Nomad's Land

The road to understanding nomads’ lives, how they are affected by economic development, and their views of conservation, runs through many a tent. Lined by countless cups of tea and stories shared, by challenges and treks on horseback, and by unfamiliar notions it is a road that is unfrequented and untravelled upon. I will wear down the soles of my shoes on that road, I will get tired on that road, but I will find something along it that I cannot find elsewhere.

12 May 2010

Des visages, des figures

24 September 2007

Final Watson Report

This is my final Watson report. This does not mean the stories are over, but it is a much-too-brief summary of so many experiences.

When I close my eyes and try to think about this past year as a whole, what pops up is by no means a comprehensive lesson. It is not a cohesive narrative, but rather a collection of smells, of images, of broad horizons and open arms. I did not reach the conclusions I had hoped for, but I am taking with me a web of voices, stories and contradictory opinions. I want to share some of those stories with you.

During much of my time in Mongolia, I traversed landscapes that defied the concept of time as I knew it. I often felt immersed in an ancient drama of isolation and distance, and to the people I lived with, this was their life.

Yandjmaa and Oyundalai are two sisters, who live with their old mother, Enkhtsetseg, and a horde of young children. By moving their household every few months in search of new pastures for the cattle, they conform to the tyranny of the seasons that has sculpted traditional nomadic patterns for thousands of years. Towns, mining prospects and national parks are disrupting this pattern.

strong women, Alag Tsar valley

Winter is the time of year when most animals die in Mongolia – as well as the longest season. Animals starve or freeze to death, or get taken by the wolves. For Yandjmaa’s family, comprised entirely of women and children, it is by far the hardest season to cope with. While milking a cow in the soft light of dusk, Enkhtstetseg explains how life is getting more difficult: “The most difficult thing about the park is that we now have to go so far to get fire wood.” She sighs, but doesn’t want me to think she is complaining. “We have to find trees that are already lying down, and this takes a long time.”

and then winter came (III)

Yandjmaa’s family is poor, and they do not move far. To their south is a little town, where they cannot expect to find good grass, only hostile looks and park officials who treat them as potential criminals. To their north lie rivers that are difficult to cross, and further on a strictly protected area, where park regulations stipulate that no grazing or human habitation is allowed. To the east towers a mountain range, and a large lake blocks any western movement.

In the end, most of the Mongolian nomads I met had not been pushed away from their homes. At times, I became frustrated, thinking that what I was observing and hearing about was somehow not important enough. But little by little, I realized that their lives were affected in subtle, yet fundamental, ways. These were crucial changes; I had simply not been able to recognize them. I began to realize that compassion and understanding do not always come automatically, sometimes they require a conscious decision to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, or bare feet for that matter. I believe that this realization will affect how I relate to other people for the rest of my life.

In the West African desert, I learned to always take a second look, as history and destiny spread out over the land like a disguise. Nomads’ lives are governed by the prejudices of others, and by the idea that theirs is a way of life that has become fiction. Wildlife and environmental protection turned out, in practice, to be a non-issue, so what clashed were instead sedentary priorities against those of mobile peoples.


For a while, my project dealt with slightly different issues: I became fascinated with the ways in which mere perceptions could shape policies, and how those policies in turn affected lives. Strikingly, the belief that nomads cannot continue living like they have for millennia leads to initiatives – often designed to improve the situation – that cripple the same people they are supposed to help.

Rahmeta Walet M’Barak lives outside a town that operates on charity, a bit of commerce, and international aid. As I approached her camp, the view was wide, and the land seemed blanketed by a haze of dust, floating not on the wind, but on the dry heat itself. Here, in the middle of the desert, aid projects have encouraged the development of rice fields. Rahmeta, an old woman who relies on her daughters’ husbands for food, can list every aid project that has reached the town since the mid-seventies. The ones that she remembers as the best ones gave out food to every family: milk, flour, grains – everything!

rahmeta (closer)

She has begun walking into town on a regular basis to look for signs of aid. “But,” she complains, “we don’t see any aid anymore.” She believes that the aid is reserved to those who live in town. Thus, more and more families have to decide whether to sustain a nomadic lifestyle or move closer to towns where they might benefit from the incredible wealth they perceive is being spread out. Moving into towns is also the best, if not the only, option if they want their children to go to school. Children who are in school need somewhere to stay, so if you don’t have a relative in town, or the money to pay the relative for food, then your whole family must move close to the town during the school year.

