Bamako – Hot Nights at Djembe

Mali is perhaps mostly famous for its music. People from all over the world congregate to the butterfly-shaped country to see superstars like Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Amadou et Mariam, as well as other, less-known talent.

In Bamako, where music seems to be a necessity of life, there are live music bars for any size wallets and tastes. Tourists and upper-class locals pack the expensive Le Diplomat every night, while others get their fill at places like Oumou Sangare’s Wassulu Hotel, Buffet de la Gare, Blonbar or Le Hongon. But during Ramadan, when everyone else closes shop, there is a place where the night really swings. In the Lafiabougou district, Djembe calls on the infidels with raw, powerful rhythms, and some of the best musicians we’ve ever heard.

Djembe is like an aging queen with a youthful spirit. Once upon a time, the locale must have been splendid with its art deco interior and lush garden bar. But it’s seems the place hasn’t been maintained in the last thirty years, and everything is pretty much broken or falling apart. Someone has punched a hole in the wave-shaped wall decoration, the couch-covers are ripped to shreds, the mirror-ball has lost most of its tiles, and the paint is peeling off the walls. The bathroom is the worst we’ve seen anywhere, with an unfastened toilet bowl hanging on its side, leaving a big hole at its base, wall paper rolling up due to humidity, and an unimaginable stench to go with it. Forget about being able to flush the toilet, wash your hands or lock the door. Not in this place.

But despite its gritty exterior, this place has a soul that’s hard to beat. When the djembe player starts beating the drum with alternatively soft, then hard slaps, having total control of the softness and loudness of the sound, it’s heaven. Accompanied by guitarists, kora players and a drummer, its easy to fall in love with the sound. It’s easy to think you’ve never heard anything sound that good before. But when the singer enters the stage, and starts wailing with a voice that sounds like the worst pain you’ve ever known, crying to the world with sadness of lost love, a broken heart, anger and the longing for retribution, you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. The music enters your body, your soul, and makes you part of it. You smile, you dance, you love.

The place starts filling up before midnight, and by one o’clock it’s jamming. Lots of men, mostly in the African-style long dresses and pants with bold, colorful patterns, and some with laced pajama-style wear. The few women, some girlfriends, some prostitutes, all wear the traditional style clothes with long sleeves and long skirts. Only one girl, as singer, wears a t-shirt and jeans. She looks really good.

A drunk man who is having a fight with his lady, dances alone on the floor, unsteadily marching along. Tall and cool, looking exactly like Malcolm X, he fascinates us with his moves, until he gets so drunk he crashes into tables, dances into the singer.

Most people don’t drink that much. They come to enjoy the music, hang out and be free. Some dance, but mostly this place is about listening to the band. And man, is it a good place!

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Segou – An Oasis in West Africa

After travelling for over two months in West Africa, every town started looking pretty much the same: dusty, dirty lanes with mud-brick houses and rickety shacks. But when we entered Segou, Eduardo and I turned to each other, perplexed. What was this? Segou actually looked cute.

This small town of about 100,000 inhabitants should be a model for all cities in the region. Incredibly lush, with tree-lined streets, colonial style houses and numerous outdoor restaurants, it’s a perfect place to rest a couple of days on the long journey between Bamako and Mopti. We spent a couple of days walking along the banks of the Niger river, taking in the action at the port and enjoying a cold beer or two at the many bars. Eduardo also took on the local kids’ football team, where he successfully scored a goal. The goalkeeper was helpless, trying to catch the ball between goalposts made of a big stone and an empty can.

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One afternoon, we took a moto to Segou Koro, a village that used to be the center of the Bambara kingdom, nine kilometers outside of town. With more mud-brick buildings and three small mosques, the most interesting part of the visit was meeting the village chief to whom you have to pay a visitor’s tax. Heaps of children followed us around, begging for money, candy, photos (for a fee, of course!), my sunglasses, or something, just anything.

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Segou, on the other hand, stayed lovely. Although it was pretty dead during Ramadan when we visited, the town comes alive in early February when it hosts Mali’s largest music event, the annual Festival Sur Le Niger. The rest of the year, there are plenty of live music places to dance the night away.

But the town redeemed itself on Eid Al Fitr, the end of Ramadan, when the little boys, dressed up like gangsters in their new suits, walked around town. Suddenly everyone was happy and smiling again, after a month of daytime starvation.

