by Ifeoma Onyefulu
My first port of call for my trip to Mail was France. Mali doesn’t have an embassy in London and I needed a visa pretty quickly.
So, on 22nd August 2010 I set for Victoria Station to catch the Euroline for Paris. My friend Carole had surprised me two days earlier by getting me a return ticket to Paris – very kind gesture indeed.
However, the bus terminal at Victoria Station was chaotic; in fact the one at Mopti town in Mali was more orderly, but more of my Mali adventures later.
Anyway, clutching my ticket as if my life depended on it, I went and sat down with the other passengers. What I hadn’t realised was that they had all checked in. Information should have been made available to passengers, luckily a passenger pointed at two long queues tucked away in a corner, and I joined one of them to pick up my ticket.
At 11 pm – almost an hour late, our coach arrived and all the passengers rushed forward, it was madness. I was shoved and pushed around like the most wanted criminal, finally caught in a sting operation.
The journey in the Channel Tunnel wasn’t great either; we were shaken and stirred like cock tails, but finally we arrived in Paris around 5.45am. Now I began to panic; it suddenly dawned on me I didn’t know Paris very well. In fact, I had only been there once, and that was many years ago.
I stared at the Google map my son printed out for me before I left London, but it might as well be in Chinese because I couldn’t read it. Worst still, my brain was telling me about a severe pain that was rising from my feet to my knees. I knew instantly my legs were now the size of two beer barrels; very swollen, and there were not much leg room on the coach either.
So, what do I do now?
I still had at least three hour-wait before the Mali Consulate opened for business.
I looked round nervously, and suddenly I spotted two young passengers who spoke English and I asked them if they knew Paris very well. But they didn’t.
Should I stay at the bus terminal and wait until it was daylight or drag my swollen feet along the streets of Paris to kill time? Finally, I shuffled up the stairs at the bus terminal, which smelt heavily of the urine and I fell into lobby of the first hotel I saw.
By now aliens had camped deep inside my heavy feet and they were throbbing and were as hard as bricks.
The man at the reception couldn’t believe I needed a room for just a few hours, but he checked me in all the same. As luck would have it, he was from Mali, and was very pleased I was going to his country. And at once he promised to drop me off at the Consulate at 9 am.
I had a shower and climbed into bed, and at 8.30 am the phone rang. A voice said in French, would Madam be ready in 15 minutes to go to the consulate? “Oui, Monsieur!” I replied, dragging my legs off the bed. But I was happy all the same.
Even the sight of a long queue outside the Consulate didn’t dampen my spirit. Almost everyone in that queue was wearing a colourful African robe. Why didn’t I think of wearing my African clothes? I said to myself, envying them
Several minutes later it began to rain and we got wet; soaked from head to toe.
Finally, I was inside the packed Consulate, which reminded me of the tube – London underground train – during rush hour. People were sweating and babies were screaming. Luckily, the visa took only 15 minutes but it had cost me twice the normal fee.
My flight was Air Macro and it was late. Waiting endlessly at Heathrow airport, I met a British woman who was also waiting the same flight, and she told me Air Macro was never on time. So I made myself as comfortable as possible and waited. The place eventually landed nearly two hours late!
And just over three hours later we were in Casablanca. The airport was very small and quiet and the shops were closed for the night. Luckily, I found a sad looking café, which was still open, but it seemed empty; almost everything was sold out, except one sad looking sandwich in the fridge. I reluctantly ordered it.
A fellow passenger must have seen my face and bought it for me. It would be several hours before I caught a connecting flight to Mali, and at 6.45 am; three hours’ later I was at Bamako airport. Bamako is the capital of Mali.
I followed the sign that said exit and to my relief Mohamed, the brother of the doctor I’d be staying with, was there holding a piece of paper with my name on it. I was very pleased to see him after all this was my first time in Mali!
It was very dark outside, and the air was cool and damp. Mohamed told me it had rained that morning. It was the raining season and the temperature was bearable.
