sabato 24 marzo 2012

Bamako-Dakar by bus: an epic journey

This was probably the toughest and most tiring bus ride of my entire life. We do expected a long and difficult trip therefore we chose the "best"(at least Malians consider it the best)Bus company but we faced a 33hours trip by an old Spanish Bus, no aircon (we reached more than 40 degrees in Kayes region), no reclining chairs, all windows closed and a terrible mixture of dust, sand and hot air entering from the 2 sliding roofs. Yet on the bus there was a young Nigerien woman with one small kid and 2 fe months babies...with just one seat, the poor kid cried all the trip whereas after a while a stench of shit. In the bus a revolt broke out with the angry passengers shouting toward the woman and the driver, obliging him to stop in the next village where the bus was cleaned with buckets of water. The silent woman and her children didn't get on the bus, I dont know what happened to her and her kids. Anyway in a few hours the aisle returned dirty because all the passengers used it as a rubbish bin, throwing fruit peels, peanut husks, papers. Behind me a woman washed her kid with some the aisle, of course!
But what gave a strong contribute to make this journey so tiring were the check points, I counted at least 2 in Mali and 3 or 4 in Senegal. Just to give you an idea, during one of these ID controls I watched ALL the Marseille-Inter champions League match and had to wait 20 more minutes before the control was finished. But even worse was the Senegal Douane (Custome house)check points because they obliged everybody to get off the bus, then asked to drop off all the baggages, then to open them all and this scene, in the middle of the night, was repeated after 2 hours by a different Douane office, in a identical, non sense, frustrating way that make most of the passengers FURIOUS. A friend of Ale, doctor by Saint Louis, said that the reason of these controls is the miserable salary that most of police men get, therefore they behave in this way, asking sometimes 1000CFA (or more in Gambia and Guinea Bissau), hoping that something illegal get out, or hoping that a shattered passengers offer some money to escape this slow, painful torture. Senior officials know but tolerate it. Just to complete this nightmare journey, the Bus driver preferred to save a few thousands CFA (a few euro)taking the normal road instead of the new Dakar highway, however Flavio and Ale, the Italian and Senegalese strong men arrived to Dakar dreaming a hot shower, a huge Cep bu Jen (rice with fish) and a clean confortable bed.

