One Year Ago Today: An Update

One year ago today, I was somersaulting through sand dunes with Tuareg and Songhai children. I shared camels, meals, and a tent with a primarily nomadic family. Friendly turban-ed strangers offered me rides to and from Timbuktu in iconic dilapidated Toyota Hiluxes, the preferred vehicle of gun-toting desert-dwelling terrorists everywhere. Or so I thought. Like much of my trip through Africa, the sojourn up through Mali’s northern region was about dismantling preconceived notions.

409070_10100975348780033_1345201532_nHeld just outside of Timbuktu last year, the Festival Au Desert is one of the strangest and most remote international festivals in the world. Travelers I’d met in Bamako had warned me against taking the trip up north for the festival. A month prior, four westerners had been kidnapped in Timbuktu, a first for the city. The US, British and French foreign services immediately augmented their already stern travel warnings for the region, and it seemed like the vast majority of tourists had decided to reroute their plans. Despite the president’s assurance that the festival would have an unusually high level of military security, what is normally one of Mali’s biggest international draws seemed too dangerous and too remote.

P1020504After some initial skepticism, when people told me to avoid Timbuktu at all costs, I scoffed. Crises always appear more dangerous from a distance, I told myself. It’s easy to take any whiff of danger and inflate it. My friend Phil and I decided to book a last minute ride with a Tuareg tour leader looking to make a little extra on the side, and two days later we were off.

On the last night of the three day festival, during headliner Tinariwen’s set, Phil and I managed to find some satchets of cheap Cameroonian gin. In the predominantly Muslim area, this kind of beverage was frowned upon but not contraband. Mali’s constitution is strictly secular, and the local population is traditionally moderate and politically secular. In a drunken 3am haze, we discovered a conveniently-placed late-night brochette stand and stumbled our way through endless sand dunes, trying to reach our 5am bus scheduled to leave for Bamako. The bus, a sort of hybrid of an old European school bus and a reconstituted engine, stumbled through makeshift terrain as we literally blazed our own trail through the Sahel. To say that the ride was bumpy is a massive understatement.  At one point I briefly fell asleep, only to wake up to a bloody nose as my face made violent contact with the hard steel of the seat in front of me. Still, the ride only took 24 hours, which by Malian standards is pretty incredible.

In terms of the festival, I was right to go. With the exception of an extraordinarily lame surprise appearance from Bono (yeah, THAT Bono) it went on without a hitch.  In terms of the region’s long-term stability I was wrong. This was January 2012. A year later, Timbuktu is an extremely different place.

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Iconic 14th century mud mosque in Timbuktu.

For those of you who haven’t followed the news, I’ll provide a brief update. Shortly after I left Mali in late January 2012, armed militants from a Tuareg separatist group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) (important note: though much of the western media has taken to referring to these rebels as “the Tuaregs,” they do not represent all or even most ethnic Tuaregs’ ideologies or wishes) attacked military outposts in a few towns in the north of Mali. The Malian government responded by sending troops-largely composed of ethnic Bambara from the south who had very little experience fighting in the harsh, isolated Sahara- to quash these rebellions. The troops were underfunded and unprepared and the MNLA, allegedly armed by the Qaddafi regime during the Libyan revolution, were able to successfully defend towns they’d occupied, killing dozens of Malian soldiers in the process.

P1020511Realizing  how vulnerable and volatile the north was this time (the Malian government had successfully defended its territory in the north from several Tuareg separatist groups since the late 80s), the military began to impose “tactical retreats,” leaving large swaths of land, including a key route into Timbuktu, one of the North’s most populous cities, unprotected.

Meanwhile, a series of major protests broke out in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Though Bamako was (and still is) far from the fighting, citizens and soldiers’ wives, angry with what they perceived as poor preparation and funding on the part of the military, protested outside various administrative buildings in the capital. After a particularly violent protest in which soldiers dissatisfied with the course of the conflict pelted the Defense Minister’s car with stones, a small group stormed the presidential palace and found it relatively unsecured. Though Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was expected to abide by the constitutionally mandated term limits and step down after the elections a month later, soldiers forced him into exile.  The next day, on state television, the junta announced that they had suspended Mali’s constitution and taken over until the country had the opportunity to elect a new, democratically elected president.

P1020518The coup was universally condemned. The UN security council and ECOWAS suggested sanctions against the regime, and the World Bank and African Development Union followed suit. Starved for funds, the coup leaders relinquished control to an interim prime minister, but not before the instability in the south allowed the MNLA to secure all of its desired territory in the north and declare itself independent from the country of Mali.

In the ensuing months, Mali’s vast northern region has devolved into infighting and factionalism. It’s been hard to keep up with news because the region is too dangerous for western journalists to enter, but suffice it to say that a series of rebel groups have been steadily competing for control of Mali’s northern region. Though the largely secular MNLA were the initial aggressors, various other groups like Ansar Dine, dedicated to imposing sharia law on a largely moderate population, have since taken control in some cities. They have destroyed historic shrines in Timbuktu, a UNESCO site, banned music, and instituted public whippings. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group whose ties to the real Al Qaeda are unclear and undocumented, has been responsible for many of the kidnappings of foreigners in the region in the past few years. They have also allegedly formed splinter groups that are competing for northern territory.

In the past few weeks, the poor, not particularly resource-rich country of Mali has made front page news. Due to militants’ attempts to move southward far beyond traditionally Tuareg territory, the French military has launched a counteroffensive. The situation is ongoing. I have my own opinions about the intervention, which I will share later. In the meantime, you can find excellent commentary from bloggers and journalists actually located in the area here, here , and here.

