Djenne, one of Africa’s oldest cities

If you’re going to build a city out of mud, you probably shouldn’t build it between two rivers that flood so severely in the rainy season that the town is transformed into an island reachable only by boat. The architects of ancient Djenne decided to build the city between the Rivers Niger and Beni; good for river transport, less good for longevity, or so you might think. They got around the annual threat of being washed away by building on raised platforms.

Djenne dates its foundation to around 250BC, making it one of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest cities. Its golden age arrived in the 15th and 16th Centuries when it flourished as a centre for trade, Islamic scholarship and pilgrimage. Most of the buildings are made of mud bricks, baked hard in the sun and then coated in a protective layer of mud. More than two thousand ancient buildings survive from Djenne’s golden age, one of the reasons it is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The star of the UNESCO show, and Djenne’s centrepiece, is the world’s largest mud structure. The glorious Grand Mosque is one of the most famous buildings in Africa, although the annual re-plastering of the mosque is almost as famous as the building itself. This enormous undertaking sees hundreds of people climbing the walls, using the wooden supports that protrude from the walls, and cover the walls of the mosque in a new coat of protective mud every year.

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

For a mud structure, the mosque is huge. It can hold 3000 people, and its thick walls support three massive towers and protect worshipers from the intense heat. Each of the towers is topped with an ostrich egg, symbol of purity and fertility, and the whole structure reflects the same ancient Malian architecture that we saw in Timbuktu. Non-Muslims can’t enter the mosque, but it is fun to be in the large square outside the building when worshipers flood out of the entrances.

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The sudden riot of colour and noise transforms the uniformly dull-brown plaza, as people meet and greet their friends and family, and head across the square before disappearing down Djenne’s dusty streets. I didn’t have long in Djenne, just a day to recover from the trek through the Dogon Country and to take in some of the sights. Luckily there aren’t that many sights and the weekly market, which attracts many people from surrounding villages, wasn’t happening the day I was there.

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

At its peak Djenne was a major trading centre, linked to Timbuktu by the River Niger. Goods from the south, including gold and slaves, were taken from Djenne to connect with the great Saharan caravans which had their southern terminus in Timbuktu; salt, cloth and the much prized metal, copper, flowed from the north to Djenne. Such was its wealth and strategic importance that it was coveted and conquered by numerous other kingdoms, from the Moroccans in the 16th Century, to the French in the 19th Century.

Today, although it has a population of 40,000, it feels like a sleepy town where not a huge amount happens. The streets are dusty and, at night, very quiet. As you walk around the town you notice two distinctive styles of architecture on people’s homes. The Toucouleur-style has a massive and low porch over the entrance, while the Moroccan-style has a plain entrance. The styles reflecting the waves of conquerers who took control of the city.

Toucouleur-style house in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Toucouleur-style house in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Sudanese-style house in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Sudanese-style house in Djenne, Mali, Africa

After a second night in Djenne, we had an early start and left in a beat-up old 4×4 to travel the 600km back to Bamako. I just had enough time to shower, and take in some live music at one of Bamako’s legendary music clubs, before heading to the airport for a 2am flight to Morocco.

Exploring Dogon Country, Enndé to Begnemato

The heat in the Dogon Country is intense. With the exception of a few of occasional Baobab trees, there is very little shade as you walk through the Seno Plain at the base of the towering Bandiagara plateau. To avoid the worst of the heat we set off early; around midday we’d collapse in a village and have some lunch, followed by a siesta until the heat was more tolerable.

Village and Bandiagara plateau, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Village and Bandiagara plateau, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women walking through Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women walking through Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Village and Bandiagara plateau, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Village and Bandiagara plateau, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

If the heat saps your will to move, at least the Dogon Country is easy to navigate. If you’re heading east, keep the Bandiagara plateau on the left and you can’t go wrong. All the villages are within a short distance of the cliffs, so you’re guaranteed somewhere to stop and rest. As you walk through this barren landscape, there are always people moving between villages…bright specs of humanity dotting the parched and sun-bleached earth of the Dogon Country, many of whom were happy to chat and have their photo taken.

Women returning from the market, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women returning from the market, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women returning from the market, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women returning from the market, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

We were lucky in our travels because we arrived at one small village – in fact, not even a village, more of a convenient junction between trails – where a hectic market was taking place. The arrival of a few Mzungus* seemed to pass unnoticed as people carried on buying, selling and bartering. It was fun to wander around taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the market. People were selling cotton and maize, onions and millet, and lots of food was being cooked on the spot.

