In a state of pure observance makes writing anything concrete seem premature. Somehow, I feel that recounting a little list of things I've seen and done is appropriate to shine a little light on first impressions from Mali's capital city of Bamako.
Before I go any further, the most common question I received before leaving for Africa is "Where is Mali?" Below is a map that should be more informative than cupping both of my hands into the continent of Africa, with a finger trying to point to Mali's land-locked locale.
Within Mali, there are a few different landscapes that are important to note:
In the southern region, the weather is heavily affected by the Niger river that flows SW to NE before curving down SE after it's appearance in the well-known city the call Tombouctou (also known as Timbuktu). Everything that thrives in this southern part of the country - part Sahel and part Savanna - does so thanks to the Niger and a couple of its tributaries.
In the northern region, the Sahara desert makes the weather dry, super dusty, and impossible for many to live. Except for the nomadic Tuaregs and their desert music.
But onto the adventure thus far...
1) Bamako by night is cooler, so people walk the streets then as much as they do during the working, daytime hours. In fact, at any hour of the day, Bamako's streets are lined with occupied folding chairs of people chatting, women elegantly carrying bundles and baskets twice their size atop their heads (with no hands), and these days - with flocks and flocks of tall, bony, spindly-horned sheep tied to trees and stakes.
2) Tabaski explains the sheep. Tabaski, also known as Eid al-Adha, is significant because it celebrates the Muslim commemoration of Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his eldest son Ishmael in obedience to a command from Allah - and Ishmael's acceptance of this command.
This will happen in approximately one week - the 10th day of the 12th Islamic month. For now, the sheep will be congregated for those celebrating to use on this special day, but camels, goats, and cows can also be used. The meat is divided up into three parts: one for the family, one for relatives and friends, and one for the poor and needy.
Upon seeing the Tabaski from inside of a vehicle, it has so far consisted of the sheep in flocks that are then wrapped around waists on the back of scooters, leashed and walked to people's homes, tied to a tire on the top of a semi trailer, etc. to be brought back to their families and used on the holiday of Tabaski.
3) Night life: Not to be confused with the fact that people stay up late and hang out, the scene is definitely a part of Bamako living. In just three days I've seen some of the coolest - and the smokiest - bars out there. La Terrasse, Obama, and Le Domino were spots we hit up my first and second night in the city.
- La Terrasse is a rooftop, open air bar with a dance floor that is partly covered by high, thatched roofs. It's Thursday night scene is Salsa night. Nothing like hopping to the beats of cumbia tunes after a three-leg, 20 hour flight and no sleep.
- Obama is a dingy local dancehall with a lively atmosphere, a massive pop art Obama we grew to love during his election behind the dance floor, and on the other side of the room, abstract art of a topless woman and the first president of Mali next to MLK Jr. But in no way did the impression of the wall art take away from the smoke-filled space with a stench of sweat. The putrid scent combo that will no doubt be present in the majority of non-open air bars, but seems to be a package deal here in Mali. Taken lightly - as in small doses and with little judgment - the bar is still a fun place to see the culture liven up.
- Le Domino is also an even smaller dancehall. In fact, my furniture-based work would deduce that the dance floor in the center of the room is no bigger than a California King bed. Everyone surrounding the dance floor watches while sitting on low couches and chairs. And the music - it beats the rest, hands down. A funky mix of African hip hop with a little Sean Paul or Lil Wayne in the mix makes everyone want to shake a shoulder.
Unfortunately, Le Domino's DJ likes to talk every few seconds to make sure we all understand his position of control and the level of his ego. Nevertheless, we danced here for a couple hours, saw some pretty great outfits and booty-bumping dance styles, as well as the typical cloud of smoke that may prevent one from going out more than once a week.
Beside the necessity of being an offensive driver, witnessing the sheep herds of Tabaski, and taking in the sights and smells of the dancing scene, I've been taking it easy. Adapting to the time change, the food, and the heat (90-105F each day - no exaggeration) has been tough enough before I start a new work week.