Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa, a former French colony and maybe the most interesting in a region that is always on top of the list of world’s the poorest areas. The dry and barren natural environment, is alleviated somewhat by the great Niger River running through the country from the south to the north, gifting life. The conditions of poverty and malnutrition are maximized by the numerous diseases that affect the population (malaria, yellow fever, dengue, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, parasites, intestinal diseases, AIDS, Ebola, etc.) while access to a public health system is not provided! As if that were not enough, a civil war affecting the country since 2011, with the northern areas controlled by rebel forces creating a humanitarian crisis and of course making the tourism industry to expire permanently.
After the second revolution of the Touaregs demanding the independence of Azawad in the northern part of the country, followed their betrayal by extremists with links to Al-Qaeda who imposed Sharia. Attacks, kidnappings, terrorism and looting of monuments are part of the rebels’ actions.
In a destination full of images, different from anything you’ve seen before, you meet people also unique and authentic. Almost always friendly, cordial and smiling, they enjoy a way of living with minimum wealth, a point of view hardly understood by us Westerners… With a distinctive, happy and respectful approach, you will definitely earn their smiles.
Let’s wander at the riverside city of Segou with the weekly market, the magnificent mud made city of Djenné with the Grand Mosque, the biggest mud building in the world, the city of Mopti, the “Venice of the damned”as resembled to me, the Dogon country, an enclave of animist people with strange customs . And of course the big capital Bamako, with a rare combination of colonial architecture and unbearable dust, streets that look bombed with open sewers in plain view. The legendary Timbuktu, the historic city of caravans is unfortunately inaccessible, under control of the rebels. Tried to get in a United Nations flight for a quick (and very dangerous) visit unfortunately was fruitless. Nevertheless, the whole experience was amazing, let alone in a place that you do not meet another visitor.
Holidays in the nest of Al Qaeda…
What is the reason that motivates someone to choose this area for holidays, is a question I will hardly answer. Nothing is easy in West Africa, the sights are few and the probability of not coming back was overwhelmed as the day of departure approached. To overcome our fears is not an easy task and that particular fear has a real cause.
When a simple search on the internet shows the bloody terrorism attack at the Radisson Hotel in Bamako, daily attacks on UN forces, kidnappings … When locals advise you to keep a low profile in the “red” areas, quite impossible when you are the only tourist in the country! When the locals inform you that in 1km away there are “bad guys”, when they tremble to face people from the Touareg tribe.
The thirst of experience is often stronger than fear. And the reward is something that is hard to describe in words and pictures. Besides, West Africa is… for the fans of the kind! Let’s travel to the thick dust flooding the eyes and nose of the traveler, the unbelievable transport means, the African tempo time flow, the unexpected, the ignorance of common communication language (French)…
The flight makes a short stop in Istanbul and Niamey, Niger. Almost all white people disembarked in Niamey, probably not for tourism. One member of our crew asked us why we were going to Mali and reacted with scare in our response that go for tourism, without knowing anyone in the country. The flight reaches Bamako at midnight. The stamp on our visas (for which we had to get to the embassy in Rome) was a quick matter as a light skinned officer (Touareg?) served us bypassing the queue. At the exit we had to deal once again with guys getting commission from taxi drivers, by telling a number of lies to visitors such as “a hotel car waiting for you” etc. As usual, we have no one to wait for us, our experience allows us not to fell victims of scams and I already know the normal fee. Taxis are indescribably scrawny, it’s a miracle that they are still in working condition. Everywhere inside there is a thick layer of soil. I think I have never seen such a bumper with wheels and all the taxis we get will be identical to this. We put the backpacks in the trunkgiving them their first share of dirt while the torn seats and interior offer an intense African hue on our clean clothes. “Sleeping Camel” motel opens their double iron doors and quite some time afte,r, somebody wakes up and after long searching in the dark, gives us a room. The accommodation is quite basic for its money. It is inferior to the “sleeping bag level” on my personal facility scale, therefore I have to lay my sleeping bag on the miserable bed before resting down, closing a dirty mosquito net. In the morning, we enjoy the pleasurable climate of Africa in December, enjoying breakfast in the garden including a huge a chocolate brioche that we carried from Greece. The hotel manager is a young American married with a Malinese and informs us that the country parts we want to visit are not very safe. On our contrary persist, we ask him about the road to the inaccessible areas of Timbuktu and Gao. The answer is what we already know, that we can not go there, while daily news are full of blasting vehicle incidents and ambushes on the route. A small walk in the surrounding area will welcome us to the familiar and favorite chaos of an African capital. Dirt roads and a dust cloud in the air, street vendors and laughing kids, potholes and many mopeds. A