Mutiny In Mali

Visual Artist – Lisl Dennis – Story Guide
Leadership Meltdown In Mali

It amazes me how my imaginal mind-in-the-moment zooms off – given the slightest cue – on flights of memory to exotic locales I have known and loved. At the Prajna Mountain Refuge, the Upaya Zen Center’s upcountry inholding tucked into a soft grassy valley in Northern New Mexico, I was asked to fetch water from the Abbot’s cabin. Hauling a multi-gallon bucket of water uphill to the kitchen to be boiled for the perfect Putanesca seemed, at first, a simple enough task.
My tweaky back and computer neck were out of sync with the uneven, slightly uphill terrain at altitude. The bucket instinctively ended up on my head with a dish towel donut as a buffer. My body scanned for a symmetrical balance. The bucket slopped over until I got the fluctuating fluid flat enough with my chin tucked under, posture plumbed, and stride smoothed out. The searing songs of Malian singers arose in my musical memory.
Exotic images of loads carried on heads: my mind tripped to Mali. Memories emerged of market-bound women from Dogon Country with humongous bundles of produce atop their elegant heads. They lithely ascended the steep sidewinding trail up from the verdant valley below to the arid flats of the Bandiagara Escarpment. On the Prajna Refuge trail, this exotic flashback was as harsh as the West African landscape. It was in Mali, awash on the Niger River and dug in with the cliff dwelling tribal Dogon, that I experienced a career-altering leadership meltdown, as well as a vision shift in my intentionality around my own photography. Hotter than the hinges, I pitched up inside a tent – a bolt-hole. Those days, I was a newby at meditation, attempting to sit zazen, breathe hot air, and to take stock of the mutiny at hand of discomfited Silicon Valley wannabe adventure travelers entrusted to me on an ill-fated trip in deep culture under dark skies.
The drama and details of my Malian meltdown would fill a book not unlike T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Water Music (Little Brown, 1982). This semi-fictional hysterical account of the Scottish surgeon turned explorer, Mungo Park, who, in 1796, first discovered the Niger River at Segou. Sponsored by the Scottish Explorers Society, Mungo Park in flamboyant military mufti was not a target out of range. Suffering all the expected mis-adventures and illnesses common to early dark African exploration, Mungo came to an unsavory demise washing up downstream at Bussa.
I, too, got into trouble in Mali – up to my gunwales on the Niger. As the paid panjandrum of socially and creatively engaged travel photography, I was contracted by a high-end adventure travel company. What can be told in this context of my Niger sad saga are the consequences of my own leadership flamboyance: The combinant toxic atmospheres of putting out a hifalutin intellectual-field coupled with a defensive Buddha-field, to-boot. Yikes! At the outset of our journey in Bamako, I quoted to the bewildered group from Susan Sontag’s bestseller On Photography: “To take photographs is to take possession of space in which one feels insecure.” This line did not go down well in days to come.
Insecurely putting into the Niger at Timbuktu, it wasn’t long before I took poison darts between my shoulder blades as I perched on the prow of the narrow pinasse, fitted with an exposed plein air loo aft. Folded into an uncomfortable half-lotus, I brooded on my own intolerance – backside to the boatload. I enshrouded myself in a Buddha-field striving to protect myself from passive aggression. For days, we floated for blistering hours on the wide brown water. Pulling out way past dusk – gros miscalculations as to time-and-tide – unhappy campers were expected to pitch-up in undesignated campsites, unfed and unassisted in the dark, amidst grabby brambles and pasture patties. Few flashlights on hand, we were surrounded by native silhouettes and haunted by assorted unidentifiable sounds emitting from diverse species under a spinning galactic sky.
Hell and high water on the Niger, we finally disembarked at Mopti, and dragged across the Bandiagara Escarpment dropping down into the still-then Stone Age Dogon country. The disoriented travelers were greeted by a traditional mask dance. The ritual celebration to animal spirits and ancestors – even when laid on for tourists – was an omen threshing-hold ceremony for me. Accused of cultural incompetence, trial by fire ensued about my leadership MO and photo-modeling – including money back guarantees. Popular easy outs for most photo tour leaders, I refused to do paid for set-up gang-bang photo-ops. A political bonfire of the vanities inflamed the group.
That night a huge bonfire was built in honor of the first TV set in Dogon country.
It was rigged with hangers for snowy satellite reception of reports of the United States’ first imminent invasion of Iraq. The pop-up dance brought hundreds of Dogon down from their thatched-hatted dwellings in celebration of a world of wonder, shock and awe. My sullen group sat in unsustainable plastic chair for a bit. With me on the spit, they retreated early to their stuffy tents. I danced with the natives as swirling sparks merged into African stars.
Deep into the night, self-immolating inside my tent, I took a personal vow. My photo tour leadership mantra remains to this day: Break Trail – Keep Them Safe From Fear – If Possible. 
The vessel is broken. Blindsided by a collective gone crackers and swatting imaginal mosquitoes in a Lariam malarial craze, I lived to tell of my leadership meltdown. From the bits and pieces of my Malian misadventure, my workshop program was formed – STORYSHARDS: Archaeology For Your Life. 
“STORYSHARDS are the sacred guiding
memories and creative story lines of 
your life – integral to the whole vessel.”
Visual Artist – LISL DENNIS – Story Guide

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>