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Mali - general


From: melissa (melissa_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Wed Mar 07 2001 - 23:43:17 PST

As many of you probably know, Mali (West Africa) is a very poor
country - the third poorest in the world. The vast majority of people
live in small villages, many of which don't have electricity. The
Peace Corps and other agencies are working at improving the health of
the people (the average life expectancy is about 43 years old)
through the creation of wells, schools and clinics, but much needs to
be done yet. Newly democratic (early 1990's), Mali is still learning
how democracy fits in its traditional way of operating. The people
are very proud of their heritage and culture and probably have some
of the best preserved cultural practices in Africa. Like so many
other countries in Africa, Mali was colonialized by the French;
however they fought fiercely until the bitter end and never accepted
the french domination. With the exception of the Dogon people, most
Malians call themselves Moslem. However, even that has not ever been
fully adopted - the animist beliefs and traditions are still very
strong. Bambara is the native tongue of the Malians - even educated
people who know french would rather speak Bambara, especially within
their family. Outside of Bamako and the other "large" towns, the
average person doesn't even know french.

Even though the capital city Bamako has over a million people, it is
more fitting to call it a sprawling village. With the exception of a
few paved main roads, most of the city's roads are extremely bumpy
dirt roads. During the dry season (from November through May) the
roads get very dusty; during the rainy season, the potholes or bump
indentations (or sometimes the entire road) fill with terracotta
colored mud or water. Within Bamako, you will find a couple of tall
buildings (a bank and a hotel), but most are modest. Most homes
inhabited by the expatriates and others of "wealth" are larger, have
beautiful flowering trees and gardens and have a swimming pool
(nearly necessary in the hot season). By contrast, the typical Malian
home in Bamako is smaller and is either made of crude cement bricks
or the typical building material for Mali - mud bricks. While you
will find a few cats around (we have some who indeed "cat fight"
behind our house), the typical animal you will find roaming the
streets are goats, sheep, chickens, donkeys and cattle. They graze on
whatever they can find, including the multitude of plastic bags
littering the streets. Unemployment is very high. Most live on what
they can somehow make during that day. Paper money bills worth about
a dollar or so are the most popular (and difficult to hold onto)
monetary amounts. Prices are not fixed; nearly everything's prices
are negotiable, with bargaining expected. People get around by a
variety of means; donkey and cart, moped, walking, bicycle, baché's
(green Peugot vans that are crowded to the max with people), taxi, or

Outside of Bamako life is a lot quieter, but not easier. Homes are
almost solely built from mud bricks. Gathering water might be a
chore. Clothes are washed by hand by the Niger River or other nearby
water source. Just like in the pictures, almost everything is carried
on the head, carefully balanced. Families practice sustenance
agriculture. Even young children are expected to help out in the
fields, prepare food, or care for their infant siblings. Nutrition is
poor and people (especially the children) die from preventable
illnesses, diseases or injuries. Even in the heat of the day you will
find the women carrying on laborious manual labor. Families typically
live in a walled compound, complete with a sparsely windowed (no
glass) simple house. Animals freely roam throughout the active
courtyard. Here, the typical transportation would include walking or
using a donkey and cart.

The traditional arts are still very much alive in Mali. On the radio
(the main means of transmitting information) you will hear music in
the traditional style. The kora and balaphone are two popular
instruments. Singers tell of Mali's history or reveal some other
important message. Very rarely will you hear music that is Western
(US or Europe) in origin. Music (like the Bamabara language was prior
to the French) is passed down or learned through listening. Most
women and some men still dress in boubous and other traditional
clothing. Maskmaking, sculpting, and textile decoration is still done
the way it was in past generations. Each ethnic group (such as the
Bambara, Dogon, and Tuareg) each have their own preference for art
materials, style, and technique.

Once a large impressive kingdom, Malians are very proud of their
culture and history. Extended families are very important to the
Malian society. One's honor and dignity directly correlates with that
of the family. Polygamy is still practiced, as is female circumcision
(even though it is forbidden by the government). Social customs (such
as maintaining social harmony through joking) that go back for
centuries are still practiced. The people are extremely friendly and
warm. People greet each other in Bambara, asking how their family is,
children, parents, and inquiring about the health or well-being of
all. Hospitality is also stressed, with families providing meals for
guests that they themselves could not afford to eat. If someone's car
does not start or you are having difficulty carrying something, you
will find plenty of eager helpers.

Mali is not without its problems. Litter (especially plastic bags)
fill the streets and river banks. Sewers are open and unsanitary.
Malaria sickens countless numbers of people, with cases being
especially serious for those unable to access or afford malaria
medication. Other diseases from unsafe water and other sources sicken
people. Medical care in the villages is rare or nonexistent. Schools
are understaffed, crowded and have little to no supplies. Lingering
effects from the devastating drought still plagues the country.

In addition to pride, Malians also have hope. They are grateful for
the assistance that some international agencies have provided,
especially in the area of agriculture. Recent discovery of gold may
finally provide Malians with the necessary resource to create
improvements in roads and other items. The internet is providing
Malians with a direct communicative link to the outside world. The
African World Cup soccer event in 2002 to be held in Bamako and surrounding
towns will bring the country needed revenue. In addition, tourism,
epecially to Djenne, Timbuktu and Dogon country is steadily
increasing, bringing needed revenue and exposure to an otherwise
poor, unknown country.

Mali is difficult to capture through words only. I am constantly
documenting what I have seen - the beauties of Mali (and the unusual)
through photos, artwork, and video. If you would like to see some of
my photos, please take a look at my online Zing albums at: