Friday, October 12, 2007

Official Launch of Segou's Tourism Website!!

After many months of hard work, I am proud to announce that the website I've been working on has officially been launched! For those that don’t know, I have been working with Mali 's Ministry of Tourism in cooperation with CPEL, a local NGO, to develop an informational website for tourists. If you were ever curious to see a little more about where I live in Mali , now’s your chance! Go to and take a look!

Currently the website is only available in French. However, I tested Google Translate and it gives you a general idea though not perfect. Just enter the site address in the box at the bottom, choose the language you want and voila! (Please note that for some reason Google doesn't translate the welcome page so click on one of the links to start looking around). I am currently working on translating the entire site into English - so for now, Google Translate will have to do.

We will be working to improve the site over the coming months but for the time being we wanted to get what was finished thus far online. I have already identified a couple bugs but am hoping to get those fixed by next week. Any comments or feedback you have is most welcome!

Please feel free to pass the website address along to any friends or family that may be interested.

Bogolan bags from Mali at Hallmark stores...

I just wanted to pass along a quick note about a really exciting project Peace Corps has being working on here in Mali. I imagine you have heard of the (Product) Red Campaign - Hallmark just launched a product made not far from me and in a traditional style famous to Segou where I live. Go to Hallmark's website and check them out!

Initially, they are only distributing 20,000 to their 3,500 "Golden Crown" stores coming down to barely 10 bags per store but come January another 100,000 will come out... if you don't see them now, try back then.

This has been a big secret until now because these bags are a part of the (Product) Red project (the project that Bono - from U2- helped start which encourages companies to sell products where part of the profits return to Africa to buy Anti-retroviral drugs for people with AIDS). Every bag has a Red label on it representing this. Hallmark was a new company chosen to produce under the Red label.

The most amazing thing is just for Mali Chic alone (one of the artisan groups working on the projcect), they have employed 315 artisans to work on this project making 65,000 of the 120,000 bags. This entire project has brought in over $507,000 into Mali which is over 228,000,000 Francs CFA, all which has gone to artisans who have created these bags - plus all the money that will be donated through (Product) Red!

I just wanted to inform you about all the excitement that is going on here and wish I would be there in the states to be able to see the first set of bags come out in stores! Pass this message on to anyone else that you think will be interested in or has any connection to Mali because the success of these bags will hopefully mean that Hallmark or other companies could become interested in what Mali has to offer!

If you're in the states, watch Rachel Ray on Friday October 12th. Hallmark should be presenting this project on that show.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Dogon Country!!

I didn't want to overload you all with a bunch of long posts all at once so have held off on putting this one up...

Here is the post about my - somewhat - recent trip trekking around Dogon Country in the Mopti Region, courtesy of Dom Cronshaw.

I have some really exciting news to put up later this week and am just waiting for it to be finalized - so stay tuned!

And without further ado...

The Adventures of [Djiné Moussa Doumbia, Djenaba Samaké and] Amadou Ba

Summary: Yuri, Kathy and Dom head off for a three-day, 39km hike up, around, over and through Dogon Country in southern Mali. Dom drinks over 8L of water in one day and pees just once and Kathy gets a well-deserved exploration of perhaps the most amazing part of Mali.

After 7 or so hours on a bus where Yuri carefully selected our seats to offer the best chance for air circulation, we arrived back in Sevaré at dusk. Our once again gratuitous host, Sara, was still 20 minutes from her house, so we scaled the wall and headed up to the roof to watch the sunset. As we chowed down on the “street food” which consisted of a type of fried dough ball and some fried yam chips with some spicy sprinkling, the moon quickly took over from the sun as the main source of illumination over Mali. When Sara arrived, we joined her inside and began to plan the trip to Dogon. Yuri was excited about the trip and it’s only now that I understand how my non-committal attitude early on could have left him a tad perturbed. My “go with the flow” had clashed a bit with his wanting to get stuff penciled in and I’d like to apologize to him for that one. Nevertheless, after some helpful advice from Sara who’d already visited the area, we made a decision about a timeline, a guide and set up our departure for early the next morning. We’d elected to take the more expensive guide of the two on offer as he was supposedly the go-to guy for all the PCVs and came highly recommended by Sara. We all had a good repack of our rucksacks along with some of the vanilla biscuits I’d purchased from some kid while hanging out the back of that pickup truck outside of Gao before showering and getting ready for a night on the roof and under the stars – there was no way I was going to endure a replay of Sevaré heat in a sheltered balcony with no airflow.