An hour later we were walking down the streets of Bamako, skating around muddy puddles, heading for an internet café, to send emails to my children and let them know I’d arrived safely.
Failing that I’d at least buy a phone card and call them using Mohamed’s phone. I took my camera bag just in case I saw something interesting, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Women bike riders were everywhere, they’re pretty relaxed as they navigated the potholes and other obstacles on the road.
I’ll be petrified on a bike I told to myself, but little did I know I’d be on one before I left Mali.
I had only three weeks to do four projects; call me crazy or what. But I couldn’t wait to get started.
The internet connection was deadly slow, but I did send emails to my children.
Suddenly I began to feel very tired and we went back to the house.
And it was then that I saw and heard the birds.
Every morning in Bamako, Mali, I was treated to a wide range of bird songs – so sweet, so delicious to the ears I smiled like a drunk all day. Those sounds were far better than an alarm clock in my opinion.
To tell you the truth, I’d never seen so many birds in one small area in my life! They seemed to appear from nowhere; congregating like flies on treetops in the tiny compound I was staying in.
There were so many different types of birds there; tiny ones with red and dark brown heads, and average sized ones with boring old grey and black colours. But they were all as bold as brass; they came so close to where I was sitting! I suppose the free lunch of millet they had every afternoon from an unattended tray had emboldened them.
After breakfast of baguette and a cup of milky tea – as a former French colony Malians don’t usually have milk in their hot drinks – I went in search of a pair of plastic sandals, ideal for trudging through the mud, and to change some money. I didn’t have the local currency, CAFA.
I took lots to photograph along the way; hoping I could use some of them in my next children’s books.
After a short drive in a taxi we crossed a bridge, and I was dazzled by the sight of several shiny new office buildings built by the late Libyan president, Col. Gadhafi. A few of his photographs hung outside the buildings, perhaps to remind everyone of his good deed. His photos won’t be so popular now.
Moneychangers are based at the main market, tucked away in a tiny corner, between traders selling clothes and shoes, and other items. A lonely Catholic church still unchanged from when the French built it a hundred years ago, watches over everyone as they approach the market.
The moneychangers sat in a long line, chatting, but as soon as they saw me they yelled out, “We have euros and dollars!” But my guide took me straight to a man who looked like a chief; white robe and white cap. His office, though very small had a ceiling fan that rotated very slowly, a basic wooden desk, creaky chairs, and a display of wades of notes.
He couldn’t hide his disappointment when he learnt I was only changing a small amount of money. ‘That’s very small,’ he complained in French, and then smiled sadly, waving his hand over the wades of notes in front of him, ‘Aha, you come from England, oh, England!’ he said with a knowing nod.
I nodded too; I wished I was a rich tourist for his sake.
Anyway, with CAFA safely tucked away in my bag we left the market.
Soon, it was Ramadan, and everyone was celebrating the end of fasting with gusto; they wore new clothes and had beads on their hairs.
A day later, I told my friend I’d like to go to Timbuktu. She told me it would cost me about $600 to fly there, and I nearly fainted. I didn’t have that kind of money I said. ‘Timbuktu is about thousand miles,’ she reminded me.
Luckily, one of her colleagues – for the sake of this blog I’ll call Ahmed- had driven down from Timbuktu to celebrate the Ramadan with his family in Bamako and was about to go back. So, it was arranged that I could hitch a ride in his car.
The next day at 7 am sharp I was driven to a government ministry with my packed bags, where Ahmed’s main office is. It’s a large one storey-house, no doubt built during the colonial era. It was painted white, with a triangular roof, which was odd; Malian houses have flat roofs. The old house, including its floors and an outside staircase were all built with wood. And it creaked constantly.
After waiting for several minutes Ahmed appeared in his shinny white 4×4 pick up jeep (Malians call it Quatre par Quatre), and my heart sank into the muddy ground; the vehicle was already full! There were at least five people in that car and countless suitcases. Perhaps Ahmed has forgotten I was travelling with him! A fearful voice cried in my head.