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Our ultimate destination was Begnemato, a small village on top of the cliffs where we’d spend the night before heading back towards the road where, hopefully, our 4×4 would be waiting for us. To reach the cliff top we walked up through a natural gap in the plateau, where, in the shade of the cliffs, farmers were cultivating onions, made possible by a spring nearby. Children were watering the onions from clay pots. It was a rare blaze of green amidst the dry brown landscape.

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

 

We reached Begnemato just before sunset, and had time to put our things on a convenient rooftop (where we’d be spending the night) before heading to the cliffs to watch the sun turn the cliffs an incredible bright orange. Below us the vast Seno Plain stretched as far as the eye could see, and the sound of the wind created an eerie soundtrack as the sun sank over the horizon.

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Room with a view, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Room with a view, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Room with a view, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Room with a view, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

It would be fair to say, the sunset from the Bandiagara plateau is truly magnificent…and, with that as a memory, we were off to Djenne and the world’s largest mud building.

The Bandiagara plateau with people, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The Bandiagara plateau with people, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Bandiagara plateau, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Bandiagara plateau, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

* Mzungu is an East African term for white people from the Bantu language. Its not really legitimate to use it in relation to West Africa, but since its literal translation means “to wander around aimlessly”, it seems a perfect fit for our hike through the Dogon region.

Enndé, where the Dogon and Tellem meet

Enndé (sometimes known as Endé) is a typical Dogon village, complete with mud houses, traditional granaries, a beautiful mosque and the traditional, male only, meeting place called Togu na. Forged over centuries, life here goes on to a tried-and-tested rhythm which seems timeless. On the surface nothing much happens, but a walk through the village brings you face-to-face with the ancient culture of the Dogon, still going strong in the 21st Century.

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women and children pound millet, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women and children pound millet, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Pounding millet, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Pounding millet, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Stroll the dusty streets and you’ll encounter women and children pounding millet, using only a giant pestle and mortar (and a lot of physical effort); goats and cattle roam around looking for food; women carry firewood on their heads to use for cooking; water is raised from the well; men weave cloth on hand looms; and people greet each other in the elongated and formulaic Dogon manner.

A man weaves on a hand loom, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A man weaves on a hand loom, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé is far removed from the the 21st Century of industrialised countries. There is no electricity, no running water, we didn’t spot a single motor vehicle and there are very few of the modern comforts we have come to expect, even in fairly remote parts of the world. Don’t even think about internet connectivity.

The Dogon Country is Mali’s main tourist selling point, and communities here are embracing tourism to varying degrees. This is leading to change at many levels within Dogon society, and may have a profound impact on undermining traditional community life. It wouldn’t be the first time that tourism destroys the thing that created it in the first instance. Although, if the toilet facilities where we stayed are an indicator of change, it may be some time before visitors can expect the five star treatment.

Toilet facilities, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Toilet facilities, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Woman carrying fire wood, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Woman carrying fire wood, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Traditional woven cloth, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Traditional woven cloth, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Traditional granary and cow, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Traditional granary and cow, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The Togu na offers a fascinating insight into Dogon culture. It is where the men of the village go to discuss matters of great importance, it is also a place for conflict resolution. If villagers are in conflict, they meet in the Togu na to discuss and resolve their issues. These open sided structures are built with deliberately low roofs forcing everyone to sit, and ruling out fights. Anyone leaping up in anger will only ever get a sore head, before being forced to sit down again. That seems like a system the British Parliament could usefully adopt.

Togu na, a traditional meeting place, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Togu na, a traditional meeting place, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Togu na, a traditional meeting place, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Togu na, a traditional meeting place, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Carved door, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Carved door, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Mosque, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Mosque, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

What makes Enndé special is it’s incredibly dramatic location underneath the Bandiagara plateau, the cliffs of which tower massively over the village. A walk up to the cliffs bring you closer to the ancient ruins of the Tellem civilisation. The Dogon have only lived in this region for around a eight hundred years; before they arrived the Tellem, a race of pigmies, populated this remote region. Ironically, the Dogon migrated to this region after being displaced by the advances of warlike Islamic tribes; it seems they in turn displaced the Tellem.

