rough roads across Mali
The appearance of a paying customer apparently is very annoying for the
staff, as it interferes with their normal evening occupation, watching
leave Belgium on Friday morning September 1st and arrive in Dakar
(Senegal) around 4 PM. The airport (named after the first president
after independence, Léopold Senghor) is, as in so many developing
countries, small, and old-fashioned. Dakar feels hot and humid.
I take a taxi to the Via Via hostel that I had booked beforehand,
which lies a little bit outside of Dakar proper, in a traditional
fishing village. Yoff is also a focus for the Layen brotherhood,
a fraternity which has built a shrine for their founder. The Lebu
are one of Senegals minority ethnic groups. In Yoff, women
are not allowed in the centre of the village without wearing a dress
or long skirts. Trousers are not permitted.
of this trip was to make my way with public transport from Dakar, through
Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso to the capital of Ghana, Accra and try
to do this in about 7-8 weeks. I enquire about taking the train from Dakar
to Bamako for the first leg of the journey, but apparently the trains
run very irregularly at the end of the wet season and it turned out that
the train leaving from Dakar had broken down somewhere and was not running
The first day I spend familiarising myself with the capital itself, wandering
through its streets and its many markets. The first impression of Dakar
is one of a very busy, noisy and smelly African metropolis, full of hustle
and bustle, souvenir sellers everywhere, business being conducted in the
streets, in the markets, in shops, on the squares and corners of the city.
Colours, smells, sights assault your senses: many people still dress traditionally,
the men in boubous, the women in beautiful printed cotton dresses, with
very humorous patterns on them, such as mobile phones, computers and other
western luxury items they will most likely never be able to afford.
My guide to Dakar is Doffène Diouf, the official guide for the
Via Via. It is good to have him there to accompany me, because otherwise
I would have been accosted by beggars, souvenir salesmen/women and young
guys wanting to come to Belgium even more than now.
We criss-cross through the town, from the upscale neighbourhoods to the
fish markets, from the Village des Artisans to the seashore, from the
harbour to the diplomatic quarter of the city. Even though it is still
very hot and I am not yet used to the crowds, it is an enjoyable day.
Every time I visit a country in the developing world, it takes a few days
to get used to the rhythms of a different lifestyle, and to a different
The end of the day finds us back in Yoff, watching the arrival of the
fishermen to the long, sandy beaches, hauling their catch of swordfish
and many other fish out of their colourful little boats. It is another
scene to behold, children everywhere, little stands with street/seafood
dot the beach as you walk along the sand. Sunday (3 September), we hire
a car (well, some old vehicle that was on the verge of breaking down the
whole trip and that would never survive car inspection), an ancient Peugeot,
imported god knows when from Europe, to go to Lac Rose or Lac Retba, as
the real name is. The pinkness of the lake is caused by the bacteria that
excrete red iron oxide. Many local and immigrant labourers from surrounding
countries collect salt from the lake almost as salty as the Dead
Sea and as much fun to try to swim in which is then stacked into
big white conical heaps on the shore. The shore is a beach of bleached
shells, in an otherwise harsh and bleak landscape. We talk to some of
the women about their work and I finally settle down with a coke and chat
with a young bloke about Malian music. He makes me a glass of Senegalese
tea, very sweet with a layer of foam on top.
One of the main reasons for visiting Dakar is its proximity to Ile de
Gorée, which takes a chaloupe only 20 minutes to ferry you across.
The island is much smaller than I had imagined , a mere 800 meters from
one and to the other and only 300 meters across at the widest point. The
UNESCO has declared the island a World Heritage Site, and once you walk
around the historical buildings, it is not hard to understand why. Its
slave-trading history makes it a "must" for everyone passing
time in Senegal. Apart from the (in)famous Maison des Esclaves, there
is the excellent historical museum of the Diaspora, although some of the
pictures exhibited, have faded badly. There are some smaller and less
impressive museums as well, but it is mainly a joy to wander aimlessly
through the narrow alleys. The old buildings are painted in pastel tints
and bougainvilleas are found in abundance along the roads and buildings.
The whole atmosphere of the island makes you stand still by part of our
colonial past that is nothing to be proud of, although the island on the
whole simply exudes prettiness.
