Text and images by Carine Ouvry-Bormans.
429 women! This year 429 women took part in the yearly paint contest in Siby, a village about one hour driving from Bamako, the capital of Mali in West-Africa. These women compete for the most beautiful natural decoration on walls, houses, grain containers or enclosures of the concessions where they live. Each year it gets more beautiful. Each year the rain washes away the beautiful decoration and the next year the women of Siby start all over again.
The first time I arrived in the village to follow up the work of these women I was overly impressed by this yearly process. Each year the rain washes it all away and the next year the women paint again, like so many before them. Generations have been decorating walls and houses with natural colours they find in nature.
It is a feast for the eye to see all this creative work.
Initiated by the Cultural Centre, Bougou Saba, 8 years ago, the competition engages the village people in making their homes a place of art. Bougou Saba wants to preserve the traditional mural art on mud houses of the people of Mandé.
The whole process, starting with the information sessions, the enrolment, the preparation of the houses, the painting itself and the deliberation of the jury engages the women’s associations of each neighbourhood, and the local and traditional authorities. The announcement of the winners and the distribution of the prices during the weekend Festival Bogo Ja in February is a major tourist attraction in the region.
Respect for the natural environment and the traditional way of constructing with mud bricks encourages the village people to become aware of the need for them to contribute to a better and cleaner environment. Therefore the quality of sanitation around the houses is taken into account by the jury.
This year five of the most experienced women took up the challenge to pass the knowledge to the younger generation by becoming a trainer. They decided not to participate anymore in the competition but to supervise a series of workshops for women and children and teach them how to prepare the houses, trace the patters, find the colours, mix them, and apply them on the walls.
And I decided to contribute by allowing outsiders but also future generations to know about all this by starting to make an inventory of all the 429 houses participating in the competition. When I first arrived in the village, I had the intense feeling this had to be recorded.
The next generation must know about this tradition and research must be possible. With my background as a history teacher, I immediately volunteered to make an inventory of all the works. ‘You want to go around the village and make photos of all the works with the women. Do you really want to do that?!’ Julie, the co-ordinator of the project, asked me. As if I was crazy. And yes, this was what I really wanted to do.
So, for 5 days I left Bamako at 6:30 in the morning to arrive at the countryside and started taking pictures. Very quickly, I started to be so impressed by the pride these women take in the result of days, or weeks of labour to make the most beautiful mural painting.
They all wanted to be on the picture. They wanted to be seen, to be recognized. Some just stopped with their household activities and you still can see the water on their clothes as they ware washing, or were cooking, peeling the peanuts, or even breast feeding. Some quickly went inside to put on their best dress though. And all of them made sure to have shoes. Being seen barefooted is clearly not done in Siby.
Soon the rain season is going to start. And gradually the colours will all wash away. I am looking forward next year to be a privileged witness again of this creative and community process.
About the author:
Carine Ouvry-Bormans, is an experience diplomatic spouse, having lived in Kuwait, Vienna, Paris, Geneva, Nairobi, Kinshasa and now in Bamako.
In between, she worked in the HR department of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a specialized trainer for expats and their partners. She is also the co-author of the book “Expat Partner. Staying Active and Finding Work”, also available in Dutch. During all these years she developed a passion for photography.
Main picture Djinkono.