There is a road south of Bamako that continues on to Guinea. It's characters and personality are rich, rich red, and full of texture. The road is not exactly one you'd see where I'm from in America withbut miniature lakes huge dips and ridges and a snaking safe passage around them forming a curving undulating narrow path around the wild terrain that is the road. I jokingly and in bad Bambara said the road itself was the wilderness supposedly boardering it. The bumps and shaking of the groaning vans crawling slowly along the road sound are wild and crazy. You feel a bit like your ridding some obstacle course in an old beat up van the driver smashes into parts of the terrain driving slowly and the road forces him to, but way to fast for human comfort. It's humorous in retrospect I suppose, though a disturbing prospect. This road is one of the main roads that ties Mali South of Bamako to Guinea and links all the villages in between. In all fairness the bad sections of the road described above are truly small sections of the road, but the can consume hours of your trip as memories of pavement and speeds above 30 miles an hour coast into the distant memory.
For all its wild, strong and exciting character the road is beautiful in a very deep way. I love roads. I think it comes from the family trips we took traveling across country by car from Seattle, Washington to Kalamazoo Michigan. We would travel over five days across the country by car and later by train and the trips left an impact in, well I guess my soul. There are a few things my memories that have left indellible marks in my heart and mind like tatoos. Traveling the long roads and rails, photographing the beauty of nature and people may shortly find itself to be my highest passion and lifelong occupation. My Mother's Mother, once she was older maintained her good health by walking long distances across the town my mother grew up in. Then Grannie kept walking in poor shoes until she developed health concerns, eventually falling, complications ensued and I don't remember exactly of what but she passed a bit later. As a family we would go on walks when I and my little sister Karis were young, picking up all manner of seeds, leaves, observing nature through her seasons and taking in the beautiful world all along the roads of my hometown. So you see the Southern Bamako red road with its seemingly endless and unchecked green fields and wildernesses speak to someone inside of me.
The fields and trees as far as the eye can see lining the road, or rather the roads veining them are something like fiction. I imagine driving in the rural areas around Tallahassee that the forest stretches without end. I imagine that were I to walk out into the nature around my town that I could walk forever and not hit the other side. Its an important thing to imagine because it ensures that somewhere, even if only in fiction, the unregimented, unrestrained pure and beautiful world is wide beyond ones ability to master it. In my imagination the world is still big like when I was a child, every part of it hasn't been crossed and colonized and there are still places where you can wander in openness and freedom. So the story this African road shares with me is that there actually is an endless wilderness still left and that somewhere humanity can exist without constriction. Obviously the story is fiction. Yet it's good to know such fiction can still be written.
Anyways, the bus ride is great and wack at the same time. We hit Degela and one of the coolest guys ever, John Wu, Mali code name Soloman Coulibaly leads me to his home there. Over the next few days John interprets for me an unraveling story of magic and legend that exists at the edges and in the history and childhood experiences of the people of several of the villages South of Mali.
The houses in the villages here are earthen, there is no electricity, the people are warm and quite busy going about the work that sustains them. Most people are farmers, but many people also hunt and do other tasks like repairing the many bicycles, and motorbikes people use for transportation. Degela is filled with green and while the earthen floor in the center of the village in worn earth without small green growing things, just outside of that area green is everywhere.
One of the first people we interview is the Degela Donsoba (chief hunter). Donsoba tells a story of the origins of Donsoya (hunting tradition) which take leave of normal reality a bit and I didn't get much of what he said. I'll have to translate it later. We do make out that there are special plants taken before a hunter goes to sleep through which they may attain visions of future events. Quite cool I thought. they call such plant knowledge here Jiridon. I was not able to discover which plant and the specifics of the method as it is reserved for donso, but Donsoba told me to return when I am a Donso and he'll tell me. Another cool.
We visited a man in charge of a magic wishing tree that fulfills peoples wishes traveling from all over the region to address their desires. Then John met a member of an old educational system at the core of the preIslamic cultural heritage who said he would show me a bit of it. In brief conversation John also mentioned a guy the next village up who spoke about a hill people by sometimes invisible little people with backwards feet. Okay... The people who had heard the story though it quite a bit odd, but I having spent quite a few years looking into West African culture was familiar with such tales though I hadn't expected to run into them in Mali. Wokolo in Mali, Kontomble in Burkina, Mmoetia in Ghana, and I believe Azili in some part of Benin or Togo, these little people are discussed by quite a few people who swear to their existence having met them, regularly meet with them etc. A Native American friend in America mentioned that Natives speak about the little people quite often when non-Natives aren't around and a judge in (I believe the Phillipines) was fired a while back when he said he received counsel from magic little people apparently part of the local beliefs. Similar creatures are spoken about in Haiti and I think a number of other place though I'd have to find some notes. As we began to talk about Mali's stories about Wokolo it seemed a whole magic world opened beneath a thin veneer of simple everyday village life.
These villages are in fact over a thousand years old. There are stories routed in the mind, developed so long ago, but continually experienced, and ways of life crafted around across all those years. I wondered how a thousand year old place still holding strongly to old traditions might differ from the cities I've live in. I began to get some of my answer in these villages south of Bamako.
It seems that one of the things that makes Blacksmithing and hunting different in these regions is this age. Rather than the old things being left behind for a space aged access to information, things, and exciting new possibilities, old things are worked into and reshaped creating an amazing dimension to life. You have spirits and magic little people, sometimes visible or not, you have sacred geography and immense secrets, quite mind blowing in their unraveling. You have knowledge also. Imagine one of several thousand years ago you figured out how to do something. Then imagine from then till now your family was educated into that knowledge base, expanded, developed and enriched it. Well that it the context in which people live out their lives and vocations. Farmers reportedly make it rain, Blacksmiths resist fire and the sharp edges of steel, hunters resist the dangers of wild animals historically lions, elephants, crocidile etc. And people find ways to live in an area unguarded by police, large cement buildings and fences. People find ways to stay safe when there is the constant threat of warfare on the horizon. I would later learn there is a warrior tradition here, martial arts and people skilled in the use of weaponry and hand to hand combat like one imagines certain periods of Asian history to have been. And like the warring period in Japan when samurai, war and danger raged across the land the region has seen war and warriors like Europes medieval knights, Japan's Samurai, and the worlds history of such things. So people found ways to survive, and though we in the west know little of the remarkable knowledge developed in this part of Africa to do such things I've heard a bit. Believe you me, it belongs on the world stage with all of the great triumphs of human accomplishment. I've heard and seen some remarkable things. I thing what benefits me greatly is that I have no desire to write them off as complete make believe having seen some of there demonstrated truths and real life usefulness.