Last Dance in the Sahara

In Mali, a writer faces her worst fear

By / May 2012

When I cracked open the door of the old Mercedes taxi to spit, my saliva dribbled out like mud. It was mid-morning, and we’d been on the road for four hours, rattling along the dirt lanes that sprawl east from Mali’s main, two-lane thoroughfare toward Burkina Faso. My hands, nostrils, and throat were packed with red dust, the stuff of the scrubland that divides the Sahara Desert to the north from the rest of Africa to the south.

In the small settlement where we were headed, a place where people live in homes carved into the side of a great cliff and some still file their teeth to sharp points, I hoped to interview a group of village elders about foreign aid for a news story. I was expecting a quiet morning and a short village tour.

The horse and rider in the middle of the lane up ahead of our car was the first indication that this interview was going to be different than the others I’d conducted in villages throughout Mali during the previous few weeks.

The rider came to a halt in the middle of the path. He turned his horse into the wind like a Sioux warrior on the American plains. In a region where herds of goats are more common than cars and donkey carts are the preferred mode of transit, the horse, bedizened in the finest dyed and embossed leather, might as well have been a prize stallion. A moment later, the horse threw its front hooves into the air and galloped ahead in a cloud of red dust.

We followed the horse toward a cluster of mud-brick huts baking beneath rays of sun that had sent deep, dry cracks into everything they touched. The huts stood just beyond the reach of the shade cast by a few giant baobab trees, the fat-trunked regional mascots that seem cut straight from a Dr. Seuss book.

Children, waving paper scraps (their schoolwork), appeared on the horizon and surrounded the car. We slowed and stopped, and the kids swarmed us, shouting. Drissa, the savvy fixer I’d hired in Bamako to help me navigate the poorest part of one of the poorest regions in the world, pointed above and beyond the children, toward a commotion under the shade of the baobab.

A great crowd of people had gathered there, forming a circle around a crush of musicians. Men, with hands thickly calloused and arms lean from chronic malnutrition but muscled from a lifetime of hard labor, pounded drums. A few women jingled halved, upturned gourds ringed with cowrie shells.

I’d been in Mali nearly a month, and there had been few moments that weren’t set to music. Like the bluegrass and clog dancing that sprouted in Appalachia, one of the poorest regions of the US, Malian music and dancing is time-worn and infused with the kind of raw pleasure that only comes through pain. Whether a simple drum beat in a remote village or a studio-recorded song playing on the radio, Malians have a talent for producing interesting, innovative, edgy and lovely music that is respected worldwide.

Shows featuring Amadou and Mariam, one of Mali’s premier musical acts, sell out venues in Washington, DC, and New York. In fact, many music experts trace American blues music to Mali, where the roots of it traveled from the region between Timbuktu and Bamako, Mali’s capital, to North America via slave ships.

In Mali, whenever the music starts, the dancing does, too. Pulsing to the beat under the baobab trees, the crowd pressed closer into the circle. They might have squelched it entirely had it not been for the presence of the sentries, fierce men with switches who guarded the inner line of the circle like bouncers at a hip hop concert. Whenever someone stepped beyond that imaginary line that protected the drummers and dancers, SWAT! went the switch. Daring children edged in over and over, shrieking and laughing when the switches came down.

At the center of the circle, three women were on their knees, mimicking cows, signs of wealth in this impoverished region. The women bent their wrists and pushed their palms into the red dirt before leaping up and spinning, their bodies pulsing in perfect rhythm. Turn by turn, they removed fabric garlands and scarves from around their necks and hung them on other women in the crowd, a signal to swap places, a way of making sure every woman had her turn in the spotlight.

I was still watching the garland exchange when, suddenly, a woman tossed one over my neck. I looked at Drissa, terrified.

I am not a dancer, never have been. Growing up, foot-tapping and hand-clapping and any other rhythmic movement was considered a gateway to all kinds of trouble. By the time I left home, it was too late. I was uncoordinated and hamstrung by atrophied dance muscles.

Now I had a garland around my neck. The circle had emptied out, as if in expectation. The drums were beating, but the shouting had stopped. Everyone was staring at me, waiting for the toubab (white person) to accept their invitation. “What are you waiting for?” Drissa shouted. “You have to dance! You must!”

I began shaking my head, no, no, no, but Drissa gave me a firm shove out into the circle. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I raised my hands and swiveled my hips. I pressed on and rolled my shoulders back and forth.

There were no cheers or encouragements from the crowd, just a phalanx of blank stares. When the humiliation seemed almost too much to bear, a kindly older woman rescued me. She smiled and lifted the garland from my neck. She patted my shoulder and passed the ornament to another woman waiting in the wing.

All of this happened more than two years ago, when Mali was still a stable democracy. Now, that stability is fractured, and that dull yet somehow magical scrubland marks not only the line between the Sahara and the rest of Africa, but also the frontier for strict Islamists enforcing Sharia law in the north and elected leaders clinging to their posts in the south. A coup that began in March threatens to shove Mali onto the list of failed democracies. Little by little, as the Islamists push south, music and dancing in Mali are being outlawed. Vast swaths of the country, where impoverished people live hand to mouth, could lose one of their greatest joys.

I tried to avoid eye contact as I made my way back to Drissa. Our driver, a stubbornly quiet guy who insisted on sleeping on top of the taxi every night, looked at me and laughed.

The music continued for a while until the men and women returned to their millet fields. I was tempted to believe my performance had sucked the life out of the celebration. But as we made our way back to the Mercedes after finishing my interviews, children followed and crowded around the car. They reached through the window to shake my hand as I settled in for the journey back to Bamako.

In the rear view I watched as they jumped and twirled in the sunlight. In a few days, I would be on a flight back to the US, to my dust-free home in a city filled with food and comfort.

But they would have dancing.


Krista Kapralos’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Global Post, and High Country News. She lives in Washington, DC. Her last piece for EthnoTraveler was about female whirling dervishes in Istanbul.