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Perhaps you’re wondering why I finally decided to update my blog after such a long hiatus.

There are a few reasons I haven’t updated this blog in so long. I spent some time in Europe (including 3 weeks on a goat cheese farm!), and it was hard to relate my experience there to all the stories I still have yet to tell from Africa. I also had a computer malfunction that essentially erased all my notes (sure… I’m new school), half-written stories and essays. I recently got that fixed.

This blog was and continues to be an outlet for my travel stories. I have consciously avoided using this site to highlight humanitarian crises and political instability for a variety of reasons. For one, they present a singular, oversaturated view of West Africa with which westerners are most likely already familiar. Two, they are generally not consistent with my own experience in West Africa, however limited that might have been. For better or worse, my experiences in Africa radically transformed my perceptions of poverty and instability in ways I never expected.

That’s why the situation in Mali has affected me so profoundly. And that’s also the biggest reason I haven’t updated in so long. In my dedication to provide a contrarian voice for a misunderstood region, did I miss a few steps along the way?

It’s hard to continue along the same, confining narrative, when a country that had seemed like the same bastion of peace and political stability that it had been for the last 20 years has erupted into chaos. I’d been working on a post about whether West Africa has finally become a manageable travel location. But how could I not have seen this coming? Could something this tragic also be this random?

Perhaps that’s why this post is appropriate. Since the beginning, with few exceptions, this blog has been about me. My experiences are a medium through which to examine an often overlooked corner of the world. But, in this situation, that’s a little absurd. I am not the one allowed to feel slighted here. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in the north of Mali. Millions of Malians are living without a real government for the first time in decades.

Still, there is hope for Northern Mali. Polls suggest that Malians largely favor the French intervention, and the French military, with help from ECOWAS, Chad, and the UK have recently driven out militants in Gao and Timbuktu, Northern Mali’s two largest cities. However, intelligence suggests that the conflict could become drawn out as rebels simply retreat into the North’s vast desert. To be sure, the North’s problems are becoming systemic. But alas, I am not there. And that much I truly regret.

Timbuktu sunsets

Timbuktu sunsets

As Heard In West African Taxis

First off, here is a good update from my friend Phil, currently in Bamako, on the coup last week in Mali. I have been able to contact friends, and they are all fine. Still, this is a very worrying development from a country that has remained a bastion of democracy in an often volatile region for twenty years.

Secondly, in much less important and concerning news, please excuse my long absence. I spent the last week in Tangier, had a great time, then somehow found myself a part of a criminal conspiracy full of intrigue that would have made Bowles or Burroughs proud. For various reasons I cannot talk about that now. Look forward to an update in the future. For all those concerned: I am ok and not a suspect.

While I’m on the lam, I figured I’d complete a project about four months in the making. In West Africa, taxis are a means of short and long distance transport. “Bush Taxis” are often the fastest, most reliable, and least comfortable option. Music, on the other hand, makes up for the latter.

One thing that struck me immediately, and remained consistent throughout my trip, was the astonishing insularity by which taxi drivers treated a region’s music. As if there existed some official moratorium on international music, crossing a border, or entering a new region almost always meant a unique soundtrack. Unlike other places I’ve traveled, like South America or Europe, where my transport’s soundtrack typically oscillated between globally generic American fare and more regionally specific stuff, every taxi ride I took in Africa in some way presented a portal into the local music scene. I have never felt more isolated from global pop in my life.

Of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It’s easy to romanticize foreign music because I can’t understand the lyrics and it sounds unique. Some of West Africa’s popular music is just as generic and boring. Picking through my taxi rides, however, I’ve compiled a truncated list of some of my favorite taxi discoveries. Like informal DJs, taxi drivers typically provided me with some of the better venues to discover music.

The rules are simple: in order to merit inclusion, I had to hear the song in a taxi. In a few instances I made the taxi driver play it. But whatever. I’ve included the location for authenticity.

GHANA

Tiffany-Last One

Heard: EVERYWHERE

One of the more palatable morsels to come out of West Africa’s obsession with autotune, this Killbeatz production was everywhere. Accra dance clubs? Check. Rural farming communities? Check. And of course, yes, taxis.

Alhaji K Frimpong- KyenKyen Bi Adi Mawu

Heard: Between Takoradi and Agona Junction

A great track from Ghana’s highlife golden age.

MALI

Ramata Diakite- He Ha He

Heard: In Bamako

The late Ramata Diakite is a great example of the Wassoulou musical tradition that absolutely dominates Mali’s southern half. Though many of Mali’s globally known vocalists are male, females typically control the airwaves within the country. This music video is also typical of Wassoulou vocalists: low budget, lots of smiling, dancing women. Some have even taken cues from hip hop by portraying ornately dressed Malian women dancing on top of SUVs. It’s about the most entertaining the ORTM television channel gets.

Kaba Blon-Moussou Djougou Fourou

Heard: Between Bamako and Kankan… because I made the driver play it.

Chris from Sahel Sounds who I had the pleasure of meeting in Bamako introduced me to these guys. They’re a young hip hop group from Bamako who recently threw a rocking block party. Chris, who is doing a much more expansive and interesting musical project than this, is directly involved in helping distribute some of their music. This track is a dialogue between a man and a woman in Bambara about gender roles. I wish I had a translation, but I haven’t been able to find one. For now, just enjoy their dramatic facial expressions.

