mali stopover

One final spine-shattering ride across the border of senegal and into the western most part of Mali - Keyes (known as the hottest town in Africa). Over-exposed to heat and general deprivations, I was keen to make it to any form of luxury and so headed quickly onto the capital of Mali, which was a 600km train ride to the east. In Keyes, you can pick up the Dakar-Bamako express at 2am in the morning. But the train didn't arrive till 2pm that afternoon (yes 12 hours of anxiety in a train station I had been promised was full of bandits and thieves).

We made it about 50kms out onto the savanah and the front train broke-down so we had to wait for a replacement engine. I went down to the restaurant car and met this young, charismatic nigerian called Efosa. It was great to speak english again. But here was another of these incredulous stories about young men in africa off to make their fortune. He had left nigeria two years ago to go to work in europe. But he got stopped by the UN at the mauritania/morocco border. So he spent 2 years cutting hair in the capital of Mauritania (I think by choice!). Now he was coming back down, and going up an alternative route, through the sahel and algeria and into a UN refugee camp in Morocco, where he was going to throw away his papers and pretend he was a refugee from Sierra Leone. We did discuss publishing this on the net, and he encouraged me to do so. He promised my 100% that this would get him work papers to Europe.

He was going to Bamako with no money, hoping to reach his sister in Holland and have her wire some down. It reminded me of the Gambian I met last week in senegal -- just 23 years old, the oldest in the family, leaving for work in Bamako with no friends or family there and only $5 in his pocket.

The train bounced ludicrously along the tracks through the dramatic western end of Mali -- thick with trees, the long-meandering senegal river and large escarpments of cliffs. Unfortunately it turned quickly to dusk and I missed most of the view (we were 12 hours late after all!). I spent most time in the restaurant car with Efosa -- all of us bumping along in the dimly lit car like co-ordinated jack-in-the boxes. I really felt we were going to pop off the tracks, but the melody of steel on steel and squeaking parts somehow lulled us all into this wonderful sense of excitement as we finally approached Bamako, the capital of Mali at 5am in the morning.

Bamako was just too hot and big to try and do anything. I was impressed by how busy everyone was with some sort of business, and how it lacked the desperation of Dakar. I wasn't hassled at all during my three days there -- a real contrast to Dakar, but maybe more to do with Efosa's constant companionship than anything.

I hired a car and driver and they sped me down to the south-east corner town of Sikasso, through some of the most beautiful verdant countryside, where I overnighted. (Well, only-just. There was not a single hotel room available in town, and like our lady, I was put up in a sort of store room). But that's where our modern biblical story ends. I did manage to get a visit to a tea plantation and also to see the grave of the conquering french lieutenant that had blown the "indestructable" walls of this city-stronghold apart over a hundred years ago (why did they honor him??). I also visited the sacred caves of initiation where young warriors were sequestered pending maturity rites (well, not while I was there).

Stupidly, I missed the big bus going to Burkina that afternoon, and got a little clapped-out minibus the 100 kms to the border. This would not normally be a problem except for the fact that the road was all dust, and there seemed to be major flooring missing in the back of the minibus. I wish I had a picture. All of us had to cover our mouths to breath and each person emerged coated in fine red dust. On black people, it's more a subtle change, and barely visible in the dusk light of the border post. BUt when I emerged everyone burst into hysterics -- I looked like a chicken after a mud-bath on mars.

Something weird happened as we emerged into Burkina Faso. It wasn't just that the roads were beautifully paved, that the border guards actually wore shoes, had smart uniforms and were generally respectful to everyone, or that the moon lit up our journey through the night. There just seemed to be this wonderful energy I experienced as we made our way into Bobo-Dioulassou, the second-biggest town in Burkina close to Mali. The litter that constantly covered the streets in Senegal and Mali, dissappeared. Everyone waved as we passed. When we stopped in little towns, people would gently ask me where I was going and wish me a good voyage. It was something completely different to the other countries I'd been in. Refined, gentle, trusting, cooler, more artistic, more feminine? I don't know. But it was definitely different, and as we finally pulled into our final destination, I thought this might be one of the most exciting little countries I was to visit in Africa.



Here we are fixing a flat on the border crossing into Mali.


Weird police-headquarters in Keyes


The famed Dakar-Bamako "express"


Efosa: trying to cross the sahel
and get to UN refugee camp in Maroc


The only tea growing factory in Mali.
Don't quite know why I was there.


A bizarre piece of colonial history.


Assuming the sacred initiation position,
by placing my foot, knee, and forearm
in specially-hewn rock.


And finally on to little Burkina Faso --
this is pre-dust.