The Africa Cup

Mali took 3rd place!! beating Ghana 2-0 earlier tonight.  This town is happy.

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Bringing the Bayou to West Africa

Saturday, 2/4/12

Well, it’s only right isn’t it?  There is plenty of West African influence in the food of the Bayou; it’s about time the food came home.  And come home it did.  The Toubobs (or “Toubob-boos” as we are called by the little children) needed a change of pace and I offered to make my (in)famous jambalaya.  I changed the recipe a bit to make it easier and I didn’t make the Creole sauce, but it was still yummy.  I have to say though that the chickens are pretty scrawny around here (so little meat I threw everything in the pot – bones and all); should have told Wague to get us a crocodile.

Hardships

At some point near the beginning of the trip, a friend commented about the fun stories I was posting.  His comment was something along the lines of “I sense that you are not telling us of the hardships”.  Well Tom, you were right, I wasn’t.  Not that there were not any hardships, but I am not naturally inclined to pay much attention to them (BTW, that is both a good and a bad personality trait;-)

I’ve been here in Africa nearly seven weeks now, and not only have the giddiness of finally getting here and the newness of the place worn off, but I have been able to settle into a routine of sorts.  The strangeness has been replaced by a familiarity.  And as is often the case for me, it is only once I become comfortable in a place that survival takes a back seat to reflection and observation.

This trip is unlike others in my history, combining exotic culture, a stagnant economy, and a harsh landscape with the sweetest and most open of all people I have encountered in my life.  That said, though the typical Malian’s openness works well with my own, it also keeps me surfing the beauty of life and not paying much attention to the potholes around me.

A close friend once called me on my inattention to hardship and my habits of focusing on the good and the beautiful.  I’ve had a good talk with her about that and have gradually realized that by not at least acknowledging the hardships, I was, to an extent greater than I thought possible, creating walls and missing opportunities for deeper connection.

To be sure, I feel the bumps, but simply see them as inconveniences to be moved through on the way to joy.  That said, there have been a bunch of those inconveniences on this trip!  The categories stretch from “I want my mom” all the way to a simple pain in the ass.

Being sick in Timbuktu was perhaps the worst of it.  I was in a level 10 town, on the edge of nowhere, with dust and sand so thick that you can’t breathe, with bad food and a pit toilet that you could smell across the courtyard.  Add to this picture, a feeling that you are about to throw up your shoe and lose 3 days of food out the other end.  If there was ever a recent time when I wanted to be loved and mothered, it was then!

That being the apogee of hardship, there are other things that should be acknowledged as the pains that they are:

The food, as good and tasty as it may be, is lacking in protein, is very carb heavy, and all the vegetables are cooked in the sauce to the point where they are some limpy sons of guns.  Green salads are not very typical!  We are gradually getting used to this way of eating though, and amend with crunchy green vegetables where possible.  You CAN build a good diet here, but it takes many, many hours to source the food, unlike the simple shopping trips we do in the US.  And, although I miss my American “comfort food” less and less each day, someone will still need to warn the folks with the good beer at the Lucky Lab or Lompoc that I am soon to hit town.

It would really be nice to know the Bombaran language, or be just a tad better in French (rudimentary Spanish and high school Latin just isn’t cutting it) so as to connect better with the locals.  Smiles will get you everywhere here, but I am not able to have deep conversations with anyone except my co horts.

Sanitation is a bit better here than I imagined, but, let’s just say that I’ve never been more proud to be a plumber than I am now (yes, Dad was a plumber and I worked my way through college as an apprentice).   There is no denying that plumbing has probably made one of the more important contributions to world history.  Regarding the toilets here, I can also say that I am now a fan of squatting rather than sitting.  We really need to think about pit toilet design though, as I think that one particular pit toilet I used on this trip may have been an entry to an as-yet unclassified ring of hell.

This is the season when this is a dusty, sandy place and the air is laden with particulates.  Add exhaust smoke and burning trash piles to the natural processes and the sum is some pretty nasty air.  I can’t imagine that my lungs are at all pleased with this.  I brought with me a few nice cigars to smoke; ain’t  gonna’ happen here.

There were things that seemed hard in the beginning but no longer so.  Water quality is always suspect but you simply become one with your water filter.  It is hot and dry, but we all got used to it.  There are also things that are not really hardships, but which I simply miss.  Ice tea and hot showers come to mind.  And of course, my Tempurpedic mattress.