vehicle with an armed military garrison wearing brand new uniforms gives you the false impression that the army has everything under control. We found that the reason for their presence is the German Embassy located next to our motel. Despite the will to walk around and take photos, we must proceed moving to the north, at least to Segou within the day. The tour around Bamako will be left for the end of the trip, keeping it as a safety measure for our return flight. By the time we arrive at the bus station, three or four guys are hunging on the taxi doors. They put us on a bus that leaves immediately. The vehicle is not air conditioned, for fuel economy as the collector says. Apart from our ticket, we are requested for 1000CFA (€ 1.5) for the baggage, but we refuse to pay. We will not be able to do the same on other buses as we found that it is mandatory. And while the dry heat of West Africa is generally tolerable cause sweat vaporizes fast, that bus with shut windows was feeling like a sauna. Adding to the discomfort, we were making frequent stops where dozens of vendors were coming in, selling eggs, pancakes and other local dishes and passengers littering the remains everywhere in the bus. For a 230 km journey, we needed about 5 hours. Welcome to Africa…
Segou is a dusty town on the banks of the Niger River. Arriving at Segou we went to a small hotel that I had pointed out on the map, which proved to be excellent. A young man approached us and offered to rent his motorcycle to visit the ruins of the old town of Segou-Koro, a distance of 15 km. We thought it was a good opportunity for adrenaline and to make our “discreet” presence felt, on our first day in Mali. Indeed the route was placid and cheering, obviously it’s not a common sighting in the area to see white guys on a motorbike. We arrive in a village that does not have anything impressive except from rubble. After a short walk, we head to the village leader who welcomes us with a “diva” attitude and asks for a big amount of fee. We refuse even when the price falls to normal levels. We leave despite their pressing and rather angry mood. We will finally face the Niger River walking by its bank where people labor on the riverside. Adults and children of various ages were working in the hard process of sand collecting from the riverbed, loading it on pirogues and into carts. This sand is more suitable for building than the desert sand. Others were gardening crop fields without any efficient watering system. Locals confronted us with curiosity and smiles. Returning, the motorcycle owner introduced us an outdoor dining restaurant. Typical African facilities, plastic chairs on the side of the dusty street, bulk kitchen and… delicious tastes! I have rarely enjoyed so delicious kitchen on a street . The chef has previous experience from a hotel. If you are in Segou, look for the Balanzan restaurant. It’s not a pleasure for the eyes but it is the best of the whole area and I was the first to write about it on tripadvisor. There, were three European females to our surprise. They are not tourists of course. One of them has the only travel agency in the area, probably not much in business nowadays and is married to a young Malinese. We will meet her at the end of her trip to Bamako along with the other woman that runs a restaurant there. Of course she realized that I was the one who had sent her email about the tour in Dogon country. But no hard feelings. I preferred to do it with no pre arrangements preferring to find a local guide on the spot. The next day we got at the riverside to view the dozens of pirogues arriving, loaded with sorts of products for the weekly outdoor market. Donkeys and people were discharging from the boats to the shore, heavy sacks, live chicken, even motorbikes. Even at that situation of deep poverty there are distinct social classes. A small portion of the population seems to enjoy the position of a relatively superior socio-economic class, while others live in a regime of real slavery. The images of everyday life in this part of the earth have their own unique color. Although we are still in a safe area, there is definitely no other traveler. The scenes by the riverside will be followed by the wandering in the narrow streets of town, full of life, children and dust. But we have to continue the trip even further north and getting to Djenne is not a simple matter. We find one of the city’s few taxis to get to the station in time and catch up on the passing bus coming from Bamako. We are trying to communicate i our poor French, hoping to be at the right station and get the correct passing bus on time. After five minutes we are hurried to get by the road as the bus just arrived for a very short stop. To our surprise we had air conditioning that made the journey a pleasant luxury. The bus’ destination was Mopti and therefore we had to change transport at some point on the route. Two white guys disembark in the middle of the road, in the middle of nowhere, full of luggage and a big cart box full of stationery supplies for the children, looking for anything that has wheels. Fortunately, there was a passenger vehicle, although it did not look much like. We had to wait over two hours to load and fill the vehicle and this gave us the opportunity to visit a small settlement of the Fulani tribe and get a taste of life conditions that were not quite bearable. While we were still waiting for the bus to get full, a sluggish policeman stops his afternoon siesta, calling us to register our data. At some point the driver surprising, says that someone is calling me on his phone! The news of our arrival had probably been spread a lot. A friend of the guy who rent us the motorcycle is on the phone introducing to me as a tour guide waiting for us in Djenne.
