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Interesting Places - Page 2

    MOPTI located at the junction of the Niger and Bani rivers, is called the Venice of Africa. The reality however is considerably more chaotic-hundreds of colourfully painted “pinasses” jostle each other, some more than 100 feet long and piled with every kid of animal, vegetable and mineral. The air reeks of fish and other interesting, but unidentified odours (salt, cola nuts, dried onions,…).

    Located at roughly 650km from Bamako, the town originally developed as a tiny Bozo village and knew great expansion toward the end of the XVIII century. Today Mopti is the economic capital of Mali’s 5th region and is starting/ending point of many tourist circuits.
    Not to be missed: the Craftsmen’s Souk, the colourful market on the port quays, the traditional districts, the “canoe-yard”, the teeming port, the Komoguel Mosque (1933) and the sunset over the Bani.

    Unique site in Africa, land of legends and mysticism, the Land of the Dogons is one o the last outposts of African ancient wisdom.
    Entering this region is indeed like entering a temple. The comparison is wild geographically, for the area occupies a plateau, which rises chaotically from the low-lying Macina territory and culminates with the famous Cliffs of Bandiagara, several hundred meters above the volcanic plain.. Yet the analogy is also apt because when you enter the Dogon country, you have to accept the radical strangeness of a cultural universe whose values rest on an extraordinary rich and complex philosophy and religion.

    Whereas Djenne and Timbuktou have been known to Europe for centuries, the Land of the Dogons has only been studied from 1931 with the ethnological mission led by Prof. Marcel Griaule. The material and cultural universes are both of quite difficult access. Everything in fact, even the most banal objects, have a sacred character and carry symbolic value. Even the shape of the humble Dogon Basket is symbolic: its square bottom evokes the cardinal points while its circular top refers to the celestial vault.
    The “Dogon cosmogony” as it was explained by the old blind hunter Ogotemmeli to Griaule is recounted in the book “Dieu d’eau”. It is indeed of great help in understanding the life of these incredible people whose secret is their faith: the permanent presence of a belief which accompanies every action of their day-to-day existence. The sacred is inextricably mingled with reality. The extremely complex Dogon myths constitute the very basis of existence, and religion leaves its mark strongly even on the village architecture.
    From the top of the Cliff a good idea of Dogon style can be obtained. The village is a mosaic of family dwellings called “guinna”, featuring square terraces and millet granaries with pointed straw roofs. In respect to its organization and lay-out, each village is arranged so as to represent a human figure (anthropomorphic architecture), and considering the high number of sacred places is actually a temple proper. One can hardly take ten steps without encountering an altar or a rock bearing traces of chicken blood. Neither can one fail to notice the house reserve for menstruating women; it is round and set apart from other dwellings, for the community must have no contact with “impure” women. Then there are the “toguna”, buildings where men hold their meetings and councils. Each is supported by 8 pillars (the 8 primitive ancestors) and has a very low ceiling. There are shrines where the mysterious rites of the Binou cult are celebrated and Amma, the creator of all things, is worshipped. The temples facades are periodically ornamented with symbolic geometric designs, the equivalent of actual writing. Building space is very scarce, yet no cliff-dwelling Dogon will be persuaded to buit on the plain because this is considered “dangerous” and also reserved for crop cultivation.

    All inhabitants live from birth to death in close symbiosis with their mineral universe. When they die, their bodies are wrapped in chequered blankets and are hoisted into cavities in the rock. A few meters below these aerial cemeteries, the living spend their days cultivating their fields (millet on the “unsafe” plains, and onions near their dwellings) and raising their sheep and goats. The Dogon myth is a living thing and, even though not everybody possesses it to the full, all Dogons know perfectly well which beliefs are attached to particular clothing, carvings, skin scarifications and teeth-filing. The teeth are filed so as to resemble the teeth of a comb and thus evoke the loom: speech issuing from between the teeth is a source of action which weaves the world. The sculptures and bas-reliefs decorating doors and certain buildings have the same functions as those in Middle Age Cathedrals: celebration and instruction.

