On Location: Mali

Map of Mali
Map of Mali, showing the Niger River.

I love to use different locations in my writing. Some are places I’ve been, and some are places I wish I could go. A major location in my current book-in-progress is Mali. Mali is a country in West Africa, whose northern half lies in the Sahara Desert, and is home to the fabled Timbuktu. The Niger River runs through Mali from the south, through the capital city Bamako, up through Timbuktu and then east through the northern city of Gao, then into neighboring Niger.

The climactic action sequence of my book takes place in Gao, along the Niger River, and a in nature preserve on the Mali-Niger border.


barren Sahel landscape
Typical Sahelian landscape: flat expanses of sand and laterite rocks, with a few tough thorn trees.

I have actually been to Gao, on a visit while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in 2003-2004. I did not make it to Timbuktu, sadly – there was too much unrest at the time, from Tuareg separatists and suspected Al Qaeda activity, and the US Government put out a travel ban. As a government employee, I could have ignored the ban, but I would have been “fired” from Peace Corps if they caught me. Alas, I was not enough of a risk-taker.


Burkina road
A typical unpaved road. Heavy rains erode the roads, and they are rarely maintained.


I haven’t been to the park I’m writing about either, but the land is very similar to northern Burkina Faso, which is just to the south west. The photos in this post are from Burkina. I grew up in northern Burkina Faso, and that rocky Sahelian landscape is very dear to me.  The Sahel is the zone of transition into the desert. It’s very dry and barren, but still has some tall grass and trees, mostly baobabs and thorn trees.


mountains in northern Burkina Faso
“Mountains” in northern Burkina, with thorn trees and elephant grass. One of our favorite picnic spots.

It has been really fun to try and evoke the sights and smells of the Sahel. I’ve tried to work in some interesting details, without slowing the action down with tons of description. I have also listened to Ali Farka Touré a lot while writing this section, to get in the mood. He’s a bluesy guitarist and singer from the north of Mali. His album Savanne has a lot of traditional music, and it reminds me of the music I heard growing up.



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