I awoke before Yuri and Kathy and pondered cracking open the copy of The Kite Runner that I’d been neglecting. I had good intentions when I picked the book up more than a week ago, but had given it little time opting rather to try to spank the other PCV teams in the spades tourney or watch Mali go by. This morning would be no different as the couple beside me soon slumbered no more and we were up and at ‘em by close to 6am. With Sara in tow, we met our guide at the main road – I was not at all ready. A hefty chap of around 6’2” and a good 230 lbs, I at first had no idea what language Hassimi was speaking in. Figuring a smile was the best option, I threw out a big one which was immediately reciprocated. After a quick road-side breakfast of an egg sandwich and a Malian coffee, we hopped into our ride. For being the “more expensive” guide, I expected some sort of 4WD vehicle and was surprised by the sight of “Grandma”. A once blue 1968 Peugeot 300, “Grandma” was Hassimi’s true love and he beamed with pride as he showed her off. Her doors would open only for him; the door lock knobs were long and there was a definite trick to getting the latch mechanism to release. Her floor boards felt thin beneath the red African dust and the upholstery was certainly from another age. Sitting shotgun, I found a bottle of water at my feet that I imagined was for drinking but, as I would later learn, was for “Grandma” and her tendency to get a little hot under the hood. The main road to Bandiagara, the major town (less than 7,000 people) near the start of our Dogon trek had been washed out and so we would be taking the more difficult and longer “back road”. We’d paid more for this unfortunate circumstance and now all our hopes and prayers were riding on Hassimi and “Grandma”.

As we bumped and crashed along some decently rough roads, I had no idea of the wonders that awaited us; Dogon had been just another few days on my itinerary and wholly Yuri’s responsibility. We stopped in Bandiagara for lunch and chatted with Hassimi about potential promotions for his business and how he could capitalize further on his popularity. Yuri and I were really into it, though I felt Kathy was growing bored of the marketing/promotion lecture. During lunch it also came out that I had yet to receive a Malian name. All the PCVs had them and they were a way of connecting with other Malians. Your Malian surname was shared by many others and there is a defined system of “joking cousins” that can essentially call each other names and laugh it off. The way the PCVs explained it, the system functions as a pressure release and allows for a fair amount of face-saving and playful rib poking. The honor had been given to Yuri, but having little inspiration, Hassimi undertook the task and bestowed upon me the name of Amadou Ba. The surname “Ba” can mean “mother” or “large”, and at 6’2” and 95kgs, I think I fit the bill.

After lunch in Bandiagara, we continued on and reached Sanga, our launch point, in the early afternoon. After Hassimi chatted with some of the locals, we threw on our packs and began walking without any mention of where we were going. As we were parked in close proximity to a number of sleeping establishments, I thought perhaps we’d stay there. Instead, we walked up the rocks that formed Sanga’s base and over to the cliffs that overlooked a magnificent valley. Walking with a number of villagers who had made a trek to Sanga, we began our descent down a decently established path before the path narrowed into a small canyon. At the far end, the canyon opened to a cliffside escarpment of thatched roofs and stone walls. Ahead, the end of the canyon framed a picturesque waterfall and I hoped we’d get a chance to cool off with a power shower. Unfortunately, our path wrapped around through the village and away from the waterfall. We’d been hiking perhaps an hour before I finished my first 1.5L bottle of water. While the locals were happy to drink well water, as was our guide Hassimi, he advised us against it and instead to treat or buy our water. Though I had water purification tabs with me, I figured I’d save them for when it wasn’t possible to purchase water and instead paid the exorbitant sum of CFA1300 (Nearly $3) for a bottle at the first “hotel” we stopped at. It’s very much worth noting that everything in Dogon country is pretty basic - there’s no TV, no internet, no real distractions. For those seeking some time to reconnect with nature, it’s perfect, but it also means that in order to enjoy creature comforts like bottled water, you have to pay for them. While expensive, I thought about the woman who would have had to bring the case of water down the steep cliffs that we’d just descended and I felt a lot better about her making some money for her sizeable effort. After another two hours, we arrived at the village of Koundou – our first stop on this journey.

Right in the valley on the sides of these massive rock walls that very much reminded me of Southwestern Colorado, we stayed on the roof of the largest hotel in town. I was quick to order another bottle of water and polished a good bit of it before heading for a shower and some clean clothes. This would be another 12 hour+ day in the Malian books. I’d been in West Africa for two weeks and had yet had to purchase soap, but as none was provided at our place, I wandered across the road to a little window where despite having maybe 20 items in all, they had 3 different types of soap. Happy with the cheapest at CFA300, I walked back and hoped into the shower, though while cold, was absolutely fine. It was third room I’d tried as of the four communal bathrooms, only two had showers and only one of those was even piped with water. Of course, there was no indication of any of this – I can only presume Malians have plenty of time and just like to leave little challenges everywhere. My throat still very sore, dinner went down with considerable effort and the beer Yuri and I shared offered no relief. Tired, I taught Hassimi a phrase to which he took an enthusiastic liking when I told him that that night I’d sleep very well; “like a ton of bricks”. Hearing a Malian repeat that phrase and putting the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllables and giving it his own timing still makes me smile. As night fell and with no motivation to engage my one distraction in “The Kite Runner”, I crawled into my tent, onto my sleeping sack and fell asleep.

