Monday, January 18, 2016

Reading around the world: Mali, and the richest man to ever live

Bienvenue au Mali!

 Mansa Musa 

Following a trend of overlooked historical figures, this week I learned the story of the wealthiest man to ever live. I read "Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali" about the emperor of the Malian empire at it's height in the early 1300s – an empire whose riches in gold and salt made him a man worth $400 Billion in today's money. Musa's wealth allowed him to carry out the greatest Hajj in history, destabilize an entire economy by his personal spending, and build a river to a desert. Even the story of his ascendance to the Malian throne is a remarkable one. Musa's uncle left the empire in his nephew's care when he set out to explore the ocean to the West of them, determined to find whatever lands lay beyond it or end of the world. While it is not confirmed, some historians believe Musa's uncle successfully reached South America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus. Wherever his adventures brought him, he never returned, and Musa remained king for the rest of his life.

The Malian empire at its height

What Mansa Musa is most remembered for is his elaborate Hajj, the journey to Mecca that under the 5 pillars of Islam all Muslims who are able must complete at least once in their lives. Musa was not one to do things by halves. Not only did he make the journey across the continent of Africa, he brought a moving city of 60,000 people with him – family members, slaves, courtiers, powerful families who might attempt to usurp his throne in his absence, and thousands of ordinary people who would never again have a chance to reach the holy city. The caravan included 80 camels carrying between 50 and 200 pounds of gold dust each, which Musa gave out as alms to the poor he encountered along his journey.

Musa's route to Mecca 

This reckless spending did not go without consequence. When he stopped in Cairo to restock his mobile city, he spent so much money the markets flooded with gold and inflation destabilized the Egyptian economy for 12 years. On his return through Cairo he realized his mistake and borrowed vast amounts of gold at high interest to balance out the damage he had done. On the way home Musa also managed perhaps one of the grandest gestures of love in history. One of his wives was miserable after months of traveling through the desert, filthy from the constant gritty wind and unable to sleep. So one night while she and her ladies rested Musa organized thousands of people to dig a deep channel in the desert sand and line it with rocks, and then diverted water from an oasis to fill the artificial river. Musa left Mali a unique and beautiful architectural heritage, and many Mosques are still leftover from Musa's time. (He is rumored to have had a new mosque built every Friday.)

A Mosque commissioned by Mansa Musa 

Another example of beautiful Malian architecture 

Mali today is far from its glittering heritage. One of the poorest countries in the world, the economy has been crippled by cotton subsidies in wealthy countries which make it impossible for them to compete on an international market. A civil war was recently ended with French intervention, and the country currently struggles with terrorism and separatist movements. But despite this, Mali has a flourishing democracy and a vibrant musical scene which I have enjoyed exploring this week. You can check out some contemporary and classic musical stars here!

Salif Keita - one of Mali's greatest stars 

Tata Pound - a contemporary rap musician who uses his music to call for political reform and democracy 

I also tried Malian food! I tried this recipe – which I heartily recommend. I couldn't find plantains so I substituted bananas which made it sweeter, but all the more delicious! The recipe is below. 

Plantain and Coconut Stew
From The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, by Marcus Samuelsson
Serves 4-6

1 medium Spanish onion, roughly chopped
1 cup coconut milk
the juice of 2 limes
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ cup peanut or canola oil
5 yellow plantains, peeled, quartered and cut into 1 inch pieces
2 teaspoons chopped cilantro
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper

Combine the onion, chilies, coconut milk, lime juice and vinegar in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat; add the plantain and fry for 1-15 minutes, turning now and then so it browns. Remove the plantain and drain on paper towel. Add the plantain, cilantro, and ginger to the coconut milk mixture, and bring to a boil. Serve immediately, with salt and pepper to taste.

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