Nowhere are Mali’s many distinct cultures more proudly displayed than during the country’s numerous festivals. A large percentage of events take place in February, including Segou’s Festival on the Niger and Timbuktu’s Desert Festival, two of the country’s biggest celebrations. During one of Mali’s most unique events, all the residents of Djenné descends upon the Great Mosque to help apply fresh mud to the community’s most famous landmark.
This three-day January festival takes place around the normally quiet region of Gouina between Kayes and Bafoulabé. Goumbé and jazz musicians perform among the monkeys and hippos that live in the region teeming with wildlife. The event also features five different Kayes dance groups, craft workshops and Senegal River walks past the waterfalls.
Festival on the Niger
This Segou February festival is filled with music, dance, puppet shows, workshops, craft vendors, and pirogue boat races along the Niger River. No fewer than 15 of the Segou's unique puppetry and dance styles are represented, which also attracts many of Mali’s famous musicians. Wood carvings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs from the country’s most talented artists are displayed in galleries around the region. Actors, musicians and puppeteers accompany centuries-old legends that Segovian storytellers share beneath the balanzan trees.
This lively February music event's location may have moved from Essakane to Timbuktu, but the likes of Robert Plant and Justin Adams still perform alongside some of Mali’s most talented Tuareg musicians. The Desert Festival evolved from a traditional Tuareg gathering filled with lively discussions and fun to an international event of peace. To this day, festival attendees celebrate the 1996 Flame of Peace ceremony when over 3,000 firearms were burned in Timbuktu. Unlike many other music festivals, the stage is surrounded by nothing but desert and the audience remains still and quiet. The more lively parties begin at nearby discos during the wee hours of the night.
The Diamwari Festival has been one of Mopti’s main events ever since it was held for the first time along the Bani River’s banks. A weekend of "happiness," as the word translates in English, takes place for three days toward the end of February. The festival features gigantic puppets from Djenné, Dogon masks and at least four different dance troupes. Visitors can purchase unique crafts from Mali’s talented artisans. The winners of the festival’s pirogue race receives money and victory flags called jonjon.
The word ba means "big" in English, and this festival held in the village of Sôh every March certainly lives up to its name. Organic cotton, Sôh’s largest export is front and center with many of Mali’s most important dignitaries getting guided tours of the village’s organic cotton looms while costumed theater performances entertain the children. The festival’s highlight, however, may be the women’s colorful drum circle dances.
Dogon Mask Festival
This April festival is among Mali’s most famous gatherings. The masks the men wear during these five days represent Amma, the Dogon goddess of creation, and are believed to contain the souls of the dead and drive away evil spirits. Toward the end of the event, buffalo and hyena masks are believed to predict the tribe’s future.
Plastering the Great Mosque
Each year, an imam announces the date between late April and early May when the entire population of Djenné gathers to apply fresh mud to the city’s historic Great Mosque. The mud is prepared in pits with young boys helping to stir it by playing in it. Women and girls bring water to the men as they carry and carefully apply the mud to the mosque. Afterwards, all of Djenné celebrates with a gigantic feast filled with dancing and drumming.
International Rails Festival
Mali may presently have no passenger rail service, but this three-day festival still takes place each June in Kayes, the "City of Rails." Train conferences and debates are held alongside dance performances, concerts, cycling races, and wrestling matches throughout Mali and neighboring Senegal.