On a practical note, there are several restaurants on the island, and
there is also the possibility to stay overnight in one of the hotels.
The nicest place to stay is the rather expensive Hostellerie du Chevalier
de Boufflers, right near the little beach at the pier, which also has
its own restaurant, but other options are available and it makes for a
much quieter stay than Dakar itself (but it will cost you!)
The only annoyance are the inevitable and pushy guides that you dont
need as the island is so small.
After spending two relaxing afternoons meandering through Gorée,
it is time to tackle the transport problem going inland. As the train
leaving Dakar on Wednesdays has broken down, the only alternative was
the taxi-brousse, that ever-present way of transport throughout much of
After a bad start, as the arranged taxi never shows up and it proves to
be quite hard to find a second city taxi to take me to the gare routière,
which then proceeds to drop me on the side of the road and forces me to
deliver myself in the greedy hands of taxi number three, which does finally
drop me in the right place on time, but charges too much money. Although
it is still very early in the morning, the station is full of people and
their truly astonishing amounts of luggage. I often think that only in
Africa carry people so much luggage with them wherever they go, but of
course a lot of travellers on the roads are traders and carry their marketwares
All photos © Monique Jansen
I negociate a price with the driver of the of the Renault vehicle of
CFA 6000 + 1000 for the backpack (probably too much, but I do not feel
much like haggling at 6am in the morning) to Tambacounda in the Southeast
of Senegal, about 600 kilometers in the direction of Mali. These Senegalese
taxi-brousses are the type of cars with two backseats and they "comfortably"
seat 8 people, including the driver). Luckily the luggage went on the
roof. When a taxi is full, it departs, which finally happens around
It proves to be lucky after all that I had been at the station so early
as that allocates me a seat at the window. This is no luxury, as the
day becomes hotter and hotter as we go and the car does only stop very
occasionally for a drink or a bite to eat. The roads in Senegal are
fairly good though, with some terrible patches in between, deviations
over dirt roads and so on.
I had filled my water bottle, but had not really considered food once
underway. Luckily there are plenty of people selling grilled corn alongside
the main roads as well as other foodstuffs, which did look a bit strange,
but definitely broiled to a crisp.
The first part of the road goes South, towards Mbour, then via Kaolack
the road turns east. The landscape is mainly flat grassland with scrubs
and bushes and some trees, dotted with termite hills. At regular intervals,
tiny villages, maybe about 20-30 mud huts covered with strawgrass roofs,
make the journey a little bit more interesting. As a rule, herds of
goats, sheep and cows make passing these villages much more exciting
as the driver attempts not to run over any animals or their young herders.
The local population does not often have access to motorised transport
and still travels by horse and cart, an experience I would later share
in Mali, much to my chagrin.
I cannot not fail to observe that it were mainly the women and girls
doing all the household shores. Lugging water from the rivers or water
pumps, carrying firewood, washing the clothes of the family, whereas
the men seem quite content just sitting under a haphazardly built shelter
on the side of the road, contemplating life as it zooms by them. This
apparent useless hanging about of the male part of the population in
the Sahel will become a familiar sight over the next couple of weeks.
They must be doing something though, I suppose they are busy with village
politics, discussing the prices of cattle, the harvests and so on. Who
Life in the Sahel countries seems harsh and hard: in the villages electricity
is a rare commodity, water has to be hauled several times per day from
a well or river, wood has to be gathered, the herds have to be watched.
Usually girls start helping their mothers carrying little containers
on their heads as soon as they can walk, and little boys are put in
charge of the animals of the family.
In the villages along the main tarmaced road, the villagers try to sell
some goods, some food and water in cleverly tied plastic bags. I have
not yet tried it, because it is not bottled water, but I will forget
about this already one day later when really thirsty.
The bigger villages or towns are very similar to other developing countries:
dirty, filthy, litter everywhere, cars in different states of (dis)repair,
great big piles of tyres, a general disorder and chaos along the - either
dusty or muddy - roads in front of grubby little shops and other establishments
with an economical function. As one can imagine from the state of the
ancient vehicles that cover west-african roads, there is an overabundance
of garages, but also blacksmiths, carpenters, furniture shops, hairdressers,
barbers, butcher shops and bakeries. Especially the butcher shops are
not for people with queasy stomachs, as you can still , under the thick
carpet of flies, recognise very clearly the origin of the meat (ears,
intestines, feet, ears, stomachs), often bloody and of course, smelly!
