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Festival sur le Niger: dancing in the face of terrorists

Hoba Hoba Spirit from Morocco on stage

Berend van der Lans visited the Festival sur le Niger in Ségou for a contribution to a conference on the architecture of Ségou in the context of the festival. The Dutch national newspaper Volkskrant included his report on their Afrikablog in Dutch . Below you will find the text in English. More images and some videos to be found via this album on Facebook.

In Ségou, nowadays a somewhat sleepy town on the banks of the Niger, history still is written. Although the city almost looks the same as during my last visit back in 1994, new heroes follow in the footsteps of the once powerful Bambara rulers, so beautifully described in the books of Maryse Condé.

From 1 to 4 February, the city was the setting for the Festival sur le Niger, a grand manifestation of culture with a variety of musicians and bands from many countries, theatre, dance, exhibitions and a conference on ‘Ségou, city of architecture’, the theme of the 14th edition. Around 30,000 visitors came to the Malian city, from the immediate vicinity, but also from neighbouring countries and the rest of Africa. And that is special in a place, quite literally on the border between relative safety and danger; on the other side of the river the area starts where the state no longer has control and you can bump into armed groups allied to Al Qaida , IS and other less friendly people, who do not believe in a free society.

The stage floating on the Niger river

The stage floating on the Niger river

The Dutch Embassy in Bamako informed me beforehand that for Ségou 'all non-essential trips are being discouraged'. Furthermore, it is advisable to avoid places where many people meet, especially foreigners. What is essential? And avoid places where many people come together, easier said than done during a festival! After some pondering, I decide to see the appeal that has been made to me for a contribution to the architecture conference as essential, partly because I assume that the organisation must be sure of its cause. They will not take the risk to expose the audience and all those bands to danger, will they?

Still not completely reassured, but with a positive mood, I travel to Ségou via Casablanca and Bamako. The welcome is warm and hearty. I meet with friends from the African architecture and culture world and I get to know new people during the opening night. The next morning the conference starts with presentations on the architecture of Ségou and the importance it plays in a contemporary city. There is a series of beautiful buildings in the city, generally built in the years 1900-1940 by the French. Unlike many buildings in former colonies, however, they do not reflect the architecture styles of the colonial powers at the time.

Groupe Centrale, a characteristic Neo-Sudanese style building

Groupe Centrale, a characteristic Neo-Sudanese style building in the centre of town

The French architects were impressed by the original architecture of Mali and therefore took over its style characteristics in their designs. In the 'neo-Sudanese style' you see forms that are related to the ‘banco’ building style that one sees in Djenné and Timbuktu, some other historic cities lying downstream. In a presentation by Michel Fleury at the architecture conference during the Festival sur le Niger, this was discussed in more detail, in which the study by Janneke Bierman (nowadays heading Bierman Henket architects) and Joep Mol from 1993 served as a reference book. Work that eventually led to the restoration of the Groupe Centrale, an important school in the city, one of the reasons for me to visit the city in 1994.

The conference continued with a number of presentations that highlighted different strategies for preserving heritage. My contribution, aimed at an initiative-rich private sector that invests in monumental buildings with the aim to use them for the sustainable development of the city, such as Stadsherstel Amsterdam NV has been doing since the mid-50s and Hifadhi Zanzibar for several years in Stone Town for the coast of East Africa, was well received.

The festival was set up by the cultural entrepreneur Mamou Daffé, who is convinced that stimulating culture is essential for social cohesion and economic development. Since 2005 he has invested in a cultural centre, in exhibition spaces, in a hotel and brings together other entrepreneurs, the government, local and international funds.

The opening play of the festival under the eyes of safety forces

The opening play of the festival under the eyes of safety forces

The Minister of Culture of Mali underlined during her speech at the opening that the government fully supports the festival and sees it as a cultural fist against terrorism that plagues the country. During the festival, 400 soldiers guarded the festival visitors.

The audience wasn’t scared away by the threat. The visitors were carried away by new sounds from Kareyce Fotso from Cameroon, the Afro-fusion of the Women Groove Project from Senegal and the super popular magreb rock from Hoba Hoba Spirit from Morocco, as well as by veterans like Oliver Mtukundzi from Zimbabwe. Habib Koïté and Salif Keita from Mali, with whom every word is sung.

Festival visitors

None of the more than thirty bands that perform on the floating stage on the river Niger is put off by the safety situation. I cannot imagine a more peaceful atmosphere than during this vibrant festival in Ségou. Have we all crawled through the eye of the needle? Was the risk justified? We will not know. It ended well and the days were unforgettable for me and I suspect almost all other 30,000 visitors. We stood shoulder to shoulder for peace, but Mamou Daffé and his fellow citizens are left behind at the front. They are the real heroes. If possible, I will stand side by side again next year.

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