    The master of all mysteries, the great initiate who directs certain forms of worship and lays down the ceremonial rituals, is called the Hogon and each village has this highest spiritual authority. He is the oldest member of the community but it is his being the high priest of Lébé (a primitive ancestor reincarnated as a snake) that confers every strange peculiarities on him. Every night, according to the myth, a snake comes and covers the Hogon with its saliva, granting him his vital strength (as a consequence he must not wash). The same strength would cause the ground to burn if he walked barefoot so he must always wear sandals.
    The Dogon profound attachment to their religion is seen most strikingly in the dance of the masks. Originally, all dances in African tribes were connected with religious rites but today most times the religious rites but today most times the religious significance has been forgotten. Not so among the Dogon. Dance is a serious business concerning men only and no departure from the norm is allowed. For every dance – may are the occasions demanding a ritual dance – the steps are as immutable as the working of the universe, which they represent. Even the Dogon ballet, featuring a variable number of masks (animals, girls, gods, the “storied house”, the ythical Lébé serpent) and ceremonial.

    Markets are another experience not to be missed, but difficult to know where and when because they are held every 5 days, as per the Dogon week of 4 days of work and one of trading bustling activities and lots of chatting, for talk is very important in Dogon society: “at the beginning was the word”.

    Salt comes from north, gold from south and silver from the land of Whites, but the Word of God, the famous things, histories and fairy tales, we only find them in Timbuktu” (Sudanese proverb of the XVI century).
    What are the origins of this Malian city whose name immediately raises enthusiasm and curiosity all over the world? Tombouctou, from the Targuish word in Tinbouctou, means “the place of Bouctou”.

    It was founded in the XI century when the Imack-Charen Tuaregs, nomads who spent winters in Azouad and dry seasons near the Niger, discovered this small well slightly north of the riverbanks. When they left for the north, they would leave some of their luggage behind with an old woman to look after it. Bouctou was her name. Thus started a small village that a few centuries later would become one of the most important and famous commercial and religious centers of northern Africa.
    Timbuktu was exceptionally well situated and this made it a first class trade centre
    When Emperor Kankan Moussa returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325, he had been so impressed by Cairo and the other holy cities visited that he decided to transform Tombouctou: he ordered the construction of Djingareiber Mosque and developed the already flourishing commerce.

    This was the golden age (XIV-XVI centuries) of the town risen from the desert sands. In Tombouctou the White north met the Black south and everything was traded: silk, spices, copper, tin, gold ivory, ostrich feathers, slaves, salt, etc…Riches poured in and allowed the blossoming of a very defined civilization centred around the art of living. The hearts of the literary flourishing were the University and Mosque of Sankoré. Timbultu’s history mirrors the rise and decline of civilizations in the area. Central spot on the trade routes in medieval times, when ancient Mali declined, Timbouktu was taken over by the Fulani people and later by the French.

    But the spirit of Tombouctou, its faith and its pride still mark the inhabitants and its buildings: Djingareiber, Sankore and sidi Yahya Mosques, the explorers’homes (Caillé, Barth, Mungo Partk and Laing), the buildings built in the same style for centuries past, the Museum, the Library, the market, the Azalai caravans,… UNESCO listed Timbuktu as a World heritage site in 1988.

    In bygone days, before maritime navigation replaced trans-Sahara caravan routes, international trade was carried out overland. It was the time of the “Silk Road” and of its twin sister, the “Salt and God Road” which connected West Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. Timbuktuwas the main inter-port, the last stop from which fabulous caravans led by mysterious Touaregs left. Nowadays, of these legendary routes only memory remains. However, the need for salt in West African countries has kept one of these caravans alive, precisely the Azalai.
    In the heart of Sahara, 800 km north of Tombouctou, a former lake dried up millions of years ago leaving behind an enormous rock salt Once extracted, the precious “White gold” is taken to the Niger to be later distributed throughout the Sahel. This hard job is carried out by the Tuareg who, from October to March organize camel caravans of 30 to 40 camels from Tombouctou to the Taoudenni salt mines. The journey lasts 20 days each way and each camel carries 4 to 6 salt bars of 30 kg.
    The Azalai, which in Tamachek means “nostalgia for the return”, is the last great most spectacular caravan of our epoch.


    every 4 years Dama to remember the ancestors
    every 60 years Sigui. All masks come out and go around; the celebration moves around the villages.
    every 3 years Songho Circumcision Feast in March (next 2006)

    every 7 years Kaaba-Bolon when re-building the Malinke Holy Hut

    end of harvest Mamadjombo Kassonke mask dance

    April-June Slaves Feast to reaffirm unity and understanding between slaves and masters

    Nov.Dec.Transhumance Transhumance of the Peulhs’livestock from the south to the inner Delta

    Profet’s birthday Maloud. the main Muslim celebration in Timbukty

    June Puppet Feast Carnival waiting for the rains


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