So if you ever find yourself in West Africa, don’t miss Segou, the pearl of Mali!

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Dogon Country – Wading through Rivers and Up Golden Hills

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“Where on this map are we?” I asked our guide on our first night in Dogon country. Mahaman pointed to Teli in the Southern part of the Bandiagara escarpment. “But weren’t we supposed to start at Dourou?” Mahaman shrugged. “There’s too much water there.”

I was furious. While discussing with all the guides before picking Mahaman, we had been very clear: we want to do the stretch between the Youga villages and Tireli, if doable. Mahaman was one of the only ones who said “Yes, no problem.” I wasn’t sure at what point he had changed his plan, but once in Dogon, there was no way to change the route. Dourou was 20 kilometers away, or a four day hike.

The problem with Mahaman was that he spoke decent English, but didn’t really understand any. When we asked “How come there aren’t any monkeys here ?” he would reply “There are mangoes, apples and bananas in Arou. When Eduardo wanted to know “Why do men treat women so badly here?” Mahaman answered “Women can get married when they are sixteen, but men when they are eighteen.” And when we asked to see the cave with the human skulls, Mahaman took us to a souvenir shop where we could buy masks. Even when communicating in French, he would only explain things written in the most basic guidebook. In other words, Mahaman sucked as a guide.

Dogon country was supposed to be the highlight of our visit to Mali. By far the most expensive part of our journey, we figured it would be worth it just to see the “fascinating animist culture with traditions and cosmology as complex and elaborate as any in Africa”, as Lonely Planet describes it. But Dogon, for us, was nothing like that, as we didn’t learn anything new about the Dogon culture at all.

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Our discontent grew by the hour. The first night, we decided to sleep inside as the thunder and lightning in the distance threatened heavy rain. But it was so hot in the tiny mud-hut, with only a miniscule window, that we couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning for hours, we didn’t fall asleep until the rain finally fell. The peace didn’t last long. I woke up from a peculiar sound from inside our room. I turned to see what Eduardo was doing, but he was sleeping. A few minutes later I woke again from the same sound and looked at Eduardo. He was still sleeping. “Eduardo,” I called out, “I think it’s raining in…” Eduardo opened his eyes and stared at me. “I know,” he said angrily. “It’s raining on me.” The mud roof, as I guess should be expected, was not waterproof. And, no, we didn’t get much sleep that night.

But the landscape was beautiful. Due to the rainy season, the fields were lush, and there were plenty of waterfalls sprouting down the 200 meter high escarpment. Climbing up the steep path to the Benigmato plateau was tough, but worth it. The volcanic red rock obelisks carved by the wind and waters over a million years changed colors with the sun, and you could see across the plains all the way to Burkina Faso. On the third day (and unfortunately the fourth day, as well) we climbed down (and up) a narrow and murderously steep pathway through a crack in the hillside, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful sights we have ever seen.

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On the last day, when we wondered (again) where the caves with human skulls were located, a Dogon man who only spoke French, Dogon and Bambara, finally understood what we were looking for. He explained that the burial chambers are located in Kundu (where we had originally planned to go). But, to his great satisfaction, and our big surprise, he opened his bag and unwrapped a package that contained – a human skull! Photo opportunity, at last! He just didn’t understand why we didn’t understand why we didn’t want to buy it. “On peut acheter. Ya pas de probleme!” he kept repeating.

Back in Mopti a couple of days later, we met a guide that actually seemed to know his stuff. He was born and bred in Dogon, spoke good English and could answer any questions we had about the Dogon cosmology. We almost considered going back and taking another tour with him, but decided not to because of the heat. If anyone needs a Dogon guide, we warmly recommend him: Seck Dolo, seckdolo@yahoo.fr

Mahaman, although really a nice and caring person, kept disappointing us. At the end of the trip we made a deal; I would give him my Peru football t-shirt, and he would give me a traditional African outfit. I kept my part of the deal, I’m still waiting for his…

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Baba Sacko and The Importance on Doing Internet Research

“I heard you’re interested in doing a trip to Dogon?” said the round-faced man in a shiny purple “pajamas” outside our hostel in Bamako. “Well, maybe,” I answered reluctantly. “Well, I’m going there on Thursday, and I already have an Italian guy and Japanese girl interested, so you should come along”.