venerdì 23 marzo 2012

Discovering Djennè

Once returned to Bamako after the week end in Segu, we tried to understand if it was possible to reach Cote de Ivoire as planned or not. The problem was that we were really tight with time but also that CdI northern border still had/has security problems after their civil war thus we decided to stay in Mali and postpone its visit to next year. At Danaya we also had a talk with Baya Tourè, the guy working as a tourist guide, who promise a lot, seems very professional but whose contacts in Segu let us totally disappointed. Our main goal was to visit the Dogon country and its marvellous villages sited in a spectacular Cliff, but even this seemed a very difficult task because in Mali distances are huge, transport slow and unreliable and price expensive in these touristic spots. However our main problem was to return to Senegal BEFORE their elections where the old president Abdoulaye Wade was/is doing everything to be reelected despite he's 86. In fact elections are always a potential dangerous and troublesome affair in all Africa, although Senegal is probably one of the most civilized and modern African country. Finally we decided to skip Dogon villages and arrive until Djennè in order to visit its Mosque and its monday market. We left Bamako the late morning after a difficult cash withdrawal and bought a ticket until Djennè Crossroad. The trip was quite long and unconfortable as usual, but as the bus stopped in the anonimous village of Blas we realized that the ticket seller cheated us, so we had to buy a new Bus ticket to Djennè carrefour and wait in Blas more than 2 hours! The small van from Blas until Djennè was not only old, wrecked and unconfortable but also extremely slow and also stopped several times for the prayers of the driver and some passengers, as a result we crossed the river of Djennè in a complete silence and darkness. A few minutes before we had also been stopped by a small Malian police office with no electricity obliged us to stop in order to pay my 2000CFA entrance fee, the policeman also shouted to my friend Ale to show him his official guide ID, a black travelling with a toubab what else could it be??? But he stopped when he saw how many foreigner countries stamps Ale has in his passport. Again another funny situation a few minutes later when the minibus wheels slided on the muddy riverbank before getting on the barge; the barge staff shouted to Ale and impolite: "you are a guide get off and help us pushing", I offered also my help but being a toubab he said I could keep staying seated. Finally at 9pm we arrived in Djennè, starting to breath its unique magical atmosphere but also welcomed by  scores of local kids able to ask for money and presents in so many different languages that I immediately understood how touristic was Djennè.
Amadou, a local guide previously contacted, was waiting for us,  he rented us a tent on the roof of his mud and straw made house. Since Djennè has a very hot weather, it was a great and inexpensive accommodation. We had a good dinner by a Dogon Restaurant and followed him to the maze of Djennè streets had a small interesting introduction to this wonderful town where most inhabitants are quite strict muslims although the presence of so many tourists (coming not only from France but also from US, Spain and Italy)let a few small shops sell alcoholic beverages. Amadou too regretted to be an hard beer drinker and obviously his wife didn't like this side of him. He also added that there was a fall in tourists presence because of a north Mali presence of Touareg rebels, especially in Kidal and Tessalit region, leaded by Malian mercenaries escaped from Libia after Ghaddafi defeat. It seemed that Tombouctou was safe but we heard that a few weeks before  some German tourists were kidnapped and killed by rebels. We slept very well, woke up early in order to visit the mosque and the market and catch the 13:00 Bus to Bamako. Amadou was a very good guide, he explained us so many interesting topics of Djennè: The great mosque is the biggest mosque entirely built with mixture of clay, straw and water in the world and as well as the old town it's a Unesco World heritage centre, in the ancient time the bricks were built with the same mixture (that we found on the corner of the town) covered with Karitè butter that kept the rainwater away from the bicks, in the latest decades, due to Karitè palm deforestation and desertification (last year it rained very little and local agriculture soffered from it with reduced grain and cereal crops), Karitè butter became too expensive to be used for building purpose therefore all Djennè houses should be restored every year, using the same mixture, before and after the rain season. Usually women prepare that mixture a few weeks before and men provide with patch restoring. Yet in ancient times the toilets were on the ground floor therefore during the river's flooding all the excrements were also flooding on the towns streets for this reason decided to move their toilets to the second floor and it's interesting to notice that when the "tower containing the excrements is full, they break the base of the tower and put all the excrements in a pit and keep it there until it is completely dried and ready to become good, ecological fertilizer. He pointed the tiny canals on the middle of the street where the white (coming from the "showers" of the toilets)waters are collected before getting directly to the river. Again he showed us some of the many coranic school where pupils learn islamic precepts and some arabic sentences as well as a cemetery where died babies are buried. This cemetery takes place in the garden of a small old Mosque (before that the big mosque was built there were many small Mosques, one in each area of the town) and he pointed some pieces of paper or tissues, this is the way they use to mark their grave because they can not put any graveyard. This was quite strange because in Dakar and in Carabanne island I saw many gravestones on muslim cemeteries. Amadou brought us in a small compound where it happened a strange story; it seems that ib abciebt time there were many small villages beyond the river, these villages were always fighting among them so that when they decided to move together on the island asked to a sorcerer what they could do to bring good luck to this new settlement. Well he suggested to sacrifice the most beautiful, still virgin, single daughter of all the villages. Once the girl had been chosen, they built a small brick house around her and let her starve to death. Now he said you can get good luck praying inside the ruins of that house, Ale did it whereas I refused to join this sad macabre story. Then we went to terrace from where I could admire the huge marvellous Mosque because entrance is forbidden to non muslims (but if you give a money "cadeau"..)whereas Ale entered it. Finally we rushed to the local market which except a few interesting stalls (that selling Karitè butter or those selling handmade colanders and riddles) but in any case we missed the 13:00 bus to Bamako. We then headed to an open air  restaurant where I found the courage to taste some rice with a piece of fish, the meal was disappointing and I also was sorrounded by many kids-beggars (so many in Senegal too, often exploited by bad and dishonest Marabouts). After a few spoons I handed my bowl to one of those and in a fraction of a second the bowl disappeared and the kids were eating all thanking me. I really could not realize what exactly happened since the action was so fast. At 15:30 after quarrels, disagreements and bargains between the driver and some clients, packed like sardines in a can, we left the wonderful but too touristy town of Djennè.

giovedì 22 marzo 2012

Festival sur le Niger

After a few days in Bamako we decided to visit Segou to attend the Festival of African Music called "Festival sur le Niger" which is famous even abroad. Segou has nothing special to attract tourists and during these 4 days Festival accommodations are expensive and difficult to get. We arrived in the evening and after some quarrel with a stubborn local teacher who first tried to make us stay illegally in a local school dorm, we agreed with another teacher to stay in his tiny room for less than 10 euros. We got some help by a local friendgirl who took us to a dibiterie to have dinner with pieces of roasted goat, the quality was not good and in general while travelling in Mali we missed so much Senegalese delicious food. Once at the Festival's ticket counter I discovered that Malians, or better black skin french speaking, people could attend the 4 days Festival for an honest 10.000CFA (around 15,00 euro), toubab like me had to pay 20.000CFA EACH day....unless I could speak fluently Tamasheq, the language of the white skinned Touareg! The spectacle was good but not great. I liked so much the music of the Congolese (DRC) Lokua Kanza, I also liked the interesting instrumental music of Meiway especially the xhylophon but I didn't like at all the local Abdoulaye Diabatè. This last is considered a star in Mali and in West Africa, spectators were singing, shouting and deeply emotioned with him, well probably if I could understand his songs in Bambara I would also have loved him. At 1am it started the Open air disco but most of people decided to go out of the Festival area and enjoy the streets of Segu by night. No need to say that this was the moment I liked most, to walk around street vendors, to taste small cakes and to meet new friends from all around the world; a friendly and cute girl from Niamey (Niger)who were selling handmade brodery, 3 girls from Bamako who studied Law, a fat Malian guy who was eating with me at a street table talking about the small Terminus disco (the people who go there are at terminus too ehehe), a Libanese who run a minimarket and who has been living in Segu for 30 years. He told me that in Libanon there are 4 million inhabitants whereas abroad there are 14millions, most of them in Brazil and New York city. He liked a lot Malians as they are nice and friendly, but he added that Segu, apart from these 4 Festival days is a quite boring place to live.
The following day we spent the strolled around the Niger side, near the barge where the Festival takes place, we visited many different market stalls, some of them selling silver and leather wonderful Touareg handcraft, others selling excellent table clothes, jackets and batik realized with Bogolongs technic, typical of Mali, and finally we had a lovely conversation with 2 girls explaining to African women the many different option of contraceptives, reminding me that the huge number of wonderful kids I saw in Africa can be a problem for their family who often lack of financial means to feed and give them a good education. We then met 2 nice sisters of Bamako that we knew the night before and had a small brunch with them, it was really interesting to hear that their father was the first African student of the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, that there still is the habit of Female clitoris excision in Mali and that they also have been subjected to it too and finally their decision to get virgin to their wedding ...once they would have met the man of their life!