Koudede-Souvenirnam

Heard: A pickup truck in Timbuktu

The Nigerien Koudede played at the Festival Au Desert. His music is pretty typical Tuareg desert blues, which somehow sounds that much more relevant at the cusp of the Sahara in a pickup truck driven by a turban-ed stranger. The accompanying head banging is mostly involuntary, as it’s generally caused by bumps in the sand.

GUINEA

Sekouba Bambino- Ayemi

Heard: Between Kankan and Mamou

Sekouba Bambino is a star in Guinea. He is definitely the Mande singer a la mode, his music is everywhere. This is my favorite track of his.

Kasse Mady- Fognana Kuma

Heard: Between Bamako and Kankan

Technically Kasse Mady is Malian, but he often collaborates with Malinke musicians and lived in Conakry during the Guinean music boom of the 1970s. Here’s a track from Guinea’s golden age.

SENEGAL

Alhaji Bai Konte- Alla I’aa Ke

Heard: Between Koundara and Tambacounda… because I made the taxi driver play it.

I love this track. Way back when, as a freshman in college, I stumbled across this record at Amoeba records in Berkeley. I decided on a whim, knowing nothing about the artist or West African music in general, to buy it. I fell in love with the polyrhythms and brilliant musicianship, the modal melodies, the sound of the kora, his slightly hoarse but incredibly soothing voice, and the concept of a griot. This album essentially kick started my interest in West African music.

Forcing my driver to play this upon entrance to Senegal seemed appropriate. All seven of us enjoyed it.

MAURITANIA

In Mauritania, ngonis and koras meet oulds, and arabic scales meet griots. While Senegal to the south is firmly rooted in West African tradition, and Morocco to the north is strictly Arab, Mauritania is the melting pot where it all meets.

Ghermy Eswyde

Heard: In Nouakchott

I’ll be honest, I don’t actually know what the song was called. And since most authentic Mauritanian tunes on Youtube are written in Arabic script, this was the best I could do. This track is definitely typical of Mauritania, and it´s beautiful.

MOROCCO

Alaa Zalzali-Lamouni Li Gharou Manni

Heard: Between Akermoud and Safi

A famous, oft-covered Moroccan ditty. Part of Morocco’s classic older arabic tradition.

Fnaire- Tajine Loghate

Heard: Ok fine… my friend gave me this track

One of Morocco’s more popular rap groups, they combine traditional Moroccan instrumentation with modern production. This track is cool, and probably dinner-themed.

Mimoun Al Ouedji

Heard: Yeah… ditto

This is a great example of the autotune-based pop that reverberates through practically every souk, street, and nightclub in Morocco. It’s kind of bizarre to hear an autotuned voice sing melismatic arabic scales. I can’t really get behind it, perhaps you can.

Bonus (Because I Love You)

I stayed with a Cameroonian family for a week in Bamako. I learned three things:

  1. Cameroon has some great music.
  2. Cameroonians know how to party.
  3. These two things go hand in hand.

Tetes Brulees- Atebass Bikutsi Non Stop

Imagine a Christmas party creeping towards 3am. It’s still raging. People are sweaty and dancing. They seem to have no problem dancing to some of the more rhythmically complex dance music on earth. As a rhythmically challenged caucasian it was difficult… but I managed to cope.

Bonus part II: One of my favorite West African Taxi Drivers

Ode to Moroccan Orange

I can complain about Morocco all I want, but I can’t hide one essential fact. This country consistently has the best oranges I’ve ever had. The two most important words in that sentence, consistently and best are accurate, I assure you. I thought I knew what an orange was before I came to this country. Turns out I was wrong. I have yet to have an orange that was not better than any orange I had previous to my visit. Sweet, juicy, fresh, slightly tart, it’s impossible to fully describe the regenerative beauty that is a Moroccan orange.

That’s why, in order to hopefully communicate the symphony of each bite, I was inspired to write a few poems.

Oh hello orange

Your seedless bounty astounds

Please let me juice you

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

There once was an orange of islam

that was blessed by the best of imams

I unpeeled its dress

and then licked its flesh

that was too far, sorry mom

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: orange

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! The orange is Holy!

Also asshole. Or something.

The Difference Between Ghana and Morocco

Ghana: Most offers of hospitality are genuine.

Morocco: Most offers of hospitality end with a solicitation to buy hash or a carpet. Also, as I learned today, any female that wants to talk to you is probably a prostitute.

Despite canting touts, at least the food is better:

Mali: The Live Music Capital of Africa

Some people claim that Mali has the best music in Africa. Not to mince words, but those people are crazy. Much of Africa embraces its musical heritage. Almost every West African country I’ve been to has provided a unique, omnipresent soundtrack. One only needs to take a ride in a taxi or find the capital’s thriving mp3 market (generally doubles as the used and knockoff cell phone market) to discover how vibrant and often insular the music scene is.

What Mali does have is diversity and exposure. In a region where countries typically have tens of languages, Mali is particularly culturally diverse. One can easily trace its musical heritage from at least a dozen different sources, from Mande griots from the southwest, Berber and Arab migrants from the north, and Jeliw praise singers from the west to name a few. These influences have given birth to a variety of homegrown music like Wassoulou and Tuareg blues. Chances are, if you’ve heard of any African musicians, at least some of them are from this sahelian nation. Some of the continent’s most internationally recognizable artists, such as Amadou et Mariam, Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, and Salif Keita all hail from Mali. For tourists and African music aficionados, this country is clearly a hotspot.

Like much of Africa, these musical styles can also be regionally specific. Outside of major festivals, one would probably not hear Oumou Sangare in Timbuktu or Tinariwen in Sikasso.

