I was going through my old diaries the other day and I found entries from a trip to the south of Mali in Africa some years ago. We stayed in a village called Zebala which is about 50kms from the nearest big town, Koutiala.


Virtually every house in Zebala is built from mud brick. The bricks are then plastered over with a mud plaster to make the outside smooth. A corrugated tin roof is then put on top. All the houses are interlinked by passages and walk ways. It’s very difficult to decide where one family unit’s set of houses finish and another’s begin. There are few walls round groups of houses. Finding one’s way around is a real adventure and I got lost lots of times trying to find the little shop only yards from where I was living! Shops are not marked, they look like any other building, but usually you can tell them by the people going in and out. Inside, there are a few shelves with things like tinned tomato concentrate, little boxes of Chinese green tea (called gunpowder), twists of sugar, sachets of washing powder .. and .. amazingly .. boxes of chewing gum! People live outside their houses and use the house itself for storage and sleeping. The insides are very dark. There are often window openings with a shutter of corrugate, but these are more often left closed than open.

Houses in Zebala

Houses in Zebala

Outside the houses people sit on low stools and cook, or make things. All life happens in the small courtyards between houses. Often the cooking is done on an open fire with a pot hanging or standing on three stones. There are wells dotted around and there is a constant flow of people to these bringing water to compounds. Washing is laid on walls, on the ground and any other free space, and the dust is shaken off when it is dry.

Children wander around, many little ones with few clothes on. Older girls help their mothers with the cooking and other chores. The boys are free to play.


Zebala is a centre for cotton production. You’ll see the cotton trees all over the village. In fact, it’s hard to ignore cotton in Zebala. The fluffy balls blow around in the wind and get in your hair. Enormous lorries rumble into the village in the early dawn hour, shaking you in your bed. You’ll think it is thunder and wait for the lightening! They come to collect the cotton which is stored in huge collection pits all over the village. Women walk in with huge bales on their heads and these are loaded into the pits, and later onto the lorries. In the evening, the whole procession is reversed with the huge lorries rumbling out of the village into the darkening bush.

But not all the cotton is sent out of the village to be bought by middle-men and sold on – some of the cotton is reserved by families. I spent one afternoon filming a lady spinning cotton into thread. It was a process as fascinating as it was deft. She took a hank of rough cotton, tweaked out a corner of it, attached her weighted spindle to that and then, almost by magic, the cotton thread began to appear. This was wound on deftly.An age-old skill is still being maintained and the skill is passed on from mother to daughter.

Tailor and Bogolan maker in Zebala

Tailor and Bogolan maker in Zebala

Another day, I was visiting the local tailor. His friend was there – the bogolan cloth maker. You can see him in this photo on the left. He proudly showed me hand woven cloth that he had dyed himself and which had been made into a suit by the tailor. This was the next step in the process. He was a Bogolan specialist. Bogolan is a special Malian process of printing on cotton using mud-based dyes. The mud is “mined” from the river. The cloth is first dyed a reddish brown, and then black designs are printed on. It is a very specialized trade and again is passed on from one generation to another. The inspiration is from nature and often incorporates animal prints, or tracks, and objects from nature. I admired the suit that he had on and asked him if he would make a suit just the same for my husband. These Bogolan suits are very much admired and are often worn by hunters. The suit he was wearing had an all over print that was a bit like a leopards paw print. I was delighted when he agreed. Then we sat down for a cup of sweet Malian tea before agreeing a price.

Some weeks later, when I was back in the capital, Bamako, a parcel arrived for me. It was the Bogolan suit for my husband. Specially printed, with the year on the front! He is very proud to wear it. We found out later that it is quite rare to own one of these suits, and he has had several envied comments. We feel really privileged that this bogolan cloth maker and the tailor were happy to make one for us.

Henna for feet!

In Bamako I had seen people have their feet henna’d for celebrations such as weddings, Tabaski and big fetes, but I had never had it done myself. I was staying in the rural village of Zebala, about 50 kms from the nearest large town Koutiala, and one day I talked to my American hostess, and mentioned this. She said that she’d always wanted it done too. So we arranged with the daughters of some Zebalan friends of hers to prepare our feet for the coming Christmas fete. What an experience! The two young girls arrived at about 8 am with lots of old cloths and plastic bags. We had no idea what we were in for! We sat in state in the mosquito netting covered veranda of my friend’s house.

Henna for feet

Henna for feet

The girls discussed with us what patterns we would like on our feet. The discussion was in Minianyka and French and got quite complicated. The girls started cutting strips of white first aid plaster. With these strips they made complicated designs on the sides of our feet and the top of our feet, leaving the soles blank. Once they were happy with their designs they mixed a paste of henna powder bought from the local shop with water. This made a khaki green ‘mess’. This paste was then applied to our feet. Our feet were wrapped in plastic bags and bound up in rags. Then they left! We were told they would be back in the evening. The paste on our feet, together with the plastic bag made walking very difficult, so we just sat. We had decided that this was going to be like a ‘spa’ day, a day for refreshment and renewal. So we had brought puzzle books, and other reading matter out to the porch with us.

