Bamako, charming as it might be, is still a dirty city. A lot of people wear face masks when they travel along the main roads and for good reason. Exploring the countryside was not only very rewarding jobwise, but a welcome break from all the dust and smog.
Over two million souls lives in this city. No subway system exists, no trams and you cannot call it bicycle friendly. The two main roads go through the city like main arteries. Everyone uses them, simply because everyone has too. But the traffic situation is not as bad as one might suspect, mainly because so many uses the “moto” – or the moped. When cars, cabs and buses get stuck in traffic jams, all on motos improvises to get through. In Bamako it is not the biggest that goes first, but the quickest. If you hesitate you get left behind- in a cloud of smog. (Thankfully I´m not the one driving)
I left together with my guide early Friday morning and as we passed through the city I realized that the citys architecture looks very much like they were inspired by an old western movie.
For two days we met conversed with the locals in the villages south of Bamako, enjoyed Mali’s hospitality and took part in the weekly Saturday market.
I´m reporting on Malis musical scene to find out what shape it is in today. My second objective is to write about modern slavery. Both these topics led me to the topic of the Griot –and forced me to challenge my own views concerning freedom.
The Griot is a group of people that exists in several countries in West Africa under different names. It has been explained to me that traditionally a Griot family often serves a family of higher status, a bond that has existed for many generations. The Griots serve in many different ways: by keeping track of a family´s history, as praise singers and story tellers at weddings and other public events. But it is a lot more to it and this short resume won’t make it justice, so see it more as an introduction.
They also serve as sort of a family’s lawyer, as a mediator when there is a family feud and as advisors. They get parts of their payment by begging and demanding things from the family or the person they serve. They also get donations when they praise family members at weddings or entertain the family’s guests with music and speeches. In general people try to give them what they want because you do not want to risk that a Griot to turn against you, especially since they probably knows more about your family history than you do.
For me this first sounded absurd. That you work as a paid flatterer and have to beg to get paid. But the more I learn the more I realize that you should not be quick to judge the Griots role in society.
History and family is very important in Mali. A Malians last name can tell you where the person comes from, what his or hers family lines are. “Do you belong to that family? Then you are my slave!” is a common joke.
To an outsider being a Griot might look like choosing a life of servitude, but many take great pride in that they get the opportunity to master their family trade and in addition contribute to society. Many see them as key figures in the Malian society.
South of Bamako lies the village Kirina. It is said to be the birthplace of Mali and almost entirely consists of Griots or related groups. Suitably, a musical school has been built just outside the village and there youngsters go to learn to play traditional instruments on days that the regular school is closed. (They go to primary school three days a week and the music school can afford to be open for three days also). It gives the kids something to do and focus and, as well as keeping their culture alive.
We spend the night with a man who had to leave his home in the northern part of Mali. We ate together from the same plate with our hands, as you do here. Drank sweet tea and discussed the present and the past.
He and his family fled from northern Mali because of the war and they managed to bring their cattle all the way to his present home. He do not think he will be able to go back any time soon, or ever.
Protected by the mosquito net I slept like a baby in his garage. Until a goat sneaked and we had to chase it out. But that is a story for another day.