That is where Bamako comes in. Bamako is a melting pot. It is also a city that supports live music better than perhaps any other city in West Africa. On any given night, one can easily find a bar, restaurant, club, backyard, or block party with a live group. If it’s a weekend, the number of performers goes up exponentially.

Most of these performances are by and for Malians. Even at clubs that attract a sizeable ex-pat crowd, such as Toumani Diabete’s “Le Diplomate,” the cover is cheap and the majority of patrons are African. For my money, when it comes to music, there’s really no place like Bamako.

During my time in Mali, I tried to take advantage of as many opportunities to see as much live music as I could. Here are a few of my favorite highlights:

A Wedding in Bamako

Outside of major cities, perhaps the best place to find musicians in West Africa is a wedding. If a town lacks any live music venue, weddings are almost always where the best musicians play, and where they make the majority of their income (in Mauritania, wedding patrons will literally “make it rain” Ougiyas on players as a sign of respect. Kind of like a stripper? Anyway another story). Of course, even in a city like Bamako, which has ample venues for live music, the wedding scene is active.

On any given Sunday, walk through any of Bamako’s commercial neighborhoods, and chances are you’ll find a celebration. A tent covering several well-dressed women with ornate headwear is typical, as children dance and men walk by. Here’s a good example:

Amadou et Mariam at Le Pyramide

Amadou et Mariam is one of the most popular and internationally recognizable Malian groups around today. They have an appealing backstory (a married couple, both are blind and met in a school for the blind) and sing in both French and Bambara, which makes them more internationally viable. A show in the U.S. would probably sell out, and certainly run you around 30-40 dollars.

Of course, Bamako is not the U.S. I was surprised to find out that they were playing at a small venue near one of the Libyan-owned hotels. Once I got there I was even more surprised at the cover: 2000 CFA, or about 4 dollars. The venue was about half full too, both a reflection of the fact that the event was hardly promoted, and that the group plays in Bamako all the time. Regardless, I was happy. We had the group’s Malian pop practically to ourselves.

When the clock struck midnight on Sunday morning, they busted out perhaps their most recognizable anthem, Dimanche a Bamako. It was cute:

Toumani Diabete’s Orchestre at Le Diplomate

As I mentioned earlier, Le Diplomate is one of the most popular venues for tourists seeking Malian music. That’s due in no small part to its owner and frequent performer, Toumani Diabete, probably the most famous kora player alive today. Despite my trepidations about it being a tourist venue, I had a great time. Even though Toumani didn’t show up (he was playing at the festival in Ali Farka Toure’s hometown of Niafunke at the time), his band, along with Habib Koite’s group, was probably the most talented group of musicians I saw in Mali.

Le Diplomate’s Flag beer is affordable, and the dance floor really got going around 1:30.

This is a short clip. You’ll have to excuse me, I was busy dancing.

Noura Mint Seymali at The Festival Au Desert

You’ll have to excuse this one. I sort of cheated. Those of you that speak Hasseniyah (I know you’re out there) will recognize that Noura Mint Seymali is a Mauritanian name. Well, you’re right. She’s Mauritanian. But I saw her perform in Mali, which makes her a viable candidate for this list. Add the fact that, along with Habib Koite, she was easily my favorite performer at the Festival Au Desert (by a mile), and I think she merits inclusion.

Accompanied only by a Ngoni, a drummer, and her own kamelngoni (I think?) she was able to create some of the most interesting music I heard in Mali. As you can tell, her voice is incredible. She has one of the most unique vibratos I’ve ever heard. She (or whoever’s writing her songs) also managed to combine arabic scales with almost Wassoulou-like melodies. Definitely, unique, definitely interesting, definitely beautiful.

In this video, you can see a few interesting things. As far as I can tell, she’s about as close as Mauritania comes to mustering up a sex symbol. Young, turban-ed adolescents crowdsurfed while making heart symbols with their hands. She would occasionally acknowledge their gestures with a wry smile. Also, as I mentioned earlier, men will often publicly shower performers with money. You can… uh… see that too.

Tartit at the Festival Au Desert

Finally we have Tartit. They were a highly-anticipated act at the Festival Au Desert because they’re local: most of their members hail from Timbuktu (though they met in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso). They’re a group of Tuareg females that sing these long, droning, minimalistic songs that rely mostly on chanting and call and response. Their stage setup is just as simple: each woman sits in front of a tisde drum, which they continuously plod as a few men accompany on ngoni or electric guitar.

I picked this as a highlight for a few reasons. For one, though I don’t normally enjoy the droning minimalism of some of Mali’s music, (I thought Tinariwen’s set was boring… sue me) I found their set mostly captivating. Subtle changes in rhythm and melody (either improvised or composed, I couldn’t tell) kept things interesting, and their melodies were genuinly pleasant.

They also had one of the more exciting and hilarious moments of the Festival. Their set was initially delayed for about an hour due to sound issues, so about 45 minutes in, they had already run significantly over their allotted time. The generally dim-witted and obnoxious MCees (The English translator would regularly speak in French and not realize it) attempted to cut their set short in order to keep the performance schedule (don’t they know this is Africa?). This led the six, timid-looking women of Tartit to jump up, grab the mic, and start loudly protesting (and I can only assume swearing) in Tamasheq. Another kept repeating “On n’est pas d’accord” (we are not ok!) in French. All this elicited a huge reaction from the mostly Tuareg audience in favor of Tartit. In short: it was awesome.