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

All that remains of the Tellem are the structures they left behind, both in the crevasses of the cliff face and at the base of the cliff. Some are houses, others food stores and many are burial sites. Given the technology available to them, the Tellem must have been excellent rock climbers. Enndé has a Hogon, a spiritual leader within the community. He still lives in one of the houses in the cliffs, but he’s pretty elusive and we didn’t get an opportunity to meet him.

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Exploring Dogon Country, Djiguibombo to Enndé and the mysterious Tellem

If NASA is serious about sending humans to Mars, they could do worse than practice for it in the Dogon Country. It is an other-worldly landscape. The reddish soil and rocks are bleached by a ferocious sun, the occasional winds whip up dust devils and the Seno plain seems to extend to infinity.

If Dogon culture wasn’t alien enough, the landscape of this region could easily be the backdrop to a Hollywood movie about the Red Planet. Beautiful, yet so desolate that it is almost impossible to imagine how people have forged a society here and thrived for over a thousand years. Walking through this region under the vast, hulking Bandiagara plateau, makes for a journey into a world that belongs in the realms of Science Fiction.

A young girl in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A young girl in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Drying chillies, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Drying chillies, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

We drove to the village of Djiguibombo and said goodbye to our dust-encrusted 4×4 and, for the next three days, headed east on foot to explore Dogon Country. We spent some time wandering around Djiguibombo, where we came across women and children smashing small onions with rocks in one of the compounds. The photos don’t do it justice, the smell of onion was tremendous. Hopefully, by the time humans reach Mars, a camera will have been invented that can also record smell. My eyes were watering.

A woman in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A woman in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Crushing onions, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Crushing onions, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The house of a village elder, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The house of a village elder, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

By the time we arrived in the village of Teli, where we’d have lunch in the shade of a large tree, we’d started to spot unusual structures either high on the cliff face or at the base of the cliff. Over lunch, our guide, Ali, told us these were the only remaining evidence of the Tellem.

The Tellem were a distinctive people, which Dogon oral tradition recall as ‘small red people’, who inhabited this region before the Dogon arrived. It is thought they lived in the area until around the 14th century, and also that they were pigmies who possessed the power of flight. What is certain, is that they disappeared from history around the 15th century. Some suggest they were assimilated into the Dogon culture, others that they migrated to a more isolated region, others that they died out.

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem grain stores, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem grain stores, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Making use of what was already there, the Dogon continued to use Tellem structures – granaries and storehouses – and may even have incorporated Tellem traditions and rites into their own culture. The buildings are simple and profoundly moving symbols of a lost civilisation. Teli is one of the best paces to see these buildings.

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Our ultimate destination for the evening would be Enndé, another small village, famed for its beautiful woven cloth and a fabulous mosque, which nestles underneath the overhanging cliffs of the Bandiagara Plateau. In Enndé we stayed at a family home where we were promised traditional food (either they invented pasta in Enndé or someone wasn’t telling the whole truth), and spent the night sleeping on the roof of one of the buildings.

Weavings, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Weavings, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Painting cloth, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Painting cloth, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

As I sat on my rooftop and watched the sun set and the stars come out, a quite amazing thing happened. Outside every home in the area, people started to light wood fires and cook their evening food. The air filled with wood smoke and the smell of cooking, while the chattering of adults and the shouts and laughter of children rang around the village. It was an evening to remember.

A room with a view, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A room with a view, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The mysteries of the Dogon, entering another universe

They number only between 300,000 and 800,000 (the jury’s out on actual numbers), but the Dogon people of Mali’s Central Plateau must count as one of the most unique and fascinating civilisations on planet earth. A journey into the Dogon country is to visit a people so removed from western culture that it could be another world, quite possible another universe.

The majority of Dogon continue to live, much as they have done for a millennia or more, amongst the dramatic Bandiagara Cliffs, where they fled to avoid being conquered and converted by Islamic tribes who were colonising the region. This deliberate isolation has ensured that the Dogon have retained their culture almost intact into the present day. UNESCO has declared the whole region a World Heritage Site.

Dogon man smokes a pipe, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon man smokes a pipe, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women prepare onions in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women prepare onions in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The Bandiagara Cliffs, soaring 500m (1600 feet) vertically upwards, are the region’s most dramatic feature. The Dogon are known as ‘cliff dwellers’, and the cliffs are vast – over 200km in length, creating an immense plateau which towers over the barren Seno plain. In reality, most Dogon live in small villages above and below the plateau. The cliffs, however, hold a secret to another culture which pre-dates the Dogon – a race of pigmies known as the Tellem.

