Tradition

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

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

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

Playing The Small Talking Drum

One day my bro Chris, aka Ccideron asked Cheick Fadel aka Fernandel, le bonne homme du Sahel: “What is that little drum called that you play under your armpit and that makes sounds like a human voice ? “

The question had just been asked and immediately a jamming/drumming/smoking/tea-drinking session was organized with one of the best musicians in Nara. Fernandel knew them all of course.

Making Music at Cheick Fadel’s home

It is called a  Tamani, said Fernandel, the small talking drum. And Ccideron got hooked on it.

Right away !

Ccideron at work


The talking drum (aka dondo, adondo, atumpan, or gan gan) is a drum where the pitch can be varied, like a timpani. Like many drums, the talking drums have been used for communicating in Africa.

When the drum is squeezed under the arm and played, one can produce the intonations of human speech. The drum originated in West Africa. These drums add a beautiful dynamic to music. It is a symbol of joy and unity for the Malian people.

The expert

But as always, TALK IS INDEED CHEAP. When it comes to playing the small talking drum it takes a little bit more than squeezing your armpit to produce the desired sound.

Africa has a rich musical tradition with a wide variety of instruments, many of them ancient and long associated with oral tradition, storytelling and improvisation. For centuries, Africa has produced a wide variety of different drums, idiophones, string instruments and more. Many African musicians can play more than one instrument with equal skill. Yeap!

And so did he !

Long and intense sessions

These sessions ( we had many of them ) were intense and long and the participants got exhausted from all the music talk.

Luckily a tea maker was always part of the team and frequent breaks, dedicated to sipping the dark and bitter sweet  Arab tea, helped the band to recover again and again. And of course the beds, chairs and divans under Fernandel’s ” Hangar” came in handy as well. Sometimes you just have to get into a comfortable position and the world looks bright again.

Dark, bitter and sweet is real nice!

Fact is everything can be turned into art if you put your heart into it, if it is making music or making tea – it’s just the same. It is art. Looking at the two, you would not believe that there was no alcohol involved!

Ccideron and Fernandel

Music until the moon came up – and then through the night!

Until the moon comes up

Categories: Africa, Nara, People, Sahel, Tradition, West Africa | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Sahelian Architecture in Nara, Murals in Ocre and Mud Bricks

THE PLEASURE OF JUST BEING THERE

My working days looked like this: I started out early and went to the villages in the morning when it was not too hot. I came back at around lunch time and during the obligatory desert siesta I took notes ( yes, notes from my mud hut. I filled page after page of my diary with descriptions of what I saw and what I experienced). In the afternoon I went again to the villages to come back shortly before sunset. Then I got myself a drink, usually a beer from Kouame’s Bar or the unavoidable colonial Gin and tonic and looked over my wall until it got night, holding my drink below and not above the wall as Kodjo had recommended.

No, I am not strange ! That was what other people did as well. Except for the beer and the constant visiting of the villages. But looking over the wall is a popular past time in Nara and it is really absolutely not boring.

I visited the villages daily, mornings, afternoons and sometimes even in the evenings when I was invited for a ceremony. I was blessed because I was allowed to witness so many scenes of Nara daily life. When browsing the internet now I come from time to time across great articles that describe in detail some aspects of Malian life.

I was really incredibly blessed. Sometimes you don’t know a blessing when it is there, but you realize it later how great the gift was that you have received. The fact that I stayed for several years in Nara gave me the chance to see everything with my own eyes and to  experience the pleasure of just being there !

Not only to see it with my own eyes but to see it OVER AND AGAIN – until I could say without shame, yes I have seen this truly.

Most of the buildings in the villages in the Sahel zone are mud brick constructions. Mud brick houses are the traditional way of building in the Cercle de Nara and way beyond the borders into Mauritania.

The mud bricks are made where and when they are needed. Villages usually have a mud hole next to them, often in a dry lake,  where the bricks for the village are made. Mud brick building have to be repaired a certain period of time, especially after the rainy season, and need frequent attention but it is astonishing how long mud bricks can last.

