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Our journey back to Mali

Sunset in Segou

 

Welcome To Mali

Africa is a continent full of mystery and marvels. One African nation that has a history and culture richly steeped in tradition is Mali. This intriguing country is situated in Western Africa within the Saharan and Sahelian regions. This landlocked country shares its borders with several other African countries including Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, to name a few. Much of the north of Mali reaches deep into the Sahara Desert.

Mali has a population of 16.3 million people in a country with an area of 1,241,238 km². However, most people live in the south of the country. Bamako is the capital of Mali and also the largest city. Much of the country is arid, dry and very dusty, but you will still see a lot of beauty as you move from the desert, through the Savanna and down to the grassy plains of the south.

The official language of Mali is French but many people are also fluent in Bambara (Bamanankan) which is a Mande language. Join us, on this magical journey where we re-discover our heritage and find a little piece of ourselves along the way.

Kingdoms & Empires Western Africa was the location of the Empire of Mali and it was predominant along the Niger River and spread across 1,200 miles from Gao to the Atlantic Ocean. The northern border of our nation was south of the Sahara Desert and covered territory that today form parts of Mali, Niger, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea and The Gambia.

The great Mali Empire is said to have been founded before 1000 CE in the vicinity of the upper Niger River and east of the Fouta Djallon. Many historians state that the empire evolved from the state of Kangaba. It is said that the inhabitants of Kangaba, known as the Malinke were primarily involved in the gold trade sometime during the period of ancient Ghana.

 Grave of Biton Mamary Coulibaly

Throughout history there have been many tribes and groups with most of them considered to be part of the Mande people. Most of them spoke a similar language and their cultures were also similar. Farmers were considered to be respected castes and they were highly regarded as they provided food for the locals. Other groups included fishermen, soldiers, slaves, artisans and scribes. Each knew their role in the societal makeup and it worked for most of the time.

Sometime during the 14th and 15th centuries, the Empire of Mali began to lose its dominance of the gold trade to the Songhai Empire and this saw the demise of the Empire. The Songhai Empire established a base in Timbuktu which became historically significant to Islamic culture and the main point of trade for the trans-Saharan caravan route.

 Our father in traditional clothing

 

A Few Things About Us and Our Family / Our Mali Heritage

Our connection to Mali goes back to the Songhai Empire which is also known as the Sonrai. The Songhai are a West African ethnic group and they speak various dialects of the Songhai language. The history of the Songhai language and lingua franca are closely linked to the Songhai Empire which dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries. Our specific dialect is the Bambara and is the national language of Mali which is spoken by more than 15 million people.

Our family tribe is deeply connected to the Songhai Empire. Our great-grandparents were born in Timbuktu and moved to Segou, while our grandmother was born in Timbuktu and our grandfather in Segou.

Why We Decided To Go To Mali

Back in 2014, we decided it was time to explore our heritage. Even though we were born far away from our ancestral roots, the fascination with our heritage was always on our mind. Kady was writing her dissertation about Mali at the time, on the potential to develop our fatherland as a tourism destination. Her plan was to go and gain first-hand information and it was as good an excuse as any to meet our family for the first time. It was time for us to come full circle and discover our origins. What better way to get to know our father country than to spend time exploring this beautiful land?

What We Saw

It was finally time to go and we couldn't contain our excitement. Our journey started from Paris. then onto Lisbon, Bamako, Segou and Bamako again. Meeting our extended family was an overwhelmingly beautiful experience and very heart-warming too. Our family welcomed us with so much warmth and love. In many ways, even though we were born thousands of miles away, we had come home.

Spending time with family was a touching and marvellously bonding experience. Our family share so many activities together and having our hair braided by our aunties and cousins was a great way to spend time with this incredible group of women we were honoured and proud to be a part of.

The City of Bamako

It was time for us to explore Bamako. The capital city of Mali. We were instantly captivated by this bustling city. It is one of the fastest growing cities, not just within its borders, but the world. Bamako extend across the plains to the north and south of the Niger River. The Presidential Palace overlooks from the northern escarpment. Even though Mali is landlocked, it is still a major port with an impressive international airport and the Dakar-Niger Railway. This vibrant city is also home to many museums, botanical gardens, a zoo and Bamako Grand Mosque and the Cathedral of Bamako. All of these attractions come together making Bamako one of the most exciting cultural hubs in the region and we had a spectacular time exploring all of these stunning landmarks.

