Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pro-Wade Demonstration

This morning the opposition had its turn to demonstrate, which ended by being dispersed by Riot Police firing teargas, and this afternoon the Pro-Wade or "Wadists" had their opportunity to demonstrate their support of President Wade.   Thousands made their way to the Presidential Palace carrying signs and banners and accompanied by drummers and sound trucks.  In my opinion, the Wadists greatly outnumbered the opposition demonstrators from this morning.

Around 4:30pm the first the first wave of the long pro-Wade parade arrived at the gates of the Presidential Palace.  The people continued to stream in for over an hour until the streets around the intersection were packed in every direction.  Riot police tried to control the crowd which was generally peaceful with supporters wearing a variety of Pro-Wade T-Shirts and waving blue flags.  I bailed when the people around me started to get knocked down by the pressing crowd.  Riot police also formed a line on the road to Place d'Independance and seemed ready to face any threat coming from where the morning Anti-Wade protests took place (the Place d'Independance was now empty besides a few lonely cabs driving around in circles).

Demonstrations in Dakar

Place d'Independance
Today, 19 March 2011, is the date set by opposition groups and protesters to gather together and voice their unhappiness about increasing food prices, insufficient power and frequent power outages, and to protest President Wade’s decision to run for a third term.  The date is significant as 19 March is the 11th anniversary of President Wade’s presidency.  Twenty-four permits to demonstrate were filed and despite being initially denied, were eventually approved.  

Crowd control vehicles with water cannons moved into town last night and early this morning riot police entered the Place d’Independance and set up barricades.  As demonstrators gathered to the Place the police stood calmly in formation holding batons and resting their shields on the ground.  Some police even lounged on crates of teargas in the shade under the trees.  By noon a couple thousand people had gathered to the square and vendors were making their rounds selling belts, watches, peanuts, and even balloons.  Down the road a group was handing out small Senegalese flags and the demonstration seemed to have more of a carnival like atmosphere than a serious uprising staged to overthrow the government.  

Around 12:30 the crowd become more agitated and some surged to the barricades nearest the riot police and started tearing up posters of President Wade and throwing them at the police.  Shortly after that I heard the low thump of teargas canisters being shot into the air and the crowd split with about half running across the Place.  The barricades quickly disappeared and the riot police moved from a line formation to a square “phalanx” formation but still held back away from the crowd.  Some of the protestors came back and started to set banners and signs on fire and the riot police formations started to move forward.  The smoke from the fire grew so the lead riot police platoons started to run forward with the water cannon truck closely behind and the crowd scattered.  By 1pm the Place d’Independence was mostly empty besides riot police and onlookers so traffic began to circulate again.  I did not see anyone get hurt or even the riot police get near the protestors.

Up the hill from the Place d’Independance at the Presidential Palace a Pro-Wade demonstration was being set up with a reviewing tent full of chairs, colorful banners, and posters.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Segou, Mali

spinning cotton into string
Working the loom
After checking into our hotel in Segou the first thing we did was hire a guide to show us around.  Unfortunately he told us it was too hot to go anywhere and he would be back in a couple hours to show us around.  When he did come back at 4pm he took us to the Bogolan Workshop, where inside a classically decorated red mud building workers spun cotton string, wove it on looms, dyed, and stenciled fabric which they sold in the adjacent gallery.  In order to make a finer quality fabric they cheated and mixed industrial string with the locally spun string, but the rest seemed legit and you could try your hand at smearing mud on a stencil to make designs.
Stenciling the fabric
As the sun began to set we drove out to village north of Segou to meet the chief and tour his village.  The meeting began with our guide handing him 2500 CFA and then a kid walked in the door, saw me, yelled “toubab” and ran away screaming.  The guide apologized because he said my white skin scared the kids.  We next visited the chief’s palace with 7 meeting rooms made of red mud (one for each day of the week and Monday’s room was the largest of all).  On the outskirts of the village overlooking the Niger River was the oldest mosque in the region also made of mud with wooden beams protruding from the roof and tower.  Our guide said it was so old they weren’t sure who had built it or when it was built.  
The Chief's palace

Night fell as we drove back to the hotel and in the thick shadows hawkers tried to sell their trinkets or lure us over so they could pick our pockets.  During dinner on the veranda others would throw their blankets, masks, or necklaces over the rail, hissing at us to take a look.  If ignored they would hiss even louder or start to make comments like “whatsamatter with you, you don’t like black people?” or “hey, I’m talking to you- its rude to ignore me.”  Usually after a while they would go away, but in Segou they kept coming back, always interrupting a conversation to throw out a price “15,000 CFA (about $30) for the necklace” or some other obscene price.
Old mud Mosque with Ostrich eggs
The next morning the guide returned and we walked down to the river and took a motor-pirogue to a pottery village 7km upstream from Segou.  The ride took an hour and we branched off the main Niger River into a channel that ended in thick lillypads and locals digging up mud and forming it into bricks.  Some of the mud was carried back to the village where young girls mixed it with their feet and old ladies formed it into pottery.  The men hauled large bushels of grass to a clearing in the center of town where the women arranged their pottery on the ground and set bonfires alight in order to bake the earthen vessels.  Back in town ladies sold the overpriced vases and plates on the banks of the river.  I tried to negotiate, but the ladies insisted on fixed prices for tourists and I ended up leaving empty handed.  
Forming the pots
Large pots waiting to be fired

