before falling asleep, the rising and then setting moon appeared during dips in the deep-sleep cycle, and the rising sun would nudge us out of our sleeping bags. Urban camping at its finest, I think.
The next leg of our journey was to Djenne, a gorgeous old town known for its mud mosque. Its architecture resembles that of the famous mosque at Timbuktu, with banco or mud forming the exterior surface that is punctuated regularly by wooden posts. At first I thought that these bits of wood jutting out were for decoration or were just unfinished leftovers from internal structures. Instead, we learned that the spikes are used as scaffolding for the annual rite of remudding the mosque’s walls, with each neighborhood responsible for hauling mud from the river, climbing the rungs, and packing it on their designated portion. Surrounding the mosque is a square, filled with all sorts of commerce. No Christmas trees, stockings, holiday jingles, or window candles in this Muslim town (except some decorations in our campement dining room), so it was pretty easy to forget the holiday.
Christmas Eve found all 12 of us sitting in our campement’s open air dining room, at a long table enrobed in white linen cloth and dotted with mini-trees and cloth napkins, individual plates and utensils, with a soup course (the kids, ranging from 8 to 22 years old, had never eaten it; all thumbs down), fish entree, and crepes for dessert. Christmas morning, we enjoyed bread and jam, coffee and hot chocolate on the campement rooftop, before touring the old town, listening to the imam’s calls, and basking in the beauty of the mosque (outside only; infidels are not allowed in).
That night, we ate a Christmas dinner picnic style on the same rooftop, enjoying grilled mutton, frites made by women at the marche, chopped up veggies, baguettes, and the sweetest papaya I’ve ever tasted. We were joined by Rene, a Dutch man we’d met on our St. Louis, Senegal trip who is driving across the African continent and whose path we crossed again when driving into Djenne, and a British man sharing our rooftop, who is riding his motorcycle around the world. We shared special sea-salt caramels I brought back from Paris, homage to our family’s annual rite of receiving and sharing Meme’s homemade caramels on Christmas day.
Then it was time to exchange the open road for the running river. We took a two-day boat trip on the Bani River, which flows into the Niger at a wild west like town called Mopti. The pace of life on the river is none too fast. Our captain and first mate cooked our meals in the back of the boat, while we lounged, played cards, talked, read, napped, listened to music, and took pictures of the open plains, herds of cattle, and village scenery passing by. We stopped for lunch (on the mat, of course!) at the river’s edge, followed by a siesta.
We swam in the river, off sand bars. Between Djenne and Mopti, we wild camped one night on the river’s edge. Our guides made a campfire for us, and set up our tents around it. Before sunset, we fished with ersatz poles that André had had made in the Djenne marketplace (a piece of wood, length of nylon string, and a fish hook at the end). Ibrahim, our next oldest travel companion (after we three over-40 types), led the charge to find bait: with a piece of palm tree bark in one hand, he used his other to shake the patches of ground-hugging plants dotting the red clay soil, flushing out crickets and then whacking them with his swatter.
The other, younger boys followed suit, with little André especially relishing his job. I took on the role of bait box, watching the hunt and then running up to scoop up their prey and guard it in my cupped hands. Earlier that day, I’d heard Ibrahim and Djiadje (the next youngest, a young man in his early twenties, studying to be an electrician) talk about their early years in the village, helping their family as goat and cow herders, before moving to Bamako. Up to that evening, I’d viewed them through the prism of their western jeans and t-shirts, cell phones and ear buds, as the embodiment of urban Africa. Watching the cricket hunt, I could now imagine these young men as boys in the bush.
At Mopti, the Bach-Lombardo quartet peeled off from our larger traveling band and boarded one of the ricketiest taxis ever for a hair-raising night-time ride to Bandiagara, our port of entry to Dogon country. (No details on this transport adventure, for the well-intentioned reader would probably call child protection on us. Remember the ruckus raised about the woman who let her child ride the NYC subway alone? The good news is that we made it, albeit a little rattled, but wiser for it.)
Dogon is the part of Mali (see map here) known for its ancient cliff-dwelling cultures, masks and dancing, and all around natural beauty. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as is Djenne). I can’t describe the physical beauty adequately in words, so thank goodness for the hundreds of pictures we took! We spent 5 days and some 55 km walking from village to village, ascending and descending the escarpment via worn paths through the crevices and hand-made ladders fashioned out of tree trunks.
