Posts Tagged ‘Burning Man’

I ni sogoma,

As with most circumstances in life, I stumbled my way into a great trip this weekend to le Festival sur le Niger (the Festival on the Niger). And as with most circumstances in my life, this was of way higher quality than what I deserve. In case you aren’t familiar, the Niger river is the major river that flows through Mali, blessing the region with everything a massive river has to offer like hydroelectricity, a transportation highway, and all that delicious fish!

I got to tag along with my father up to Segou this weekend for the 11th annual Festival sur le Niger. The NGO he works with, Population Services International (PSI) is one of the sponsors for this festival so they had a whole team up there running a stand and offering services to festival-goers.

I’ve worked stands at festivals and events before and these guys step it up a notch. PSI is chiefly involved in malaria prevention in Mali, but they also do a great deal of work in reproductive health and maternal and infant mortality. At le Festival that means they’ve not only got the whole spread out on display with mosquito nets, Protector condoms, oral rehydration tablets, infant zinc regimens, and IUDs but they’ve also got teams throughout the festival grounds offering private consultations about any reproductive issue or product and even on-site HIV testing! Dad and I got ours done of course. Have you?

“Zach! Hurry up! You’re going to be late for your HIV test!” – Dad

A few other organizations do some of the same things like handing out condoms and performing skits about health issues. However I don’t think anyone else was offering on-site HIV-testing (with only a 15 minute wait for your results!) and IUD insertions. Boo-yah. To be fair Marie Stopes International (MSI) – another organization my father has spent some time with – did have a post-abortion care centre set up which is definitely solid. Unfortunately abortions are only legal in Mali if absolutely necessary to save the life of the mother (Oh, you mean it will just ruin your life, not end it? Yeah, no.) All the health information was really uplifting to see to be honest. I didn’t see any “safe partying” stands like the festivals I’ve worked and organized, but at least the community’s serious issues are being addressed. I wish more festivals in the United States were as open about promoting healthy lifestyles and options, especially those that don’t directly relate to partying. Burning Man is the only American festival I’ve experienced that even mentioned anything about safe sex and sexual rights, for example. Obviously Mali has a much more dire health situation overall than the United States but misinformation is still just as dangerous. And this illusion that the USA is immune from major epidemics and health issues is still a recent veil of luxury even though many take low disease rates within the States for granted. It’s important to remember that safety in general is an illusion; we’re all just one pandemic away from being thrown back into the dark ages.

Aside from the wealth of health information flying around in Segou, the air this weekend was filled with the best of sounds: music! Much like the others I’ve experienced, the music plays around the clock in Segou. Booming, dynamic drum beats from djembe circles to electronic programs move the crowds like the waves on the shoreline, boosted by vibrant, melodic French and Bambara vocals in the classic African style we all know and love (Lion King, anyone?) and . Bringing it all together, kora and guitar solos tear through the crowds and tie everyone’s ears in knots. All the music has a strong West African feel. This is 21st century African though. Mixed in are some solid electronic beats and keyboards, plus electric strings and amped-up drums. Though I think I heard a sax in there somewhere which is always appreciated. R&B, rap, Jazz and classic blues seem to be the styles of choice. As always, the later the night, the heavier the music. Hoo-rah. The highlight for me may have been when one band brought a whole crowd of rap artists up on stage who proceeded to bounce lines off of each other to the band’s various tunes. I’m quickly becoming a fan of Bambara rap. Bamba-Rap as I’m calling it.

Not to mention I know one of the evening’s two hosts! The same woman, Fifi, organized and hosted the karaoke competition I was featured on in the Fall. Small world haha.