Ahmed with a cigarette in one hand, smiled broadly as if we were old friends. Then, he asked me to wait. And I waited and waited. People in the car were waiting also.
There were now few workers milling around the old building; some were walking in, others looked as if they had slept at their desks; creased clothes and tired faces, but they welcomed me with broad smiles.
An hour later, someone began to brew some coffee, right in front of the office building, Malians do love their coffee!
At noon we squeezed into the pickup and left Bamako. We still had a several miles ahead of us!
The road out of Bamako was narrow and full of pot holes but the 4×4 didn’t seem to mind; it sailed relatively smoothly!
Eventually the road widened.
After a long drive we stopped at Segou – a big town, bustling with life – for a meal and petrol. As a vegetarian it was difficult finding something to eat, but I was used to it by now.
Anyway, this time I didn’t mind not eating at all; I had tummy bug a few days earlier, so I needed to let my stomach settle down a bit. I had woofed down Farini snacks, sold by the roadside, and obviously they didn’t agree with me.
I spotted a quiet latrine, next to a giant tree and rushed in. Again I heard the birds singing their little hearts out.
With tummies full of food and water we sped off, and this time Ahmed pushed a button on the dashboard and Cuban music filled the car.
After several miles we did a detour to drop off one of the passengers, a little girl of about eight, who’d come to Bamako where her parents worked for the Ramadan celebration.
There were people selling goods by the roadside, others on horse drawn carts followed by their dogs and of course giant ovens for roasting meat.
Suddenly, one of the tyres hissed like a viper and the car began to sway slightly. Eventually we came to a stop and discovered a puncture. In fact, we could even see the culprit; a huge nail, sticking out of the tyre.
While we were waiting for the tyre to be repaired I saw children rolling old bicycle tyres along the road, and they reminded me of my childhood in my village.
We’re constantly bombed with images of sad looking children in Africa, but here were children having fun. I think there should be more positive images of African children to create a balance.
Suddenly, we ran for shelter; the sky had opened up, sending tons of water down. The rain was merciless. I feared for my bag thrown together with the others at the back of the jeep that had no roof. “Ifeoma, you worry too much!” was Ahmed’s way of reassuring me.
By the time we arrived in Mopti, a vibrant commercial town, I smelt like an ash tray; Ahmed had smoked nonstop in the air conditioned vehicle. I prayed I didn’t get lung cancer by the time we got to Timbuktu. We finally stopped in front of a gated property at 8pm. Another passenger, a teenage boy said, “Bon voyage!” And with his suitcase on his left shoulder, and a brief wave, he was gone. I watched as darkness embraced him. Will a new passenger be joining us? I wondered excitedly. It was great to meet new people.
For a while I listened to the sound of crickets, and other night creatures. But I was soon scratching my legs and arms where mosquitoes I had bitten – I had forgotten to apply my mosquito repellent.
We were invited to dinner by one of Ahmed’s friend, a jolly lady with beautiful children. She told me her children spoke some English. We ate rice and some tasty sauce under the stars, with a sheep eying us.
Tired and very sleepy we booked into a small motel by the motorway. I shared a bed with another passenger, a young, quiet Tuareg woman.
The room was freezing; we couldn’t work out how to use the blasted air conditioner’s remote control. And the receptionist had vanished into the night, so eventually we raided the wardrobe and found lots of spare blankets. We wrapped ourselves up like Egyptian Mummies to stay warm. How ridiculous, we were in a very hot country!
The next morning, I was feeling very dizzy from hunger; I hadn’t eaten properly because of my stomach bug. Anyway, I decided I was going to eat something and face the consequence later.
So, I stepped outside and was cheered up by the sunlight and the sound of birds.
The receptionist agreed to nip out and get me some eggs, which he gave to a sad-looking chef to cook for my breakfast.Soon another new face joined our ever changing band of travellers. She was a little girl of about 6 or 7.
