Saturday, April 11, 2009

There Actually Is A Place Called Timbuktu

Prior to my arrival in Bamako, Dam and I had spoken about what are plans would be in the 10 days I spent in Mali. Dam had not done much traveling, so we agreed that some traveling would be the right way to spend at least part of those 10 days. After a few more emails back and forth we settled on an overland journey to Timbuktu, located north and east of Bamako, smack dab in the center of the country. Now before I go any further, I will address some questions that a few of you undoubtedly have:

1) Yes, there is actually a place called Timbuktu
2) Yes, that place is on the African continent

I would have included a couple of links that provide some good background information on Timbuktu, though I have learned through all of this traveling that there is something special about being able to tell the history and significance of a place in one's own words, from what one has learned from actually being in that place. That said, if you want to fact-check me, Wikipedia would be a good start :-).

Timbuktu (commonly spelled Tombouctou) can literally be translated into "the well" (Tim/Tom-) "of Bouctou." According to the Tuareg Nomads who currently live in the area, Tombouctou was originally a trading post and place where Tuareg travelers and traders would rest and spend a night. The distinguishing feature of the place was the presence of a well, obviously a special find in the Sahara desert. Those who found/created this well wanted it to be protected and maintained, so they charged a Tuareg woman by the name of Bouctou with its upkeep. Over time, the area became known for the well, as well as the woman who took care of it, hence Tombouctou.

Most of the people I heard speak about the city's history spoke of its founding as early as the 12th century. Over time, with the growing trade of salts, precious metals and slaves Tombouctou grew both in size and prominence. Under Mansa Moussa, king of the empire of Mali during the beginning and middle of the 14th century, the city became a religious and cultural center. King Moussa was a devout muslim (Islam had begun its spread through Mali as early as the 9th century) and during his reign built and expanded several mosques including one of the most famous in Mali, the great Mosque Djingarey Berre, located in Tombouctou.

Tombouctou grew to be one one of the most important cities in the Muslim world and as such scholars flocked to the city. During this time it became an important religious as well as intellectual capital in the Muslim world and in the 15th century the famous Sankore University was established. Over the several centuries that Tombouctou held the reputation of intellectual capital, thousands upon thousands of manuscripts were produced on subjects ranging from Islam (there are currently centuries-old editions of the Koran) to matters of political philosophy and justice.

The city retained its intellectual, religious and cultural prominence until the end of the 16th century when it was conquered by Morocco. This would be the beginning of a steady decline for the city as the Niger River (pictured above) became the strategic focal point for attacks by the Babara, Fulani and Tuareg over three centuries. Eventually the French captured and took control of the city and during this occupation, the city was restored to an extent, though nowhere near the quality of centuries passed. The French occupation of the area (known then as the French Sudan, which consisted of Senegal and Mali) ended in 1960 and Mali gained its official sovereignty in September of that year.

From what I gather, Tombouctou has remained relatively unchanged since this time retaining its religious, cultural and academic significance, though none of this has translated into true economic development. A major reason for this is that the city remains difficult to access (see the next post) and as such largescale commercial and economic development is challenge. The effect of this inaccessiblity is a city (more like a town) that somehow has retained its mysticism in a time and a world in which secret places no longer seem to exist.

I'm in Bamako, where are you?

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to anyone seeking to do a bit globetrotting is to find ways to travel (at least for part of your trip) with a friend.  As I planned my travels in West Africa I kept up with my friend Damini who was in Mali for your a year on a fellowship.  It took a bit of coordination--which is not all that easy when hopping from internet cafe to internet cafe--but we eventually figured out that I would make the short trip from Dakar to Bamako (capital city of Mali) where Dam would meet me and we would travel overland to Timboctou (aka Timbuktu--more on that later).  

Plans made, I woke up in darkness on the morning of February 28th, took a quick bucket shower and headed to the airport with Sam.  I was coming back in a little over a week, so this was not the emotional goodbye that I was sure to come later.  In fact, I was quite excited and looking forward to getting out on my own.  As great as it was to spend time with Sam and his family in Senegal, I felt as if my newly discovered independence was being encroached upon.  I spent a great deal of my time with Sam and his family, largely out of necessity (my French/Wolof has a long way to go) and I could sense that this was wearing on Sam a bit as well.

As the plane took off I couldn't help but notice my excitement to see a new place and meet up with a good friend.  It seemed only a brief moment between settling in my seat and the plane touching down and as I unbuckled my seatbelt I realized that I didn't have Dam's address.  A couple notes.  When you get into the rhythm of traveling a bunch you can take on a "what will be will be" attitude which greatly reduces the stress.  I would recommend everyone who travels try to take that to heart as at a certain point you realize that you cannot be in full control of your movements 100% of the time.  In the same breath, I would strongly recommend doing the little and important things that make traveling a lot easier.  One of these things is writing down the address of wherever you will be staying in your arrival country.

