Summer in Mali

What a trip this has been to Mali. I brought my wife Sara and niece Aimee with my on this assignment with Winrock. Aimee has been a great traveler, never complaining about anything except the heat, which we’ve all had our fill of.

We are here at the end of the dry season, so everything is parched and most days were over a hundred degrees F. Only near the end of our trip did we get daily rains, which cools things off considerably.

We got to go to Dogon country, where people have been living along an escarpment (basically a long, steep cliff) and farming the valley below for over a thousand years, I think. Farming is somewhat advanced here. Although still done by hand, the Dogon farm the same land year after year, and everywhere we saw piles of composted organic matter in the fields, ready to be turned into the soil before planting. The Dogon also have standing relationships with the Fulani nomadic herders to bring their livestock into their fields after harvest. The cattle eat the stubble, etc. left and in the process, fertilize the fields with their manure. According to our host, the some Dogon and herder families have relationships going back generations, with the Dogon providing millet rations to the herder family when they are there in return for their cattle (cattle, goats, sheep, and donkeys) fertilizing their land. The people here can feed, clothe and house themselves
with what they have on hand, if necessary. They’ll be the last one standing, I think, if there’s some world catastrophe.

My host Bara’s home village is Borko, and we visited there first. His village is famous for the sacred crocodiles that live in a small water way there. It appears these crocs are reminants of another time, when this tiny swamp must have been connected to a larger water system during less arid times. The crocs will come up out of the small plant choked swamp to eat meat scraps from a “caller”, and right up to your feet if you have the nerve. The crocs obviously must live on something, but no one really knew what – the meat scraps are not their sole source of food. We saw 4 crocs that came right up to the footpath road in town, the largest being about 8 feet long and maybe 400 lbs. The story goes the original person who founded the town was led there by an alligator, and so the town has protected and lived with these crocs for generations. According to Bara, the crocs are not eaten, not to be mistreated, and are even buried when they die.

We then went to Sanga(h), which is an area of several villages on the edge of the cliffs described earlier. I should also mention here the hand laid coblestone roads that go in to these villages. We saw men making a road on the way in. Two rows of rock or curbed cement walls about 6 inches high line either side of a road about a car to a car and half width wide. Rock is brought into the middle, then broken up with sledge hammers. Cement is then poured over the broken rock to make a very useable, durable rural road. For being so far off the main roads, the roadway in was surprisingly good.

In Sanga, we got a guide for the day who took us by foot and with our vehicle up into the cliffs to see some of the villages. We stayed at the Guida (?) hotel in Sanga, which was very nice, with good food and even a bar. Jacques Shirac once visited Sanga, and photos commemorating the visit are in the hotel. I think the hotel cost about 60 dollars US for the three of us in one room with 3 beds with AC.

While driving back from the last village on the tour, we experienced a flash flood down pour, and even had to stop for awhile. As one of the first rains of the year, water was cascading everywhere among the rocks on the hillside we were driving down from, faster than the hard ground could absorb it. There were instant waterfalls everywhere, and you could almost see the land sigh in relief to some cool, wet rain.

Sanga has a longer history of formal tourism, and the consummate beggar boys asking for pens and candy and water bottles followed us everywhere. In Borko, with our home-town guide, we were simply greeted and allowed to watch the towns people come to and from the market day there in peace, and that in and of itself was a great day which Aimee said was one of her best days in Mali.

Sara and Aimee flew up to Tombouctou, as this had been a premier place they wanted to see for it’s history and to ride camels in the desert. Tombouctou has had numerousl warnings of kidnapping and car jacking from the state department, so we thought this trip was out. However, we met missionaries in Sevare who said it was only the drive there that was dangerous, and that the town itself was very safe and if they flew they’d have nothing to worry about. So, they went up there and then flew back to Bamako while Bara and I returned to Bamako by vehicle.

The girls found themselves as two of only 4 tourists in town when they arrived. It reached 120 degrees while they were there, and was likely higher but that’s as high as their thermometer reached. It was definitely the “off season”. They were badgered endlessly by hawkers selling overpriced jewelry and tee shirts, etc., and everything from bottled water to their guide were much higher than elsewhere in the country. Aimee also said the place didn’t “feel” safe. They did get their camel ride and see the town, but Tombouctou is not a place they’d visit again, and not a place I have a hankering to go as a destination. I may end up there on a fish assignment, and that would be fine.

My fisheries workshops this time focused on fisheries management and stock assessment – both which are lacking here and elsewhere in Africa. Most of the emphasis in governmental organizations is how to get fishermen better gear to catch more fish, but little is known about the status of the stocks they are harvesting, nor is there, in Mali at least, much in the way of enforcement of regulations banning gears such as the “catch all”, which appears to be a type of trawl with a very fine meshed cod end, such that fishermen are now going after the smallest of fish. Reports are that fish are getting smaller and smaller and catches are declining, but little in the way of reliable data exists. I’ve found in the fisheries scientific literature of methods such as measuring the flood plain area or using and edphic index measuring primary productivity, to get first order estimates of yield. However, little exists in the way of accurate harvest estimates to
assess these estimators.

I went over Alaska’s history of overfishing, limited entry to fishing, and recovery of our fish stocks, along with current management practices of gear, time, and are restrictions, and our scientific sampling programs. Like my talks on fish handling and quality control, the methods are so simple I think some in the room find it almost hard to believe we don’t have some advanced methodogical approach or other silver bullet to fisheries management. It ain’t hard, but the simple data collection like a fish ticket system to accurately measure catch, and taking length data to assess year classes and size at maturity must occur or it’s all speculation.

So, we’ll see if they can get their focused turned to fisheries management and enforcement now. It will be a steep climb.

I also found out an group called “Aquafish” is operating in Mali, and constructed a hatchery near Selingue, where we went to a national farmer field day and got to see the head of state, President Toure. We stood in the open in the sun for a couple of hours waiting for the president’s arrival, and then ended up leaving early when we saw the program would go well past expected. We didn’t get to see the hatchery as the road was closed because the president was going there after the ceremony. Still, it was a great day to see Mali dancers and singers celebrating the day, and all the children excited to see their president. Security was surprisingly light, and to me a good sign of political stability in Mali.

We again stayed with John McKinney at Macs Refuge in Sevare. He’s a great host and I could spend hours and hours listening to his stories of growing up in Mali. He was raised in Sanga, the village mentioned above, and they knew him well when we mentioned his name there. He was extremely cordial to Sara and Aimee and he made their stay there memorable. We brought over some books for reading to him, and he was very appreciative. He also allows Peace Corps volunteers to stay at his place under a voucher system, and we paid for volunteers to eat breakfast when we were there. His breakfasts of pancakes, french toast, fresh fruit, and home made jams and syrups are legendary, but on stipends of less than 10 dollars a day, even the 3 dollar or so price for breakfast is out of some of their budgets. We will look into sending over a fund to cover this small luxury to the young adults still doing it as I did 25 years ago and why I’m back over here today.

We’re on our last day now, and La La, Winrock’s accountant, is taking the girls out to see Bamako sights while Bara and I wrap up reporting. We had a good rain last night so it should be not so hot for their excursion, and a fun one with La La.