Then there are things that are hardships, but also gifts.  Like being connected via phone and internet.  It is good to be able to work on my projects and run a business from anywhere in the world, but it does take away focus from the present and the local.  Because I am connected, I also find myself in a place where I am easily contrasting the needs of the 1st world with the needs of the 3rd world in a very direct and somewhat disturbing way.  Trying to balance project concerns back in the states with the much more basic needs and concerns of the people and projects in Africa make me wonder which world is on the right path.  Though that level of thought can’t be all bad, it is a heck of a balancing act every day.

Lastly, being connected does mean that I can share this adventure with my children, family and friends in an almost real-time story.  It keeps me connected in a way where I miss my children and wish everyday that they could share this experience in person with me.  I will not be the same person I was when I left; and neither would they.  To travel!

See?  I did it again, wrote about the hardships only to end up in a fairly joyful place.

To Be, or not to be ….

Open.   That is the question. And I didn’t think I’d have this life question thrust in front of me with such force while on this trip. I first noticed a part of this as yet unformed question knocking around my head on our trip up the Niger River. It was in Timbuktu, however, when it came out of the shadow and into deep relief.

Timbuktu is a tourist town at a level that even I, (and I grew up in Florida for crying out loud!), found hard to believe. There is little left of Timbuktu’s past usefulness and importance except as a way to show people what was. At its best, it could be a living museum, but it is far from that now. The economy of this little town depends entirely on outside money. During the festival, you couldn’t walk 5 steps before being surrounded by hucksters wanting to sell you something. Some of these little entrepreneurs were as young as 7 or 8 years old. Though humbling to see an 8 year old speak fairly fluently in 6 languages, it was still a heart wrenching to see the less-abled among them beg for a living. At times I had 15 to 20 children crowded around me with the older teens pushing their way in. And it wasn’t just in the streets of Timbuktu, but also along the roads in the rural areas and in the markets at most of the villages and towns in Mali.

What do you do? Do you ignore them and walk past, or do you engage them. To walk past means shutting down to an internal world that causes you to miss the life and the love going on around you. To engage means that the 4 or 5 little entrepreneurs turns into a crowd of 15 or 20 in an instant and the level of complexity and chaos grows exponentially (welcome to Africa;-). As I thought about this dilemma, I realized it’s a bit like any relationship isn’t it? To be open to the day and to not miss out on the life of your partner, children, family, and friends seems to be where life exists at its fullest. So …. I opened up to all my little friends. And OMG what a circus it has been. But such a fun time too. Once they realize that I am not going to give them anything but my time and a smile (and photos and laughter and the millet cakes (more on that later) and chasing them around …) they drop the asking and engage fully from a curious and playful part of themselves. That’s true for the big kids around here too (i.e. the ones my age;-)

Timbuktu

Timbuktu …. what a mysterious place name. I first heard about Timbuktu as a little boy (watching cartoons and hearing Bugs Bunny talk about it was all it took for me to pull out the globe and find it) and it has taken me until now to get here. The wait was worth it.

Picking up where we left off on the Niger, disembarking at the little port of Kabara , 8 miles from Timbuktu.

Tuesday afternoon, January, 10, 2012 through Saturday, January 14, 2012.
Eucalyptus trees lined the road into town. They are beautiful, but strange, if only because of my expectations. It was at the end of this grove, and the end of green, that I first glimpsed Timbuktu. “Of the Earth”. That’s about the best description I can come up with for this city. The mud architecture made from the surrounding earth, along with the pervasive and insidious sand and dust gives the place a monochromatic feel broken only the bright clothes of some of the people. Though the clothes are not as bright here as they are in Bamako or along the river, they are bright enough to bring contrast and relief to the eyes.

The town has approximately 50,000 inhabitants and at least that many goats and chickens. The people, mostly Tomashek are hospitable and friendly, a far cry from the environs. This is a level 10 town; hardship is a way of life and life itself seems to be in a precarious balance with the Sahara.

