Mali is not the country to visit for safaris, wild animals, or natural forests. What it does have is surreal landscapes, beautiful artwork, castellated mosques made entirely of mud, pink sandstone villages carved into cliff faces, and undulating desert that looks like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. Mali is approximately the size of Texas and California combined. It is a country old enough to have rock paintings that date back to a time when the Sahara was a blossoming paradise.

Of the numerous ethnic groups in Mali, the largest is the Bambara (80% of the population speak Bambara, though French is the official language). The Bambara occupy many of the civil servant positions, but it is the Dogons and the Tuareg, or "blue men of the desert" (named for their indigo robes and turbans) who practice a more traditional way of life.

Drought and government policy are threatening their traditional way of life, but Tuaregs and their camel-caravans still appear unexpectedly on the horizon before melting into the desert again. The Dogons are incredibly industrious farmers living on the edges of a long narrow escarpment in the inland delta. They are also famous for their artistic abilities and elaborate masks.

Much of Mali's economic woes in the 1980s were due to a devastating drought that bought widespread famine in its wake. People and livestock died, wells dried up, villages disappeared beneath the sand. When it did rain, it rained so violently that cattle, topsoil, and vegetation were washed away. Mali has never fully recovered from these devastations, although recent discoveries of deposits of gold may help lift the country from its economic doldrums.

The climate varies from semitropical to arid, with a rainy season from mid May to mid-September.

Mali has a rich and diverse artistic heritage that is expressed in arts, drama, and music. Through dynamic tourist agencies, tourism is increasing, and trips to many parts of Mali are now available. Although some of these trips are for the adventurous and hardy, the picturesque rewards can be great.



Bamako, the capital of Mali and its largest city, has a population of approximately 1,160,000. The city, situated on the banks of the Niger, is expanding rapidly along both sides of the river. Three bridges cross the Niger, one a submersible bridge not passable during the rainy season.

Most of the houses in Bamako are low, mud-walled compounds built along unpaved streets. Increasingly, however, more modern, cement-walled "villas" with small gardens are being built. Malian government officials, prosperous merchants, and most members of the small foreign community live in quiet residential neighborhoods, some near the river and others in outlying areas of the city.


The cliffs of Koulouba, a short distance away, overlook the city and river below. Above, on the Koulouba Plateau, are located the Presidential Palace, several government ministries, and the Point G Hospital.

Unlike many of the coastal cities of West Africa, Bamako is truly African. It has in fact been called "the most African of all African cities." It is a bustling city—traffic is congested and the streets are filled with cars, mobylettes, bâchées (vans or passenger pick-ups), street vendors, herds of animals, pushcarts and pedestrians.

The Grand Marché, formerly the greatest concentration of artisans and merchants in Bamako, burned to the ground in 1993. A temporary open-air market housing many of the Grand Marché's former merchants has evolved along the Koulikoro Road. Handicrafts available in Bamako's shops and marchés include batik, tie-dye and mudcloth fabrics, patchwork cloth, woven blankets, bronze figures, African trade beads, amber, wood carvings, gold and silver jewelry sold by the gram and many other items.

Government buildings, many in the French-developed Sudanic style similar to Mali's mosques, line Bamako's shady streets. Two landmarks in the city are the 17-story Hotel de l'Amitié, built by the Egyptian Government, and the Grand Mosquée, whose minarets can be seen from a distance. The Grand Hotel and the Grand Salam Hotel are the only two international standard hotels. The Hotel de l'Amitié is in a rather dilapidated state of repair but has a wonderful view, overlooking the river. It is the scene of several large parties and balls. Also overlooking the river and the city's newest and tallest building is the Central Bank of West African CFA Zone, (B.C.E.A.O.). Other points of interest in and around Bamako include the Palace of Culture (a large auditorium) across the river, the newly-constructed Artisanat, where local artisans make and sell gold and silver jewelry, ebony carvings, and leatherwork; the National Museum, a small ethnographic museum; a botanical garden and zoo.


Shopping for food in Bamako is not "one stop" shopping but requires going to several locations for the items on a list. There are open-air markets, several small grocery stores, tiny neighborhood "boutiques," good bakeries, and butchers. There are vendors who sell fish, pork, and vegetables from door-to-door. A good variety of food can be found in Bamako, and the list is constantly expanding. Stores and "boutiques" generally have fixed prices. Boutiques are open between 0900 and 1300 hours, and again between 1600 and 2000. Most other shops are open daily from 0800 to 1700. Except Sundays, most places are either closed or only open in the mornings. The market is bustling at almost any time of the day. There are no fixed prices; bargaining is in order.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are sold in open-air markets or by vendors who come to the door. A variety of fruits and vegetables are grown, although availability, quality, and price depend upon the season. Vegetables are generally available year round. Potatoes, onions, leeks, garlic, parsley, celery (very small stalks, mostly leaves but adequate for cooking), lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, green peppers, hot peppers, green beans, eggplant, and okra. Available for short periods of time, in season, are beets, broccoli, cauliflower, squash, spinach, corn (field corn), turnips, green and red cabbage, peas, green onions and sweet potatoes. Fruits available in season are mangoes, papayas, bananas, guavas, coconut, pineapples, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, strawberries, watermelon, melon, and avocados. Fresh fruits and vegetables are generally reasonable in price, often less expensive than in the U.S. Imported apples are generally available most of the year. On occasion, other fruits and vegetables such as artichokes, asparagus, endives, mushrooms, Pascal celery, peaches, cherries, pears, grapes, nectarines, and apricots can be found in the grocery stores; they are imported from France and are extremely expensive.

