The LONG adventurous route to Bamako in Mali
Right! Let's get started - because I have much to tell you. In last weeks blog I was still in Senegal but getting ready to bus my way across country so that I could bring you all to Mali. I had been "couchsurfing" in the home of a Russian family. They are living in Dakar as expats and Evgenia opens their home to me. Her husband Sergei is spearheading an amazing project which involves building a fish factory in Senegal. It will clean, process and pack many tons of fresh fish everyday. It's the kind of initiative developing countries need. Evgenia and Sergei have 2 children that both look like angels. Nikita is 4 and Alex is 6. I had a few rounds of chess with Alex and I barely won! I repeat: he is 6 years old!
Evgenia - my host in Dakar
Red is where I come from. Blue is where I'm going.
Anyway, I got out the door leaving that wonderful family behind. I reached the bus station at midday as instructed as the bus with air condition, TV, toilet and comfort would leave at 2:00pm. But things move slow around this part of the world. So when it got to be 3:00pm and they still hadn't started packing the bus I wasn't worried. But around 3:30 I did ask if all was well? "We are leaving at 6:00pm" was the reply! Oh well, I brought my book. But at 7:00pm I was still not in the bus. "Sorry, we are not leaving today". "WHAT?!" Well, I leaned on them for a bit and after a while they stuffed me into a basic, no-good, old very West African bus with no air condition, no toilet, no tv and no comfort. As a bonus there was also no legroom. And now they wanted me to pay for my luggage too.
Man: 3,000 franc
Man: 2,500 franc
Man: okay, 2,000 franc
Man: you need to pay.
And away we went. It was unbelievably hot. But 14 hours later (after breaking down twice and fixing a flat tire) we had arrived at the border to Mali. The Senegalese immigration stamped me out and I was ready for the Malian immigration. "Sorry, you do not have a visa. You need to go back to Dakar!" "WHAT?!" Well, that was the new situation. Not long ago (when I left to go to Cape Verde) it was possible to get the visa at the border. But that had changed. I tried everything but eventually the immigration officer in charge got tired of me and called for Ibrahim. Ibrahim turned out to be a pretty big fellow. A former rugby player. I could take a hint :)
Ibrahim however was really nice and drove me back to the Senegalese immigration. We joked a lot and I kept a smiling attitude and started saying "c'est la vie" (that is life). The Senegalese immigration officers were really cool too. They served me a drink and arranged for me to get on a bus for almost no money. And so began my 14 hour trip back to Dakar. I called Evgenia to ask if I could come back and she assured that I was welcome. I arrived around 02:00am and couldn't get in contact with her. So after a few hours I decided to set camp up in their backyard. Thankfully I travel with a hammock and a mosquito net.
But it was weekend. So now I had to wait for Monday. Thankfully as Monday arrived I was able to submit my application to the Malian embassy in the morning and have my visa in the afternoon. Good stuff. So I went to the market and bought a new bus ticket - but from a different company ;)
The following day I once again said farewell to Evgenia. I never felt like I was a visitor in their home. It felt like I was family. Thank you.
A madman of a taxi driver got (somehow) alive to the bus terminal which is in Pekine a few kilometers outside of Dakar. A strange contrast to a driver I met the day before who had amazing driving skills. At the terminal I saw the same people which I met the last time and they were all surprised to see me again. It was fun. Then I walked over to the new company and their buses: "Sorry, we are not leaving today!". "What?! Do these luxury buses ever leave?" I had paid CFA 25,000 ($42.00) for my ticket from Dakar to Bamako. A bus ride which was estimated to take 24 hours. It turned out that everyone else had paid CFA 30,000. And I was once again the only person who didn't look local. But I sort of forget that until someone reminds me.
This time I knew the routine. So I told them to put me on the no-good bus. The baggage man turned around and as soon as he saw me he smiled and said "ZERO!" ;) I made friends with a few people while we waited for the bus to leave. There was Baba from Mali, Daddy from the Burkina Faso, Sali from the Central African Republic...funny thing about people in Western Africa: They all speak so many languages. Sali speaks 8: French, English, Wolof, Hausa, Fulbe, Sango, Nbaya and Chinese! Okay, I haven't met many that speak Chinese. But I have met many which speak several African languages along with a few European. The African languages often have nothing in common so I find it quite interesting. Hollywood hadn't really taught us much about African languages. If I count languages in North and South America then I only arrive at 4. Europe has a lot more, I know about several Asian languages...but I have rarely heard about any African languages apart from Swahili. Isn't that strange? Or is it just me being ignorant again?