She was swiftly followed by another passenger, a teenage boy.
After breakfast we all piled into the pickup jeep; I sat in the front seat and as usual we sped off. Ahmed with cigarette dangling from his lips selected a tape among the pile on the dashboard. He pushed it into the cassette player and reggae music filled the car. We nodded our heads rhythmically, while Ahmed puffed away. Oh yes I could feel cancer cells already growing in my lungs, I told myself.
The landscape was flat, flat, flat. But the road was wide, straight, and very quiet. It would be awful to suffer a breakdown there, because there were no houses there.
Eventually, I began to see shrubs, birds, the occasional houses and cows and their herders (little children).
After about two hours we arrived in Douentza, which is like a crossroad – you could either travel to Timbuktu from there or go straight on to Gao, another historical town.
The teenager, who’d joined us in Mopti said good bye, and taking his belongings with him disappeared into a crowd of passengers milling around. Soon, a small group of food sellers gathered round our car, advertising their wares.
I went off to find a latrine. As soon as I found one, someone handed me a kettle full of water for washing as Muslims do. I took the kettle reluctantly; I didn’t want to offend him.
As usual I was entertained by the birds perched on top of a huge tree nearby.
A new person had joined us by the time I came back to the car.
After we’d all stretched our legs, fed and watered, I was warned the road ahead was pretty bad.
With several hours’ journey ahead of us, we piled back into the jeep but this time the newcomer was now our driver; he took over from Ahmed, so I moved to the back seat.
Soon, I found myself clutching the seat; the new driver drove like a maniac pursued by a thousand demons! It was terrifying.
We followed the beautifully tarred road for a short while before turning left. Already I could see clouds of dust rising in the air in the distance like steam.
This was a typical dirt road; complete with potholes and bumps, at least we had the air conditioner to sooth our nerves. Ahead of us was Mont Hombori, a huge mountain about 1115metres high.
It didn’t take long before we began dancing on our seats and rocking from side to side because of the potholes. The road got increasingly worse with every mile we covered, so I put away my pen and pad; it was getting too hard to write.
Ahmed, free from driving now turned his full attention to the music, he played Senegalese reggae, rock music, and Elton John’s ‘I’m still standing,’ which strangely cheered me up. Had the car been equipped with CD player our journey would have been a very dull one indeed, because CDs are sensitive to bumpy surfaces.
After a short distance we came across what looked like a lake in the middle of the road. “Oh, my God,” I yelled. I didn’t know how a car was supposed to drive through that.
How Ahmed and the little girl laughed, throwing back their heads and enjoying my pathetic reaction! Finally, he told me it had rained heavily the night before.
Now, was the time for the 4×4 (Quatre par Quatre) to put the other vehicles to shame and it did. It swam across the water like a fish, while the other cars stalled or suffered the indignity of being pushed across by villagers, who turned their efforts into money making machines.
Several miles later the landscape changed, and became hillier. So we went up and down like a yoyo; disappearing into slopes and coming back up again. My poor stomach didn’t take kindly to that.
Sometimes we were the only car on the road. It was weird, you couldn’t go anywhere in London without seeing at least one car on the road! The birds of course took full advantage of the empty road, and camped there until our car came quite close.
The sky kept changing colours too; from light to deep blue like the sea in the Caribbean. Also, the scenery had only a few trees in it now.
From the car window I could see lakes and the occasional camels grazing beside them.
Every so often I saw signs saying ‘US Aid’ before we got to each village.
Soon, the sun looked like a giant orange hanging low in the distance, which meant it was about 4.30pm. We had been on the road for hours!
A few minutes later, the road turned nasty, it had potholes the size of a big water melon. And again I was forced to stop writing. Thankfully, Ahmed was still feeding the cassette player with dance music. Then, he switched to Cuban music. How I wanted to dance! Actually, I was dancing on my seat, thanks to the potholes!
