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Travelogue : Desert Festival Tour 2006

by Steven Hecht and Dori Smith

For those of you unfamiliar with the nation of Mali, it is located in West Africa and is bordered by Niger, Algeria, Mauritania, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Burkina Faso. It gained independence from France in 1960 and has been basically free of large-scale violence, civil war, or major corruption. It is very poor, and is listed as the fourth least developed nation in the world–due to drought, desertification, and general neglect.

When Dori and I decided to go to Mali we knew that it would be more of an adventure and challenge than a vacation. So why did we go? The initial motivation was to attend the Festival in the Desert, known as "the world's most remote music festival," organized by Tuareg nomadic tribespeople–featuring mainly the fascinating music of the region. The only way to reach the Festival was to pass through the ancient, legendary city of Timbuktu–this appealed very much to our sense of adventure. And Steven had something to prove–that a 55-year-old with a kidney transplant could travel to Timbuktu, and beyond!

Timbuktu is a tumble-down mud brick home to about 30,000, gradually being engulfed by the Sahara. The day we arrived we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the edge of town and immediately encountered beautiful, unpopulated sand dunes extending to the horizon. We watched the sun set over the desert in Timbuktu—we had made it!

The next morning we left for the Festival, located about 40 miles from Timbuktu at a small oasis known as Essakane. The Festival is part of the annual conclave of the Tuareg, the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribal group that inhabits the wilds of the central and western Sahara. The Tuareg traditionally gather to do business, sell camels, arrange marriages, etc. Our tour group had a camping area with a tent kitchen serving tasty meals, dinners being curries of fresh goat. Tuareg families and their camels were camped just over the small dune to our left. Over the next three days, a few hundred tourists and about twice as many Tuareg ate, drank, watched camel races, dances, and ceremonial sword-fights, listened to desert music, and danced to booming Afro-disco. The only downside was picking kram-kram, a prickly burr, out of our clothes, feet, and hands.

The amazing part was sitting among Tuareg men, women, and children watching their music and dance. Steven's favorite memory was sitting with Dori on a dune in the moonlight listening to Tuareg women singing in the distance. It had a timeless and exotic quality–better appreciated after working on logistics for months and traveling thousands of miles to be there. Dori especially enjoyed watching the handsome turbaned Tuareg men showing off their best camels. The camels, in turn, showed off their most sly expressions and rumbled their complaints.

Post-Timbuktu, we took a day's excursion up the Niger River and visited two villages. It was relaxing to quietly cruise on the broad expanse of the Niger, observing the delicate and graceful forms of the small fishing boats called pirogues. Larger pirogues were the main source of transportation in this region, stuffed to the gills with people, supplies, and animals. We found it surprising and disconcerting that the Niger was being used so little for irrigation purposes.

The next day we left for Dogon country, where we spent three days. The Dogon tribespeople are animist in their spiritual beliefs and traditions. They number around 250,000 and live along the Bandiagara Escarpment, a cliff-like geological structure about 125 miles long and 1000 feet high. In the village of Songo we ascended the cliff face to an area where male circumcision is ritually performed. There were many fascinating symbols painted onto the cliff face.

The second day we attended a masked dance ceremony at one of the villages. Each mask represents a different legend or symbol important to the Dogon. Upon circumcision, Dogon boys are initiated by means of a masked dance and told about the Dogon traditions by the village elders. The Dogon hold sacred ceremonies at different intervals; the most sacred ritual is called the Sigi and is performed once every 60 years to initiate those boys that will become masked dancers.

Everywhere we were approached by children of all ages as we walked around- some gay and lively, and others dulled by malnutrition. The children shyly took our hands, while some of the older ones quietly or aggressively sold jewelry or drawings of the masked dancers. One boy's drawings were quite good and Dori purchased one immediately. We got to know the artist–a 12-year-old boy named Yibe Dolo. We visited his very poor home and met his mom, eight siblings, and relatives. Yibe was different from the other boys–he was quiet, reflective, and sensitive. He guided Steven through the crowded weekly market and the next day took us on a tour of his village, where Dori joined a group of women who were using huge mallets to pound millet. We traded various small gifts. Yibe ended up giving us his whole book of drawings! I have sent two of Yibe's drawings to the curator of the Museum of African Art in New York City, who said they were good enough to include in an exhibit of Dogon children's drawings. We would like to send funds to his village so that Yibe can continue with his education; otherwise he will need to stop school and devote all his time to supporting his family (he had no father around).

Our last tourist stop was the beautiful and impressive mosque in Djenne, a designated World Heritage site. It dates from the 1300s and is the largest mud structure in the world. Upon returning to the capital city, Bamako, we realized that we had just completed an extraordinary journey. There were several very experienced world travelers in our group and they all agreed that the itinerary of our tour had been planned out very well, and that logistics were very well organized. That confirmed our belief that the best option is always to choose a well-run in-country tour company since their knowledge and contacts inside Mali cannot be matched by companies situated outside its borders. We were fortunate to have chosen Saga Tours to guide us through Mali.

We returned home richer for having experienced new cultures and landscapes … sadder for having faced the undeserved destitution of so many gentle, dignified people; and wiser because … well, just because.

signed: Steven Hecht and Dori Smith, February, 2006