home Events Programme 4: The Perfect Zero

Programme 4: The Perfect Zero



  • Location: Mali
  • The Saharan desert way of life – dependent on water and camels
  • The borders of Arab and Black Africa
  • Towns of Arouane, Timboctou, Mopti, Djenne and the Bandiagora Escarpment in Dogon country
  • Economic importance of salt and the Niger river
  • Architectural and artistic achievements in ancient settlements
  • Education as key to negotiating the interface between traditional and modern ways of life


Mali1   Mali 2


Use this interactive map to find Mali in relation to all the rest of Africa. Can you do the hardest option?


Here are some primary school lesson plans for projects about Mali:


A Quick Quiz:

Based On Watching and Listening To This Film!

1.Bob Geldof thinks that people could go mad in the empty, silent desert if they didn’t invent what?

2.The place Arouane is more than 90, 900 or 9000 years old?

3.What do local people use for fuel to make fire for heat and cooking?

4.How long can camels go without food?

5.There are about 7 million Tuareg people in the Sahara. They are called ‘nomads’. What does that mean?

6.How does even a blind Tuareg know where they are in the desert?

7.How do children collecting water know when it is their turn?

8.Timbuctou is an ancient centre of learning for which religion?

9.Which natural product is central to trade in the town of Mopti?

10.“How powerful is this desert that it can move rivers and bury cities?” says Bob Geldof. Which river is this desert moving?

11.For about two months every year the desert winds produce a destructive type of weather that we call – – – – – – – – – – ?

12.The famous mosque at Djenne is mainly built from what?

13.Which people built homes into the rock at the Bandiagora escarpment?

14.The Bela people are traditional slaves to who?

15.At the end what does Bob Geldof say is the most important hope for the future of the people of Mali?


Answers are on last page

African Art and Architecture

   The mosque at Djenne


The mosque at Mopti

Cloth design

Dogon mud cloth design


Bogolan is to its wearer what the shell is for the turtle.

Mud-dyed cloth, bogolan, cannot only be seen everywhere in Mali-it has gone global. Clothing and interior designers worldwide now use it or copy its designs.

The cloth’s distinctive brown-red color comes from iron-rich mud. Traditionally, an artist handpainted only the negative spaces, letting the main image stand out as the unpainted white design on the cloth. Recently, some mudcloth artists have experimented with stencils that reverse how the design is made. The mud color becomes the main design, while the unpainted white areas serve as the design background.

Traditionally, Bambara (Bamanan) women, as well as those of the Minianka, Senufo, Dogon, and other ethnic groups, produced the cloth for important life events and taught the process to their daughters. Men, especially hunters, wore it for celebrations. Today, both women and men make mudcloth for sale in markets, and Malian students study it at the arts academy.


Chris SeydouMalian fashion designer (1949-1994)

Chris Seydou got his start in the tailor shops of Mali, at age 16. He first designed Bógólan clothing in Paris, at 26. Seydou embraced mud-cloth for its graphic quality and as part of his heritage. He simplified the older patterns, creating designs that he tailored into Western-style mini-skirts and jackets.

ClothesDesigner Yves St. Laurent recalls working with Seydou in Paris: “He worked at my side and represented the hope of African clothes design…with him has disappeared the talent of a genuine creative artist.” Seydou died in 1994, after a brief illness.


Bogolan inspired fashion by Woodin of Abidjan.

Chris Seydou’s clients were young, fashionable, urbanites in West Africa, Europe, and America. He created tailored clothing that is radically different from the traditional flowing robes which remain the formal clothing of choice for most Malians.

Ishmael Diabate: Malian fine artist

Ismael Diabate, a painter, helped transform mud-dyed cloth, or Bógólan, from a clothing to an internationally recognized fine art. In 1981, Diabate chose to work with Bógólan in his painting. He believed that colonialism had undermined the Malian aesthetic and considered the mud-dyed technique part of a cultural revival. When Diabate graduated from the Malian National Institute of the Arts in 1968, Bógólan courses were not available. Today, Bógólan technique is part of the curriculum and a growing number of Malian artists work with its mud-dyes and cloth.

“I use bógólan to draw Malians back into their own culture, using bógólan in new styles Artists have to return to their roots in order to bring something new to international art.”

–Ishmael Diabate, 1992

Diabate painting

Diabate based this painting on a Bamana ideogram, one of 266 symbols that constitute the basis of knowledge for the Komo men’s secret society. Taken together, the ideograms recount the seven stages of the Earth’s creation. In exhibitions, Diabate places his paintings next to writings that explain the ideograms.

