Archive for Mali


Places to visit in Mali

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We are often asked what sights we think are worth seeing, which places we found interesting and what would we recommend doing.  These are our thoughts. There is much more detail in our Journal for Mali. We crossed West Africa by public transport in late 2005 and early 2006 and our notes are in the Journal section of this web site.

The details may change so we suggest you check with a good guide book. We prefer the “Rough Guide” series because they are well written and kept up to date.  You can get more information on


Sankore Mosque Timbuktu Mali Djinguereber Mosque Timbuktu Mali

Sankoré Mosque and the Djingareiber Mosque  

Timbuktu, the mystical city, has captured the imagination of Europeans for at least the past couple of centuries. It is the travel objective of many people visiting Mali. Whilst the city itself is now sand blown and depressed many still savour the journey to get there. Indeed it is the journey which makes the trip worthwhile. There are several options. One is to travel romantically on a slow cargo boat from Mopti down the Niger and through the inland Niger Delta, spending a couple of days on the boat. This is a slow and not very comfortable trip. Another river option is the much more comfortable and faster tourist boats from Mopti. Some still stop for a night, camping on the bank.  Over land from Douéntza to Timbuktu can be done in two days by public transport minivan or one day in a four wheel drive truck. The road is through arid semi desert with magnificent rock outcrops on the way. The road or rather track is un-surfaced and the tyre marks in the sand of other vehicles often disappears.  In the middle, the rest areas are crude shelters but it is a wonderful opportunity to meet other travellers on camels. Other regular travellers on the overland route are Tuareg donkey trains taking grain to Timbuktu to trade for Saharan rock salt which they take back to Mopti.

Mosque Timbuktu Mali Camel on road to Timbuktu Mali

Ornate doors of the Sidi Yéhia Mosque. Traveller with camel on the overland route to Timbuktu.

The fabled wealth of Timbuktu comes from the twelfth century when in 1324 Masa Musa made a fabulous pilgrimage to Mecca, passing through Cairo.  Now the town is decidedly threadbare with three mosques, a couple of museums and three “explorers” houses to see. The Djingareiber Mosque is the oldest and said to be the most interesting.  It was built in 1325 by an Andalucian architect and poet, El Saheli, on the orders of the famous Kankan Mousa. Its high castellated mud brick walls had a conical tower in the centre and was frankly not nearly as impressive at the great mosque at Djénné.  The other two mosques were built in the 15th Century.  The Sankoré Mosque was small and simple and built by a Berber woman.  This looked much more interesting with a magnificent 30 foot mud brick pyramid shaped tower, studded with toron, or sticks, regularly arranged on the surface.  The Sidi Yéhia Mosque, perhaps the least attractive externally has magnificent wooden doors decorated with exquisitely cut metal plates. 

Festival in the Desert

Every year a rock and traditional music festival is held in the desert north of Timbuktu. Details of the next event are available on;



  Grand Mosque Djene Mali 

The famous Djenné Mosque is said to be the largest mud brick structure in the world and it is really impressive. With three large square towers, in the centre of the front façade, each reaching over 10m into the clear blue sky the mosque dominates the town.  Each tower has an array of wooden poles, or toron, sticking out of the surface so that workmen can easily climb to repair and maintain the banco exterior after the rains each year.  Around the massive toron studded walls are pointed castellations giving the mosque the air of a fairy tale castle.  Standing on a three metre high plinth the Mosque seems to tower out of the central market square.  It was said that with the main worship hall being 50m by 26m and with 90 pillars supporting the wooden roof the mosque could accommodate thousands of worshipers. 

Houses Djenne Mali
The surrounding three storey houses are also mud brick structures formed along narrow streets and alleys to produce welcome shade from the African sun. The Moroccan style doors and window shutters add to the charm of the town which is listed as a UN World Heritage site. We felt Djenné was much more impressive than Timbuktu and well worth a day. The town is just south of Sevarré, which is near Mopti.   


The bustling and colourful inland port of Mopti is alive with vibrant colour and life. River traffic destined for Timbuktu and the towns down the River Niger into Nigeria and the Niger Delta load here.

Dogon County

  Market in Sanga in Dogon Country Mali Fetish house Dogon Country Mali

Market in Sanga. Sacred house with fetishes in external niches 

High on a plateaux above the surrounding plains the Dogon people have maintained their animist culture and beliefs for hundreds of years. Despite both Christian and Muslim missions the Dogon way of life is still practiced as it has always been. Living in mud brick and rock houses the animist believes are clearly visible as fetishes kept in niches on the walls of sacred houses. They are a shy and almost secretive people who are friendly to visitors but don’t invite intrusion.  Visitors are shown around the rocky villages, some perched right on the abyss of the cliff edge of the plateaux.  There is little accommodation here and organised tours are discouraged, but independent travellers are offered flat roofs to sleep on or simple rooms.  Visiting the Dogon country in southern Mali felt like a privilege. This should certainly be on the travel plans of anyone exploring Mali.   

