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Bamako, a primer on Nossombougou and the birth of Samba Konaré October 8, 2006

Posted by Nima in Uncategorized.


Greetings folks,  One month into my Malian stay and this is the first time I’ve had access to the Internet, actually any form of non-generator powered electricity supply since our first few days in Bamako. A tremendous amount has happened in this time so I won’t even attempt trying to cover it all – it would be impossible even if I had an eternity in this cozy, mercifully air conditioned cyber cafè, but alas I have a limited amount of time before we head to watch an important soccer qualifier between Mali and Togo, so I’ll do my best to give you all a taste of what life has been like here. (look for the tell-all novel in stores next year) 


It seems like a lifetime ago that we first arrived in this bustling, chaotic, vibrant city of about one million. At first the hectic pace of life and partially the urban landscape reminded me somewhat of Tehran, likely because that’s the closest facsimile I’ve experienced; storefronts with improvised perforated metal, mud and branch structures, goats and sheep wandering the streets, blaring music, rollercoaster like traffic, the call to prayer from mosques, but also the dichotomy of chic Western style downtown Bamako where a staggering number of NGOs and embassies – Iran and Canada are next to each other- are located, and where you’re liable to see any number of expensive sports cars and other internationally recognized signs of affluence.   We spent a few days visiting the city, preparing for our integration in our village of Nossombougou and being acclimatized to the scorching, lead filled skies. While the official language of administration and commerce in Mali is French, the vast majority of local life takes place in the local tongue of Bombara (and outside of Bamako, as we soon learned, very little French is spoken at all)- so we Canadians relied heavily on our Malian counterparts to guide us around, negotiate prices for us at the market, and help us avoid making an inordinate amount of faux pas those first few days ( we were nearly attacked by a few people who thought we took their picture, but generally no incidents). I was taken by how many people would greet us on the street, want to hear us speak some Bombara, invite us over for tea, and of course, the ineffable chants of just about everyone screaming “Toubabou!” or “whitey,” which has become a constant of our lives here. (I never thought I’d ever be called a cracker 30 times a day)      

Almost immediately my standards of safety took a precipitous drop; the first day we went for a tour of the city in the back of a pick-up truck and tried out the unofficial Malian transport system, known as “sotramas”, a system of privately owned green cube-van shuttle buses that feature a man hanging out the door screaming the destination to those along the way, and a series of benches inside that allow you to fit a remarkable amount of people (this morning  there were about 25 adults in ours). But of course, this is all part of the Malian experience, along with seeing the driver have to pay “duties” at checkpoints along the way.

And leave it to Canadians to find a bar on our first night there- We became acquainted with very good local millet beer Castel, and I got to know the young bar manager named Ali. He was a very charming guy who was very keen on talking politics, the challenges of NGOs, running a business in Mali, the trouble with maintaining longstanding traditions…anyway, my kind of guy and we’re going to meet up again the next time I’m in town. 

 After a few short days in Bamako we headed to Nossombougou, roughly 60km but a world away from
Bamako. It is a rather traditional village of around 4,000 people, consisting largely of mud homes with the occasionally use of concrete, has no running water or electricity (besides several generators), and the vast majority survive on subsistence farming. We were greeted the first day by the Village Chief, the Mayor and other representatives; It had been raining heavily that day (this is the end of the rainy season), which made the mud and clay streets of Nossombougou quite difficult to navigate; even with donkey powered carts.

Ahmadou and I are staying with the family of Issa Donyan Konaré, who works at the mayor’s office ( the village was founded by Nossom Konaré in 1498 and the inherited Chef du Village and elected mayor must be one of his direct descendents). Issa greeted us very warmly and introduced me to his family upon arrival to our home; we live in a very comfortable mud home with a metal roof ( a sign of moderate means here, but also traps the friggin heat like crazy) which is one of five contained in our family’s courtyard. And keeping with Malian tradition I was renamed by the family; my new name is Samba Konaré, which was the name of Issa’s father, and the name that everyone in the family and village knows me by.  One mud structure is reserved specifically for cooking, with the women using pestles and mortars and charcoal to prepare our traditional Malian meals, almost entirely from locally grown products. We have about 25 sheep, a handful of goats, chickens and a very pleasant donkey ( by the end of this I’m going to be friggin Dr. Dolittle) 