The town is named after Buktu’s well. “Well” in the Tomoshek language is Tim; hence the name Timbuktu.  Founded as a permanent settlement in the 12th century, the town flourished as the center of trade (gold, ivory, salt and slaves) and wealth until the 17th century when it began a decline still in evidence today.  The French took over in 1893 (hence the name Tomouctou on some maps) until Mali’s independence in 1960. It is currently the capital of the 6th administration region of Mali, it is dirt poor, and the Sahara’s advance is relentless. Centuries ago, the area was grassland and provided plenty of bounty for the populace; not so today.

During its glory years between the 12th and 17th centuries, Timbuktu also flourished as the center of book and scholarly letters trade. This was explained as being possible because of the many Islamic scholars living here and their links with trade to the North.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sankore_Madrasah

This town is now a tourist destination and seems to rely 100% on out of town dollars for it sustenance. Because of the world economy and the trouble with terrorism in the area, however, tourism is down. Everyone is hoping this festival brings a bit of money into the local economy, but truth be told, reports are circulating that only 150 foreigners are here, down from almost 750 last year.

Our shelter while here is with the Deiy’s brother (a friend of Ibrahim’s). It is a house with a small compound flanked on the North and South sides with buildings each containing a few rooms. The room sizes vary, but are approximately 12 feet by 12 feet. This house is typical of the structures in the town; courtyard design, mud brick construction and austere by any standard. Unlike houses in other parts of Mali, it seems as if there is a lack of art and decoration throughout the city. The sand is everywhere and I finally know intimately the term desertification.

There are a lot of us here: Jess and Terry, Erin, Tyler, Mikey, Sarah, Ibrahim, Joyce, Larry, and myself. All but Sarah are from Portland. It is a fun group, and a musical group at that. Our second night in town, Ibrahim took us to a house to listen to local music. An elder man played the ‘Ngoni, accompanied by Ibrahim’s gourd. It was an amazing show of hospitality and musical talent. Walking home in the moonlight was a treat; moon shadows filled the streets and masked the general disrepair of the place. Even more so than during the day, in moonlight there is a monochromatic quality to this desert life. It is textural and glowing cool silver rather than warm brown. When looking down on this place from Google earth, it is hard to differentiate between the Sahara sand and this tiny outpost of humanity.

Food!Our first dinner was chicken with pommes frittes and onions; another dinner was fish with chips, onions, carrots, peas and plantains. Breakfast has been bread and jam and Alfinta, the Taureg version of Furu Furu described earlier in this blog.  One of the more interesting dishes was something I think they called Tucas. Steamed bread in a sauce of cinnamon, onion, tomatoes, palm oil (the sauce reminds me of mole, but lighter) with beef chunks, plantains and potatoes. The bread was served in the dish, covered in sauce. Light and fluffy, it was almost a meat doughnut. At one point, we even had what was described as being similar to scotch eggs. I say described, because that happened to be the time when I went down hard with a stomach/flu bug and eating was not high on my priority list.

I finally got a chance to ride a camel! His name was Ajua and he was a magnificent creature. A bit cantankerous and a stare that had spit crosshairs written all over it, but he didn’t try to kill me. Ajua was running in the camel races later that day (he came in second last year) and was part of the opening celebration of the festival.  He was festooned with blankets and ornaments (especially his nose piece) and looked quite regal. Riding him was unlike anything I’ve ridden before.  My old horse Joanie from college days was large, but I was another six feet higher in the air on this lumbering thing. And the gait! What a weird motion set up with his walking rhythm and the height of the seat (can’t say saddle … it is a wooden platform set above the camel’s hump;-)

We trekked from the outside of town and over a number of dunes towards the festival site. About halfway into our ride, we dismounted and climbed the dunes to the North. Within a few minutes I was looking into total emptiness. The dunes close to town were scrub covered, further to the North more bare sand than living foliage and in the distance, nothing but sand. Mounting our camels once again, we made our way slowly back to the tiny slice of civilization of the town.

We went to the festival in the mid afternoon of the first day to get our tickets and check in. We hung out on the dunes until early evening then came back to the house for some dinner. I laid down for a little nap and woke up feeling terrible.  Stomach pains and woozy, it was either the flu from my co-travels at the house, or a bit of bad food.  Skipping the first evening’s entertainment, it was a 12 hour nap for this boy.

Feeling better the next morning, I was able to walk the town and actually go to the festival. The music was great and I was back at the compound by 3am. To describe the festival would be to describe any multi-day concert.  What makes this place different is the location.

