Ancient Rocks, Ancient Times, Ancient Men, Causing Recent Tears in Mali, West Africa

Geologists say that rocks can tell stories. However, rocks cannot tell a human story; or can they? Maybe these rocks can. You decide,

To the uninitiated person, this is just another rough, dusty, West African bush road, worthy of only enough attention to avoid the potholes to smooth the ride for weary passengers, and prevent damage to your vehicle. I’ve driven thousands and thousands of kilometers on African bush roads. Certainly no story could emerge from this silly bush road with the usual holes and rocks to avoid.

I was mistaken.

Despite the fact that I capture thousands of great Malian photos each year (there are places it’s simply not appropriate, or wise to be taking pictures.), I did not want to turn this endeavor into a photo shoot. My main concern is to preserve my experiences  by writing up the stories to help me remember.  I really do not desire to manage pictures here too. I want to permit the adventures I write about to conjure up mental images, if they can. Unfortunately, my writing skills are wanting, and as a result the mental images painted by my words may be  too fuzzy to be of interest to most.  I write these stories to preserve them for me, and no one else in the end. I have 1200 pages of such stories, most of which have never been told over the years.  Some day…….

If I have time, you may actually end up seeing three pictures here. If not, I hope the story is intriguing enough for you as is.

I have another “Ancient Man” story to tell after this one. The “facts”, as told to me, may or may not be accurate. It does not matter to me. I am not taking time to verify anything. I will share the encounter as it was told to me, the conversation touches some history. However, the beauty is the old man himself, though the story, as told to me yesterday, is a good one.

However, before I get to the ancient man,  let me jump back to a related adventure that captivated me in March of 2011. I think it will serve as a great backdrop, to better understand the “Ancient Man’s” words.

My wife had to return home unexpectedly from Africa in January, so I found myself alone in Mali for the remaining six weeks. Near my departure date, a friend of mine, Adama Coulibaly, asked if I would go with him to his field for the day.

Adama works for a huge cotton company in the Sikasso region, but he is preparing for his retirement by developing a five hectare plot of land near the village of Farkala. I was glad to get out in the bush and revel with him in his retirement plan.

400 km highway from Bamako to Sikasso, built by forced labor of Malians during French Colonization.

There is an interesting story here, because as you approach Farkala from Sikasso, there is a dirt road that veers off to the right. I was told by Adama that this was actually the direction of the original highway between Sikasso and Bamako built by the French Colonizers. In most places, the current highway is on the same spot. However, in others places they rerouted sections, leaving old sections abandoned and bypassed out in the bush.

We followed one of these original old paths and passed though a place with huge old mango trees. I commented that the trees look like a village was once here. Adama began to tell the story.

This was actually the original site of a nearby village that moved. That caused me to bend my ear in keen interest. I had never personally heard of a village that just packed up and moved  before. But this one did.

When the the highway was moved over to the south another two kilometers, there was pressure by many to move the village out beside the new highway, now that their village location was being bypassed.  Adama remembered playing soccer in the old village when he was very young.

The terrain here on the site of the original village was beautiful, with a small river that never runs dry. The village debated the move for many years, some wanting to go, others wanting to stay. But the wise chief and elders decided that whatever we do, we will do together. So after years of debating, the decision to move was finally made. The village would prepare to move the two kilometers to the new highway with a transition period to allow families time to build their new mud brick homes. As they completed them over a few years, families slowly moved over to the new location, abandoning the old village.  However, there was a deadline. And once that deadline came, no one was permitted to remain back in the old village. In fact, once that date arrived, every former home, building, and shed in the old village was knocked down and leveled. No one was permitted to stay behind.

I looked closer at hearing this, and indeed I could see the faint mounds under the hundreds of mango trees as we drove along the old road. Small rises giving a hint of the former presence of a families’ mud brick home. The mounds of mud brick were almost invisible now, having long since returned to clay  and covered with foliage. If Adama had not told me the story we would have driven by, with me never knowing what happened here. I’m glad I commented on the mango trees, and thankful Adam opened up.

