Extraordinary travel is magic often created in the simplest of terms.
37 years ago this month I was driving across the face of Africa. I embarked in London with a group of ten travelers. Our destination was Kenya, and we had budgeted $800 and 8 months to complete the journey.
Each of us had his own reason for being in Africa; mine was a broken heart. I
was following a lover who had left me for the freedom of the road and the
excitement of a front row seat on Angola’s Independence struggle.
I went looking for one love and on that journey I found another — Africa,
On that long trip which sliced southward from the Mediterranean and then
due East to the Indian Ocean, I saw landscapes and cultures I had no inkling
existed. Yet, in a strange way, from the moment I landed on the continent, I felt
surprisingly at home. The deep contentment I experienced when I touched foot
to soil has never changed.
Over the years, I have spent much time in North, East and Southern Africa.
And yet I have never returned to West Africa — until now. While clients and
friends were casting around this Christmas for last minute deals in the sunny
Caribbean, I booked a ticket to Dakar, Senegal and then onwards to Bamako,
Mali. Not a “travel designer” for nothing, I benchmarked my itinerary with
Goree Island, Dakar, at the start and the Mosque of Djenné, Mali, at the close.
Both sites, which have been on my wish list for years, provide a window into the
dark and the light places of the human soul. My travels in between focused on
the richness of the ordinary — markets, music and creativity.
The Jo’burg-bound Delta flight landed at the ungodly hour of 4:45AM and
dumped a handful of us into that velvety African night scented with traces of fire
smoke and ocean. After four hours of sleep I took a whirlwind tour of Dakar,
Senegal’s shabby, dusty capital. There’s some good stuff here — the marketplace
with its tailors and embroiderers who vie with each other to make the most
outrageous clothing, shops of Mauritanian tie-dyed voile and Basin, dyed cotton
pounded stiff and shiny. Worth a visit are the hand-woven textiles of Aissa
Dione, Octavio Fleury’s funky furniture at Nulangee Gallery in the old port of
Rufisque, just up the coast, and the Aubusson-style tapestries in Thies. One of
the crown jewels of President Leopold Senghor’s 1930’s literary and artistic
movement, négritude, the Thies factory produces cotton tapestries woven on
hand looms with quintessentially Senegalese colors and designs.
But the main attraction of Dakar is Gorée Island, a UNESCO World Heritage
Site that has been used to dramatize the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. A
short, very crowded ferry disgorged us in a port whose delightful French colonial
architecture, open-air restaurants and art colony atmosphere contrast chillingly
with the island’s history. I visited the House of Slaves with is central courtyard
and windowless cells where prisoners were kept. And then, next door, I found the
lovely house of a fourth generation islander that I had seen photographed in a
book on African interiors. Vermillion walls, sea green trim, a tangle of potted
plants in the central courtyard and a child’s laughter upstairs — upstairs, above
the same dank, dark cells I had seen in the Slave House. Yes, indeed, all of these
houses built cheek by jowl on this rocky lip fronting the Atlantic and the New
World beyond had been warehouses of misery, holding pens with a single exit,
the “last door” as it was called — a bolted gate through which men, women and
children, Africa’s black gold, were thrown on to waiting dinghies and ferried to
ships anchored on the horizon.
Mali is the seventh largest country in Africa and one of the poorest nations in
the world. Yet there is an unbelievable richness to the country — in ready smiles,
in vibrant textures, in musicality, in elegance and grace. The lifeblood of the
country, its critical artery, is Africa’s third longest river, the “strong brown God”
as it is often called, the River Niger.
Wide and sluggish, clogged in places with sansevieria, smooth as satin in
others, the River seems to feed a country. Capitaine and catfish — fresh and
dried — are on offer everywhere, and the emerald gardens along the Niger’s bank,
watered painstakingly with calabashes, produce the most astounding vegetables. The
Niger is a highway, an irrigation source, a trough, a washbasin, a pool to splash in.
A short evening flight landed me in Bamako, Mali’s pulsing capital that
straddles the River. Frenetic, dusty Bamako, with its crazy mad traffic, its Grand
Marché bursting at the seams, and a serene National Museum dazzling the
visitor with a superlative textile exhibit.
Bamako’s soundtrack is Toumani Diabaté’s Kora masterpieces, the sweet voice
of Salif Keita, and the songs of Amadou & Mariam. “Taxi Bamakò, òu tu veux,
je t’amène, taxi Bamako, taxi Bamako” they sing on Dimanche à Bamako, a
refrain lifted from life on the swirling streets.
You can find the social history of Bamako in the images of two of Mali’s great
photographers, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. Keita is gone now, but I spent
a morning with Sidibe, well into his 80s and nearly blind from the magnesium
flashbulbs he used to make portraits of the thousands of Malians who came to
pose in his studio. That “studio” is a curtained closet of a storefront, lined floor
to rafters with hundreds of cameras and lenses. Sidibe fetched me the Brownie he
started his career with 50 years ago, and we poured over portfolios of tear sheets
dating back to the 1960s.
And that is the Bamako I love — ancient strings plucked on a street corner, a
legendary photographer reminiscing on a life he deems ordinary, a master textile
designer sharing the secrets of indigo he has spent a lifetime learning. Bamako is
a quintessential African city within which nestles the old habits of the rural
Bamako’s Best: Hotel Tamana, Le Relax for lunch, Blah Blah Café for dinner
and Moffou, Salif Keita’s club, for music; Studio Malick (worth a visit even if
Malick Sidibe, now an old man, is not around); Aboubakar Fofana for his
beautiful hand spun and hand-dyed indigo textiles. Recommended Listening:
Deedee Bridgewater’s Red Earth: A Malian Journey.
