Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peace Corps Volunteer "Babemba" in Sikasso

Mali .... the "Land of Timbuktu!"

Pictured above is the only remaining structure of the Sankore University of Timbuktu (one of three major universities that thrived in this city where the "canoe met the camel." Sankore Univeristy was built in the early 1300 when the legendary city was in its glory. The University was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with between 400,000 and 700.000 manuscripts.

La Grande Mosque of Timbuktu .... built in the 1500.

Some 600 years later, as a Peace Corps Volunteer to Mali, I visited the fabled city and saw this ancient piece of world history during the time of the Sahelien drought of the 1970s. Gone the days when Europeans had believed the streets of Timbuktu to be paved in gold, gone was the famous University of Timbuktu and its rich one-of-a-kind library, no longer were the medical experiment, i.e. brain surgery being done in this fabled city (the doctors in Timbuktu conducted this type of surgery during the time of the Middle Ages in Europe and it would be another 500 years before Europe would even consider such an idea ..... gone too was the paper currency Timbuktu printed that had been used throughout Western and Northern Africa as well as Europe ..... the ancient glory.... all gone .... except for the small settlement along the Niger River with its dunes and 120 plus degree temperatures!

Mines, 500 kilometers north of Timbuktu in the middle of the Sahara, still provide blocks of salt which are cut from the ground, transported by camels to Timbuktu and then by boat to Mopti for distribution throughout Mali.

Arriving in Mali in April 1971, I soon found myself in the southern regional capital of Sikasso, where I was assigned to the Regional Ministry of Livestock Office to help build a poultry center. Dr. Kansaye, the Director of the Regional Ministry of Livestock was my supervisor. The first time I met Dr. Kansaye, he gave me the name "Babemba" ... the name of the last King of the Kenadougou Empire who had died fighting off the French in the late 1800s.

When the French surrounded the city of Sikasso in 1893 and broke through the wall, rather than being captured by the French, Babemba cried out "I'll die before I become a slave to the French," gave his rifle to a soldier, asked to be killed, and became an instant myarter for Mali's independence..

A young Leslie, aka "Babemba" at the Sunday Sikasso market. The whole time I was in Mali, everyone called me "Babemba." As I was to learn, I had been given the name of a legendary Malian King ..... and as someone once joked .... little Malian children who knew me, grew up thinking "Babemba" was white!

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Left the land of milk and honey for a spiritual nomadic life.