Mali was known as the crossroads of Africa for centuries. It once flourished with mighty empires, the center of the legendary trading routes across the unforgiving Sahara Desert. The ghost city of Timbuktu now stands alone amid the blowing sand dunes, but Mali has become a fascinating mix of people of cultures, a mix that has produced one of the most famous contemporary music genres in West Africa. The Niger River reaches its highest arc within Mali’s borders, creating fertile soils for the people farming its banks. A cruise to Mali will reveal the place where the traditional and the modern meet in Africa.
The site of the present-day country of Mali has been occupied by powerful and famous empires. The Ghana Empire was the first notable one to arise, supposedly as early as the fifth century A.D. It was established and flourished under the Soninke people, who built its capital at Kumbi Saleh. The Ghana Empire included what is now Mauritania, southwest Mali, and northern Senegal. It was a vibrant trading state, until it fell to Muslim Berbers in 1078.
The Mali Empire arose on the heels of Ghana, in the eleventh century. It began as the Malinke Kingdom of Mali on the Niger River. The empire expanded considerably under the emperor Sundiata Keita, who incorporated a huge area of Sudan into his empire. In 1325, it conquered Timbuktu in what many historians consider to be its height. This was under the famous Mansa Kankan Musa, who made the hajj all the way to Mecca. He adopted Islam, and converted much of his empire as well.
As the Mali Empire declined over succession disputes and vassal revolts, the Songhai Empire took over its borders. The Songhai had been expanding their empire since 800 A.D. Its rulers promoted Islam as they expanded, converting much of northwest Africa. The Songhai Empire prospered until 1591, when it collapsed due to both internal pressures and foreign invasions. With it collapsed the great and mythical Saharan trading routes, as European sea routes became established. An expedition cruise to Africa may reveal some of these storied routes, and the adventures and legends that helped to create Mali history.
A pressing environmental problem faced by Mali is its growing list of endangered species. A cruise to Mali may not reveal as many animals as one would hope to see; many are elusive due to their dwindling numbers. However, there are several groups that are working to reverse the damage. The International Crane Foundation is working to preserve wetlands and grasslands that the majestic birds call home. Save the Elephants works on several levels to secure a future for Mali’s elephants, including grassroots, educational, and protection. The International Fund for Animal Welfare works to reduce the poaching and commercial exploitation of Mali’s exotic animals. These are just a few of the environmental groups working currently in Mali.
Another environmental issue confronting Mali is the increasing desertification of the country. The Sahara Desert has been creeping slowly toward the midsection of the country, and deforestation and soil erosion have sped its progress.
A Story of Desert and River
Mali is located on the horn of Africa, which is the northwest part of the continent. It is landlocked, and due to its states as the largest country in West Africa, shares several borders: Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and Cote d’lvoire. A cruise to Mali offers the opportunity for countless side trips to other countries.
The Sahara Desert occupies most of northern Mali. The largest desert in the world, it is slowly taking over the central area of Mali known as the Sahel, which means “shore”. Rather than the shore on the water, the Sahel is the shore of the Sahara. The Sahel is a semi-arid region that covers 3,000 by 700 mile span across the country.
The southwestern region of the country is the best place to visit on a Mali cruise. The great Niger River winds its way inside Mali’s borders to reach the high point of its arc through Africa. It opens into an impressive inland delta on the west corner of the country. This area of Mali is also home to several other rivers, and the rainfall is more plentiful than the rest of the country.
The Road to Democracy
Modibo Keita created a single-party state with socialist rule after declaring independence from France. He remained in power until 1968, when he was deposed in a bloodless coup by a group of young military officers. These officers established the Military Committee for National Liberation.
In 1974, a new constitution was approved that designated Mali as a one-party state that was supposed to move the country toward civilian rule. However, there were several unsuccessful coup attempts and revolts.
Mali’s political situation stabilized during the early 80s, until war erupted briefly with Burkina Faso. Things stabilized again for a short time, and the government turned its attention to Mali’s economic shortcomings. It signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. However, the economic austerity imposed by the IMF lead to the emergence of several opposition groups, and a demand for multi-party democracy began to make itself heard.
