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

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

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

Throughout Her Life, A Woman Is Owned By Three Men

Three men own a woman throughout her life

I had become very close with Salif. He worked and lived in Nara for the same project as I did. Most of our free time after work and at the weeks-ends we spent together, philosophing in a shady place over the problems of the African continent and the possible solutions to them. More than once we got lost in stimulating conversations that lasted for hours.

One afternoon after work I was sitting in his yard, while he was preparing the tea on his small coal stove, listening to the sounds of Baaba Mal, coming out of the tape-recorder. Baaba Mal sounded a bit metallic that day, due to the quality of the tape recorder and the force of the 12 Volt battery, that had reached the last hours of its working life. New batteries had not yet arrived from Bamako because the truck was “en panne” ( break down ) on the road since the day before and was still in the same place some hundred kilometers away.

Our topic for this afternoon, that I had started, was the plight of African women in rural areas. One of the first things, that I noticed, when coming to Nara, was how incredibly hard the women worked. And I also noticed that in most cases it was accepted and expected that they carried huge loads on their heads, walked  to the well to fetch water, sweeped, washed, cleaned, were sent on commisisons to the market over and over again, worked into the late evening hours etc. In one word a woman’s job. Just that a woman’s job in rural Africa is so much harder than a woman’s job in any other place in this world.

Salif  listened attentively to my perception of the situation.

” I agree, he said, but you know here we say, that a woman is owned by three men throughout the span of her life”.

” Explain”.

” The first man that owns you is your father. When a girl is born she belongs to her father in our tradition. Then, when she gets married, she is owned by her husband. Her father does hand her over to her husband and his responsibility for her ceases at that moment. The husband takes over. And the last who owns her, is her son. This ownership you must not only see as a physical and autoritarian one, but it is also a mental and psychological one. “

The moment he had finished the sentence my mind drifted off and went on a journey of its own.

” A woman will never be free of the influence these three men have on her and her life, and that is the real plight a woman is living in my eyes”, I still heard him say.” in Mali it is still difficult for a woman to survive on her own without a man. The concept of feminine freedom is not the same for her as the concept of feminine freedom is for you. These are two entirely different things in this world.”

I had come a long way so far. I had a long road behind me to come to Nara. I thought of the months I had stayed in Berlin to prepare for this job with the organization that had hired me. I had given up my flat, my work, had sold everything. I had moved into a residence with many others, who went to developing countries all over the world. I owned nothing anymore except clothes. And we were all prepared for a job, that you cannot prepare for. That I know now!

In Berlin, in the multicultural melting pot, in the open-hearted and pulsating metropole I had seen gay and lesbian couples walking freely hand in hand on the streets, committing to their relationship in public without making a topic out of it anymore or without even showing the slightest sign of insecurity. I had seen beautiful women and men with a new understanding of freedom in their eyes. You could feel the freedom.  The idea of the nucleus family has faded to a large extent in Europe and in fact it does not interest many people anymore to talk about how the once classical roles in European societies have changed. Not that family values are not important anymore, just that the roles been inversed or completely reformed.

I put my head back and closed my eyes. Why does something that is so right and is the norm, feel completely wrong in another place. And why do his words seem to be so true.

” Are you alright “, Salif asked.

” Yes, yes , I am”. I was looking at the changing colors of the sky. A thin line of pink appeared over the trees and the air smelled of dust.

” When I talked of ownership, he added, it does not mean that it has to be seen in a negative way. It is not necessarily a negative thing. I know there are men who do not treat their women well. We do not approve of that in our society either, but it is hard to deal with. It is just a fact, that a woman is never entirely free in her decisions because these three men, father, husband and son are with her forever. Even if her husband is dead, her son takes that role. So when is she ever free of a man’s influence. “

” Only when there is no man anymore, I guess, is that what you saying “‘

” May be, he replied, but is it worth it?

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

In Africa, When An Old Man Dies, It’s A Library Burning

I have written this post a while ago for my other blog. But its true place is here. Amadou Hampâté Bâ was one of the great and unforgettable Malians, who dedicated his life and work to a topic that is close to my heart – the oral tradition in Africa and the importance of the wisdom of the elders in the society. I will save my thoughts on this for the next post and let him talk for himself here.

In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning – spoken by Amadou Hampâté Bâ 1960 at UNESCO


“I graduated from the great university of the Spoken Word taught in the shade of baobab trees.”


“The people of Black race, as they are not peoples with a tradition of written literature, have developed the art of speech in a most special manner. While it is not written, their literature is not less beautiful. How many poems, epics, historic and chilvalrous narratives, didatic tales, myths and legends of egregious literary style have so been transmitted through centuries, carried by the prodigious memory of the men with an oral tradition’s, passionately in love with beautiful language and almost all poets.”

Amadou Hampâté Bâ 1985


” If you know that you do not know, then you will know”


All the proverbs are from Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the pictures are from Dr.Juergen Schlichting, my uncle and mentor, a street photographer and writer who was born in 1936. His extraordinary work covers the 1950’s to the 1980’s. The photos in this post were taken by him during a trip through East Africa in 1959. His images complement perfectly the quotes of Amadou Hampâté Bâ. The life of this great African writer fascinates me over and over again. For the ones who would like to read more about him I have compiled a small summary below.

Amadou Hampâté Bâ was born to an aristocratic Fula family in Bandiagara, the largest city in Dogon territory and the capital of the precolonial Masina Empire (Mali). After his father’s death, he was adopted by his mother’s second husband, Tidjani Amadou Ali Thiam of the Toucouleur ethnic group. He first attended the Qur’anic school run by Tierno Bokar a dignitary of the Tijaniyyah brotherhood, then transferred to a French school at Bandiagara, then to one at Djenne. In 1915, he ran away from school and rejoined his mother at Kati, where he resumed his studies. In 1921, he turned down entry into the école normale in Goree. As a punishment, the governor appointed him to Quagadougou with the role he later described as that of “an essentially precarious and revocable temporary writer”. From 1922 to 1932, he filled several posts in the colonial administration in Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso and from 1932 to 1942 in Bamako. In 1933, he took a six month leave to visit Tierno Bokar, his spiritual leader.
In 1942, he was appointed to the Institut Francais d”Afrique Noire (IFAN, French Institute of Black Africa) in Dakar thanks to the benevolence of Theodore Monod, its director. At IFAN, he made ethnological surveys and collected traditions. For 15 years he devoted himself to research, which would later lead to the publication of his work L’Empire peul de Macina (The Fula Empire of Macina). In 1951, he obtained a UNESCO grant, allowing him to travel to Paris and meet with intellectuals from Africanist circles.
With Mali’s independence in 1960, Bâ founded the Institute of Human Sciences in Bamako, and represented his country at the UNESCO general conferences. In 1962, he was elected to UNESCO’s executive council, and in 1966 he helped establish a unified system for the transcription of African languages.His term in the executive council ended in 1970, and he devoted the remaining years of his life to research and writing. In 1971, he moved to the Marcory suburb of Abidjan, and worked on classifying the archives of West African oral tradition that he had accumulated throughout his lifetime, as well as writing his memoirs (Amkoullel l’enfant peul and Oui mon commandant!, both published posthumously).Wikipedia

Categories: Africa, Koranic School, Mali, People, Sahel, Uncategorized, West Africa | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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