Peanuts are available year round in the market; almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachio nuts are available in the stores at high prices. Herbs and spices are also found in the market: mint, fresh ginger, basil, piment, caraway seeds, bay leaves, nutmeg, lemon grass (citronella), pepper-corns, salt, curry, bouillon cubes, and many local spices, such as ground baobab leaves. Other spices, imported, are available at very high prices in the grocery stores.

Mali is also West Africa's leading nation in livestock. Very good beef, pork, and mutton is raised here and sold in the market and in several small butcher shops. Beef and mutton purchased in the open market are freshly butchered and should be frozen before use. Beef is quite flavorful, but very lean and often tough. Meat tenderizers and marinades are useful to bring. The French style of cut is available, though some butchers can do the U.S. cuts. Fresh meat is not expensive by U.S. standards; filet sells for about $2.50 a pound. Chicken is seasonal due to the intense heat in the spring. There are poultry farms with excellent chickens in the winter months only; all other time of the year, chickens are skinny and tough. Imported bacon, ham, sausages, and pâtés are available in the grocery stores and butcher shops but are quite expensive.

Chicken, turkey, pigeon, guinea hen, and rabbit are also sold in the market. Excellent river fish (Nile perch or capitaine) and carp are also sold. Both poultry and fresh fish are expensive by U.S. standards. Frozen shrimp is sold in the grocery stores at very high prices. Canned seafood and fish (tuna, salmon, etc.) are also available.

Eggs are available in the market, stores, and from door-to-door salesmen. They are usually small and not always fresh. Fresh milk can be found but must be boiled before use. UHT (ultra-high temperature) long-life milk is sold both in whole, 2%, and skimmed forms; this milk does need refrigeration until opened. Excellent powdered whole milk (full cream) is also available and not expensive. Butter (salted and unsalted) and margarine is available, as is long-life cream. Many European cheeses are available (Roquefort, Camembert, Brie, Gruyere, Chevre, Gouda, Edam) and are quite expensive. Cheddar cheese, cottage cheese, mozzarella, and cream cheese are found in the shops occasionally, but American-type cheeses are not available. Imported "creme fraiche" (cultured cream), whipping cream, yogurt, and ice cream are available, but very expensive. Mali Lait, the local milk producer, has passed U.S. Embassy Health Unit tests on its milk, yogurt, and ice cream. Infrequent shortages of staples such as butter, eggs, milk, and sugar do occur.


Several grocery stores and neighborhood shops offer a variety of packaged goods and canned items such as fruits, juices, vegetables, soups, fish, and meat. The quality of some canned goods is not as high as equivalent American items. Paper products, dairy products, sausages, ham, and cold cuts are available. Also found are liquors, wines (mostly French), beer, soft drinks, and fruit juices; cookies and crackers; jams and honey; soaps, detergents, and cleaning products; coffee and tea; limited pasta products and couscous; oils, vinegar, sauces, and condiments; cocoa and spices; even some specialty items for Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. Most of the items stocked in the stores are imported from Europe; there are many Price-Leader brand products. U.S. products are being introduced to Europe and are ending up on the local shelves. All imported items are expensive; i.e., 5 kg of laundry soap at $32.00, 1 liter of cream for $16.00, 1 kg of cheese at $22.75. Store items are not always in stock; items available one week may not be available again for months.


Jars of baby food and baby cereal are sold in the stores; however, there is not much variety; they are expensive and items are often out of stock. Excellent quality European baby formulas are usually available in the pharmacies and are less expensive than American brands.

Malian, French, and some American brands of cigarettes can be found. Pipe tobaccos are not available.


Clothing among Malians is predominantly African in style, although young men often wear Western styles for everyday. Styles for men include the "zerebou," a long tunic over pants, or for dressier wear, a "grand boubou"—a long, large embroidered robe worn over a short tunic and pants. Only a small number of women wear Western clothing. For everyday, women wear a "pagne," a length of cloth wrapped into a type of skirt, and a blouse. For dressy wear, women wear a boubou—a long flowing robe over a pagne. Women have elaborately braided hairstyles and often wear a scarf wound around their heads.