Each night we slept under the stars on a different rooftop, as the moon rounded itself out to full beauty (a blue moon) by New Year’s Eve. Falling asleep looking at the constellations, partially awaking as the moon was setting, and then finally waking as the sun rose, roosters called, and donkeys brayed now were set against the village backdrop of women pounding millet and children chatting as they fetched water.
On the first day, we met our guide, Mamadou, and were driven from Bandiagara down to Kani Kombolé on the Gondo Plain, making a short visit to a village up on the escarpment, Djiguibombo, before setting out below on foot. We walked for several kilometers and took our first break at Teli, where we were awed by the well-preserved ancient cliff dwellings and modern village below. Teli introduced the fairly common phenomenon of Christian, Muslim, and animist cohabitation in Dogon country. The percentages would vary by village but the pattern was the same: separate neighborhoods organized around the place of worship; practices like animist sacrifices/offerings (chickens, millet gruel) on display at the binou or alter; the togu na or palais de justice, where men gathered to resolve problems (and avoid the hot sun, drink and talk, not work in their fields or homes); menstruation huts for women; and huts and compounds closely clustered and densely populated, so that we were always greeting, shaking and holding hands, or just near someone the entire five days.
From Teli we walked to Ende and then on to Yabatalou, where we stayed at a campement with friends from our Rwanda days, Doug (Peace Corps country director in Burkina Faso, soon to be the same in Ukraine), Marte, and their sons Luke and Ben, along with Doug’s step-brother, George Zeller, and wife Lynn (teachers at the international school in Bamako) and their three children.
Over a dinner of freshly prepared goat, couscous, and beer, we talked the night away. The next morning, Doug and family headed back to Burkina and we headed up the escarpment with Mamadou and the Zellers. Most of the walk was straight up, over paths worn in to rocks, others made from crushed and placed rocks, and some on wooden ladders over small gaps. We visited Indelou (an almost exclusively animist village avoided by some guides, according to the Bradt Guide, because of its mystical quality), then stopped for lunch and siesta at Begnimato.
Afterward we said our goodbyes to the Zellers, and continued on to Dourou, where we camped the night. Day three found us going down the escarpment on a gradual but breathtakingly steep path cut through the cliffs. From the heights we could see the giant sand dunes that border the Gondo Plain as it spreads out toward Burkina. Once down, we stopped at Nombori to visit a small museum of Dogon objects (and catch our breath and drink tea), then continued walking to Idyeli Na, a very quiet (Begnimato had been noisy and relatively tourist-filled), picturesque village built on a hill and lush with green gardens nourished by springs in the rock’s cracks.
After the ritual lunch and nap, we walked on to Komokani, an inhabited terraced village built higher into the cliff than any we’d seen yet. Here we had the full experience of life’s intimacy in a small Dogon village: children called greetings to us as we brushed our teeth in our “room,” we looked out the top of the latrine and realized how many people we could see (and could see us!) uptown, and we were never alone.
Two more experiences stood out here. The night market, which Mamadou had said started at 7:30pm and continued until 3am, sold mostly millet beer and grilled meat (we had gone looking for vegetables and fruit and karité butter), and really seemed more like a party than a market! There’s no electricity in the village, so the cloak of darkness punctuated by flashlight beams here and there made it feel all the more like an outdoor bar.
The second was Brian’s treatment of an injured man. These five days on foot in a remote part of Mali included a lot of doctoring. The day before, we’d met a French couple whose guide was off vomiting by a tree and after discussions with the guide and Mamadou, Brian dispensed a malaria test kit and some advice. As we entered Komokani, Mamadou presented a new patient to Brian, a feverish, tired-looking man whose arm was swollen and hard from the place on his hand, where a wooden splinter had entered six days before, up to his elbow. Even I could tell that he was in danger of losing his arm, if not his life.
We dug a week’s worth of antibiotics out of our personal supply and after some cleaning of the area and patching with a bandaid, Brian started him on the meds (and sternly warned him that a trip to the local hospital was worth it, both in terms of the time to walk there and the money he and his family would have to find, probably by selling something, for fees and meds).
Although we’ll never know what happened in the end, Brian’s newest patient stopped by the next morning to say he’d slept well for the first time in days, show us the decreased arm swelling, AND deliver the sliver of wood that had come out of his hand. Although we in the U.S. rightly worry these days about antibiotic overuse and resistance, it’s stunning to watch them at work here. This was confirmed the next day, when a young girl showed me her blistering hand at the New Year’s Eve dance and I brought her to Brian. Again, our pill supply dwindled.