From the valley floor, the cliffs of Dogon Country are certainly impressive, but more so are the mid-cliff dwellings that are spotted along a number of the faces. The rich history of the region includes a people known as the Tellem who existed before the current inhabitants, the Dogon. Lonely Planet tells it like this: “The origins of the Tellem are unclear – Dogon tradition describes them as small and red skinned – and non are believed to remain today, although some Dogon say that the Tellem now live on the plains to the east. The vertical cliff is several hundred meters high, yet the Tellem managed to build dwellings and stores in the most inaccessible places. Most cannot be reached today, and the Dogon believe the Tellem could fly, or used magic powers to reach them. Another theory suggests that the wetter climate of the previous millennium allowed vines and creepers to cover the cliff, providing natural ladders for the early inhabitants.” I heard this story repeated by Hassimi who claims that he was also told that the Tellem were pygmies would had “black magic” powers including the gift of flight. Hassimi later scooted quickly around a frog, no doubt afraid of it.

Day two would see two ascents and one descent. While it's difficult to estimate, we likely covered somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-18km over a variety of landscapes from the flat valley to the rocky cliffs all the way to the top of one of the escarpments from where we got some fantastic views (this is where I took the shot with the CU sticker). In continuation from the previous night and somewhat his trademark, Hassimi laid out a number of riddles throughout the day. Kathy had laid out some good ones herself including something about a bell, a cliff and a guy dying. My best offering was the 4 liters from a 5 liter and 3 liter jugs that I learned from Die Hard with a Vengeance. Hassimi’s cracker was the following: A cowboy walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender points a gun at him and the cowboy says “thank you”. What happened? I’ll let that one stew with you a bit. If you believe Hassimi, it’s really obvious and easy.

Through another village, we saw how local people lived in Dogon and while much of it was hidden from us, it struck me how crucially important water is for these people and how much work they must exert in order to get it. The well for the villages half-way up the cliff is down in the valley a good 3km away. Women walk this multiple times a day in bare feet and carry back the liquid valuable on their heads. Granted, it’s easier than carrying it in your arms, but it’s a serious undertaking any way you slice it and absolutely nothing like turning on a tap. Also noteworthy (and shown in the galleries) is the meeting place for the village men. A 3m structure with a thick roof and very low ceiling, the design is intentional in that one with heated emotions must remain seated and therefore his physical ability to over-react is limited. Essentially, he must sit and try to talk things out rather than get up to rant, rave and perhaps attack he with whom he is having a disagreement. While basic, I liked the idea and wondered what it would be like in Western courtrooms – high paid attorneys in $3,000 suits sitting on the floor, unable to prance around and espouse concocted tales.

We took lunch near the top of the cliffs and by this point I had already polished off 2 bottles of water an ordered 2 more. I removed my pack and then my shirt and was able to wring out a fair amount of liquid from it. I wondered how much was actual sweat and how much water my body had taken from my what I was putting in my mouth and immediately pushing out onto my skin. I mentioned to Yuri that while I was no stranger to sweating, this topped every experience I’d ever had including Japan, Cambodia, and even India. After a plate of spaghetti and a short ziz on a plastic straw mat while covered with my turban, we were right back at it climbing the final 50m to the top of the cliffs. In one proof of worth, we had to scale an 8ft, single pole ladder. The potential fall was a frightening 30m though this was mitigated by a series of logs that had been propped over the gap. I gave the strength of the logs little thought and shot up the ladder with haste. As we left the darkness of the crevasse, the world opened to us. In all directions, Dogon Country laid before us – from the valleys to the cliffs, from this viewpoint we stood in amazement of this truly breathtaking place that seemed to have no business being in a place like Mali. After a number of photos, Hassimi rushed us off, over the solid rock top to the descent of the day. Through another village, we clambered down both rocks as well as decently-worn paths before finally making it to another flat area. Covered with plots of cultivation, it became very apparent that the people of Dogon are subsistence farmers and live a simple life built around community and family. For a moment, I wondered what it would be like to live such a life. As a PCV, some had – for 2 years. I tried to imagine no email, no MLS games, no scotch, no electricity and I gave up. Such a life, for such a period of time, was outside of my mental grasp. I wonder how I would endure the simplicity of such a life and how I would control my longing for things that to the people of Dogon hold no significance whatsoever. For much of the one hour walk through the flats, none of us spoke instead opting to absorb.