 Africa Monument in Bamako

We wanted to experience the true essence of this ancient nation, and one of the best places to do this was at the Grand Market in Bamako. This open-air market is where Bamako comes alive with the sights, sounds and smells of Mali. Like most markets, they are the heart and soul of the city featuring local delicacies that you simply must try, as well as clothing, accessories and souvenirs you will love to display in your home. The Grand Market is almost always crowded and noisy. Possibly due to frequent haggling as shoppers endeavour to get the best deals on their purchases.

 Koulouba Presidential palace - Chiwara sculpture

We continued on our exploration of Bamako at Maison des Artisans. Here we found traditional handcrafted items made of wood, leather as well as clothing in the vibrant colours of Africa. We were captivated by the authenticity and beauty of everything in front of us. Jewellery is also available and so unique; you will not find the likes of these trinkets anywhere else in the world. We were particularly impressed with the sculptures and masks especially the Chiwara ones.

During our exploration of Bamako, it was impossible not to notice the commanding presence of the Peace Monument at the centre of Bamako's traffic circle. This towering monument resembles arms holding a globe with a peace dove sitting on the top. Not far from the airport we were also delighted to see The Tower of African Unity Monument.

No trip to an ancient culture, like that which can be found in Mali, is complete without a little bit of storytelling.

Hippopotamus - symbol of Mali

One such story involves the national animal, the hippopotamus. This one in particular is the legend of Mali Sadio. According to the story, a hippo, which is called 'mali' in Bambara, forms a friendship with a young lady called Sadio. The girl falls in love with the hippo and in a jealous rage, a young hunter kills the animal. There are a few versions of the story, but the story is so widely loved in this charming country, that a statue of the hippo can be found on Independence Boulevard in Bamako. We found ourselves completely lost in the ancient tale and we could almost imagine sitting down with our grandparents as children listening to their rendition of this much-loved Malian fairy tale.

Zoo National du Mali - Bamako

Once we had our fill of the hustle and bustle of the city streets of Bamako, we took a walk through the Zoo de Bamako. We loved seeing the animals here in a manmade habitat that is very close to that in the wild. The zoo features many of Africa's most notable animals and is well-situated on a hilltop not far from the city centre.

There was so much for us to see and do in Bamako and we completed our tour of the city by exploring the Parc National du Mali and Conquantenaire Garden. To see all of these magnificent attractions, plan on spending several days in Bamako.

Road from Bamako to Segou

Segou And Surrounding Areas

It was time to head off to south central Mali to visit the town of Ségou where our father was born. Our journey took us 235 kilometres northeast of Bamako on the right bank of the Niger River. The town has approximately 130,000 inhabitants and is the fifth largest town. Ségou is the capital of the Ségou Cercle and the Ségou Region.

Amazing workshop in Ndomo Textile - Segou

Our exploration of Ségou began with a tour of the Bogolan Ndomo Textile Workshop. It was here where the colours and patterns of Africa take form on beautiful textiles. These beautiful textiles are used in the production of blankets, clothing and more. Seeing all of the colours of this vibrant country come to life was overwhelming and formed part of the inspiration of creating our own authentic brand.

Ndomo Textile - We made our Bogolan Cloth

These beautiful textiles are used in the production of blankets, clothing and more. Seeing all of the colours of this vibrant country come to life was overwhelming and formed part of the inspiration of creating our own authentic brand.

Artist getting ready before the concert - Festival Sur Le Niger in Segou 

We were fortunate during our visit to Ségou to participate in the Festival on the Niger. The festival showcases the very best of culture and tradition in Mali with music, dancing and lots of storytelling. Some of the most popular singers and musicians in the country include Salif Keita, Vieux Farka Touré (he is the son of Grammy winning Malian musician Ali Farka Touré). Oumou Sangare, Songhoy Blues, Rokia Traoré, Fanta Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate, although these performers are national treasures, they were not performing at this festival.

Festival Sur Le Niger in Segou 

We were lucky enough to take part in a Songhoy Blues concert in London, which was amazing. The festival was also the best opportunity to do a little shopping at the markets. We accumulated quite a few stunning traditional souvenirs as precious mementos of this all-important visit.

Balanzan tree

Perhaps the most commanding attraction in Ségou is the palace and a visit to Biton Mammary Coulibaly. Ségou is also known as the city of Balanzan, more fondly known as the city of 444 trees. It was magical taking a walk across the Barrage de Markala bridge or the Markala Hydraulic Dam and seeing the men fishing in the river.

Barrage de Markala

A very moving visit in Ségou was to the Memorial of our Grandfather and uncles that have passed away. It was difficult to keep our emotions in check during this visit. These remarkable relatives may have passed, but they still played an integral role in shaping our family’s customs and traditions. Our family comes together annually at this memorial for a ceremony honouring those that have passed. The ceremony is organized each year in February.

