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Visiting Mali: An interview with a resident

Note: At the publishing of this post, various government agencies advise against travel to Mali due to safety and security risks.


Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa with a population of 23.3 million. Bambara is the official language, along with French being widely spoken in the ethnically and linguistically diverse country know for its mud brick architecture, its various UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Timbuktu and the Old Towns of Djenné, and its rich history. Mali was once home to the Mali Empire, ruled during the 14th century by Mansa Musa I, reported to have been the richest person who ever lived. We spoke to Ibrahim, a resident of Gao, to learn more about Mali.

Hi Ibrahim. Thanks for speaking with us. What are some of the best places to visit in Mali?

Ibrahim: The best place to visit is Timbuktu. If you are a tourist and you want to visit Mali, then you have to go there. It has a lot of history. You can visit some amazing mosques such as the Djinguereber Mosque, a famous centre of learning. If you are a tourist, you’ll be treated really well. People will know you’re not from here, not from our society. When we see a foreigner, we want to take care of them because we want them to have a good impression of Mali. The tourist is like a messenger. So we have to be very good to them, very gentle and very humble. And wherever they go, they will have good words to say about Mali. This is our culture. After Timbuktu, I suggest going to Mopti to experience our traditional way of life, and going to Djenné, where you can visit the Great Mosque of Djenné.

That’s nice to hear. Where are some good places to try Malian cuisine?

Ibrahim: The best place to try food in Mali is Bamako, the capital. Malians generally don’t go to restaurants. We cook our food at home. Here in Gao, my hometown, there aren’t so many restaurants. It’s not a good business. People don’t come to buy because they are cooking at home. But in Bamako, it’s a big city and so many people don’t have time to cook at home. A lot of the people in Bamako are from the regions; Gao, Timbuktu, Mopti. And when they want to eat, they’ll go to restaurants. So it’s this idea that made people open good hotels and restaurants in Bamako.

Here we like eating Fakoye. We make a sauce from vegetables and spices and serve it over rice or millet. Malians love it. We say that it washes your blood. We also like Gumbo, a green sauce made from okra. Again it is served on rice. Speaking of which, Malians love rice. We all eat rice here.

The community coming together to maintain a mosque in Timbuktu, Mali.
The community tradition of maintaining the Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu.
Photo credit: Bagayoko Modibo (Author), UNESCO Office in Bamako (Source).

Is there anything you can share about Mali that isn’t well known?

Ibrahim: Maybe people think of Mali as a poor country. I don’t think so. There is gold here. But we don’t have the means to take advantage of it. We also have a lot of agricultural wealth but maybe society is more interested in working in an office. Also we have 3 universities here; University of Bamako, University of Sankoré, University of Timbuktu

Is there anything in particular you like about Mali?

Ibrahim: The one thing I like about Mali is how we look after each other. Me, for example, I’ve graduated from university but I couldn’t find a job. My big brother is working, and I can rest assured he will always take care of me. I’m not earning but I’m eating and drinking and have a place to stay. It’s this culture of helping each other that I like.

Do you have any tips for someone who wants to visit Mali?

Ibrahim: For a first-time visitor maybe it would also be good to visit Mopti. I mentioned it earlier. There you’ll find the Pays Dogon. In Dogon Country there are many tourists, so you won’t be alone. You can see traditional dancing, ceremonies and festivals. And you can visit Mount Hombori. It’s the highest peak in Mali and has many ancient caves, where people lived in the 2nd century BC. People living there maintain an older, traditional way of life. It’s so nice to visit.

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