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Do you Expect to See this in a West African City?

In what is turning into something of an informal series (see this and this), this is another post challenging perceptions of Africa.

In tenth grade, one of my classes began with a round table discussion of current events. Each day, everyone in the class brought in an article to share. On one occasion, a classmate shared an article about the civil war in Sierra Leone. Throughout his summary, he referred to Sierra Leone as if it were a person. First name, Sierra. Last name, Leone. Enraged, our teacher assigned a quiz for the following day: we would have to identify all 53 countries (this was the number at the time) in Africa and their capital cities.

The next day, Dr. Mo put ten minutes on the clock and handed us a blank map.

Dr. Mo remains a favorite teacher of mine for many reasons. This quiz is one of them. Not so much because of the quiz itself, but because of her attitude: our ignorance was unacceptable.

On my recent London to Washington, DC flight, my seat-mate, incredulous that I was willingly spending time in Mali, asked me about housing in Bamako. I told him I had an apartment. “Like a hut?” A hut? No, an apartment. His next question? “What tribes live in Mali?” The conversation was excruciating.

Living in Bamako, I had forgotten that Africa is “huts” and “tribes.”

Mali is a very poor country. This is true. But Mali is extraordinarily rich in culture. Mali is also rich in democracy and civil society. It is a majority Muslim country, but there is no religious intolerance. And while gender inequality continues to be an issue, Mali is making great strides in that area as well (consider the recent appointment of the first female prime minister and the imminent passage of the new Family Act, which among other things, raises the legal age of marriage to 18 and expands the property and inheritance rights of women). Mali was once home to one of the most advanced pre-colonial empires on earth. The country has never seen civil war.

You can’t reduce a continent (or a country for that matter) to “huts” and “tribes.” Like our high school ignorance of Sierra Leone, these one dimensional impressions of Africa are also unacceptable.

I wonder what my seat-mate would say if he had a chance to visit the National Park of Mali.

Situated along Bamako’s northern edge, the Parc National du Mali is one of the largest urban parks in Africa. It has botanical gardens, an arboretum, walking trails, a garden of medicinal plants and a sports center. All the buildings were designed by the renowned Burkinabé architect, Diébédo Francis Kéré. From Kéré:

[the sports center] consists of three pavilions which are situated around an ellipsoidal playground. The buildings are situated in such a way that they give maximal shadow to the playground and also the interior recreation spaces. Also here the relationships between interior and exterior spaces played a major role in the design . . . All buildings are covered from the outside with the local natural stone, which usage is reinforcing the local identity and saving building costs. The exterior stone walls are providing a natural isolation and acclimatisation of the interior spaces. The big overhanging roofs are giving shade to the facades and are creating an enjoyable inside climate.

The park is also home to a tea house, a restaurant, a juice bar, a nursery and stone carving workshop, and an environmental center.

Tea house.

The park could use bigger playgrounds.

Two adults and about 80 kids.

I snapped these pictures during a weekday visit. On weekends, the park is packed.

It’s not all roses, though. The park charges an entrance fee – a couple dollars for foreigners and about sixty cents for Malians. This is unfortunate, considering other public institutions in Bamako, Palais de la Culture for instance, are free to visit. The government wants the park to be economically viable and considering that there are many other, higher priority projects (see maternal healthcare) that need funding, it’s understandable. The park does offer a number of free programs and school groups can easily obtain free admission.

Many people associate urban green space with cities in North America and Europe. You might not expect to see this park in Bamako. It’s there. It’s an impressive park, and not just in comparison to possible expectations of what an urban park in Africa could be. It stands on its own. It’s worth visiting.

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{ 19 comments… add one }

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures August 5, 2011, 9:18 am

    Wow what a gorgeously green place!

  • Ben Gubits August 5, 2011, 10:00 am

    Truly one of my favorite posts yet brother! I had a similar 10th grade world history teacher that had no tolerance for intolerance and ignorance. Every post, more and more, makes me want to accompany you back to Bamako. What an amazing place!!

    • phil August 7, 2011, 10:37 pm

      let’s make it happen brother!

  • Dalene August 5, 2011, 11:42 am

    Kudos to your teacher, and kudos to you, for continuing to highlight this region of the world that is so unknown to many. Really awesome post, and you keep pulling Pete and I south, the more we read… :)

    • phil August 7, 2011, 11:38 pm

      Head south!!!!

  • Anthony @ Positive World Travel August 6, 2011, 2:35 am

    This is a place that I would love to travel to. It has always been in the back of my mind that it would be to dangerous but I can see myself going there sometime soon. We may be travelling there in 2012 hopefully.

    • phil August 8, 2011, 12:28 am

      Are you talking about Mali or Africa more generally? If you’re in Mali, let me know :)

  • Tom August 7, 2011, 3:35 am

    Wow, this looks beautiful – I had no idea this kind of place existed in Mali. The only pictures I’ve seen of it before are, well, of tribes – I wasn’t aware Bamako had such green and gorgeous areas. Thanks for sharing :)

    • phil August 8, 2011, 12:29 am

      Hey Tom,
      Happy to shed some light on Bamako and Mali!

  • ismael August 8, 2011, 5:46 am

    i really like it that s so great

    • phil August 9, 2011, 3:23 pm

      thanks ismael!

  • Matt August 9, 2011, 6:42 pm

    Great stuff. Love the positive portrayal of this great city.

    • phil August 10, 2011, 12:58 am

      I would KILL for some tuareg fried rice right about now!!! DHL that shit!

  • Robert (@ Kenya Safari) January 17, 2012, 10:01 am

    That park really looks nice and well kept. The standards are now moving up and let me say the people in africa are also becoming more conscious of their environemnts

  • Lisa | LLWorldTour February 21, 2012, 11:03 am

    See? I easily got sucked in to reading more about Mali.
    Great post Phil! I hope Dr Mo is a reader too. Would make his day, if not year. So great that you are spreading news and info about Mali and enlightening the rest of us. Wow. I have so much more to explore.

    • phil February 21, 2012, 5:16 pm

      Dr. Mo is indeed a reader. I was able to catch up with her recently at my high school and she was happy to hear this story being told once more. Glad you’re enjoying the Mali content!

  • Simone July 11, 2012, 10:08 am

    Hi Phil, I live in Bamako and visit the park several times a week as a member of the sports club and a fan of the espresso and croissants in the tea house. This quote brings tears to my eyes.
    “Mali is also rich in democracy and civil society. It is a majority Muslim country, but there is no religious intolerance. And while gender inequality continues to be an issue, Mali is making great strides in that area as well (consider the recent appointment of the first female prime minister and the imminent passage of the new Family Act, which among other things, raises the legal age of marriage to 18 and expands the property and inheritance rights of women). Mali was once home to one of the most advanced pre-colonial empires on earth. The country has never seen civil war.”
    It was (or seemed) true though a year ago…………

    • phil July 11, 2012, 1:05 pm

      Brings tears to my eyes too. Almost nothing holds true in that statement anymore, unfortunately. Breaks my heart. At least the park is still there..

  • Alhassan Hamza Maiga September 6, 2012, 11:47 am

    This is the land of my fore fathers, but I’ve never visited there before, I have spent all my life in Ghana n never knew Mali luks so attractive, the little documentation has touch my heart that next year if we’re still alive I’ll be visiting my homeland for the first time, tanx..

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