Monday, February 15, 2010

Mali in "The Real Africa"

I've often heard old Africa hands say that the "real Africa" is on the deserts, plains and plateaus of the African heartland, away from the coasts.  Things do seem more authentic in the middle where the impact of colonization is less apparent. Life is more basic with less pretension, less technology and more time huddled with friends and family under a shade tree with a cup of tea while animals graze nearby.  On my trip into Bamako from the airport I was very surprised to learn that the city has 2 Million inhabitants. It feels more like a small town although it would take hours to cross it due to the crowds and uncontrolled traffic, much of it motor bikes.  One can get the best feel for the city after dark when it is cooler and people are out and about. Last evening a colleague drove me around on a city-by-night tour and it was absolutely teeming with activity.  With night lighting one can see into the open restaurants, bars, homes and businesses much better. Bamako doesn't have many touristic highlights but observing daily life and culture is very interesting.

Prior to my arrival I had had high hopes of visiting Mali's two best known tourist attractions - Timbuktu and the area where the Dogon people live. These hope were quickly dashed when I was advised to avoid Timbuktu due to Al Queda activity and when it became apparent that the Dogon area was too far to drive in the short time I have.  I have also been told that flights to and from the area can't be depended on, with tourists often getting stuck there for days.  Unfortunately I'm a slave to my work schedule and have to leave again on Sunday.  Everybody has heard of Timbuktu although many think it is a mythical place. Both Timbuktu ( and the Dogon area ( are UNESCO world heritage sites. Timbuktu in an ancient center of Islamic learning and a trading outpost on the Niger River.  The primary attractions of the Dogons are tribal customs and village architecture. Glance at some of the following pictures and you will see why:(  Those of you who live in Salt Lake City will be familiar with the downtown Bambara Restaurant in the Monaco Hotel: I'll bet none of you knew that Bambara is the name of the largest tribe in Mali as well as the country's most-widely spoken native language.  I didn't know it either until I came here.  And I'll also bet that the Bambara Restaurant doesn't serve any Bambara food!

My first trip to Africa was in 1979 and things don't seem to change much for the natives other than population growth and urbanization.  But things have improved a lot for the traveler. In the 1980s when I did a lot of traveling in Africa, the airports were sweltering horrible places where one could get stuck for hours due to undependable flights. There were also very few good hotels and Western travelers often carried their own pillows, sheets, light bulbs and bug spray to get a little comfort at night.  To attract business and tourism most African countries now have reasonably comfortable airports and hotels with air conditioning. Kenyan, Ethiopian and a few other African airlines are now well-regarded and provide dependable service between the major capitals.  The African experience isn't as authentic as in the "old days" but at my age, it is certainly nice to have the comforts.

The State Department has been carrying out a major world-wide construction program over the past few years to replace a hodgepodge of old inefficient embassies.  Most of the new ones in Africa and other developing area are of a standard design that can be built very quickly and are efficient and secure. But there are downsides: the old embassies were in city centers to be close to government offices, businesses and people. The new ones are typically on the city outskirts where large tracts of relatively inexpensive land can be purchased in order to provide a wide security zone all around the chancery.  Most of the new embassies are similar in appearance and size with internal configurations being the primary differences. These new secure compounds are not especially popular with local populations because they have to take long bus rides to get to them. An unfortunately fact of modern day diplomacy is that security concerns have made embassies into foreboding fortresses.  Previously they were welcoming places where the local population could go to check out books and attend lectures and films on American history or culture.  The embassies still issues visas but often only with an appointment or after many hours of standing in long lines.

I hope the winter weather at home isn't getting you down. The temperature here in Bamako is pleasant but there is lots of dust in the air. 

No comments: