MALI

Dirt in a Hole

By Jheri St. James

The preacher bowed and turned to go
He threw some dirt into a hole
He wasn't needed anymore
He shrugged and cast away the cold
He rearranged his preachers clothes
The word of god is all he knows

Precious boy so young and fair
Guarding castles in the air
Pretty flowers in sweet array
Picked to die and fade away

Message from heaven
Sun in the sky
Message from heaven
News from on high*

Even though Bamako is the capital city, it is Timbuktu in Mali that captures the imagination. Populated by Songhay, Tuareg, Fulani, and Moorish people, Timbuktu is located 15 km north of the River Niger. It is an intersection of an east/west and a north/south Trans-Saharan trade route across the Sahara. Important historically as a source for rock-salt from Taoudenni, its geographical setting made it a natural meeting point for nearby African populations and nomadic Berber and Arab peoples from the north. The name of this famous city is said to have come from a Tuareg woman named Bukto who dug a well in the area where the city stands today, thus “Timbuktu” which means “Buktu’s well”.

Its long history as a trading outpost that linked west Africa with Berber, Arab, and Jewish traders throughout north Africa, and thereby indirectly with traders from Europe, has given it a fabled status, and in the West it is a metaphor for exotic, distant lands: "from here to Timbuktu." Timbuktu’s long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world civilization is scholarship.

A student of European history would be unaware of the golden age of learning centered in Africa's Mali Empire. In the 12th century, the greatest centers of learning in the world were the cities of Timbuktu and Djenne. By that time, the city of Djenne was larger than Medieval London. By the 16th century, the university city of Timbuktu had grown to a population of 40,000-50,000. These African cities controlled two-thirds of the world's gold supply. The Mali Empire launched a vast armada of ships on a voyage of discovery to the new world, a voyage which took place 200 years before Columbus. Books were prized above all else in these African cities. The symbols of wealth were the number of books that one owned. At this point in time, scholars were given the adulation and awe our modern culture showers on movie, television or music industry stars. In the cities of Djenne and Timbuktu, scholars and students were afforded the comfort of scholarship sources for their studies and research. The African funding system was far more generous than its modern grant counterparts. Djenne and Timbuktu were world-class centers of learning. This was the Mali and Songhai Empires. The Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, and the Songhai Empire were settled by the Mande peoples. Timbuktu was a key city in these empires. The Songhai Empire declined under a Moroccan invasion in 1591.


Timbuktu scene today

Starting in 1880, France invaded Mali and organized it as an overseas territory. The Sudanese Republic and Senegal became independent of France in 1960 as the Mali Federation. When Senegal withdrew after only a few months, what formerly made up the Sudanese Republic was renamed Mali. Rule by dictatorship was brought to a close in 1991 by a coup that ushered in democratic government. In keeping with Mali’s two-term constitutional limit, Alpha Konare stepped down as President in 2002 and was succeeded by Amadou Toure.

God bless the solder and his gun
Small sacrifice then justice done
He's every broken mothers son
Pretty flowers in sweet array
Picked to die and fade away

Message from heaven
Sun in the sky
Message from heaven
News from on High
Message from heaven
Sun in the sky
Message from heaven*

The Republic of Mali is a landlocked nation in Western Africa, the seventh largest country in Africa and these days one of the poorest nations in the world. It borders Algeria north, Niger east, Burkina Faso/the Cote d’Ivoire south, Guinea southwest, and Senegal/Mauritania west. Its straight borders on the north stretch into the center of the Sahara, while the country’s south, where the majority of inhabitants live, features the Niger and Senegal rivers. The name of the country comes from the Bambara word for hippopotamus (with the animal appearing on the five franc coin). The name of its capital city, Bamako, comes from the Bambara word meaning ‘crocodile swamp’.

*   *   *

Mali is shaped like a ribbon bow on a gift, and the gift of her soil came through a member of the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali. It is the collection stories that describe the human aspects of Common Ground 191: collectors who ignored any further communication with us once the soil was sent; collectors who wrote at length and sent pictures to explain the cultural importance of their collection; collectors who have gone to more than one country and sent back this important art medium. John A. Cushing of the U.S. Embassy in Benin, is one of those who have networked soil collections—from Mali and also a possible connection in Cote D’Ivoire. (Once we have those soils and Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, the west coast of Africa will be completed, so these last few countries are important to Gary Simpson, conceptual artist.) At this point, six years into the project, we are under no illusions as to how the soil comes, or how the collector communicates with us. We just want that dirt. “I thought I can collect soil anywhere and that is why I volunteer to help. I don’t think I will go to any historical place to collect the soil. This is not easy to me. Let me know what to do next,” wrote this collector, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Gary replied, “Please feel free to gather the soil from any place that is convenient. Let me know when you turn it over to DHL. Thanks for participating—“

At first, people think that they can just pick up some earth and bring it to us, but no. The shipment must be documented. Otherwise, Gary could just take soil from his own backyard and call it Malian soil. With all that paperwork, and the USDA sterilization process that the dirt must undergo, there’s a great deal more to the process than that.

So Mali’s soil came from where there is a “…nice view of the [Niger] river from my house.” No historical exclamations; no soil being used in architecture or art. Just some dirt from a hole near the river.

Mali, as one of the poorest countries in the world, maintains economic activity in the area irrigated by the Niger River. About 10% of the population is nomadic and 80% of the labor force is engaged in farming and fishing. With 65% of its land area desert or semi-desert, and several prolonged periods of drought over the last century, subsistence farming is very difficult. Pottery is produced by women for international shipment and local markets for foreign tourists. Mali is heavily dependent on foreign aid and vulnerable to fluctuations in world prices for cotton, its main export. In 1997, the government continued its implementation of an IMF-recommended structural adjustment program. Several multinational corporations increased gold mining operations in 1996-1998, and the government anticipates that Mali will become a major sub-Saharan gold exporter in the next few years.

One more small miracle of the project that some kind-hearted person was willing to take the time from their life to make sure we got Mali soil for the project. Thank you to all our collectors and thank you, John Cushing, for your ongoing participation.

* * *


Djingareyber Mosque

Precious boy so young and fair
Guarding castles in the air
Pretty flowers in sweet array
Picked to die and fade away



A typical Mali bread oven with boy passing by

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The music of Mali is best known outside of Africa for kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, the late roots and blues guitarist Ali Farga Toure and his successors Afel Bocoum and Vieux Farga Toure, the Toureg band Tinariwen and several Afro-pop artists such as Salif Keita, the duo Amadou et Mariam, and Oumou Sangare. A huge festival is held every year in Essaskane, the Festival in the Desert.

He threw some words into the air
He spoke the pain we all must share
How we will meet again out there

Precious boy so young and fair
Guarding castles in the air
Pretty flowers in sweet array,
Picked to die and fade away


Singer Robert Plant at the Festival in the Desert in Mali

Even as civilizations rise and fall in economic, political and military might, we see that the soil remains. Timbuktu, once a revered center of scholarship, is now the name of a fable. How many empires have come and gone on the soil of the earth? And the human beings who initiate and facilitate the ends all finally nestle into the arms of the great Mother Earth, in a hole in the dirt. The word for peace in Mali is unknown at this time. When we get it, we will add it to this journal entry.



*All lyrics from “Dirt in a Hole”, from the album “66 to Timbuktu”,
written by Robert Plant with associates Adams/Deamer/Baggott/Jones/Thompson)

 

 

 


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