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sikasso, Mali

The drive from Bamako to Sikasso was nice for the most part and the roads were in pretty good condition until near the end where Chinese/African road crews were working hard to pave a new section.  I thought the 30min dirt road bypass was cool because it took us through several small villages and fields and we could see more (despite the thick dust) than just bushes along the road.  Some of the construction vehicles were driving recklessly in the huge dust clouds and plunged into a mud house getting stuck nearly completely inside.  Luckily it didn’t look like anyone was hurt.

Sikasso is the regional capital of the southernmost part of Mali and borders Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Guinea and many refugees from Cote d’Ivoire have been escaping into Mali.  Between 2-3 million Malians reside in Cote d’Ivoire but since the recent conflict many have been returning to Mali but as Malians they don’t qualify for refugee aid since they are in their home country.  
Regional Museum of Sikasso

In the evening we visited the regional museum and received a guided tour from the museum director who explained some of the rituals of the secret societies and showed us some of the masks and weapons of the ancient hunters.  The second part of the museum, and my favorite part, was dedicated to musical instruments from the region and had many on display including the Kora, Xylophone, Flutes, Tambours, and various forms of rattles and carved logs that made different sounds depending on how they were beaten.  
Tower on top of Mamelon

Before leaving for Segou the following morning we visited a friend who offered to guide us around the city and show us Mamelon and the tata.  In the center of town near a market lies a hill that steeply rises 30 meters from the sloping plane and provides a commanding view of the area.  The ancient inhabitants built a tower and series of tunnels to defend themselves from foreign invaders along with the tata, a 4 to 6 meters high that surrounded the city.  When invaders breeched the wall and fought their way to Mamelon the defenders would use the tunnels to surround them or escape and flank their attackers.  The tata wall served as a primary means of defense and originally featured rounded sections that provided over 200 degrees of visibility and ability to engage their enemies with poisoned arrows or rifles.  The locals were able to use these defenses to successfully repel French colonial forces in the 1800s.
Remnants of the tata

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I was surprised by the heat wave that hit me as I stepped off the plane at the Bamako airport because the past couple weeks have been windy and cool in Dakar.  The sky was white and I rarely saw blue above me in the six days we were in Mali.  As we drove through the city to our hotel I was struck by the number of people riding scooters and motorcycles.  Dakar has some, but there were swarms of scooters and they even had their own lanes in traffic.  Everybody- men, women, and even some entire families on the same bike was zipping around on the little scooters and it seemed that the other motorists took care to avoid them.  The only accident I saw in Bamako was scooter against scooter where one was crushed on the road and the other was flung into a ditch 20 yards away.  It must have been a recent accident because people were clustered near the bike in the ditch.  Another thing that stood out was the number of traffic lights in operation and that people actually respected them and waited for their turn to go.
Many riders wore facemasks for the pollution/sand

Muammar Khadafi is still popular in Mali as he as been a major donor and has nearly completed the new government office complex (named after himself).
Khadafi Center

Upon arrival I contacted the US Embassy to find out about the security situation in the north of Mali and was advised not to go to Dogon country as I had originally planned.  The following day the US Embassy issued a Warden Message ( warning:
"the Embassy has credible information of a possible attack in the immediate future against the U.S. Embassy in Bamako and U.S.-related interests to include the American International School of Bamako (AISB).  It also has credible information of a possible kidnapping plot targeting Americans and other Westerners in Bamako."

 So I changed my plans to go south instead of north to Dogon or Timbuktu.  I recently attended a conference where retired Canadian Ambassador Fowler spoke about his capture and captivity in the Sahel by AQIM and I did not want to follow in his footsteps.  I can always come back in the future and see the sights when things calm down.
Sunrise over the Niger River in Bamako

Bamako also stands out for its democratically elected government and like many of its neighbors is preparing for upcoming elections in 2012.  Mali has seen the peaceful transfer of power from the military transitional government in 1992 (following a coup in 1991) to a democratically elected president and to another in 2002.  The current president has promised to not run for a third 5-year term in 2012 clearing the way for a third democratically elected administration.  Mali's neighbors are also in election cycles with Liberia holding elections in October 2011 (Pres Sirleaf-Johnson had promised to serve only one term but is running again as she couldnt see any other viable candidates) and in Senegal Pres Wade is running for a 3rd 5-year term in 2012.  Mali is also being affected by refugees from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire where elections have failed to produce a functional government and is falling into a civil war.  Algeria and Mauritania are also experiencing ongoing demonstrations.  It will be interesting to see how the region develops with its many conflicts.