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Niafunke Man

Ali Farka Toure
Photo: Jak Kilby
Ali was born in 1939 in Kanua, a small village on the banks of the river Niger in the northwest of Mali. He was the only child to have survived infancy out of a family of 10; hence his nickname ‘Farka’– donkey – an animal admired in Mali for its willpower. When he was only four, Ali lost his father who died during WWII while serving as a foot soldier in the French army. Soon after, his mum decided to leave Kanua and move south along the river, to join her family’s clan in Niafunke. Ali spent his childhood in Niafunke and grew up under the iron rule of his maternal uncle. “I had to push a 200-litre barrel of water everyday, go fishing, make adobe bricks, pound millet, gather wood. My uncle has no mercy. I experienced a very harsh childhood but it made me who I am today.”

Niafunke is one of the larger villages in the Sahel, the more fertile part of the Malian desert. Being situated in the Niger delta, the village itself extends over several river islands, and to Ali, who arrived in Niafunke on a cargo boat, the river Niger carries many meanings. Perhaps the most basic message is one of destiny: “When you’re in the river, there are no steps, no branches, there is no escape. Once you are caught you go under. Being able to swim won’t prevent you from drowning…” But you have to know how anyway, I respond. “C’est ça!” he exclaims and treats me to one of his trademark grins, visibly pleased that I understood what he meant.

Ali was born into a noble Songhai family. Being of noble birth, his family disapproved when he took up music, but Ali had a calling early on in life and was drawn to music; he followed his destiny as a ‘child of the river’. Yet, ever since he has been a professional musician, Ali has made a point of not wanting to be categorised as one whose sole raison d’être is music. When he says he wants to retire, I doubt he really means ‘retire’ in the proper sense of the word. What he means to say, I believe, is that he is very conscious of giving something back to Mali. Ali practically gave up touring and has now returned to his farm in Niafunke, which he refuses to leave unattended. “I am a farmer and agriculturalist… nobody can do my work for me. I have got to be there so I can do things my way.” As well as farming 25 hectares of land in the middle of the Sahel, Ali has also personally financed the construction of three schools, set up various health care post in remote parts of the Niafunke region, and planted nearly 6000 trees after an invasion of crickets ravaged part of the surrounding vegetation in 2003, as I find out from Toumani Diabate. Ali’s commitment to Mali is rock solid and to honour him for it, the Malian government appointed him mayor of Niafunke in 1994. It is a post which Ali takes to heart: “The mentality of people in Niafunke needs to change. They must learn to work on plans for the future not just the present. Now that there is enough food for everyone, we need to work on developing irrigation, health amenities and educational services. We’ve started work on all these areas. I know it’s going to work.”

Ali's last published interview. From fRoots 273, March 2006


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