Mauritania and a Ride on the Second Largest Train in the World

I’m aware that my posts have now become entirely anachronistic. This post is about Mauritania, my next post will cover Mali, and the post after that very well may cover Guinea. I have much, much more to say about Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali. To my dear readers I have but one message: so what? Deal with it.

Now, how many of you have even heard of Mauritania? That’s a question I heard a lot. Many Mauritanians are wary of their status as an “ignored country.” Most overland travelers treat the country as a drive-over, without spending nearly the amount of time they would in Senegal to the south and Morocco to the north. Unfortunately, I followed suit. I spent a little over a week in Mauritania. It was, however eventful.

The country is almost entirely desert. The Sahara can be comically inhospitable. Even during the winter, the days can be stunningly hot and dry, and nights below freezing. At times, it was so hot that I half expected some vegetation to succumb to the heat and spontaneously combust into flames. My exposed feet cracked and bled, and despite the heat, my lack of sweat was strange.

The most noticeable change is the silence. It’s as if you’ve entered a vaccuum. Coming from loud, boisterous West African cities, where people argue, livestock make any number of abrasive noises, and solitude is literally a marketable asset, the desert feels indescribably foreign. Without wind, the desert literally has no sound.

Looking out on the barren landscape, it looks like there is literally nothing there. There is little vegetation and no visible organisms. The land felt utterly lifeless. It’s depressing, and stunningly beautiful. Though the desert is far from the end of the world, it feels like it. Even though I was connected to piste, thousands of kilometers from the center of Africa, I’ve never experienced such profound isolation before in my life. 


I hitched a ride with a hostel owner and his nomad friends to Oudane, an oasis with important historical implications. There was no room in their car, so I had to ride out the bumpy journey in the trunk. Perhaps it was the proximity of my head to the trunk’s ceiling (the two made contact on multiple occasions), or the surprisingly soothing rhythmic gyrations of the truck, but I found myself lost in thought.

It is such a cliche to see third world travel as a vehicle by which to appreciate my own life: the possessions that I have, the opportunities I’ve been given, the things I’ve taken for granted. Obviously, being subjected to the harsh realities of global poverty is an eye-opening experience. But, embarking on a desert journey with strangers, I’d never felt so lucky to be alive before. Had I not met friends, had I not come prepared, I would have surely died. Though they were essentially strangers, the terrain amplifies the implications of these relationships. They become a matter of life and death. Out of necessity, strangers become friends, and any sign of ill will gets interpreted as the sign of an enemy.

Shaken, once we reached our destination, I turned to my travel partners. As the hostel owner looked up at me, I immediately realized that I had sentimentalized our relationship. Perhaps before, had I not been white, had he not traveled this route hundreds of times before, had I not been so unversed in custom, this may have been more of an insightful encounter. In reality,  He wanted my money, and he wanted me to give him good references. He doesn’t need to rely on me for his well-being. However, as he handed me a bottle of water, I realized that, at the very least, I’d entrusted my life with him. As much as I was a rubbernecker, able to experience this environment behind the protective chaff of a tourist, he was still the one thing standing between me and certain death. And for that, I was immensely grateful.

Still, one could argue that kindness is culturally embedded. Tourists in this region have elevated locals’ generosity and hospitality to almost mythic proportions. As with much of West Africa, sharing is often more of an expectation than an unusually charitable gesture.  I’ve heard long-term travelers joke that one only needs to pass an eating African and exclaim “bon appetite” to receive an invitation and a free meal. My experience on Mauritania’s Iron Ore Train was no different.

I’ve done very few things “just for the story.” Some travelers deliberately place themselves in dangerous or uncomfortable situations for bragging rights. For traveling in such a notorious region, I don’t think I’ve done that. I can’t hide it though, riding the Iron Ore Train, one of the longest trains in the world, sounded like a great story. Though there is a small passenger cart where paying customers can ride out the 14 hour journey, most people decide to enter the iron ore carts for free. This is the most epically harsh method, and I figured as long as I was doing something for a good story, I might as well go all out.

As I clumsily jumped into the cart, I was met with a mountain of iron ore. Imagine attempting to balance on a large pile of rocks as the floor steadily moves beneath you. You get the idea. A man had already set up a little corner with some necessary supplies. He had clearly done this before. He had his teapot and tea glasses (essential ingredients  anywhere you go in Muslim West Africa), blanket, dinner supplies, and charcoal. Since no one else had decided to bring any necessary supplies, he provided us with tea, dinner which we voraciously ate with our hands (pasta with vegetables and chicken, talk about a hardcore culinary accomplishment ) and blankets. He was also a stoic and intelligent conversationalist. He quickly challenged others’ tired claims that an American visa would “solve all their problems” and was an informed rhetorician when it came to global politics. In short, this guy was a total badass.

As the night progressed, our cart became populated with a series of colorful characters. There was the soft spoken moor who had recently finished a stint in an insane asylum (I didn’t press it), the sex-obsessed 23 year old from Nouakchott who was attempting to move to Morocco, and the older, kif-smoking shepherd with his sheep who spoke no french. Just to clarify, the shepherd also spoke no french.

Was the trip difficult? Kind of. It was insanely dusty, I only experienced about 3 hours of daylight, and the night was brutally cold. But as we all snuggled under blankets beneath a radiantly starred sky, I realized that this was one of my favorite experiences in West Africa. Could this have happened anywhere else in the world? I don’t know.

To compensate for my long absence, I’ve made you all a video! It begins as I ride from Atar to Choum in a truck bed, and ends with a taxi ride to Nouadhibou. The shepherd managed to fit his sheep in the trunk, an accomplishment in any part of the world.

