Myths, legends and Damon Albarn – 10 quirky facts about far-flung Mali

5 years ago

It is a country which comes cloaked in myth and mystery, and it celebrates a red-letter date today. Should you visit Mali? It is one of Africa’s – and the world’s – more niche destinations, but its tale makes for intriguing reading. Not least via the following facts…

1. It is most definitely land-locked…

Nothing surprising here. Several sizeable African countries have no access to the ocean, and Mali is one of them. So large – its 478,841 square miles of terrain make it the 23rd biggest country on the planet (and the eighth biggest in Africa) – that it manages to be part of North Africa and West Africa at the same time – it is bordered by Algeria (to the north), Mauritania (to the west), Guinea (to the south-west), Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso (to the south) and Niger (to the east). Throw in the fact that the north of Mali is dominated by the Sahara Desert, and you have a country whose relationship with water is strictly limited. Although the River Niger, which grants more of its 2,597 miles of flowing currents to Mali than any other nation, is something of a caveat here.

2. …but this has not always been the case

Long before the borders of the modern state were established, Mali was a major force in Africa. An empire in fact. The Malian Empire – also known as the Manden Kurufaba – was a potent entity which stretched west to the Atlantic through what is now Mauritania. It held sway between (roughly) 1230 and 1670, its prestige built on trade in gold, salt and copper. Caravan trains passed back and forth across its lands, and the transit of peoples and goods helped make famous the existence of a city whose name still shines on the map of the continent – even if few foreign travellers go there…

3. Just tell her that I went to…

And that city is, of course, Timbuktu. This urban outpost on the edge of the Sahara was one of the big winners of the Malian Empire’s season in the sun, becoming known as a seat of learning and Islamic culture as commerce and cash pulsed through its veins. But the Empire’s fall  – it was eclipsed by the rising power of Morocco to the north – started a gradual decline in its fortunes. In the ensuing four centuries, the word “Timbuktu” has become something of a metaphor for an exotic place whose exact location is unknown to all but a few. And you might not want to go there, because…

4. The FCO thinks visiting Mali is a bad idea…

And it has a point. Since 2010, Timbuktu, which sits in the north-east half of this oddly shaped country, has been the scene of fighting and guerilla combat – part of the Mali Civil War, which has seen Tuareg separatists in the north state their claim for an independent state via bullets and bombs. It is a messy affair which witnessed French military intervention in 2013. This is the prime reason why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all travel to the upper half of Mali – and strongly suggests avoiding “all but essential travel” to the rest of the country. “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Mali, including kidnaps,” it continues. “Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners such as hotels, restaurants and places of worship. Be vigilant, keep a low profile and follow the advice of local authorities.” In other words, Mali is, in no sense, a picnic.

5. …but travel is not impossible

For all this troubling talk about a country which has been under a state of emergency since April 2016, Mali is not a place where tour operators entirely fear to tread. Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; offers a group “Cultural Tour of Mali”. This takes 16 days to criss-cross the country, and goes to Timbuktu – costing from £1,708 per person (not including flights). It is sold with the explanation that “guides are selected who already have special knowledge about the areas they will introduce to tourists, have numerous local contacts… and have a passion for teaching tourists about their environments.” Mali is not the easiest of environments for tourism, but if you have willpower and wanderlust, you can visit it.

6. Timbuktu is not the capital

It may be the most renowned dot on the Malian map, but Timbuktu is not the centre of all things urban and administrative. That would be Bamako. It sits in the south-west of the country (relatively) close to the border with Guinea – and is a busy, frenetic place, home to 1.8million people, pitched on the banks of the Niger. Sights include the Mali National Museum – which has a decent range of exhibits exploring the history of the Malian Empire.

7. It has been a country for less than six decades

Today marks an exact 57 years since Mali slipped into nationhood. It fell under France’s long-reaching thumb in 1892, and was incorporated into the colonial entity of French Sudan. It stayed there until 1959, when it was repackaged with Senegal as the “Mali Federation” – and until June 20 1960, when this cumbersome twosome gained full independence from Paris. In a time of fast-moving borders and shifting sands, the new Mali separated from Senegal a mere two months later – and announced its own formal flowering on September 22 1960.


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