We get squeezed in the overloaded wrecked truck-bus, sitting on top of each other on wooden benches, crossing a narrow dirt road passing through a wetland in the river’s delta, until a ferry. There the few vehicles have to wait on queue to cross the river on the ferry-platform. Amadou is waiting for us there. He is an extremely agile 30-year-old who came with another guy and their two motorbikes to carry us, our luggage and the cart box, without having to wait for the bus. There are only three hotels left in Djenne. The war and the consequent end of tourism consist unprofitable even to electrify them. The two hotels in the old city were almost abandoned and the last one in the outskirts of the city has good conditions and food, although the remote area is not considered safe! The European owner has left the country and I hope that someone else will take over before it gets abandoned too. Amadou, as I mentioned, is an intelligent guy, speaking French, English, Dogon, Fulani and other local languages, has knowledge of the Dogon area where we want to go and as it turns out he is acquainted everywhere. In addition to an excellent guide, he is now a friend. Wherever we went he knew people and could find a solution to requests. He was a father of five children but now… unfortunately only three still survive. Two of his children died of unknown illnesses, perhaps malaria, as he had no money for medical care. This is unfortunately the hard reality of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Our morning reveals the town of Djenne built entirely of mud on an island of the Niger River. In the center of the town through the dust, dominates the majestic Grand Mosque. It is the largest mud structure in the world and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the rainy season the building melts and has to be repaired again every year. Inside, a dense cluster of wooden columns supports the roof. The view of the city from the rooftops of the houses is magical. In the surrounding area, typical African scenes unfold, with barefoot children running joyfully, donkey carts, small shops. Everyone looks at us with curiosity and we are wondering if there are people with bad intentions among them, possibly Islamists. Ignoring fear, we decided to go with the motorbikes outside of the town, searching in the desert for the Fulani nomads migrating their animals. The Fulani is the largest nomadic population in the world with the main groups being in West Africa and smaller spread east until Sudan. Many of them wear distinctive clothing, men wear colored robes and pointed hats while women use to dye their lips with a dark permanent tattoo using needles and charcoal or indigo. They have a special system of social clans including free citizens and slaves! Apart from nomads who raise their animals in the dry, barren soils searching for pasture, there are also Fulani living in small settlements. We visited their villages but after a long search we also found small groups of nomadic people camping in the vast areas. Their cordiality and hospitality were exemplary, despite the immense living conditions. Unfortunately, we have not met some impressive animal migration since their few animals were scattered around the area. Someone warned us not to move forward, guerrillas were sighted just one kilometer away. Amadou and his friend were very afraid, each time a Touareg was seen with his characteristic white skin. The Touareg consider themselves superior to dark Africans, but after the Civil War they became threatening. Everyday life in poor Djenne looks so distant from ours. Women undertake a lot of hard work. Others carry wood for cooking, others cultivate thin crops, and gather small fish from fishing nets on the river. Some sift with the help of the wind some millet flour. At one point in the city there is a small pilgrimage where, a few centuries ago, the local chief was forced to sacrifice his little daughter to appease the spirits. Every day women ritually enter from one entrance of the small structure space to ask for the blessing, then leaving from another exit.
The school was closed for holidays so Amadou gathered the young students to share them the stationery. In a while, poorly, rattling, barefoot children gathered and patiently waited their turn under the hot sun. Once again, words and images are incapable of describing the thrill of such a moment, offering a minimal dose of joy to the children of Africa.