At 3:45 you can see Ben Amira, the second largest monolith in the world behind Ayer’s Rock in Australia. Needless to say, it looked considerably more gigantic in person. I’ve also tried to include everyone onboard, though I am reasonably wary of filming people, even with their consent. Badass is featured at 3:12.

Soon to come: a long overdue Festival au Desert recap, as well as my brief sejour at a music festival in Oudane. The Mauritanian president was there, though he had to cut his time short due to an epic dust storm that enveloped everything in… well… dust.

A Free Haircut: Why Malians Have the Most Bizarre Sense of Humor Ever

Africa is pretty well known as the continent of over 10,000 cultures, languages, and tribes that within the course of one hundred years, were aggregated into a little over 50 largely arbitrary nation states. It’s easy to read that statistic and not grasp the magnitude. But come to any country in West Africa and discover that diversity yourself.

I’ve only been to four countries so far. Within those four countries, I’ve encountered over 20 different languages and dialects, along with myriad different tribes, ethnicities and distinct cultures. Some of them are insular, some of them, by virtue of urbanization or trade, have begun to integrate. Of course, as you are probably aware, this has provided the groundwork for a lot of conflict on this continent. Sadly, culture clash in Africa has led to violence on many occasions.

Sometimes, however, you find yourself face to face with something bizarre and beautiful. In southern Mali, when many people approach someone new, they begin by insulting each other. This line of insults stems entirely from lineage.

Say I introduce myself as Moussa Traore (one of my many given names). A person (for purposes of this demonstration, let’s say a Coulibaly, another extremely common Malian last name) might greet me with a series of customary West African salutations, asking about my family, my health, how my day is going. Then he might say something like “Traore? I be so dun” (“E Bay Sho Doon,” literally “‘you like to eat beans”). Without missing a beat, I could respond with “You’re a Coulibaly. Your family is too stupid to farm, all you eat are peanuts and horses.” The line of insults continues until both parties burst into laughter.

“What?” You ask. “How does this make sense?” To the outside observer it doesn’t. But can you think of a more bizarre and interesting way to deal with ethnic confrontation? Thus, out of sheer cultural curiousity, I became a regular participant.

Though French is the official language of Mali, like other West African states, most people speak only very little of the colonial language. Bambara generally functions as the lingua franca, a trade and media language and the mother tongue of Mali’s largest ethnic group. Though I tried, I learned very little Bambara during my stay in Mali. “I be so dun” quickly became a mastered phrase, however, as it would immediately bring a smile and an incomprehensible line of insults headed my way. Once people understood that that phrase was about the extent of my Bambara (can you think of anything more random?), they continued in French if they could speak it, or simply gave up and hugged me. “I be so dun” was key. It turned a lot of potentially awkard cab rides into social events, and was often the beginning of a conversational ticket into peoples’ homes.

In Mopti, it even got me a free haircut. I had some time to spare, so I wandered around the market area, playing tricks on touts and trying to find a decent brochette sandwich. I came upon a particularly interesting barber shop, purporting to be the “Barber Shop of Obama.” Barack’s visage is all over West Africa, from t-shirts to mattresses. Still, I couldn’t help but marvel at the barber’s audacity.

We began talking, and he introduced himself as a Keita. I introduced myself as a Coulibaly and let out my line. He countered with a line of French insults culminating with “We are Bozos, you are our slaves.” Jokes about slavery might seem a bit uncouth. In the world of cousinage however, they are both fair game and commonly used. I then came up with a line about selling fish in Senegal because his family is too stupid to accomplish anything in Mali. He returned with another line about slavery and I admonished him for his lack of creativity. I also concluded that, as payment for all of our years of free labor, the least he could do is give me a free haircut.

Then he did.

BEFORE

AFTER

That first photo is actually a picture of Yusuf Islam (AKA Cat Stevens) that I ran into in Timbuktu. His company is self explanatory.

AN UPDATE ON THE SITUATIONS IN SENEGAL AND MALI

In Dakar, protests have died down, though the opposition has pledged to organize more if their demands are not met. Most people I’ve talked to are so incredulous at the government’s (or overzealous cops, these things tend to get conflated) violent crackdown on the protesters that it’s really hard to determine who Wade’s base actually is. It seems like his administration has really alienated a good portion of the voting bloc, and it is hard to imagine that he would get reelected.

Of course, one never knows. His administration allegedly provided “gifts” for the supreme court judges that ruled in his favor, and only one major political figure formerly affiliated with his camp has spoken out against him. The leader of the influential Niassene Leona Muslim Brotherhood appealed by writing “power is not worth this. It is not worth the death of even one of our sons. You have given us 11 good years. You cannot do anything short of what Senghor or Abdou Diouf have achieved. For the sake of peace, Wade, we beg you to retract yourself.”

Meanwhile, the resistance in Northern Mali has lulled, though leadership has suggested that fighting will continue. Like many in Africa, the conflict is a lot more complex than a short news article can possibly communicate. Though the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), has explicitly expressed its goal for an independent nation state, there are likely several different groups all vying for similar but not always consistent objectives. Also, Tuaregs inhabit one of the poorest and most isolated regions on earth, so adequate information and decent journalism is often very hard to come by.

Here’s an article from the front page of the New York Times website that refers to the rebels as “The Tuaregs.” If the rebels had been of French origin, would they have been referred to as “The French?” I think not. The article also paints Colonel Gaddafi as the sole posthumous mastermind behind the most recent rebel incursions. Though his mercenaries’ influence is undeniable, anyone familiar with the region would rule that out as a gross oversimplification. To add to that, someone who’s never been to Mali and has no familiarity with the region reads the last line of the article, and Mali immediately becomes hell on earth. You can see why I have an endless beef with western media coverage of this place.

