Desert Geography

This week I am at a climate change meeting in Mopti, Mali. Mopti is smack in the center of the Malian desert and only a few hours away from Timbuktu. (I might have headed for the famous Timbuktu but I doubt my family could afford the ransom. Lol. Ok, not very funny. 🙂 ) My colleague and I awoke at 4am for the 640km drive from Bamako to Mopti. Thank God the road is well-tarmacked most of the way (Another thing that is pleasantly surprising about the roads here). It took us 8 hours with a breakfast stop in Segou and several ‘bush-style’ bathroom breaks. We got here in time for the 40 degree mid-day heat as well as lunch served under a tree – white rice, a stew of fish and cabbage followed by a glass of hot Chinese green tea. Thankfully the rest of the workshop happens in an air-conditioned room.

The visits to the remote villages shall likely be the most exciting part. You see, the desert has no signage, no landmarks, nothing to follow. Even old tyre marks are quickly erased by the wind or rain. The last time I was here, it took us 4 hours to cover a distance of 80km as our driver kept trying to remember if he had seen that bush or tree before. The local inhabitants speak several different dialects so despite the fact that my co-passengers were locals, asking for directions didnt quite help. That trip gave me a whole new respect for this desert.

This area’s geography is absolutely fascinating. It’s all hot and dry except for the network of small rivers that run through it. Mali hosts the middle part of River Niger that rises in Guinea-Conakry’s mountainous regions and flows through 9 West African countries before ending up in the Atlantic. Bamako is situated upon a wider part of the river and a sunset drive across this city’s bridges is strikingly memorable.

Mopti, where I am, is situated on the part of the river called the Inner Niger Delta. The most amazing thing is that some of the year (Feb to July) it is a desert – arid and dusty with a few bushes here and there. The most common mode of transport is the motorbike, often seen crisscrossing across the desert. For the second half of the year, boats are the primary mode of transport. During their only rainy season that starts in July, the Niger River swells and bursts its banks thus flooding thousands of hectares of desert land surrounding it. Imagine that, a desert then a lake. How cool is that?

The Inner Niger Delta has three main economic activities – agriculture, pastoralism and fishing. During the flood, the herds are taken farther into the desert until the waters subside and they can return and enjoy the bourgou pasture that the flooding has left behind. The flood waters are also ideal for growing rice, a staple in the region. It still amazes me that 30mm rain, which is nothing compared to Kenya’s rainfall, can grow rice to feed an entire country!! The delta is also famous for a wide range of water-birds that come here during Europe’s winter. Increasing climate variability is threatening this unique biodiversity and making life even more difficult for Mopti’s inhabitants.

So next time the Touareg/Bambara people of Mali or the famous historic Timbuktu come up in your conversation, I hope you shall have a little more to tell them about this very unique corner of the world. Here are a few photos of the Inner Niger Delta, when its not so dry and desert-like.

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Song of the Week – Loliwe by Zahara
She is a new southern African artist with a super rich voice and fresh sound.
uLoliwe wayidudula [“the train is pushing”]
Nang’esiza [“here it comes”]
Sul’ezonyembezi mntakwethu [“wipe those tears off, loved one”]
Phezulu, eNkosini [“in Heaven, in the Lord”]
Kuhlal ‘ingcwele zodwa [“lives only the holy”]
Mawufuna ukuya khona, thandaza [“if you want to go there, pray”]


4 thoughts on “Desert Geography

  1. This is wonderful exposure for you. Makes me a little restless-I need to travel. Even the ‘bush style’ bathroom breaks sound exotic!!! (good thing you did not go into details)

    Beautiful pictures too.

  2. After using the phrase ‘from here to Timbuktu’ only n times in my conversations, I am glad to say I know someone who has been close enough and can tell us just how far ‘from here to Timbuktu’ is! This has come so alive RP, and yes the desert is a place of paradoxes both physically and spiritually,makes one wander and wonder and win and lose and finally agree with God that He is awesome indeed and makes no mistake, even where heat and water and life and dryness co-exist. Such too is life, so many things at the same time? I am inspired…

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