The road to Segou is a tarmac ribbon unfurling through a landscape studded
with karité and baobab trees dusted ochre in the dry season. Mud villages rise out
of and disintegrate back into the earth, leaving organic forms that are often very
beautiful. Market towns spill on to the highway and, at intervals, roadblocks of
rusted 5-gallon drums, manned by guards in meticulous army fatigues, halt
overburdened taxi buses.
Along the roadside the women walk, dressed to kill in costumes fit for a party.
Stitched by market tailors who advertise their stylish designs on great picture
boards, the women take infinite care and, obviously, infinite pleasure in
decorating themselves. What amazes me is the meticulous way they turn them-
selves out. In a land where even a Ziploc bag cannot keep the dust at bay, I have
yet to understand how women emerge from their mud brick houses, no cupboard
or chest for storage, dressed in floor length gowns and flamboyant headscarves,
ironed to a crisp finish. And together, like a flock of showy birds, they set to their
tasks, drawing river water, harvesting millet, tending goats and nursing babies.
Segou is Mali’s second largest city, but with none of the tension of Bamako. It
stretches lazily along the Niger like a cat taking the sun. I believe, however, that
its boulevard of shade trees, French colonial and neo-Sudan architecture, and
growing expatriate population will, in due course, turn it in to another
Marrakech. Guest houses, galleries and shops, boat trips on the river, private
houses mimicking the arabesques of the town’s celebrated architectural style are
Segou’s answer to Bamako’s indigo master is Boubacar Doumbia, Mali’s leg-
endary mud cloth artist and expert on natural dyes. He is the founder of the
Kasobane collective whose mission is to conserve the natural dying techniques
and designs of Mali, particularly bogolanor mud cloth. From the spinning and
weaving of the organic cotton to the dying and decoration, all the work is hand
done by craftsmen whose panels are shipped worldwide. I spent the morning
with him in the adobe studio surrounded by bogolan artists, each applying
designs in mud on an outstretched cloth dyed in differing hues of yellow ochre.
With a piece of chalk he schooled me in the symbolism of the iconography,
drawing parallel lines, spirals and crosses on the concrete floor. And then he
drilled me on my lesson and had me design and interpret my own patch of
bogolan. If you want to learn, you must begin as a child.
Segou’s Bests: Espace Bajidala, a studio residence for artists, where the best of
the six rooms overlook the river; a walk through the neighborhood of French
Colonial buildings, quintessential examples of the neo-Sudan style; Omar, one of
Chris Seydou’s original models; and Omar’s wonderful restaurant, Alphabet.
Recommended Listening: Habib Koité & Bamada’s Ma Ya.
When the rains have been good, Djenné is an island. A flatbed ferry carries
everyone and everything, animate and inanimate, human and animal, across the
narrow channel. The sun was low as we arrived on the far bank, and we made
our ferry with just minutes to spare. Once across, in the gathering dusk, we
navigated the old city’s narrow lanes to the central square where the Great
I have learned by now that, in travel, one must try to see with one’s emotions
rather than ones head. We have been so inundated with tricked-up photographs
that the magic of a first meeting often pales next to the images one carries. The
Great Mosque is one of the most photographed architectural structures in the
world, and I have seen it portrayed in all lights and from all angles. I stood in
front of it now and, rather than be overwhelmed by its size, I was touched by its
intimacy. In the fading light it had a well-worn and well-loved look to it, and I
found it strangely humble, like a village church on the green.
I returned to see the Mosque the following day at different times and in different
lights, alone and in the company of a market woman who sold me gorgeous
beads made out of recycled flip flops and with Boss, a young guide who had
something to say to every pretty girl he passed. I circled it and looked up the
scaling walls; I climbed to the roof of a neighboring house and looked down
upon the arabesque domes capped with ostrich eggs. Every year the men of
Djenné replaster the Mosque’s facade, a vast celebratory effort that binds them
to each other and to their religious faith. They tend their place of worship with
care and devotion, and they share the burden with each other. Literally and
figuratively, they are constructing relationships of value.
Djenné’s Best: Djenné Djenno’s delicious breakfast jams; Sophie Sarin’s shop
selling pretty bogolan dresses; Ousmane Traore’s remarkable embroidery.
Recommended listening: Toumani Diabaté’s New Ancient Strings.
During my stay in West Africa, the crises around the world continued to
deepen. In Bamako and Segou I had WiFi access, in Djenné my phone worked.
I took a time-out from them all. Only the French radio broadcast kept me
connected and, most of the time, I turned it off in favor of bootlegged tapes of
Griot music. Thus unhitched, and with the noise turned way down, it became
easier to appreciate the landscape I was in and to understand that the pressing
issues here are of a different order. Like a rock that sits on the riverbed,
untouched by the current and weather above, Malians seem little moved by the
outside world’s spasms. The economic crisis has been their reality forever; they
are on intimate terms with suffering. I am astonished by their grace, strength and
warmth in the face of it all.
I returned home to the US carrying music in my head and wrapped in ochre
and indigo. And for a while, with the benefit of a wider perspective, the strain
of our times has diminished.