La Grande Famille – The Cycle of Life

Daouda Berthe’s Family

Family is all important in Mali and by family I am talking of the extended family. All family members are important and it is considered absolutely essential in Mali to keep peace in the family. Sometimes this means to sacrifice your own dreams and wishes. Marriage is one of the most important events in life and there is no Malian woman that does not want to be married.

My friend and ex-project secretary, Daouda Berthe, who has embarked on a succesful career in Bamako, has send me a couple of pictures of his family. And I liked them so much that I am sharing them to day with you.  Merci Daouda!

Daouda’s beautiful wife with his fourth child

When the members of a family in Mali celebrate, they celebrate in style! In great malian style. It takes days to prepare celebrations like marriages and baptemes and they also last for days. Looking at these pictures you understand why Mali has been once a great African Empire. The Malian fabrics, hand-dyed damast in these pictures, are of a beauty that is hard to describe. You have to feel and touch them! And Daouda’s wife wears a traditional Malian gold  necklace and earrings, reserved for great festivities and special days. On the day of her child’s bapteme she is wearing them proudly. The designs of this type of jewelry dates back to great Empire of Ghana.

The Very proud father

And here is the very proud father with his newborn baby. Well done Daouda! You have not only managed to become succesful in your professinal life but in your private life you have kept the great Malian, African traditions alive .

A direct gift from God

Categories: Bamako, Mali, Mali Fabric, People, Tradition, Wedding, West Africa, women | Tags: | 1 Comment

To Remember You Is Easy – My Malian Father

Isaac Traore – To Remember YOU Is Easy

Some things are hard to talk about. But to remember you is easy. You have left this world already, though you were young. But I pretend I am going  to write a letter to you. How could I know that you would leave so early? Or should I have known ? I should, because the statistics tell you about it. But you also think it is the person next to the one who is next and close to you!

The average life expectancy for a male in Mali is 49 years. Some statistics show figures up to 54,5 years.

Life expectancy has been defined as: The average number of years to be lived by a group of people born in the same year, if mortality at each age remains constant in the future. The entry includes total population as well as the male and female components. Life expectancy at birth is also a measure of overall quality of life in a country and summarizes the mortality at all ages. It can also be thought of as indicating the potential return on investment in human capital and is necessary for the calculation of various actuarial measures.

That sound so strange to me.

I think you were a little bit older than 50 years. So you just made it. And many others that I have known so well, are gone like you. Because the life expectancy of a male in Mali is 49 years. And it is what it is!

I know you so well because I spend each and every day with you. I spend hours in the car with you and I spend hours at your house with your lovely wife Assa, who always prepared a meal for us. You spend hours at my house. You were assigned to the project to help me coordinate the logistics and to drive when I was tired. Since I was tired so often, you  always drove. You knew everything but you were humble about it.

You drove me to the villages. You drove me from Nara to Bamako, you drove me back. You drove me on this road. Didieni was half way to Nara and it was the last village where you could buy something to eat and drink. We always stopped to buy sheep meat from the roast and ate it with onions from torn out cement bag paper. It was so good! The meat and the coffe with condensed, sweetend milk.

Didieni, Half Way To Nara

“You must eat”, you said to me, ” because you are really “pekele” ( thin) and you will not find a husband in Mali like that!” You laughed.

Boy, I  got fat later.

La Rotisserie Marocaine

La Rotisserie Marocaine had the best sheep and goats meat in Didieni. It rosted and baked for hours in the traditional oven. We took our meals in the little shack in the back. I bet you knew all the rotisseries marocaine in the whole of Mali. You have been around.

You said to me:  “You are so young. Is this not hard for you”. I replied: ” Very”

” Eat” you said, ” am gonna get that coffee of yours”.

It was logic that you became the Malian father for me. because you were so experienced, so calm and so outstanding as a human being. You could shed a tear from time to time and that was most unusual for a Malian man. You saw me fall in love, get sick, get well, you saw me cry and wipe my tears, you saw me work. You saw more of me than many others. Yes you did.

Issa And Daouda

You were loved by all. You and Daouda were friends.

You drove me all the way. And we passed by many others whose trip was so much harder than ours.