According to reports, Tuareg rebel forces still hold a few towns, and have apparently killed a relatively large number of Malian troops (as much as 40 in Aguelhok alone). Though civilians have allegedly been mostly spared from the fighting, I find it hard to believe that this new wave of violence will garner more popular support for a movement already lacking in that crucial category.

After the second day of protests in Bamako, representatives were granted an audience with the president who recognized their concerns. He even fired the defense minister, a move that is clearly symbolic and likely won’t do much when it comes to properly equipping the military anytime soon. Despite rumors, protests were explicitly aimed at the president’s administration, not at Tuaregs living in the city. According to friends, no violence has been directed against Tuaregs, though rumors that opportunistic juveniles were targeting Tuareg businesses and anyone Arab-looking persisted. No deaths or major injuries have been reported.

Now, to contribute my own ridiculous cultural generalization: not to be insensitive, but  the Tuaregs are perhaps the only major ethnic group in Mali that don’t participate in the cousinage ritual. Coincidence? MAYBE NOT.

A Bit of Somber News

I spend a lot of time making fun of myself on this site. I also spend a lot of time discussing some pretty silly things. My next post will be a prime example, I promise.

This one is different. I hope that, beyond all the silliness, a common thread has emerged from this website. I set out trying to counteract some commonly held misconceptions about this region, or at least to give a little nuance to an unfairly characterized corner of the world.  Unfortunately, every now and then, violence happens. And therein lies the conflict for major western news outlets. To ignore these events is irresponsible, to give them airtime only falls right into much of the western world’s limited comprehension of this region.

This last week has not been a good one for Mali and Senegal. I arrived in Dakar two days ago. So far, I’ve had a great time, though this city hasn’t.

Since my arrival, Dakar has been a site of protest. Traffic has been insane. The city center has been packed daily. People without televisions have been sitting outside general stores, restaurants, or even homes staring as the news cycles images of protest, masked gendarmes firing rubber bullets, injured protesters limping or being carried to nearby medics. It’s been impossible to escape, the Africa’s Cup providing the only respite from an otherwise grim news cycle (Ghana won yesterday and advanced to the next round… hell yeah).

It hasn’t been hard to see whose side the news is on. Except for the state-sponsored channel, each professor or politician interviewed spoke of preserving Senegal’s now fragile democracy. So far, four people have been killed countrywide.

The precedent for abuse of term limits and electoral fraud in Africa is strong. It has retarded once prosperous, functioning democracies like Cote D’Ivoire and turned them into war zones where investors and NGOs fear to tread. Many Senegalese are sensitive to this, and see president Abdoullaye Wade’s party’s augmentation of his constitutional term limits as a dangerous step in that direction. This recent wave of protests has been in response to a supreme court ruling that upheld the decision. I can’t say I blame the protesters. The elections are at the end of this month. If he doesn’t step down and then wins the election, the situation in Dakar could get ugly fast.

The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali has once again taken a violent turn. Rebels, many recently returned after fighting for Gaddafi’s military in Libya, have attacked six towns in the last two weeks. Their most recent attack has garnered the most attention. Niafunke is Ali Farka Toure’s hometown, and the site of a huge part of Mali’s musical tradition.  I was also there less than a month ago which is pretty surreal.

In an interesting and related musical anecdote, the Festival Au Desert’s most anticipated act, Tinariwen, came onstage to rousing fanfare. Soon, however, the crowd lost a lot of its enthusiasm, as it became obvious that they were missing members. A drunk aussie behind me at one point referred to the group as “Tinariwen’s B team.” It turns out, their most recognizable member and principle singer Ibrahim ag Alhabib has joined the rebel forces.

Though many Tuaregs share the rebels’ separatist sentiment, most don’t advocate violence, and they’re certainly not accustomed to it. If the situation doesn’t calm down, Tuareg refugees could begin spilling into the rest of the country. Phil from Phil in the Blank has been in touch with our hosts from the Festival Au Desert. They’re ok, but needless to say unhappy and apprehensive about the future.

On the other side of the coin, the deaths of Malian troops in northern Mali have sparked a wave of protests in Bamako. Wives are understandably angry that the government is sending their husbands to protect these villages without adequate preparation or equipment. According to friends, much of the city has been closed, and it has been hard to find a bus out, since people are leaving en masse. The situation remains safe, but as always, potentially volatile.

Here’s hoping that these situations die down soon.

If only we could all reconcile our differences over football matches. Speaking of that, the second round of the Africa’s Cup starts in two days. I hope you’re as excited as I am.

When All is Lost, At Least There’s Camel Cheese

I have to come clean. You may remember my list of reasons I chose West Africa as a travel destination. They were all lies concocted to mask the reality. The real reason I came to West Africa? I just really wanted to try camel cheese. Can you blame me for lying? I felt a little crazy. But at least that’s a word that has so outgrown its pejorative roots that it almost doesn’t require the qualifying retort: “yeah, crazy with passion.”

Those of you who know me are aware of my somewhat bizarre obsession with aged milk products. And can you think of anything more exotic than camel cheese? I was excited by a truly authentic product, the way travel writers, food bloggers and chefs often write about having a “thirst that can only be quenched by the blank from the blank region of blank.” Once I arrived in Timbuktu, where it seemed like half the population was of the camelid variety, I knew I’d reached the spot. I asked around, hoping to find a master fromagiere, dedicated to his craft, undoubtedly passed down through hundreds of generations.

