Thirty-seven years ago this month I was driving across the face of Africa with a group of ten travelers. Our destination was Kenya, and we had budgeted $800 and eight months to complete the journey.
Each of us had his own reason for being in Africa; mine was a broken heart. I was following a lover who had left me for the freedom of the road and the excitement of a front row seat on Angola’s independence struggle. I went looking for one love and on that journey I found another — Africa itself.
On that long trip which sliced southward from the Mediterranean and then due East to the Indian Ocean, I saw landscapes and cultures I had no inkling existed. Yet, in a strange way, from the moment I landed on the continent, I felt surprisingly at home. The deep contentment I experienced when I touched foot to soil has never changed.
Over the years, I have spent much time in North, East and Southern Africa. And yet I have never returned to West Africa — until now. I chose to bookend my itinerary with Goree Island, Dakar, at the start and the Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, at the close. Both sites, which had been on my wish list for years, provide a window into the dark and the light places of the human soul. My travels in between focused on the richness of the ordinary — markets, music
At the ungodly hour of 4:45AM a handful of us were dumped into the velvety African night, scented with traces of fire smoke and ocean. After a taste of sleep I took a whirlwind tour of Dakar, Senegal’s shabby, dusty capital. There’s some good stuff here — the marketplace with its tailors and embroiderers who vie with each other to make the most outrageous clothing, shops of Mauritanian tie-dyed voile and Basin, dyed cotton damask pounded stiff and shiny. Worth a visit are the hand-woven textiles of Aissa Dione, Octavio Fleury’s funky furniture at Nulangee Gallery in the old port of nearby Rufisque, and the Aubusson-style tapestries in Thies. One of the crown jewels of President Leopold Senghor’s 1930’s literary and artistic movement, négritude, the Thies factory produces cotton tapestries woven on hand looms with quintessentially Senegalese colors and designs.
But the main attraction of Dakar is Gorée Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that illustrates the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. A short, very crowded ferry disgorged us in a port whose delightful French colonial architecture, open-air restaurants and art colony atmosphere contrast chillingly with the island’s history. I visited the House of Slaves with is central courtyard and windowless cells where prisoners were kept. And then, next door, I found the lovely house of a fourth generation islander that I had seen photographed in a book on African interiors. Vermillion walls, sea green trim, a tangle of potted plants in the central courtyard and a child’s laughter upstairs — upstairs, above the same dank, dark cells I had seen in the Slave House. Yes, indeed, all of these houses built cheek by jowl on this rocky lip fronting the Atlantic and the New World beyond had been warehouses of misery, holding pens with a single exit, the “last door” as it was called — a bolted gate through which men, women and children, Africa’s black gold, were thrown onto waiting dinghies and ferried to ships anchored on the horizon.
Mali is the seventh largest country in Africa and one of the poorest nations in the world. Yet there is an unbelievable richness to the country — in ready smiles, in vibrant textures, in musicality, in elegance and grace. The lifeblood of the country, its critical artery, is Africa’s third longest river, the “strong brown God” as it is often called, the River Niger.
Wide and sluggish, clogged in places with sansevieria, smooth as satin in others, the River seems to feed a country. Capitaine and catfish — fresh and dried — are on offer everywhere, and the emerald gardens along the Niger’s bank, watered painstakingly with calabashes, produce the most astounding vegetables. The Niger is a highway, an irrigation source, a trough, a washbasin, a pool to splash in.
A short evening flight landed me in Bamako, Mali’s pulsing capital that straddles the River. Frenetic, dusty Bamako, with its crazy mad traffic, its Grand Marché bursting at the seams, and a serene National Museum dazzling the visitor with a superlative textile exhibit.
Bamako’s soundtrack is Toumani Diabaté’s Kora masterpieces, the sweet voice of Salif Keita, and the songs of Amadou & Mariam. “Taxi Bamakò, òu tu veux, je t’amène, taxi Bamako, taxi Bamako” they sing on Dimanche à Bamako, a refrain lifted from life on the swirling streets.
You can find the social history of Bamako in the images of two of Mali’s great photographers, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. Keita is gone now, but I spent a morning with Sidibe, well into his 80s and nearly blind from the magnesium flashbulbs he used to make portraits of the thousands of Malians who came to pose in his studio. That “studio” is a curtained closet of a storefront, lined floor to rafters with hundreds of cameras and lenses. Sidibe fetched me the Brownie he started his career with 50 years ago, and we poured over portfolios of tear sheets dating back to the 1960s.
And that is the Bamako I love — ancient strings plucked on a street corner, a legendary photographer reminiscing on a life he deems ordinary, a master textile designer sharing the secrets of indigo he has spent a lifetime learning. Bamako is a quintessential African city within which nestle the old habits of the rural countryside.
Bamako’s Bests: Hotel Tamana, Le Relax or Poularco for lunch, Blah Blah Café for dinner and Moffou, Salif Keita’s club, for music; Studio Malick (worth a visit even if Malick Sidibe, now an old man, is not around); Aboubakar Fofana for his beautiful hand spun and hand-dyed indigo textiles.
Recommended Listening: Deedee Bridgewater’s Red Earth: A Malian Journey.