It was an unearthly walk back to the house from the festival site. The dust is thick, and constantly stirred up further by the hundreds of motorcycles and cars that make their way hourly to and from the festival grounds. The lights from the cars and bikes cast a moving gloom in front of them and the flashlights swinging from the tuobabs’ hands describe fuzzy orbits and bounces in the dark. The locals don’t often use flashlights, and it is only by the sand-muffled sounds that you know you are upon them, or they you. The glow for the festival grounds can be seen for miles, but is an indistinct glow, diffused by the sand and dust.

During the day I mostly and explored the town. At the cyber café I met the young man on duty. He was a likeable, chatty fellow, 22 years old (the same age as my son Nick) and his dad is an architect in Timbuktu. So he started calling me his “father” and we’ve been exchanging emails since.

It is cute, but it is also indicative of the culture here. The personal and societal space of these folks are, as we might expect, different from ours. Men hold hands with men, women with women, all walking arm in arm. They cuddle on the dunes not only for warmth, but in genuine affection. Conversations are held in a more intimate way than in the US; heads and faces held close. Laughter is prevalent and you see a lot of respect for elders.

I experienced this a lot on the dune for the last concert night. A few Tauregs have become acquainted with us over the past few days and we spend time on the dune huddled for warmth, talking as best we can and listening to the great music.

Normally, I would say “All too soon it was time to leave”. In this case though, it WAS time to leave the hardship. We packed up and left via the ferry at Kabara, bound for the other bank of the Niger and the jeep ride into the Sahara.

And what a jeep ride that was! That will be a special post all onto itself;-)

A Night at the Bla Bla

Wague, Larry, Hossein, Tami, Joyce, Deidre, and myself at “Bla Bla”, a Gabonese restaurant in Bamako.  The food was simple but elegantly prepared.  Many of the dishes were served on skewers with rice and fresh vegetables.  My pork chops were very very good and there were plenty of them.  No worries about lack of protein today!

The building was typical for the area and constructed with a concrete post and beam system, cast in place concrete floor slabs at all levels, and mud brick infill for the walls.  The place where we were sitting was in a part of the building with the roof slab removed and we were dining alfresco amongst the interior ruins.  It was a brilliant response to fixing a broken building by simply removing the offending piece.  Its the first time I’ve seen this type of design response in Mali. Between the quality of the food, the interesting surroundings, the good company and the balmy weather …. well, it was a nice night.

I promise to blog about Timbuktu soon.  I have nearly finished the writing and the pictures are uploading as we speak!

A Toubab Afternoon

Toubab (too-bob)
Etymology:  “The most likely earliest derivation is from the Wolof word for Europe “Tougal”. In the same way that Wolof means the people of Jollof, Toubab means the people of Tougal (Europe)”
Street meaning:  Foreigner.

And boy did I feel like one today;-)  I just needed a good espresso and a croissant and some time hanging in a restaurant.  Deidre and I walked out of the neighborhood, grabbed a cab heading towards the heart of Bamako, found a bank with a working ATM (!!!!) and ended up at a French patisserie (remember that this was a French Colony for awhile).  The espresso was great and the croissant and triple layer chocolate cake thing (I was greedy) was heavenly.  Just sitting in an European style cafe for a few hours was enough to reset the body and get ready for more of the African experience.

Walking a block down the road, we came to the Toubab styled grocery store called Le Fourmi (translation, “the ant” …. what a weird name for a grocery store).  It reminded me of a small but well-stocked general store with a bit of a modern big box feel.  Though the street markets of Africa have blessed me with amazing sights and smells and experiences, wandering around the shelves at this store was relaxed enough to truly take in the more subtle cultural differences between Africa and the West.  i.e. the toothpaste they use, the soap that is available, their cleaning supplies and methods.  Did you know that there are imported brands of Cocoa Puff knock offs that sell like hot-cakes?  Or that one of my favorite brands of single malt scotch can be had at a fraction of the cost of its selling price back in Portland? (Yes Scotty, its a bit of Scotch heaven here).  Best of all was that we actually had time to browse and didn’t have to fight off the hucksters.

Not that the hucksters are a bad thing.  Its actually quite a hoot to wade through them and take in the experience.  Just not today.

Food!

Well, I was going to tell you all about Timbuktu in this next post. But, I’ve had food on my mind all day so I think I’ll tell you a little bit about what we have been eating here in the Bamako region instead.

