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Smithsonian Festival Brings Culture of Mali to Washington - 2003-07-07

Timbuktu came to Washington for the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival, which has just ended. More than 200 Malians came to DC to represent their West African country. For those who have never been to Mali, it has been quite an adventure to see the handicrafts, hear the music, and taste the food.

"There are sculptors, masons, singers, dancers and jewelry work. There is a lot of stuff, and every ethnical group in Mali is represented here," said painter Omar Cisse, one of the 200 Malians participating in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He hopes Americans will leave here knowing a little bit more about his country.

"One thing is that a lot of people hear about Mali. Some people say Timbuktu; they do not even know where Timbuktu is," he said. "But here, when you have people from Timbuktu, instead of saying I hear that from someone. Now it is in front of me I can see and ask questions and it will get people to know a lot about Mali."

Most of the Malians do not speak English, but visitors can ask questions with the help of translators like Yaya Baba.

"I speak eight languages, because in Mali we are like nomad," he said. "We move too much. Every place got a different language. I speak French, English, Mamara, Dongon, Fulani, Bozo, Hausa, Songhay, a little bit and Arabic."

Artisans are busy at work in more than a dozen tents demonstrating crafts that reflect Mali's culture, past and present. Mali is famous for its textiles, mat weaving and woodcarving.

"My father used to do the same and he taught me how to carve," said Mamadu Salah, a third generation woodcarver. "This is ebony and teak. Wood carving is very famous in Mali."

Leather-working is another craft practiced by many ethnic groups in Mali. Sekou Kone, from Segou says, where he comes from leather working is generally done by men.

"They make all kinds of leather products, from belts, shoes, and wallets to bags and luggage. Animals, including goats and sheepare the source for the leather industry," he said. "Plant materials are also necessary for tanning and dyeing. In the north, Moor and Tuareg women create beautiful leather items for their households."

Elsewhere at the Festival, people gather around a traditional Malian stove made of clay waiting for a taste of one of the country's most famous dishes.

"This dish is called 'Begniets De Riz.' Ingredients are rice, honey, sugar and salt," the crowd is told. "She grinds all ingredients before frying the dough in a special pan. This dish is very popular for breakfast."

Despite the sweltering summer temperatures, festivalgoers came out to enjoy the food and music. They left knowing more about Mali than they did before. Some say it is like travelling to Mali without crossing the ocean.