Monday, October 24, 2005

Mopti, Mali 2002

Several months after 9/11/2001, Kate and I were sitting in a cafe by the Niger River in Mopti, Mali. Workers on the shore were unloading blocks of salt from boats that had sailed down the Niger from Timbuktu. Fine particles of sand from the Sahara were suspended in the air by the harmattan breeze. Kate asked our Dogon country guide, Ali, who sat with us, if he thought it dangerous for two American tourists in this Moslem land.

"Yes," answered Ali, in an even tone.

Did he hear us correctly? Did he understand what we meant? Was he just saying "yes" to please us, as was not uncommon in West Africa?

When we had planned our Mali trip from Accra, we had not thought about the events of 9/11 or the war in Afghanistan. It took a lot of focus just to get our Ghana Air tickets to Bamako. We had visited several travel agents and airline offices in Osu and at the airport. At some places, they would look at us in slow, surprised shock when we asked about tickets to Bamako, and would refer us to another airline, which would then refer us back to the office of the airline we had just come from. Another travel agent promised a great deal on a ticket to Bamako via Addis Ababa, but when it came down to it there was no ticket to be had. Finally, Ghana Air sold us two tickets from Accra to Bamako, and we were on our way.

In Ghana, where many people had relatives living in New York, there was great sympathy for what the Americans were going through. I had received hugs from my co-workers as we watched an airplane crash into the World Trade Center on CNN, and the next day in Osu a giant banner hung off a building: "We are with you America." At one rooftop party, when an airplane flew low in the sky, a bunch of drunk young men started waving their fists and chanting gleefully, "Osama! Osama!", but overall the spate of memorial services around Accra showed the sympathy of the Ghanaians.

But here in Mali? People from Tuareg nomads to goat herders to drummers to Dogon dancers seemed friendly enough, if not always completely welcoming like we were used to in Ghana. But every market sold t-shirts celebrating Osama bin Laden, who after all had donated a lot of money to poor areas in Africa for public works projects.

"There are many Taliban who are running away and come through Mali," Ali told us.

We could imagine with a turban or two it'd be easy to hide your identity in this place. Here, turbans were commonly wrapped around people's entire faces to protect the eyes, nose, and mouth from the fine desert sand. It was the season of the harmattan, and a dull haze of sand particles hung over everything.

Ali was a Dogon man in his early 20's who guided tourists through the Dogon villages in the southern part of Mali. He was Moslem, and happy about that, since he was different than a lot of Dogon people who still practiced traditional religion. To him, being Moslem meant he was part of a bigger world.

"Is there really a tribe of desert elephants in Gao?" I asked Ali.


Blogger Work in Progress said...

Unnerving and eye-opening. The writer makes us feel, no easy task in an age where we are constantly barraged with intense images and raucous noise. We could feel her throat constrict when Ali answered “‘Yes’…in an even tone,” and she thought, “Did he hear us correctly?” The contradictory and shifting attitudes spotlighted in this short piece well reflect our chaotic world.

12:05 PM  
Blogger telfair said...

another beautiful & thoughtful piece of writing that manages to sound like a poem despite its unsettling & matter of fact subject matter...thanks for sharing a view of a world that I wouldn't otherwise know much about...

10:32 PM  

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