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

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

And Aicha Cooked !

Aicha cooked up a storm in my kitchen everyday !

” I don’t get it,” a friend of mine said, “you and that girl from Niger, whats her name ? Your best friend ? You two, you seem to be the only ones who are picking up weight in Mali ?

” Martina, her name is Martina, ” I replied a little thoughtful because he had rightfully told the truth.

It was obvious! I was picking up a kilogram for every year because AICHA CCOOKED ! Aicha cooked up a storm in my kitchen day and night.  After having employed a life time guard, my resistence to having further people around me and taking over necessary daily tasks had been broken down by African logic and was close to zero.  A personel guard could not be topped! Or only by a cook !

In my first week in Nara, a young woman had been coming to my house for three consecutive days to see me. The first two days I had stayed too long at the office and she was already gone when I came home which was not good, so I was told by Kodjo, but on the third day she was still sitting in front of my house when I hurried home earlier from work not to upset Kodjo again.  Aicha ! A beautiful name and a beautiful woman.

” Aicha wants to cook for you ” , Kodjo said. ” She is a good cook, and you have to eat. “

That was definitely true and I had not been eating a lot these last exciting days. So what the heck, let her cook, I thought. Aicha had a tiny baby, named Moussa and now my houdehold counted already three – not including the animals like Egon, the water-fetching donkey and the young but growing chicken family.

Busy Monday in Nara

Aicha visited every day the Nara market, understandably preferring the food and kitchenalia line, bringing home whatever she needed to make us a healthy Sahel meal.

She had a budget to buy groceries and meat that she used during the whole month and the money was better guarded than a donation box in a catholic church in Poland.

For lunch she usually prepared rice with different Malian traditional sauces or stews everyday. In the evening there was grilled chicken, grilled fish or beef skewers with fried potatoes, vegetables or sometimes salad. And no I did not get sick from the salad. The menu could also offer couscous. Except for the meat and the onions none of the ingredients were familiar to me. It did not matter. She made ginger juices, prepared her own chilli paste, called piment in Nara. She baked maize bread. Cooked with red palm oil.

She made a sauce from Baobab leaves. Cooked with Cassava and bananas. Huge bananas!

Made a peanut butter sauce with chicken and chilli ! YES!!

It did not occur to me that my colleagues did not eat twice a day hot opulent meals. If you have Aicha ! You love Aicha !

Me fiddling with the connection of the gas stove assisted by Martha, the Sahel hound

With the equipment I had received cooking did not always go smooth. Even Martha the Sahel hound ( I will tell her story a little later ) could not help at times.  It was my employers philosophy that technical advisors in developing countries should not display too much luxury. No luxury at all in fact.  And indeed nobody had a gas stove in Nara.

But Aicha cooked ! And she took this task serious. Very serious!  After a while she cooked on fire and then the food got even better. Fresh, lovingly prepared food. Aicha’s cooking became famous in Bamako because colleagues and friends visiting me and not living the same culinary pleasures as I did, told wondrous stories about Aicha’s meals.

Aicha starting to cook at night, preparing a meal for Nara dignitaries

Aicha’s cooking was so tasteful and amazing that I could negotiate more than once a reduction in consultants fees for training and other educational measures in Nara when meals were included in the payment. Aicha’s meals! Aicha cooked at night for guests and Nara dignitaires. Aicha had a calling and followed through with it.

I did not mention that Aicha was a traditional healer as well!

Categories: Africa, Baobab, Mali, Nara, Nature, West Africa, women | 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

When All The Men Are Gone

When The Men Are Gone


” When the time has come again and our men go to look for work, we stay with children and the old. It can be months or years before we see the men again. “

Categories: Labor Migration, People, Sahel, women | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Graceful – The Heritage Of Al Andalus

Three Graces In The Village Of Keybane Maure

In the picture you see three young girls of the” Maure (Moor) people in one of the project’s partner villages. Their mother language is called ” Hassanyia “.

The term Moor refers historically to people of Berber, Black african and Arab descent who came originally from Northern Africa and conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninisula. Their rule was a long and powerful one and lasted for over 800 years. The peninsula, today Spain and Portugal, was given the name ” Al Andalus ” by the Moors.

The Moors of Al Andalus brought regions under their control as far as today’s Mauretania, parts of Senegal and West-Africa.

The term Mauri, in French ” Maure”, was later used by European traders and explorers venturing into these regions, to describe the Berber and Arab groups that speak an Arab dialect called ” Hassanyia “.

Hassanyia is a very beautiful and melodic language to my ears.It exists only in certain parts of this world. Nara is one of them.

It is argued that the Moors who speak Hassanyia, or even the Moors in general, are not a distinct ethnical group. But once you have contact with their people it is evident how strong and distinct their cultural identity is.

I have mentioned that the Sahel region is one of the poorest on earth. But it’s people are one of the most graceful and proudest on earth that I have ever met.

Categories: Africa, Arab, Berber, Hassanyia, Nara, Nature, People, Tradition, West Africa, women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mousoolou – Women And Life

Women in a meeting in Keybane Soninke sitting on traditional wood carved stools

” Muso ” is the word in the Bambara language for woman.

Salif Keita, the famous Malian Griot with a voice from another world, has written a song ” Moussooloo”, a brilliant tribute to the women of Mali and to all the women of this world. I heard this song for the first time during my stay in Mali. Since then the melody and the words have stayed with me. Driving through the villages and seeing the mothers occupied with their daily work, was like seeing the song taking on form in front of my eyes instead of hearing it.

Africa is the mother of all nations and in this song he salutes the mother of all mother’s. Salif Keita sings about our mother’s and that we have to honor them and not to forget to visit them. That is important, because they do miss us.

We have to visit them soon because we do not understand the extent of our suffering yet to come if they are gone. Visit them soon is the message. Honor them and value them in their life time.

In Nara and the surrounding villages, women and men never joined projects meetings together. Things were discussed separately. When we had a meeting with the women of a village to discuss a topic with them that concerned their lives, an elder would sit with us and listen attentively to what was said, so that he could communicate the outcome to the men later.

A decision would only be made once the men had been informed and asked for their opinion. Although this seemed to foreigners often like a supressive tactic, the women had enormous power in their family and in their home.

Categories: Africa, Nara, Tradition, women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Preparing Dinner

Preparing dinner for your family is a laborious task in Nara. From a very early age young girls are trained and taught how to do it right.

In this picture mother and daughter are working together. When the ” mil ” is stamped and crushed in the mortar, it has to be done with rhtymn. Everything in Africa is about rhtymn. The women are in perfect harmony clapping their hands inbetween.

Categories: Africa, African Food, Berber, People, Tradition, women | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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