Telem Cliff Villages

Tellem Cliff village Mali Tellem Cliff village Dogon Country Mali 

The Telem cliff face villages are an incredible sight in the Dogon country. Two storey rock houses and granaries were built in huge rock crevices high in the rock face, over a thousand years ago. Clearly visible from the surrounding hills these ancient villages are still there. If this marvellous sight was not in such a remote place we believe it would certainly be classified as one of the wonders of the world. 


The pleasant little town of Segou is a nice place to spend a couple of days. Perched on the banks of the River Niger it is a quiet unpretentious town with friendly people, a couple of good family run hotels and decent restaurants.  There are a couple of places of interest nearby, a fishing village and Kalabougou, regionally renown for its pottery.


Making Pots Mali Kalabougou Mali pots 

The village seemed to be engulfed in flames as we approached. In fact the women in the village were firing the clay pots they had made during the week. Visitors are very welcome to take a boat up the Niger from Segou to the village to stroll around and watch the women hand forming clay pots. What is remarkable is that the pot stays still and the potters walk round and round, managing to produce perfectly circular results. They explain the glazes and if you are lucky enough to arrive on the day the pots are fired watch the finished pots being dragged from the straw fires.


Bank and Hotel Bamako Mali

Bank and modern hotel 

Bamako is the Capital of Mali. It is a modern African city on the banks of the River Niger. Whilst there are some large buildings and the central streets are paved the city sprawls out with more modest accommodation for the one million inhabitants.  The National Museum has very well presented displays and is well worth a half day visit. 


Kayes street Mali 

Reputed to be the hottest town in Africa it is an important regional centre on the Senegal River. There are some colonial French buildings which now house local government offices. It is a good place to stop and rest if you are travelling to or from Senegal. Otherwise there is not much to attract visitors.


Bamako is the Capital of Mali. It is a modern African city on the banks of the River Niger. Whilst there are some large buildings and the central streets are paved the city sprawls out with more modest accommodation for the one million inhabitants.  The National Museum has very well presented displays and is well worth a half day visit.


Reputed to be the hottest town in Africa it is an important regional centre on the Senegal River. There are some colonial French buildings which now house local government offices. It is a good place to stop and rest if you are travelling to or from Senegal. Otherwise there is not much to attract visitors.


Where we were:

Categories : countries, Facts, Mali
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George turned up with a trainee guide and a porter.  It was exhilarating stepping out over the rock of the plateau in the early morning sun when it was cool and refreshing. We passed through a couple of villages, walking up a gentle incline. People were stirring with daily chores as the sun rose. Women were already up and about and heading toward village centres and wells carrying pots on their heads.  Herds of sheep and goats were nudged toward grazing grounds by small boys and men with hoes set off for the onion fields.

Nimbly as mountain goats George and the other guys negotiated a twenty foot scramble which we struggled down carefully.  As we walked toward the edge of the falaise, George in the lead, the two young men helped Margaret to scramble down short rock faces and through steeply descending natural tunnels.  Here George recounted the local legend of an argumentative and unruly local man who became increasingly violent.   The Dogon elders finally decided that this man had become an unacceptable threat to the community and he was banished to one of the natural tunnels.   The paths threaded through spectacular rock falls where we ducked through crevices between gigantic boulders the size of three storey houses. 

Then suddenly we emerged onto a ledge teetering on the brink of the precipice.  The view, south across the plain to Burkina Faso was breathtaking.  George pointed to a distant line halfway to the hazy horizon.  That, he said was an encroaching wall of sand from the desert.  The farmers had planted trees to try to slow the creep of the sand but every year it moved steadily toward the fields and the farmland.  The path across the face of the cliff seemed a bit adventurous until we gingerly rounded a corner and saw kids scampering all over the rocks.  When they saw us approaching the ran over to greet us clearly absolutely at home skipping over edges and ledges hundreds feet above the jagged rocks below that would mean certain death for the unwary. Peering apprehensively over the edge, George showed us a deserted village at the base of the cliff.  Most people, he explained now lived either on the plateau or on the plain.   

