For Thomas & Co.

May 2012.

Life in the desert

Dear Thomas,

Years ago, I drove across the face of Africa. I departed from London with a group of ten travelers. Our destination was Kenya, and I 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 love who had left me and, in looking for one love, I found another: Africa, itself.

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, no matter how many times I return.

Over the years, I have spent much time in North, East and Southern Africa. And then I returned to West Africa, booking a ticket to Dakar, Senegal and then onwards to Bamako, Mali. Not a “travel designer” for nothing, I benchmarked my itinerary with Goree Island at the start and the Mosque of Djenné at the close. Both sites, which had been on my wish list for years, provided 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. I hope your experience through this trip will be as fruitful as was mine.

Day 1: Arrival

After your flight arrives in Senegal, you will embark with Sara, your guide, on a tour of Dakar, Senegal’s dusty yet vibrant capital. Take your time as you meander through Dakar’s marketplace, with its tailors and embroiderers who vie with each other to make the most outrageous clothing, and shops selling Mauritanian tie-dyed voile and waxed cottons pounded stiff and shiny. Sara will help you explore the market at your leisure and you might chance upon the hand-woven textiles of Aissa Dione, Octavio Fleury’s funky furniture, or copies of the Aubusson-style tapestries from Thies. As evening falls, relax into the velvety African night, scented with traces of fire-smoke and ocean. 

Day 2: Gorée Island

Today, you will have the opportunity to visit Gorée Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is used to dramatize the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. During our conversations about your trip, you said that the history of West Africa was of great interest to you, and there is no better place to learn it than at Gorée Island. Gorée Island’s delightful French colonial architecture, open-air restaurants, and art colony atmosphere contrast chillingly with the island’s history.

Sara will take you to see the House of Slaves, explaining the history, and allowing you to marvel at how it compares to modern life on the island. Vermillion walls, sea green trim, and a tangle of potted plants in the central courtyard rest upstairs, a stark contrast to the dank, dark cells of 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. Sara will gladly give you more detail and answer all questions you have about Africa’s “black gold.”

Day 3: The Niger River

Today, you will explore the lifeblood of Mali, the seventh largest country in Africa. Though it is one of the poorest countries in the world, Mali is unbelievably rich in ready smiles, vibrant textures, musicality, elegance, and grace. Mali’s critical artery is the “strong brown God,” the River Niger. Wide and sluggish, clogged in places with water hyacinth, smooth as satin in others, the River Niger seems to feed a country. Capitaine and catfish—fresh and dried—are on offer everywhere. Be sure to try some with your meals today, along with the astounding variety of vegetables grown on the Niger’s bank. The Niger is a highway, an irrigation source, a trough, a washbasin, a pool to splash in, and it is yours to experience.

Day 4: Bamako

Today finds you in Bamako, Mali’s pulsing capital that straddles the River Niger. Experience the bustle of the city and its crazy mad traffic with a visit to its Grand Marché. Lunch at Le Realx, and then, in the afternoon, visit the National Museum and its dazzling textile exhibit. After a brief repose at Hotel Tamana, put on your dancing shoes for a night out at Salif Keita’s club, Moffou. Bamako’s soundtrack, lifted from life on the swirling streets and heard here at Moffou, will move you through the rest of your night.

Day 5: A social history

As with Gorée Island, your explorations today will teach you more of Mali’s history. You will have the privilege of viewing the images of two of Mali’s great photographers, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. Spend the morning with the nearly blind Sidibe, who used magnesium flashbulbs to make portraits of the thousands of Malians who came to pose in his studio, lined floor to rafters with hundreds of cameras and lenses. Reminisce with the legendary Sidibe over old cameras and portfolios of tear sheets dating back to the 1960s. Spend the rest of the afternoon at your leisure and fall in love with the beauty of the bustling city of Bamako— from the music of ancient strings plucked on a street corner, to the conversation with a master textile designer sharing the secrets of indigo he has spent a lifetime learning. Bamako is a truly quintessential African city within which nestles the old habits of the rural countryside. Before returning for one more night in Hotel Tamana, enjoy a meal at Bla Bla Bar for dinner.