You made it easy for me and because of you I travelled well and safe. You drove all of us.

The Others On The Road

You drove me until I was home

My Home

You are what one calls “late now”. And I am late with my letter. But I imagine you are safe and travelling well now on God’s great road.

May Allah guide all your moves!

All I can say it is so easy to remember you.

Categories: African Food, Mali, Mali Villages, Nara, People, Sahel, Transport, Travel, West Africa | 1 Comment

Aman Iman -Water Is Life

Water Is Life. A charette( donkey cart” traveling down to the ” mare” ( a dry lake that fills up in the rainy season with water.)

Water is Life. Nothing will be without water. Nothing can be.

I lived approximately 60 m away from the great dry-lake that you see in the picture. If by the middle of June no rains had fallen, the prayers at the mosque in Nara started.

If  Allah or the one and only power blessed the country with rain, the vast area, filled up with water.

Then there was life, so much more life than usual.So much more beauty than usual

Aman Iman. Water is Life. Water is Beauty.

Aman Iman

Categories: Islam, Mali, Nara, Nature, Sahel, West Africa | 1 Comment

Kodjo And The Cats

Kodjo in peace now with Yalla Keita the Wanderer and Marley

Kodjo. my guard said: “Non, non, non, ca c’est vraiment trop. Trois chats”. ( No no no, its really getting too much now. Three cats).

In the picture you see him, now at peace with the kittens, playing in my living room! This has not always been like that.

We already had a lot of animals. Did I mention that I often received animals as gifts from the villages – like the two giant tortoises the size of a small-sized outdoor summer table, that were named after the two soccer clubs Bayern Muenchen and Moenchengladbach. I received goats and chicken, guinea fowls and little buck, just to mention a few.

We had the two donkeys Egon and Emil. And the horse Mandela.

Yalla Keita, The Wanderer. He did wander a lot!

But here they were: three Sahel kittens as wild and as beautiful as the land.Named: Yalla Keita, Marley and Sissoko!  Two Malian names and one Jamaican. Marley, was named after Bob Marley of course because he had been born with a similar intense expression on his face like Bob when singing ” Could you be loved”. At least that was, what was said about him.

Sissoko was altogether a different case. He chose to live in the bush and came only from time to time to visit his two brothers.

My best friend Eva with Marley and an empty champaign bottle. A special gift she had brought all the way from Europe to Nara to celebrate my birthday.

Kodjo sighed: non, non, non!

But I reminded him that he also had contributed significantly to our growing family.  In my next post I am going to tell you how he did that. So he had no choice, than to say “oui d’accord” – yes Ok!

The daily fight

But in the end everything was well! And like Kodjo said there were also quiet moments!

A rare quiet moment


Categories: Africa, Animals, Mali, People, Sahel, West Africa | Tags: | 1 Comment

And You Shall Have An Outdoor Shower!

What I learned about job descriptions written by development organizations for future innocent volunteers and expats is that they simply can not be trusted. Believe me that is the honest truth. If they could be trusted nobody would really go there to work.

Sometimes it turns out to be much more than you expected and that is a very nice surprise. Sometimes however it does not come close to your original vision and your inner attitude needs immediate adjusting.

And you shall have an outdoor toilet as well!

My job description said, that my house would be equipped with an outdoor shower. I thought that’s ok, it’s hot in Mali and I am just gonna be fine with that.! I am an outdoor person in any way! My inner eye saw an outdoor shower as a sort of steel or metal pipe, erected somewhere with an already established connection to a water point. My idea of an outdoor shower had been formed by the shower points in public swimming pools in Europe.

I definitely saw a nozzle or some sort of shower head at the end of that pipe. And in a way I figured there would be a certain degree of privacy. I actually did not give it much sort at all, when reading the job description. Who cares about a shower when he or she is going to a fascinating place like Mali.

What I can tell you today is that I did indeed spend a real great deal of my time outdoors – for all sort of activities. Showering took the least time.

First of all the connection to the water point was not yet established and would actually never be for the next seven years( I did not know that then, good for me). So the water was brought from the village well by means of a donkey cart. That is one of the reasons why I needed Kodjo.