The Bandiagara Cliffs, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The Bandiagara Cliffs, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women prepare onions in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women prepare onions in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Typical Dogon village buildings, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Typical Dogon village buildings, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The culture and belief system of the Dogon is one of the most studied on the planet…with good reason, it is extraordinary and remains largely unadulterated. The Dogon universe is structured around maintaining harmony. When two Dogon meet and exchange greetings, it is done to an exact formula. One person poses a series of questions about the wellbeing of the other person’s family. Each question is answered in turn, roles are then reversed and the same questions are asked and answered again.

These elaborate rituals are repeated whenever people meet, either in the village or walking between villages. I can’t see this system being adopted in London any time soon (rush hour on the Underground, anyone? No?), but it works for the Dogon.

Dogon religion is as complex as any other belief system on planet earth, but contains some elements that are unique and others that are shared with cultures around the world. A shred of connective tissue indicating how ancient cultures viewed the natural and supernatural world. The only difference is, Dogon society has survived into the 21st century.

Dogon man smokes a pipe, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon man smokes a pipe, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon woman carries a bag on her head, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon woman carries a bag on her head, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Of course, there is something profoundly disturbing about visiting a culture like the Dogon. Simply by visiting, you upset the cultural balance, disrupt the functioning of society and quite possibly hasten its collapse. Modernity has been creeping into Dogon society ever since Europeans encountered it in the late 19th century, and modernity can and does bring huge benefits. People here welcome tourism, but it is a double-edged sword which will bring enormous change in its wake.

Some Dogon are Muslim or Christian, but the majority maintain their traditional animist beliefs. Taking inspiration from nature, it features numerous totemic animals. Layered on top of this is a belief in supernatural beings and spirits, as-well-as ancestor worship. However, it is the belief in extraterrestrial life that creates much interest in their culture. The Dogon believe that they were visited and taught by half-human, half-amphibian extraterrestrials from the star system Sirius.

Typical Dogon village buildings, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Typical Dogon village buildings, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Mosque in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Mosque in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Whether you chose to believe this or not, they have incorporated knowledge of the universe into their belief system which is difficult to explain. The Dogon seemingly knew of the existence of Sirius B (a White Dwarf they call Po Tolo) before Europeans had observed it; they also ‘knew’ of Sirius C (Emme Ya) which was only spotted by astronomers in 1995. Their oral traditions indicate that they knew the earth revolved around the sun before this was proven scientifically.

Other Dogon beliefs are, however, less palatable. Circumcision – male and female – is practised throughout West Africa. The Dogon practice it because children are deemed to be of both sexes until circumcised. It is only when the foreskin of boys, and both the clitoris and labia minora (extreme female genital mutilation) of girls are removed, that they become people. Often performed in unhygienic circumstances, it causes trauma, infection, infertility and death. Tradition dictates that the local blacksmith performs the circumcision.

Cola nuts in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Cola nuts in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon buildings under the Bandiagara Cliffs, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon buildings under the Bandiagara Cliffs, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

We started our journey into the Dogon stocking up on a few necessities in the town of Bandiagara. It was here that we caught wind of one of the agricultural mainstays of the region: onions. It was also here that we collected a bag of bright red cola nuts, which act as an informal currency which are often requested in exchange for a photograph. Ahead of us was a four day trek under a relentless sun, walking from village to village, sleeping on the rooftops of houses under a sky filled with stars, all in the shadow of the vast Bandiagara Escarpment…

Onions in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onion balls in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onion balls in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Essakane, scenes from the Sahara

It is cold in the desert at night. Very, very cold. As soon as the sun set, which it does with alarming speed, the temperature plunged, forcing everyone to start adding layers of clothing. Lying in my sleeping bag in a Tuareg tent just before dawn, it was all I could do to convince myself to scramble out of the bag and into some warm clothes, before wandering out into the desert to admire the sunrise and welcome the returning warmth of another day.

