Story and photos by Leslie Lumeh
Edging towards the city of Bamako, Mali, from the Aéroport International President Modibo Keita – Senou, one is greeted by the typical view of West Africa – oncoming vehicles, while others speed by, the over 5 meters tall aluminum street light poles, (if it’s early morning, or night time, the light from these poles are an awesome sight to behold!), now and then there are small thickets here and there partially concealing beautifully handmade clay pots with natural flowers in them. Now and then you will see a figure or more well-attired in colorful boubou. They may be on their way to tend to a business or see a family member; some may be walking while others may be gently and fashionably peddling their well-aged bicycles. For a moment, there is nothing to indicate that you are in the middle of the Sahara Desert!
Then the Bamako skyline will appear in the distance. Now the architecture and monuments, punctuated here and there with decorative minarets denoting Islamic culture is a reminder that you are in great former Mali Empire. There is no mistake about this. The home of the great Sundiata Keita! You will get this felling regardless of your country of origin. And this is the purpose of this article – the way Mali speaks to and welcomes the world.
As someone coming to Mali for the first time (I don’t want to use the word visitor, because in Mali you are considered one of its kind). You will head to your hotel, which you may have booked well in advance, or to a friend’s. In my case it is a hotel and this is my second time here. Thanks to the organizers of “Le Festival sur le Niger” for having put all into proper place for me as well as other invited artists to this great cultural event! The staff at the hotel, the services they offer, food, etc. are exceptional.
I will not be able to take you around Bamako because I am heading to the historical town of Segou the next morning.
It’s three-and-half hours drive on the well-paved asphalt road from Bamako to Segou. But you will not necessarily get bored of this long journey. Your diver will likely be entertaining you with traditional Malian music, at the same time telling you a history about the music and the musician. The driver is not a griot, but in Mali everyone is connected in some way and knows a great deal about each other – and this connection stretches to the people of coastal West Africa – from Senegal to Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, to Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana (the former Gold Coast), Togo, Benin (former Kingdom of Dahomey) and my own country – the Pepper or Grain Coast, now Liberia.
In most of these countries, the pronunciation and meaning of some of the natural elements of nature are very similar to that of the widely-spoken Bambara language of Mali. Water, for instance is ‘djii’ in Bambara, the Mende tribe – a sub language of Mande – of Sierra Leone and Liberia refer to water as ‘jeyii’, the earth is ‘dougoukolo’ and in Mende it’s ‘duweh’, air is referred to as ‘fehfehyi’ in Mende and is ‘fiyen’ in Bambara’.
As we leave Bamako with its historical buildings behind us, we are now heading into the clear open as far as the eyes can see. This is the Sahara Desert punctuated with iconic baobab trees of the region visibly imposing their huge presence among millions of other shorter trees. I have seen the baobab trees before in Senegal, but these shorter trees, no. “Quels arbres sont ceux?” I asked our driver in my limited French. “They are Shea Butter trees.” He answered in perfect French. I have seen Shea Butter before, but not the tree. Seeing a Shea Butter tree is a rare experience I will not forget.
In every major town along the way to Segou, fruits and vegetables sellers will swarm the car announcing their produce in the Bamara language translated here into French, il y a de l’ananas, de l’orange, de belles mangues, j’ai du maïs frais ici, des arachides sucrées, etc. They will speak Bamara to you because to them you are just one of their kind.
Ahead in the distance, herdsmen with their cattle will emerge crossing the road with all the ease in the world. Why would they be in a rush? There is no need for that. In Mali, just know what you want to do and go ahead to do it rightly. That’s all that matters. Plan and do the right thing.
For a long while we are driving in absolute silence. And I was getting uncomfortable with it. I have to break the silence by asking intelligent questions.
Besides the driver and myself, there are two other people in the car. They are from Cameroon. Through my questions, I came to understand that one is a writer and the other a veteran on African musical instruments. Like myself, this is the second time the Cameroonian writer is coming to Segou, he was here just two years ago. For the instrumentalist, a much older man, he is a freshman to Mali. We have instinctively given him the courtesy to ride in the front with the driver while I share the back seat with the writer.
“What type of writing do you do? Fictional, research, historical?” I asked after a long silence. I did not want to overwhelm him with questions. Maybe he was not interested in talking.
