The next day, Wednesday, March 4, 2009, was a day of travel as we moved out on a journey to the northern parts of the country that would culminate at Timbuktu. The bustle of the roadside markets that seem to be omnipresent in Bamako thinned into lonely vendors, and eventually disappeared. One of the most notable things we saw on the outskirts of Bamako was a large housing project that is being financed by Hugo Chavez and the government of Venezuela. This effort to assist one of the world’s poorest countries by the Venezuelan leader is exceeded by the efforts of the Libyan strongman, Muammar al-Gaddafi. The Libyans have built several large mosques in Bamako, housing, and have even financed a massive administrative center, intended to house several government ministries. Unfortunately, that unfinished project has turned into a cash cow for the Malians, according to some locals. The more money the Libyans send, the longer it takes to complete the project as the money disappears with little progress towards finalizing the construction. It is interesting that two individuals who have been demonized in the States (Gaddafi is currently on the good guy list) are seen as heroes by many in Africa.
This part of our journey was a study in the topography of southern Mali. The vegetation grew less dense as we moved further north. The lush groves of mango trees grew smaller until eventually melting into a few isolated plants. The villages gradually became smaller and spaced further apart from each other. Most of this part of the journey was on a paved road and we moved along at a rapid clip. In the car, the conversation was lively as Hafsa Hasan, Islamic Relief’s young Canadian chief fundraiser, asked questions of myself and Imam Talib ranging from the history of Islam in America, to the collapse of the Islamic medieval trading system, to a listing of our 10 favorite books. I remember mentioning among my favorites, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Servants of Allah (by Sylvianne Diouf), The Souls of Black Folk, Road to Mecca, Desert Encounter, and several others as the list expanded past the ten requested titles.
Reflecting on the poverty of the country, I recalled as a child going barefoot out of necessity. There were times when the lone pair of shoes I had were reserved for church and school, the one dollar sneakers were no longer fit to be worn and I would play out doors barefoot, a situation that resulted in occasional cuts, and nightly foot scrubbings to remove the accumulated grim of an active day outside in the dirt. I also remember days eating grits three meals a days, or less frequently during really hard times. Like Imam Talib, I recalled the times when friends in the neighborhood would be afflicted with ringworms or lice, afflictions we would notice occurring so frequently during the trip we were undertaking. The point of mentioning this is to emphasize that these are treatable maladies that were once common here in the United States. Even malaria was common in the southeastern United States until the Second World War. If such afflictions and scourges can be eliminated here in the United States, they can be eliminated in Mali and elsewhere in the developing world with a concerted and determined effort. It is also a reminder that there are poor people in the United States, and we have to be aware of their needs also.
As we made our way towards our hotel in the town of ‘Sevare, we decided to make a slight detour to visit the Great Mosque at Djenne. The mosque there is the largest adobe mosque in the world and is a symbol of the grandeur of Islam in Africa at the height of power of the great West African Islamic
Empires. However, one of the four cars in our caravan was experiencing trouble. Hence, the entire expedition was slowed down. A visit to Djenne would also require crossing the Niger by ferry, another time-consuming process. Hence, we would not be able to witness the Great Mosque during the daylight hours. As we waited for the ferry in the dusk of the declining day, we were surrounded by young female merchants who were selling very beautiful handmade necklaces. The tenacity of the vendors combined with the attractiveness of their wares led several members of our party to make purchases. We eventually were able to convince a ferry operator to extend his day by taking us across the river and waiting for us to return after a brief visit to the mosque.
Although we arrived at the mosque just after the Adhan of ‘Isha, we were able to see the silhouette of the mosque, grandly highlighted against the moonlit sky. Many of the details of the external architecture were made visible by the lights of the surrounding town. Praying in the dusty interior of the mosque was one of the highlights of the trip. We all agreed on that. Placing our heads in the dirt that had greeted the humble prostrations of so many generations of deeply spiritual individuals sitting to briefly mention Allah’s exalted names in places where devout Muslims, some of whom would be uprooted from their homes and transported to a far-off land in chains, had sat, were experiences that immediately impacted my heart in an indelible way. Now, I had been blessed to return to this land as a Muslim. The experience reminded me of a poem I had written in 1976, a year before I became a Muslim. I do not recall the poem in its entirety but part of it reads:
First you made me into a Christian,
but how can a Christian smile,
when the bones of his lost brothers
lie beneath the Niger and the Nile.
Take me home to my lost brothers,
take me home to my lost smile,
take me home where I can find them,
along the Niger and the Nile…
Approaching Djenne, we lamented not arriving during the daytime, when we have been able to take better pictures of the mosque. However, after our brief nighttime visit, which culminated with a tour of the mosque, and then the Imam making a passionate prayer for us, it seemed a fitting fate that we should visit at this time. This part of Mali has been described as a mysterious place and the nature of our visit reinforced that description for us. Upon re-crossing the Niger, we moved on to Sevare for another delicious Malian meal, highlighted by a dessert of locally grown papayas smothered in fresh lime juice, and a few hours of precious sleep.