An ancient village moved, and it was no more. To this day, it is forbidden for anyone to return to the site of that original village. That is why they destroyed every mud structure. Some wanted to stay; years later, others wanted to return, but they were forbidden. The decision was to stay together, the move was final. No one is permitted to build anything back there again.

The real wound in the story came as the new village developed a real water shortage over the years. All the wells went dry in dry season. The government drilled a deep well and erected a water tower, but even that deep well often ran dry, and soon the water tower was broken anyway, never to be repaired again. Why bother, they often have not enough water to fill it anyway.

Today, as we drive along slowly,  we see dozens, and dozens of people, hauling water. We see girls with bowls, buckets or small bottles of water on their head. Bicycles and motos with overly heavy loads. Donkey carts with barrels of water, filled and spilling over on to the cart, as the donkey slowly meanders home on the rough path. The water is coming from the old village wells, and stream, that never run dry. This is the salt in the wound. The new village has no water. The old one has a never ending supply, so all the villagers have to go back to it for water, a four kilometer round trip. This happens every day, a steady stream of hundreds of people, morning to night. Many wish to return to the site of the old village now, and I don’t blame them, it is beautiful, it has water.  However, they are forbidden… it’s a forever taboo now.

Remains of the first hand built highway in Adama Coulibaly’s field.

As we navigated the ancient road through the mango trees and the old village, we emerged on the other side to Adama’s field. We got out of the car, and he toured me around his orange and banana trees. I noticed a faint, but straight row of rock that passes through his field and ends at the lower end at a little stream of water. Adama told me that this was the edge rocks on each side of the first road ever build by the French, from Sikasso to Bamako. Where it met the stream used to be a bridge, and I could still see the huge rocks placed for it. But the ridge of rocks is not easily noticeable, a narrow line about six inches wide and a few inches high, in places not even visible. If I had not asked about the two parallel lines of rocks I could see in places while crossing his field. To think I might have missed this story….

He then pointed over to the dirt road we arrived on, about 300 yards North. He said that the road we came down is really the  second rebuild of the Sikasso road.  He took me back up to the road by the car. He pointed out places where the original rock cobble stones are still seen in places. Rocks, some huge some small, all fitted together to make a hard stony surface for an ancient road. Most of these fitted stone are gone, but in places you can still see strips and small sections where it is still fitted together.

Hand fitted stones to from a 400 km highway, placed by forced labor of Malians during French Colonization.

Adama Coulibaly said that the French built this 400 km highway to Bamako with forced labor of the local African people.  The French overlords forced villagers to build a cobblestone road of rock, by hand, using primitive tools, or be punished. I stood there on the cobblestone rocks. I took pictures, and some video. But this was not something to be seen through a lens of a camera. It needed to be experienced. I began to pace back and forth on the cobbled patches still intact, as I listened to Adama tell the story. Finally, I was overwhelmed as I paced.  I had to let the images sear into my mind, not my camera. The story burned into my mind as I listened to Coulibaly tell the stories, and I could see the truth of it all, below my feet.  The images were trying to line up with the words I was hearing.

I just listened as tears welled up in my eyes, and I turned my back so Adama could not see. Finally, I stooped down and put my hands on a section of the smooth, weather worn cobblestones, and I just felt the stones in my hand, and cried.

Human cruelty knows no end when we see other people as less human, or simply less than we are. I have not been back to this site since. But I will be. I need to take Lynn there some day soon. Adama wants me to help him figure out some simple irrigation concepts for his fruit trees, and I have ideas that will help him.

IMG_0788With Adama, I was connected to the stuff of this ancient era of colonization and forced labor.  I could see and feel the physical results of Colonization. Though it was very emotional,  it was not very personal; at least not until I met the “Ancient Man”.

I’m glad that this encounter with the “Ancient Road”  happened first. Because, the second, but personal human encounter with the “Ancient Man” two years later would not have been as rich without seeing the cobblestones first.

Rocks can tell a story after all, even a human story.

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