OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — The town of Bandiagara, population 12,000, sits on a plateau of smooth sandstone bluffs, grass, acacia, and palm trees that ends at an astonishing complex of cliffs so high and abrupt that any of them on a dusty day can surprise a traveler as if a piece of the globe has suddenly broken away. Bandiagara's dirt homes, shellacked with mud stucco, bear the red tinge of this land's iron-rich soil, farmed for centuries by the Dogon people and roamed by Fulani and Tuareg herders. Homes stand along wide dirt streets useful for driving cattle and sheep to market, and at dawn and dusk buildings glow under a dusty sun. A few miles east of town, the cliffs drop 1,600 feet, grooving sharply in and out of the plateau along a 100-mile front, running from the south to the northeast like the edge of a saw. For over a thousand years, the cliffs have been a natural hideaway for one tribe or another, most recently the Dogon, a few hundred of whom came here 700 years ago to flee the Mali Empire's embrace of Islam.
This history means more now that Bandiagara -- once popular with European and American trekkers -- is settling into a new role as border post and garrison town facing al Qaeda-affiliated jihadi groups spread across Mali's vast Saharan north. France and its allies, namely the United States, call northern Mali a jihadi "safe haven" that threatens the West. As a result, a U.N.-supported multinational African attack on northern Mali is moving closer to reality. U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly cited Mali in his October foreign-policy debate with President Barack Obama. But the jihadi takeover in the north, now six months old, carries a touch of bitter irony in Bandiagara as history's tide washes back across this town that 160 years ago was capital of the Toucouleur Empire. Founded by El Hadj Umar Tall and ruled by the code of sharia, a strict interpretation of Islam, he reportedly killed more than 100,000 people across inland West Africa during a reign that lasted more than four decades. French force of arms and tribal uprisings brought it down in 1893.
Yet Mali was not yet a campaign issue on May 8 when I drove into Bandiagara in late afternoon with Isaac Sagara, a Dogon friend who grew up in a Christian family in a village just below the plateau. Isaac was guiding me on a trip along the edge of Mali's northern zone, a strange new borderland that no one has quite figured out how to draw on a map. Some news agency maps show Mali cut in half along a razor-straight line that runs from west to east, while others show a wavier division, with the new border sloping off to the northeast roughly parallel to the Bandiagara cliffs. In any case, Mali, shaped like a top-heavy hourglass, is today divided at the narrow middle. Bandiagara sits square on the border between what remains of Mali's tattered government in the south and jihadi control in the north.
Isaac, at the wheel of our aging Land Cruiser, hummed and smacked his lips through a mouthful of mango. I think the tune was "Amazing Grace," but he lost the melody in the chewing. He liked "Rock of Ages" and French hymns that I didn't know, never breaking into words, just the outlines of song. He carried plastic bags of peanuts and dates in his pockets and put mangoes on the dashboard. He told stories about guiding tourists across the Dogon cliff country and about people he met in the international aid business, like the American Peace Corps volunteers in a Dogon village who obsessed about building a hot tub out of clay. Once, working a rural health project, he was stranded in a village cut off by monsoon rains during a cholera outbreak. "Terrible," he told me. "A dozen people died." Then he'd pluck a mango off the dashboard, bite into it, and peel back the skin with his teeth, all with one hand on the wheel and another hymn spraying from his lips.
I'd been in Bandiagara a dozen times over the past 25 years. Here and across Mali, soldiers have always kept a low profile, in my experience. My tensest encounter in this town had been to fend off a pesky cliff "guide" who kept shouting "hakuna matata," the Swahili words for "no problem" immortalized in Disney's The Lion King. Mali, even under the army dictatorship that endured nearly three decades until 1991, has never embraced military culture like other African countries. Mali's army, in the words of a Western diplomat I met in Bamako, the Malian capital, "was never a military of soldiers. Most are farmers putting in the time for a paycheck."
That army, stressed by the growing Tuareg rebellion in the north, took back control this year in a March coup, ending 21 years of democracy. Since the coup, however, the army, true to the diplomat's words, has ruled without the curfews and endless checkpoints that define other African military governments. In the streets of Bandiagara and Bamako, soldiers generally keep to themselves, though there is evidence that the army command structure is in decay. In October, on a remote road near the border with Mauritania, Malian soldiers shot to death 16 unarmed Muslim clerics traveling from Mauritania to Bamako for a conference. The attack was apparently unprovoked.