The food here is a bit different than the food further North. Up near Timbuktu and along the Niger River, there seems to be a clear distinction between the food items on your plate. i.e., pieces of chicken or fish, hunks of fried potatoes and/or plantains, and then vegetables or rice. Here in the South, the food can be better described as a stew, or as rice/millet/couscous/or ”grass seed” with sauce (“grass seed” is actually called Fonio; similar to Teff and is a very tiny grain).

The sauces are broth based, with very little meat (and tiny pieces at that). Garlic, tomato, and peanut oil are used as flavor, and the sauce is generally teeming with cabbage, green beans, carrots and aubergine (African variety). The quantities made are huge, and large numbers of people can be fed with minimal amount of work. This is important, as shared meals are a way of life in Mali, as are unplanned guests where the visiting is done over meals and sweet African tea.

So far, we’ve had “Tiga De’ge’ Na”, a peanut oil based sauce with chicken; “Jaba Dji”, an onion based sauce; and, “To’h, a red oil tomato or okra sauce with a green millet based dough (this is the national dish of Mali).

Tonight, a bunch of us went out to dinner at “San Toro” a restaurant here in Bamako that is making a name for itself with organic, locally grown, indigenous food. The food was wonderful; fresh and safe to eat. The menu was set and we all had fresh fish salad and grilled , skewered El Capitan and veggies. I especially loved the fresh pounded ginger drink. It is just what it sounds like; pound/puree fresh ginger, sweeten lightly, and serve chilled. It does wonders for a pollution and sand scratched throat. The restaurant was in an old courtyard building made of mud bricks and plastered with a soft mud coating, painted brightly and festooned with local Mali art. Treated to Kora playing (24 strings and a gourd for a sound belly, it is a cross between a harp and guitar) it was quite the treat.

My favorite dish so far?  “Furu Furu” a millet based batter, drop fried into little pancake type things. They are delicious. If I understand this correctly, a rice custard is allowed to ferment overnight (rice mixed with a yogurt or sour milk). In the morning, ground and stemmed green millet is added along with baking soda. The batter is mixed and dropped in a buttered frying pan. They are served with fresh marmalade (the locals like to sprinkle with sugar).

Also, to my great delight, I’ve found donuts! Every country through which I’ve traveled and through discussions with folks that have been in the countries I have yet to visit, there is found a flour based, deep fried thing that is sometimes light and fluffy, sometimes heavy and greasy, but all the time good. Found them on the side of the road back fromTimbuktu, on the edge of the Sahara.  Love it.

Now if I can just find some good beer here, I’d be in heaven.

Bon Appetit!

Three Days on the Niger

Sunday,1/8/12
Leaving the port town of Mopti
Niger River
It is 10am Sunday and I find myself in church; in this case a small boat heading North up the Niger; Timbuktu our destination. It is a small congregation, just Joyce, Larry, and myself. The minister is Douda and our helmsman is Mohamed; brothers charged with our safety and as guides to the treasures in this strange and wonderful land. The church metaphor came easily as we were only onboard a few moments when it became apparent that the boat was not only a method of transportation to a new geographical place, but one for an inward journey as well.

Our boat is approximately 40 feet long, double ended, skiff-like, and wooden hulled with long, pointy prows. It is covered with a straw mat barrel vault supported by branches twisted into hoops at three feet on center. The freeboard is low (only 18 inches or so) and the sideboards are painted in the colors of the Mali Flag and just wide enough to walk aft for that most basic of human relief (yes, that’s exactly what I mean;-)

The accommodations are sparse but very comfortable. Benches span crosswise at three or four feet on center and are somewhat cushioned. There are five benches, the last two spread further apart than the others with a small table between. The interior of the hull is lined with straw mats and the head room under the vault is about four feet.

Astern of the last bench is the area for Douda and Mohamed, where meals are made and tea brewed. The engine well is beyond this work area, leaving just enough room in the stern for the head. We are powered along down stream smartly by a Yamaha 25hp outboard.

[ We’ve been on the river about 2 hours now and have made surprisingly good progress. I’m, not sure what the current is running, but we seem to be going awfully fast for the relaxed RPM of the outboard ]

The landscape is river delta; flat, green and full of life. We have passed many villages and fishing camps. At the confluence of the Bani and the Niger Rivers, we passed through a flotilla of fishing skiffs, each with an oarsman and a man with a cast net. As close as I can figure, the nets are about 18 feet in diameter and most are thrown perfectly.

