Category Archives: Mali

Doggone Dogon

Our goal was the fabled Dogon Country, a land of striking rock and valleys where a few animists still clung to their ancient traditions along rocky cliffs. Everyone we’d met said it was the highlight of a stay in Mali. Our reality turned out to be something of a mixed bag.

We headed east from Bamako, after a couple of days trying to recuperate at the lovely Hotel Tamana amidst the need to battle the hordes of the swollen city to get plane tickets and visas for Niger and beyond. Without much trouble, we caught a bush taxi that filled up quickly and took us, along with a motorcycle that two guys hoisted onto the already-bowed roof of the navette, to Fana. From there, we caught another ride up a smooth but dusty road to Gouana, a bush village of shea and neem trees surrounded by corn, millet and cotton (a local cash crop) fields. It was the first time a bush taxi ever left earlier than I wanted it to, as the taxi station captain had to hurry us through our bowl of rice and peanut sauce at a nearby street food stall.

We found Rebecca, a Peace Corps volunteer posted in Gouana, with the help of a few women pounding millet along the roadside. Gouana is greener than most of the villages I’ve been to in Niger with quite a few more trees, but the rhythm of life here is the same as anywhere in the Sahel – women pound and ferry water to their homes, toothless old men sit and discuss the weather, children play and get cranky in the heat.

Rebecca with her host family in Gouana

We spent a wonderful night with Rebecca’s host family. As usual, the whole family got a huge kick out of us trying to string together the most basic phrases in Bambara.

The next day, we caught a free ride back down the same road to Fana, and then took a bus east toward Dogon Country. We stopped in a charming little town along the way along the banks of the Niger River called Segou.

On the cliffs above the Banani staircase

Just as we were getting off the bus, we saw a Peace Corps car passing by. Because we had Rebecca with us, they gave us a ride to a great hotel called the Auberge, and then bargained a good price for the night. On the way to the hotel, we told Claudine, the Peace Corps staff member in charge of the health sector in Mali, that we’d been volunteers in Niger. She quickly dialed up a man named Kabiru, who had been the safety and security officer for Niger when we were there.

When they closed the program in Niger, they brought him on in Mali, initially just for one month, then another, then another. It was great to hear his animated voice on the other end of the line. A former wrestler, he’s quick to laugh and always had a smile for everyone, though I don’t think there was anyone who took his job more seriously than he did. When we talked to him on the phone, he invited us to his house in Bamako for dinner with his family.

In Segou, we had a dinner of brochettes and plantains that night at a place called ‘Restaurant Balanzan Cafeteria,’ which is really just a bar and a few plastic tables under a grass roof. Peace Corps volunteers have fittingly dubbed it ‘The Shack,’ but thanks to a congenial owner-chef, the meal was one of the best we’ve had on our trip.

Descending toward Banani

The next day, we took the bus to Sevaré. Even here, two hours from the gateway to Dogon Country, we were besieged by potential guide after potential guide.

I sat and talked with a guy who initially didn’t introduce himself as a guide, but rather as if he was just waiting for the same bush taxi we were. He was patient with my French, and he said he’d been to Park du W in Niger as a guide with a French outdoor company. Somehow, he subtly tipped us off that he could arrange our trip through Dogon.

Later that night, when we were trying to decide on a guide (more or less required for a visit to Dogon), I pulled for him because he’d been less aggressive than the others.

The next morning, everything started off well. Adama was on time with a car to take us to the trailhead where we’d begin hiking, and he even suggested that we draw up a contract so that there was no miscommunication regarding the price we’d agreed upon. From Bandiagara to Songha, we watched as the Sahel gave way to a land of rocks and water greened by the summer rains.

The Tellam dwellings

When we got to Songha, however, our guide left us with his brother, who showed us the town. Adama left us, saying he was going to visit his mother for only a few minutes. Two and a half hours later, he came back to us, but now when he spoke, he contorted his face and talked out of the side of his mouth. Unaware that anything had changed, we followed as he led us down the cliff face called the Banani staircase.

We had a leisurely lunch in Banani in the valley below, during which time, our guide was also mostly absent. Afterward, as we were leaving the village, the restaurant owner chased us down on his motorcycle. Shaking, his eyelids pulled into tight slits, he explained that Adama hadn’t paid him for our lunch, as was our agreement, and the two of them had a very un-West African shouting match in the street.