Donkeys are tough animals but even they get tired. So a replacement for Egon ( the first donkey’s name was Egon) had to be there. Because no donkey – no water. Or a  tired, moody donkey – also no water.

Which meant at times that there were lots of donkeys on my yard! And donkey carts and people too.

In the end I did not have only an outdoor shower but I also had an outdoor toilet.

The seat in the first picture is a later adjustment. I was benefitting from this amelioration because the director of one of the organizations responsible for the project had a knee operation and could not bend his knee anymore. So a toilet seat was added to the scenario.  It has to be mentioned that this was the first toilet seat installed in Nara – although not in a conventional way as you can see in the picture!

In the beginning there was a hole in the mud floor and the famous bucket.

Same applied to the outdoor shower. There were four mud walls, a bucket but not no hole in the floor.  Above me Allah’s great sky. The view was beautiful.

And since my house was standing right at the edge of a well-traveled road from the villages to Nara I got greeted frequently over the wall  by travellers on camels while I was busy with some sort ” toilette”. This took a little while to get used to.

But who really cared, the girl was n Mali now!

Categories: Africa, Mali, Nara, People, Sahel, West Africa | Leave a comment

The Green Fingers Of Mohammed Traore

Daouda Berthe, the ex-project secretary alias “combined personal management assistant, computer technician and software developer” said to me the other day: ” Apparament tu n’as pas encore cesser de fouiller dans ton grenier à photo” ( apparently you have not stopped digging in your photo treasury chest).  Not at all Daouda!  And I promise you, you will be one of my next victims. Very soon.

But today I am going to talk about the Green Team. The project had a green team. Sometimes up to five people were slaving in well-coordinated synchronized efforts “to make the Sahel a greener place” again. The projects activties had been extended to so many villages that field assistants were now needed to supervise the implementation and to report to the coordinators of the green team.

Mohammed Traore

The man in the picture, Mohammed Taore was heading the green team together with Cheick Fadel (whom I have already introduced to you). The sector they worked in was called agroforestry.

Cheick was coordinating and programming all activities relating to the vegetable gardens that had been established by the project in the villages and Mohammed Traore was in charge of the forestry section. Both were working in synergy. Wind breaks were planted consisting of fruit or indigenous trees to protect the young seedlings in the garden from the aggressive Sahel wind. Training and equipment was supplied by the project and labour was the contribution of the villages

I am going to talk again a little bit about planting trees in the Sahel. My favourite topic. The idea of planting trees in the Sahel has occupied my mind for many years, probably because I was involved in this activity for such a long time. And probably also because it gave us so much headaches and joy at the same time.

The Green Team in front of the Project LAG ” salle de formation”. The salle de formation is a training center

The green dream team with Ccideron

A  semi arid belt of poor soils, that is 200 to 700 miles wide in certain regions, the Sahel stretches across the African continent.

Average rainfall ranges from 4 to 24 inches a year. When-and if – it rains up tp 90% of the moisture evaporates. Drought is natural to the Sahel. But what is not natural is the overgrazing and deforestation of decades that have contributed to increase the size of the desert and overrun an area roughly the size of France since the 1950’s.

The Sahel can support only a limited pastoral population. Traditionally nomads lived in balance on marginal resources.

The great turn came in the 1950’s. Before the 1940’s, during the rainy season herdsmen followed the rains north with their livestock. They retreated to greener pastures in the south during dry spells. Crops were planted, but fields were allowed fallow spells to regenerate the soil. During those periods the livestock fed off stubble and their wastes fertilized the ground. This fragile balance shifted in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. The policies of new African nations constricted nomads causing many border conflicts.

Independence als0 brough the concept of foreign aid to the African countries. And economic aid brought new strains of cash crops like cotton an peanuts that could only tolerate a short growing season. Expanding agriculture and population usurped grazing land. Foreign aid dug well all over the Sahel through developmental institutions and bilateral development projects. Thousands of new wells were many in regions with fossil underground water. Not only was no more livestock kept by the nomads because more water and water and watering places were available but the livestock stripped the vegetation around the wells, topsoil blew away and bare patches fused into the desert.

Mohammed Traore checking the young seedling in the nursery

 In the 1970’s this disastrous development and the interdependency of all the factors mentioned above was finally fully recognized internationally and since then governments, projects, developments agencies and NGO’ s try to re-forest the Sahel with all their might. And so did we.

