Hidden among the olive groves outside of Tunis is a Roman-style Colosseum. We were some of the only tourists out here on a Saturday afternoon, only sharing the space with a group of schoolchildren - and bizarrely - a bunch of models in bikinis that were participating in a photo-shoot.
It was nice to get out of the heat, and see a new part of North Africa. This was our first Arab Spring country and we got a good sense of public sentiment while siting in tea houses with a Shisha and fresh-pressed strawberry juice.
Blue Helmets come to Mali
The lightning intervention by the French military was impressive. Even my Marine friends begrudgingly admit that they can no longer be called “Cheese eating surrender monkeys”. What’s more, it was a military intervention welcomed by the population, which is more cut and dry than any I’ve seen. Muddier waters lie ahead however: French forces are drawing down and an 11,000 strong UN peacekeeping force is slated for to take their place.
What I’ve seen in Haiti from the post-earthquake MINUSTAH force was not good. They succeeded in bringing a relative sense of security to the small island after the earthquake left it devastated and unable to police itself. But MINUSTAH was beset by PR and operational debacles, the most famous of which was the induction of Cholera into Haiti’s water supply by Nepalese troops. I worry that a UN intervention will take Mali’s palpable goodwill towards foreigners and slowly grind it down to bitterness. But what are the alternatives? Mali’s military and West African forces have recently been described by the pentagon as “completely incapable”. Hollande’s approval ratings have dropped to a record 24% in April and his coalition simply won’t support a sustained military campaign led by the French.
Mali has been left between a rock and a hard place. I can only hope that these circumstances eventually spur reform of some of the systemic issues that have been swept under the carpet for decades. More likely, the UN intervention will preserve the status-quo, with continued insecurity in the north, punctuated by the occasional and incompetent counter-strike by rebel Islamists.
The increase in international pressure and assistance is likely to force elections in July, even though Mali is not ready for them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a transitional government in Africa is the ultimate exercise in procrastination. It would take more than a year to prepare Mali for an election that even resembled legitimacy. At least with a new leader, the buck will stop getting passed and the international community will have someone more permanent to work with. Then again, now that Mali has joined West Africa’s “coup belt” a permanent leader is a relative concept.
The First Tourist
My second day in Mopti, I rented a land cruiser and drove it out to Dogon country. The drive was fun after I convinced the chauffeur to relinquish the wheel and let me rally the vehicle through rocky outcroppings and sand as the sun broke over the Dogon plateau.
By 11:00 I was halfway through my 12 km hike and it was hot. The 115 degree air shimmered as it baked the rocks around me, parching my throat with every breath. The sun had grown merciless and the light for photographs grew washed-out. By lunchtime I had worn out my guide and had to pay a teenager to take me on one last hike up a pinnacle that I was set on bagging before I left. Normally I would never hike in such heat, but I wrapped a wet shirt around my head and went for it, not knowing if I would ever the chance to come back again.
By the end of the day I had seen my fill of cave dwellings and spectacular cliffs, but one thing remained. I went on a mission to buy millet beer, a traditional brew that Dogon men have drank for centuries. With three bottles in hand I approached the village common area, built upon a cool, smooth rock with a low wooden ceiling. These roofs are built low for a reason – they cover a place traditionally used to settle disputes and the cramped space ensures rivals can’t stand up and cause a fight. One can only recline against a wooden post and relish the cool rock, which is exactly what I did as I poured the millet beer into a wooden gourd for the old men to drink. We chatted for a while and it turned out I was the first tourist they’d seen in over a year. I said my goodbyes and left them in a happy, and more inebriated, state. I made my way back to Mopti before dark, happy, content and tired from the day’s exertion.
The Road to Mopti
The route north from Bamako takes about 8 hours, getting progressively better as you leave the capitol behind. Along the way, we passed a French military convoy snaking through the dirt track, creating a bottleneck at a flimsy-looking wooden bridge.
As I waited in traffic, I found myself next to a French fuel tanker, wondering how good of an idea it was to be stuck next to 30,000 gallons of fuel in a place where Islamic militants like to blow stuff up. I breathed a sigh of relief as we passed the big truck, only to see ten more up ahead. That’s when I got out my kindle and settled in for a long ride.
Fortunately, that was the scariest part of my trip to Mopti, a sort of gateway to northern Mali. This region is famous for its mud-brick construction that comes straight out of the mud in the Niger river. It makes for some great textures.
On a security scale of one to five (with five as the most insecure), the UN rates Mopti as a three and Bamako as a four. I did my research and deemed it safe enough to make the trip with a good friend. We met in Haiti, and now she was here to lead an assessment for an upcoming USAID project to support Mali’s elections (tentatively scheduled for July). Mopti borders the Niger river and is a fishing and agriculture town, surrounded on all sides by rice paddies and fishing boats.
There weren’t many expatriates hanging around. The is noticeable, and the bottom has completely fallen out of the secondary tourism economy. Mopti used to be a jumping-off point for tourists to visit the Dogon Plateau, a spectacular set of villages featuring mud-brick houses built into the edges of 1000-foot cliffs. Now, tour guides and trinket salesman stared at me hungrily as I passed, like sailors who had been at sea for too long.
Farmers are hurting here too as the banks have ceased lending, making it difficult to purchase agricultural inputs. Despite the hardship, I found people to be incredibly friendly as I spent the first day wandering around the town taking photos.
Everyone is thankful the French are here, and the display of French and Malian flags in solidarity is even more prominent than in Bamako.
It was so refreshing to get out of Bamako. So many expats spend their time at a post in the capitol city, rarely seeing the countryside. I don’t think you can understand a country by its capitol, and I don’t think you can understand a capitol city without understanding where its inhabitants come from. In countries like Mali, nearly everyone has a hometown, only coming to Bamako for better jobs or the promise of one. That number is further inflated by the recent conflict, where many more families have displaced southward, swelling Bamako’s numbers even more rapidly. My mission on this trip was to reacquaint myself with the Mali that I saw in 2007 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I wanted to see how village life had changed since then, so I pressed deeper into the bush the next day. Stay tuned for photos from Dogon country in my next post.
A winter of possibilities: before leaving for Mali I was lucky enough to experience a a ski season filled with friends, powder and the unexpected. The biggest treat was a last-minute trip to snowbird, on a ticket financed by a friend’s frequent flier miles (she quickly solidified her position as most amazing friend ever after I learned that it was going to snow more than two feet).
There are few riders or skiers that inspire me to push my limits, but Dave Zook is one of those. He was kind enough to host us in Salt Lake, and not only happens to have a hot tub, but also is a killer snowboarder. I would describe him as competitive, but only with himself. I find a certain purity to that, one which inspires me to seek more technical lines and to become a better skier. He knows snowbird like the back of his hand too, so it is safe to say that I never had a bad run at snowbird. Dave also has a great blog that you should check out. He is a fine wordsmith and if you’re into mountain sports the media on there will make you drool.