Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Desert Crossroads: Dispatch 16 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

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.

Our group splits up. A small number take off to Bandiagara in four-wheel vehicles to further explore Dogon country. Most board small planes for a short hop to Timbuktu. A few of our group—experienced pilots get to sit in the cockpit for the flight. We are in the desert, following the Niger River as it wends its way through the Sahara. Ancient, dried up, underground and intermittent river courses are readily seen from the sky.

In Timbuktu, we visit one of dozens of libraries holding valuable manuscripts from the city’s storied past. Rather than some distant outpost or the last place on earth, Timbuktu was, centuries ago, the crossroads of western Africa. Salt flowed south, gold north. It was the center of the caravan trade, the capital of dynasties, the home of a university for some 25,000 students, and the site of two famous mud-built mosques now world heritage sites—the Jingereber and Sankore mosques. It was a center for religion, culture, and learning. We see the mosques, witness some of the architectural conservation methods, and watch how the precious manuscripts—treatises about medicine, natural science, Islamic philosophy, commerce, sociology and other topics in Arabic, Hebrew and African languages are being preserved and increasingly made available to the world. This is good work. The Ford and Mellon foundations among others have supported it, and the Smithsonian, among many others has provided expertise, training and technical assistance.

From Timbuktu we head off into deeper desert, past the scrub planted around the city to halt desertification—the continued southward drift of the desert sands. We come to an encampment set up by the Tuareg, the famed “blue men” of the region with a long history as camel-riding, desert nomadic traders. Their food, song, dance, artistry and riding skills are graceful and legendary. All are in evidence as we enjoy a performance of women singers, sword dancers, and a meal of cooked lamb stuffed with cous-cous, honey bread, rice cakes, and sweet mint tea. Though hot, dusty, sandy, and tired, we depart Timbuktu with a deep appreciation of its heritage.

This post is fifteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

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