I started out this year thinking that I wanted to help nomads, help them by understanding the issues they face, and by trying to communicate my understanding to those in charge, those creating the problems. The problem is that many of the people ‘in charge’ are also trying to help – just not succeeding, not approaching it in the right way. This is by no means a new discovery – I have read about many examples of failed IMF and World Bank policies, that in the end made countries worse off rather than better – but I guess I never believed that these institutions truly wanted to help.

This year has made me recognize that it is not only economic dogmas and ideologies that thwart aid efforts. The slightest flaw in one’s understanding of the dynamics, the history, and the whole picture of a situation, can turn the most well-intentioned aid project into an enemy of those it intended to help.

Maasai boma

In Tanzania, colonialism, droughts and national parks have shoved people closer together. In contrast to the other countries I went to, this phenomenon has been thoroughly studied. On the one hand, you might say that my time there was a waste, since I didn’t discover anything ‘new.’ On the other hand, however, it gave me the chance to compare my observations with a relatively extensive literature. In some cases I agreed with the books I had read, in other cases I couldn’t believe they were talking about the same country. It reflected the beauty of the Watson – the possibility to speak with people, to learn about their points of view, without feeling the pressure to draw fixed and final conclusions.

The Tanzanian Maasai, and the Barabaig have lost the majority of their ancestral land. They used to save some of the best grazing land for very dry years, but when the British arrived, they considered it a waste of land and promptly established their farms on that very land. Now, when a drought comes around, which in East Africa it does every seven or eight years, nomads find themselves trespassing when they try to get into their best pastures. Increasingly, nomads are expelled from their pastures, and as they are forced to seek land elsewhere, they in turn create disputes in other places, where other graze their animals. They told me they feel attacked from all sides.

barabaig mama

I asked a Barabaig elder, Gitoto, where their dry season grazing is. He looked at me and gestured to the right. "This is a national park" He pointed to the left "Over there is also a national park" He looked straight ahead, where excavators were digging in the ground, puffing out clouds of white smoke. "We had to apply to the local government to live here. Before, we didn’t have to ask anyone where to go. Now this phosphor mine has been sold to Asians, who want to take all of this land too. We have nowhere to go. Nowhere.”

I set out on my Watson wanting to learn, to understand, maybe even to reach some conclusions. What I ended up with is a wealth of faces, of voices, of fragments of life stories. I am no wiser, but I think I am more human. My heart is filled with connections to other hearts, and I will carry these connections with me for the rest of my life.

As I look back, I can only think that ignorance, not knowledge, is cumulative. I always thought I would learn more as I continued through life, but it seems the opposite is happening. Each time I find out something new, I only realize how much more knowledge there is out there that I don’t know. It seems that the realization of the lack of knowledge is what accumulates, not the knowledge. I thank the Watson for this realization, and many others, and I plan to dedicate the rest of my life to accumulating more ignorance.

02 June 2007

The Value of a Radio in the Desert

hospitality I
A temporary tent (click to see the whole photo, the blog crops a bit)

The other day, I came across a discussion about humbling experiences, and began in my head to list mine. I thought of a few, and some more popped up, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this year has been an endless stream of humbling experiences.

Like when Hussein and I arrived in Tabrichat, a tiny village in the community of Tarkint, and were welcomed like royalty. We rested during the midday heat, inside a mud house. After a few cups of tea, I went out and watched the camels and donkeys calmly lined up by the well that essentially constitutes Tabrichat. A little boy rode a camel that was attached by a rope to the bucket that drew water from the cool depths. They moseyed back and forth, filling and emptying the bucket, watering the countless thirsty animals.