I figured that not knowing Dam's address wouldn't be too much of a problem because I could get it from him as soon as I exited the airport.  I accepted the fact that I would have to let the customs agent hold my passport until I got the address, but I had been through this enough to know that if I was quick, I shouldn't have too much trouble.  I stepped out into the dry Bamako afternoon to a crowd of people, most of whom were cabdrivers trying be the first to nab a customer.  As I scanned the crowd once, then again, but Dam was nowhere to be found.  I sat down on a nearby bench and waited, well-accustomed to the mob of cab drivers trying to get me to the destination I did not yet know for "the lowest price. Guaranteed."  Fifteen, then twenty minutes passed with no sign of Dam.  I called the number he gave me, but to no avail.  I hoped that Dam was alright, though once thirty minutes had passed I knew that I had to look out for myself and my passport.  Taking a quick look around, I noted a well-known hotel and its address, headed inside, filled out the immigration form and collected my passport.  I knew that I could buy some time at a major hotel, hopefully without paying for a room.  I left a message with a security guard at the airport (in case Dam showed up after I left), haggled with a waiting taxi driver until I reached a price which was "completely unreasonable" and headed to the Sofitel hotel, one of the largest and most Western in the city.

Bamako bore some resemblance to Dakar, though a bit more developed (I was informed that Libya's Qaddafi was involved with quite a bit of the development) and a whole lot less dusty.  The Niger river was low, though crossing over it I could easily imagine what it would look like during the rainy season.  I arrived at the Sofitel Hotel in my khakis and beat-up $1 foam sandals looking more than a little out of place.  In the main lobby there was an international conference going on and on more than a couple of occasions I was asked my business.  I had to do a bit of stalling, and verbally commit to staying a night (about $120/night).  Finally, after about an hour of stalling and placing a couple more calls to Dam's number, I began to accept that perhaps I would have to take the L and stay a night in the hotel.  As I gathered my belongings I took one last look towards the entrance.  No Dam.  I walked up to the front desk.  As I got ready to sign the billing statement I heard a voice call my name.  I turned around to see Dam, a sheepish grin on his face.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Next Step

Man, where does the time go?

It seemed like only yesterday that my international frolicking (as one friend put it) was the only life I knew and would know. And in the blink of an eye, here I am in an apartment in Metro Atlanta, getting ready to teach 25 4th graders. So much has happened so quickly and I am suffering an identity crisis as a result. The me who I was not a few months ago seems to longer exist and as I read through blogposts and journal entries, I struggle at times to connect with that person. I go back and forth between just moving on and trying to hold on to memories that seem more and more and like those of somebody else.

A few moments before I began to type, I came to a decision that will put my soul at ease. I will do my best to hold on because the 10 months that I spent outside of this country have shaped me in more ways than I can wrap my mind around. I have a feeling that my decision wouldn't matter because the experience has already shaped me and will continue to shape me, regardless of whether I acknowledge it.

So the question is, what is your tangible next step, Chas? I'm glad you asked. I've got a bunch of blogposts saved up that may or may not make it to blogspot. I want to say yes, but once again, I have found myself in the position of having too many things to do and not enough time. That said, I probably will try to compile, in a hard copy, all of my blogposts, both digitally and longhand recorded. And to the more serious part of this project? Between now and Christmas, I will be translating and transcribing the interviews conducted and conversations had in the four countries I visited for my project. On top of that, I will be, in a more organized fashion, recording my observations and will turn in this final project to the Finley Fellowship Committee. Based on what I have, I really do feel I have the content for a great piece of work. It's all a matter of whether I have the ability to synthesize such a work. Only time will tell...

On top of all that, I will be compiling a photo album of global graffiti and other public art/writing which is to be tentatively titled: The Writing's on the Wall or The Writings on the Wall. I can't yet decide between the two, or if I want to use something completely different. Anyway, any suggestions you (to whom I am referring, I don't know as I think everyone who was reading this blogged has moved on) have would be warmly welcomed. I am hoping that I will have the content necessary for the book as my Mac's hard drive was corrupted and needed to be replaced and I have about 2000 pictures saved on a faulty hard drive. Keep your fingers crossed for me.