The women in Senegal (and also Mali) are very elegantly dressed, very
colourful long boubous and a headscarf artfully wrapped around their
heads try it, and you will realise it is not so easy as it looks
when they do it. They wear lots of jewelry, heavy silver earrings, arm
and ankle bracelets and necklaces.
The men are also dressed in fantastic splendour, long flowing boubous,
little skullcaps on their heads and the Fulani herders are easy to recognize
because of their conical leather and raffia hats.
This elegance in clothing styles, very traditional, but also gives the
people a very stately and sometimes even regal stature.
Every now and then I notice out of the car window a Tuareg, that long-time
almost mythical desert tribe, the men dressed totally in black and indigo,
with some kind of scarf wrapped around their faces against sun and wind.
The Tuaregs are noticeably lighter skinned than the Fulani, and the Wolof,
which are the dominant ethnic group (about 35% of the total). They are
found mainly in the central area, north and east of Dakar and along the
coast. te Sérer (17%) are also found in the central regions whereas
the Fulani (12%) can be found throughout Senegal. Other ethnic groups
include the Toucouleur, Mandinka, Diola and the Malinké.
Most Senegalese speak Wolof, and about 85% is Muslim. This forges a kind
of unity between the various groups, as well as the system of cousinage,
a kind of joking relationship that exists between the different ethnic
groups and clans and which allows for very jocular and sometimes personal
conversations between virtual strangers and symbolises a deep level of
support against outsiders.
Tambacounda is the main town in Eastern Senegal and its centre is bunched
around the train station. Situated in flat scrub country, it is a rough
180 kilometer from the Malian border, so I feel that I am well underway
when we arrive in the late afternoon. Tamba does not amount to much, there
is really no reason to spend a night there, other than that you can only
get transport towards Mali the next day, and anyway, I am beat from sitting
cooped up in a car with seven other people the whole day in this temperature.
I try my luck in the hotel Niji, more or less centrally located (CFA 11,200
for a double room with fan). It would have been cheap if I had found someone
to share the room, but alas, not another tourist in sight. The first thing
I do was shower off all the dust of the road. I go down to the bank to
change some money with my visa card, as by now, I have understood that
visa transactions in Mali are virtually non-existent outside of Bamako.
As none of my guidebooks makes reference to a particular "must have
eaten there" restaurant, I decide to eat in the restaurant of the
hotel, where I turn out to be the only customer. The appearance of a paying
customer apparently is very annoying for the staff, as it interferes with
their normal evening occupation, watching the television.
The next morning I have to get up at 5.45 AM, locate a taxi in the pitch
black , since it is too far to walk with my backpack to the garage, as
the gare routière is called in Tamba. (CFA 350 because of the early
hour). The Senegalese taxi-brousse to the border town of Kidira costs
about CFA 3500 + CFA 800 for my luggage, which is expertly strapped onto
the roof of the vehicle. The trip takes about 3 hours to the border. The
formalities on the Senegalese side of the border do not take too much
time. After that we have to find a local taxi to transport us across the
river to Mali. This is a regular car with one backseat but somehow they
manage to get seven of us inside. We have to stop to have our luggage
checked by the douane, and this will happen again at the Malian side of
the border. In the middle of the bridge, the taxi comes to a standstill
out of petrol. The driver, not at all embarrassed by this (one
would imagine, foreseeable) event, gets out and hails a moped and off
he goes with his jerry-can under his arm to get petrol. I step out of
the car and enjoy the view of the river. Women are doing their washing,
kids are diving off the railings of the bridge and swimming in the murky
Half an hour later the driver return with petrol, and we arrive in Diboli,
a dusty village on the other side of the border. And then
Not a taxi-brousse in sight, not a bus in sight. Only a prehistoric truck
that is being repaired. This seems to be our new transport. I can not
help but worry that I might never get to Kayes, where I have planned to
spend the night. However, the guy who apparently is in charge, seems to
have faith in his vehicle.