On the valley floor

Adama’s rebuttal was that he’d lent the restaurant owner some money a few years back, and his way of calling in the debt was to bring tourists there and then leave without paying. Which is just what we ended up doing. Adama was obviously upset, and Anne-Claire tried to let him know that we didn’t want to be dragged into any more of his problems.

The rest of the afternoon went OK, though we’d catch a whiff of alcohol every once in a while as he led us through the villages on the sides of the rocky cliffs. The culture here, at least in the villages we visited, seems to have been diluted by the constant stream of outsiders. The intricately carved Dogon doors have in many instances been replaced by tin or plain wooden doors, as the price offered for the carved doors by tourists was just too high to turn down.

The land itself though is spectacular. Most of the villages are built into the side of these striking spines of rock known as the Fallaise jutting out from the farmland below. Up even higher in crevasses in the rock are Dogon cemeteries and villages in miniature where the Dogon believe a pygmy people known as the Tellam lived long ago.

Around sunset, we found ourselves in a village, once again without our guide. Coincidentally (or not), there was also a small bar in the village, and when we finally found Adama, he was stumbling and slurring more than ever.

Dogon door

We continued to trek through increasing darkness to Kundu where we spent the night on a rooftop (until it started raining around 2 in the morning). Our guide had to be rousted by the auberge owners as the storm was closing in – he’d passed out in a white plastic chair, drink in hand.

The next morning, we decided to cut the trip short and try to get to Bandiagara that night instead of the next morning. The guide agreed, and once we got in cell phone range, he started calling to arrange for the car to come and get us in Songha at around 4 o’clock.

Swapping Peace Corps stories

The hike was beautiful, if a bit strenuous, especially in flip-flops. At around six o’clock with no sign of the car, Anne-Claire lost patience and started walking toward Bandiagara, stopping at the few houses along the road with cars to see if they’d be willing to drive us.

Adama followed us, alternately trying to calm us down at the tardiness of the car and screaming into the cell phone at the driver that the ‘whites’ were getting impatient.

Finally, we found a guy willing to drive us down the road until we found Adama’s driver on his way to come get us. If we’d stayed in Songha, we’d have been waiting until at least 8 o’clock. We switched to Adama’s friend’s car, and after a flat tire, we made it to Bandiagara, where we spent the night at a Peace Corp hostel.

A rough day turned into a pleasant evening, as we waited out a storm with beers and brochettes at a local bar, listening to the stories of volunteers who were a year or two into their service – a comfortably familiar feeling that reminded us that Niger wasn’t far away.

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Africa Overland

Waiting for the bus at the Mali-Senegal border

Crossing into Mali from Senegal, you immediately know you’ve transitioned into a poorer country. The amenities change. Everywhere in Mali are half-finished concrete buildings – the remnants of some great idea on the part of the government or an NGO or whomever, for which the money ran out. Senegal’s by no means a developed country, but you get the sense that there’s an entrepreneurial, if misguided, spirit present in the towns and cities: Senegal is moving forward – maybe at the expense of some of its charm and West African-ness – but it’s moving forward nonetheless.

The apprentice collecting fares from the front seat in a bush taxi in Mali

Both border controls were a breeze. On the Senegalese side, the officer thanked us for visiting his country, stamped our passports without hassle, and wished us safe travels with a kindness utterly absent in the way I’ve seen American immigration officials berate and belittle foreigners.

The Malian side too was little trouble. An intimidating gendarme cracked into a teddy bear when we told him we’d been Peace Corps volunteers and especially when we started asking him how to say a few words in Bambara.

The hassle came on the road, especially in the first few hundred kilometers, where frequent checkpoints turned the 800-900 km – a long distance by any measure – into a marathon day. Our visa receipts got us a simple nod of acceptance from the police, but they used the opportunity to extract a little bit of pocket money from the Malians and other Africans on board the bus.

Anne-Claire in the back of a pickup in Mali

Maybe the Senegalese officials are just better paid and don’t need the extra income from bribes. Even traveling through the heavily militarized Casamance region in southern Senegal, where rebel separatist sentiments necessitate (apparently) the tanks that roll through the towns with soldiers manning the gun turrets and the frequent stops on the roadway – though they’re so cursory, I can’t imagine they’re ever effective in rooting out insurgents – even there, little money seemed to change hands.

The land too changed almost immediately after crossing the Senegal River, which separates Kidira in Senegal from Diboli in Mali. Anne-Claire and I often joke that when they drew the border between California and Oregon, the California folks just drove north until the sun stopped shining, then took a few steps back and planted their stakes. Of course, there’s quite a bit of rain in northern California, but the four times I’ve driven across the border, our little joke has held water – sun on the California side, rain or snow in Oregon.

