November 2007: Mission to Mali

Jean-Luc Dighaye

EurAstro Mission to Mali 2007


From 04 to 17 November 2007, a EurAstro-sponsored mission led by Mr Siaka KONATÉ conducted astronomical observations and popularisation as a cooperation project with the University of Bamako, Mali. Ethnological studies were also performed within the M.Polo/I Veneti frame. Our special thanks to Ms Monique THIRY, Logistics Officer.


During an official visit to Belgium in 2005, the President of the Republic of Mali, Mr Amadou Toumani TOURÉ, expressed the wish that relationships be set up between the Universities of Liege and Bamako. In a pathfinder mission last year, Mr Konaté met Professors Amadou DIALLO (Vice-Chancellor, University of Bamako) and Salikou SANOGO (Dean, Faculty of Science and Technology). EurAstro had to sponsor the present mission since concrete proposals from the University of Liege failed to materialise - it would be time for them to organise a follow-up, since our task is now completed.

Most of the Malians are Sunni Muslims quite tolerant to other faiths. People I met were all honest, friendly and ingenuous, but the educational system is wanting. I heard lots of complaints from academics and students, thus international cooperation is especially desirable.

A recurrent wish is the procurement of a low-cost educational telescope, or even good binoculars. Such items are not only expensive by Malian standards, but they are also hard to find and/or to import. Astronomers Without Borders are aware of such problems - please contact them for further information.

A complicating circumstance to our mission was the sudden closure, on the alleged grounds of urgent repair work, of the Bamako airport just before we left Belgium. Hence we travelled via Dakar, Senegal. As a general advice, travellers to Mali should take a reserve in cash i.e. euros in order to get through potential annoyances.


After we left the terrible traffic jams of Dakar, we headed - via a road full of potholes - for the border to Mali, where we were greeted and accommodated (at Kidira, a small town on the Senegalese side of the border) by Mr Jean SYLLA, Head of Customs. I held an impromptu lecture on eclipses for his staff and friends, and I conducted star parties in the evening, including the observation of Comet Holmes. Pictures of the southern sky were taken, including some deep-sky objects and panoramas of our galaxy with zodiacal light, but sky transparency was rather poor due to substantial sandy aerosol - indeed, harmattan wind was already blowing during daytime. Later on, academics in Bamako told us that the sky was much clearer when dry spells occur during the rainy season.

The Kidira skyline (fisheye lens; notice the meteor)

Zodiacal light and Milky Way from Kidira

From Orion to Sirius and Canopus (24mm lens)

Ready for the Diboli Star Party!

The Messier 55 globular cluster in Sagittarius (520/2.7 astrograph)

NGC 7293 the Helix Nebula in Aquarius (poor sky transparency)

NGC 55, an elongated galaxy in Sculptor

NGC 253 galaxy & NGC 288 cluster in Sculptor

NGC 2362, an open cluster in Canis Major

Comet Holmes, 07.11.07 at 00:49 (enhanced to show coma structure and tail)

Monique at the French fortress of Médine in the Kayes district


After a stopover in Bamako for defining a popularisation programme with the University of Bamako, we reached the mythical city of Timbuktu - geographically and chronologically the last outpost of Islamic science and astronomy, now a sandy place under the threat of desertification. Access is only possible by road and track though barren regions (maximum recorded temperature was +44°C), then ferry across Niger River, or by infrequent air service to a nearby airstrip, thus mass tourism is out, except for the ubiquitous camel ride and handicraft trade with the natives. We managed to see the priceless collection of historical manuscripts, including treatises on astronomy, physics, optics, chemistry, medicine and all the sciences that flourished there before scholars devoted themselves to religious matters.

Cliff along the track to Timbuktu

Door of a Timbuktu Mosque (notice the lunar crescents)

Trick or treat! You'll get mud in your face if you don't help rebuild the Mosque!

Camel ride - back-up transportation means waiting behind...

The Timbuktu Manuscripts I - Physics, Optics

The Timbuktu Manuscripts II - Mathematics, Astronomy

The Timbuktu Manuscripts III - Astronomy Tables

Waiting for the ferry at dawn (notice rising Spica and Mercury)


I gave three lectures (on observational astronomy, eclipse chasing, and professional observatories & facilities) before a public of distinguished academics and students - not many of the latter, in view of an ongoing industrial action. There were formal and informal meetings with the academics and their support staff, who diligently fulfilled all our needs as to infrastructure and safety. Contacts through EurAstro have already been established.

Star parties at night were attended by a number of enthusiastic observers, in spite of the heavy air pollution and intense lighting on the campus. Everybody wanted to take snapshots of the Moon with simple cameras or even cell phones - often with fine results. Later at night, Mars was a favourite object (Mars robotic exploration wizard Cheick Modibo DIARRA was born in Mali). Deep-sky images were taken through interference filters. We briefly met with Malian amateur astronomers, and Mr Ansoumane CISSÉ provided us with a draft tutorial on astronomy.

Monique's snapshot of the Moon

NGC 2547 open cluster in Vela looks like an inverted heart (CLS filter)

NGC 2516 open cluster in Carina (low on the horizon)

Comet Holmes next to Mirfak on 16.11.07 at 00:25 (SWAN band filter)

Astronomy lesson - "Elementary, my dear ...Holmes!"

Debriefing session with the Academics