Mali? Where is that? Is it in Africa? ooh do they have safaris? What type of animals do they have there? For many, Mali, the country, its culture, its music and history is unknown. When I hear the of the country Mali, I go back to memory lane when my Dad will tell my siblings and I the story of the richest man in the world, Mansa Musa or the prosperous kingdom of Timbuktu. Years later, I came across Magnus’ instagram feed on this historically rich country, I immediately knew that I had to share Mali’s often hidden story to the world. In this post we expose the most interesting facts on Mali.
My name is Magnus I am from the Netherlands. I am a photographer and I have been traveling to Africa since 1999. I already had a big passion for Africa, but I had only been to the Eastern parts before. It was not a well thought out plan, I think I booked my trip to Mali impulsively as I often do for most of my travels. I was probably listening to Oumou Sangare while searching for a destination.
Mali is the heart of West African culture and upon arrival to Bamako, I immediately heard Malian music everywhere. On the radio, on the bus, in music shops, in the places I stayed, and in almost every place I visited. Sometimes on a smaller scale where a few people would make music on the streets during the weekend, to a packed stadium in Segou where I saw Oumou perform at a free concert organized by a local telecom provider.
Two other things were prevalent in Mali. The mud architecture you see all around and the colorful traditional dresses that men and woman wore.
I visited Mali in the spring of 2011, and by the end of that year, things really took a turn for the worse when Religious enthusiasts controlled Northern Mali, forbidding music and the wearing of colorful dresses.
Mali is a Muslim country, it has always been since the 15th Century. Sufism is also a big part of the culture. You can see this influence in many of the mosques, shrines, and mausoleums in Mali. The Malian empire (1230 -1670) was the largest and most powerful kingdom of Africa. It was formed by Sundiata Keita but influential through Mansa Musa’s leadership. After Mansa Musa’s famous pilgrimage from Mecca, he brought back with him Muslim scholars and architects. He wanted to spread the knowledge of Islam across the country. He built five mosques in baked bricks for the first time (source). Islamic prosperity reached its peak during his reign. It was an era of development and education where knowledge and ideas were shared. Information of this enlightened period spread quickly as far as Europe and the Middle East. So much so that it spurred well-known traveler, Ibn Battuta to visit Mali.
Besides being a center of excellence, Mali was known for its trade of (Ivory, Ostrich feathers, Kola nuts and gold). Mali’s gold was important all over the world. In the later medieval period, due to Mali’s influence, west africa was producing almost two-thirds of the world’s supply of gold. (Berkeley)
For more information on Islam in West Africa, click here.
Interesting facts on Mali: The Music
Since my trip to Mali, my Malian music collection has grown considerably. In West Africa, you have the Griots or Djeli’s who are the keepers of traditional history which they do in music. This tradition is already hundreds of years old, some of the songs they still play are over 700 years. With time, this grew into a very sophisticated form of music with a distinct style and a tradition that keeps on evolving.
One of the most current famous Griots is Toumani Diabate. The Diabate family are one of the most famous Griot families from West Africa. Toumani is the 71st generation of Kora player (the Kora is a West African harp). His music is more typical of Southern Mali.
Here is a clip of Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure which also provides a bit more background information on Malian music.
In the late 60’s and 70’s, there was an authentic movement in West Africa (mainly Mali and Guinea) where the state promoted the local culture through music. Every major region had their own band. The musicians had a steady income from the state and played every week in all the cities and villages in their region, bringing the music to the people. These bands played traditional “Malinese” music with electric instruments, creating a unique style of incredible music. The music lyrics are very important. They generally provide life lessons to the listeners and other times, the lyrics praised important figures.
Here’s an example from the Super Djata Band de Bamako:
An interesting encounter
Let’s talk about Oumou Sangare. I already knew her music before I went to Mali, and I was a huge fan. Her music meant a lot to me, I played it every day when my father was terminally ill. Even after my father’s death, I still love to play her music.
I loved her music so much that one day, I tried to visit her in Hotel Wasulu which she owns in Bamako. I heard that there was a reasonable chance she could be there. So on the last day of my holiday, I went for it.
I walked for more than 2 hours through 40°C /104°F heat to finally find the place. Upon arriving, I asked the man at the reception if Oumou was there, and he replied with a simple ‘No’.