To my Florida friends and family … you would be at home today!

[ OK, that shot of sweet African tea tasted strangely of fish! Ahhhh….. Looking back to the stern and the busy movement of Douda, I see that he is preparing fish for lunch.  “Perchy” looking things. ]

The food here in the North of Mali is a little different than in the South near Bamako. Undoubtedly it is because of the river ecosystem, but also because of the eclectic mix of the tribes in this region: Bozo (fishermen); Songhai (fishermen); Soninke (poets); Mandinka (music); Tuareg (nomad); Fulani (nomad/merchants); Bela (nomad); Bambara (commerce); and, Marka (commerce).

Last night (at Peace Corps Baba’s house in Sevare) we had an incredible dish of Perch-like fish (whole) in onions and carrots with the most amazing spices. It was served with fried plantains and potatoes. I’ll blog about the food in the Southern region later, but try to keep you up to date with the food in this region as we eat it;-)

Lunch today was indeed a perchy-looking fish, caught fresh, skillet fried and served whole with a rice and vegetable sauce and oranges and bananas for desert.

[ It’s 1pm and we are relaxing ever more by the hour. What a wonderful way to travel.  Reading, writing, reflecting, talking and just observing. … And designing.  I am busy sketching various ideas for the Ko-Falen center and hope to have something ready for Wague in the next two weeks. Looks like I’ll also be helping Peace Corps Baba with the design of his African art museum in Sevare’. What a fun way to spend the month of February ]

1/9/12
Niger River
Yesterday evening saw us complete our passage across a wide portion of the river, wide enough to be a lake, with the banks barely visible from the center. Delta-like in its quality, it reminded me of a cross between Lake Tsala Apopka in North Central Florida and the Everglades.

The sunset was spectacular and the moonrise in the opposite sky was quite sublime. We passed many villages once we reached the opposite shore; all in various stages of their nightly routines. Campfires and cooking, skiffs being moored (or readied for night fishing), dinner being taken, children playing; all seemed so natural, yet so exotic.

There were still a large number of boats on the water as darkness settled in.  Some were small family skiffs returning with the day’s catch. Some were heading out for night dishing, or already anchored in their favorite place with drift nets laid.  At the magic time between sunset and dusk, the boats were either silhouetted against the golden orange West African sky or blending in with the dark green river grass along the banks.

Rounding one of the uncountable bends in this other bank of grass, we were passed by two giant versions of our little boat. They were probably 100 feet in length, shaped and covered like ours and lit from stem to stern. Their accommodation decks were huge, with plenty of head room. Our beam was probably 6 feet at our widest; theirs probably 25 feet. The first boat was loaded with supplies; oil drums, crates, and other dry goods.  The second boat was set up to carry people. To my Western mind, it was the ultimate river party boat.

We reached our campsite at the beginning just as night became total. Our resting place was nothing more than the mud bank at the start again of the narrow river waterway. We were 100 feet up onto the dry sand, there were no mosquitoes, and it was quite comfortable.

We shared our anchorage with a number of local fishing skiffs. They were having dinner, laughing, and basically just hanging out until starting to fish again. We were in bed by 9pm, the din of laughter dying away only when I drifted off to sleep.

BTW … our dinner was fabulous.  Fish again (what, you expected hamburgers?) fried, split and served on a pile of couscous and an exquisite pepper sauce (legumes, onion, African hot pepper, and aubergine (African eggplant). Wow.  We all ate till we were ready to burst.

This morning dawned clear and cool, with a sunrise every bit as spectacular as last night’s sunset. We were up at 6:30am, on the boat by 7am, and heading once again for the ancient city of Timbuktu on a water-way that has remained basically unchanged since man first started traveling its waters.

[ It has been a lazy day and we have had smooth passage since we set off this morning. We pulled up to the bank at one point and I was surprised at how hot it was just yards off the water’s edge. Whereas on the water I am in 2 layers of clothes and somewhat cool, on land, only 100 or so feet off the bank, it is hot, arid and 20 degrees or more warmer. Timbuktu will be a real shock when we land tomorrow ]

1/10/12
Niger River
It is a beautiful morning! Sunshine and clear (as all the mornings have been) with a bit of wind. Sleeping on the beach last night was magical and very, very comfortable.

