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Contrast of Worlds: My Most Difficult Stage of the Odyssey Journey

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Fried fish is a big seller
The Blue Bani River and its green grasses are accentuated by the monotone beige of the mud houses and the great mosque (Muslim temple or place of worship) that line its shores. The town of Mopti, Mali, is an island among rice fields, at the point where the Bani and the Niger River meet. The simple colors provide an attractive backdrop for the colorful life that fills its streets.

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Do you need a guide?
Jasmine, Kevin, and I arrived at night, after a grueling, hot 13-hour bus ride from Bamako. At Mopti, the bus was immediately assailed by a dozen young men wanting to be our "guides". Here in Mopti, I've discovered that having a "guide" is essential. It is not because you'll get lost or ripped off, though this may happen anyway. You need a guide so that the other 1,000 "guides" in the city will leave you alone. Mali is so poor it's understandable that these boys want to get a share of the tourist money.

In the morning, while Kevin and Jasmine found transportation to Timbuktu, I tried to get from the old town on one side of the river, to the new town on the other. I was on a mission to find electricity so I could type this article for you.

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I need to be over there, where the electricity is
As I walked on, I needed to pass the mosque, but I couldn't. The streets all around were lined with men in brightly colored robes on brightly colored prayer mats. They all faced the East, where Mecca, the most holy city for Muslims, sits, far away, in Saudi Arabia. Even the causeway that crossed the river was full of men praying. Friday is the most important day of worship for the Muslims. The men go to the mosque to pray if they can, instead of just stopping where they are, as most do on other days.

Seeing all these men is like a brief introduction to the whole of Mali. It's a preview of things to come here on the Odyssey Website! Some wear typical western clothes, but most wear robes. The blue robes with the dark blue turbans on their heads are Tuarag, the legendary desert nomads and raiders. They are centered in Timbuktu, so we'll be hearing more about them from Kevin and Jasmine when they get back! The Fulani (or Peul) men are lighter skinned, with carefully wrapped turbans and very fancy clothes. Fulani women are seen here too, with fancy hairdos involving bright beads and huge earrings. They're also of nomadic origin but are now based around Mopti and Djenne. Also, since one in four Malians is Bambara, they make up a large percentage of the population here, even though their native area is more towards Bamako. The Dogon make a small appearance here at the mosque, in their thick blue or brown robes. They fiercely resisted Islam, so most still practice their old animist religions (the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls). I'll be visiting the Dogon Country next week, so we can learn more about them.

The Empire of Mali, which rose in the 13th century, cinched the conversion of Mali from a predominantly "animist" to a predominantly "Muslim" country. It is said that when one of the emperors made the Hajj (the Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca), he had a mosque built in every spot where he stopped for Friday prayer. In fact, he gave away so much gold to the people he met, that the price of gold dropped for years to come! At that time, Mopti was still a sleepy port, with Timbuktu and Djenne the centers of Islamic scholarship, art, and culture.

The next day I was led by my new friend, 16-year old Antou, through the muddy streets of Mopti, Mali. Soon, school will start back up again, so these are her last few days of vacation. The midday heat makes me slow and sluggish, but Antou is on a mission to introduce me to all of her friends and show them my cool digital camera. Everyone in town knows my hostess, Antou, and they call out greetings as we walk the streets.

"Comment t'appelles tu?"; or "Eetogo edg" they ask me in French or Bambara what my name is. Everyone here speaks Bambara, even the people who are Fulani or Songhaï, because the Bambara make up the largest ethnic group in Mali, comprising over 1/4 of the population.

"Diarra Tangara" I answer. "Abeja" is difficult for them, so I've been given the traditional Songhaï name of Diarra. Since I'm staying with the Tangara family, that's my new last name. And because "Diarra Tangara" rhymes, everyone laughs and repeats it back to me.

The Tangara household is full of life, with children filling the courtyard. Women cook over a wood fire and with small charcoal stoves, while other women (including Antou) are cleaning or fortune-telling by throwing cowrie shells on a woven grass plate. Life here is very different than anything I know, and I am constantly amazed by the things I see. They treat me like a daughter here, even though I can barely communicate with the family. I feel so lucky to have this opportunity.

At the same time, though, it is hard. This is a poor area of Mali, and the family has very little of the creature comforts I live with at home. I don't want to seem like I'm complaining, but I can't romanticize life here. It isn't easy. For me, this has been the most difficult stage of the Odyssey.

There is no running water in this neighborhood, and the center of the courtyard is dominated by a well. To bathe, I fill my bucket from large earthenware pots, and water disappears into one of two "bathrooms". These bathrooms are basically small rooms with channels for the water to drain out of the house and into the drainage ditches that run down the center of the streets. This is the same drainage that is used as a toilet.

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Watch where you step

When I'm in rural areas, not having running water or a proper sewage system is not a problem. Here, however, in a crowded household which abuts other crowded households in every direction, it seems to be a problem, especially now, in the rainy season. The line separating ditch and street has disappeared, and the mud is everywhere--a mix of rain, earth, and raw sewage. I'm very careful where I step, that's for sure.

In the Muslim culture, cleanliness is very important. Five times a day, before praying, everyone washes their hands, feet, and face. I used to think that was a bit excessive, but now I fully understand. Between my constant sweating, the flies, the muddy streets, and the general dirtiness of city life, I feel like bathing every ten minutes!

Breakfast everyday is a slightly sweet drink similar to cream of wheat. It is served hot in cups out of a huge bowl made of half of a calabash. Lunch and dinner usually consist of lots of rice, lots of millet, or lots of cous-cous, with some sort of spicy sauce and a small bit of meat. We all wash our hands, sit around the big bowl, and dig in with our right hands. It's messy but friendly and fun, and we all wash up again afterwards.

People here seem to eat only a little protein and almost no fruits and vegetables! Most of their diet is starch. Everyone in Antou's family seems healthy enough, although I see many children on the streets with bellies swollen. This is a sign that the children are eating enough food, but not the right kind of food. They are malnourished. I wonder what the long term effect is on their mental and physical development, and how many people in this country grew up that way.

At night, it is far too hot to sleep inside, even if there was enough space with such a large family. I sleep on a mat up on the roof with Antou and many of her sisters, brothers, and cousins. The night air is refreshing, the sky is beautiful, but the mosquitoes are relentless, especially during the rainy season. I have to wrap myself in a blanket and cover my face and head with a cloth to keep from being eaten alive.

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Antou and one of her teachers

Yet despite all this, Antou reminds me of 16 year-olds I've met everywhere. She's smart, pretty, and has lots of friends. She took me with her to school to meet her teachers, who were preparing for school to start. They said that she is an "ok" student, but needs to work harder if she wants to go to the university in Bamako. At home, she helps care for her younger siblings, and helps cook and clean around the house.

One night, we were walking home from her friend Bintou's house, where we had been playing with the camera and the computer. As I carefully picked my way through the moonlit, muddy streets, Antou offered to carry my bag. The next time I looked up, she was hopping from dry spot to dry spot, balancing my computer bag on her head with no hands! I didn't know whether to laugh or to freak out! It's moments like that when I'm struck by the contrast of worlds, the reality gap that has folded in upon itself like a time warp. I walk the streets of this old, medieval town in Mali, sharing my high-tech digital equipment with them, while I share a bit of their world with you. I hope you like it. I think they do.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Monica - In the Thick of Djenne-Djeno
Monica - Myths and History from Outside the Mosque
Jasmine - Timbuktu or Bust!
Monica - Djenne, Village of Mud

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