martedì 13 marzo 2012

A lovely lady in Bamako

Finally we left Kenieba and after several hours of tiring bus travel we got to Bamako. The capital of Mali is a rather big city with a few interesting spots (National Museum was really good especially with a guided tour) and a good nightlife mainly concentrated on fridays and Saturdays. We checked the hotels on the city center, nice but too expensive for our budget, Hotel Comme Chez Soi was extremely beautiful and probably worth the 30.000-40.000CFA. We then had a good Cep bu Jen (rice with fish) at a Senegalese restaurant whose waitress, the daughter of the owner, was extremely cute. We found a cheap option over the Niger river at Badalabougou (it means "over the river" in bambara language) at Danaya Hotel whose staff was as shabby as it was the hotel: empty swimming pool, small restaurant closed, very few choice in their small but nice bar. However Mohamed, the manager, was quite fine and friendly even if a bit moody. However the hotel was in a very good position with many ATM's (we found just one BCIM where my VISA was working thanks God), internet points, a couple of discos and a score of colourful Maquis (open-air dance halls) with a score of young girls sadly waiting for clients, especially Toubab clients. Next to the Danaya we discovered a tiny restaurant run by a lovely Malian woman married with a Canadian man working for a dutch NOG. She prepared delicious and cheap meals attracting too many foreigners fed up with expensive bars and restaurants who serve low quality food in the area. During our meal she told us that she travelled and lived widely all western Africa with her husband noticing that most Africans think that all Toubabs (white tourists or residents) are rich if not very rich, it means that they try to "escroquer"to exploite or scrounge them as much as possible. She loved most the Burkina Faso inhabitants, mostly shy but sincerely interested in meeting new cultures. It sounded me interesting thus I wish I can visit this country soon. The lady also told us that the near fishermen village is crowded with so many lovely kids and just to show them to us opened a pack of biscuits and shouted something in bambara, in a few seconds there was a huge but ordered crowd of marvellous local kids, 2 of them were recently adopted by the lady after their mum suddenly died, she even showed us her still filled of milk breast!

sabato 10 marzo 2012

Kenieba the ugly

Have you ever heard of a town called Kenieba? No? Well I am not surprised at all because we had the bad luck to stumble on it while entering Mali. Kenieba is actually the first Malian town after the border with Senegal. We had the bad luck to stop there because there was no bus to Bamako until the following morning. 
Now the hard task to describe this town: a tiny fruit stall on the road, several motorbike garage and accessories shops(motorbikes are the most common mean of transport here), a small bank withouth ATM, 3 small restaurants, 2 mini market, a polluted steam which is a sort of local mosquitos "breeding oasis" and 3 small Auberge. We had lunch and dinner at the Falema Auberge cafeteria and I must recognize that the food was good and inexpensive, but the rooms absolutely overpriced, they asked us an outrageous 20000CFA(30 euro) for a very poor room without toilet and obviously we declined. We spent a long, hot and boring afternoon between the minimarket and the Bus station where we got friends with several friendly locals working at the Bus counter. They suggested us some Malian Highlights such as Djenne, Mopti and the Dogon villages, Gao and Kidal other than the famous Tomboctou. They also suggested that we spend the night by a couple of small Campement, cheap and where " you can enjoy some girls presence...". We headed there just to discover 2 shabby, dirty, gloomy small nigerian run 'Nigerians are a very bad reputation in West Africa) in accommodation where a score of "unattractive" professional women where having their poor lunch. The maitress shouted to force a client to exit the "toilet" and if we could be so crazy to sleep there this last disgusting show made us runaway fast. By the way there was no tap water in Kenieba during the last 3 days and we have been told that it is more uncommon when water is running. We resolved to accept our friends invitation to unroll a straw carpet, that they lent us, and sleep a la belle etoile until 5am, time of Bus departure.
Pity I could not sleep almost at all because the ferocious local mosquitoes were partying with my Toubab blood, because in the night other desperate travellers were joining us finding theyr place near my feet and because the waiting  square was strategically chosen just in front of the Bus Station toilet which means a continuous cloud of disgusting smells brought by the night breeze.
 That night I dreamed to be sleeping at the despiced town of Keidougou!