The question that has occupied me since then is: can this process be stopped. I do not even want to use the term reverse. What has been called ” The Sterilization of the Sahel’ – can it be halted?

Mohammed Traore and one of his disciples watering a citrus tree in a future vegetable garden

Categories: Development Aid, Development Project, Mali, Nara, Sahel, West Africa | Leave a comment

Sounds From The Desert – The Music Of The Touareg

Touareg Man in traditional dress

The music track that I have inserted gives a very good idea of what traditional Touareg music sounds like. The music of  the Touareg people has been recognized internationally as a genre of its own during the last decade.  Bands like Tinariwen are now playing on stages in Europe. I am focusing in this post only on the “technical side” of the music. Touareg music is music shaped by the desert. When you listen you can feel the discipline in it that is needed to live a life in the desert, but also the vastness and the freedom of the space, that forms the mind of those living in it.

The music of the Touareg is deeply symbolic for their fight to be recognized also politically as their own people with their own governance. The words of their songs and their poems represent their struggle for a free and independant life and the preservation of their culture.

The Tuareg (also spelled Twareg or Touareg; endonym Imuhagh) are a Berber people with a traditionally nomadic pastoralist lifestyle. They are the principal inhabitants of the Saharan interior of North Africa.

Touareg or Berber marriages in Nara lasted for up to four days. I could  hear the chorus of the women accompagnied by a drum called tende singing throughout the night without interruption. The singing would not stop for several days and nights. In the nights it was more intense. It was so beautiful that I did not want to sleep. I just listened. May be this track can convey a little bit the atmosphere to you.

Tartit Touareg Mokubar

Traditional Tuareg music has two major components.  A monochord violin called anzad is played often during night parties and marriages. A small tambour covered with goatskin called tende, is used during camel and horse races, and other festivities.

Traditional songs called Asak and Tisiway (poems) are sung by women and men during feasts and social occasions. Another popular Tuareg musical genre is takamba, characteristic for its Afro percussions.

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The Influence Of Islam On West African Architecture – Preservation Not Destruction!

Vey sad news have been spread all over the world through television. Several ancient buildings have been destroyed by ex-Gaddafi Taliban fighters who occupy presently the North of Mali, trying to introduce the law of the scharia. Amongst these buildings was a religious shrine, that was built in the 15th century in the style what is today defined as the Sudano Sahelien Architecture.

What has been destroyed is not only part of  the heritage of Mali and belongs to the Malian people, but it is at the same time the cultural heritage of the whole world. It is easy to tear something down ( a saying of my grandfather who survived two World Wars) – it is as easy as counting to one, two, three – but it can sometimes take centuries to build it.

The irony of this situation of destruction, reigning in the North of Mali is, that Islamic architecture heavily influenced the Sahel and Sudanian regions of West Africa during the 16th and 17th centuries with the use of mud bricks, adobe plaster and wooden support beams jutting from the wall to act as scaffolding for reworking. The architectural creations of the same religion( a peaceful religion in its essence)  are destroyed now by its extremist followers.

The influence of Islamic architecture on ancient West African architecture can be traced back to the 8th century with the arrival of Muslim traders. Arab Muslims incorporated existing indigenous architectural elements into designs originating in the Middle East.
It is mentioned in old documents that the famous Malian Muslim Emperor Mansa Musa returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca in the year of 1325, bringing back with him a baked brick technology to build five mosques, which influenced the future and the style of  West African construction.

The beauty of the Sahelian Sudano architecture lies in the fact that the Pre-Islamic West African architecture, that consisted largely of compact mud and tent structures was paired with centuries old Islamic design elements creating a completely unique and fascinating architecture, famous and admired all over the world. It is the perfect fusion of these two styles and cultures, that give the Sudano Sahelian architecture a mystical and deeply religious dimension.
It is a type of architecture that can be essentailly considered as organic, sustainable and ecological. Is Eco Design not what the West and the first world countries are trying to introduce into their societies on a larger scale ?
Let’s look to West Africa for inspiration and learn from it.
In the Sahel region, Islamic architectural styles of mosques and palace courtyards and high walls brought the concept of municipal city centers to West African cities.