A mud brick is a non fired brick, made of a mixture of clay, mud, sand, and water mixed with a natural and organic binding material such as rice husks or straw. Brickmakers use a stiff mixture and let them dry in the sun for 25 days. It takes a lot of experience to make bricks and a brickmaker is a professional who works throughout the whole year. He makes bricks for other people as well.

A well maintained and with beautiful wall mural decorated homestead in the village of Keybane Soninke

In warm regions, like the Sahelian zone with very little wood available to fuel a kiln, the bricks were generally left in the sun to dry out. This had the result that their useful lifespan is reduced to around thirty years. Once a building collapsed, new bricks would have to be made and the new structure rebuilt on top of the rubble of the decayed old brick.

This phenomenon is the primary factor behind the mounds on which many ancient cities stand. In some cases brickmakers extended the life of mud bricks by putting kiln dried bricks on top or covering them with stucco.

In the Nara environment the mud brick were called Banco: a mixture of mud and grain husks, fermented, and either formed into bricks or applied on surfaces as a plaster like paste in broad strokes. This plaster must be re-applied annually

A traditional wall painting on a "Banco plastered wall" made from mud bricks in Keybane Soninke

Categories: Africa, African Architecture, Mali, Mali Wall Murals, Nara, Sudano Sahelian, Tradition, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toumboudrane, an old place of healing and knowledge

As it was then, so it is now!

Toumboudrane, a village of old Africa. A place of healing and great knowledge.

Toumboudrane was founded over 110 years ago. When I started working in Nara in the 1990’s the chief of the village had already reached the honorable age of 88 years. To be old is good in Mali. Old age is an honorable state that deserves respect.

When I paid my first visit to the village to introduce myself to the chief of the village, a representative for the village chief had already been chosen to replace and assist him in decision-making concerning the affairs of the village. His advanced age and the fact that he was not capable anymore to attend to all the demands and situations that arose in the village and  that he was not well physically made this measure necessary.

Toumboudrane was also famous in the cercle de Nara for its Koranic school and for the healing capacities of the old chief of the village. Mentally ill and people with psychological issues were brought frequently to Toumboudrane and handed over to the care of the chief of the village. He had the gift to heal the ill by reciting the koran in their presence.

And people did get well again.

Like a hundred years ago. Houses are built still in the traditional way in the villages by using handmade mud bricks.

At the time of the projects interventions Toumboudrane counted 1115 inhabitants. Today according to a more recent census from 2003 it counts 1662 inhabitants. All the villages in the cercle de Nara have an old history but Toumboudrane was a village known for its spiritual and religious tradition as well.

It belonged also to the interventions zone of the Project LAG. Being the third biggest village of the municipality of  Nara it was chosen as one of the first villages where a “centre d’alphabetisation” was build in the 1980’s. This adult education center taught the people of Toumboudrane with the help of two local teachers, that were paid by the LAG, to read and write in their own language, Sarakolle.

Centre d'Alphabetisation in Toumboudrane

Interesting was that there existed now two educational institutions next to each other in the same village. The one was a koranic school with hundreds of years tradition and a reputation reaching far based on the Muslim faith, exploring the human soul and the many ways how to serve god and to become a better human being.

Koranic teachings under the shade of a tree. The old village chief sitting on the left.

The other one an educational institution based on Western principles trying to empower people by giving them the gift to read and write in their own native languages.

And it has to be said they co-existed well.

I can say it was a good thing that I kept a hand written diary through all those years. Looking at the photographs now brings back the intensity of these moments and encounters. I know now that I have met some great spiritual people and leaders in my life. Even if some of the encounters were short.

One comment I have written in that year caught my eye again. My conclusion at the time was, that both schools had so much to say and to give and that their knowledge and tradition combined could indeed help you to become a more humble, less pretentious, wiser and spiritually richer human being.

 

Categories: Africa, Development Aid, Islam, Koranic School, Mali, Nara, Nature, Participatory Development, People, Sahel, Tradition, Traditional Healer, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Did Not Order Puff Sleeves

My tailor in Nara had a more modern model of a sewing machine that was run by a small generator.