Monday, May 12, 2008

The Magal

With that background, I was very excited to make the trip with Sam and his family to Touba, if for no other reason than to see what all of the hype was about. The week leading up to the event was madness as every other television advertisement had something to do with Touba and the Magal. Sam convinced me that I needed to be appropriately robed for the occasion and after a fair amount of prodding, I finally relented, buying a blue and black patterned outfit (a bou-bou) and sandals in the market downtown. When I tried the full outfit on back at the home of Sam's family, he nodded his approval, and called the rest of the family into his room for a look. "You are now ready for the Magal, brother."

I was also excited to make the trip to Touba because I felt it would help me to understand Sam better. This is not to say that he was a complete mystery, but he was certainly unique, compared to the rest of the members of his family (and everyone else I knew in Dakar). Above all (and relevant to this religious journey) he was the only one of his four brothers who did not pray regularly, and though we became close quite quickly, the area of religious practice was one in which I did not want to intrude so carelessly. Early on as I observed Sam, my initial conclusion was that perhaps he was not religious; however, his genuine enthusiasm for the journey to Touba suggested otherwise.

The trip to Touba (we journeyed first to Mbacke (the birthplace of Sheik Bamba), where Sam's extended family lives) was a spectacle itself. Starting several days before the Magal, a steady stream of Senegalese oozed out of Dakar, piling into (and on top of ) cars, taxis, car rapets, trucks and pretty much anything else with wheels. Six of us traveled in the most comfortable means of transportation possible--a taxi--and during the almost 8 hour journey to Touba we witnessed nearly two dozen accidents, seeing many of them in realtime as vehicles jumped across lanes and offroad in an effort to secure the quickest route to the holy city. In an almost continuous string from Dakar to Mbacke were women and children posted at the side of the road with nuts, oranges and other goods to sell to any who had an interest. I am happy (and thankful to God) that we arrived in Mbacke safely and without major incident.

The next morning we awoke early to make the second (and much shorter) leg of the journey to Touba. I had slept well, perhaps the only person of Sam's 30 relatives at the house that night to have a bed to myself. With only a couple hours having passed since the rising of the sun, it was surprisingly hot, which made my outdoor bucket shower quite pleasant, but made the 5 km journey to Touba a bit more difficult than expected (and pretty did away any good done by the shower). Fortunately we found a cab that would take us (I had to hide while Sam negotiated the price so that he could haggle), though in terms of how quickly we covered the distance, we may have been better off on foot. The streets were choked with everything from cars, bicyles, and motorbikes to sheep, goats, cows, bulls and chicken. As Touba was known as the biggest feast of the year, many of these animals had been groomed, destined for death over this weekend. I wondered if any of them knew, though not for too long as it instantly seemed like a silly question to have. We passed through a huge herd of livestock and stopped, caught once again in the gridlock that would seemingly never loosen up. A few cows stuck their noses curiously through my rolled down passenger-side window. "You have no idea what's coming for you," I said absent-mindedly as I nudged a few of the intruding snouts. Needless to say, the streets were quite a bit emptier as we made our exit a couple days later.

What greatly enhanced my experience in Touba (once we finally arrived) was that not only was I sharing the experience with Sam, but also a friend from college, Franciso, who, posted in the country's South (Sigur Shore) made a true pilgrimmage to make it to Touba in time for the Magal. If nothing else, having Francisco allowed me the comfort of sharing the experience with another Toubab. More than this comfort alone (as I can recognize in retrospect) it also hieghtened and sharpened my awareness and observations as every experience over the course of the 48 hours that we were both there became the object of thorough analysis and discussion.

Entering the famous mosque on the day of the Magal was an experience that I will not forget. The mosque at Touba is enormous and stunningly beautiful, especially by night. Intricately designed in its interior, the mosque is truly an architectual masterpeice. That said, the most surprising aspect of the entire experience was that as we neared the tomb of Sheik Amadou Bamba, we saw a line formed, being controlled by police officers with long, blunt clubs. Every so often, to keep order, an officer would walk up the line, swinging his club in a violent chopping motion. It was clear that most in the line had the wisdom (gained through experience) to get out of the club's path, though not everyone was so lucky as an unfortunate few got clipped. I remember exchanging a couple of glances with Cisco as we both tried to make sense of the chaos around us. We proceeded on and though Cisco and I were both content to remain outside of the Sheik Bamba's tomb (the most sacred part of the entire mosque), Sam pressed us forward, going as far as enlisting the support of an individual who appeared to have some connections with the authority as he herded the three of us past the line of individuals waiting in line and into the inner chambers of the mosque. Protected back a thick glass viewing wall, the innermost chamber, the tomb of Sheik Amadou Bamba, was beautifully ornate and a bookshelf on one of the walls held dozens of books. There at the glass wall, Sam and others knelt and prayed. At random intervals, individuals would rise, finished with their prayers, and throw money over the top of the wall, which would clang with a soft jingle on the floor around the coffin of Sheik Bamba. As Sam explained later, this money was collected at the end of the Magal and was used to provide for the people of Touba (in gratitude for their hospitality) until next year's Magal.