Mosques were designed by using existing West African, Malian Dogon architecture consisting of conical towers, pilasters and buttresses that continue today to be a Sahel mosque’s primary characteristics.
Looking at these images of a mosque in Bandiagara in the Dogon Plateau one can sense easily the greatness of these buildings. They were taken by my very good friend Ralf Scheurer, an architect during a visit to Mali to the Dogon country.

One has to realize we are talking about mud- buidlings that date back to the 15th century and earlier. They have been preserved ever since just to be destroyed now.
What is happening in the North of Mali is a disaster and a catastrophe.

Preservation Not Destruction!

Categories: Africa, African Architecture, Arab, Islam, Mali, Mali Villages, Sahel, Sudano Sahelian, Tradition, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The History Of Female Circumcision (FGM)

In the late 1990’s the Project LAG in Nara started a sensibilisation programme to fight against the practice of female circumcision in the villages of our intervention zone (commonly called FGM Female Genital Mutilation in the Western world).

It was a daring undertaking, that had the potential to ruin the success of the project in no time and make us loose all the trust from the inhabitants of the villages, that we had gained over the years. Trust and cooperation are the essential ingredients to make a development project work. Many heated discussions, if we should or should not engage openly in such an activity, had taken place before. Female circumcision is a religious, cultural and symbolic concept and its practice has its origin thousands of years back.

On the field-level and grass-root level Fatoumata Couliably and myself were responsible for the implementation of this programme. But the whole team was involved in developing a strategy for this complex and delicate topic.  I could write an entire book about what I  learned and heard from Fatime and  the women in the villages concerning the practice of female circumcision. I could write an entire book about the emotions, the fear, the pain and the pride as well, that many women surprisingly still felt instead of all the hardship they had been put through by their mothers and grandmothers.

” The problem will be,” said Cheik Camara, the eldest and wisest of the team members, ” to convince the mothers. It is much more difficult to convince the women to give it up than the men. It has nothing to do with Islam either. It is much deeper”.

I could tell so many intimiate, moving and emotional stories of circumcised and excised Malian women and girls. And I will come to that point, but however today I have compiled a ” more scientific summary” to enable readers to first understand the history, the symbolism, the different practices and the health consequences surrounding FGM because it is no ” easy” concept at all.

Over 90% of the women in Mali are still being circumcised or excised today.

FGM is considered by its practitioners to be an essential part of raising a girl properly—girls are regarded as having been cleansed by the remove of all “male” body parts. It ensures pre-marital virginity and inhibits extra-marital sex, because it reduces women’s libido. Women fear the pain of re-opening the vagina, and are afraid of being discovered if it is opened illicitly

Definition: Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutialtion (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision  is defined by the World Health Organization  (WHO) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”

The word “mutilation” differentiates the procedure from male circumcision and stresses its severity

The WHO has offered four classifications of FGM. They are classified as follows:

Type I, removal of the clitoral hood, almost invariably accompanied by removal of the clitoris itself (clitoridectomy)

Type II, removal of the clitoris and inner labia.  This type of FGM is also often called excision in West- Africa.

Type III (infibulation), removal of all or part of the inner and outer labia, and usually the clitoris, and the fusion of the wound, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood—the fused wound is opened for intercourse and childbirth. Type III, commonly called infibulation or pharaonic circumcision, is the removal of all external genitalia. The inner and outer labia are cut away, with or without excision of the clitoris. The girl’s legs are then tied together from the the hip to ankle for up to 40 days to allow the wound to heal. The immobility causes the labial tissue to bond, forming a wall of flesh and skin across the entire vulva, apart from a hole the size of a matchstick for the passage of urine and menstrual blood, which is created by inserting a twig or rock salt into the wound. There is another form of Type III called matwasat, where the stitching of the vulva is less extreme and the hole left is bigger.

In Type 3 excision or infibulation elderly women, relatives and friends secure the girl in the lithotomy position. A deep incision is made rapidly on either side from the root of the clitoris to the fourchette, and a single cut of the razor excises the clitoris and both the labia majora and labia minora.

