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Christmas in Mali
By Kevin McDonald
11, Jan 2014 - 10:01

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Arriving hot and sweaty at the Cathedral, twenty minutes early (in order to get a seat!) we were informed by the Sacristan that due to space problems, mass was being held in the nearby school. We slowly followed the ever increasing noise of a choir in full flight until we entered a vast school yard where every available space was occupied. A rough estimate of approx. 2000 people did not seem unduly over optimistic and we managed to squeeze along the perimeter wall and get standing room near a low stage on which over 40 priests were seated. Glancing quickly at the leaflet clutched in the hand of one of the locals, followed by a rough translation from French, suggested that this was the Golden Jubilee celebration of the local Bishop. The time was 1000am and apparently mass was already an hour old, the Gospel however, had yet to start. The choir sung and swayed in nearly ecstatic harmony and the fact that there seemed to be at least 80 male and female members supported by a full band and conductor ensured that the effect was impressive.
Bishops Mass Bamako

Eventually after communion the choir then switched to singing a number of hymns in Bambara (the main Malian dialect) which prompted all the local women, smartly attired in highly colorful dresses, to leave their seats and start dancing and weaving to the pulsing rhythm. It was some spectacle, which was quickly enhanced when the 40 or so Priests on the stage started dancing too, the finale was when the choir stopped, all the women returned to their seats and what followed was a series of primitive whistles and clapping in cadence. About 10 poorly dressed men started doing what could loosely be described as a sort of shuffle type of primitive dance accompanied by sharp whistles and some type of flutes. They were led by someone resembling a witch doctor, who was doing a slow rhythmic dance with his arms waving in large circles. The crowd was hushed, not a murmur, and then my camera went 'out of battery' as the kids would say, at the exact moment one of the African priests on the stage got up and started doing the same slow rhythmic dance. It was electric, as he and the group slowly converged on each other and they presented him with some kind of a gift for the Bishop. This dance, echoed by one of their priests brought the congregation to their feet, cheering and ululating in acknowledgement of what had to have been a very ancient symbolic tradition. It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to witness such an event and eventually the three hour celebration finished and we headed back to the Headquarters drained from the heat but enriched by what we had witnessed.
Bamako Priests

Christmas BBQ

So what was Christmas like in Mali? Well, Christmas Eve was a normal working day for us, finishing with the evening briefing at 1830hrs. We then had a traditional Christmas dinner at 2000hrs after which some of us went to the French military camp near the airport for mass. It was only then that there was a sense of Christmas, with the French soldiers based there singing in deep tones, a military version of Silent Night. Christmas Day was a day off so I gratefully accepted an invitation by the South African Medevac team to visit their base at the airport for a BBQ. Needless to say having a BBQ in shorts and shades is not your normal Christmas Day but I'm sure that there were many natives of Castlebar sitting in the sun in various parts of the globe thinking to themselves "I wonder what they are doing now in Castlebar" and I was no different, because no matter where you end up around the world on Christmas Day your thoughts invariable return home to Castlebar, the cold wet weather and the Christmas swim up the lake. St Stephens's day was also a normal working day and in ways it was as if Christmas never happened.

Christmas Climbing in Africa

We even managed to play a football game against the Malian army just before Christmas which was a hot and sweaty affair where we gave it everything but were beaten 4 - 2. Despite our enthusiasm I don't think our effort would hardly have troubled Castlebar Celtic.
Football Competition against the Malian Army

Witch Doctor putting a spell on our football team

Medevac Exercise

On New Year's Eve we conducted a Medevac training exercise and it certainly reminded us of the difficulty in operating in a country as vast as Mali. Covering nearly twice the land mass of France, its scale is difficult to comprehend and travelling time between places is spoken of in terms of flying time rather than distance by road. The country resembles a small triangle conjoined with a larger one and the narrow connection effectively divides the African south from the Arab north. The river Niger enters in the south west from Guinea and traces a route northeastwards before beginning a long meandering curve southeast, not far from the famous city of Tombouctou, towards Niger, which takes its name from this great river. This great bend in the river is another boundary between the south and the north. The tension between the arid and inhospitable north, inhabited by mainly by Arabs and Tourag nomads, with the milder, verdant sub-tropical, African south has simmered for years and resulted in the conflict that threatened the stability and integrity of the country in 2012.
In the dry season the Niger has shrunk considerably notice the mooring point in the foreground

The conflict saw the Malian Government seek the assistance of France, though its military operation, code named Serval, backed up by the Malian Armed Forces and also the assistance of the UN through its mission MINUSMA, (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali) and the assistance of the EU with its mission EUTM (European Union Training Mission), since then the situation has improved greatly, although the northern region is still restless and there have been a series of attacks against UN forces and Malian Army forces resulting in a number of fatalities. The south, where we are based, has remained virtually unscathed from the conflict and we are free to travel around and experience a rich and vibrant city, teeming with all sorts of people yet invariably happy and friendly. From some of the attached pictures you can hopefully get a sense of how varied life is here and also how important it is to always travel with a camera, because if you were to casually mention to someone that you had just seen a local, wrapped in a German winter parka, driving a motorbike while straddling a crocodile, well no one would really believe you, would they?
Transporting a Crocodile

My deployment here is drawing to a close and I think it's right to pay a tribute to my wife Clare, because while it might seem great to be gallivanting around Africa, someone at home has to bring the kids to school, do the shuttle service to piano and rugby, run the house and still hold down a full time job. So without a very hard working wife and a supportive family it would not be possible to serve overseas as frequently as I have been privileged to do.

Now, for me it's roll on February and the opportunity to have a proper Christmas with my family in Loughrea followed by a visit to Castlebar to see my parents Paraic and Bernie in Greenfields, and no doubt a trip to Johnnies, Paddies and Micks to wash the African dust away (well that's my excuse anyway!!).

Best Wishes for 2014

Kevin Mc Donald

Mali map

3 X French Mirage Jet Fighters

Medal Parade with personnel from Lithuania England Germany Bulgaria Italy Ireland and Portugal

Christmas Mass

Lunch from the Fetish Market

The Henna Market

Second Hand Shoe Market

Public Transport Mali




Comdt Kevin Mc Donald, currently living in Loughrea Co Galway, is a son of Paraic and Bernie Mc Donald, Greenfields, Pontoon Road and has just completed five months of a six month deployment to Mali with the European Union. He has previously served overseas in Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Chad, and Western Sahara.


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