Amongst students and spirits in the heart of Africa

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  • In year 2000, instead of writing on my master thesis, I spent two of the six available months travelling in Mali and Senegal with a group of French students. And I never regretted. We lived in a small village called Soforolay, about 10 hours drive from Bamako, the capital.  We taught the students English and Maths, brought them some school material and some basic medical stuff. The huts in the village were made from mud and the only reminder that we were in year 2000 was the chieftain’s television set. This was only taken out for grand parties mind you, and required a generator to work, as there was no electricity. At night, we slept on the floor covered only by a mosquito net. One of the locals were kind enough to early on point out that it didn’t protect against snakes… Thanks!

    There was little cause for complaints about neither motivation nor enthusiasm amongst our students. Not about that of their parents, siblings or other relatives either. Whenever we taught a class, half the village attended. I taught 8 grade Maths. There should normally be 6-8 students in the class, but the attendance rate was more like 30-40 people ranging from 2-70 years old. Abstract concepts were quite unfamiliar to them, so we started up by making a map of the village and discussing how you could get from A to B. Creativity flowed.

    Since I knew they had never seen snow and probably never would, I brought a photo of a traditional, Norwegian mountain cabin. The old type – made of lumber, no electricity, outdoor latrine and practically only a shield from wind and snow for die-hard skiers. When they saw it, they were very impressed by the living standards in Norway.

    In the weekends and on days off, we travelled. We visited the mosque in Djenné and the city of Mopti, also called the Venice of Africa for its canals and “gondolas” a la Africa. We had traditional African dresses made and some of us gave their tailors a lot of creative freedom in the design process…

    And last, but not least, we visited the legendary and enigmatic Dogon land on the border to Burkina Faso. Even though it was not “far” from where we lived, we had to travel by car, spend one night in a hostel and then trek the rest of the way. As we entered deeper into the area, there were no paved roads, no cars, no electricity and people lived like they had done for centuries. By the end of the first day, we had managed to shake off most of the other tourists and were free of the tourist touting from the locals.

    The Dogon villages are carved into the hillside of the Bandiagara escarpment. The people here are highly superstitious and there are many taboos. Menstruating women had to sit in a specific hut for a week. Dead people were left at the foot of the hill and the next days the spirits had “taken” them and placed them into the little cocoon-like holes far up on the cliff side. “Like magic”, the guide explained. “Pooofff”, he said. We chuckled a little and hinted if he really believed that. He just sent us a barefaced look and he did NOT chuckle back. This was a man in his late 20s. After that we didn’t ask if they really believed in all their tales of magic and spirits anymore. We were a group of engineers so I guess we wouldn’t have grasped the concept even if we tried.

    The Dogon culture is a reminder of an animist Africa that has mostly disappeared elsewhere: the sacred crocodiles of Kundu; the high priest in his mud temple in the holy village of Arou; the stones at the entrance to villages which serve as shrines to the ancestors; the sacred masks; the hidden taboos; the Sigui Festival, held only every 60 years…Unfortunately, many Dogon treasures like their holy shrines and elaborate wood-carved statues and masks have been swapped for some hard cash by empty-headed tourists or even professional art robbers.

    The Dogon-greeting ritual is impressive. Whenever our guide met another person, they went into a five minutes long semi-automatic “rant”. “How are you, how are the kids, the wife, the animals, the house, work” and so on and so forth. When they eventually were satisfied with the state of things, they would finally say: “Thank you” and the other would reply “Thank you as well”. By that time, they could be 500 meters apart.

    In the evenings, we were sitting around the campfire under the black African sky drinking beer from a communal bowl. The intoxicating alcohol and the arousing drums sent our hosts straight into a trance that any teenager on any dance floor in the world could envy them. As the drums reached a crescendo, the dance performance got fiercer and fiercer until the lucky ones reached “nirvana”.

    For most of us, only having seen this place was nirvana enough…


    The mosque in Djenné- built from wood and mud. Don’t ask how.. Djenné, Mali-2000.

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    My brave Maths students. Soforolaye, Mali-2000.


    Carrying his store on his head- not an unusual sight. Bamako, Mali-2000.


    On our way to Djenne- gotta get the car there too, right? Some of us were sceptic about entering the..uhum..boat or rather floating contraption. Djenné, Mali-2000.


    Dubious balance of forces, but in Africa they seem to get away with anything. Mopti, Mali-2000.


    My bed is my castle. Soforolaye, Mali-2000.

    calvaire culinaire

    Our daily culinary treat. But we couldn’t complain (although the French did of course), there wasn’t much to take from…Soforolaye, Mali – 2000.


    Some of the children of Soforolaye. Mali-2000.

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    Having a midday rest from trekking in Dogon land. Dogon land, Mali-2000.

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    At the Bandiagara Escarpment or falaise. Burkina Faso in the background. Dogon land, Mali-2000.

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    A huddle of houses. Flat roofed ones are for food storage. Dogon land, Mali-2000.

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    A typical Dogon village not far from the sacred crocodiles. Dogon land, Mali-2000.

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    The “magic” grave chambers. Dogon land, Mali-2000.

    Lisa en tenue africaine

    I’m not sure my friend Lisa will give the tailors this much creative freedom next time she is invited to a wedding and needs a new dress. But she’s good sports. Mopti, Mali-2000.

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    Our guide is illustrating to Lisa how dead people are “taken” by the spirits and sent up into the cocoon grave chambers at night. Dogon land, Mali-2000.

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    Dogon village. Mali – 2000.

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    The village chieftain and his advisors at the hand-over of material “ceremony”. Soforolaye, Mali – 2000.


    We had time for some rest and recreation as well. Getting our hands on a cold coke was always a highlight. Sevare, Mali – 2000.


    Playing with the kids in the village. Soforolaye, Mali – 2000.


    When in Rome…actually, we ended up finding this scarf thing quite useful protection from both sun, sand and wind. Mopti, Mali – 2000.

    village peul

    A visit to a “peul” village in Senegal. Senegal – 2000.


    In Africa, there is always room for more…Bamako, Mali – 2000.

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