Faso — The
town of Bandiagara, population 12,000, sits on a plateau of smooth sandstone
bluffs, grass, acacia, and palm trees that ends at an astonishing complex of
cliffs so high and abrupt that any of them on a dusty day can surprise a
traveler as if a piece of the globe has suddenly broken away. Bandiagara's dirt
homes, shellacked with mud stucco, bear the red tinge of this land's iron-rich
soil, farmed for centuries by the Dogon people and roamed by Fulani and Tuareg
herders. Homes stand along wide dirt streets useful for driving cattle and
sheep to market, and at dawn and dusk buildings glow under a dusty sun. A few
miles east of town, the cliffs drop 1,600 feet, grooving sharply in and out of
the plateau along a 100-mile front, running from the south to the northeast
like the edge of a saw. For over a thousand years, the cliffs have been a natural hideaway for one tribe
or another, most recently the Dogon, a few hundred of
whom came here 700 years ago to flee the Mali Empire's embrace of Islam.
history means more now that Bandiagara -- once popular with European and
American trekkers -- is settling into a new role as border post and garrison
town facing al Qaeda-affiliated jihadi groups spread across Mali's vast
Saharan north. France and its allies, namely the United States, call northern
Mali a jihadi "safe haven" that threatens the West. As a result, a U.N.-supported
multinational African attack on northern Mali is moving closer to reality. U.S. presidential candidate Mitt
Romney repeatedly cited Mali in his October foreign-policy debate with
President Barack Obama. But the jihadi takeover in the north, now six months old,
carries a touch of bitter irony in Bandiagara as history's tide washes back
across this town that 160 years ago was capital of the Toucouleur Empire. Founded
by El Hadj Umar Tall and ruled by the code of sharia, a strict interpretation of Islam, he reportedly killed more
than 100,000 people across inland West Africa during a reign that lasted more
than four decades. French force of arms and tribal uprisings brought it down in
Mali was not yet a campaign issue on May 8 when I drove into Bandiagara in late
afternoon with Isaac Sagara, a Dogon friend who grew up in a Christian family
in a village just below the plateau. Isaac was guiding me on a trip along the
edge of Mali's northern zone, a strange new borderland that no one has quite
figured out how to draw on a map. Some news agency maps show Mali cut in half
along a razor-straight line that runs from west to east, while others show a wavier
division, with the new border sloping off to the northeast roughly parallel to
the Bandiagara cliffs. In any case, Mali, shaped like a top-heavy hourglass, is
today divided at the narrow middle. Bandiagara sits square on the border
between what remains of Mali's tattered government in the south and jihadi
control in the north.
at the wheel of our aging Land Cruiser, hummed and smacked his lips through a
mouthful of mango. I think the tune was "Amazing Grace," but he lost the melody
in the chewing. He liked "Rock of Ages" and French hymns that I didn't know,
never breaking into words, just the outlines of song. He carried plastic bags
of peanuts and dates in his pockets and put mangoes on the dashboard. He told
stories about guiding tourists across the Dogon cliff country and about people
he met in the international aid business, like the American Peace Corps
volunteers in a Dogon village who obsessed about building a hot tub out of
clay. Once, working a rural health project, he was stranded in a village cut
off by monsoon rains during a cholera outbreak. "Terrible," he told me. "A
dozen people died." Then he'd pluck a mango off the dashboard, bite into it, and
peel back the skin with his teeth, all with one hand on the wheel and another
hymn spraying from his lips.
been in Bandiagara a dozen times over the past 25 years. Here and across Mali,
soldiers have always kept a low profile, in my experience. My tensest
encounter in this town had been to fend off a pesky cliff "guide" who kept
shouting "hakuna matata," the Swahili words for "no problem" immortalized in
Disney's The Lion King. Mali, even
under the army dictatorship that endured nearly three decades until 1991, has
never embraced military culture like other African countries. Mali's army, in
the words of a Western diplomat I met in Bamako, the Malian capital, "was never a military of
soldiers. Most are farmers putting in the time for a paycheck."
army, stressed by the growing Tuareg rebellion in the north, took back control this
year in a March coup, ending 21 years of democracy. Since the coup, however, the
army, true to the diplomat's words, has ruled without the curfews and endless
checkpoints that define other African military governments. In the streets of
Bandiagara and Bamako, soldiers generally keep to
themselves, though there is evidence that the army command structure is in
decay. In October, on a remote road near the border with Mauritania, Malian
soldiers shot to death 16 unarmed Muslim clerics traveling from Mauritania to
Bamako for a conference. The attack was apparently unprovoked.