When the sun had begun casting slightly longer shadows, we started out in a small caravan across the scorched landscape, our bags on the back of a donkey. As I looked around, I saw repeated shapes and patterns everywhere: shrubby acacias, flat cracked land, a line dividing the sky and the desert. Then the thought struck me that maybe we were navigating towards the horizon, with no other goal than that dividing line, and we could keep walking forever.

After some thirty minutes, or maybe an hour, the landscape still had a surreal effect on me, but Mohammed said we had arrived. At closer inspection, a tent did indeed slouch to our right, and a group of people relaxed in the shade of a small acacia. As we approached, the camp stirred. Children peered out from the tent, rugs were rolled out for us to rest on, curdled milk came in big aluminium bowls to quench our thirst.

It would continue like this for the several days that we stayed in the camp. Goats lost their lives to stuff our bellies, a seemingly infinite supply of camel's milk cooled our dry throats, and I was even given my own tent while the family moved into a provisional one.

hospitality II

I did not know how to show my gratefulness, but Mohammed just laughed when I tried to express it, and said "If we came to visit you, you would give us a room to stay in, no?" Of course I would. "And you would feed us, would you not?" Sure, sure, of course I would feed a visitor to my house. I could not explain the difference, though: no food that I would feed a guest in my house would be food I might not eat later. It would constitute an act of hospitality, sure, but the magnitude of the gesture would be so much smaller, relative to our total possessions.

Then Mohammed's short wave radio broke. Hussein and the community's newly educated teacher (the government had provided him with 28 days of formation) and Mohammed spent an entire day picking the apparatus apart, putting it back together, screwing and fiddling, brushing off sand. I had a crank radio, the kind that does not require batteries. We listened to it: the Radio France International news over shortwave, something about a small Tuareg revolt in Niger, possibly, crackle crackle, and when they were over. I thought it natural to leave the radio with Mohammed, but for some reason, he didn't.

When evening came, I withdrew to my tent, and Hussein came over. He was giggling to himself, and had barely sat down before he cackled "Mohammed is too funny!" He paused to cough, and to light a cigarette, and continued, "After you left, Mohammed looked at the radio, and said 'this is too much, what do you think... maybe I should give her a little lamb as thanks?'"

17 May 2007

An Idea I wish I'd had

Photographer Michael David Murphy creates a brilliant patchwork by capturing moments never caught on film at his site UNphotographable.

The way he puts it, "Unphotographable is a catalog of exceptional mistakes. Photos never taken that weren't meant to be forgotten. Opportunities missed. Simple failures. Occasions when I wished I'd taken the picture, or not forgotten the camera, or had been brave enough to click the shutter."

To my mind, it is as beautiful an art as photography, and in some odd way shows more of a commitment to photography than photos themselves -- to the art of describing and preserving fleeting moments, which, in the end, is what truly constitutes life, isn't it? Life and photography.

22 April 2007

I Found Europe in Dakar

Europe, and its supposed mid-life crisis has been a popular press topic as of late. I have observed in-depth features and lengthy articles in the output of as widely disparate media as the BBC, the Economist, and Al-Jazeera. Where is Europe heading? and What does it mean to be European? seem to be the questions of the day, and with the French elections around the corner, the debate is unlikely to quiet down anytime soon.

Leaning out of the window as the Bamako-Dakar Express clattered into the capital of Senegal, my eyes resting on crudely built shanties one minute and tall, clean colonial houses the next, I did not expect Dakar to provide me with new perspectives on the meaning of European.

Once in central Dakar, after bargaining dutifully for a taxi fare outside a dark train station, dragging my bag through deep sand, and avoiding the looks of long-legged prostitutes at my hotel, I wandered the streets. I assumed that a block or two in either direction would take me to something edible, since Mali has a little coal-grill and a lady selling friti or brochetti on every corner. The city quickly made me feel deeply uneasy and strangely at home at the same time, but I couldn't figure out why.

I came across groupings of young white people, stumbling noisily out of bars, laughing. They would disperse, or move on to another bar, and I would keep following the sidewalk, scouting for food. After ten minutes, I realized that I had come across only toubabs during my walk, and thought maybe that was what felt so out of place, yet familiar. The bar-life felt somewhat Mediterranean, and the architecture distinctly French, so that must be it, then. Both the place and the people I had met looked European. Mystery solved. But why did I feel so uncomfortable?