But in May, Bandiagara looked like a military camp, expecting an invasion at any moment. Isaac drove slowly across the town square, where an armored vehicle with a cannon and crew of soldiers occupied the concrete center island protected by sandbags. As we turned down another road, Isaac slowed the car and fixed his eyes on a large gun mounted in the back of a parked pickup truck. A soldier was standing behind the gun at the ready. "Now that is very serious," he said, shaking his head with a broad smile and both hands on the wheel. "We aren't used to seeing the army out in the open like this." His mood lightened as if the sight encouraged him. Later he said, "I can tell you that by December, Mali's nightmare will be over. Our soldiers will retake the north."
"Really?" I said, squinting, trying to keep the doubt out of my voice.
"I'm certain of it."
Isaac's hope for action is not baseless, though it likely won't happen in December. On Nov. 11, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States settled on a military plan to retake northern Mali with 3,300 soldiers, mainly from Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The plan awaits U.N. Security Council approval, which means action against the jihadists is a real possibility. The U.N. decision is still months away.
The French have committed aid similar to what they (with help from Britain and the United States) gave the rebels who killed Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi last year: arms and intelligence support, including surveillance drones. France, which once ruled 2 million square miles of West Africa, including Mali, helped end Qaddafi's rule, inadvertently releasing a flood of arms from his looted arsenals into the hands of hundreds of battle-hardened Malian Tuareg mercenaries he trained for his armies. In January, these men launched a war for an independent Saharan state they call Azawad, taking Mali's north and splitting the country in two. In March, riding the Tuareg wave, three jihadi groups -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa -- arrived in force. By June they'd chased the Tuareg nationalist rebellion underground and its leaders into exile. This is the situation Mali, including Bandiagara, face today.
For days I'd been gently pressing Isaac on what the jihadists in the north might mean for him and his parents, who lived in a village a few hours' drive east of Bandiagara, off the plateau. But he kept changing the subject. Now, as we drove through Bandiagara, where everywhere we were reminded of war, I decided to be blunt: "You know, they're talking about sharia law in Timbuktu and across the north," I said. "Doesn't that worry you?"
Isaac never got cross, but he looked at me as if I'd accused him of something. "Of course we're worried," he said.
I realized neither Isaac nor his family had foreseen a drastic change in Mali's Islamic power structure. Events in the north echoed what unfolded in this region in the early 19th century with the short-lived rise of jihadi Islam.
After a few minutes of silence Isaac said, "We may have to move the family."
"Maybe Mopti or Bamako. We don't know. My sister wants my parents to live with her." Isaac's sister lived in Mopti, the regional capital.
"That might be a good idea," I said. "Until things calm down."
From the looks of things in Bandiagara, however, that calm might be a long time coming. Soldiers stood guard behind sandbags all about town. Government agencies and aid organizations had removed identifying plaques, hoping to escape notice of rebel looters, and many offices were shuttered. The people of Bandiagara, like most of Mali, are Muslims of a tolerant persuasion. Mali is a Sunni Muslim country, known for its Sufi traditions guided by the Quran while recognizing mystical worship that gives individuals room to define their spiritual pathway by personal experience and revelation, including through music and poetry. In Timbuktu and other northern Malian towns, many Sufi saints are enshrined in mausoleums. In this atmosphere, since the fall of the Toucouleur Empire, the Dogon have thrived. Today they number about half a million.
But the Islamists who now control northern Mali are Salafists, who live by a strict reading of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammed. They discourage icons and music because such things distract worshippers from devotion to God. In April, the jihadists began destroying the Sufi mosques and mausoleums of Timbuktu and the city of Gao. It's unclear what has happened to the 700,000 ancient manuscripts -- papers that detail the story of Islam in West and North Africa -- in the old libraries of Timbuktu. Even worse, however, is the jihadi program of public amputations for thieves and executions, by stoning, of unmarried couples who bear children out of wedlock. Public flogging awaits anyone caught consuming alcohol.