Disappointed I asked where I could buy a bottle of water since I had become very thirsty and he pointed to the hotel’s restaurant. There was one woman sitting there who asked me why I was there. I explained to her that I came to see Oumou to tell her how much I liked her music, but that she wasn’t there. She said she was a good friend of Oumou and that Oumou was upstairs. She said she would go up to see her and tell her about me. She comforted me by saying it was pretty certain she would have a bit of time for me.
Anxious like a teenage girl about to meet her favorite boy band, I sat waiting for Oumou to arrive downstairs! After 20 minutes or so she arrived and I was able to have a short chat with her. We even took a picture together. After that, I said goodbye and started walking to my hotel. Oumou stepped into a car and stopped by me. She asked me where I needed to go. When she heard my hotel was on the other side of Bamako, she offered me a ride! It was quite an experience, with policemen stopping traffic when they saw Oumou was coming. You can’t let Oumou wait in Mali!
Timbuktu has long been a mysterious place. It was for me as a kid, reading the Dutch version of the Donald Duck Magazine where many times there were references to Timbuktu as being the end of the world. Many people in my country (the Netherlands) even think Timbuktu is just a place from the Donald Duck magazine and not a real place! Timbuktu attracted the interest of the first generation of European explorers who had heard stories about its enormous wealth. There is a very good book about these explorers: The Gates of Africa by Anthony Sattin. In this book, you can read about all the explorers who died trying to reach Timbuktu untill finally Frechman Rene Cailie and Brit, Gordon Laing reach the fabled city around 1825. They discoverd that the gold had all been gone and the mines depleted. You can still see the houses where they stayed in the Timbuktu’s medina.
The Ancient Sankore Mud Mosque in Timbuktu Mali. (Part of the University of Timbuktu)
Timbuktu was known to be a center of excellence. It’s university, The University of Timbuktu was the first University in the world (Source).
Timbuktu’s greatest contribution to Islam and world civilization was its scholarship. By the 14th Century important books were written and copied in Timbuktu. Also, thousands of manuscripts written in Arabic were deposited in Sankore University….these manuscripts have been collected and preserved by the Ahmed Baba Institute (in cooperation with UNESCO) in modern Mali (Source).
The single most famous building of Mali is the great mosque of Djenne, the biggest mud building in the world. It used to be possible for tourist to enter the mosque but when I visited, it was not allowed. The story I got told was that somewhere in the 90’s a French magazine held a photoshoot in the mosque using models wearing only lingerie. After this, visitors were not allowed anymore. I got a confirmation of this story on the Instagram page of Sacred Footsteps where I had a Mali feature. However, due to my fantastic guide Philip in Djenne, I was able to enter the mosque, something I’m still very grateful for.
The natural wonder of Mali is the Niger river, the lifeline to much of Mali. The Niger river passes all major cities in central and northern Mali like Bamako, Segou, Djenne, Mopti and Timbuktu (although Timbuktu is about 20KM (12.42Miles) from the river, it’s still linked to it). In the Dogon country you have the Bandiagara escarpment where as a tourist you can hike from village to village.
Historical wonders are many of the mud mosques and other buildings with adobe architecture. During the rainy season, the mud buildings get a new layer of mud. After each new layer the building will look a bit different than before.
The Niger river
Final Words on Mali
I love Mali’s Music, the people of Mali, their hospitallity and friendliness, their colourful dresses, their unforgetable smiles and also the stunning landscape.
Touarge Man from Mali
Despite what you hear on the news, because currently news coming from Mali is usually bad news, Mali is one of the most friendly places you can ever visit. In many places, I stayed in peoples homes and I can’t count the times I got invited for a tea or a small snack! If you can see only one thing in Mali, it would be Djenne. Other notable places to check out are: Mopti, Dogon country, Timbuktu, Segou, and Bamako.Unfortunately Mali (especially in Timbuktu and around Mopti) has been unsafe to travel since 2011. The best time to visit Mali will be when it’s safe again. I hope that soon the land will be stable enough so you can go and see for yourself how exhilirating this country is.
Africa is not what you see on tv. It’s very safe (except maybe the traffic and some dodgy area’s in big cities).
It is the purest continent in the world especially outside the big cities with little influence of globalization. Of the 19years I have visited and lived in Africa, I have to say that African hospitality is unrivaled in my opinion.
Magnus worked in Telecom his whole life, most recently as a Product Owner in Agile Software development. However, he burnt out and quit his job. Since then he has gotten hired as a travel guide, which is something he has wanted to do for a while. Unless someone discovers Magnus as a travel photographer, he doesn’t mind his current profession as a travel guide. Check out his photography work here.
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