Kora and kola nuts: Mali before the military

”I will take whatever price you can give me,” Ibrahim offered, his trusting eyes, and warm, deep brown face encircled in a furrowed head scarf, “because now I have no other work, there are no tourists, and we are suffering”. Bandiagara was a small dusty town on the edge of an escarpment of the same name where 1000 years earlier the Dogon people had established their villages within the cliff faces, defending their refusal to convert to Islam. This enigmatic landscape and it’s people had attracted a steady stream of tourists on their way to and from the famous mud mosque of Djenne and the legendary town of Timbuktu in the north. But recent kidnappings had slowed this stream to a trickle and Ibrahim’s people were feeling the impact of the rebels’ actions.

Loaded down on Ibrahim’s old motorbike with a few kilos of kola nuts, the caffeine-rich stimulant offered when entering villages in the region, our jalopy gulped a glass bottle of petrol from a roadside vendor and we sped out of town along dusty, dry scrub flanked roads, towards the dramatic sandstone cliffs, steeped in history, of Dogon country, its vibrant markets and hospitable people.

In 2012 when the armed conflict in the north, led by Tuareg rebels fighting for a new state, Azawad, was broadcast in the world media, followed shortly after by a military coup, together with ongoing fighting between Tuareg and Islamist rebels, I knew that Ibrahim and the people of the Dogon, together with many more around the country who rely on tourism as a source of income, were going to see little business in the foreseeable future. For a country abundant with culture, housing rich, alluring landscapes, hauntingly beautiful traditional music and exotic, warm people, it seemed a tragedy that this cornucopia would not be shared. And as the fear which pervades the travel culture is often slower to dissipate than the terror itself this loss would no doubt have longevity.

This is a collection of photographs taking during my travels to Mali in 2010 and music by the legendary kora player, Toumani Diabaté.

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