The Festival sur le Niger is set up much like Baltimore’s Starscape festival which has now evolved into Moonrise (Starscape as it was just got too wild to handle I guess. Having been, I completely understand.). The stages are spread out across a beach-esque shoreline. Unlike Starscape that lasts just one night however, le Festival sur le Niger lasts about a week, ending on a Sunday. Perfect for a weekend trip. Plus in Segou the festival spills right onto the town streets outside the venue complete with more unofficial stages and vendor stands. That and the main stage here is actually on the water on a floating stage. The pit (the standing-room only area directly in front of the stage) actually leads right into the shallow banks of the grand Niger river, the cause for quite a refreshing front row experience. Note to first-timers: don’t bring your phone into the pit.

There is a noticeable security presence at the annual festival in Segou, moreso considering the escalation in northern violence since the new year, but it’s not too overwhelming. During the daylight hours the grounds are open to anyone interested in catching some tunes on a side stage or trying out some local cuisine (it’s all about the peanut sauce of course). It’s only in the evening that the exits become checkpoints.

The vendors/merchants are out in full force at the festival. Conflict in the north combined with a new government and now the ebola outbreak has put a dent in the number of European and otherwise international crowds. The same could be said with any Malian industry though. The war in the north alone has beaten down on Mali’s tourist industry pretty hard. So naturally, Europeans and obvious foreigners like myself are really hounded. You’d better put your bargaining face on or you’ll be broke by the time you walk through security. As a relatively young, caucasian, tattooed male I am quite the spectacle to the locals so of course a few people requested pictures with me and a few others professed their love. All in all just another day in the life. ūüėČ No, I’m definitely still not used to being the exotic one.

I’m glad I’ve been practicing my French (and Bambara!). I’m starting to be able to have basic (though admittedly rough) conversations with people on my own. Next year I’ll be more ready. The music at the Festival sur le Niger is a mix of French and Bambara with the occasional sprinkle of English. The most English I saw was on a “party tips” billboard aimed at international visitors. I appreciated that. It listed several important aspects and customs relating to Malian and Islamic culture. Apparently for example dresses traditionally mean you are married, greetings are quite important, and shorts are generally reserved for children… but no way was I wearing pants out there. Call me a child. Hey though, at least it’s the cold season.

All in all being with one of the sponsors got me the royal treatment this weekend in Segou. Seats in the good chairs and free entry are great, but we also got set up in one of the nicer hotels just a couple blocks from the venue. And not only is there electricity all night long if you want but wi-fi too! Africa is already so much different from when I first actually remember visiting in 2002, not to mention what my parents describe from the 80s! The whole set-up in Segou is quite impressive actually. Maybe next year I’ll see you there! The rooms are nice with working toilets and air conditioning and great local foods plentifully line the streets. Breakfast was even included with out hotel stay. Well, except for the omelet.

Onward and upward,

Hello people of the internet!  I hope this message reaches you through all the tubes.

This was a pretty eventful week for me! ¬†I realized I’m starting to know at least enough French to get the gist of basic ideas. ¬†This is a big step for someone who is usually obsessed with effective communication. ¬†To help I enrolled in a beginner’s french course at the French Institute in Bamako. ¬†It’s not too intense, only four hours a week actually. ¬†Having only been to the first class so far though, I can already tell it’s going to help. ¬†There are only a few other students in the class and the teacher seems like a really friendly guy. ¬†He is Malian and seems pretty open about himself so he includes a lot about Malian life in his lesson, which I appreciate. ¬†Aziz is his name, which I hear means ‘precious’ in Arabic. ¬†He told me he is left-handed for example! ¬†He noticed I was writing with my left hand but sitting in a right-handed chair. ¬†You know, the ones with the little writing surface built in to either arm. ¬†Usually a classroom either has none attached to the left arm or one. ¬†A few of the larger lecture halls at the University of Maryland had an entire column of seats with left-handed writing surfaces attached, bless their souls. ¬†Talking to my teacher about being left-handed in either culture was extremely enlightening. ¬†You see he is naturally left-handed, but ever since he was a child he was made to write with his right. ¬†Whenever he tried writing with his left hand as a child he would be smacked or hit, and ridiculed for being dirty. ¬†He says he was told if he continued to write with his left hand, he would go to Hell. ¬†As a result he is now essentially ambidextrous, though his handwriting is considerably better with his right. ¬†In his words, I am lucky I was not born in Mali. ¬†Maybe when I die and come back I will be.