What Insights You Gain

One aspect of life in Mali we fell in love with was the simplicity. The lifestyle here is very different to countries outside of Africa. Life here is steeped in tradition and what was charming and incredibly practical was the fact that the locals live sustainably. Food, textiles and other essentials are locally grown and produced. The majority of people do their shopping at local stalls that are situated along the main streets of the cities or outdoor markets. This is the perfect place to see the locals up close and interact with them. The Malian people are so full of life and so friendly, that we could see why shopping at the markets is so much more rewarding that shopping in a generic supermarket.

Food

Although Mali is often considered to be a poor nation, the food was plentiful. Families gather at meal times but women and children are seated separately from the men. Food is almost always preparing over an open fire and the meals are enjoyed on the patio. This was our first experience eating with our hands. It was a little unusual but it turns out to be very convenient considering some of the delicacies we were offered. Some of the typical foods we enjoyed were:

  • Moni – This is a slightly sour porridge made from flour that is boiled in water first, then in milk. It is the perfect and very traditional African breakfast.
  • Local Fish – Nothing beats fresh fish from the Niger River. We enjoyed perch, catfish and captain fish.
  • Tigadegena – Otherwise known as peanut stew
  • Fakhoye Stew – hearty and delicious
  • Plantains & yams
  • Le N’gomi – mini rice cakes
  • Grilled goat or cow – no parts of the animal are wasted 
Grilled local fish served with an vegetable salad

It was not always easy to sit through a meal with the family. Refusing or being unable to eat a portion of food that was taken is considered to be offensive. Sometimes we struggled to eat some of the meat, especially the insides and intestines.

Tea time is a very special time with almost all households. It is Ngoma a tradition that was brought by the Arabs to Timbuktu as this was a crossroads city on the major trading route.

The tea is drunk in three stages. The first serving is said to be like death as it is strong and very bitter. The second serving is called life as the tea gets sweeter. Finally, the third glass is love and the affection comes from an absurd amount of white refined sugar. Our father used to tell us that when he was a young boy, it was customary to come together for tea and a chat with friends. This time honoured traditional has been passed down from generation to generation.

Fashion

One of the highlights of our trip to Mali was that we received some beautiful African Wax clothing that we wore during our journey. We also bought several bundles of textiles to make our own clothes upon our return home. It was hard not to be inspired by the quality, tradition and charm of these beautiful fabrics.

 

Home is where the heart is.

Western and European culture in the home is remarkably different to the home life of Mali. It was easy to understand the various standards of living. One thing we did notice in the homes in Mali is the lack of clutter and collecting a variety of bric-a-brac. Mali homes are simply and tastefully decorated without being overdone. If it is not necessary, you won't find it in a Mali home.

The culture in Mali is also very different to that of most European countries. Everyone in the home knows their place and it is particularly important to show respect to elders. One thing we really loved was that the people are always incredibly welcoming and Malians are the most hospitable people.

There is no need to call ahead or wait for an invitation. Anytime you drop in, you will be genuinely welcomed with tea, something sweet and a friendly conversation.

This was an amazing journey that gave us a different perspective on the challenges our father faced adapting to the European culture. But it was also a journey that helped us understand our father more and one where we found the missing link in our own lives. Our father often spoke of Mali, our family and the various customs and traditions, but to be in Mali to experience all of this was exhilarating, humbling and unforgettable.

N'Dama cattle 

 How Our Trip Inspired Us To Start Muffin Sisters

We fell completely and totally in love with the textiles we collected during our trip to Mali and even more so with the story behind Bogolan. This amazing textile is a traditional handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud. Roughly translated, Bogolan means mud-cloth.

Upon our return we decided to do more research into African print wax. It's hard not to be captivated by the vibrant colours and designs that are so full of life and so representative of Mali. While gaining more knowledge of African Wax Print, we were also playing with ideas on what to make with this unique textile. Our oldest sister was not able to join us for our trip to Mali as she had a baby boy. She suggested we create accessories for babies and children. We looked at each other and decided this was an amazing idea as we would have loved to have had these kinds of products when we were young. We thought this would also give parents a chance to share their culture and stories with our accessories.

The idea was born and we created our first blanket at the end of 2015 and made our first sale in 2016. From this first blanket we decided to expand on our range to include a variety of children's accessories.

Our story doesn't end there. Our plans for the future will involve creating a shop with African inspired products and help us to learn more about fabrics as well as African culture.

And so, our journey to continue learning and exploring continues.

1 comment

  • Such an interesting read, Mali sounds brilliant and lovely to hear about how you were inspired to create your products by your trip there!

    Kate

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