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French Influence Does Not A Paris Make

I'd call the architecture style "Miami Vice" meets "Lawrence of Arabia," but it is called Colonial French African. Monica and I are in Segou, Mali, admiring the large, pastel-colored buildings that were left here by the French. With their bold arabesque doorways, minarets, imposing size, and crumbling paint, they seem completely odd and out of place. A few of the large buildings on the main street have been kept up, such as the Office Du Niger and a nice hotel. But walking down the side streets takes us past many once beautiful mansions in horrible disrepair. It is obvious that families with very little money inhabit these houses. Real "fixer-uppers," so to speak.

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Abeja at one of Sedou's French African buildings
Before the French came here, the main unit of political organization was the village. The previous empires didn't have much effect on the daily lives of people who did not live in the central cities, like Timbuktu or Djenne, and were not involved in trade. The villagers lived in small mud houses, and the nomads lived in tents, which they carried with them. I wonder what the local Bambara people thought when the French arrived and started building these huge pastel colored buildings!

Vocabulary Box

arabesque-a complicated design from the Moorish culture, of lines that look like vines and flowers weaving together
minarets - a high skinny tower on the Muslin mosques
infrastructure - the basic things a society needs to govern itself, like a way to choose leaders, or make decisions

In 1884, the European powers all met at the Berlin Conference and officially carved up Africa between them. Segou, a town on the Niger River between Bamako and Mopti, became an important administrative center in "French West Africa," which stretched from the Atlantic Ocean through what is now Niger. Mali was known as "French Soudan," and it wasn't as well developed as some other French colonies like Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire. The main interest of the French was to exploit the land and people for cash crops, like cotton and rice, for export to France. They created a system of forced labor to get the Africans to work the plantations.

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This well kept hotel is one of the main attractions in the town
Unlike the British, the French didn't try to educate or otherwise improve the lives of people who lived in their colonies. Only those few needed for administrative tasks received a secondary school level education. Also, unlike the places the Odyssey has already visited-- Southern Africa and Latin America--the Europeans did not try to settle here (except for a small number in Cote d'Ivoire). There were only enough French people to run the administration.

To us, as travelers here, the difference this makes is obvious. First, there are very few white people here, and none of them are actually from Mali. Also, no one here speaks French as his or her first language. It has been much more difficult to talk to children here than it was in Latin America or Zimbabwe, because so few of them speak any French at all!

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An Arabic style house in modern Segou
I think, perhaps, the extreme poverty is also an indirect result of the French not settling here. In the countries where the Europeans planned to live, they made more of an effort to keep the country livable - from the sustainable agriculture to improved sanitation in the growing cities. Also, the Europeans tend to be the ones with the most education (by fortune, not by choice) and therefore, they have the most skill in running businesses and "developing" the country. But, when French West Africa gained independence in 1960, it was au revoir (good-bye) to the French. They were outta there, which left the country with very few educated people and very little infrastructure to govern itself. 

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We are not sure what style this is supposed to be
A popular intellectual from Senegal named Leopold Senghor, encouraged the former French colonies to stick together to keep them strong and independent from France. French Soudan (Mali) joined briefly with the former French colonies Senegal, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and Dahomey (Benin). However, within a few months this coalition broke up, and French West Africa became nine different countries. Can you name them? [Check the map!] As Monica and I explore the tree-lined streets of Segou, we can imagine what a typical French West African colonial city looked like. Now, with the grandeur of the buildings crumbling and the French long gone, native West African life has taken over again. Donkey carts ply the streets, and colorful clothes dry outside in the sun.

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A local vendor who posed for our camera in Segou

In all of Mali, this is my favorite city. The people are friendly, but not pushy, and very curious about me. I guess they're used to white people being from France because, despite my horrible French accent and very limited vocabulary, people keep asking me if I am from Paris! I didn't study French in school because I was never very interested in the cultured world of fashion, art, and wine that I associated with the French. I was always drawn to the more exotic, foreign cultures. It's funny for me now, to be here, struggling with this language in a place that is about as far as possible from my typical image of "French." C'est la vie! (That's life!)

Waiting for the bus in Segou:

The heat sits
like a feverish dream.
like a wet rag.
like a guilty conscience.
like moving through jello.
like waking in the night.
like waiting for death.
The heat sits.

The fly poem

To what end?!
Why?! Why?! Why?!
Perhaps she'll die


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Team - Why Have the Gods Deserted Me?!? - The Magic of the Book, Segu
Monica - Keeping Up with the Fulani - Jewelry, Parties, and Romps in the Forest
Kavitha - From Word of Mouth to Word from the Wise
Monica - Not Just a Desk Job: Women, Rice Cultivation, and the Office du Niger
Making a Difference - The Struggle of Women Worldwide

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