The Great Crossing

‘Monique, the Great Crossing is scheduled for the day after tomorrow’, was Ibrahim’s message when he called me on Thursday evening.

Once a year the Peul herdsmen from Diafarabé and its surrounding villages choose a day to cross the river Niger with their cattle and make a feast of it. Knowing that cows are not particularly made for swimming, you can imagine that this is quite a spectacle. Other than the crossing itself, I had not really any idea what to expect when we hit the road the next morning and sure enough I was offered lots of experiences 🙂

After an inspection of Ibrahim’s motor and changing the tires we left Ségou and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the road to Markala and on to Macina had been repaved making it actually quite a pleasant ride. Arriving at the Markala barrage we had to wait, while Peul herdsmen where crossing the bridge with their goats. With a big smile on his face, a Peul ran in front of the cattle his typical Peul hat firmly stuck to his head. The goats where following full speed, bumping into and tumbling over one another and the line was closed by another running wide-grinned Peul holding a baby goat in front of his chest.
At the side of the barrage fishermen where simultaneously throwing their nets, landing it only a few minutes later filled with fish.

When we reached the town of Macina it got close to lunch hour and we visited with the family of one of Ibrahim’s friends, who warmly welcomed us and prepared us a lovely meal. While Ibrahim spent some time at the local mosque for the Friday prayers, I reflected a bit on the beautiful journey so far and on being so lucky to have found the combination of a home base and traveling.

Well fed and a bit rested we continued our journey. A local was guiding us, to avoid us from getting lost on the sandy road (without any signs) to Diafarabé. His motor was heavily smoking, putting us in a smelly dust most of the time, making me feel grateful for the protection of our turbans and glasses, nevertheless I was still ‘eating’ sand and we got free butt-massages as well…

‘Luckily your motor is a bit better’, I said.
‘Monique, my motor is a lót better!’, Ibrahim stated. And it was, that is, till we arrived at the point where the road was flooded with water. We’d been crossing some water before without any problems, but this one was going to be different. Half a meter of water is simply too much for a ‘Made in China’ motor. And after our guide’s motor had given up, so did ours. Well, our guide got his motor going again after some ten minutes or so and we had to find a mechanic in the next village. We had freed our guide, who hopefully made it back through the water without any problems and back home before it got too dark.
Daylight was slowly fading when the mechanic temporarily fixed the motor and night-fall had arrived when we continued our journey, finding our way in the dark over bumpy fields, guided by the stars and the torches of the Peul herdsmen. Arriving near Diafarabé we had to cross the Niger and an advantage of traveling by motor is not having to wait for the ferry, since a pirogue is often at hand. I had never imagined it being so peaceful to cross the Niger at night. The water was calm and the Milky Way brighter than ever, it seemed to me. I almost felt sorry for arriving at the other river bank.

How lucky we were that guide Bapou from Ségou and his driver Moussa were already there with their group. They had not only set up a camp, a meal was about to be served and we were invited to join. Such a blessing after the long day of traveling! It was followed by a camp fire with puzzles and funny stories and a visit to the village of Diafarabé where the locals had started their festivities with music and dances.

Exhausted I hit the sack around midnight and woke up quite refreshed in the early morning, grabbing the chance to take a ‘river shower’ and join Moussa for an early cup of tea, watching the day becoming alive, the soft morning colors slowly fading, making place for the brightness of day, the fishermen wading into the water to land their nets and the pirogues nonstop crossing the river bringing in loads of ‘high officials’, such as ministers and judges for the crossing.

And slowly the riverbanks on the other side are filling with herds of cows while the hours are passing by. Only when all officials, the musicians, dancers and hunters are present, the crossing officially starts with the hunters firing their guns and the first cows running into the water. Herd after herd enters the water, the herdsmen swimming around the cows, hitting their sticks on the water, motivating their cows to swim and make it to the other side.
For the herdsmen it’s not just an annual event, it’s a competition to show their abilities and the youngster who wins can be sure there’s no shortage of girls that would like to marry him.

I’m lacking an extra pair of eyes and ears to take in all impressions. Festivities are going on all around and the Peul are wearing their most beautiful clothes and decorations. They are a bit taller than most of the other population groups in Mali, their skin is more fair and they are easy to recognize by their high cheekbones. Add beautiful colorful dresses, women and girls with amber and gold pieces woven into their hair, the men with their Peul-hats, sticks and typical proud posture and there’s more than enough to enjoy. In the meantime the cows are safely reaching the shore and their herdsmen are getting out of the water with happy smiles. Their party is going to start right now and will continue till the early hours.

For us it’s time to hit the road and get stranded due to the flooded road once again. After a while Ibrahim manages to get the motor going again and we arrive safely in Ségou after some more repairs in Macina, where we were again warmly welcomed in the local family.

Taking a shower at home, washing away the dust of two days, my body is feeling sore of the journey and I feel like I’ve been traveling for weeks. I’m a bit hollow-cheeked, plain exhausted and overly happy with the experience.

Now it’s time to reflect a bit and create a beautiful journey around it for the 2011 travel season. I’m already looking forward to it. If we got the date on short notice we’ll make the beautiful journey by four-wheel drive. And if we manage to get it a bit earlier we’ll be taking a pinasse (river boat) from Ségou to Diafarabé, making stops at the villages and towns in between, camping at the Niger river banks, camp fires, the sounds of nature and the starry heavens above…

Will be continued..!

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About MoInMali

Monique is the founder of Papillon Reizen, a Mali based travel agency specialized in inspiring journeys in Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin. Fair-trade and with a heart for people, environment and culture. Small-scale group journeys as well as family trips and journeys tailored to your wishes. We love to share West Africa's beauty with you and take you on a journey to experience rather than to see. Monique lives in Mali with her Malian partner and shares some of her daily life experiences with you through this blog. For information on Papillon Reizen: www.papillonreizen.com
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