Every photographer knows that the light in the early morning and as the sun sets is special. In the desert this seems to be doubly so, with sand dunes and vast open sky proving to be a perfect canvass for the sun to work its magic. Here are some pictures in the Sahara from the Festival au Désert to illustrate this. Sunset…

Woman and her son with camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Woman and her son with camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Two people sit in the desert at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Two people sit in the desert at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A man walks across he desert at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A man walks across he desert at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

…followed by the cold desert night…

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Campfire in the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Campfire in the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

…followed by the sunrise…

Sunrise over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunrise over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunrise over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunrise over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sand dunes, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sand dunes, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A man prays on a sand dune, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A man prays on a sand dune, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

The Tuareg, Blue Men of the Sahara

I don’t think I will ever forget the warmth with which, as foreigners, myself and our little band of travellers were received by the Tuareg at the Festival au Désert. Even though this traditional gathering for Tuareg has been open to tourism since 2001, the welcome received is, in my experience, unique. Chatting to people about how accepted foreigners were, a theme emerged: this is the desert, and these are desert people.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

As one Tuareg put it, “Never refuse to allow someone’s camel to drink from your well; you never know when your camel may need to drink from their well.” That seems like a good philosophy for life, but one that is uniquely the product of living in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Cooperation seems to be more than just desirable in the desert, it may be necessary for survival.

The literal translation of the word, Tuareg, means abandoned by god – a title possibly given to them by Arabs who struggled to convert them. They are better known as the Blue Men of the Sahara, because they traditionally wear the indigo tagelmust, or turban, which stains the skin blue. Although the Tuareg practice varying degrees of Islam, they retain many pre-Islamic traditions and beliefs. Strikingly, Tuareg women don’t wear veils and have a great degree of freedom and authority in family and community decision making.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

I feel a bit ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ recalling the Tuareg I met, but it would be wrong to over-romanticise. Historically they have a fearsome reputation, attacking the great Saharan caravans that carried gold, salt, grain and slaves across the desert. With France embroiled in the First World War, the Tuareg rose up against colonial rule in 1915-16. More recently, there has been an armed uprising in this region since Malian independence in 1960. The Tuareg continue to struggle for independence from Mali (albeit an uneven struggle against a Malian military supplied by France and the United States).

Despite a new peace accord, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (the name for the Tuareg homeland) remains armed and active, and separatist sentiment continues to run through the region. This situation is complicated by the Tuareg diaspora; there are up to one million Tuareg living in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Libya. Many Tuareg don’t identify with their own governments and are seeking varying degrees of autonomy – all of which has been met with resistance.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

That said, it is impossible not to be affected by the dignity and warmth of the Tuareg, and that is even before you’ve heard their music. If there is something sublimely beautiful about the vast Sahara Desert, it is doubly so for those who inhabit it. The image of brightly dressed Tuareg, riding their camels against a backdrop of golden sand, is seared into my memory.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

One day there were some dramatic camels races, an event taken very seriously by the many camel enthusiasts amongst the crowd. I’d never seen a camel in full flight before – no wonder they inspired fear in people when Tuareg attacked travellers in the Sahara. Sitting on a sand dune watching this semi-martial display, memories of reading about the fearsome Tuareg, fighting the French Foreign Legion in the novel Beau Geste, inevitably popped into my head.

Tuareg preparing to race camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg preparing to race camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

The Festival au Désert, Malian music in the Sahara

The Festival au Désert is possibly the most atmospheric music festival anywhere in the world. With a backdrop of the towering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, it has a truly dramatic setting unmatched by any other festival I know of; it showcases the best musicians from Mali and West Africa; and it attracts people, from all over the world, to an event that is the living expression of the culture of the nomadic Tuareg who inhabit this desert landscape.

Signpost to Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Signpost to Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

It is a tragedy then, that when Islamic extremists took control of this region in 2012 and imposed Sharia Law, the 2013 Festival au Désert was cancelled. When I went to the festival four years ago it was held at Essakane 70km into the desert, and it was the experience of a lifetime. In 2010 the festival moved to the outskirts of Timbuktu due to security fears. Hopefully, the festival will return again to its traditional desert home. When it does, it will be a symbol of the resilience of the people of this region.

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg woman at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg woman at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

For anyone interested in the musical traditions of West Africa, or who just likes beautiful music, the Festival au Désert is a necessary pilgrimage. Traditional Tuareg music is pure voice-and-percussion, hand clapping accompanied by soulful vocals full of meaning and cultural richness. Although Tuareg musicians use traditional drums and stringed instruments, the most famous musical export from this region the music of Tinariwen, the internationally famous and Grammy Award Winning Tuareg guitar band…here’s a taster from their Aman Iman – Water is Life album.

Main stage at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Main stage at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg watch the show at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg watch the show at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

The Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

The Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

The main festival stage comes alive at night, but the real joy of the festival is coming across musicians playing amongst the sand dunes during the day. Sometimes people are out in the open playing, while at other times you’ll walk past a Tuareg tent packed with people listening to (and joining in with) musicians. Several times I was beckoned inside a tent to listen to some extraordinary music.

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

To give an idea of some of the music, I’ve added some tracks from Takoba (the name for a traditional Tuareg sword), a group I heard in a tent one morning as I wandered around…the music was recorded in a makeshift studio and, unless you happened to be there, its unlikely that you’ll ever get a chance to hear this music.

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

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As well as some of the most mesmerising music you’ll ever hear, the festival is a gathering for Tuareg from all over this vast region. Although 4x4s are pretty common, mainly bringing tourists, they are far outnumbered by camels ridden by brightly clothed Tuareg. Throughout the festival camel riding Tuareg can be seen everywhere, and at times they gather to race the camels and participate in other traditional activities. It makes for an extraordinary experience.

Tuareg on camels at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Timbuktu, the ancient crossroads of Africa

Timbuktu. The name is redolent with history; a name which evokes the extraordinary kingdoms and cultures of ancient Africa, and has been synonymous with the concept of distance and isolation for over one thousand and six hundred years. Its a long way to Timbuktu, after all. Even today, the name conjures images of adventure and daring-do with a backdrop of towering sand dunes populated by turbaned Tuareg.

Timbuktu, teetering on the edge of the Sahara Desert, has almost mythical status. Situated at the crossroads between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, it is where great trade routes converged. Gold, salt, ivory, cattle, grain and slaves passed through Timbuktu in great camel caravans, making this improbable city very wealthy. Much more importantly, this is a city where ideas were exchanged and a unique culture flourished.

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Timbuktu became a centre of Islamic learning. At its peak, there were one hundred and eighty Koranic schools with more than 25,000 students in the city. It was the hub for the dissemination of Islamic scholarship throughout Africa, a fact born witness today by the 700,000 ancient manuscripts which are housed in the library of the Ahmed Baba Institute. Some of these documents are over eight hundred years old and are slowly, methodically being restored and saved digitally.

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

In the 5th century Timbuktu was little more than a village, but it’s ‘golden age’ came in the 15th and 16th centuries with the construction of several beautiful mosques. In the 15th century it was home to 100,000 people. In 1500, Timbuktu had a similar population size to London; Rome, the centre of Christian learning, had a population of only 38,000. Although, European populations were still rebounding after the Black Death.

Camels in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Camels in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Despite its size and status, by the 17th century Timbuktu was in decline. European traders were sailing down the coast of Africa making overland trade routes through the Sahara largely obsolete; as trade shifted, Timbuktu became less-and-less important. For centuries it largely fell off the map, but its legendary status as the ‘city of gold’ continued to act as a magnet for adventurers. European explorers were desperate to be the first see and report on the splendours of the fabled city.

Market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Buckets in the market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Buckets in the market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

House, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

House, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The problem with reaching Timbuktu was that the Tuareg tribes were hostile to outsiders, particularly non-Muslims in search of riches. Death awaited anyone foolhardy enough to try to cross the desert to reach it. Yet the fabled wealth of Timbuktu proved a powerful motivator for Europeans. Even into the 19th century, Timbuktu remained a byword for the mysterious and the inaccessibility of the African interior. It wasn’t until 1826 that the first European set foot in the city, and only after travelling for a year across the desert.

Major Alexander Gordon Laing was a British Army Officer and a Scottish explorer who, in an attempt to beat the French to Timbuktu, set out across the Sahara Desert in 1825 with the support of the British Government. He had a torrid time; his caravan was attacked by Tuareg and he was wounded several times, losing a hand at one point. Despite this, he made it to Timbuktu and became the first European to see Africa’s El Dorado. He stayed in Timbuktu for thirty eight days, but, was murdered when trying to leave the city.

Plaque commemorating Major Alexander Gordon Laing, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Plaque commemorating Major Alexander Gordon Laing, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Two years after Laing’s death, the Frenchman, René Caillié, became the first European to reach Timbuktu and return alive. His reward was a prize of 10,000 Francs. Unlike Laing, who had written letters claiming Timbuktu was a city of great wealth, Caillié told the bitter truth. By 1827, Timbuktu was a dusty and unimportant backwater, retaining none of its former wealth or glory.

Timbuktu remains a dusty backwater today, although its legend as a mystical ancient city still lures people from around the world. Reaching Timbuktu after a week of travel, I felt some the disappointment René Caillié experienced when he reached the city – his journey took a year, but he was so disappointed by what he found he only stayed for two weeks. Today, Timbuktu is home to 20,000 people; its mud-walled buildings and dusty streets feel somewhat desolate and anticlimactic. The famous mosques are still there, but the town seems in danger of being consumed by the sands of the Sahara.

The desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Monument to a ceasefire between Tuareg and Malian troops, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Monument to a ceasefire between Tuareg and Malian troops, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Yet, in the week before and after the Festival au Désert, it springs into life as musicians from all over Africa, and tourists from all over the globe, converge on the city. Hotels and bars have live music almost every night, and the market place has a buzz of activity as people stock up on provisions for several days in the desert. Most importantly, I was able to get a shower for the first time in four days. It was worth coming to Timbuktu just for that.

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Children in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Children in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

 

In 2012, Timbuktu was captured by Islamic fundamentalists, who brought terror and instituted Sharia Law. Although now liberated by a combination of French and Malian troops, many of those who fled the city have yet to return. The Islamists banned music, punished people for minor infractions with public beatings and beheadings, and destroyed the shrines of Muslim saints because they belong to the Sufi traditions of Sunni Islam. It will be a long time before the city returns to normal, many of the Tuareg refugees fear the Malian army as much as the fundamentalists.

Sunset, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Sunset, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Slow boat to Timbuktu (Part 3)

As the chugging of our boat’s engine pushed us ever closer to Timbuktu, I found myself thinking that it would be nice just to keep floating down the river to see where it took us. Some day perhaps, but for the time-being we had to offload at Kabara, the nearest river port to Timbuktu. A couple of four wheel drive vehicles would be waiting to whisk us the 8km from the port into Timbuktu. For anyone familiar with the history and legend of Timbuktu, arriving in this ancient desert city has to be one of the most thrilling moments ever.

Sail boat on the Niger River near Tonka, Mali, Africa

Sail boat on the Niger River near Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

We still had some distance to go before we reached Kabara, but it was obvious from the landscape that we were entering a different geographic region of the country. Everything was getting sandier, and we even slept on a sand dune on a island in the middle of the river one night. This is the region where the Niger River cuts across the bottom of the Sahara Desert, and where the nomadic Tuareg and Berber tribes of Mali form the dominant culture. A culture that has more in common with North Africa than sub-Saharan Africa, and cause of much unrest in post-colonial Mali.

We had one last stop to make before we finally arrived at Timbuktu. Our boat pulled into the packed and chaotic port of Tonka, on the left bank of the Niger River. There was a frenzy of activity, noise and colour, so-much-so, it was difficult to know where to look first. There were also more river boats here than we’d seen since Mopti, a sure sign this is a major trading port.

I was thinking about the scenes and the people from that day recently; I read in Le Monde about the tragedy that befell Tonka when it was overrun by Islamic fundamentalists, and placed under Sharia Law, in 2012.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

When the fundamentalists took control of Tonka, they outlawed everyday things: music, smoking, certain types of clothes, certain types of haircut, not wearing a veil and dozens of other things Malian’s took for granted. Le Monde told the story of a hairdresser who was arrested, imprisoned and subjected to vicious beatings and public flogging just for cutting hair in a style the Islamists labelled the ‘Satan cut’. People were daily terrorised for the smallest infractions of Sharia Law, and young boys and girls were kidnapped and recruited to the Islamist ranks.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

Mali’s population is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Sunni’s in Mali are known for their mystical Sufi traditions, which allow individuals to define their own spiritual experience, including through music and poetry. In practice, Malian Islam is tolerant and open-minded. The story of the hairdresser from Tonka, instantly sums up the fear and terror which must have existed when the fundamentalists controlled the region. Now they have been driven out by French military intervention, things will hopefully return to normal, although it may take a long time.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

Leaving Tonka behind, we boarded our boat again and set off on the last leg of our journey to Timbuktu…not even I was expecting to be welcomed to one of Africa’s most ancient cities by those peddler’s of sugary drinks, Coca Cola. They are shameless in their co-opting of other people’s cultures just to sell fizzy drinks!

Welcome to Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Welcome to Timbuktu, Mali, Africa