“C’est comment “? my tailor asked.  (How do you like it?)

“It is very, very nice”, I said, ” but I did not order puff sleeves!”

“What sleeves?”

“Puff sleeves, sleeves that look like big balloons at the shoulders”!

“Oh, but that is beautiful”

” Qui, je sais, mais je ne voulait pas ca !” (Yes, I know, but I did not want this!)

“But it is beautiful”. He had already turned back to his sewing machine.

That was the end of our conversation and I took my dress and walked down my street back home. The sun was sinking behind the trees and it was a lovely evening. The way of dressing yourself properly is considered an art in Mali. Each individual that I have met followed this principle. The culture of the country and the people is reflected in their beautiful colourful clothes. Mali is famous for its tie-dyed materials that are produced in different regions of the country and sold all over the world.

Most women and men still dress in boubous and other traditional clothing. Tailors are typically men – or to avoid generalisation 99% of the tailors are men. They transform the colourful patterned meters of cloth into glamorous loose-fitting but elegant clothing. Textile decoration is still done the way it was in past generations. Each ethnic group such as the Bambara, Dogon, and Tuareg have their own preference for art materials, style, and techniques.

It is not easy to find the right tailor. A tailor of great reputation is always booked out. And then there is the fact that most tailors are artists as well and have the power to create a new fashion trend. What is done by designers in the Western World is initiated by the tailors in Mali. The better a tailor, the more inspiration and fantasy he has and that also influences his sewing and tailoring. And of course he does feel free to change a little may be what you ordered and what you wanted.

Reflecting like this on fashion design and tailoring in Mali, I made a stop at the “Kouame Bar” since it was still very hot. I met two of my friends from Nature Conservation there, relaxing each over a one litre bottle of “Castel” beer.

‘Did you get a new dress?”

“Yes”

“Show it”.

I took it out of the plastic bag.

“That is fantastic; he does really know his job. I must send my wife there. You know, I think he really only took you as a costumer because you are a Toubab ( that means white, at the same time it is the colonial term for a doctor in Mali}. But that woman is too rude sometimes. My wide is rude. Nobody wants to work for her. Akono, another beer”.

“It is just the puff sleeves…” I started.

‘What sleeves”

“The sleeves that look like balloons, I am not sure…”

“No that is beautiful, he knows what he does”.

“But they are very big”.

“Yes, that is why they are so beautiful”.

After politicising, gossiping and talking for over an hour at “Kouame”, I finally walked the last 400 meters home through the night. Kodjo, my guard, was sitting outside at the gate with a friend. We had come to a sort of agreement that he would not comment anymore if I had been at the sinful Bar Kouame, drinking beer.

“You have been away for a long time”, he said instead.

“Yes, I got my dress”.

“And is it nice?” he asked

 It is great; it has big sleeves, like balloons”

“Oh yes, he likes doing that, he really knows his job. I want to see it tomorrow”.

“Beautiful”, he murmured turning back to his friend continuing their conversation.

Categories: Africa, Mali, Nara, Tailor, Tradition, Traditional African Clothing, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Make Me Whole Again!

The Holistic School of Thought

Traditional fencing in a village in the Cercle de Nara

From 1994 to 2001 the LAG – Malihilfe supported 17 villages in the Cercle de Nara. The Project LAG ‘s interventions followed the approach of a “holistic multisectorial village development”. This approach was based on the assumption that all the basic, elementary and unsatisfied needs of the population, as food security, availability of drinking water, sanitation and education to name just a few, had to be taken into consideration during the planning of the project’s activities. This approach also assumed that if basic living conditions could be improved in a holistic way, in other words by attending to the problem areas simultaneously through integrating them into an annual project plan in form of well defined and researched activities, things would eventually get better in the villages of the Sahel.

Mali had been classified as the fifth poorest country in the world when I started working in the Sahel in 1996. Things had to get better.

The LAG was the first organization to set up a project infrastructure in Nara. It worked in close cooperation with two other foreign donor organizations that supported the project in terms of finances, knowledge, logistics and personel. Many projects at this time fancied the “holistic” approach. It did make a lot of sense because of its participatory and patient nature compared to development strategies of the 1970’s and it had all the potential to turn projects into success stories instead of white elelphants.