Day 6: Segou

This morning, journey to Segou, Mali’s second largest city. Pass by the tarmac ribbon-like road unfurling through a landscape studded with karité and baobab trees dusted ochre in the dry season. Watch mud villages rise out of and disintegrate back into the earth, leaving organic forms that are often very beautiful. On your journey, you will see women begin their daily tasks, dressed to kill in costumes fit for a party. Stitched by market tailors, the women take infinite care and, obviously, infinite pleasure in decorating themselves. In a land where even a Ziploc bag cannot keep the dust at bay, it is astounding 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.

Upon reaching the city, you will find that Segou, stretching lazily along the Niger like a cat taking the sun, is far more relaxed than Bamako. Take in its boulevard of shade trees, its mix of French colonial and neo-Sudanese architecture, evident in every place, from guesthouses, galleries, and shops to private residences. A wonderful way to see it all is via a leisurely boat trip on the river. When your day concludes, retire to Espace Bajidala and its magnificent views of the river.

Day 7: A lesson in textiles

Segou’s answer to Bamako’s indigo master is Boubacar Doumbia, Mali’s legendary 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 bogolan or 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. Spend the day with Boubacar in his adobe studio. He will give you a private lesson on the symbolism of the iconography, drawing parallel lines, spirals and crosses on the concrete floor. Boubacar taught me that if you want to learn you must begin as a child, and he will impart this same wisdom to you. Finish the day by designing and interpreting your own patch of bogolan. We have made a reservation for you at L’Alphabet tonight, before returning to your hotel to rest.

Day 8: Segou-Koro

During our talks, you told me you wanted at least one day to do something active and energizing, and that day is today! Journey along the Niger aboard a simple pinasse, a graceful dugout canoe. Your destination is Segou-Koro, the original capital of the Bamana Empire. Explore its old mosque and the town’s ancient mud brick buildings. By journeying on pinasse you will see a slow motion movie of life on the river: Bozo fisherman gathering nets, women and children fetching water in calabashes to irrigate the gardens running alongside, goats drinking and children playing under massive old mango trees, whose root systems grasp at the eroded shore. As evening falls, watch the sun warm the ochre buildings to glowing embers and then slip over the horizon, quickly cooling the palette to silver and charcoal. Return once more to your lodging at Espace Bajidala for the night.

Day 9: Djenne

Arrive today at your final destination, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Djenné. Djenné, reputedly the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa, is built entirely of mud brick. Located on a floodplain of the Bani River in the Niger Inland Delta of Central Mali, its historical importance was as a market center and a stop on the trans-Saharan trade route. Today you will get to explore all that Djenné offers at your leisure. Its rich marketplace invites your curiosity— Sophie Sarin’s shop filled with pretty bogolan dresses and Ousmane Traore’s remarkable embroidery are both must-sees.

Day 10: The Great Mosque

Begin your morning at Djenné Djenno for their delicious breakfast jams. It’s the perfect way to energize you for the final benchmark of your trip—a visit to Djenné’s Great Mosque, the largest adobe structure in the world. With your guide, navigate the old city’s narrow lanes to the central square where the Great Mosque stands. The Great Mosque is one of the most photographed architectural structures in the world, portrayed in all lights and from all angles. Yet, to stand in front of this grand structure is to be struck by its intimacy, its well-worn and well-loved look strangely humbling. I have learned by now that, in travel, one must try to see with one’s emotions rather than one’s head—the magic of a first meeting often pales next to the images one carries, and the Great Mosque is no different. Circle the Great Mosque and look up the scaling walls; marvel that 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, to be witnessed by you.

Day 11: An adventure concludes

Bid farewell to the rich country of Mali. Before you go, visit the Great Mosque one last time to enjoy how it glows in the morning light.

Thomas, it has been my pleasure to plan your West African Adventure. Please do not hesitate to contact me at any time should the need arise.