“My current work is a dictionary of artistic terminologies.” He answered.
“Do you have a copy that I can see?” I asked again after another long interval.
He promptly took it out from a bag he carried next to him on the seat. “Le manuel lexical des arts de la culture et du tourisme” or “The Lexical Manual of the Arts of Culture and Tourism”. Underneath the title of the book was his full name: Fernand Ghislain Ateba Ossende.
I flipped through the pages. “This took lots of research.” I admitted.
“Yes.” He agreed.
“Mes Felicitations.” I complimented him. “But I will love to see an English version. That will be fantastic! Please think about it.” I urged him.
He promised to look into the possibility of getting the book translated into English.
I allowed another long moment to pass.
Then I tapped the back of the front seat ahead of me to call the attention of the elderly instrumentalist. He turned to me almost at once, and before I could ask him any question, he’s already asked me. “What art discipline are you involved in?”
“I am a painter.” I said and waited for more questions from him. But none came again.
Another long silence. Then I ventured. “So what instrument do you play at?”
“I play lots of traditional instruments. But my focus is mainly on the origin of African musical instruments and their purposes.” He said. “And this is why I am coming to Mali. I am following up on earlier research works done by some of our colleagues from Cameroon on traditional Malian musical instruments.” He has so much authority and confidence in his voice that I admired the way he pronounce his Cameroonian accented French. “Now we are considering setting up an office in Segou to liaise with our Malian counterparts to consolidate our findings.”
Setting up an office in Segou. I thought it over. During my 2011 trip here, Anna Edwards, an African-American, mentioned similar thing and, as a result of that, there’s a mirage-city-relationship between the town of Segou and the city of Richmond, Virginia in the USA to this day. Before all of that, there is another American, Janet Goldner, who has made Mali a ‘second-home’ since 1995. Janet travels to Mali every year to engage in cultural research projects and collaborate with local Malian artists.
In Segou, during the festival I will meet another veteran artist from Benin, Ludovic Fadairo. Fadairo spent nearly two decades in Abidjan working as a painter and art professor. Now he will tell me he too, is planning on moving to Mali to continue working as he approaches retirement age.
Some will think perhaps it’s time to ‘give back’ to Mali as we do to our local communities or alma maters. But arguably this is not the case, because there is nothing that one can give back to this great empire of ancient and modern civilizations. On the contrary, people are going back to Mali in order to gain more knowledge in the arts, literature, sciences, etc.
The three-and-half hour journey from Bamako to Segou has almost come to an end. Earlier we passed the traffic sign indicating that Segou is just a few kilometers ahead. We are greeted with multiple commercial billboards. There are also other billboards promoting government’s effort towards education, health and the need to work and live in peace.
For a moment, I am disoriented – this is not the Segou I left some seven years ago! There’s been tremendous infrastructural development. There’s a seemingly endless shimmering six-lane express road passing through the town; there’s a flour-processing factory; several new residential and commercial structures. One main interesting factor about the development unfolding in this historical town is that the new structures are indeed awesome, but the old ones – from seven years ago – still maintain their very same look! Nothing changes. This is what gives Segou its historical essence. In the words of one of the organizers of ‘Le Festival sur le Niger’ Attaher Maiga: “Nous ne changeons pas notre histoire. C’est à cause de notre histoire que le monde vient au Mali chaque fois. C’est très important pour nous et le monde.”
Maiga is right. The main entrance to Le Festival sur le Niger in Segou is still the same as I left it seven years ago!
About the author:
Leslie Lumeh is an internationally renowned Liberian painter and art educator. He holds a Diploma in Architectural drafting from the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) in Kakata. He has been featured twice on CNN African Voices, on Aljazeera and twice on Reuters Africa Journal. Since he returned to his homeland in 2005 from Cote d’ivoire, he has represented Liberia in many international cultural events. Leslie has written many articles including “Bravo! African Masters”, which spells out his stance on the current campaign to repatriate rare African artifacts from abroad and “The Need for an Art Institute in Liberia”. Both articles were published by the Daily Observer newspaper, a paper he worked with as resident cartoonist from 2005 to 2015 when he resigned to devote more time into his artistic career. You can see some of his painting at: www.leslielumeh.com