Posts Tagged ‘Niger River’

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,
Z

Ahoy, internet!

I am quickly approaching a week in Bamako, Mali so I suppose I’ll give you a bit of a rundown of my experience here thus far.

I am really beginning to fall in love with this place. ¬†I have now been out a few times, so I am starting to get a little bit of a feel for how this city operates. ¬†There are two sides to the city, one on either bank of the Niger river, with bridges to connect the two at numerous points. ¬†There is no real main downtown area, though there is a newly developing area where the old airport once was. ¬†This is an oddly vibrant area because half the land is now big, new office buildings and half has yet to be developed. ¬†The land has been taken over by locals for gardening, selling goods and, well, living. ¬†Then of course, right there you meet the gorgeous (and gated) U.S. Embassy… but I digress.

The river does not seem to mark any economic or social border. ¬†The city appears to simply scatter itself in all directions with no visible pattern. ¬†I’m sure more patterns will make themselves clear in time. ¬†My father wasn’t lying when he said they don’t pick up the trash in the streets. ¬†Since the new President took office, I hear the police and government agencies have not done much to help in the daily lives of the citizens here. ¬†Especially now with the war in the north and the whole Ebola scare, the government seems a bit preoccupied to say the least. ¬†As a result, trash floats down every road¬†and the traffic laws are essentially unenforceable suggestions. ¬†People live in makeshift tents in undeveloped fields the same as new building development sites. ¬†Knowing the rules is important, but following them may cost you your life, as they say. ¬†And ain’t that the truth.

The people of this city have seen some horrible things. ¬†They still remember ’91 when the people stormed the Presidential Palace and were met with military bullets. ¬†Every day the northern states are under radical Islamic law. ¬†Not to mention one woman dies every eight minutes attempting childbirth. ¬†Life is fragile on this side of the world. ¬†Life is fragile everywhere, but some places the soft spots are more visible than others. ¬†But the people here inspire me to no end. ¬†In the midst of innumerable hardships the clothes are vibrant, the food is still carefully crafted and delicious, and the weekends are reserved for dancing. ¬†Watching the way everyone gathers and smiles and dances without critique or concern has been truly wonderful so far. ¬†It just goes to show that unless we learn to dance when the music plays, we can never know how to dance when there is none.

As humans, we can appreciate like no other creature on the planet. ¬†Our eyes let us see in color, our tastebuds let us recognize insane combinations of flavors, and our ears – our ears know music! ¬†If there is anything that separates our lives from the beasts, I am convinced it is this: our capacity to appreciate. ¬†In the midst of a brutal world, we create music. ¬†So this week I’ve got a homework assignment for anyone who actually reads this. ¬†Take a little bit of time to appreciate something you like, like a favorite song or movie. ¬†Or go for a walk and sit at that one bench for a bit while you enjoy the view. ¬†Let’s face it, we’ve all got the time. ¬†The first, shorter link I’ve attached here is to a live rendition of the Godfather theme song, performed by Slash from Guns N’ Roses. ¬†I include it because it is one of the most beautiful little covers of a classic I’ve ever seen, and every time I can’t help but feel something. ¬†The second is a bit longer, but worth every minute. ¬†This is a rendition of Walt Whitman’s famous 60-page poem, Song of Myself, arguably his greatest single work, read of course by Darth Vader himself, Mr. James Earl Jones. ¬†I hope these might do for you what they have done for me, and if not, they’re entertaining at least.

Onward and outward,

-Z