I recently returned from a two-week, overland, always exciting vacation to Mali. The trip has been many months in the making and was organized around the Festival sur le Niger, a four-day West African music festival on the Niger River, and hiking in the Dogon country of Mali. As is always the case, and west Africa is no exception, getting there was half the adventure. A group of nine of us met in Tanguieta, a pretty town in the mountains in northwestern Benin where two married volunteers live, the night before the trip was to start. A van came to pick us up at 3:00am the next morning, and after a few stops and one memorable two hour long wait for the Benin-Burkina Faso border office to open, we made it to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, by around noon. I was surprised to notice such a difference once we crossed into Burkina, since in reality most of the borders delineating African countries are arbitrary in terms of ethnic and language groups. For one, the roads in Burkina are much, much better than in Benin. It reminded me of driving north from North Carolina to Virginia and suddenly feeling the bump bump bump of uneven pavement give way to a smooth ride. Second, there were donkeys everywhere. Hooked up to carts, carrying people, tied to trees, and just grazing. Donkeys are used in place of human labor in Burkina, while for whatever reason this has yet to really catch on in Benin. Third, and most exciting to us, there were new street snacks! Street snacks being what is thrust into the windows of the taxi for you to buy every time the car stops. We sampled sesame cookies, yogurt, and sheep jerky covered with peanut butter (tastes better than it sounds).
Arriving in Ouagadougou with a lot of daylight left, we decided to continue on to Bobo and spend the night there. We found a bus and headed out, after waiting the necessary 3 hours or so. A note about buses in Burkina Faso and Mali. Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been pampered this last year and a half with air conditioned buses in Benin that stop only at designated spots and are generally punctual. Our bus from Ouaga to Bobo, and every other bus we took on the trip, not only did not have air conditioning, but did not have windows that opened, leaving circulation to come from one opening in the top of the bus. We got into Bobo at around 11 pm and checked into our cheap but nice (there were showers, even if they were shared) hotel. The next morning we walked around the main market area in Bobo, bought and thoroughly enjoyed fresh strawberries, and had good beer unavailable in Benin called Pelforth. We had the whole day in Bobo to marvel at evenly paved roads, gas stations with actual convenience stores, and the calm and quiet of the city. I quietly appreciated the lack of annoying car horns, blaring indecipherable music, and constant harassment that is found in our biggest city, Cotonou.
The next morning we continued on to Segou, a town on the Niger River that hosts the music festival. We got in at nightfall and checked into our room aboard an aging but fairly clean riverboat. Yep, all nine of us slept in a bunk bed-filled room aboard a boat for the duration of the festival. The performances were mainly after sunset, so during the day we explored Segou. We took a pirogue (wooden canoe) ride across the Niger River, ate grilled capitaine (river fish), and haggled over souvenirs. At night we watched performances on the main stage, which was set on a barge docked a few feet from shore. Most of the musicians were Malian and there were even some famous names, although all were new to me. Lots of drums, instruments I’d never seen before and can’t remember the name of, and powerful singing in languages I couldn’t understand. We also saw performances by a Swedish woman and a Senegalese man, a woman who was a previous Malian Peace Corps volunteer, and an acrobatics group. The majority of the crowd was African, and it was heartening to see how into the performances they were. Art and music don’t play a central role in Beninese culture and I was surprised at first to see how established the arts are in Mali.
I was excited about the music festival, but in all honesty I was on this trip for the four-day Dogon hike, which was coming up next.
|Music festival in Segou, Mali|