Bleeding is profuse, but is usually controlled by the application of various poultices, the threading of the edges of the skin with thorns, or clasping them between the edges of a split cane. A piece of twig is inserted between the edges of the skin to ensure a patent foramen for urinary and menstrual flow. The lower limbs are then bound together for 2–6 weeks to promote haemostatis and encourage union of the two sides. Healing takes place by primary intention, and, as a result, the introitus is obliterated by a drum of skin extending across the orifice except for a small hole. Circumstances at the time may vary; the girl may struggle ferociously, in which case the incisions may become uncontrolled and haphazard. The girl may be pinned down so firmly that bones may fracture.

Around 85 percent of women who undergo FGM experience Types I and II, and 15 percent Type III.

Type III is the most common procedure in several countries, including Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti. Several miscellaneous acts are categorized as Type IV. These range from a symbolic pricking or piercing of the clitoris or labia, to cauterization of the clitoris, cutting into the vagina to widen it (gishiri cutting), and introducing corrosive substances to tighten it.

FGM is typically carried out on girls from a few days old to puberty. It may take place in a hospital, but is usually performed, without anaesthesia, by a traditional circumciser using a knife, razor, or scissors. According to the WHO, it is practiced in 28 countries in western, eastern, and north-eastern Africa, in parts of the Middle East, and within some immigrant communities in Europe, North America, and Australasia.

The WHO estimates that 100–140 million women and girls around the world have experienced the procedure, including 92 million in Africa. The practise is carried out by some communities who believe it reduces a woman’s libido.

The vulva is cut open for sexual intercourse and childbirth. In some communities, when a pregnant woman who has not experienced FGM goes into labour, the procedure is performed before she gives birth, because it is believed the baby may be stillborn if it touches her clitoris. The risk of haemorrhage and death from FGM during labour is high.

During three six-month studies in the 1980s, Hanny Lightfoot-Klein interviewed 300 Sudanese women and 100 Sudanese men, and described the penetration by the men of their wives’ infibulation:

“The penetration of the bride’s infibulation takes anywhere from 3 or 4 days to several months. Some men are unable to penetrate their wives at all (in my study over 15%), and the task is often accomplished by a midwife under conditions of great secrecy, since this reflects negatively on the man’s potency. Some who are unable to penetrate their wives manage to get them pregnant in spite of the infibulation, and the woman’s vaginal passage is then cut open to allow birth to take place. A great deal of marital anal intercourse takes place in cases where the wife can not be penetrated—quite logically in a culture where homosexual anal intercourse is a commonly accepted premarital recourse among men—but this is not readily discussed. Those men who do manage to penetrate their wives do so often, or perhaps always, with the help of the “little knife.” This creates a tear which they gradually rip more and more until the opening is sufficient to admit the penis. In some women, the scar tissue is so hardened and overgrown with keloidal formations that it can only be cut with very strong surgical scissors, as is reported by doctors who relate cases where they broke scalpelsin the attempt.”

The term “pharaonic circumcision”  stems from its practice in Ancient Egypt under the rule of the Pharaohs.”Fibula” (in “infibulation”) refers to the Romanpractice of piercing the outer labia with a fibula or brooch. Genitally-mutilated females have been found among Egyptia mummies.

It is said as well  that the common attribution of the procedure to Islam is unfair because it is a much older phenomenon.

What has been summarised and said about FGM in this post is compatible with my findings and experience from the  encounters I had with the girls and women from our project zone.

I have written this post today because my friend and old collegue Cheik Fadel has send me a website link two weeks ago. I am very pleased to see that the awareness what FGM is, is growing and that more and more women and men are joining the activismn against its practice.

      Here is another wordpres site about female excision that you can follow

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My Neighbour’s House

My neighbours

It was absolutely essential to establish good neighbourhood relationships with the ones that were living next to you. Life was lived in close proximity to each other. Sending greetings over the wall – at any time possible.

Building up good relations with your neighbours in Nara also meant chasing goats and other livestock from the young trees, planted and hard protected in front of the wall, helping each other out with some eggs and maize from time to time, inviting your neighbours over for the tea and generally keeping an eye on the property of the other.

Categories: Animals, Livestock, Mali, Nara, People, Sahel, West Africa | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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