The same idea seems to have been put in place by the folks who drew the Senegal-Mali border. Right over the border, the verdant fields swarming with birds give way to the dusty hardpan of the true Sahel. Mango trees heavy with fruit are replaced by scrappier neem, acacia and shea trees, and the baobabs, in comparison to their grotesquely huge and heavily branched cousins in Senegal, look spindly and stunted.

Nigerien bush taxis (van in the background) always seem to get more for their money

The bleakness is oddly comforting in a way, as I can feel we’re getting closer to Niger. You can hear it in the cadence of speech and see it in the well-worn dress and thatched roofs and mud huts melting in the rainy season.

Even the trundling bus has the comfort of familiarity, swerving from shoulder to shoulder to avoid the slightest pockmark in the tarmac – West African bus drivers will gladly run down donkey carts and cyclists, and they seem to see dogs and livestock as little more than videogame obstacles: best not to hit them, but not at the cost of speed. But present a driver with an inch-deep pothole, perhaps a foot in diameter, and he’ll tiptoe his overloaded rig across it as gently as if he were balancing stacks of dishes on the roof.

As green as it gets – driving through Niger on the way to Kollo

Travel is a perennial challenge here. The air conditioners in the buses stopped working long ago, but of course the windows don’t open. The only air comes from the vented escape hatches in the roof, and then only when the bus is moving. And, in a region that’s produced the likes of Yousou N’Dour, Ali Farke Touré and Salif Keita, bus drivers seem to love with a cult-like obsession the same way that some people love campy B movies in the States the clangy, scream-laden, over-instrumented, over-amplified music of less adept artists that’s always too loud.

Still, I wouldn’t trade this way of seeing West Africa, even with all its challenges. It’s almost as if jigsawing our way through the region’s roads, we’re unlocking the secrets this part of the world holds. It’s only like this you can see how the harshness of the land forges tough-as-nails people, tempered by relentless hospitality and an eagerness to laugh that’s unlike anywhere else.

It’s an area of the world I was proud to call home for two years, and I’m excited to be back.

A Few Pictures from the Road

We just arrived in Niger safely after a bit of a detour. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to fly from Bamako to Niamey for about the same cost as what it would have been to buy a visa for Burkina Faso and spend time there. Our Air Mali flight was ahead of schedule when the red hardpan I remember so well from my first flight to Africa seven years ago came into view. We flew over the stadium and saw the old Peace Corps office nearby.

Unfortunately, we also were watching a wall of dust descend on the area at the same time. After circling around for 15 minutes – you could feel the pilot’s hesitation – they finally decided to go on to Ouagadougou, the closest airport and where most of the plane’s passengers were headed anyway. Fortunately, when we landed, they found us a flight on a new African airline called Asky, and we eventually did make it to Niger, just a few hours late.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of the storm, but I did get the river after what was a massive storm. The temperature dropped to around 75 degrees F, which for Niger is right around freezing.

I’m also posting a few other amusing pictures. The first is the bush taxi apprentice, who, like the guard at the gates of Oz, popped his head back to collect our money.

The second – well, I’m not one to criticize anyone trying to speak or write in a foreign language. But I also know that the best way to learn is with a good sense of humor. This placard was on our Air Mali flight. Number 4 is particularly good.

Quick update from Mali

Anne-Claire and Haoua in Kayes

We’ve been on the road for the last few days, including about 21 straight hours yesterday ending about 3:30 at a little hotel that thankfully is a true oasis in the chaotic bustle of Bamako. Today, we head out to a Peace Corps Volunteer’s village about 150 km east of where we are now.

I have a couple more posts from Morocco to put up, and then a few from Senegal. Senegal was a terrific. It’s amazing what a little rain and a coastline does for a country. The trouble is, we’re not likely to have great access to internet, though if we do, I’ll try to get a post or two up. So, if you don’t hear from us for a while, don’t worry. Our plan – always mutable, of course – is to head to eastern Mali for a few days, check out Dogon country, then return to Bamako for a flight to Niger next week. Flying ended up being cheaper than the several days of travel and the visas for Burkina Faso at ~$100 apiece.

I’ll leave you with a picture of Anne-Claire and a little girl named Haoua, who was drawn like a magnet to us at our bus stop in Kayes a few hours inside the Senegal-Mali border and thought nothing of hopping up on her lap, to her mother’s delight. You’ll hear from us soon!