in May, Bandiagara looked like a military camp, expecting an invasion at any
moment. Isaac drove slowly across the town square, where an armored vehicle
with a cannon and crew of soldiers occupied the concrete center island
protected by sandbags. As we turned down another road, Isaac slowed the car and
fixed his eyes on a large gun mounted in the back of a parked pickup truck. A
soldier was standing behind the gun at the ready. "Now that is very serious,"
he said, shaking his head with a broad smile and both hands on the wheel. "We
aren't used to seeing the army out in the open like this." His mood lightened
as if the sight encouraged him. Later he said, "I can tell you that by
December, Mali's nightmare will be over. Our soldiers will retake the north."
I said, squinting, trying to keep the doubt out of my voice.
certain of it."
hope for action is not baseless, though it likely won't happen in December. On Nov.
11, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States settled on a
military plan to retake northern Mali with 3,300 soldiers, mainly from Nigeria,
Niger, and Burkina Faso. The plan awaits U.N. Security Council approval, which
means action against the jihadists is a real possibility. The U.N. decision is
still months away.
French have committed aid similar to what they (with help from Britain and the
United States) gave the rebels who killed Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi
last year: arms and intelligence support, including surveillance drones.
France, which once ruled 2 million square miles of West Africa, including
Mali, helped end Qaddafi's rule, inadvertently releasing a flood of arms from
his looted arsenals into the hands of hundreds of battle-hardened Malian Tuareg
mercenaries he trained for his armies. In January, these men launched a war for
an independent Saharan state they call Azawad, taking Mali's north and
splitting the country in two. In March, riding the Tuareg wave, three jihadi groups -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and the
Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa -- arrived in force. By June they'd
chased the Tuareg nationalist rebellion underground and its leaders into exile.
This is the situation Mali, including Bandiagara, face today.
days I'd been gently pressing Isaac on what the jihadists in the north might
mean for him and his parents, who lived in a village a few hours' drive east of
Bandiagara, off the plateau. But he kept changing the subject. Now, as we drove
through Bandiagara, where everywhere we were reminded of war, I decided to be
blunt: "You know, they're talking about sharia law in Timbuktu and across the
north," I said. "Doesn't that worry you?"
never got cross, but he looked at me as if I'd accused him of something. "Of
course we're worried," he said.
realized neither Isaac nor his family had foreseen a drastic change in Mali's
Islamic power structure. Events in the north echoed what unfolded in this
region in the early 19th century with the short-lived rise of jihadi Islam.
a few minutes of silence Isaac said, "We may have to move the family."
Mopti or Bamako. We don't know. My sister wants my parents to live with her."
Isaac's sister lived in Mopti, the regional capital.
might be a good idea," I said. "Until things calm down."
From the looks of things in Bandiagara, however, that calm might be a long time coming.
Soldiers stood guard behind sandbags all about town. Government agencies and
aid organizations had removed identifying plaques, hoping to escape notice of
rebel looters, and many offices were shuttered. The people of Bandiagara, like
most of Mali, are Muslims of a tolerant persuasion. Mali is a Sunni Muslim
country, known for its Sufi traditions guided by the Quran while recognizing
mystical worship that gives individuals room to define their spiritual pathway
by personal experience and revelation, including through music and poetry. In
Timbuktu and other northern Malian towns, many Sufi saints are enshrined in
mausoleums. In this atmosphere, since the fall of the Toucouleur Empire, the
Dogon have thrived. Today they number about half a million.
the Islamists who now control northern Mali are Salafists, who live by a
strict reading of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammed. They
discourage icons and music because such things distract worshippers from
devotion to God. In April, the jihadists began destroying the Sufi mosques and
mausoleums of Timbuktu and the city of Gao. It's unclear what has happened to the 700,000
ancient manuscripts -- papers that detail the story of Islam in West and North
Africa -- in the old libraries of Timbuktu. Even worse, however, is the
jihadi program of public amputations for thieves and executions, by stoning,
of unmarried couples who bear children out of wedlock. Public flogging awaits
anyone caught consuming alcohol.
has a few bars normally marked by neat placards advertising Heineken, Castel Beer, and Coca-Cola, but the signs were now gone. The hotels had closed.