We started out day four with a spring in our step, for it was New Year’s Eve day. We first visited Tereli, where we splurged and bought several huge Dogon masks AND bumped into our friend Rene, who carried our new souvenirs and our old backpacks in his truck to Amani, where we had lunch together. Ah, to walk without a pack. That was definitely a gift! After visiting Amani’s crocodile pool (crocs hold a sacred place in Dogon myths) and walking through its lush onion gardens, we continued to stunningly beautiful Ireli (again without packs – thanks, Rene).
The Tellem houses above us in the cliffs appeared like medieval castles with fortified towers; every view, whether up close in the cliffs or down in the village below, was breathtaking. Here we rang in the New Year, enjoying beer, grilled chicken and couscous, and the millet-beer fueled singing and dancing of the villagers around us under a full, blue moon. Rene heard my story about the veggie-free night market and dug through his truck fridge to make a delicious tomato salad with olive oil.
For dessert, he again went back to the uber-truck and boiled water for tea, and I dug out the last of the caramels. We arose slowly the next day, for the village had been alive all night with drumming and singing and gun-firing. I chuckled out loud, for when we arrived, I dreaded the presence of several tour groups (Italians, French, British, …), which I’d expected to be noisy all night with sloppy New Year’s Eve behavior! Go figure.
Nonetheless, we began our last day in Dogon country with freshly made beignets (doughnuts without the holes) dipped in sugar and papaya (Rene now sharing the fruit aisle of his fridge) and so had plenty of fuel in our tanks to finish the trek by climbing the cliffs one last time up to Sangha via the villages of Pegue and Banani. We capped the morning’s walk with a leisurely lunch and awaited the car that would transport us for an hour or so over bumpy dirt roads back to “civilization” (Bandiagara is a dusty little town, but does have electricity). After having our feet work so well for us that week, we had to smile (and grumble) when the beat-up car that came to fetch us broke down within 10 minutes of departure. Brian tried to help the driver do a full tune-up while we sat in the car, but in the end, it looked like the ancient car really needed a new engine, and so we all found ways to stay cool and wait for the back-up transport. Happy New Year’s Day 2010 West African style.
We finished up our Mali visit with a day of pampering at a Spanish-built resort hotel near the Mopti airport, to recover from the hiking and camping (at least for me, for I love modern plumbing) and prepare for the last leg home on Air Mali. I didn’t stray far from the pool during daylight and the multi-course dinner that didn’t include rice, couscous, or spaghetti (our “choices” every lunch and dinner during the 5-day trek) was just the ticket.
We rose at 6am the next day, to catch the 8am flight back to Bamako, spend the 8-hour layover catching up with the gang at André’s house, then continue home to Dakar, insh’allah. As we were warned, Air Mali didn’t have any intention of taking off at 8am, arriving closer to 1pm from Timbuktu with nary an explanation. Not quite the same as getting caught in a snowstorm at Logan, but with the same bonding effect on fellow stranded passengers.
The French mother and daughter traveling companions and the French couple who head a sister city program with a town in Mali shared our cache of bananas and bread and cheese. They also came to our defense when the nasty airport “chief” kicked us out of the waiting room for having moved a bench to play cards (muttering that he had the power to do as he pleased, and that Mali had kicked out the French and the Germans, to which the young French woman replied “look, they’re Americans, they never occupied Mali!”). Now, with only two hours of layover, the planned lunch at the Bamako compound was moved to a green spot under a tree in front of the airport.
There we were, pushing a luggage trolley stacked with our hiking backpacks and Dogon masks over the airport’s sidewalks, roads, and green space to meet our waiting friends. There they were, smiling, waving, and holding out our calabashes filled with chicken and plantains. All of our travel companions were sporting new haircuts. Cheikine, Dala, Massira, and little André looked like they’d grown taller in the last week. I held the twin baby girls one more time (as Brian did some doctoring for the one who appeared ill) while trying to touch base with each of our travel buddies. We talked, held hands, and Jordan and Matthew served as human jungle gyms. Djiadje and Mame caught me up on the compound news while we told them and Andre about the Dogon trek and listened to their stories about returning from Mopti to Bamako. It was really hard to say goodbye. But with their friendship in hand, strong and content we travel the open road.