Detour: Mali

Timbuktu mapBefore you worry that we’ve forgotten the alphabet and jumped from “A” to “M,” we realize that we’ve gone out of order by visiting Mali right after Afghanistan. (Albania, we will get to you next, promise!) While we still plan on going in alphabetical order, we’ve decided to make exceptions when special cultural events come up, particularly when they represent cultures that may be more challenging to cover here in Boston.

Trio Da Kali, a musical trio from Mali, was performing a concert at Derek’s university, as part of the music department’s World Music Series this past Saturday.  We’ve enjoyed the other world music concerts we’ve attended in the past, so deciding to go to this one was a no-brainer. And since we’d just begun our Globetrotting project, why not devote the entire weekend to Mali?

To be transparent, we did take another detour before our detour, as we celebrated Derek’s birthday Friday evening with Puerto Rican food, a Caribbean-style rum cake, and the latest Miyazaki film. Happy birthday, Derek! But for Saturday and Sunday, we said bonjour to Mali. And thanks to the smartphone app Duolingo, I’ve been learning French, the official language of Mali, this past week. C’est bon! 

We had millet porridge for breakfast, with honey and a plump date for both of us. Since tea is an important component to Malian social life, we also enjoyed sweetened mint green tea, our closest approximation to traditional Malian tea.

Millet porridge

With Afghan food, it had been fairly easy to omit nuts and meat-based products to accommodate Derek’s nut allergies and my vegetarianism. With Malian food, however, nearly all the savory vegetarian recipes that I could find had peanut butter and sometimes peanut oil. If the main course dishes didn’t have nuts, they weren’t vegetarian.

For lunch we made aubergine and pumpkin stew, substituted sunflower seed butter for the peanut butter listed in the recipe, and prepared some basmati rice. Malians eat with their hands from one large communal bowl, though we opted to eat with utensils from individual bowls.

 Malian stew

We watched an episode from the PBS miniseries Wonders of the African Worldcalled “The Road to Timbukto,” for our introduction to the history of Mali. Timbuktu is a fabled city known as a center for learning in the 15th and 16th centuries. The episode also gave us a glimpse into other cities in Mali, including its capital, Bamako.

We hadn’t expected a big turnout at the Trio Da Kali concert, since the performance  was only half-sold when Derek got our tickets. But a substantial crowd showed up, even for the optional pre-concert talk, where we were introduced to the instruments: the balafon, a 22-key keyboard made from rosewood, the ngoni, an ancestor of the banjo, and the axatse, a gourd shaker covered with beaded netting. The seats filled up more after the talk and before the performance.

Trio Da Kali

This wasn’t a show where people stayed in their seats and politely clapped after each song. People clapped and whooped in the middle of songs. One man started chuckling in the middle of one song, stood up, and ran down to the stage, and handed the singer money. In the Malian griot (poet-musician) tradition, when the griot sings about you, you’re obliged to give the griot money as thanks. Other audience members followed the example of the first man, and even danced with the singer briefly before returning to their seats.

After the rousing concert, we enjoyed the free reception in the lobby. Past World Music Series concerts served food that reflected the culture of the group performing that night (such as dim sum when a Chinese ensemble visited), and we were hoping to see what Malian food might be served, but the spread was decidedly Western: quiche, mini-sandwiches, cookies, strawberries, cream puffs and mini-tarts. I imagine, though, that any African food served at this reception probably wouldn’t be up to snuff for the performers, so perhaps it’s for the best.

We started Sunday morning with millet porridge again, before heading to Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Although we couldn’t find the museum’s recent acquisition of Malian origin, a granary window, we found European maps that depicted Timbuktu in “Translating Encounters: Travel and Transformation in the Early Seventeenth Century.” (The photo at the beginning of this post is one of the maps we found, as photographed by Derek.) In the adjoining Harvard Museum of Natural History, we visited the Hall of African Animals, where we took special note of the chimpanzees, since they can be found living in southern Mali. We also made sure to look at the gold in the minerals exhibit, since Mali is a major producer of gold in Africa, but none of the pieces were from there.

For our final Malian meal, we ate okra bean soup, omitting the called-for beef, and substituting more vegetables in its place. Here’s one more picture of one of our bowls this weekend:


We watched the Spanish film 14 Kilómetros, which introduces us to Violet, a teenage girl from Mali, and Buba, a young man from Niger, and their struggles to escape Africa for (hopefully) better lives in Europe. It’s sad to realize that this story of illegal border crossings happens in a lot of cultures—both Derek and I, for instance, recall watching movies (possibly the same one) in high school Spanish class about Mexicans desperate to get to the United States, no matter what the cost. Unlike us privileged Americans, Violet and Buba didn’t get to enjoy the post-movie dessert, bananas stuffed with chopped dates and drizzled with honey.


I’m glad that we decided to make a weekend of visiting Mali when Trio Da Kali was in town, since the concert was a definite highlight of these two days. Dining at The Helmand Restaurant when we were visiting Afghanistan was a great way to experience the culture in a “live” setting, and the Trio Da Kali concert did the same for us during our Mali visit. Au revoir et merci beaucoup, Mali!

– Jess

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