As for life in Nossombougou, I venture it hasn’t changed an inordinate amount in the last century, despite the occasional exception; Claudie and Tata live with the rich owners of the pharmacy, have an entirely concrete house, bed, TV and DVD player with every imaginable Steven Seagal film.  There are a few NGOs active in the village working on a number of fronts, but the most active appears to be World Vision, which does a little bit of everything. There are about a dozen stores here such as a bakery, tailor, with general stores stocking a number of essential items (Fantas and Sprites), but otherwise there is a once weekly market on Mondays when we can buy a wide range of products; grains, soccer jerseys, even occasional Bin Laden t-shirts or Saddam Hussein lunch boxes.  There is a well frequented mosque – 90% of Malians are Muslim – and I’m told several Churches, although they look exactly like regular buildings. This is the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslim’s fast from sunrise to sunset – Pirmin is doing the fast for no real reason – and most importantly have a giant party when it’s all over. 

To be honest the first few days here I felt like I was in a vortex where time barely if ever trickles by- nobody is in a particular rush to do anything, and social gathering like meeting for tea- which takes several hours to make 3 teas of varying sweetness, hearing almost only Bombara in the family, eating the new food and adjusting to the weather and the strange dreams my anti-malarial pills were giving me…it all added up to feeling like I was under the influence of a potent hallucinogen.  

But the adjustment has certainly progressed; As for our daily life here, we are meant to eventually help our host families with the harvest of their crops, but for now the plants are still growing and we have much more time to explore Malian culture, politics, economics… all of it through various workshops and activities and informal conversations that last for hours. It has been a somewhat intense learning curve, but I’ve never met so many interesting people in my life and had conversations so wide ranging and different from anything I’m used to. People have been very warm and welcoming here, and although sometimes the kids in our family – over 10 – can be a little much to be around all the time ( the concept of “personal space” is just about nonexistent ), I’ve now become much more comfortable greeting just about everyone in Bombara on my daily path.

I’ve never been this disconnected from the world but it actually feels very nice; the stars shine remarkably brightly here every night which is a mesmerizing spectacle, one of the most pleasant sides of underdevelopment.   There is also a radio here in Nossombougou, Radio Walena, funded by World Vision and meant to provide a very local perspective on events and daily life- and of course I’ve found my way over to this very exciting place filled with some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ll have lots more to report next time on this, but I’m going to be hosting my first show alongside Boubacar this Saturday ( try and catch it on the short wave if you can) 

( side note: I’ve shaved my head and let my beard grow for the first time in my life; ,ainly because, well, why not? At first I looked like Andre Agassi but with the beard getting more unwieldy I look more like the mosque’s Imam)  And now off to the Mali versus Togo match- last time they played Togo shocked
Mali by winning and there were riots across the country. Here’s hoping for a convincing Malian victory, otherwise we may have a little too much excitement getting home tonight.



1. Parn - October 8, 2006

I wish I could watch the crops in the fields grow with you!

2. Craig - October 8, 2006

Love the new look… Can I now claim that I am now following the latest Malian fashion?!

3. Adrienne - October 10, 2006

Lovely to hear from you!

Stay safe and enjoy those stars for me. C’est comme cinq cents millions de grelots, n’est-ce pas?

huggles, adrienne

4. Jade - October 12, 2006

A very nice photograph Nima. Stay safe and enjoy the new culture!

5. jess - October 13, 2006

love the shaved head.
and i’m jealous of you right now. how would you feel about trading places with me?
keep up the question asking and enjoy your lariam-invoked dreams.

6. Daniel - October 15, 2006

It is really bizarre…in that picture at the top, you really do look like Andre Agassi.

Who would have thought?!

Mali sounds like quite the place. One question: are most of the people in the village doing the fast?

7. gem - October 15, 2006

woah woah woah.. that’s a lot more craziness than you shared with me during our literally 9 minute phone call haha.. promise to read this more haha.. and by more i mean.. whenever you tell me to haha : p

8. varun - October 18, 2006

nima, man, give m ee a number i can call you at. Its been much too long since we talked.

9. John - November 6, 2006

Samba Konaré,

I almost didn’t even recognize you in that picture. It sounds like you’re having an amazing experience. Keep up the great work buddy!


10. Snarf - November 15, 2006

Sounds sweet…but Thornhill is getting boring these days. When you home? I need a nice tummy to rub occasionaly.

11. Jacky - December 7, 2006

Sounds like you had a lot of fun! So jealous right now, haha.

12. Daniel - December 17, 2006

Are you back?

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