I stopped by a lamp post and looked around. The streets were clean, paved, and -- wow! street lights... I hadn't even thought about the fact that I could see where I was walking. No sewage streams in the street, either, and street lights make streets safer, right, so what was perturbing me?

It didn't take me long to give up, both on figuring out what bothered me and on filling my belly. I turned around and turned a corner, walking quickly to try and shake the unease, and almost stepped on an old man lying curled up on a sheet of plastic, sleeping between a road sign and a white-painted fence. And there it was.

The impersonality of it all placed the city in a European mental compartment in my head. Traffic lights and straight, clean streets where only homeless people spend time are European. Sterile and individualistic, they invite you to pass through, but not to dwell. In Bamako, any hour of the day will find tea-making fathers and bare-bottomed babies and football-kicking youngsters in the streets, mingling and talking and being together. And although most people are poor, they are rarely poor alone. Under a plastic sheet or a piece of cardboard and with a streetlight as your sole friend, poverty seems so much deeper, so much more inhumane, so much more like a one-way street.

In many ways, this is not a uniquely European characteristic, but a label that can be placed on most Western cities and societies. Lately, however, Europe seems to be moving rapidly towards an every-man-for-himself value system, and therefore, in my opinion, has earned the dunce-hat.

keep out
In Europe recently, every man to and for himself

The newly elected conservative government in Sweden is rapidly undermining long-standing social safety nets by, among other things, insane tax-cuts that benefit a wealthy minority in the Stockholm region and deprive the welfare budget of much-needed funds; most EU countries have placed severe restrictions on the newest members to the union, not wanting to let too many "others" into "our" countries; last I checked, populist, racist, frightening Le Pen had overtaken the centrist Bayrou in the polls, and Sarkozy who also panders to anti-immigrant prejudice looks poised to take the lead in today's first round...

Whatever the French choose, I'm afraid they won't surprise me. Because I've seen Europe; she's sleeping, alone, under a sheet of plastic in Dakar.

05 April 2007

Third Watson Report

How Did I Get Here, Encouraging Endings, and A Sluggish Start

Walking Backwards

About two weeks ago, I sat on the ground next to Ngerengishu's cows, and as my eyes moved from the crouching huts to the tall grass to the lush, distant mountains, lazily turning their faces to the afternoon sun, I was struck by the immensity of it all.

The beauty of the landscape grabbed me; the rolling hills, the tall swaying corn, the infinite shades of green and blue in the trees and the sky overwhelmed me. Then the fact that I was sitting there hit me -- sitting there, talking to a beautiful, elderly Maasai woman about her life and her family and her cows. A thought made my head spin -- "How did I get here?"


As though I had never previously thought about it.

My brain, being the simple machine that it is, pressed rewind, and I saw myself walking backwards across a field, through sharp African grass, along narrow muddy paths, and past ant-infested patches of red earth.

In front of me, or behind me as it were, since everything filed by in reverse, tripped Mr. Donkeys, a teacher at a local secondary school, in an olive-green suit and nice loafers, badly suited for bush-whacking. Harifa, a local man and impromptu guide steadily led the way as the last person in out procession, trodding barefoot, backwards, through the thicket.

We paused at an abandoned house, where a Maasai family had set up camp before, rested in the shade for a bit and walked backwards up a dusty path, under thick branches, past Harifa's house. We left him there, but not before he had greeted us and walked, with his back first, into his house together with his entire family and the neighbors' children who all skipped and jumped, smiling and waving, away from us.

Here, my brain sped up, trying to get to an answer faster, forcing Mr. Mapunda and me and a young guy leading a bicycle to jog speedily backwards around a big field that we were told we had to go around because the grass between the path and the Maasai dwelling was too tall to walk through. We continued like an old silent movie in reverse down a slope and across a river and round a bend and up, where we left the guy with the bike – he was heading in the direction of the Maasai anyway and could show us the way. We asked some people for directions and looked around, confused, before climbing into the car that had dropped us off by the side of the road.