As we toured through more villages we saw burial sites where the bodies of families were interred in natural caves.  The entrances were bricked up with loose stone slabs so that the grave could be opened up to place another body inside.  For some reason there was a gap left in the entrance wall of each grave so that you could look in and see the skulls and bones.  Though very private people the Dogon stopped to talk as we walked through their villages.  We chatted to the local headmaster who had taught George to speak English.  He recounted the tale of the Tellem people, whom it was said fled to this site 1077, about the time of the Norman conquest in England.  This was when the Empire of the Soninke Kings was at its height.  This Empire had sophisticated administrative systems, tax collectors and border controls. The capital city also boasted stone built houses. It seems the political development of Africa and Europe was on a par at this point in history. He was very interested in our journey, where we had come from, what we were doing in Gambia and where we planned to go.  As we chatted, women with bowls on their heads walked with sure footed certainty up rocky paths to a small plateau where a group of five women were pounding grain. Their synchronised pounding in one large pot looked for all the world like a party of bell ringers.   

In one village we walked through a large long natural tunnel where there were food stalls set up.  As we approached the far end, walking in the gloom of the cavern, there was a group of young girls singing together.  The intense sunlight at the entrance momentarily blinded us and then an amazing sight opened up. We stood gazing at a vision of beautiful rich green and stunning blue. The bright green of terraced onion fields was contrasted with the intense blue of pools and streams of water, all set off by an immense and flawless pale blue sky.  After the drab surfaces of the rocky villages and the dim interior of the tunnel this looked like a vision of Xanadou.

On a path between onion fields separating two villages we came across an old man tending divination tables drawn in the sand.  The man drew lines in the sand to make small oblong areas.  Then he stuck straws, twigs and stones in various configurations within each rectangular area.  Finally he buried ground nuts strategically in the table.  He explained, through George, that foxes came at night and rooted around looking for the nuts and in doing so disturbed the arrangement of the table.  From this scattering of the contents of the table the old man could predict the future for his clients. 

We returned to the mission house for lunch.  In the afternoon we explored another part of the plateau where there were extensive terraced onion fields and large ponds of irrigation water where the people fished.  This area was some distance from the busy villages we visited in the morning. Here there were abandoned villages which seemed almost intact but eerily quiet.  Given the scarcity of building materials I was surprised that the buildings had been untouched by people building or repairing houses in the other villages.  George explained patiently, as if to a backward child, that the spirits of the people who lived in the deserted village were still there.  To remove or desecrate their homes, or disturb the community burial sites, would bring untold misfortune on anyone ignorant enough try.

Our route back through Sanga in the pleasant early evening light took us past the new mosque.  The Imam and some of the elders were resting under a mango tree and I was greeted warmly as I approached. After greetings and a gift of Kola nuts to each man we discussed the progress being made in converting the locals to Islam.  The Imam said the Muslim community had been growing steadily for the past seventy years but the Dogon were proud people with strong animist traditions.  His eyes twinkled when he said Allah was understanding and patient and there was plenty of time!

We walked up some concrete roads recently built by a French development organisation to open up the Dogon country to tourists and hopefully stimulate a new source of income to benefit the area. There were also new schools built by the Mali government and a new health centre in Sanga, sponsored, built and maintained by an Italian charity.

The early morning sun the next day flooded across the plain and lit up the ochre cliff face with a warm yellow orange light, scattering shadows of trees and stone buildings.  From the top of the road which curved off of the plateau and hairpinned down and down into the plain we gazed across at the full extent of the cliff face.  We could just make out the village on the edge of the cliff where we saw the children cavorting above the abyss.  Casting our eyes downward we could clearly see the stone houses and the conical mud brick granaries of the deserted village at the base of the cliff.  Away from the base, the busy settlements of the plain stretched out to the south like tiny matchboxes randomly scattered on either side of a dusty road on which a tiny plume of dust was raised by an invisible vehicle. 

Returning our gaze to huge light brown cliff face we searched for the fabled villages of the Tellem.  As our eyes adjusted to the light they swam into view. We were completely knocked out by these incredible constructions.  There were three storey stone houses, the same colour as the cliff, built into enormous caves and fissures. The architecture of the cliff villages included smaller buildings and large conical granaries.  These improbable buildings were erected about 1000 years ago by the Tellem people fleeing from invading armies.

This article is part of a series describing our tour of West Africa
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Tellem Pictures

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                  Dogon Country, Mali

Dogon Country, cliffs. There are Dogon villages on the plateau where we lived during our visit.

Tellem village in the cliffs      General view of Tellem cliff village

In the cliff face there are fantastic ancient Tellem houses and granaries carved out of the solid rock. These two storey house were built 1000 years ago to protect the people from invading armies. Water runs down from the plateau to supply drinking water. The ancient Tellem inhabitants used ropes to climb up to their village anf hoist up animals and supplies.

Tellem village at foot of cliff, Mali      Foot of cliff village, Dogon Country, Mali

At the base of the cliff there are also very old Tellem settlements. These can easily be reached on foot by visitors. This magical place is very much worth a visit.


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