Bandiagara has a few bars normally marked by neat placards advertising Heineken, Castel Beer, and Coca-Cola, but the signs were now gone. The hotels had closed. Tourism on the Bandiagara plateau had taken off in recent years. But now schools, too, had shut down. Shops were open, but without signs or any hint of the sale of alcohol or sweet drinks. I wondered whether the people of Bandiagara knew something the rest of us didn't, as if they carried history with them instinctively.
Just a few miles from here, in 1864, in the village of Hamdallaye, Umar Tall died during a broad uprising of Tuaregs, Arabs, Fulanis, and Bambara against his Toucouleur forces. He fell not in battle, but in the explosion of a gunpowder cache. According to one historian, when Umar Tall's soldiers conquered new territory, he ordered them to bring before him idols he would smash to pieces with an iron mace. After his death, Tidiani Tall, his nephew, moved the Toucouleur capital to higher ground here in Bandiagara, where it remained as capital until the French conquered what they would call the colony of French Sudan, today known as Mali.
Tall is to Mali a little like what Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy, is to the United States: a vaguely familiar name to many, a total unknown to most, but a frightening reminder of a past that has left unsettled business for a few others.
Take my friend, Isaac. He grew up in a Dogon village below the plateau and went to high school in Bandiagara. He knows all about Umar Tall and the jihadi threat. He speaks three languages, French, Bambara, and his native Dogon, as well as a little Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg. Together we spoke French and he promised to take me into the cliff villages to talk to people about what had happened to Mali and about the jihadi threat.
"The Dogon country cannot be invaded," he said. "We are a good defense against the rebels. You'll see. I'll show you."
Isaac was telling me this as we drove through town, drawing looks from soldiers and townspeople. No one in Bandiagara had seen anyone like me since January, when the rebellion in the north broke out and foreigners evacuated. Sitting beside Isaac, I wore simple clothing to be less conspicuous, including a short-sleeve shirt and a ball cap. We stopped at the offices of an American evangelical aid group Isaac had once worked for, where he picked up the keys to the guesthouse where we would sleep. The offices were in a villa surrounded by high concrete walls and shaded by eucalyptus trees that grew inside the compound. As we entered, Isaac's old colleagues greeted him warmly but in haste. They were busy boxing up files and office supplies, the framework of rural health and literacy programs Isaac had helped build. Some files would be trucked to Bamako and the rest burned. Outside in the dirt street a large pile of paper burned silently, flames whipped by a hot wind. A man kept returning from inside the villa with a cardboard box full of paper to dump on the fire, trying to erase evidence of the agency's presence. "We can't take any chances," he said to me.
When we left the compound, Isaac was near tears. "I spent many happy days in villages working side by side with these people."
At the guesthouse, a small two-room mud building, we ate dinner in the cramped courtyard around a kerosene lamp in plastic deck chairs. The electricity had been cut. Dinner was white rice with salty tomato sauce and tough goat meat we bought from a woman who ran a roadside food stall in town. She also sold yams in tomato sauce and spaghetti. Stone-faced, he'd stared at me as we waited for her to spoon up our food. She kept glancing at me as she and Isaac spoke in Dogon.
"What were you talking about?" I asked later. "That woman looked at me as if I were the enemy."
"She wanted to know what you are doing here, and I told her you are a tourist," he said. "She said she did not believe me, but she told me that I was brave to bring you here, whoever you are."
We both laughed a little nervously.
Near dawn on May 9 we drove into the cliff country, about 30 miles northeast of Bandiagara to a village called Begnemato, to meet a friend of Isaac, Daniel Andoulé. He was a Dogon farmer and self-styled historian. Isaac told me the Dogon built the village on a shelf partway down the cliffs far enough back from the cliff face that it cannot be seen from the plain or from the plateau above the village. The Dogon, according to Andoulé, had been there for 600 years, hiding from slave raiders and jihadists -- Umar Tall's men. We crossed the plateau, sometimes hugging the cliffs, following an old track the French built in the 1930s across impossibly rocky ground, sliced by ravines shallow and deep. We passed troops of women portaging baskets of dirt scooped from dry riverbeds for resurfacing fields eroded by wind.