In 1991, President Traore was arrested by military officers who also suspended the constitution. These officers joined another opposition group to form a 25-member ruling body that then appointed a civilian government. Political parties were allowed to form freely for the first time in Mali’s history. In 2002, Mali made its first peaceful transition from one democratically-elected president to the next. A cruise to Mali today will reveal a government focused on tackling the country’s economic and social problems.
A Safari of Wildlife
Mali is particularly well-known for its abundance of birds. Familiar species such as cormorants, grebes, and pelicans can be seen fishing along the banks of the Niger River, and the majestic ibis wades in its waters. Ostriches roam the arid areas, and hawks, eagles, and kites wheel in the sky. This list is far from exhaustive, and many other exotic species can be found on both the ground and in the sky. A cruise to Mali can be a bird watcher’s paradise.
If you’re looking for a good place to take a safari, Mali is the ideal country. It may be most famous for the African bush elephant, the larger of the two African elephant species. The African manatee, another large mammal, swims in the Niger, although it is elusive. Cheetahs, lions, leopards, and hyenas make up another contingent of big animals roaming the desert and savannahs.
Exotic animals that may be seen on a cruise to Mali are bongos (orange-ish antelopes), waterbucks, gazelles, jackals, and several species of monkeys and other primates. The African bush baby is a favorite, a small primate with a compact body and huge eyes. Chimpanzees and baboons are also common sights.
Mali is made up of several ethnic groups, giving the country a mosaic of traditions to draw upon. The largest tribe is the Bambara, followed by Fula Macina, Soninke, Sanghai, and Dogon.
The Bambara people ruled two kingdoms in the 1700s, but were overthrown by Muslim groups. Today, 70% of Bambara people practice Islam (almost 90% of Mali’s overall population is Muslim). Most of the tribe lives in the Niger valley, where the common profession is farming and raising livestock. Bambara houses are generally bigger than those of other African groups; some are home to as many 60 people.
Many people agree that Mali has some of the most beautiful contemporary music in West Africa. Traditional instruments add a distinctive tone, from guitars and djembes to rattles and flutes. Electric keyboards and guitars lend a modern flair. Mali’s most famous cultural event is based around its music: the Festival in the Desert happens every January in the sand dunes near Timbuktu, featuring Mali’s best musicians. In the realm of crafts, a cruise to Mali will reveal beautiful hand-painted mudcloths made with traditional methods passed down through centuries.
Mali Meals: Grains and Meats
The base of the vast majority of meals in Mali is made up of millet, couscous, rice, or cornmeal. These bases are generally accompanied by tasty sauces, possibly made of ground peanuts, sweet potato leaves, okra, or baobab leaves. Vegetables are also added to these sauces, such as yams and potatoes, tomatoes, plantains, or onions. Common meats in Mali include lamb, chicken, beef, or smoked fish.
Upon visiting Mali on a small ship cruise, one might expect to eat such dishes as smoked fish in peanut sauce, tomato-cucumber salad, lamb in herb sauce, or fried sweet potatoes. Millet porridge or sweetened yogurt porridge, chicken with onions, and mangoes for dessert represent a typical Malinese meal. Ginger tea might settle out the meal. Overall, the simple fare of Mali is satisfying and delicious.
After the fall of these major empires, different small successor kingdoms arose. There was no single unifying force, and so the reign of each was short. The French began to assert their presence in the region in the 1800s.
In 1880, the French began to assert control over the area with paramilitary troops. They did not make a move to fully occupy the region until 1890, and resistance to French presence continued for another nine years. Mali was ruled as an overseas territory known as French Sudan.
Mali and Senegal broke away from French control in 1959, becoming the Mali Federation. It gained independence one year later. Senegal withdrew after only a few months, and the Republic of Mali was born under the rule of Modibo Keita.
Climate and Weather of Mali
Mali has very distinct wet and dry seasons; a cruise to Mali should plan accordingly. The summers in that part of the world are rainy, especially in the southern regions of the country. The north receives a small share of rainfall as well, but not nearly as much due to the presence of the Sahara desert spreading across the top of Mali. Rainfall tends to come in torrents, but can be very localized. Daytime temperatures during the rainy season hover around mid-80s.
The dry season in Mali relegates temperatures to the mid-70s, although it can get very cold at night. The end of the dry season brings the hottest weather of the year, as dry hot winds call the harmattan blow in from the west.