While Sam prayed, I bowed my head in an effort to be respectful (though I felt awkward and intruding) and said a prayer myself. The soft hum of prayers and jingle of coins was suddenly and loudly interrupted by a group of guards with whistles, shoving and grabbing people (mostly women) and roughly escorting them out of the chambers. It was hard to believe that this was actually happening in, what many would consider to be the holiest site in Senegal. Apparently, the reasoning for this procedure is the need to accommodate the many (thousands upon thousands) people outside of the mosque still waiting to pray. It took me a few minutes to understand the reasoning, though the implementation left a bad taste in my mouth that I couldn't get rid of. Amid the din of whistles, shouts, mumbled prayers and jingling coins, Sam finished his prayer, grabbed a pocketful of coins from his pants, threw them over the top and nodded--slyly slipping our connect a crumpled bill--signaling that it was time to go.

We made our way through the crowds trying to push their way into the mosque, collected our shoes (being held by a friend of Sam's outside of the mosque) and began walking. Almost before Cisco and I had an opportunity to exchange commentary on this latest experience, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge market (the biggest I had seen thus far), literally on the mosque's doorstep. It was truly enormous and it occurred to me at that moment that half the people who had oozed out of Dakar in the previous days had not gone for the mosque, but for the market. As much as I didn't want to be in the market right now (the novelty had worn off days before, while in Dakar) there was no avoiding it as it was in the middle of the best route back to where we were staying. Had it not been for the streets packed with merchants and consumers alike, I would have turned to Cisco and said something like, "Well, we wanted an experience and we got a full one." But the debriefing would have to wait until we got through the packed crowds, which fortunately, didn't take more than 20 minutes. My lasting image of Touba will, unfortunately, not be of the beautiful and ornate mosque; rather it will be the fading of the mosque's call to prayer, drowned out by the dozens of bullhorns weilded by the street vendors, their cramped stalls on the mosque's doorstep a reminder that even on the holiest of days, commerce reigns supreme in Senegal.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Touba and the Magal: A bit of history

As fate would have it, I found myself in Senegal for the annual Magal, perhaps the biggest event in a single year for the vast majority of Senegalese. Specifically, the pilgrimmage is a holy one for Mourides, an order of Sufi Islam that was founded in Senegal at the end of the 19th century. For me, this was an incredible opportunity, primarily because it allowed me to gain a better understanding of the Senegal's history, culture and traditions. To give the reader a bit of background, I will give a brief breakdown of said history, though I would encourage everyone reading to follow-up independly as my perspective and account, quite obviously, cannot capture history in its proper fullness.

The Magal is an annual pilgrimmage to the tomb of the most holy prophet and founder of the Mouride Islam, Sheik Amadou Bamba. According to history and legend, Sheik Bamba gained particular recognition and reknown not as much with the founding of the Mouride branch of Islam, which emphasizes exercising one's spirituality through dedicated work, but when French colonization in Senegal took root. As religious cheifs and clerics were either overpowered or bought by France's brand of colonialism, Bamba held fast. His steadfastness in the face of the colonizing power impressed and inspired many Senegalese, winning Bamba and his new brand of Islam many followers. The French, recognizing his sway over the people, as well as the vast number of followers he had accumulated (some say, enough to raise a formidable army against the French forces), chose to exile Bamba, as they figured removing the religion's figurehead would diminish the threat and crush his influence.

According to legend (as well as individual accounts) in the 10 years that he was in exile, the French made several attempts to break Bamba, both spiritually , as well as physically; in one particular instance that is well known by almost all Senegalese, the French tried to break prayer tradition by shackling Bamba aboard a ship to Gabon. However, when it came time to pray, Bamba broke free from his shackles, flung his prayer rug upon the ocean's top--where it stayed afloat-- and then prayed upon it. In another well-cited occurrence, Bamba's captors placed him in a cell with a lion who had not eaten for days and when they checked his cell moments later, the lion was content at Bamba's feet. There are many more examples and accounts along these same lines.