Tourism on the Bandiagara plateau had taken off in recent years. But now
schools, too, had shut down. Shops were open, but without signs or any hint of
the sale of alcohol or sweet drinks. I wondered whether the people of Bandiagara
knew something the rest of us didn't, as if they carried history with them
a few miles from here, in 1864, in the village of Hamdallaye, Umar Tall
died during a broad uprising of Tuaregs, Arabs, Fulanis, and Bambara against his
Toucouleur forces. He fell not in battle, but in the explosion of a gunpowder
cache. According to one historian, when Umar Tall's soldiers conquered new territory,
he ordered them to bring before him idols he would smash to pieces with an iron
mace. After his death, Tidiani Tall, his nephew, moved the Toucouleur capital to
higher ground here in Bandiagara, where it remained as capital until the French
conquered what they would call the colony of French Sudan, today known as Mali.
is to Mali a little like what Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy, is to the United States: a vaguely familiar name to many, a total
unknown to most, but a frightening reminder of a past that has left unsettled
business for a few others.
my friend, Isaac. He grew up in a Dogon village below the plateau and went to
high school in Bandiagara. He knows all about Umar Tall and the jihadi
threat. He speaks three languages, French, Bambara, and his native Dogon,
as well as a little Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg. Together we spoke French and he
promised to take me into the cliff villages to talk to people about what had
happened to Mali and about the jihadi threat.
Dogon country cannot be invaded," he said. "We are a good defense against the
rebels. You'll see. I'll show you."
was telling me this as we drove through town, drawing looks from soldiers and
townspeople. No one in Bandiagara had seen anyone like me since January, when
the rebellion in the north broke out and foreigners evacuated. Sitting beside
Isaac, I wore simple clothing to be less conspicuous, including a short-sleeve
shirt and a ball cap. We stopped at the offices of an American evangelical aid
group Isaac had once worked for, where he picked up the keys to the guesthouse
where we would sleep. The offices were in a villa surrounded by high concrete
walls and shaded by eucalyptus trees that grew inside the compound. As we
entered, Isaac's old colleagues greeted him warmly but in haste. They were busy
boxing up files and office supplies, the framework of rural health and literacy
programs Isaac had helped build. Some files would be trucked to Bamako and
the rest burned. Outside in the dirt street a large pile of paper burned
silently, flames whipped by a hot wind. A man kept returning from inside the
villa with a cardboard box full of paper to dump on the fire, trying to erase
evidence of the agency's presence. "We can't take any chances," he said to me.
we left the compound, Isaac was near tears. "I spent many happy days in
villages working side by side with these people."
the guesthouse, a small two-room mud building, we ate dinner in the cramped
courtyard around a kerosene lamp in plastic deck chairs. The electricity had
been cut. Dinner was white rice with salty tomato sauce and tough goat meat we
bought from a woman who ran a roadside food stall in town. She also sold yams
in tomato sauce and spaghetti. Stone-faced, he'd stared at me as we waited for
her to spoon up our food. She kept glancing at me as she and Isaac spoke in
were you talking about?" I asked later. "That woman looked at me as if I were
wanted to know what you are doing here, and I told her you are a tourist," he
said. "She said she did not believe me, but she told me that I was brave to
bring you here, whoever you are."
both laughed a little nervously.
dawn on May 9 we drove into the cliff country, about 30 miles northeast of Bandiagara
to a village called Begnemato, to meet a friend of Isaac, Daniel Andoulé. He
was a Dogon farmer and self-styled historian. Isaac told me the Dogon built the
village on a shelf partway down the cliffs far enough back from the cliff face
that it cannot be seen from the plain or from the plateau above the village.
