Arriving somewhere for the first time in the middle of the night is disorienting. Arriving at 2am in Bamako, Mali’s vibrant and chaotic capital, was always going to be a challenge. Once through immigration though, I found a cab and, in my pitifully bad French, gave the driver the address of my hostal. He claimed to know where it was, so we set off at high speed through the streets of Bamako in an old Citroen which, were this not West Africa, would have been condemned as a death trap.
Bumping along the roads en route to the hostal, we passed bar after bar. Music flooded onto the streets and people were drinking and dancing hard. In my tiredness I’d forgotten it was January 2nd, people were still welcoming the New Year. Ignoring the temptation to join the celebrations, the taxi finally stopped outside a mud wall with a metal door. It took a while to rouse the night watchman, but eventually the door opened and I was led through narrow corridors to a room already occupied by several people. There was a free bed, into which I happily collapsed.
In the morning I was meeting three complete strangers, and we had an early start and a fourteen-hour car journey ahead of us. The plan was to reach the town of Mopti, from where we’d take a boat four days up the Niger River to the ancient desert city of Timbuktu. From Timbuktu it would be 70kms by jeep north-west into the Sahara Desert. Our final destination was Essakane, the traditional home of one of the world’s most astonishing music festivals: the Festival au Désert.
The journey from Bamako to Timbuktu and back to Bamako, would take us several hundred kilometres through extraordinary landscapes and into some of Mali’s wonderful and diverse communities. It was a journey of a lifetime. We’d stay in hostals, camp on the banks of the Niger River, sleep on rooftops in villages and spend several days in a Tuareg tent amidst the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert. We’d leave sub-Saharan Africa behind and enter the desert world of the nomadic Tuareg.
In-between, we’d take a slow boat up the Niger River, passing through bustling river ports, where people traded fish, clothes and salt brought all the way from the middle of the Sahara. We’d stop in small villages comprised entirely of mud huts, each with a mud mosque at its centre. We’d barter for fish and vegetables in remote communities lining the river’s banks. We’d pass fishing boats, and brightly clothed women and men walking along the banks of the river, or washing clothes and bathing in it.
Returning from the desert I’d visit the Dogon region, and experience the truly incredible culture of this extraordinary part of the country and this extraordinary ethnic group. Finally, before returning to Bamako, I would get to see the largest mud-built building anywhere in the world: the Grand Mosque of Djenne.
If, at times, the journey was a little dreamlike, the hard reality of life in Mali was never far away. This is a country with many problems, and is one of the poorest in the world. The economy is predominantly agricultural, much of it subsistence farming. Approximately half the population lives on US$1 per day and poverty is endemic, it has a high birthrate and nearly half its population is aged below 14 years. Health and education indicators are poor, while the risk of infectious disease is extremely high.
Perhaps most damaging, the country has been ruled by military dictatorships for much of its post-colonial history. Democracy only became reality in 1991. Mali achieved independence from France in 1960, welding together numerous ethnic groups and two very different cultures in one independent nation. Pre-existing tensions between the Tuareg/Berber north and the African south led to conflict. Since independence there has been a secessionist movement, and armed rebellion, to create a Tuareg homeland – Azawad.
The conflict, dormant for years, flared up in 2012. Tuareg fought for independence from Mali, this time aided by heavily armed Islamic fundamentalists fleeing Libya after the fall of Gadafi. The Malian army was quickly defeated, then the radical Islamists attacked the Tuareg, their much more open-minded and tolerant co-religionists. The militants took control of Timbuktu and introduced a vicious form of Sharia Law. They even banned music – almost unthinkable in a part of the world where music is a way of life and an expression of spirituality. The onslaught was only stopped by French military intervention.
As someone who has had the privilege to witness Malian musicians performing their beautiful music in the middle of the Sarah Desert – and is a fan of Ali Farka Touré, Amadou and Mariam, Salif Keïta, Tinariwen and many others – the ban on music was just one element of an unfolding tragedy. New elections to restore democracy took place a month ago, but issues, particularly in the north, remain. Thousands of Tuareg refugees have fled to Mauritania, fearing both the Islamic fundamentalists and the Malian military; true stability seems a long way off.
When I visited four yeas ago, tourism was emerging as a viable industry. The communities which embraced tourism as an economic lifeline have been dealt a terrible blow by the recent conflict. With many Western governments advising against virtually all travel to Mali, things look unlikely to improve anytime soon.