Baba Sacko talked a good talk, spoke good English and seemed to know his way around Mali, so we listened and took him under consideration. The price was high but negotiable, and the timing right. But just before sealing the deal, Eduardo and I needed to discuss. Was Baba the right guy, did we like him, and how much did we want to pay? So we did what we always do – a background check.

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“DO NOT travel with Baba Sacko”
“Baba Sacko is a douchebag”
“I completely agree that Baba Sacko is a liar and thief of the worst degree”

The comments weren’t very nice. In fact, there was not a single positive word about Baba Sacko. But were the comments about the same person we had met, or could there be two guides with the same name? Then again, how can it be possible to be a guide for twenty years and not a single person recommends you?

As Eduardo and I were contemplating next steps, Baba Sacko walked in the door of the internet cafe.

“So, have you decided?” he demanded, eager to make an easy $500.
When we d confronted him with all the terrible comments about him on the internet, Baba shrugged. “That’s not me,” he insisted, as we had guessed he would. “Besides, I’m not a guide, I’m a Director of Marketing”
But someone had specifically mentioned that this horrible Baba was indeed a Director of Marketing, so we apologized, and told him we just could not take the risk of using him as our guide to the Dogon country.

Coincidentally, we got to know a German guy a couple of weeks later. He had met a Baba – most likely the same man – at the airport. This Baba warned him about the dangers of Bamako and instead brought him to a guide-infested hostel in a small town outside of Bamako. One night, when taking a walk, one of Baba’s guide friends offered him a drag off a joint. But as soon as the German guy put the joint to his moth, a police appeared to arrest him. Panicked, the German guy called Baba, who arrived in a minute and told him to pay 500 Euro or go to prison for ten years. The German guy paid, packed his bags and escaped, not knowing that he had fallen victim for a common scam.

Hearing his story, whether it was the same Baba or not, we felt lucky we had done the research and had the wisdom to turn down this thief.

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Mali – Riding on the Buses from Hell – Part Two

“We’re going to die in here!” Eduardo moaned after five minutes on our way to Mopti. He was probably right. With no air-conditioning and no open windows, the bus was suffocatingly hot. I tried to calm him down. Surely it would getter better soon, when the bus started driving faster, and we would catch a breeze from the open front door.

The problem was that the bus never really started moving. It took us an hour just to get out of Segou. Every two minutes the driver would stop to pick up new passengers and cargo. You want to ride with us? No problem. No space? Well, you can sit on a stool between the seats. No free stools? OK, you can sit on top of someone else. That’s fine. No worries. Just pay me, and you can come along.

The bus advanced at snail’s pace. Truly. Everyone was picked up. Everywhere. Even if we had just stopped one minute earlier, we stopped again. After half an hour at the bus terminal in San, we stopped right outside the gate to pick up more people, then again at the next corner. We picked up people, boxes, carpets, motorbikes, furniture, goats, chicken. Anything. And the more people entered, the hotter it got. We were bathing in sweat, barely being able to breathe, like sitting in a sauna fully dressed.

After three hours on the road, Eduardo was furious. “Hey driver, stop picking up more people!” he screamed into the driver’s face. “We’re dying in here!” But the bus driver and conductor just laughed. They didn’t care. They were making money. No one else in the bus said anything. They just sat there, silently suffering for ten long, unbearably hot hours.

But if the West African buses are hell for humans, the animals fare far worse. On our return ride to Segou, the bus stopped to pick up a man and his cargo. The poor goats were carried as bags, their legs tied together, hanging upside down. When they hurled the screaming goats onto the roof, and they crashed down on the hard metal, I wanted to kill the bastards. Those self-righteous, greedy monsters didn’t deserve to live. But I bit my tongue. My protests, especially being a woman, would not be heard. I was nobody, and unfortunately could not change a culture where men only respect men, and women and animals have no rights.

I spent the rest of the ride unsuccessfully trying to filter out the wails of pain from the goats as they bounced on the hard roof over the potholed road.

And, yes, I did cry.

Djenné – Get Off My Mosque!