The Dogon, according to Andoulé, had been there for 600 years, hiding from
slave raiders and jihadists -- Umar Tall's men. We crossed the plateau,
sometimes hugging the cliffs, following an old track the French built in the
1930s across impossibly rocky ground, sliced by ravines shallow and deep. We
passed troops of women portaging baskets of dirt scooped from dry riverbeds for
resurfacing fields eroded by wind.
at about 9 a.m., in brilliant heat, Isaac parked the Land Cruiser in the thin
shade of a rare acacia tree a few yards from the cliff. Standing on the edge,
we could look down and see Begnemato in the distance. I picked my way down the
cliffs on a crude, well-worn stone staircase while Isaac walked with a swift
agility that amazed me for his size. I carried a daypack with peanuts, mangoes
and water for us both, stepping down while holding the rock face on my left and
looking away from successive drop-offs on my right, a few dozen feet here and
100 feet there. The path descended about 600 feet to a broad sandy field
pleasantly shaded by palm trees. A half-mile away we could see cone-shaped mud
granaries and a long concrete school building. The Malian flag flew from a pole
beside it. We walked across the field and past the school, which was closed,
and into a village built of rock slabs broken from the cliffs and roofs made
of thatch from grass or dried millet and corn stalks. A group of polite teenage
boys escorted us. One boy said, "We saw you coming from the top of the cliff."
beamed and nudged me at the boy's words. "You see?" he said. "It is hard to
surprise a Dogon village."
was, he guessed, about 70. He stood tall, with a large shaven head dimpled like
a grapefruit, a barrel chest, and a thin graying beard. He wore khaki shorts and a
brown tunic of woven cotton over the large frame of a man who'd once been much
stronger, more muscular, used to physical work in the fields or breaking rock
to repair homes. He still had large thighs, though his arms were thinner. "I
don't go to the fields anymore," he said. "I let my sons do that."
worked with Isaac on understanding Begnemato's religious demographics,
information Isaac used for the thesis he wrote for his rural sociology degree.
Isaac found that 600 people of Muslim, animist, and Christian lived in the
village. They lived in separate neighborhoods. Andoulé was Catholic. "We've
always lived in peace with each other," he told me. "It is not the Dogon way to
impose our customs on others."
led us to a shaded veranda on the roof of his home. We sat on mats and ate rice
and chicken in tomato sauce. In a mix of French and Dogon, with Isaac helping
to translate, Andoulé talked of the Dogon struggle with Fulani herders who
grazed their animals, mainly goats and cows, on Dogon farmland on the Seno
Gondo plain below the cliffs. "We've had terrible fights," he said, "but that
has not happened in a few years."
point of our visit was to talk about food, drought, and war. Begnemato sits in
central Mali, in the east of Mopti province, where staples like millet and rice
sell for six times what they did a year ago. Andoulé blames their food problems
on the fighting in the north and last year's poor rains. The rains have been
better this year -- the drought broke over the summer, after I left Mali -- but
aid agencies have reported persistent food shortages across the Sahel because
the rains have been spotty, and for other reasons. The previous year's drought
had depleted village seed stocks, and the conflict in northern Mali has either
cut off many farmers from their fields or frightened them away. Mali, along
with the rest of the West African Sahel, from Senegal to Chad, is under the
strain of a food crisis that has put 15 million people at risk of starvation.
have not known starvation in a long time," Andoulé said. "Even in the bad years
[the droughts of the 1970s and mid-1980s], we were able to survive with the
money tourists brought us. But we have had only three or four foreign visitors
here in the past year. The French and Americans are afraid of being kidnapped."
I asked whether he feared the Islamists, Andoulé laughed. "I am much more afraid of
drought." Then he said, "Let me show you something."
walked Isaac and me outside the village and across a broad, solid mass of
sandstone, part of the shelf on which the village had been built hundreds of
years ago. We hiked up a sandy pathway to a rock ledge above the village, right
on the cliff face looking out over the Seno Gondo plain far below. By now it
was nearly 1 p.m., and the flat, sandy expanse below us was shrouded in thin
dust. I'd seen pictures of the Seno Gondo as a lovely green savanna, lightly
forested with acacia and palm trees, but now it looked like solid desert,
nothing but sand with a few trees.
"Les rebels," Andoulé began in French,
switching to Dogon as he pointed across the plain, "they would have to come up
into these cliffs." He turned to Isaac and me. He was smiling, sure of his security
in the cliffs. "They do not know this country. No one knows this country like
the Dogon. We have pathways through these cliffs that no one knows about but
us. The rebels cannot travel up into here. Our army knows that. There are Dogon
officers in the army. No one has ever attacked us and succeeded."
the distance we could see a dense and narrow dust plume, rising like a geyser.
"Dust devil," I said.
Isaac said, "or a rebel pickup truck."
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