Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is sixteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.
Our flight from Aqaba, Jordan to Mopti in Mali features several lectures by Smithsonian anthropologist Mary Jo Arnoldi who has joined us for our African stops. Mary Jo has lived and done field work in Mali for decades and her knowledge of and insight into this varied and long-lived society is most impressive. She prepares us well for the days ahead.
Mopti is at the confluence of the Niger and Bani Rivers. The former flows through Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Guinea making its way to the Atlantic coast. It is the lifeblood for people along its course—at once a source of water for drinking, for washing, for irrigating fields, but also a highway for transport and communication. We walk gangplanks into several low riding covered motorized canoes for a “folk” cruise that makes this abundantly clear. As the rickety boats putt-putt along, tall lanky pole men of the Boso tribe help give us an extra push. Life unfolds. Children swimming. Women washing clothes. Men washing trucks and cars—almost as if they were elephants bathing. Vendors hawking goods along the shore. We pass small harbors where families board water buses, and markets where Bambara merchants pile boxes, sacks, and bags onto canoes for shipment up and down stream. Pipes and canals take the river to villages along the way so that Mande farmers can water their crops and Fulani herders care for their cattle. This is Africa alive.