But the north and north west of Mali englobes a wide a variety of life-styles with many of the communities in the Cercle de Nara being of a pastoralist and nomadic nature. One of these lifestyles is called ” The Transhumance”.

Traditional home in a village in the Cercle de Nara

The Transhumance can be described a pastoral strategy practised since thousands of years in the Sahel, especially in the north of Mali. It relies for migration for one part of the year and village residence during the other part. Seasonal migration patterns differ and they depend on a variety of factors ranging from the size of the herds to socio-economic status and family clan. There exists what we called the ” big and small transhumance”.

The small transhumace is also sometimes called a ” dry season transhumance ” that entails staying in the villages during the rainy season and then migrating south for the dry season. The dry season begins in November and ends at the beginning of July. Migrants consist of small family groups or male herders without any women.

The big transhumace is intensive in nature but the migrants move north towards Mauritania and they move during the rainy season. The migrants return only to their villages for a couple of weeks when the harvest time comes which is around October. After that they continue to migrate south with their herds for the long dry season lasting several months.

Migratory and pastoralist patterns have been overlooked for decades in project planning in the Sahel. During the last years more attention is given to them.

But for us soon the question arose: Whom can we make whole again if there is no continued presence, no male presence in the villages for several month every year ? Who is going to do the follow up on the implemenattion of the “holistic village development activities”?

Categories: Animals, Labor Migration, Landscapes, Livestock, Mali, Nara, Tradition, Transhumance, West Africa, women | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kodjo Kamissoko, The Guardian Of My Life

Kodjo Kamissoko, the guardian

“Do I really need a guard? “ I asked when I arrived in Nara.

“I would say you do “, one of my future Malian colleagues said, “we all have guards!”

” What for?”

“Well, for fetching water, buying meat, chicken and other groceries on the market, cutting the meat, watching the house, sweeping, ironing, heating water in winter for the shower, feeding the animals, keeping the children out of the yard, chasing stray dogs…I think you are supposed to work here. If you don’t have a guard you will hardly find the time to work.”

“What animals are we feeding”? Project Animals? “

“No, your livestock, I mean. You are goanna breed some chicken I assume for the kitchen. May be a little vegetable garden as well. And by the way there is a guy coming over this afternoon to show you two donkeys. You can just pick one and negotiate the price. You will only need one for a start “.

“My French is not yet that good to negotiate prices”, I worried loud.

” He does not speak French, I think only Soninke”, my colleague replied.

When I understood that a ” charette” a popular local means of transport – a donkey cart on two recycled car tires with a matching donkey – was needed to travel to the public well in Nara, queue in line behind the ones who have arived before you, manually fetch water in buckets and pour them into plastic barrels on the donkey cart and then travel back to the house to off-load the water into two other plastic barrels stored at the house  – an intense search for a guard started !

Kodjo Kamissoko, more than a guard rather a friend

Kodjo Kamissoko, A Soninke man in his forties was the chosen one and occupied “the guard position” for nearly six years. He lived on the same property with me. He became more my guardian and advisor than guard. Apart from doing all the above mentioned tasks he made the best Arab tea in Nara, knew the gossip and new stories always first, was great company and totally reliable. I will speak a lot about him.

 

He enjoyed long night conversations around the fire.

And he did make light more than once !

Categories: Africa, Arab, Mali, Market, Nara, People, Tradition, Travel, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

La Papeterie et Librairie de Cheick Hamalla Traore a Nara

I can not tell you if this little shop still exists but when I was living in Nara, la papeterie and librairie ( paper and stationery shop) of Cheick Hamalla Traore was the place to source your material for the office.

Many small shops were situated around the central market in Nara. An entire library of its own could be written about the life stories of the traders and owners of these convenience shops.

 I have listened more than afternoon over a  glass – or three – of strong, delicious Arab tea to their adventures about doing trade in the Sahel.

Categories: Mali, Market, Nara, Papeterie, People, Sahel, Street Life, Tradition, Transport, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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