Minutes later Ahmed abandoned his task and began talking on his mobile; gesturing madly. I began to wish he was speaking in French; at least I’d know what he was saying.
After about ten minutes or so, the car stopped to pick up yet another passenger, whose car had broken down. The driver said he needed to go back to Timbuktu, (still miles away) and get help.
Since there was no room inside the 4×4, the man stood at the back, where he was thrown around like a sack of rice!
Soon, two men by the roadside flagged down our car. Their faces half hidden by traditional turbans and dark glasses. Worse still, they had a motor bike. Ifeoma, start saying your prayers now! I told myself, but I was too frightened to do anything, even screaming for help! I didn’t dare take their photographs; they could be armed!
So, I watched helplessly as Ahmed and the men chatted for a few minutes, then, to my horror our car drove off the road with the men on the bike leading the way!
With my heart in my mouth I began to scream silently.
We were now driving in the middle of a bush! But you’ve got to tip your hat to 4×4; any other vehicle would have struggled with the terrain.
Still, my whole life was flashing before my eyes. Will I see my sons again? I wondered.
We drove on and on for what seemed like a long time. Then, the men on the bike vanished. Have they gone to get their guns?
I hadn’t even checked to see if they were armed.
Finally, our car stopped and I looked out of the window. We were now in the middle of nowhere; there were no houses or anything, just shrubs and some trees.
Just then, I heard Ahmed swearing in French, “Merde! How can these people call themselves businessmen?’
Have we driven all this way to buy a sheep?
Oh, how I laughed and laughed. Apparently the men had forgotten where they’d left their sheep.
The men came back promising to find them and the same time boasting they had the best sheep ever.
Seconds later and out of nowhere came the men’s wives and children. They were nomads and were very kind. They offered us water and some rice.
After waiting for almost an hour, Ahmed bought his sheep. The animal and the man now shared the space at the back.
We finally resumed our journey. And to make up for lost time the driver sped like the devil until we re-joined the road.
The sky soon looked very dark and ominous – storm was brewing in the distance. Ahmed grumbled that we’d wasted too much time buying ‘that ugly sheep.’ Then, he added that we might have to spend the night in the open if we missed the last ferry. Apparently to get to Timbuktu you need to cross the River Niger.
I began to fret.
“After all these years Timbuktu is still inaccessible,” I grumbled, and everyone laughed.
Thankfully, we got to the harbour, and there was no storm, but the worst was yet to come. We duly lined up with the other cars and waited for the ferry to crawl up the river.
All of a sudden, several Libyan soldiers arrived in their jeeps and ordered all the vehicles to move back. I quickly hid my camera.
And as soon as the ferry arrived they commandeered it to take them to Timbuktu, and we were all left stranded!
Some minutes later, a strong wind blew dust and debris across our faces.
Immediately, Ahmed warned that ferry services would be suspended due to the bad weather. My heart sank; already mosquitoes were feasting on my flesh and a night in the open would be horrendous.
However, another ferry limped along the Niger and we boarded it, only for the sky to open. I had never seen such rainfall in my life, it rained and rained.
We bobbed up and down hopelessly in total darkness. Then, everywhere was lit up for a split second by lightning, but it was enough to see a huge wall of water rising in the air like a monster, and it slammed hard against the parked cars, shaking us from side to side like rags. The noise from the wind and rain was terrifying; some people called on Allah to help us. The Tuareg woman I shared a bed with began to pray loudly. I thought it was the end, too. Will my sons ever know what happened to me? I said to myself, feeling absolutely terrified.
Suddenly someone shouted, “Get out of your cars!”
We got out and were drenched from head to toe. I never found out who gave that instruction.
Eventually the storm died down. Then, I heard some strange cries from the water. Actually I saw something swimming very close to our ferry. “What’s that?” I asked Ahmed, thinking it was a rock.
“It’s a hippo,” he said, then panicking a little bit, “For God’s sake don’t take any photos, these things are dangerous.”
