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.
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.
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.
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.
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.