Our second ascent of the day began at just after 4:30pm and Hassimi’s angst had calmed a bit. Apparently, we’d made decent time through the flats and we would likely make it to our camp before nightfall. While not tired, I’d nearly killed the 2 bottles of water I’d purchased at lunch and was rationing the last ¾ L, not knowing where our camp would be. Much like the morning’s climb, but seemingly easier, we chugged on up the side of the hill from which grew the mighty cliffs of Dogon. Through villages with curious children we passed offering smiles and greetings in the very limited Dogon that Hassimi had taught us. Yuri was the most keen to engage the locals and practiced his Dogon every chance he got with children, old women and even a local dog. About half way up the cliff, we took a break and watched as a massive and gray cloud loomed in the distance over the valley. I quickly pointed out to Hassimi that we’d been done in by not one, but two big storms on the Niger. As the storm approached, I threw out a guess of it hitting us in about 15 minutes. No more than 3 minutes later, the rain started. At first, small, infrequent drops simply caused us to up our pace, but as the rain got a bit harder, we sought shelter under a large boulder that simply wasn’t large enough for the five of us (we’d picked up another guide along the way, apparently Hassimi’s doing). Hassimi encouraged us to push on saying that there was a larger shelter ahead. Walking on steep cliffs is a tricky endeavor, but when you add water to the mix, it can get quite serious and we were all very aware of the implications of a fall in a part of the country where there are no real roads and a rescue is hours away. And so, as the rain soaked our bodies and our bags, we took our time and topped the cliff. I wondered where this shelter was that Hassimi had said was close. We had been walking for 10 minutes and I’d seen nothing resembling appropriate shelter. After another five minutes, I smelled what he was up to as I could see a village in the distance. Through a field of millet and just before dusk, we arrived at our stopping point for the night. A very simple lodge with just covered areas, a pit toilet and bucket showers, we would make it home for the night. After we laid out a few things to attempt to dry, I ordered another bottle of water and quickly made short work of it. Kathy was first to shower with the hot water that the owner of the place had kindly prepared for her. Yuri and I followed, getting a similar courtesy. Bucket showers are an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life. Granted, they don’t compare to meeting Desmond Tutu or rafting the Nile, but to use a bucket, a cup and a bar of soap to clean yourself is an eye-opening experience. You have to get the wetting-yourself quantity correct and quickly lather up before getting too cold. Appropriately soapy, you have to ration the remaining water in the bucket to ensure you get all the suds off. If there’s anything you don’t want to do with a shower it’s to leave still covered in Irish Spring. Furthermore, a bucket of water is no more than 4 gallons - that’s the average per minute flow of a shower in the U.S. – and many people take daily 20 minute showers. Such realizations make to sit back and question the experience and knowledge of politicians who claim that Africans use resources irresponsibly. I had consciously drunk five and a half 1.5L bottles of water that day – and had peed one time; and it was a half-pee at that. Conclusion: Dogon makes ya sweat.

Our final morning began like the previous with toast, margarine, Nescafé and packing. A short day of hiking with much less vertical involvement than the previous days, we were able to take our time and enjoy the scenery. Over hiking paths, car tracks and even an actual road, we made our way back to Sanga enjoying each others company as well as a few of the local fruits called Zabans along the way. As proof that he’s spent too much time away from Western candy, Yuri tried to convince me they taste somewhat like Sweet-Tarts. In actual fact, the ascorbic acid content in them made the ulcers in the back of my throat hugely unhappy and I limited my intake. As a funny aside, they are somewhat hard to open and Malians have both a song and dance that surrounds the event. Maybe someone’s captured it and put it on YouTube.

After a day that was longer than I expected, we arrived sweaty and dirty back to “Grandma” who graciously took us as far as Bandiagara before she had a problem with her left front brake line that forced us to take a timeout. Luckily, Kathy and Yuri had wanted to buy some of the tasty jam that Hassimi had provided for us on the trip and Bandiagara was the spot. One of the two had also thankfully brought some cards and we sat playing hearts wondering when we might get out of there. In an odd twist of fate, a few minutes before entering the restaurant to play cards, a Toyota Land Cruiser rolled right in front of us carrying the three Spanish girls I’d met and spent the day with in Senegal. They were quick to stop and we quickly exchanged niceties before they mentioned that they were on their way back to Senegal for the wedding they’d mentioned nearly 2 weeks prior. The world can seem like a big place, but when such events occur it’s impossible not to be surprised at the chances.

With “Grandma” feeling better, she took us, once again, over the bumpy roads and through the mud puddles back to Sevaré where Sara was kind enough to put us up for a third night. The next morning it was back on the bus – this time to Segou, Yuri and Kathy’s site, for a few days of doing very little. After the Niger trip and now Dogon Country, I was more than ready.

Oh, and Hassimi's riddle: did you figure it out? Yeah, we didn't either. The oh-so-obvious answer (according to him) is that the cowboy had hiccups and that it's commonly known that you cure those by being frightened. Gotta love Hassimi.

Where I've Been...