In the morning we will pass the river again on the platform with Amadou to continue north to Sevare and Mopti. At a junction, police pulled us off the bus to record our data. Losing the bus we had to find another means of transport until Mopti. Arriving, we found a small accommodation that belonged to an elderly French woman and of course we were the only guests. The situation at Mopti was even more miserable than the previous towns. Stunted neighborhoods, with ruined settlements, flies everywhere, and dust… as always. Many parts of the city were not safe to visit, we could not get opposite bank of the river, this area that extends into the vast desert is infested by the rebels. The locals were kind but in some cases hostile. The city is built at the confluence of the rivers Niger and Bani, which are overwhelmed by elongated “pinesse”, as they call the pirogues in French. The shores of the central pier were literally like a garbage dump, a crowd of people were active in this chaotic setting, and the dirty waters of the river made the atmosphere even intolerable. The colorful pinasse reminded the Venice gondolas, a perverse version of the idyllic city, a Venice of the Damned… Some ships are destined to the mythical Timbuktu. Although in this mythical town there are still jihadist guerrillas, the risk of kidnapping is likely and the attacks on a daily basis, we think seriously about going. But the ship leaves once a week and takes three days to get there. Unfortunately, we do not have enough time for this. The road route is not an alternative as vehicles are being attacked everyday. Commercial flights, of course do not take place, except from an United Nations plane that runs the route on a daily basis. A relative of Amadou working for the United Nations had promised us that he would try for two seats. Unfortunately, due to Christmas season, this was not feasible. Staying with a dream unfulfilled, we will just get a boat ride on the river of magical orange shades in the light of the evening. Small settlements with muddy buildings are scattered on the banks, women wash clothes by the river, children play and fishermen collect their nets. The voices of the imams resound from the mosques.
THE DOGON COUNTRY
Early in the morning we embark on a scrawny car that will take us back to the east, at the highlands of Bandiagara. On the dusty dirt roads of the homonymous city we will get supplies of water and we’ll head to a point where the road ends and the hiking in the isolated country of Dogon starts. The Dogon is a 1,000-year-old central Mali tribe. The Dogon have their own language and religion with animist beliefs, refusing to convert to Islam. The Dogon country has no roads and requires a hike of a few or more days, while for the carrying of luggage and water, young guys offer porter duties.
Their isolated villages are built on the slopes of steep cliffs of up to 500m, but most of them are now abandoned and the population has moved in villages lower in the desert valley. Apart from the villages that are UNESCO monuments, interesting are also their strange customs and traditions, the complex social system of castes, as well as the masterful wooden masks that are part of the disguise of their feasts and of the ceremonies that are performed even years after someone’s death. In Songo village, located in the plains, we met the reconstruction of a Toguna, the sacred building of men. In this building, which consists of 8 layers of millet straw, but with a low ceiling that no-one can stand up, all men meet and solve their disputes peacefully. Dogon believe that people are born with common genitals, so imperative is the circumcision of boys aged 9 to 12 but also in girls to obtain physical identity. In Songo you will find rock paintings in bright red and white colors that represent these rituals. Dogon’s traditions reveal accurate knowledge of cosmological events known only by the development of modern astronomy, as well as seemingly aware of constellations invisible to the naked eye like the Sirius binary star system. Many anthropologists have come to dispute that Dogon has some extraterrestrial origin, that they actually arrived on Earth from Sirius. Even those who claim that their knowledge was inherited by the ancient Egyptians can not explain many points of their theory. On the top cliff of our hiking reveals a magnificent view. The steep cliffs give their place to a vast desert valley with small scattered mud made villages. On the slopes, the traditional abandoned villages are still standing, but at higher, inaccessible levels there are constructions that can hardly be understood how they were made. The villages and smaller shelters built like eagle nests on the rocks were inhabited by the Tellem tribe, who were pygmies or “small red people”, between the 11th and 16th centuries. Tellem disappeared for unknown reasons. Even today in Mali it is believed that Tellem possessed the superpower of flight.
Traditions are not followed much anymore. Dogon people, despite their poor living conditions, are modernized. And since we were not interested in watching a tourist show with traditional masks, authenticity was confined to an outdoor Malinese disco feast, where the youth engaged in frantic dances within a cloud of dust raised by the bare feet of boys and girls.
The conditions of our stay were not varied much. Huts with dirt floor and no doors, beds with a woven rope as mattress, and small rodents to squash our stuff all night. Some places did not have running water and toilet while others included this “luxury”. One of the breakfasts began to show me signs of food poisoning. It was probably an omelet with stale eggs mixed with some dirt and little stones… hard to eat and to digest. Despite my resilience to so many difficult trips around the world, here in one of the most inaccessible parts of the planet I suffer all night without closing an eye. Fortunately in the morning they managed to find me a Coca Cola which is a guaranteed stomach medicine, so I manage continue hiking under the hot desert sun. For my good luck, a cattle minimized my exhaustion. It was New Year’s Eve in the hardest leg of the trip, where we had to find a way to move from Dogon country to an unknown and unsafe area, without transport means and cross the border with Burkina Faso. For a 60 km route to town of Koro, we found a pic-up car with no bargain-able price. The alternative of going with mopeds loaded with luggage at such a distance seemed to us more dangerous than the Jihadists.