Later on two little girls of about 8 years arrived and asked if they could ‘do our hair’. This involved washing our hair and then drying it…and for my friend who has long hair…plaiting it. This was great fun and there were a lot of giggles. It was getting very hot and one of the girls ran off and arrived back with a huge palm leaf that she used to fan us with. We felt like royalty.

Henna for feet

Henna for feet

Eventually the two big girls arrived back to check if the Henna had ‘taken’ by unwrapping our feet and scraping a little off. It had. So, they then they scraped all the paste off our feet. To our amazement the skin where the paste had been was orange. They then made up another paste with a powder they had bought in the shop and water. I don’t know what the powder was. They warned us that this new paste would tingle a bit but that it wouldn’t be for long. They applied the new paste to our feet and wrapped them up again. After about an hour they unwrapped our feet, scraped the paste off and then took the first aid plaster strips off. Our feet were BLACK! We had intricate patterns along the sides of our feet and a design on top. The soles of our feet were completely black, as were my toenails. The girls admired their work and then ran off home to get ready for bed as it was already dark. We walked over to the girls parent’s compound to show them their daughters’ handiwork and our feet were admired by everyone by the light of an oil lamp.

The black feet lasted for a long time. We had to be careful not to use soap on our feet so that it lasted longer. The black toenails lasted a lot longer! Next time I will get them to cover my toenails with plaster.

Christmas in the Village

There is a little church in Zebala that holds services in Bambara and Minianka. We were privileged to take part in their celebrations for Christmas on Christmas Eve while we were staying there.The service was very colourful and the music was great.

Zebala Church

Zebala Church

There are various groups in the church and they all took part at different times in the service. The young women did a very moving telling of the Christmas story using one of their own young babies as the baby Jesus. The young people did a great musical item that was very vigorous and fun. The tiny tots came to the front and sang together with their teachers.

After the service, we all had a meal together not far from the church. We sat on benches around bowls and ate with the right hand (the left hand is considered dirty). I guess we were there about five or six hours.

On Christmas day, there were further celebrations, but we were involved in helping to prepare a local celebration where we fed anyone who wanted to come along and eat. Other families in the village were doing the same, and there was a lot of visiting going on. We took small bowls of food to friends in the village and others brought small bowls of food to us. It was an exhausting day, but great fun.

The Hill

“We’re going out today,” my hostess said to me. “Want to come?” Well, of course I was up to any adventure that came my way. “Do you want to see the sight of Zebala?” she asked. On further questioning, it appeared that we would be taking a picnic to “The Hill.” Now I really must explain that the area around the village of Zebala in fact the area around Koutiala, the BIG town some 50km away, is flat…really flat. So…a hill??? Really? Well, we packed up the picnic basket, rounded up my friend’s kids, sent packing a whole load of others who weren’t hers, and loaded up the truck. I was intrigued…why did we need the truck to get there? She made sure I had packed my binoculars and West African bird book. We set off on the road out of the village in the opposite direction to Koutiala. Of course, because it is a village and everyone knows everyone else, we hadn’t gone very far before we had to stop and talk to someone, and then someone else, and then someone else. Finally, we left the village. Where was this hill? She drove and drove and then stopped. I got out. “Are we there?” I asked, feeling extremely puzzled. “This is IT,” she said, beaming with pride. I looked around. Well, we really were on a slight incline, I had to admit that. This is a hill? She explained that it was the only slightly inclined ground for many, many kilometers, and yes, this was our picnic place. I put my piece of cloth on the ground, and contemplated how significant a slight rise of ground is in a landscape where there are no hills. I sat quietly, and took in the peace of the countryside. Suddenly, there was a commotion. A small dog appeared, closely followed by a rather strange looking man in a Bogolan suit. A hunter! One of those enigmatic people that one hears about, but rarely sees. I put my binoculars away quickly in case he thought they were a camera and that I was trying to take his photo. Hunters are prickly creatures. But this one was friendly and my host greeted him in Minianka. He stopped, talked about the weather, and passed on. I did see some rather nice birds, but really it was the peace of the place that struck me – out in the bush, away from most people. Quiet…except for the birdsong and chatter of crickets.

Suggested Books

Africa Culture Mali : Sacred Sites of the Dogon Africa Culture : Dress in Senegal The Art of Livelihood: Creating Expressive Agri-Culture in Rural Mali, Book Review Africa Photography Mali : Photo of houses on the road to Guinea Africa Culture : The Sukuma of Tanzania

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