One of the other students in my class introduced me to the Bamako chapter of an international group of hikers called the Hash House Harriers. ¬†They organize weekly walks/runs around most major international cities, offering a way for people to meet others and exercise a little. ¬†Though the best part of this group is that after each run everybody gets a beer. ¬†Now that’s my kind of exercise. ¬†I’ve actually run into one other chapter of this group in College Park, Maryland! ¬†I had the pleasure of attending one of their parties at some friends’ house whose landlord hosted. ¬†They seemed like a pretty odd bunch, so of course I must learn more. ¬†Plus I hear there is a chapter that attends Burning Man each year as well! ¬†They call themselves the Black Rock City Hash House Harriers (BRCH3). ¬†That’s definitely one thing I’ll have to check out the next time I go. ¬†It makes total sense actually. ¬†One of the distinctive qualities of Hashers appears to coincide with a Burning Man policy known as “radical inclusion.” ¬†The concept seems simple but it’s actually pretty unheard of. ¬†Basically, anyone can join! ¬†At any event you may have to contribute a few bucks (or in my case francs) for the beer if you want any but besides that they welcome anyone interested in going for a walk. ¬†Even though most people I saw were speaking only French to each other, I already met a few cool people I could actually understand so I’ll definitely go back. ¬†I’ll have to post pictures of my hikes. ¬†This week’s trail was about six kilometers up this gorgeous hill. ¬†The hill looked jagged almost, with big red rock formations coming up out of the tall grass littered with the odd purple flowers. ¬†Occasionally our trail crossed through a small “neighborhood” of only a couple homes, all either hand-made or created from the unfinished ruins of various construction sites. ¬†Many construction projects for office buildings and homes have been cut short for various reasons throughout the city, so while the skeletons of buildings stand unused, people occupy the empty space until the projects start up again. ¬†I am excited to hike with these people. ¬†I am excited to explore the city as well! ¬†There’s so much to see here. ¬†I am excited.

I went back into the market this week. ¬†This time I stuck with Edmond while he got all the soaps, oils, vegetables and meat for the week. ¬†What a trip! ¬†The whole market seems like it centers around this one old building. ¬†An old abandoned, one-story (but with a high roof) church of some kind has turned into the literal meat market, where every piece of sweet, sweet animal is cut, weighed, and sold from its own small counter. ¬†The place is seriously brutal. ¬†In the middle of the room are rows and rows of mopeds, with meat counters along each wall. ¬†All the interesting stuff was by the entrances to the building. ¬†Liver, stomach, heart, pigs feet, you name it. ¬†Everything was laid out in its own little display. ¬†I saw more flies in that one building than I think I’ve ever seen. ¬†Not a rubber glove in sight. ¬†Kids ran around offering to help carry bags for a few francs. ¬†This is where we got our cuts of beef, pork chops, and kidney, which my father loves. ¬†I was and still am amazed. ¬†Surrounding the building in a network of alleyways and streets are the vegetable stands, ran strictly by women and their daughters. ¬†This is where we negotiated for our green beans, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and other random goodies. ¬†It fascinates me how segregated by gender the different vendors were. ¬†The women dealt with vegetables while the men exclusively dealt with meat and electronics. ¬†The younger boys begged for coins or offered their services as bag carriers, while the older boys walked the street selling random assortments of belts, hats, bags, and what seemed like everything else you could ask for. ¬†It’s interesting how gender roles play themselves out. ¬†Everyone looked genuinely surprised to see me there. ¬†Like I said before, most people fortunate enough to shop in the usual supermarkets stay out of the street markets. ¬†Of course, the giant clown face on my leg was quite a riot to a few people as well. ¬†All in all it was an extremely eye-opening week. ¬†I wonder where next week will take me. ¬†That’s all for now. ¬†Be well internet!

Onward and upward.