Walking backwards, however, doesn't provide much of an answer, nor much of a perspective on the fact that Ngerengishu, a nomad woman I had never met before, told me stories about her dead husband, explained how she had ended up in southern Tanzania, and let me play with her grandchildren (actually, they were her late husband's second wife's sons' wives' children, but she called them her grandchildren...). There have been many awe-inspiring moments thus far during my journey, but sitting with this woman made me realize that right now, I can probably only begin to grasp how truly fortunate I am to live what I am living. Thank you.

I – Mali

No Matter What the Weaving

My last quarterly report sounded pessimistic about the future of nomadism, but towards the end of my stay in Mali, I had the chance to speak with a number of Tamashek leaders, who provided a different perspective.

One late evening – meetings in the desert occur at peculiar times – in Anefif, a little town that has sprung up around a well, I got to talk to a group of Fraction leaders (the Tamashek political system of families and what used to be “tribes” but are now re-organized into fractions is very complex, but suffice to say these are important men in their community). I asked them towards the third round of tea what they thought was going to happen to nomadism in the future. One thing that had been discouraging me, both in Mongolia and in Mali, was the fact that young people who go off to school don't want to be herders, and young people who don't go to school don't want to be herders, but are forced to, as they are left without other options. Essentially, I feared that coming generations of nomads might consist largely of those individuals who did not succeed in school, those who were left behind, people who do not want to be where they are. Hardly a recipe for a harmonious community.

Alwata Ag-midi, Chef of the fraction Imakoran I, responded cryptically. I was dressed in a colorful traditional toungou, an all-in-one robe and veil, and he said: “If you come en brousse dressed in toungou like that, a man will see you and pull his turban up over his face before he approaches to greet you,” and he covered the lower half of his face with his turban, a gesture Tamashek men do in front of people they respect. “If you come dressed in pants, he will say 'whatever' and leave it,” he added for clarification. It was his way of saying that even if Tamashek values, and nomadic lifestyles, seem to be changing, between Tamashek the values remain.

this is the guy...

Tawwad Ag-Haballa, Conseiller of the fraction Idnane, added a saying: “No matter what the weaving, the pieces will always remain straw and strings.” By this he meant that a thing doesn't change it's nature, and those young folks who seemingly leave for towns and cities will always remain nomads. He strongly believes they will come back to help their communities, as veterinaries, teachers, and doctors. They will come back, better equipped and more knowledgeable than they were before, but they will come back nomads.

II – Tanzania

Away from Their Land, Out of Their Element

My first trip into the Tanzanian countryside took me south. Now, this might seem contradictory, since most people would think of the Maasai as living in Kenya and northern Tanzania's seasonal grasslands. There are, however, Maasai as far south as Songea and perhaps further south, due to the increasing encroachment of farms, parks, and towns on their traditional pasture land.

As we trekked towards the Maasai homestead that neighboring farmers had pointed out to us, my translator, Mr. Mapunda, told me that no conflicts existed between the farmers and the Maasai. “There are no problems, they all live together, side by side.” When we arrived to the Maasai 'families', however, only one family remained, as the others had recently moved on. Ngerengishu, the head of the household, said this was because because surrounding families had complained about the cattle eating their corn. She herself had not been able to move, as her husband had recently died, leaving her with some cattle and many mouths to feed.

Since their move south, they had lost all their goats and sheep, and the few donkeys they had for transporting water. I obviously cannot draw any conclusions from this one interview, but her situation confirms things I have read, and mirrors the plight of those Mongolian nomads who are forced to move away from the pastures they know well. Survival is not only a matter of knowing where the best grass is, you also need to know where to find water, how to treat common diseases, and where to take your animals in the case of a drought.

Tourism Troubles

My main problem at this point, paradoxically enough, stems from the fact that Tanzania's tourism industry is so well-developed. Each national park, and each site of cultural interest, has well-equipped lodgings, trained guides, and a set routine for what to do when tourists knock at their door. I thought that this might work in my favor, as it would be easier to find reliable and knowledgeable translators, but it seems to make my life more difficult. “You want to visit a Barbaig family? No problem,” a cultural tourism guide will say, and show me a brochure outlining exactly how my Three Day Special Barbaig Tour will look like, complete with a mock-fight, “to see how the Barbaig got their name,” and “cultural insights” into how their goatskin gowns are made.

I have so far had some troubles getting past the hurdles that the tourism industry is placing in my path, but I remain hopeful. I will try different approaches, talk to different people, and surely find my way off the beaten path.

31 March 2007

Humbling Desert

Desert nights are humbling, with the depth of the sky and the grace of the stars and the spread of the horizon.

On such a night, a few weeks and a continent ago, I sat wrapped in a blanket, talking to Abdullah, a Tamashek fraction leader. We sat by a deep hole in the ground, that volunteers from the surrounding families were trying to turn into a well, on Abdullah's initiative.


Abdullah is a rich man, with fifty or more camels, two hundred or so goats and sheep, and he's decided to use some of his clout to make life easier for the hundred families in his fraction (a fraction is a Tamashek political unit, a patrilinear grouping of families). "Only about ten or fifteen of them are doing reasonably well," he said, upon which Mohammed, who had been sitting quietly in the background, added that only thirty or forty of 'his' 140 families were "living sustainably, without having to depend on the solidarity of others." Mohammed is another fraction leader who welcomed me to his camp for a week of planning meetings surrounding the opening of a community-driven school.

For a few minutes we sat and listened to the crying of Abdullah's baby camels, whose mothers had not returned home from pasture that night. I pondered the fact that these community leaders were taking the time to listen to me, and to answer my questions, and most importantly, taking me seriously. It seemed like a grand thing.

Then Mohammed spoke again. Since I had so much education, he began, and already I almost wanted to apologize, maybe I could see bigger issues more clearly than he could. "You see," he explained, "I can only write my name in Tifinagh, and the letters that make up my brand." So maybe I could give them my perspective on what they, Malian nomads, should do to improve their situation in the future. I looked at his face, covered up to the nose by a purple-indigo turban, for a sign of mockery, but all I could see was genuine interest. A humbling question if I ever heard one, honestly posed by a respected elder to a twenty-four year old.

My answer is of less importance than the question somehow, and in the light of Abdullah's philantropy, it was easy to say, "more of the same."

28 February 2007

Wrestling Power


This poster says "A citizen president facing professional politicians." The BBC lowdown on this particular candidate mentions more about traditional Senegalese wrestling than politics... They quote him as wanting "to wrestle power from the hands of traditional politicians."

27 February 2007

80 Years and Still Running

Passing through Senegal on my way to Mauritania, late trains (to say the least -- more than 60 hours behind schedule!) and elections kept me longer than planned. The border with Mauritania was closed during election day, so I could not leave, and stayed in St. Louis, a little colonial town in northern Senegal. Saw the ocean, trudged through every street on St Louis' island at least seven times, and observed a sleepy town's reaction to the presidential elections.

As we left Dakar in a tightly packed minivan, election posters lined the road by the hundreds, but very few had been left alone. No less than fourteen candidates compete against the incumbent Abdoulaye Wade (an impressive 80 years old), although few of them could have harbored much realistic hope of winning.

Along one stretch of tree-and-poster-lined road, I counted eight billboards in a row portraying the same candidate, although it was hard to tell -- each one had been carefully covered in black paint, ruthlessly effacing the slogans, the facial features, the name of the candidate.

This is a poster of Wade's:

wade defaced

Below, and about a block away in reality's St. Louis, a wall proclaims "Idy = voleur," meaning "Idy = thief." Obviously, all sides are about as ready to resort to foul tactics.

voleur II


Idy's real name is Idrissa Seck, and he used to be the teacher's pet, i.e. be close to Wade, as well as the Prime Minister. When it became obvious that Seck also had his eyes on the presidential seat, he was fired, accused of embezzlement, and jailed. The case was later dismissed. Let's just say I remain sceptical.