I decide to go look for the border police. I start to stroll in the direction
that some people pointed me in, and soon find myself surrounded by little
kids and animals in the one "road" the town could boast of.
I then proceed, I think, to wander through peoples plots of produce,
after all Malis economy is based on agriculture and each patch of
seemingly fertile earth is utilised. Local crops are mainly millet and
rice, which I now trample under my sandals. I hope not, actually, hunger
seems to be a daily companion to the people here.
After some searching I locate some men in a uniform, but unfortunately
these were the police on a break. However, inside one of the buildings
of the police "station" I finally stumble upon the correct officer.
He deftly stamps my passport, does not even demand any money, and slowly
and painstakingly fills in his big book. I wonder who ever in the Malian
bureaucracy will be interested to read that a certain Monique Jansen,
age 34, from Belgium, crossed the border at 7 September 2000. Now that
must be an interesting job!
Mali is a landlocked country in the Sahel, has a population of about 12
million, with a growth rate of almost 3%. However, as one of the worlds
poorest countries, it also has the worlds second highest infant
mortality rate (164 per 1000 births).
Malis most prominent ethnic groups are the Bambara, the Tuareg and
the Dogon. Other groups include the Fulani, semi-nomadic herders widely
spread across the entire Sahel, the Bozo, traditionally fishers and thus
mainly found around the Niger river and the Songhai, concentrated in the
area of Gao.
One of my reasons for coming to West Africa is the richness of its culture,
especially the music. Best known amongst the many musicians are the griots,
a hereditary caste of musicians, easily recognisable by their names: Diabaté,
Kouyaté and Sissoko are the most common. The griots, both male
and female make up most of Malis modern musical artists. My own
favorites include Karkar (Boubacar Traoré) which his blend of African
blues and simple guitar and Ali Farka Touré, an extremely talented
musician. When in Mali, I heard that he has his own hotel along the Niger
and has two wives, a Malian woman and a Dutch woman.
I also like some of the younger generation of artists such as Habib Koite
and Rokia Traoré with their fresh style and mixture of traditional
Malian music and western influences.
In the meantime, I am still sitting under a thatch roof on some woven
mats, waiting for the truck to be fixed and for more clients to arrive.
Of course it is a scorching day, flies are buzzing around in huge quantities,
and the other creepy crawlies whose very existence I am trying hard to
Obviously I am the only toubab, because you would have to be crazy to
travel this way voluntarily! In any case, I liberally perspire. In the
meantime the local culstomers of our mode of transportation are getting
a big impatient. Which I can believe, if you have to travel like this
on a daily basis. I hope that the train tomorrow will be within the realm
of transport possibilities in Western Mali.
The waiting gives me the opportunity to watch the local way of brewing
tea, a somewhat lengthy process, which can take up to two hours: tea is
being boiled on a little coal stove, two glasses are needed, one for sugar
and one to pour the boiled tea into. Then the tea is transferred into
the glass which is filled halfway with sugar, and the process of pouring
from cup to cup can start, until a satisfactory layer of foam has formed
on the tea. Eventually I am offered a taste of this extremely sweet concoction.
When the truck finally appears to be fixed and a number of people have
arrived from other towns across the border of Senegal and/or Mauritania,
after about three hours, we are allowed to pay for the privilige (CFA
2000 to Kayes, a true bargain). I think the truck is already pretty full
when twenty people or so climb aboard, but as you can imagine, after all
this is Africa, it was not full by a long shot. By the time we leave,
there are 45 people inside, packed like sardines, plus luggage. The inside
of the truck consists of several rickety wooden benches, two big oildrums
and thats it.
I notice a guy dressed in a European way, with modern glasses and an even
more hip backpack, and it does turn out he is from Cote dIvoire,
living in Germany and on route to Abidjan via Mauritania. His name is
Alyoune, and he would prove to be a valuable and very appreciated help
in the next couple of days.
Right after our promising start, we are stopped at the first of the innumerable
Malian police posts in order to be shaken down. Although officially these
police barriers do no longer exist, the local authorities seem unwilling
to give up this lucrative business of stopping traffic, hassling passengers
and hoping to get some cash out of them. In this case, I am given back
my passport without an extra stamp and without having to pay anything
at all. The Senegalese on the other hand, were not so lucky. Neighbourly
revenge for the way Malians are treated in Senegal apparently.
