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mali

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, July 24, 1977

POSTMARK: Mali

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

The Republic of Mali is a sub-Saharan country so impoverished that it doesn’t even fall under the Third World category. Mali is probably a fifth world country. People are starving here, evidenced by malnourished children with bloated bellies.

Upon remarking that a particular long-legged bird was beautiful, one man replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, but we can’t eat them.”

Despite the poverty, Mali is rich in culture. Unlike other French colonized countries, Mali has retained almost a pure African environment. There are at least 10 different ethnic groups, all of them speaking unrelated languages and practicing their own customs.

The various tribes are distinguished mainly by the number of scarred notches they have and where these slashes are located. For example, the Kassonke have three small marks on the side of their faces, whereas the Bambara have three long scars down their foreheads.

Many say Mali’s finest market lies in Djenné, only three hours away, but it is necessary to leave the day before. Road transportation in Africa is so loose, that the question, “What time are we leaving?” is downright irrelevant A vehicle doesn’t depart until it is full. The bachee from Mopti, holding 15 passengers, took four hours to fill from the time I bought my ticket. Patience is the key work in Africa.

On arrival Sunday, Djenné’s large open square was virtually empty, allowing the 13th century mosque to majestically dominate the village square. The grey mosque is made of mud and straw like other buildings, but it stands out due to its size, its multitude of minarets and the large white ostrich eggs on the three towers.

Monday morning I turned the comer from the only hotel in town and gasped at the intense activity taking place in yesterday’s quiet square. The sights seemed to be straight out of a National Geographic movie. I penetrated the bizarre colorful crowd as if I had just stepped into a fantasy. Only in books had I seen anything as marvelous as the Peul women.

A typical Peul woman had at least 15 small pure gold hoops lining each ear. Another single loop pierced the bridge of her nose. Her hair was plaited into circles on her scalp with pieces of yellow amber strung through the braids. Some ladies had rows of amber stones on their heads as a sign of wealth. Often silver coins dangled from the braids, clinking against huge gold earrings. Those heavy earrings were bigger than a man’s fist, causing the lobes to droop deeply.

The Peul women somehow dyed the area about an inch all the way around their mouths darker than their already black skin, They frequently smiled, revealing their likewise dyed gums.

In giant calabash gourds, they sold yellow dust, green powder and small wilted leaves. I presumed they were spices. What looked like balls of mud to me turned out to be soap. What I thought to be a pile of garbage was sold as shrunken fish heads.

The food and faces were so foreign that my first African market really stunned me. Also, the poverty saddened me. The only vegetable sold was onions. The only fruit sold was mangos. There was no cheese and meat was almost non-existent.

To walk through the Djenné market was like being swirled through a colorful kaleidoscope. The activity would collide marvelously until I would pause to focus on a particular sight. During one “moment of focus” i! stopped to watch a leather worker make a leather necklace cord.  Working with unusual, yet practical wooden tools, he transformed a long strip of animal skin, about an inch wide, into a thin string-size necklace cord. His skill was superb, evident in his final touch of making a leather apparatus to open and close the cord when taking it on and off.

The leather stand was just one of the many stops I made to scrutinize a typical native at work. While cruising through the market, hundreds of foreign sights danced past my eyes.

Boys with heads shaved in patchwork tufts, young girls balancing five-foot branches of firewood horizontally on their heads; noble old men in wide, triangular Asian style hats, beggar boys with gourds hanging from their necks to collect discarded chicken bones; men puffing tobacco out of goat’s horn pipes.  Lepers extending their hands for money, but minus any fingers to handle the coins; baby girls with a row of tiny twigs piercing their ears to later be replaced by genuine earrings; children with belly buttons hideously jutting out outward several inches due to an improperly cut umbilical cord.

On and on and on, anywhere I looked was a sight or even a detail that astounded me or repulsed me, yet undeniably aroused me. The foreign stimuli was so intense that I took refuge in Djenné’s grand mosque, one of the few in Mali that women could enter.

I was required to leave my sandals outside which was just as well since the mosque’s floor was thickly
covered with sand. Unlike Levantine mosques I had previously entered, this mosque had no open central praying area. It was more individual oriented due to the 100 geometrically spaced columns occupying most of the mosque’s space. Wild bats zoomed through the many arched aisles.

I climbed a steep circular stairway which led to the mosque’s roof. There I had an aerial view of the bubbling Djenné market. It occurred to me that with a few minor exceptions the commodities, clothing and culture of the people were no doubt identical 1,000 years ago. 

I observed the lifestyle at length from the roof. It was better than a movie because it was reality. And; because it was reality, I descended the winding stairs with just a touch of anxiety at having to deal with that mind-blowing world.

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