More about contemporary Malian artists at:


Rock paintings from Dogon initiation ceremonies at Bianagora


Rock painting


Rock painting


A variety of Malian headdresses

Head dress     Head dress   Figurine

Figurine                    Figurine

                                                         Wood carving of lute player

FigurineFigurineFigurine  Dogun figurines






Economy and Natural Resources

Most of the people of ancient Mali made their living in agriculture, just as they do today.

Pastoralism–herding of cattle, goats, sheep, and some camels–predominated in the dry, sparsely populated north. Crop agriculture predominated in the wetter south.

Despite generally infertile soils, two types of crops are grown today:

*      Food crops: millet, sorghum, corn, rice, cassava, yams

*      Cash crops: cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco; plus kola nuts in the southern forest zone

Trade in agricultural products developed between north and south, as the principle of comparative advantage would suggest. Leather, hides, sheepskins, and goatskins came from the Salhelian grasslands. Cash crops and food crops came from the south, the savannah and forest zones. They were traded in the village markets, as they are today. In the ancient capital of the Mali Empire, Niani, people lived mostly on pounded millet, honey, and milk.

The wealth of ancient Mali was based on trade, particularly the trans-Sahara trade.

Control and taxation of trade pumped wealth into the imperial treasury and sustained the Mali Empire’s existence. The most profitable commodities traded were gold and salt.

*      Gold. Gold was mined first at Bambuk on one of the tributaries of the upper Senegal River. Later, it was mined at Bure on the headwaters of the Niger River. The location of the gold mines moved as the mines in the west became exhausted and new sources were discovered further east. The mansa (King) claimed all the gold nuggets, but gold dust was available for trade. Gold is still mined today in Mali.

  • Salt. Salt was mined deep in the Sahara, near the towns of Taghaza and Taoudeni. Slabs brought by camel can still be found in the market of Timbuktu, Mopti, and other Niger River towns.


”The salt trade remains very important for all of us in Timbuktu. I would say about a third of the population of Timbuktu depends on it. The salt is carried on camels from Taoudenni [in the far north of Mali] to Timbuktu, a journey of about 700 miles. In a salt train, each camel carries four slabs of salt, each weighing about 25 kilos. Each piece would fetch about 5000 CFAs in Timbuktu, and 5,500 CFAs in Mopti, depending on the quality. Before leaving, each trader marks each slab of salt with his family symbol.”

Salt trader, Timbuktu

Salt trader Photo for Oxfam GB by Rhodri Jones


But where does the salt come from?

To get to the salt you have first to dig to remove the soil and once about half a metre of soil has been removed you might reach the first layer of salt. This is not very good quality because there are lots of stones in it, but it’s still useable. Then, if you dig down about two metres, you reach the second quality salt which is almost as good as the best quality but it still contains a bit of sand. Then, after another two metres you begin to reach the best quality salt. The salt is deposited in layers and the layers can extend for 5-10 metres and they are up to 10 centimetres thick. We remove the two layers together and employ other people to split the pieces to separate the first and second quality layers, and then to cut the slabs to the right size.”

Sidy Ahmed Ould Faly, salt trader

These and other commodities were involved in the trans-Sahara trade. Great camel caravans brought salt, iron, copper, cloth, books, and pearls from the north and northeast. They were exchanged for gold, kola nuts, ivory, leather, rubber, and slaves from the south. The Niger River became a major artery of trade. When the caravans met the Niger, their goods would be unloaded on riverboats, and the camels would return north laden with valuable commodities from the south.

Although salt and gold dust were used as currency during the fourteenth century, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were introduced as currency as well. Their use improved the collection of taxes and the exchange of goods.

Ancient Mali also had craftsmen who worked with iron, wood, metal, weaving, dyeing, and tanning leather.

In economic terms, Mali is one of the contemporary world’s poorest countries.

With the coming of the Europeans, trade was re-oriented away from the trans-Saharan trade routes to the coast. Commodities produced in Mali today fetch only low prices, and the land has probably become somewhat drier and less productive. Two-thirds of the present country is desert or semi-desert.


The vast majority of the population (80 percent) are mostly subsistence farmers, growing just enough for their own needs, with small surpluses sold in the local markets. Fishing is also important. To this day, most of the labor is done by animal or human power. A few larger farms produce crops for sale (cash crops), mainly cotton and peanuts. About five percent of the population is nomadic. Industrial activity is concentrated on processing farm commodities grown for export, especially cotton, the main export. New gold mining operations give hope for future economic development, but at present Mali remains deeply dependent on foreign aid and vulnerable to fluctuations in the world price of cotton.