This quest, it turns out, was significantly less authentic. Except for the packaged, unrefrigerated, ultra-processed variety, Malians don’t really eat cheese. When I asked, people mostly looked at me like I was crazy. Most weren’t even aware that camel cheese existed. I eventually found an old lady in the basement of the market selling what looked like large crackers.She promised me that it was camel cheese. I was suspicious.

I bought a tranche for 3,000 CFA, sure that I’d been ripped off. Then, with great anticipation, I took a bite:

Or… well… I tried. It damn nearly took my front teeth out. Traditional camel cheese is about as hard as a wooden table. And only slightly more appetizing. Tamachek nomads apparently suck on it during long journeys. Camel cheese is not something you “chew” in the traditional sense. It’s the everlasting gobstopper of lore. Only it comes from a mammal’s teat.

Camel milk doesn’t curdle in the same way that say, a cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s does. You stick it out in the sun, and in a couple days, it’s as hard as a rock. No wonder this Mauritanian company is having a hard time finding a European audience.

True, there are many intriguing nutritional elements of camel milk. It’s considerably lower in lactose, and it’s also a whole food. You could survive off it for months. But unless you’re a nomad, trudging through the comically inhospitable Sahara, why would you want to?

So what did I learn? Sometimes, disappointment is a natural part of life. And if at first you don’t succeed, don’t ever fucking try a nomad’s camel cheese again.

It’s Not Easy Living in a Paradise

As I stepped off the tro-tro in Butre, an overly friendly rasta greeted me. Throughout my time in West Africa, I’ve learned to be wary of Rastas. Their chronically stoned demeanor and insistence on using lame catchphrases gets tiring after a while. This dude was no different. He’d written a song, “It’s not Easy Living in a Paradise,” reproaching the local villagers for hatin’ on his lifestyle. Needless to say, the title became a bit of a catchphrase.

Though I can’t speak to living, it’s incredibly easy to visit a paradise. Euphoric even. I spent four days in Butre, a beach community along the coast of Ghana. I truly cannot believe this place exists. It’s the Caribbean of old without luxury resorts, a culinary Provence before the rest of the world discovered it. It’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful beach community still has a modicum of local culture left. But really, aside from two small beach hotels, the town is incredibly bucolic. Locals are predominantly fishermen, farmers, and small-time traders.

I sound like I’m romanticizing poverty. In a sense, I suppose I am. Members of this community would no doubt bolster their incomes if Butre had a more established tourism industry along the lines of neighboring Busua beach, a haven of luxury resorts, fancy restaurants and beach bars. Like I said, I can’t speak to living here. But as a visitor, this place is a paradise. Those of you experiencing a midlife crisis: come buy property here. Now

On the advice of a friend, I decided to eschew the popular Green Turtle Lodge, an eco-friendly mainstay of backpackers and volunteers making their way through Ghana. Instead she suggested I stay in an electricity-free treehouse in a small beach town for 8 cedi a night (or about 5 dollars).

About a mile down the sand villagers spent their days pulling in giant nets of fish, which they would then smoke and sell at the market. I managed to convince the local chief to let me on to his boat at about 5 am. About 10 young men paddled in unison, chanting rhythmically as they set out nets for the day’s catch. It was beautiful and exhausting. I gave up after about five minutes, while the young men were able to keep going for another hour and a half. To say that the experience was emasculating is an understatement.

Afterwards, I tried to buy fish from their catch. They insisted on giving me their largest fish… for free… three days in a row. I’d like to think that it was because I charmed them with my newly minted Ewe, but I think they were just genuinly nice, hospitable people. I spent days casually chatting with the villagers.

By night, I started impromptu dance parties with local children. They looked like this:

They were often followed by a delightfully warm dip in the waves.

My opportunities to cook in West Africa have been rare, and I took full advantage of the treehouse’s gas stove. About an hour out of the ocean, I enjoyed a freshly grilled mackerel. I had to convince the accompanying Ghanaians, too used to overcooking fish to rid any semblance of bacteria, that a rare fish was the way to go. They were impressed. Or at least they pretended to be.

On the way back from Takoradi, after a night punctuated by conversations with prostitutes (Takoradi is the site of Ghana’s new offshore oil find… a lot of foreign clientelle here with cash to spare) and some disgruntled but gregarious Ivoirians, I found myself on a bus.

The bus itself was a sort of time capsule. Its shell was clearly poached from the hull of a European bus, one whose earlier incarnation almost certainly included A/C. Instead of retiring, its insides had been gutted to make room for more passengers.  With each progressive stop, people begin to congregate on open seats, until women and swaddling children began taking up the aisles.
Surprisingly, a pastor boarded within two hours. After leading everyone in song, the animated, perspiring man began preaching some foreign gospel to a mostly uninterested clientele. I honestly couldn’t tell if this was routine. Even though the concept of an itinerant pastor is incredibly novel to me–a throwback to days of yore in my own country– I couldn’t find the will within myself to actually pay attention to what he said. I was too deliriously hot and tired, and his excited voice began to morph into a soothingly rhythmic lullabye. I wondered if my fellow bus patrons felt the same way, or if they’d just been subjected to traveling gospel so many times that it only registered as a casual annoyance, like a pesky fly that takes a few minutes to find an open window. Either way, inspired by their disinterested stares and my own oppressive malaise, I drifted to sleep. When I awoke, he had left, and I was in Accra.
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