Sunday I finally had the chance to leave Bamako and to get a taste of the country. My colleague Charlotte had heard about the fifth “Concours des maisons décorées de Siby”, which is organized by the French organization Bogo Ja and supported – among others – by the American Embassy.
So Charlotte, Marta and I rented a driver to take us there – funnily enough he had to stop and ask for the road to Siby, which naturally inspired us with loads of confidence ;-).
Despite of that, the 45 minute drive to Siby went well but it already was an experience in itself. The road is quite good for Mali standards and there is hardly any traffic once you leave the city (we had to get past a wedding blocking a busy market street first though!). And then, for the first time, we were able to see the landscape and to admire the beautiful red and yellow rock formations and miles of woodland and mango trees.
In Siby we spent a lot of time waiting (something I’m trying to get used to…) and learned a lot about mud – or adobe to use the correct international term – architecture. There was an exhibition showing the most wonderful examples of modern mud architecture from all over the world and you could see and experience the techniques first hand (great fun for all the small and not so small kids!).
Later I learned that this exhibition is actually targeted to the locals. Mud houses have gone out of fashion and are labled as poor people dwellings. As is common in most cultures, at a certain point in a country’s history, traditional techniques and styles seem antiquated and people are keen on new things. Consequently the old has got to go…
Therefore building with concrete is all the rage in Mali these days, which brings another set of problems. Concrete has a very different indoor climate from mud buildings, which offer significant advantages due to their greater thermal mass. Mud houses are basically perfect for the desert climate of Mali, because they hold in the proper amounts of hot or cold air depending upon the season. Better indoor climate means less air conditioning, less electricity, less money spent, …
To bring mud buildings back into fashion, five years ago a French man started the competition of the decorated houses in Siby. Families, and especially the women, use the annual re-plastering of the mud houses to decorate them with mud colors.
The decorations are judged by a jury and the participating women are rewarded with practical prizes in a colorful ceremony with singing and dancing – but I’ll write about that fascinating event in a separate post, because it was really something…!
Before we went to the festival though, we walked through the village and admired the houses. It was a little weird at first because we felt like we were intruding, but the women proudly presented their homes and their artwork, while men building a toilet were happy to show us their work and insisted we touch the wet mud they use as plaster.
From the first we were accompanied by a flock of children from all ages. They were very friendly and eager to play games and to make contact. My friend Marta got them all laughing madly by giving them high and low fives, another visitor encouraged them to race each other. It was so sweet to see how the older ones took care of the younger kids, carrying them around and making sure they were not left behind.
We had our own little guide called Moussa who made sure we saw all the best houses and he even collected fresh mangos for us – Siby is surrounded by lushious green mango trees and we made sure to buy some before returning to Bamako all sandy, sweaty and tired!