It’s be hard to describe this chaotic, dusty, dirty and poor town, with a dainty marketplace full of flies and other insects infected with unknown diseases. Waiting for a few hours until the vehicle is loaded. The most wrecked transportation ever. A century-old small bus, rotten and perforated everywhere, welded roughly with beams to keep it in one piece. Of course, it did not have seats, but the passengers were stowed in the carriage along with the supplies, live or not. We asked the driver for the privileged seats next to him and as tourists we enjoyed this special treatment. Our bags were loaded on the roof, along with two live goats tied in sacks! I guessed the goats would probably make their pee there on our luggage and clothes. My prediction was basically correct. Shortly after our departure, the hollow roof began to drip some liquid onto our heads. Even the driver was annoyed about that. The route the border has no signs of a living soul. Neither people nor villages, but a deserted no man’s land. The driver tells us something in French showing at us the Mali border post that was perforated with bullet. A few months ago, 8 border guards fell dead after an attack and no one controls it ever since. Nobody put an exit stamp of Mali on our passports, as opposed to the kind welcoming we had in Burkina Faso (More about the Burkina trip here).
Returning from Burkina Faso to Bamako. A city drowned in the dust of dirt roads that look like being bombed, with holes that fit entire cars inside them. Pictures that contradict the few oasis-look neighborhoods hosting guarded government buildings, as well as some good class hotels and restaurants overlooking the river. As we arrived at the end of the trip, we offered to ourselves a more decent accommodation, in a small boutique hotel. As a coincidence, in the same place was housed the restaurant run by the European lady we met at Segou, with traditional music and mostly western customers dressed in military uniforms. It is a weird feeling to night stroll in a dark African capital. Nevertheless, we decided to go around the local bars and clubs without feeling unsafe. The music played was mainly Malinese disco. But at last, somewhere we heard authentic Malinese music. In a small bar there was something like a family feast, and the sounds of the percussion and other instruments conjured up. Bamako is not the trendiest place for nightlife so we didn’t stay late. Next day was dedicated to getting to know the city and its local markets. The Marche de Medina is the most shockingly dirty market I’ve ever been. The stench is unbearable and reminiscent of a rubbish dump rather than a food market, with dense clouds of flies attacking bare skin like kamikazes, sewage fluids flowing under your feet, paraplegic beggars, babies crawling half-naked on the ground out of any sense of hygiene. I tried to stay as long as possible in this filthy situation, but I did not endure much … in this hell of souls. After a long walk in the devastating heat, we arrive at Bamako Zoo, which was unexpectedly well maintained. Animal welfare was far better than I expected. Due to the large size of the park and the few numbers of animals, the lions, the leopard, the small western African elephant, seemed to enjoy the conditions. Only the chimpanzees were unhappy behind the cages. In the interior area, one can see a huge variety of strange reptiles of West Africa, most of them poisonous, as well as the Niger River aquatic fauna that looked like escapers from a science fiction movie. The next stop will be the Grande Marche market. Here the conditions are much more dignified than the previous outdoors market. Besides, the products sold here are mainly intended for tourists, although these are now scarce. The walk continued in some of the city’s most upgraded neighborhoods, where vegetation is a delightful exception and we relaxed in some riverside restaurants, most of them empty.
Last moments of the trip to the chill of the hotel’s little swimming pool. Relieving from the heat we check the news on the Internet about snowstorms in Istanbul with hundreds of canceled flights. Among other things, our flight. The news are disastrous for my job duties as I have be back at the office on the next day. We decide to go to the airport five hours earlier to find a solution. We were the first to arrive at Turkish Airlines’ offices but the employees did not give us much importance. There are few flights to leave that non touristic country. Having Internet in such moments is lifesaving. We refused the solution of a flight after two days and we demanded to embark on Air France’s flight through Paris. Unfortunately they denied, claiming that the two companies don’t belong to the same network. Perhaps the reason was the outrageous price of the ticket as there was only upgraded class available. After two hours, they miraculously give us two tickets. But… it was with Paris as final destination! Communication in Africa is not an easy task even if we explained to them that our final destination is Greece. The remaining three hours was a stressful waiting, disrupted by an outburst of the employee who unexpectedly threw away the keyboard and disappeared. People started to gather out of the office and our hopes to fly, were flying away. Suddenly, just 15 minutes before the flight, they notify us that we are boarding. We check-in our luggage without even taking clothes, leaving with summer outfit for a full day stopover in cold but civilized Paris.
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