BAMAKO, Mali -- Malick Sidibé's ancient studio is nestled in a row of low-slung houses in the middle of this city where Sidibé, considered one of Africa's greatest portrait photographers, welcomes visitors he has never seen as if they were long lost friends.
Sidibé's work is exhibited all over the world. But in Bamako, the sprawling capital bisected by the Niger River and with more than 1 million inhabitants, you can find him simply by taking a taxi to the Grande Mosque and asking directions from there.
''Here, we take photos of everything, people with their sheep, with their motobikes, with their bracelets," Sidibé, 70, says gently, leafing through a box of dozens of portraits spanning the last 40 years. ''In Mali, it's not only the person, but what the person possesses that counts."
With the intimacy of a large village, yet most of the modern conveniences available in the United States, especially if you stay in one of the city's ultramodern hotels, Bamako is a study in contrasts.
As in many African capitals, you can veer through several hundred years of images in minutes, passing herds of grazing goats in the highway median on your way to the Mandé Hôtel, where there are signs advertising pickups by DHL and
Mali is safe, hospitable, and avowedly democratic, with a free and lively press and respected leader of 10 years, Amadou Toumani Touré, better known as ''ATT." It also has a number of internationally known artists, including Sidibé, musicians Salif Keïta and Ali Farka Touré, and filmmaker Souleymane Cissé.
Three times the size of California, but with just one third the population, Mali's 12 million people live in one of the few Islamic democracies in the world. Though its colonial history, like much of the vast Sahelian region, is French, it has strong diplomatic and military ties to the United States.
''In Mali, you can get to know the soul of the country," says Aminita Dramane Traoré, former minister of culture, now owner of the Djenné. She is chatting one morning with visitors in the hotel's sun-filled breakfast room. She says she has discovered a key to attracting Western tourists: ''They want clean toilets that work."
Visiting Mali is not always easy, even when you stay at the Grand Hôtel. You have to have some tolerance for the smell of diesel fumes and the buzz of flies. In some of the most heavily touristed areas it's impossible to walk very far without being accosted by a guide looking for work, or a taxi driver in search of a fare. It helps to know at least a little French.
Still, the solicitations are less aggressive than in other countries, according to people who have traveled through the region. The flies always disappear, at least at night, and English, stripped to its most rudimentary level, almost always manages to communicate essential information.
You can also learn a few words of Bambara, the most widely spoken African language in Mali, with its elaborate greeting rituals that ask about the health and well-being of every member of the family. No matter how bad your pronunciation, a quick hello will always elicit smiles.
Malians have one of the continent's richest histories. Unlike most sub-Sarahan African countries, whose boundaries were largely established by Europeans with no regard for ethnic or religious factors, Mali was an integral part of three famous empires: the empire of Ghana, from the fourth to 11th centuries; the empire of Mali, which reached the peak of its power in the 14th century; and the Songhai empire, which ruled until the beginning of the 17th century. The country gained independence from France in 1960.
That's good news, because it means Malians do not kowtow to foreigners, or stare as if you have just landed from another planet. You can travel by public bus, eat in a local restaurant, and shop in a weekly market, all without becoming a tourist attraction yourself.
Hiring a driver for $50-$100 a day is as simple as talking to the hotel concierge. On the other hand, cruising down a well-paved road toward Ségou, 150 miles northeast of Bamako, in one of the cast-off German buses now used by Mali's private long-haul bus companies, the latest Sekouba Bambino cassette wailing lyrically from the bus stereo, is a five-hour ride you are not likely to forget.
Monday morning is market day in Ségou, a town on the Niger, and after a hard rain just before dawn, the red dust has been battered into a patchwork of wet mud.
Dozens of donkeys, each pulling two-wheeled wooden carts, make their way down the main road, disappearing into the market tributaries with bags of rice, dried calabashes the size of pumpkins, crudely forged steel plows, and brightly colored textiles. Fruit sellers display apples and mangoes by stacking them in rows of low-lying pyramids.
''Here, you can buy anything a Malian might need," said Camara Tiemoko, manager of the Papeterie du Grand Marche bookstore.
Any teenager will be happy to serve as a guide to the market. Simply agree on a price beforehand (about $1 is more than enough), or you can ask the 11-year-old shoeshine boy, Cheick Keïta, who works the crowd in front of the Djoliba Hotel, by far the best place to eat in town. Make sure to see the weaving house, where half a dozen men sit hunched behind looms, producing roughly yard-square pieces of untinted cotton fabric, which Malians (and tourists) use as blankets or wall hangings.
It's a bit longer bus ride to Sévaré, a suburb, really, of the river port city of Mopti, but the music is just as hypnotic, the road just as smooth. The architecture has by now shifted from wooden shacks with corrugated tin roofs to classic Sudanese mud architecture, a grayish straw-and-mud combination caked onto huts and village mosques as well.
The landscape also has changed, becoming sparser, with more desert and less vegetation, a great plain of rocky vistas on either side of the highway interrupted by the occasional baobab tree or herd of white-haired goats.
The driver's assistant serves small cups of heavily sweetened tea, prepared from water boiled on a small, charcoal brazier; the low flame in the front of the bus is of no apparent concern to anyone, even though the assistant's seat is a spare can of gasoline.
Sévaré is small and easily navigable. It is a great place to arrange an excursion to the medieval city of Djenné or to the Dogon country some 50 miles to the south.
The Dogon have a complex system of myths based on the Sirius star cluster. They also produce art that includes elaborate granary doors, crocodile carvings, and indigo-dyed fabric available for sale.
They live in villages that line the foot of the Bandiagara escarpment, a 150-mile-long sandstone cliff. Above the villages, the Dogons' original homes from 100 years ago still remain, remarkably preserved, rectangular, mud-covered buildings tucked into the folds of the rock.
For hikers, the Dogon villages, anywhere from two to 10 miles apart, are perfect trekking destinations. There are rooftop accommodations in some of the villages, and excellent meals of chicken and spaghetti. If you would rather travel by four-wheel drive, you can approach the escarpment from the north, south, or west.
No matter how you go, you will need a guide, if only to make sure you are following the local customs and paying respects to the proper village elders. Guides are also useful for discovering the village market days, which in many cases are at five-day intervals. They also can lead you to the top of the cliffs, where the reddish countryside stretches before you.
T.R. Goldman is a freelance writer in Washington.