There was a family of Fulani that watched us set up our tents last night. They were dressed as typical in this area; colorful and bejeweled, and striking an amazing contrast to the dusty and colorless landscape. Unfortunately, we are starting to hear “Cadeaux” (gift) from the local children quite a bit. It the first time we’ve really heard this in Mali (the Niger Riverhas been a transportation route for centuries though, perhaps the asking for gifts is indicative of its rich trading history as much as it is a sign of tough economic times?)

7am saw us back on the boat, eating breakfast and relaxing once again (tough life eh?).

The river here, only ½ day fromTimbuktu, is wider (nearly a mile across) and the banks have turned from delta and rice paddies to small hills and flat rangeland.  The air is still clear and fresh, a far cry from the dusty life on land.

We pass a number of boats, a couple of them carrying large numbers of volunteers to work the music festival that is happening this weekend in Timbuktu. Alas, they in turn pass us again as we circle back towards a fishing boat to purchase our lunch.  Douda, our captain, is from the village in this area and seems to know all the fishermen that we pass.  From one of them, he purchases a nice, fat “El Capitan”, a meaty white fish with wonderful flavor.  The fish cost us 2 mil (2000 CFA … about 4 dollars) and was worth every penny. Can you guess that this fish dinner too was fabulous? Lightly pan fried with couscous, cabbage and pepper. Fabulous maybe because of the fish, maybe the sauce, or maybe just because of the exotic location and the three-day ease into which we’ve all slipped.

Two hours from Timbuktu and the excitement is palpable. The landscape seems to have settled into banks of sand dunes with intermittent and lonely trees. Villages continue to dot both banks. The building are more rectilinear in shape and seem to be more substantially built than the villages to the south. The doors are brightly colored and the door surround is often painted a complementary color. It is still a pleasant temperature here on the boat, but we can see heat waves blasting off the land.

We arrived at an outlying village at 3pm and off-loaded the boat.  The 2 skiffs ahead of us had already been unloaded and their passengers awaiting their rides to town. Most of these folks were volunteers and young. Their country of origins were diverse, with representatives from France, Spain, Russia, Canada, Australia, and the US…Portland,OR to be exact. What a small world. Our friend Ibrahim picked us up within the hour and we drove the 8 miles into town.  Next blog; Timbuktu.

What am I doing here, you ask?

I have recently been getting a lot of questions about what it was that brought me over here to Africa. I realized I never mentioned that in my blog!  Fail. So here is the context.

A number of years ago (1993 I believe) I met Ronna and Wague.  I was the project architect for the NE Police Precinct and Walnut Park Center (NE MLK Jr Blvd and NE Killingsworth in Portland OR) and Ronna and Wague were chosen to be the artists contributing to the project. Together, the three of us worked to bring the architecture and the art together into a whole that was greater than its parts.  And a wonderful friendship was borne.

Fast forward a few years and we found our children all attending Buckman Elementary together.  And the friendship deepened.

A few years after that, the idea for the KoFalen cultural center was borne and they asked me (among others) to help them with the original design.  That was fun, and Wague took the drawings to Bamako and got this thing built.

Back in March of this year, I attended a lecture on KoFalen and I got to see the video footage of the construction.  It was moving to see it come together and to place it in context with the stories I had heard about the workshops being offered here.  In talking with them after the lecture (with me telling them how much I missed not being there for the construction), they told me that it was time for the next phase; the second floor!

And that is what I am doing over here now.  The ideas for the second floor are many and although they are all great ideas, they are somewhat mutually exclusive. My Job, should I chose to accept it (and why wouldn’t I?) was to help them with the design again and make it work.

The first job is to do an accurate model of the as-built conditions of what exists now. That is underway, as well as my basic research and observations of conventional materials and design used in this region of Mali. Its all very fascinating and I feel that I am getting closer to an understanding that will allow me to start the design. This trip up to Timbuktu and back through Djenne will mark the completion of the research and the beginning of my design work.

Once the design is completed and we are back in Portland, we start the fundraising.

Ciao!
Paul

PS.  To be honest, it is also great fun to be a part of the KoFalen experience here in Bamako and to be allowed the opportunity to travel with such great people.