The road to Segou is a tarmac ribbon unfurling through a landscape studded with karité and baobab trees dusted ochre in the dry season. Mud villages rise out of and disintegrate back into the earth, leaving organic forms that are often very beautiful. Market towns spill onto the highway and, at intervals, roadblocks of rusted 5-gallon drums, manned by guards in immaculate army fatigues, halt overburdened taxi buses.
Along the roadside the women walk, dressed to kill in costumes fit for a party. Stitched by market tailors who advertise their stylish designs on great picture boards, the women take infinite care and, obviously, infinite pleasure in decorating themselves. What amazes me is the meticulous way they turn themselves out. In a land where even a Ziploc bag cannot keep the dust at bay, I have yet to understand how women emerge from their mud brick houses, no cupboard or chest for storage, dressed in floor length gowns and flamboyant headscarves, ironed to a crisp finish. And together, like a flock of showy birds, they set to their tasks, drawing river water, harvesting millet, tending goats and nursing babies.
Segou is Mali’s second largest city, but with none of the tension of Bamako. It stretches lazily along the Niger like a cat taking the sun. I believe, however, that its boulevard of shade trees, French colonial and neo-Sudan architecture, and growing expatriate population will, in due course, turn it into another Marrakech. Guest houses, galleries and shops, boat trips on the river, private houses mimicking the arabesques of the town’s celebrated architectural style are proliferating.
Segou’s answer to Bamako’s indigo master is Boubacar Doumbia, Mali’s legendary mud cloth artist and expert on natural dyes. He is the founder of the Kasobane collective whose mission is to conserve the natural dying techniques and designs of Mali, particularly bogolan, or mud cloth. From the spinning and weaving of the organic cotton to the dying and decoration, all the work is hand done by craftsmen whose panels are shipped worldwide. I spent the morning with him in the adobe studio surrounded by bogolan artists, each applying designs in mud on an outstretched cloth dyed in differing hues of yellow ochre. With a piece of chalk he schooled me in the symbolism of the iconography, drawing parallel lines, spirals and crosses on the concrete floor. And then he drilled me on my lesson and had me design and interpret my own patch of bogolan. If you want to learn, you must begin as a child.
Segou’s Bests: Espace Bajidala, a studio residence for artists, where the best of the six rooms overlook the river; a walk through the neighborhood of French Colonial buildings, quintessential examples of the neo-Sudan style; Omar, one of Chris Seydou’s original models; and Omar’s wonderful restaurant, Alphabet.
Recommended Listening: Habib Koité & Bamada’s Ma Ya.
When the rains have been good, Djenné is an island. A flatbed ferry carries everyone and everything, animate and inanimate, human and animal, across the narrow channel. The sun was low as we arrived on the far bank, and we made our ferry with just minutes to spare. Once across, in the gathering dusk, we navigated the old city’s narrow lanes to the central square where the Great Mosque stands.
I have learned by now that, in travel, one must try to see with one’s emotions rather than one’s head. We have been so inundated with tricked-up photographs that the magic of a first meeting often pales next to the images one carries. The Great Mosque is one of the most photographed architectural structures in the world, and I have seen it portrayed in all lights and from all angles. I stood in front of it now and, rather than being overwhelmed by its size, I was touched by its intimacy. In the fading light it had a well-worn and well-loved look to it, and I found it strangely humble, like a village church on the green.
I returned to see the Mosque the following day at different times and in different lights, alone and in the company of a market woman who sold me gorgeous beads made out of recycled flip flops, and with Boss, a young guide who had something to say to every pretty girl he passed. I circled it and looked up the scaling walls; I climbed to the roof of a neighboring house and looked down upon the arabesque domes capped with ostrich eggs. Every year the men of Djenné replaster the Mosque’s facade, a vast celebratory effort that binds them to each other and to their religious faith. They tend their place of worship with care and devotion, and they share the burden with each other. Literally and figuratively, they are constructing relationships of value.
Djenné’s Bests: Djenné Djenno hotel’s delicious breakfast jams; Sophie Sarin’s shop selling pretty bogolan dresses; Ousmane Traore’s remarkable embroidery.
Recommended Listening: Toumani Diabaté’s New Ancient Strings.
During my stay in West Africa, the crises around the world continued to deepen.
In Bamako and Segou I had WiFi access, in Djenné my phone worked. I took a time-out from them all. Only the French radio broadcast kept me connected and, most of the time, I turned it off in favor of bootlegged tapes of Griot music. Thus unhitched, and with the noise turned way down, it became easier to appreciate the landscape I was in and to understand that the pressing issues here are of a different order. Like a rock that sits on the riverbed, untouched by the current and weather above, Malians seem little moved by the outside world’s spasms. The economic crisis has been their reality forever; they are on intimate terms with suffering. I am astonished by their grace, strength and warmth in the face of it all.
I returned home to the US carrying music in my head and wrapped in ochre and indigo. And for a while, with the benefit of a wider perspective, the strain of our times was diminished.
For information on Lisa Lindblad Travel Design, and more of her travelogues, please visit www.lisalindblad.com.