Among the foreign community, Western-style clothing is worn: slacks, shirts, skirts, dresses, blouses, etc. Casual, lightweight, loose, summery styles are worn most of the time. Cotton and cotton-blend fabrics are preferable because of the heat. Clothing should be washable; it is very dusty during the dry season and muddy during the rainy season. Fairly reliable dry-cleaning is available. Clothing wears out quickly because it must be washed frequently due to the climate.

Western-style clothing is available in some boutiques but prices are generally high and quality is not good. Many local tailors can copy a garment from a picture or sample, although the quality is usually marginal. A good selection of fabrics is available, both imported and local. African tie-dyed and batik fabrics are colorful, brightly patterned, and make nice casual clothing. Patterns are not available and the supply of sewing notions—thread, buttons, zippers and trims—is limited.

Shoes should be low-heeled, sturdy, and comfortable. There are very few sidewalks so shoes wear out quickly from the dirt and rubble. Sandals can be worn most of the year and are practical because of the heat. Shoes can be found in local boutiques, but the selection of styles and sizes is minimal and the quality varies from fair to poor. Hand-crafted leather shoes, sandals, and purses can be made to order at the Artisanat. Plastic sandals and flipflops for adults and children are sold in the market.

Lightweight jackets or sweaters are needed occasionally during the cool season. An umbrella is useful during the rainy season. Bring lightweight hats for protection against the sun. Some warm, winter-type clothing is necessary in case travel to cooler climates is required. Nylon stockings are uncomfortable because of the heat and are rarely worn.


Business dress is informal and more casual than in the U.S.: short-sleeved shirts worn without a tie, sports shirts and pants for men; lightweight casual dresses, suits, and skirts and blouses for women. Dress at informal evening functions is generally casual: sports shirts, short or long dresses, skirts, pants, etc.

For children, be sure to bring a generous supply of summer clothing. Heat and dust often necessitate several changes a day. Playwear should include shorts, pants, jeans, sun-dresses, t-shirts, swimsuits, sandals, sneakers, and sun hats. Dress for school is informal. Other items to bring for children are cotton underwear, socks, pajamas, a lightweight jacket, several sweaters, some winter wear and a coat for travel to cooler climates. For infants, bring a large supply of cloth and disposable diapers, diaper pins, and rubber pants. Disposable diapers are available on the local economy but are very expensive. American-style rubber pants are not available. Some baby clothes are available but the variety is small and the quality is poor. Cotton undershirts, cotton pajamas and summer-weight infant wear should be brought. Plastic sandals for children are available in the market. Also bring baby towels, washcloths, crib sheets and cotton baby blankets.


Religious Activities

Islam is the predominant religion in Mali. A large mosque is located in the center of Bamako, and many small neighborhood mosques are situated around the city. Both Catholic and Protestant churches are in Bamako as well. Mass in French and Bambara are regularly given at the large, centrally located Roman Catholic Cathedral. Protestant services in French and Bambara are held at the International Protestant Church run by the Gospel Missionary Union, and worship services in English take place on Sunday evenings at the Protestant Mission compound. There is also a Bahai and Jehovah's Witness Community in Mali. There is no synagogue. Protestant Sunday school classes taught by Gospel Missionary Union staff is held at the American School on Sunday mornings during the school year. An Adult Bible Study group meets Sunday mornings at the American school.


Americans in Bamako spend a lot of time out-of-doors, swimming, golfing, playing tennis, and enjoying other outdoor sports and activities.

Swimming is a year-round pastime in Bamako and a good way to "beat the heat." All government-owned and-leased houses have swimming pools. The Hotel de UAmitie, the Grand Hotel, Hotel Salam, and the Mandé Hotel offer swimming pool memberships. UAmitié has a very large pool, a children's wadingpool, an outdoor restaurant and bar, two tennis courts, a 9-hole golf course, and gardens with peacocks and other birds and animals wandering about.

Small boat owners may join the Bamako Canoe Club, which provides docking and storage facilities. During the July-November season, the Niger is high enough for a boat to travel upriver from Bamako to the Guinea border. When the river level is low (December to June), the river is not navigable for larger craft (10 hp and above), but smaller boats can still be used in some places.

The biggest spectator sport in Mali is soccer. Mali has several good national teams, whose games in the Omnisport Stadium are enthusiastically attended. Every neighborhood has a soccer field and as many as 10-15 neighborhood teams. Games are played on Sundays and any other day that teams can get together to arrange a game. Basketball is also popular and there are several national teams.

Adult and children's softball games are played on weekends. Some equipment, i.e., bases, bats, and balls are available; however, you should bring your own glove. Bamako has fielded teams to participate in the various West African softball tournaments, including the West African Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST), usually held in February in Dakar.

The Marine House hosts a number of unofficial functions open to the American community, including family day twice a month on Sunday afternoons and Friday night movies. Volleyball, swimming, badminton, and table games are available most weekends at the Marine House. There is also exercise/aerobic equipment for the Direct Hire American Community located on the premises. The Marines occasionally plan social/holiday activities for general community participation.

Source Encyclopedia