David C. Conrad

Emeritus Professor of History at State University of New York—Oswego
David C. Conrad holds a Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and is Emeritus Professor of History at State University of New York—Oswego. President of the Mande Studies Association since 1986, Conrad has been a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, the Fulbright Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author of several books, including A State of Intrigue: The Epic of Bamana Segou (1990), Status and Identity in West Africa (1995), Epic Ancestors of the Sunjata Era (1999), Somono Bala of the Upper Niger (2002), Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples (2004), and Empires of Medieval West Africa; Ghana, Mali, and Songhay (2005).
 


Smithsonian Journeys Program Manager Patrick Wagner interviews Study Leader David Conrad
Q: David, you have worked and studied in West Africa for many years. What is the lure for a first-time traveler to Mali, Senegal, and Gambia? Is there one place that every traveler should see?
A: The lure is a broad, colorful canvas of sights and sounds from a variety of fascinating cultures that have not lost touch with their historic foundations. Away from the urban centers they maintain their ancient value systems framed by brilliant arts of many genres, including sculpture, weaving, ironworking, pottery, music, and dance. As for one place that every traveler should see, it's difficult to choose because each of the countries boasts dramatically distinguishing features. However, the unique art, religion, and architecture of the Dogon people of central Mali would be right at the top of the list of experiences that would leave an indelible impression.
Q: Mali is such a treasure trove of beautiful scenery, villages, people, scents, and colors. Is there any one village that captures your heart?
A: Of all the enchanting villages and towns we visited, I'd have to say Djenne is the one that I most enjoy returning to. Located as it is in the Inland Delta and accessible only by ferry, it has escaped the clatter and pollution of modern technology. The giant mud brick mosque is one of the wonders of world architecture. With the traditional two-story mud houses, quiet streets, and traditional life-styles of the citizens, it still looks and feels much like it must have been in the 15th century.
Q: The trip takes travelers to Timbuktu, which is such an exotic destination in itself. What do you find travelers come away with when they visit this remote outpost?
A: They come away with a mosaic of impressions framed by their dramatic encounter with the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and the camel-riding Tuareg peoples. As they experienced the music, dance, handicrafts, food, and nomadic lifestyle, they see for themselves the vast difference between the desert Tuareg and the cultures they had encountered elsewhere in Mali. Obviously contributing to this colorful mosaic are the fourteenth-century mosques, sites recalling early European travelers to the mystical city, and Arabic manuscripts reflecting Timbuktu's history as an ancient center of learning.
Q: How does Gambia compare to Senegal?
A: In terms of strictly indigenous culture, there's little to distinguish between the two countries, because of Gambia's unique position of being a tiny former British colony along the Gambia River that was completely surrounded by the former French colony, part of which is now Senegal. However, modern travelers experience interesting differences between 18th- and 19th-century British and French influences on the one hand, with Portuguese influences that stem from the 15th-century age of exploration. For Gambia, no traveler should miss experiencing the wonderful pirogue rides through the beautiful mangroves, which are alive with birds and wildlife, and for Senegal the day on the exquisite Island of Gorée is very special.
Q: Most Americans don't know much about West African cuisine in the United States. What do you think travelers should try?
A: Fortunately, our group got several opportunities to sample my favorite from Senegalese cuisine, which is poulet yasa, a succulent chicken dish made with onions and lemon. Memorable beverages include bisap, the refreshing and delicious drink made from hibiscus blossoms, and of course there is the palm wine from the forest areas, tapped straight from the tree.