Chef of Segou
I squeeze myself back into my 5 cm. wide space on the bench, in between
to voluminous ladies who keep shouting and screaming to each other over
my head for the whole trip. It sounds like they were complaining about
costs, transportation, life in general and this is later confirmed by
my new friend Alyoune.
The final signal for departure is given around 14.30, and I make myself
as comfortable as possible for what will be a long, hard trip over unpaved
"roads" and tracks through a landscape that was barren although
dotted with the most wonderful boabab trees. Even though it is the end
of the rainy season, the earth is already dry and red. Villages in the
west of Mali have to rely on this rough piste for their contact with the
outside world, and the train of course, when it runs. The scenery in western
Mali is rather spectacular, despite its harshness: It is a region of remote
villages, wooden escarpments and rivers coming down from the Manding Highlands.
After our arrival in Kayes, 5 long hours and two hundred kilometers later,
we have to endure another police inspection of all passports. Luckily
we do not have to disembark, and I grab the opportunity to buy some hard
boiled eggs and several of these plastic bags with water, not caring anymore
whether it was well or bottled water. It tastes like the coldest,
freshly tapped beer in a Belgian pub. Hmmmm.
Of course by now it is dark and when the truck unceremoniously dumps its
passengers at the Gare Routière of Kayes it was 19.00. Alyoune
and me are going to try to find a hotel in town. Kayes is a busy regional
commercial centre for the west of Mali of about 50,000 people, located
in a mining region. It seemed to me in the dark like a dusty riverside
town, and it is western Malis main administrative centre. It also
has the dubious honor of being West Africas hottest town, and after
carrying my backpack for 5 minutes, I tend to agree with this.
Two of the hotels opposite the railway station are either too expensive
or full, so we resort to sleeping on the roof of the Centre dAcceuil
de la Jeunesse (CFA 2000 per person), about 300 meters from the station.
I also now know that Kayes probably has the highest concentration of mosquitoes
in addition to being super-hot.
Our first order of business is to secure our luggage to the railing on
the roof, organise the reed mats they gave us to sleep on and take a shower
downstairs. After that it is time for dinner. Kayes does not exactly have
a lot of restaurants and we amble down to the station in the dark, stumbling
over stones in the road. However, since by now it is late, we do not find
anything to our liking. Around the stations, street food is sold in vast
quantities, meat skewers, soup, the ever-present tea, soft drinks and
water. The stalls opposite the station obviously get good business from
people taking either the local train to Bamako or the passing trains from
Dakar Bamako. Kayes obviously is an important transportation hub
in this isolated region.
In the end we eat in the restaurant of our Campement. In the kitchen hut,
I choose some skewered meat with rice and tomato sauce, while Alyoune
opts for the fish. Refreshed with a couple of bottles of beer, I feel
more or less human again, unfortunately a human that serves as evening
dinner for the mosquitoes as well. I literally get stung everywhere on
my body. We chat until about midnight in the garden of the hotel, since
it becomes obvious sleep will be a challenge, as it is Thursday and the
disco is operating in full force. The music is beautiful though, fine
Malian bluesy music. I enjoyed my evening in Kayes, despite the discomforts.
It is also interesting to talk to Alyoune about his life in Abidjan, his
travels through Mauritania, about which he raved. He is not so impressed
with Mali though and plans to go straight from Bamako to Abidjan by bus
and can not help but wonder with amazement why anyone would want to travel
around Mali. He says it was poor, dirty and corrupted and he would not
stay a day longer than necessary. This being my first time ever in Mali,
I reserve my judgement for later.
Around midnight we climb to the rooftop. Immediately we are further attacked
by the "moustiques de Kayes" and the disco is also still going
full force. I doze off several times, and when I finally fall asleep,
Alyoune wakes me at about 4 AM to tell me he is going down to the station
to get our train tickets for the next day. Why you have to get train tickets
in the middle of the night, remains to this day a mystery to me. He returns
about one and a half hours later. It had been hard work getting the tickets
as people who did not even wanted to get on the train, also stood in line
and sold their places to prospective passengers. But he has managed to
get the tickets in the end ( CFA 10,000 per person), with a reserved seat
in second class. According to him, first and second class do not really
differ very much, so there is no need to pay more.