Everyone ran back into their cars; the hippos were getting too close for comfort. Suddenly, catching malaria from a mosquito bite didn’t seem that scary anymore.
At long last we began to move. We arrived at the shores of Timbuktu at 9.16pm. But my happiness was short lived. Our driver, fearing another storm, sped off at once. I could hear Ahmed yelling at him to slow down or we’d end up in the river!
And he was right, because what I thought was the main road, was in fact a very narrow bridge, with no railings or warning signs, and worst still, everywhere was in total darkness. One little mistake could be deadly.
However, we survived it. They dropped me off at a house where I’d be staying and the rain picked up again.
The family who would be looking after me were already waiting outside to welcome me. Later, I had a wash in the dark with magnificent stars above to keep me company. Funny how I forgot about creeping crawlies, and other dangers!
An hour later, I was lying on a mattress on the floor and the heat was unbearable, but at least I had a mosquito net. And yet I worried about all the weird sounds all around me.
The next day I saw huge black beetles crawling about on the sandy floor. At first, I tried to stay calm until one crawled up my leg, and I screamed the house down. Of course everyone including a small child in the house laughed their heads off. The beetle reminded me of a scene in the movie The Mummy; where beetles were crawling fast under the skin of one of the characters.
Timbuktu was very hot and sticky. Not surprising as it is in the north of the country. It is also an old town with lots of history and a grand mosque, which I photographed. Every day I’d walk around the small town, taking photographs for my new books. There were children everywhere playing happily, which was great!
But every Friday afternoons, the children would vanish from the streets; the boys would be at Islamic schools studying the Koran, while the girls stayed at home.
One morning I suffered the peril of travelling alone as a single woman; a friend of the family I was staying with decided he’d be my guide and he used all kinds of pretext to get me to come to his house unaccompanied. On one occasion he sent a child to ask me to come and see him urgently, when I got there I discovered there was nothing urgent he wanted to tell me.
One day he showed me a photograph of himself and Danny Glover, the American movie star who came to Timbuktu a few years earlier. The movie star was wearing loose fitting traditional clothes while my guide was dressed in Western clothes.
However, I was very angry with him when he put his arm around my waist. Just because I showed an interest in photographing the ancient manuscripts shouldn’t be a green light for him to do that.
On a good note, I saw lots of birds, similar to the ones in Bamako, and often they flew into the tiny room I shared with a young woman, I’ll call Zeniab. One day I climbed up a chair to investigate how they got in. And to my amazement I discovered there was no window in the room but a square hole in the wall. No wonder birds, mosquitoes and everything else came in!
It was often too hot to sleep at night. What’s more I began to notice something strange about the family; they disappeared most nights, including Zeniab. Where do they go so late at night? I wondered. But each morning I’d wake up and would be too exhausted to ask them.
But on my last night I discovered the truth; they went to the coolest part of the house, the roof, to sleep. Most houses in Timbuktu have flat roofs – how convenient!
After completing my various projects I went to the desert. My guide this time was a man dressed in jeans and t-shirt. I met him in the market. For our trip he changed into traditional Tuareg clothes, complete with a blue turban, which covered much of his face.
Walking under the hot sun wasn’t easy, and I hadn’t slept properly in days! So, half way there I got very tired and my guide was forced to flag down a ‘taxi,’ a motorbike. The rider, a young woman, was a tough businesswoman; she and I haggled over the price for a few minutes until we finally settled on a price. So, I got on, and we rode to the edge of the desert.
I hadn’t realised the significance of my guide’s change of clothes until I rang my son in London much later, and he told me the Foreign Office had issued a warning on travelling to Timbuktu, especially the desert. Apparently, some days earlier five French tourists were kidnapped. I reassured him I was ok, after all I’m African. Nevertheless I was scared; I wasn’t covered from head to toe.
Finally, I left Timbuktu at 5am one morning, intending on going to Djenne, known for its famous mosque. The guide books have described it as the largest mud construction in the world.