Entirely isolated on a small island, in the middle of nowhere in Central Mali, lies the old kingdom of Djenné. Auburn, slightly Moorish-inspired houses line the labyrinthine lanes, and streams of sewage run unabashedly between the buildings. It’s a hot, steamy, and stinky place, with its fair share of wannabe guides tugging on your sleeves, yearning for any dollars you may have to spare.

In the center of town, the grand mosque towers; fabulous in its height and size. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the pride of Mali. Mud-covered spires adorn the facade, with angry sticks of wood embedded in the walls, like thorns of a cactus. This house of worship resembles a fairytale castle of an evil queen. And it slyly beckons you: come closer, have a look, adore me!

But as we were climbing the stairs to admire the marvel a little closer, a shunned guide blocked our way. “You can not go in!” he screamed in our faces. “Go away!”

We stared at him, surprised. We weren’t even close to the entrance. We were still outside, standing on the stairs below the landing of the main building. “Look!” He pointed at a sign below the stairs saying “Entry Prohibited to Non-Muslims.” Fair enough. Understandable. But we were still outside the mosque.

“No! Go away! You cannot stand on the stairs. You are not allowed here. You have to go away or I will hit you. You are not Muslims! You must go away now! Go away! You are not allowed here! You have to leave now.” And so on and on and on.

But we refused to leave. We were not inside the mosque. We were outside, and we just wanted to take a couple of pictures of the only reason anyone ever comes to Djenné – to see the mosque.

After nearly getting into a fist fight, and also a screaming match with a passing old man, we decided to walk away. They could stick their mosque up their derrière, as far as we were concerned.

Instead, we joined three French guys in search of a different kind of culture. And found a decrepit local bar in the backyard of someone’s house, that had cheap beer and a fabulous toilet with neither sewerage nor a roof, but a lovely view of the Bani River.

Early the next morning, before getting on the bus back, we sneaked a last look at the mosque (from the outside!).

It is a beautiful structure, after all.

Bamako to Kayes – A First Class Train Ticket in Second Class

“Don’t you know who I am?” screamed the police officer. “Well, don’t you know who I am?” yelled Eduardo. Uh-oh. Not good.

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Only a few minutes prior, Eduardo had put up his feet and said: “Mmm… Now that we’re on the train, we can just sit and relax for the next nine hours.” But it wasn’t meant to be. This time, it was our mistake, our error.

The previous night we had arrived at the train station in Bamako to buy the ticket, but the office had already closed. The man in the information booth offered his help:

“I can get you a ticket. If you pay for it now, I’ll make the reservation and you can pick up the ticket tomorrow morning.”

It sounded like a scam. No thanks.

“But if you wait until tomorrow, you might not be able to get seats next to each other…” he said, pointing to his book of reservations. “I just want to help you. You know, here in Africa we are always trying to help and make things easier for tourists, but if you don’t want that…”

He sounded convincing, and I felt bad for not trusting him. We had seen him in the station before, so we knew he really did work there.

“There’s no first class, but I can give you two seats each so you can be really comfortable. Especially if you have a lot of luggage. You just pay for first class, but the price is cheaper than paying for four seats in second class.”

We did have a LOT of luggage, so we decided to take the risk.

And the next morning, he was there, brought us our tickets and helped us onto the train. Everything seemed just fine. We put one of our huge bags on the seats in front of us, and sat down to relax.

Until…

Suddenly there were six men all around us, angry and barking, pulling at our bag in the row in front of us. I stood up and pulled the bag back. I knew what this was about. I was NOT going to pay another dime. It was always about someone making a scandal just to draw a few extra CFAs out of you. I wasn’t going to have it.

“You have to put the bag into cargo. You can not have it one the seat,” bellowed the conductor, with the other co-conductors, guards, security and policemen standing by. He was joined by the rest of the passengers in the car, nobody wanted to miss the action.

I tried to argue that we had paid for the seats.

“These are not your seats!” More shouting.

“We have paid for these seats, and we are not leaving!!!” I blared.

In the background I heard Eduardo screaming at the police, arguing who is more important and powerful.

The brawl didn’t subside until we showed them our tickets, our reservation slip, and a photo of the man in the information booth that Eduardo had taken the week before. Finally they started to understand that we had really been scammed.

And suddenly everyone was on our side – after we had paid $6 for the “extra luggage”, of course.

We enjoyed the rest of our trip, quietly, in our “First Class” seats.

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