Finally, at about 9 a.m., in brilliant heat, Isaac parked the Land Cruiser in the thin shade of a rare acacia tree a few yards from the cliff. Standing on the edge, we could look down and see Begnemato in the distance. I picked my way down the cliffs on a crude, well-worn stone staircase while Isaac walked with a swift agility that amazed me for his size. I carried a daypack with peanuts, mangoes and water for us both, stepping down while holding the rock face on my left and looking away from successive drop-offs on my right, a few dozen feet here and 100 feet there. The path descended about 600 feet to a broad sandy field pleasantly shaded by palm trees. A half-mile away we could see cone-shaped mud granaries and a long concrete school building. The Malian flag flew from a pole beside it. We walked across the field and past the school, which was closed, and into a village built of rock slabs broken from the cliffs and roofs made of thatch from grass or dried millet and corn stalks. A group of polite teenage boys escorted us. One boy said, "We saw you coming from the top of the cliff."
Isaac beamed and nudged me at the boy's words. "You see?" he said. "It is hard to surprise a Dogon village."
Andoulé was, he guessed, about 70. He stood tall, with a large shaven head dimpled like a grapefruit, a barrel chest, and a thin graying beard. He wore khaki shorts and a brown tunic of woven cotton over the large frame of a man who'd once been much stronger, more muscular, used to physical work in the fields or breaking rock to repair homes. He still had large thighs, though his arms were thinner. "I don't go to the fields anymore," he said. "I let my sons do that."
He'd worked with Isaac on understanding Begnemato's religious demographics, information Isaac used for the thesis he wrote for his rural sociology degree. Isaac found that 600 people of Muslim, animist, and Christian faith lived in the village. They lived in separate neighborhoods. Andoulé was Catholic. "We've always lived in peace with each other," he told me. "It is not the Dogon way to impose our customs on others."
Andoulé led us to a shaded veranda on the roof of his home. We sat on mats and ate rice and chicken in tomato sauce. In a mix of French and Dogon, with Isaac helping to translate, Andoulé talked of the Dogon struggle with Fulani herders who grazed their animals, mainly goats and cows, on Dogon farmland on the Seno Gondo plain below the cliffs. "We've had terrible fights," he said, "but that has not happened in a few years."
The point of our visit was to talk about food, drought, and war. Begnemato sits in central Mali, in the east of Mopti province, where staples like millet and rice sell for six times what they did a year ago. Andoulé blames their food problems on the fighting in the north and last year's poor rains. The rains have been better this year -- the drought broke over the summer, after I left Mali -- but aid agencies have reported persistent food shortages across the Sahel because the rains have been spotty, and for other reasons. The previous year's drought had depleted village seed stocks, and the conflict in northern Mali has either cut off many farmers from their fields or frightened them away. Mali, along with the rest of the West African Sahel, from Senegal to Chad, is under the strain of a food crisis that has put 15 million people at risk of starvation.
"We have not known starvation in a long time," Andoulé said. "Even in the bad years [the droughts of the 1970s and mid-1980s], we were able to survive with the money tourists brought us. But we have had only three or four foreign visitors here in the past year. The French and Americans are afraid of being kidnapped."
I swallowed hard.
When I asked whether he feared the Islamists, Andoulé laughed. "I am much more afraid of drought." Then he said, "Let me show you something."
He walked Isaac and me outside the village and across a broad, solid mass of sandstone, part of the shelf on which the village had been built hundreds of years ago. We hiked up a sandy pathway to a rock ledge above the village, right on the cliff face looking out over the Seno Gondo plain far below. By now it was nearly 1 p.m., and the flat, sandy expanse below us was shrouded in thin dust. I'd seen pictures of the Seno Gondo as a lovely green savanna, lightly forested with acacia and palm trees, but now it looked like solid desert, nothing but sand with a few trees.
"Les rebels," Andoulé began in French, switching to Dogon as he pointed across the plain, "they would have to come up into these cliffs." He turned to Isaac and me. He was smiling, sure of his security in the cliffs. "They do not know this country. No one knows this country like the Dogon. We have pathways through these cliffs that no one knows about but us. The rebels cannot travel up into here. Our army knows that. There are Dogon officers in the army. No one has ever attacked us and succeeded."
In the distance we could see a dense and narrow dust plume, rising like a geyser. "Dust devil," I said.
"Maybe," Isaac said, "or a rebel pickup truck."