Eventually, the French realized that Bamba could not be broken and returned him to his people, where his reputation (and the religion's influence) continued to grow, now faster than ever. While it was clear that Bamba's will was unshakable, the French realized that he could be won over by other means; it may be more accurate to say that the French realized that there was room for compromise. Bamba's resistance (and preaching of such) was not against the physical and economic yoke of colonialism as much as it was a spiritual resistance. In one of my friends' words, recognizing that the most important thing in life is one's relationship with God, Bamba's concern was not so much physical, economic or political as it was spiritual. The greatest and most important form of resistance according to this belief, was a spiritual resistance; beyond this, the importance of everything else was marginal. As such, the French agreed to give Bamba and his followers a piece of land (Touba) adjacent to his place of birth (Mbacke) that would be dedicated to his religion and in exchange, Bamba would not expressly work against the French cause. This pact manifested itself in many ways, most notably (at least in my research) in Bamba's call to followers and Senegalese to fight for Allied forces in World War I. When he eventually died, Bamba was laid to rest in his mosque in Touba, today the largest Mosque in West Africa. During the annual Magal, Mourides (and muslims from all over the world) come together to pray at Bamba's tomb.

A little slice of history for some context.

Friday, April 18, 2008

He Lives!

I'm sure none of you worried too much, but I just wanted to let you all know that I have made it to South Africa safely and, thanks to the hospitality of one James (Jimmy) Collins, I have a roof over my head in Johannesburg.

I won't say I'm "back with a vengeance," as those have proven to be the famous last words before a long hiatus, but I'm once again inspired to write a bit about what I've done and seen over the past month.

Definitely check out the "Perspectives on Senegalese Education" (right before this one) as well as upcoming posts on Touba, my odyssey (shared with Dam Ogunnaike) to Timbuktu and for those who are tired of reading, "30 Days in Pictures."

Some pretty incredible things have gone down over the past month or so. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Much love,


A Poorly Fitting Shirt: Perspectives on Senegalese Primary Education, Volume 1

I learned a lot from my research experience in Salvador (Brasil) and arriving in Senegal, my second research destination, I was very much looking forward to an early start on school visits, observations and teacher interviews. As my good luck would have it (and thanks to Godbrother Sam), bright and early, the day after I arrived (by night), I was visiting schools.

As you may or not remember from previous posts on Senegal (it has been a little while), Dakar is dusty, close to being the dustiest place on earth (maybe I'm exaggerating a bit) and your typical school is not immune to this affliction. The typical primary school in Dakar will have a wall surrounding its premises (and depending where you are, this wall will be in varying stages of disrepair) with an interior courtyard of dust and a school building which is most often a single-story, sprawling, open-air structure. With Sam's help both in finding teachers (his YMCA membership card operated like the key to the city...or school) as well as translating (in the cases where teachers did not speak English), I was able to conduct 3 interviews at 3 different schools on my first full day in Dakar. Not bad, if I do say so myself.

Perhaps the most interesting conversation of that first day was with the Director of the Infants' School at the YMCA. A former teacher for many years before being appointed to her current position, she offered a very interesting perspective as someone who had seen changes and improvements to Senegal's system of primary education, both as a teacher and as an administrator. The most interesting comment that she made was one for which I was ill-prepared as she introduced the issue of Senegal's continued use of the French (former colonizers) model of education. Prior to the conversation, I was aware of the French influence in many things Senegalese, though I did not do a great deal of research on the impact of this influence.

"Let's say," she began, "that you want to give me a nice shirt from the U.S." She paused and smiled, wanting to be sure that I understood what she was saying (though accented, her English was very good. I remember thinking to myself at that moment whether her reference to this "gift" was some sort of ploy for me to give her something in exchange for the interview). I smiled back and let her continue.
"But you see, our sizes and shapes are different." With this she sat up straight in her seat, as if to be make clear the difference in our sizes. "But it's no matter. You give me the shirt and I wear it, though it is clear that it does not fit me." She emphasized the last word with a thumb pointing at her chest. "This is what our system of education is like, currently. The French style of education is great, but it does not fit us nor does it fit our culture. We are Senegalese, not French."

The close to the analogy was a powerful one and over the next few minutes she explained the ways in which the French model of education made education (beginning in the primary stages) inaccessible to many Senegalese youth, particularly as a result of language (food for another post) and curricular organization. In specific reference to the latter impediment to education, the Director admitted that as much as she understood the importance of a broad curriculum, she believed it important for the breadth to be narrowed (as well as more focused), greater depth emphasized in certain areas (particular in language and mathematics) and for vocational skills to be included as part of a more holistic educational "package."

"As I said before," she continued, wrapping up the subject, "there are many great things about the French model of education. But we are not French and for many of these children, the French reality will not be their reality."