Posts Tagged ‘timbuktu’

Desert Crossroads: Dispatch 16 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Monday, April 6th, 2009

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.

A canoe on the Niger River. Photo: Richard Kurin

A canoe on the Niger River. Photo: Richard Kurin

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.

Mopti is the gateway to Dogon country. While the large majority of Malian ethnic groups are Muslim, the Dogon are not. Some 600,000 in number their homeland is the Bandiagara escarpment—a world heritage site. The Dogon are farmers, but also skilled in ancient knowledge and particularly famed for their astronomical knowledge. Their rituals are rich in spiritual beliefs and a group enacts the dama, a performance of a masked dancing traditionally done for funerals but now done on other occasions. The rite helps both the spirit of the deceased and the community left behind make the transition between life and death. Though somewhat transformed from its original context, the intriguing masking and adornment and the energetic—frenetic but skilled movements of the dancers capture our every attention.