However, other countries with difficult climates and few resources

have prospered. A good part of Mali’s problems come from the lack

of investment in the country during French colonial times and corrupt governments after independence. In an era of increasing globalization,

Mali, along with most African countries, has clearly been left behind.


Language: Oral History

Can you remember from this film why it is that Malian people relied on oral history to know about times and people before them?

Bob Geldof explains that as nomadic people most Malians were limited to what they could carry with them on a camel. After water, food, clothing and weapons there wouldn’t be much room for books or paper. So very few things were ever written down to be read in another time or place.

1. Discuss how do you know of people, places, events in the past if you didn’t

see or hear them yourself?


2. Make a list of all the ways that you can know about things that

existed before you were born.


3. From your list put the things in order of TRUST. Which is the most

honest and reliable way of finding out the truth about the past?


4. Do you think ORAL HISTORY where older people tell you what

happened without ever writing it down or taking a photo, is reliable

history. Could there be mistakes?


5. Play a Chinese Whispers game where one person gives another a

detailed instruction to pass on. Is the instruction still the same

when the last person in the group gets it?

Modern Malian Music Makers


Oumou Sangare was born in Bamako in 1968, to parents who had immigrated to Mali’s burgeoning capital city from the region south of the Niger river known as Wassoulou. Her mother, Aminata Diakhite, was also a singer who, like most women of her generation, had to share her husband with two other wives. This formative experience of polygamy and its potential for causing pain and suffering made a deep impression on the young girl. Oumou’s mother encouraged her to develop her talents as a singer, whispering to her terrified daughter just before she took the stage of Bamako’s Stade des Omnisports for her first public appearance at the tender age of six, ‘Sing like you’re at home in the kitchen.’

After a period as a member of The National Ensemble of Mali, the training ground for many of the country’s top musicians. Oumou was asked by Super Diata Band veteran Bamba Dambele to accompany his traditional percussion troupe Djoliba in 1986 on a tour of Europe. Following this brief introduction to the musician’s life, Oumou returned home with the exceptionally precocious determination to form her own group and form her own sound based on the styles and traditions of her ancestral homeland, Wassoulou.


Oumou  (2003)

For reasons which even Oumou herself is hard pressed to explain adequately, the Wassoulou region has produced a remarkable number of great women singers since Mali gained its independence in the early ’60s. She regularly names pioneering figures like Coumba Sidibe, Sali Sidibe and Flan Saran as important influences. All who together with many others, forged a distinct style of music based on local dances and rhythms like the didai, the bari, the sigui and above all the sogonikun – a traditional masked dance performed mainly by young girls at harvest time.

This unique style which came to be known as ‘wassoulou’, combines the djembe drum and karyaing (scraper), propelled rhythms of the regions traditional dances with the jittery yet funky sound of the kamalengoni (literally ‘young man’s harp’) – an instrument which has played a key role in the development of wassoulou. Adapted by the youth of Yanfolila in the heart of Wassoulou from the donsongom (an ancient harp used in rituals by the wassoulou forest hunters), the kamalengoni in may ways symbolizes youth and, if not rebellion in a rock ‘n’ roll sense of the word, then at least a sense of fun, freedom and a certain amount of rule-breaking.

Shortly after her return from Europe, Oumou started working with the highly revered arranger Amadou Ba Guindo. Together with a fine group of musicians including Boubacar Diallo on guitar and Aliou Traore on violin, Oumou and Amadou Ba set about constructing a tight and highly individual sound, aiming for something rooted in tradition and yet unique and modern at the same time. Oumou replaced the traditional horse-hair fiddle or soku with a modern violin which had not been used by in a wassoulou line-up before, and brought in the calabash or fle as a percussion instrument. After two years of hard work and experimentation, the group was offered a recording session. Oumou and company traveled to Abidjan in The Ivory Coast and in seven days at the legendary JBZ studios they recorded Moussolou, a collection of six original Oumou compositions. On its release in 1989 the record sold over 200,000 copies. The public and the pirates went crazy and at 21, Oumou was a star.

Moussolu women

Moussolou (Women) is a classic of modern African pop. In its own way it represented something of a revolution in the way African music is recorded and produced. With their crystal clear and beautifully sparse sound based on traditional and mainly acoustic instruments Oumou and Amadou Ba had concocted a viable alternative to what had previously been perceived as the only options: tacky synth ‘n’ drum machine driven ‘modernity’ or unlistenable low-fi DIY trad ‘obscurity’. Oumou’s approach to her music also echoed the deeper struggle of her peer group for a cultural identity in which tradition is not thrown in the bin, but modernized with its essential character and strength intact. Oumou herself stresses the fact that although she speaks out against the abuses of traditional social customs such as polygamy, she herself is not anti-tradition. “Just look at the clothes I wear,” she says “aren’t they traditional!”

