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

by phil on August 4, 2011

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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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