My guide had already booked a seat for me on a vehicle leaving very early the next morning. But when I saw the car my heart sank like a stone. It was an old 4×4 and it didn’t look as if it would reach Douentza, where I’d catch a bus to Djenne. But what choice did I have?
At the harbour in Timbuktu there were a few cars waiting to cross. I spotted a Chinese man and then two more, milling around. What are they doing in this part of the world? I asked myself.
Anyway, we waited for a good 55 minutes for the drivers of the ferry to start work. Finally they did, and we got on. But a car was stuck fast in the mud on the riverbank and therefore was unable to board the ferry, so the Chinese men quickly rolled up their sleeves and pushed it out.
Is Chinese presence in Africa a force for good? We’ll wait and see.
Several miles later, our car began to sputter and shudder like a sick old man. Then, steam rose from the bonnet, no doubt it was overheating. So, our driver kept stopping and adding water to cool the engine. And each time all the passengers would get down, wash and say their prayers, but it meant a lengthy wait on a dusty road before we could resume our journey. I’d never inhaled so much dust from passing vehicles in my life!
Fourteen miles to Douentza, our old knackered car finally gave up the ghost. It was horrendous; we stood for hours by the roadside, swallowing more dust. Our situation was a hopeless one, there were no shops or garages around, and walking to Douentza wasn’t an option. Worse still, I had a full bladder, and relieving myself in the bushes scared me. Eventually, I was forced to.
At last a friend of the driver picked us up in his minibus. After a few miles we began to see houses, suddenly the driver turned off the dusty road, cutting across people’s yards and farms, apparently the main road was flooded. The minibus was no 4×4 and if it got stuck in the mud we’d be in trouble. Eventually, it did and we got down and pushed it.
Sadly, by the time we got to Douentza it was too late to go on to Djenne, which meant I’d have to spend the night in a motel in Mopti, many miles away. Luckily I knew the town, having spent a night there already.
Darkness was fast approaching and I’d been on the road since 5am. I had only a few biscuits and a small bottle of water left.
I was shown an empty bus that was going to Mopti. So, I quickly went off to buy more biscuits and water. When I came back a few minutes later it had filled up passengers, but I managed to grab a seat on the second row.
Just as our bus was about to leave someone pleaded with the driver to take an old woman with a broken bone to a hospital on the way. No one protested, so she was gently carried in. I gave up my seat to sit at the back, and so did the others who sat next to me.
Sadly, I got a seat where there was no legroom. Worse still, my right knee was jammed fast against a metal object (difficult to say what it was in the dark). I was to remain in that position for the entire journey! Pain shot up my ears constantly. However, the poor old woman was in a worst shape than I was, she moaned and groaned every time the bus went over a bump or fell into potholes. It was horrendous.
At last we were in Mopti. I got off. and by now it was 7.30pm, and the night had truly set in; everywhere was in total darkness. So, I couldn’t find the motel we’d stayed in some days earlier, lots of men were milling around as well. I felt very vulnerable indeed. The, I spotted a chemist, still open, too. Chemists are regarded as trustworthy. So I walked in with my bags, and explained my situation. “Oh, England!” said the man behind the counter, “Manchester United!” he added. Now, I’m home and dry, I told myself.
The man’s sister took me to a small hotel nearby. It was clean, quiet, and had a few cobwebs on the furniture. You could tell many tourists hadn’t been in there for ages! Still. I was very grateful for a safe place for the night.
I had a wash; the bathroom was on the other side of a long corridor. Then, I slept like a baby after a meal of fried eggs and chips.
Early the next morning, I took a motor bike taxi to the bus station and boarded a coach to Djenne junction.
When we got to the junction, I boarded an old Peugeot pickup with some other passengers.
But after a short drive we were told to get down and walk; the road ahead was completely flooded. We took off our shoes and waded in, Crossing the flowing water was a very terrifying experience; at one point a strong current nearly swept me off my feet!
