This is the great mosque in Djenne, Mali on market day. The annual rain washes away the outer layer of the mosque, and consequently, it must be re-skinned frequently.
Mali is consistently ranked one of the five poorest countries in the world (the average person makes about $200 a year American). It's northern half is Saharan desert - endless rolling dunes. It's southern half is Sahel - flat, hard-packed sand with occasional scrub, much like the American Southwest. Splitting it in half is a big loop of the Niger River -- the lifeline of the country.
There are no roads leading to Mali. Other than flying, you must either:
a) cross the Sahara
b) sail a week up the Niger River
c) cross the Sahel in the back of a semi or your own four-wheel drive
d) take the train.
I took the train - a story for another time.
Yet despite the desperate living conditions, they build these amazing structures, cities in the desert, and they have a thriving barter economy, as they have for centuries.
Mali is also the home of Timbuktu (yes, that Timbuktu), although in Mali it is properly know as Tombouctou.