Over the weekend prior to my assignment in Mali there was a cultural festival in Segou. I had signed up to this some months ago, filling in the forms on the website indicating my intention to attend the festival, take the free bus there from the capital, stay for three nights in the home of a local family and take a tour to a couple of local villages on the Sunday morning.
The free bus was an hour late, and the Sunday morning tour started two hours late, but otherwise everything worked like clockwork. When we arrived in Segou there was my name on the various lists, and when I had paid for my €100 festival ticket there was the man from my host family with his moped ready to take me back to his house.
In fact the whole festival was well-organised, with a big stage beside the river for the main musical acts with standing and seating areas for the audience arranged up the riverbank, a number of smaller stages for other performances, an art gallery, cafes and restaurants within the grounds and a whole host of market stalls set up just outside the entrances to get the tourists to part with their money.
Thankfully most of the visitors were local, as a dual pricing structure (€5 for Malians) ensured that it was affordable for all. & as Mali is such a culturally rich country, with so many traditions still intact, watching the audience was a part of the pleasure. These old men are dressed in the traditional hunter's outfits.
I suppose the main draw for many was the music, with well-known Malians such as Bassekou Kouyate, Vieux Farka and Oumou Sangare on the bill, as well as invited guests such as the Amazons de Guinée and a dreadful Senegalese woman called Coumba Gawwlo Seck who was very popular with all the youngsters. However this festival also showcases Mali’s still vibrant tradition of mask dances, and there were troupes of Dogon stilt dancers as well as a fantastic performance of Bozo masks/puppets.
The Bozo tribe are fishermen and their mask traditions are water-based. So from the riverbank we watched as various enormous masks (known as puppets) appeared in the water to menace a man seated on a platform who I guess was a chief, as an attendant stood beside him with a spear. First a giant fish swam towards him, but was captured by a fisherman. Then an enormous pelican-like bird came along, and finally a long-haired woman, who hid her giant pink face behind her big pink arms and cautiously approached the chief, who eventually persuaded her to accept a basket of tomatoes, to which all the locals cheered and the supporting singers and drummers did their stuff. Maybe next year they should produce a festival brochure to interpret the performances for ignorant foreigners like me.
On Sunday morning I took my trip to visit some local villages, chosen by the organisers for their significance at the heart of the old Malian empire, but rewarding for me just for their beauty. The traditional mud architecture of this region is astoundingly beautiful, but also functional as it remains cool in the hot weather. It is a shame that many people seem to equate development with concrete, but as a nation Mali is aware, and proud, of its rich history and traditions so hopefully more efforts will be made to preserve them.
We saw in the village of Segoukoro not just a beautiful old (17th century) mosque built of mud (see left) but also a rather stylish newer one, using a modern take on the old mud-building techniques, offset with a lovely old carved door.