The bus took off and the hard work of bussing it across Senegal had once again begun. After 14 hours I went through the same drill at immigration but passed through the Malian side. Hurray! :)
Our bus had been breaking down a lot. It gave us a 7 hour wait at the border so Sali, Baba, Daddy and I opted to leave the bus and find a new one. We did. It took off into Mali and we now had 900 kilometers between us and Mali's capital Bamako. I had no idea how the people in Dakar could estimate the trip to take 24 hours? Clearly that wasn't possible. So I strapped in for my second night on the bus. After about an hour of driving inside Mali we had passed Kayes. The bus stopped and two soldiers entered. That wasn't anything out of the ordinary. But what was out of the ordinary was that one of the soldiers was carrying his riffle inside the bus. That was unusual? My first thought was that there might be a military base near by and that they were getting a lift. But they stayed onboard the bus. It turned out that they served as security from the conflict which is going on in the north of Mali. In fact the region between Kayes and Bamako had been assessed unsafe.
Nothing happened. It was a pretty quiet night through the dark landscape. I slept and woke up, slept and woke up and slept and woke up. My neck and my knees were soar. But this one time I woke up to see a magical landscape where the dark sky was almost blue and the full moon was hanging low over the desert. The baobab trees were lit from the moon and the extraordinary nature was simply so beautiful.
As the bus rolled in to Bamako around 06:00am I quickly found a taxi and headed toward Hotel Mandé. I have a friend who has a friend in Bamako. And now I do too. Her name is Sarah and she works at the Danish embassy in Bamako. She came to get me at Hotel Mandé and brought me home to her apartment. She handed me clean towels, showed me my room, my bathroom, where to find food, she handed me the password for the wifi and she told me to feel at home. BINGO!! Thank you so much Sarah!! That was exactly what I needed after such a journey. So I slept for a few hours and then proceeded to head out and meet with the Red Cross.
Sarah is a wonderful woman. She has been to all 7 continents and has a million great stories to tell. She has been in Bamako for a few years now and invited me to join her at the ambassadors residence for the Danish Constitution Day. An event with a speech, some music, lots of food, lots of drinks and plenty of interesting people to talk to. Sarah's colleague Mads was already there when we arrived. I had met him the day before - a pretty cool guy who is really into his history when it comes to explaining the conflict in northern Mali. There were a lot of soldiers present too. They were from the United Nations mission in Mali (MINUSMA) which is under the command of the Danish Major General Lollesgaard. That makes him one of the highest ranked Danes in a military position within the UN. The task at hand is a peacekeeping mission in which they seek to gain intelligence in order to counter violent extremism and fight organized crime.
The Red Cross is always present. There isn't a conflict zone in the world were the Red Cross is not working hard on improving humane conditions for those innocent bystanders who are effected by the violence. Children, women, men, refugees, farmers...everyone gets effected. The neutrality of the Red Cross safeguards the brave volunteers in most situations. The Red Cross does not take side in a conflict. Help is given where it is needed. But in spite of the neutrality the Red Cross has been shot at and lives were lost. It doesn't stop the Red Cross though. The work continues. I simultaneously makes me sad and very proud.
I struggle to comprehend the history of Mali! It is so fantastic! The capital is situated at the Niger River. Bamako comes from the Bambara word and means Crocodile river. The area of the city has been inhabited continuously for more than 150,000 years!! But that's nothing!
There was a time when the country was called Ghana and the Ghana Empire was the center of several kingdoms which grew wealthy on trading gold, ivory, kola nuts and salt. These kingdoms established trade routes which linked across West Africa, the Sahara, Northern Africa and up to Europe. Later it grew even more powerful and became the Mali Empire which reached its heights and dominated a massive area from around 1230 - 1600 AD. It was the center of power, learning, science, mathematics, wealth and culture and it profoundly shaped the culture and language of West Africa. Timbuktu, an important city in Mali became one of the major cultural centers not only in Africa but of the entire World.
The perhaps most famous emperor during Mali's heyday was Mansa Musa. His wealth was legendary!! Musa was a devout Muslim and made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. It has been recorded that his procession for the long journey included 60,000 men including 12,000 slaves who each carried 4 pounds of gold. It also included 80 camels which each carried between 50 - 300 pounds of gold dust. He gave gold to the poor people he met along his pilgrimage in such large amounts that it devastated local economies and created inflation. It has also been recorded that he had a new mosque built every Friday for prayer. It's just incredible!
The Mali you will see today still possesses much beauty but the wealth along with everything else has long ago vanished. A large part of the countries population earns less than $ 1.00/day. And yet as I walk through the streets of Bamako and catch the starring of hundreds of eyes, it takes nothing more than a simple "bonjour" to light up their faces and bring forward some of the most enchanting smiles I have ever come across. True smiles of friendliness deep from the abyss of the ever pumping hearts. Hearts which unfortunately do not pump for many years as the nation goes through immense hardship. But genuine smiles nonetheless!
There has never been a great empire which did not turn to dust. Will the phenix perhaps rise again some day as we are often taught that history repeats it self? I do not know. It is hard to predict the future. But with such kind and friendly hearts one can only hope.
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - ignorant, aware and learning ;)
Once Upon A Saga - perhaps the only journey to every country without flight?