Wade looks set to take home the game, and listening to the radio as the votes trickled in, the discrepancy between the candidates was striking: so-and-so got four votes, the next candidate -- zero, wade: threehundredandsixtyseven. And so on. Not everyone is pleased, however, and many are sceptical towards the ruling party's supporters, who are already celebrating, and have been doing so ever since the votes began being counted. Over fried fish for dinner, a few Senegalese men clashed with a couple at the table next to mine -- "Wade is the best for our country," one man boldly stated, but the others had hoped for a run-off with the Socialist candidate, and claimed that it would be impossible for Wade to scrape up the full majority needed to avoid a second round.

Luckily, I saw no violence, and I guess that speaks to the stability of Senegal. People talk, and they argue, but they don't fight.

I wonder if the upcoming Mauritaninan elections, marking the last stage in the process back to civilian rule since the military coup in 2005, will be as peaceful?

I will tell you more about the trip here soon: riding the Trans-Siberian of West Africa, and getting family-planning advice from Mauritanian police.

20 February 2007

Tear gas and Sustainable Tourism?

I hadn't planned on beginning this post with a rant, but rant, it seems, I must.

The subject of my rant is a bit dated, but I feel all the more justified in ranting about it, as my anger has not subsided in the weeks since the event. Our story begins next to the river Niger, in the town of Segou. The setting is a music festival. According to Mamou Daffe, the director of said spectacle, its "goal is to contribute to the development of sustainable tourism, safeguarding our natural and cultural riches."

The word sustainable remains, in my naive world, a very powerful concept, but in most other areas of life, like Daffe's, it is a qualifier that you can throw in front of just about anything, but preferably "tourism" or "development," and, as it turns out, even in front of "tear gas."

In my opinion, for tourism to warrant as noble a title as sustainable, it has to not only reward the local population and the people whose culture is being showcased through tourism (as opposed to, say, big tour companies based in the capital), but also somehow affect incentives surrounding, e.g., resource management and the upholding of culture. Based on what I saw in Segou, the festival on the Niger does none of the above.

One of the ways in which a festival could affect the local population is through job creation. Sure, the festival created some 1500 jobs this year (to be compared to last year's figure of 958 jobs created by the festival, of which "44 were directly and 914 indirectly created"), but based on my observations working behind the scenes as a volunteer, a large percentage of those directly employed spent their time avoiding work, an even larger percentage of employees spent their time directing anyone who might imply work to someone else, or, even better, to "the office over there." "What office?" "Over there, out there, just walk out the door," "...But where?" "Oh, just leave!" Some might say that this is to be expected in Africa, in Mali, etc, but I prefer to write it off to badly designed job descriptions and a complete lack of incentives.

The employees who took the prize, however, may or may not have been directly employed. The most absurd people on the payroll were... drum rolls... the gendarmes, who, on the second night of the festival, fired several canisters of tear gas over a crowd of young people who were illegally listening and perhaps trying to get into the festival grounds. Apart from the obvious abuse of power that this constituted, a staggering amount of stupidity got added to the record the moment they fired the canisters without taking into account the direction of the wind...

The organizers were spectacularly lucky, though: no one panicked, the crowd did not trample over each other to get out, and the wind dissipated the gas rapidly enough to only disturb the spectators closest to the incident. The fact that panic was avoided could not be attributed to the escape routes provided by the organizers -- they had been blocked by VIPs whose seating had not been secured early enough in the evening -- nor was it thanks to the professional handling of the situation, which included closing the exit closest to the accident, without adequately explaining to the crowds wanting out where they could find an alternative.

Although the first night showed off Mali's musical diversity in a grand way, I did not even stay the second night through, and only heard second-hand accounts of Toumani Diabate's spectacular show, featuring guest stars, among them Amadou et Mariam. I doubt that many tourists, apart from those already very hooked on Malian music, would come back, based on the exorbitant entrance fees and the tepid list of performers on the last night of the festival (turning the entrance into 100 Euros for two nights of music, instead of -- as the organizers claim -- four days of festival)...

I doubt that anyone has the right to complain as much as the Guinean Peace Corps Volunteers, though. They had just been evacuated from Conakry's increasingly violent general strike, and were taken to the festival as a special evacuation-vacation. From dealing quite well with protests and strikes, they were transported to peaceful Mali to hear music and get tear gassed...