Archive for January, 2008

Between Chapel Hill and Timbuktu

We didn’t reach Timbuktu, which I suppose is yet another echo of those nineteenth-century travelers I mentioned at the beginning of our journey. We were gone for six months, July in Morocco with Katie and Ian, then five months in Aleppo, then ten days in Mali. The last few weeks my attention has been a bit divided, trying to finish the book and at the same time put together a course syllabus and first lecture for my TA’s to present while I was still in Mali. Most interestingly, though, I’ve been working on a grant proposal that crosses whatever boundary might exist between my life and my work. The proposal, to create a seminar exploring diversity among Muslim societies and efforts to impose uniformity, seemed to write itself as I traveled. The move from Syria to Mali was startling. Both have huge Muslim majorities, but that seemed to indicate little about economy, social interaction, religious monuments, ritual practice, or even people’s dress. (I asked Abdulaye about the hogs I saw in a field. Who eats them? Everyone, he responded.)

I write this last blog on the plane heading back to the US (Joy, currently living in our house, may be a bit surprised…) thinking about the huge spaces we have traveled, the remarkable things we have seen, and the many, many people we have met between Chapel Hill and Timbuktu. In the end, of course, travels are not really about the destinations but about the journeys themselves, and not actually seeing Timbuktu–disappointing though it is–seems a fitting beginning to a sequel.

Thanks to all of you for your comments and your continuing interest; to new friends across the region for their support, laughter, and assistance; to Katie and Ian for coming along on parts of the journey and encouraging their mother’s wanderlust; and, of course, to William, for all the photographs, love, enthusiasm, humor, and spirit of adventure. One could not hope for  better traveling companions.

Reading others’ travel writing could become a substitute for one’s own journeys. I hope, instead, that this one has encouraged you to actually step out. Enjoy the journey.

January 13, 2008 at 9:33 pm Leave a comment

Back to Bamako

Abdulaye, the terrific driver who had taken us to Severe, just happened to be in Mopti, returning in an empty car to Bamako, so we rode along. Four hours back to Segou, through the same remarkable countryside. We stopped there for lunch, wending our way through the weekly bazaar to a riverside restaurant. The sounds and smells were quite remarkable, but all I can do here is the photos.

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Segou’s waterfront was fascinating to watch. People and products moved from the shore to the small craft and back, people were fishing out in the river, bright colors, lots of activity.


At the weekly market, people were too busy to really notice us, a marked difference from most of our stops. When we stopped for gas at one of the “gas stations” along the road, we drew the usual crowd of curious children and merchants selling textiles and jewelry. There are gas stations as I’m used to them in Mali, places with pumps and hoses and the like. There are also tables with liter bottles full of gasoline to serve drivers between the widely-scattered larger establishments.


We arrived back in Bamako around 5, checked into the hotel that had wireless access a week earlier to try to contact various travel agents and family and airline companies to make some plans. Nothing seemed to work. Their internet connection was down. When we called, the Royal Air Maroc ticket agency said we need to call either the Bamako or New York office. We had four different phone numbers for the airline’s Bamako office, none of them correct. The New York office insisted we had to contact our ticketing agent. When we tried that, we found they had sold the business, kept the tickets already written, and were only available by email. We decided we couldn’t do it the “right way,” so instead we showered, repacked, ate dinner, tried to sleep a few hours, and went to the airport in hopes of flying standby.

Airport scene was pretty wild, an overbooked Air France flight with everyone trying to make it to Paris. Once they cleared out, we convinced a sympathetic ticket agent that we really needed to leave and really couldn’t contact anyone to change our ticket. I’d just about given up when they handed us boarding passes with a warning that we wouldn’t find a seat from Casa Blanca to JFK.

We decided to take our chances, and arrived in Casa Blanca after a sleepless night. There we found another terrific Royal Air Maroc agent who put us on the waiting list. Before we had a chance to contact anyone to let them know we were headed home, we had boarded the flight for JFK.

January 11, 2008 at 6:44 pm 1 comment

No Longer Throwing Caution to the Winds

When William’s fever reappeared in Segou, we had decided to skip camping in the Dogon areas and went to Mac’s Refuge instead. It was just what we needed, a couple days of Mac’s good food and friendly company, a couple of days to do nothing. We met some very interesting people over meals there, Peace Corps volunteers, a woman cycling across Africa and into Asia (five months, she says), a man working on Mali business development for the EU, and Mac himself, who grew up in Dogon country the child of missionaries, and returned there a missionary himself. Now he runs a bed and breakfast for people needing the warmth (and American breakfasts) he offers.



Mac called in a Malian doctor, the tallest doctor I think I’ve ever seen. After listening to his lungs, the doctor told William to rest and prescribed antibiotics and numerous other things. (House call: $25) By the second day, William was feeling better. On the third day we decided to continue north to Mopti, the jumping-off point for tourists heading into Dogon areas and Timbuktu.