I met a French girl, also travelling alone, and we planned to meet up for a chat later.
When we got to the other side of the road, I and the other passengers who’d come from the Djenne junction were directed to another vehicle. Then, for the last part of our journey we took a ferry – much smaller than the ones in Timbuktu – and crossed into Djenne.
There were lots of hawkers on the ferry, selling everything traditional from bangles to clothes. When I told them I’d come from Timbuktu, they sneered and boasted, ‘We’re not as lazy as the people of Timbuktu; we have arts and crafts.’
The two towns must be business rivalries.
Anyway, it was a short ride to Djenne town and we drove past an old mud gate before stopping at the motor park.
Their style of houses was influenced by Morocco; they were much bigger and the roofs were flat.
I had a new guide, who took me to a neat and friendly hotel called Hotel Tapama. In between planning my day and reading Tom Sharpe’s novel, The Gropes, I did a little bird watching; the birds were on tree tops in the courtyard of the hotel. They were as colourful as the ones in Bamako.
With the help of my guide I went up a roof of a tall house opposite the famous mosque to take photographs. Then, it began to rain very heavily; luckily for me I’d already finished.
Later, I walked around the small town and took more photographs.
Then, I shared a meal with the French traveller I’d met earlier. The poor thing, she was covered in bites and was as red as a tomato. It turned out she’d slept at her guide’s house to save money, but it didn’t have a mosquito net, so she was almost eaten alive!
After two days in Djenne I decided to head back to Bamako – there was not much going on there. The French girl had had enough as well and wanted out. So, we went to the motor park and waited for the next vehicle out of Djenne. While we were waiting, a man who looked as if he had two wives already at home, proposed to me. I smiled politely and shook my head. What can I say?
Finally, we caught a bus that would take us straight to Bamako. From where I was sitting, (the first row) I could see the bus conductor brewing coffee over an open fire – a charcoal stove inside a vehicle! It was one of the strangest things I had ever seen. The passengers, both the ones who gave me some roasted corn and a woven fan for cooling down in the heat, didn’t seem at all worried.
Cups of coffee, reggae and rock music blasting out of the speakers kept the driver contented throughout our journey.
We arrived in Bamako at 7.30pm and I got a lift back to my friend’s house.
My friend was relieved to see me; she hadn’t heard from me in several days.
Anyway, one night I caused a lot of panic at my friend’s house, I’d asked for a needle and thread to patch up the huge holes in my mosquito net. Apparently no one is allowed to use needle at nightfall. But what was I supposed to do; I didn’t want to get malaria from mosquito bites. I eventually stuffed tissues into the holes and went to sleep feeling very frustrated.
Finally, it was time for me to leave Mali. So, I asked my friend to drop me off at the airport at midnight, several hours before my flight at 6am the next morning; that way they didn’t have to wake up very early to take me to the airport. She and her family had done a lot for me already!
But it turned out the tiny airport closed every night for a few hours. So, I was forced to spend the night in the open, on a bench in front of the airport. Had it rained it would have been really terrible for me.
Stray dogs of all colours and sizes, took over the grounds of the airport – they camped at the main entrance and in the empty car park. There were also, fire flies dancing about in the air, but I was more scared of the money changers, who didn’t seem to have a home to go.
Suddenly, I began to feel very frightened and vulnerable; I was the only passenger there and the only woman! I clutched tight my camera, and I prayed I didn’t fall asleep. If my camera was stolen I’d lose all my work forever!
Soon, the weather began to cool down, but the mosquitoes kept buzzing in my ears. I was bitten a few times despite the repellent spray.
At about 3am the airport sprang back to life, but no one was allowed inside the terminal until it was an hour before their flight.
The present crisis in Mali will definitely affect businesses, because lots of tourists are not going there, but I won’t forget the kindness of strangers – Malians are such kind people.
Narrative by Ifeoma Onyefulu