While the incredible success of Moussolou put Oumou firmly on the West African map, it was only after a fortuitous introduction by the legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure in 1991 that UK label World Circuit picked up the rights for the album and began to develop Oumou’s international career. Moussolou was given a universally positive reception on its worldwide release and Oumou, pen and inspiration never at rest, set about working on songs for her second album Ko Sira (Marriage Today) recorded in Berlin and released on World Circuit in 1993. Ko Sira includes ‘Saa Magni’, a moving tribute to the memory of Amadou Ba who died in a car crash. “Death struck down Amadou Ba Guindo,” she sings, “death spares no creature, nothing can stop it, not even fame.”

With Ko Sira, Oumou notched up her second best-selling album and consolidated her fame. Back home politicians rushed to associate themselves with her perceptive views on contemporary morality but Oumou remains defiantly non-aligned. She received numerous awards in Mali and Ko Sira was voted European World Music album of the Year (1993). Despite the arrival of her first child she set out on grueling tour schedules in Africa and Europe and in 1994 she paid her second visit to the USA as part of the Africa Fête package tour, performing to delighted audiences at Summer Stage in New York’s Central Park. For her third album Worotan (Ten Kola Nuts … i.e. … the traditional bride-price in Mali) released in 1996. Oumou worked with Pee Wee Ellis, James Brown’s erstwhile horn-man and stalwart of the ‘Horny Horns’, who made an enthusiastic yet respectfully controlled contribution to the Sangare sound. Nitin Sawhney, the British Asian guitar wizard also made an important contribution to the album, especially on the final song ‘Djorolen’, one of Oumou’s most moving compositions to date.

Perhaps the core reason for Wassoulou’s national and later international popularity was that it offered people, especially young people, a welcome alternative to the ancient and predominant Malian tradition of the jalis, or praise singers. Whereas the jalis sing the praises of important men and the glory of their ancestors, Wassoulou singers tackle everyday concerns in their songs. Whereas the jalis direct their praise at a particular individual (usually a pillar of society and community) hoping for a handsome reward. Wassoulou singers sing for everyone with no particular financial kick-back in mind. Whereas audiences will sit through the performance of a jali musician and listen with quiet reverence, Wassoulou singers expect their audiences to get up and dance.


Salif Keita

Salif Keita, born in 1949 in Djoliba, is sometimes called the Golden Voice of Africa. He is a direct descendent of Sundiata Keita, the Mandinka warrior king who founded the Malian empire in the 13th century. Born an albino – a sign of bad luck – Keita was shunned and ostracized by his family and community alike. His poor eyesight also contributed to his personal sense of alienation. In 1967 he moved to Bamako where he began playing in nightclubs with one of his brothers. Two years later he joined the 16 member, government sponsored Rail Band that played at the Bamako railway station’s Buffet Hotel de la Gare – a very choice gig at the time. In 1973 he left the Rail Band along with Kante Manfila (guitarist, composer, and leader of the band) to join Les Ambassadeurs.

By 1977, with Keita and Les Ambassadeurs reputation extending beyond the boundaries of Mali, he was awarded the National Order of Guinea by President Ahmed Sekou Toure. In return, Keita composed Mandjou, telling the history of the Mali people and praising Sekou Toure. This hauntingly beautiful song features Keita’s typical sound of guitar, organ, and sax. To see him perform it concert is an occasion you will never forget.

Due to increasing political unrest, Keita left Mali in the mid-’70s for Abidjan, capitol of Cote D’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), the other members of the band followed suit and they changed the name of the band to Les Ambassadeurs Internationales. By 1984 Keita had relocated to Paris in order to reach a wider, more European audience, where he joined other African stars like Mory Kante, Toure Kunda, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Ray Lema, Papa Wemba, and Manu Dibango among many others. He now lives in the Montreuil section of Paris among the some 15,000 Malians there.

Keita’s music blends together the traditional griot music of his Malian childhood with other West African influences from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal, along with influences from Cuba, Spain, and Portugal, and an unmistakably overall Islamic sound. Besides the aforementioned guitar, organ, and sax, Keita’s sound also includes traditional African instruments such as the kora, balafon, and djembe, often synthesized and sampled.



There is more Malian music to read about and listen to here: