The media have spread noise around the recent Al Qaeda invasion in the north of Mali but today Diallo from Kayes, a provincial town close to the border of Senegal, talks about his country. Living far from Melbourne, Diallo and his wife, Emilia, warmly welcomed me into their house to learn more about a country that attracted media attention this year and the fascinating tribe of the Fulas.
Back in his youth, Diallo remembers “working very hard on his family’s farm to provide food and to take care of cattle”. Enrolled in a Koranic school, he quickly decided to drop out to work on the farm. At 14 years old, he proved his bravery during an ancestral manhood ceremony. Diallo belongs to the Fulas or Fulanis who are known to raise cattle and move in search of fresh grazing grounds. The Fulas have this particularity of being a tribe that constitutes a majority throughout Africa but a minority in most African countries. Altogether this nomadic people numbers approximately 20 million in the world and their origins, as the griot (African storyteller) taught Diallo, take you back to Middle East. The Fulas are Muslim people from the Middle East and the north of Africa who travelled and settled in Central and West Africa. Leading holy wars, they converted the defeated to Islam and spread the religion across half of the African continent. Although a vast majority of the Fulas are Muslims, they practice a version of Islam that integrates native folk beliefs and practices.
Diallo says it is a “peaceful country” but how is it that a nomadic group could settle on the land of native Malian tribes and the tribals groups live peacefully for centuries?
This is an interesting part of the history of Mali to discover. Back in time, the Fula tribe was composed nomadic warriors who conquered lands and imposed their lifestyle. Diallo, whose name descends from a Fula warrior, shares an crucial piece of information of the period when the Fulas fought against Emperor Sundiata Keita (Mali Empire, c. 1210). In this battle, neither side was willing to surrender to the other. The Fulas and the Mandinkas (native Malians) gathered and came to an agreement to ensure peace. It was decided that the Fulas (cattle raisers) would manage the village’s affairs and the Mandinkas (land labourers) would remain owners of the land. This arrangement between the two tribes has worked until today and has fostered lasting peace and mixed marriages.
Languages and customs are sometimes the fruition of long past traditions and habits. Even if they are still practised, one might wonder “why?”, and there is not always a clear-cut answer to this question. It is with an open mind that we listen to Diallo describing a meal of beef meat shared between Fulas and Mandinkas. The Fulas, whose sacred animal is the cow, let the Mandinkas eat first. However the roles are reversed when the group shares milk. To provide further explanation, Diallo gives examples of traditional and magic beliefs. He tells that the Fulas have a strong connection with their sacred animal and are believed to be able to change milk into blood which explains partially why, within a mixed tribal group, they would drink milk first. The Fulas are also scared of chocking on a piece of meat and that is why the Mandinkas are always the first to start eating a beef dish. The Mandinkas are traditionally characterised as lions and can safely feast on beef meat.
Fascinated by the diversity of cultures in his own country (Dogons, Tuaregs, etc), Diallo is thirsty for more knowledge of the roots of the Fulas. He is very proud of the history of the Fulas.
As a real Fula, he wishes to buy a cow in Australia. “A cow is a sacred animal for the Fulas and one cultural aspect of the Fula way of living is the connection between man and his cattle” he says. They are adept at telling the strength of the animal. They will not eat a young cow that has never had a calf.
Diallo doesn’t hail from the capital city of Bamako but from the region of Kayes. Its main town, Kayes, sits on the banks of Niger River neighbouring Senegal. “People are self-sufficient. They eat fresh fruits, nuts and cereals that are locally grown”. He also depicts a generous picture of Malians offering food, shower and shelter for any traveller making their way through the vast country. It is as a real nomadic Fula that Diallo left Kayes in search of exploration in France where he met a homesick Australian woman who he followed to the other side of the world. Not only has he found a new addiction for Vegemite but he loves living and working as a House Painter in Beechworth. “Today work is fun because it was so hard when I was growing up. I had a hard life when I grew up but I am a strong person which helps me in everything I do today”. In Beechworth, “people have never treated me differently”.
Diallo recently visited his family in Mali and noticed some changes in the mentality of people. People better understand the power of education and now girls and boys go to school. On a less positive note, he witnessed that people value community life less and are more individual and family-oriented.
Also, Mali has recently organised long-awaited presidential elections to restore stability since the French-led military intervention to liberate the north of Mali from Al Qaeda. The newly elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, gives Diallo hope for “less corruption, to re-open a dialogue with the long-excluded Tuaregs and re-build a strong state”.
Diallo reminds us that Mali has been free and peaceful for the last two decades and Malians are used to peace. “Horrible things happened for a long time and fanatic people have aggravated the situation and made it difficult for people living there” as he explains with sadness.
As a typical Fula and adaptable to any environment, Diallo moved with his wife and two daughters to Australia about three years ago. Emilia, a passionate and open-minded woman, supports and praises Diallo for being able to learn a new language, for setting up his painting business and building up his clientele base in Beechworth. His two daughters have the privilege of being raised in a family nucleus combining two different cultures. Diallo wishes to share with his daughters some Malian, Fula and personal life values such as the respect of others, freedom of religion and a tight bond with family.
After the terrible events that affected such a peaceful people, I wish the country to regain its peaceful homes in the north of Mali where the legendary Timbuktu hold treasures of humanity’s history as well as a prosperous future for all Malians.