Walking into the terrace restaurant at the Ya Pas De Problem hotel felt like entering Star Wars’ Mos Eisley space port, except this time everyone in the place was human and each had only one of two goals: either to get to the Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu, or to sell their services to those who wanted to go. These were people who hadn’t made plans yet to hook up with an organized tour. They had come to Mali, gotten as far as Mopti, and then mixed with the variety of guides and drivers and captains who were looking for clients at the busiest spot in town. Those who wanted to be hired were dressed in a remarkable array of clothing and headgear. One captain with a long silk scarf that wound around his neck and almost down to his knees wanted to sell us a trip on a small pinasse, a river boat. It would take three days going up the Niger to Timbuktu, he promised, seeing the most interesting villages along the way. Seemed too good to pass up. But we had a reservation in Timbuktu in two days. So we were in there with the rest, trying to find someone with empty seats in a 4×4 headed to Timbuktu.

We had come up with a couple of good leads, and then I got a fever. The next morning, the one before we were supposed to leave for Timbuktu, we decided to turn back. We couldn’t imagine the 12 hour bumpy ride to Timbuktu, then another 40 km of desert to get to the festival, followed by sand and cold and all-night music. Sad to say, we felt our age and acted it. So it was back to Mac’s, with my fever and William’s cough, to wait for a ride back to Bamako.

January 10, 2008 at 6:41 pm 1 comment



The photo of the mosque at Djenne that I have been showing my class seems to have no context, just a strange and spectacular building set off by itself.

It isn’t set off by itself. It is in the center of an unpaved dirt courtyard, surrounded by children playing, goats sleeping, touts offering guiding services, stalls selling assorted goods, and two foosball tables used by young men.

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It is, without doubt, an imposing structure, built of mud bricks, with poles sticking out at regular intervals to allow people to scale the walls to remud the structure. It was rebuilt in 1906. There was little the French bequeathed their former colony in Mali (baguettes, French language, and remarkably little infrastructure), but, like in Morocco, here too they began refusing non-Muslims entry into mosques. So I was unable to see what the structure looks like inside.

The mosque, a World Heritage site, seems to be what brings people to Djenne. The town lies on the other side of the Bani river, and the crossing requires the use of a four-vehicle car ferry. Our drive up from Segou passed through many more small villages, an 18-wheeler broken down on the side of the road, a collection of overloaded minibuses, motorcycles, goats, cattle, and horses. After passing through miles and miles of wheat fields, then watermelon fields, then mud-brick-making fields, we turned off the main road and encountered flooded rice fields before crossing the river into Djenne.

After seeing the mosque, we set off in search of the mud cloth William had been commissioned to find. There is one famous mud cloth maker, a matriarch who looks to be in her 60s. Her son explained the various motifs, the groups who used them, and the methods still being employed to make the cloth. It is quite impressive stuff. We were invited up onto the balcony to see the view of the city from there, and found mud, cloth, and plant material for dyes awaiting use.


They tell me Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world, though I don’t know how that is measured, and Djenne is the poorest town I’ve ever been in. Along the route today, we passed two villages where signs announced proudly that electricity had come in 2006. . In side the town, There are no paved streets, houses are small, and the sewer system is a series of open trenches in the middle of the streets. Nonetheless, children walk around barefoot. Apparently, the street sewer is a result of well-meaning development projects. Water had been brought into town only for cooking and drinking, while washing and other tasks were done on the riverside. Those who arranged to pipe water into town didn’t consider the greater output, and there was no planning for what to do with the waste. See “How Not to Parachute More Cats.”

January 10, 2008 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

On the Road to Segou

The road from Bamako to Segou takes almost four hours. Almost as soon as we left Bamako’s sprawl, we were in a small village celebrating market day–along the main highway. Our driver, Abdullah, slowed down as he wove through people, stalls, animals, and large vans unloading merchandise.

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Most of the road, though, is quite rural, miles and miles of scrub interrupted by roadside villages with a few houses and a mosque. We started off listening to a taped sermon by one of Mali’s most famous imams–in Bambara language, with intermittent Qur’anic quotes in Arabic. When that ended, I requested music, and Abdullah put on a Tracy Chapman cassette. By midway, we were listening to music from Mali.

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Small village mosque, larger village mosque

People sat along the roadside, apparently watching each other and the varied conveyances cars going by. We passed a broken down bus, a van, and a car stuck on the side of the road. Small herds of small cattle grazed in the scrub, while groups of fewer than six goats reserved the space closer to the road. (Abdullah honked at them to convince them to stay on their own side.) He reassured me that there really was someone tending them.


Segou seems more prosperous and less frenetic than Bamako. It is a river town, and I was impressed with the amount of activity along the Niger’s banks here. We just missed taking a huge canoe (pinasse) across–still hope to get on the water at some point during our trip.


In the continuing series, Che here is a revolutionary cola.


January 1, 2008 at 6:59 pm 1 comment

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