We arrive at the station around 6.30 AM, amid the chaos that accompanies
the imminent departure of the local Kayes-Bamako train. The crowds are
enormous, people laden with bags and boxed of luggage and everyone in
a hurry to get on the train. Pure chaos!
The train itself is a masterpiece of engineering dating from the sixties
it seemed, all rusty and encrusted with the grime of generations of travellers.
This is my third day in row travelling as an African and I am already
beat, no exhausted, after a sleepless night on a roof. But at least Alyoune
is as tired as I am, I am pleased to note. Probably all that soft living
in Europe has made him less tough for this African way of travelling.
With the help of a porter we locate our wagon, which is already packed
to the brim with the most colourful people and their mountainous piles
of luggage. A real African carries at least 20 kilos of badly packed luggage
with him, consisting of boxed, wrapped items, foodstuff, utensils, plastic
bags and at least one live chicken. I dont know where to look first,
the passengers on the train are as exotic to me as the landscapes outside
The railway line between Kayes and Bamako passes through a scenic area
of hills and wooded escarpments. The Bakoye and Senegal rivers run parallel
to the tracks rot a good part of the trip. The train passes through numerous
villages and small towns, and stops for a few minutes as most of them.
This way we pass through Mahina and Kita, one of the former capitals of
Sundiata Keitas medieval Mali empire. At each stop, the village
population, mainly women and childrens come to greet the train and sell
their wares: peanuts, bananas, home baked cookies, water, vegetables,
fruit, meat, bread and many more things. The sellers also come through
the train with their goods, strange and hard to define pieces of meat,
blackened over coal stoves, sunglasses, watches, pocket radios
We sit in the bar carriage, which means that the longer the trip takes,
the more drunken people start stumbling past our seats. I always thought
the majority of the people in Mali were muslims, but it is obviously an
African style islam that is being practised.
At one stop, the
train halts for about half an hour and I am glad to be able to get out
and stretch my legs for a while, whilst being amused about all the goings-on
in and outside the train: people crouching near the tracks to pee, more
selling and buying. As the sole white person on the train I receive
my fair share of stares. I take the opportunity to make some pictures
of our train and the tracks.The other passengers in our carriage are
coming from the different ethnic groups in Mali, I start to be able
to recognize some of them now: behind me there are two Tuaregs, covered
from head to toe in blue and black robes, next to us a Fulani familiy
is noisily busying themselves with their live chickens and preparing
their food in the train, changing their babys diapers and spitting
peanutshells to the floor. Most of the passengers are Bambara though,
mostly also dressed beautifully in boubous and long robes.
At one point our trip is enlivened by Koffi from Ghana, who passes through
the train selling traditional medicine (pharmacopia). He prizes his
wares and claims his traditional pills will work against most every
disease known to mankind. Although the passengers are sceptical, most
of them end up buying some bright coloured pills and powders from him.
The 600 kilometer long trip takes 13 hours from Kayes to Bamako, with
an average estimated speed of about 30-50 km/hour, depending on the
terrain and the mood of the engine driver.
In Bamako, I take a local taxi to hotel Dakan, in the Niaréla
district, a quiet suburb of Bamako, in the vicinity of many restaurants.
The hotel has a shaded courtyard and its own restaurant. I manage to
negotiate the price of my A/C room down to CFA 15,000. Because I am
so utterly exhausted from three days of travelling from Dakar to Bamako,
I eat something in the restaurant, drink a bottle of beer and watch
the arm-wrestling competition on the TV there. I always find it hugely
entertaining to watch TV in other countries, because it never seizes
to amaze me what the channels will put on in some places. The next day
there would be some lengthy discussions between two "boubou-ed"
musicians, about style and content of current Mali music.
The next day is spent with the mundane task of changing some money.
As it is Saturday, the banks are closed and I am left with the Hotel
de lamitié, a monstrosity of communist proportions, but
a good landmark in "downtown" Bamako. It is fairly easy to
get around in the capital, a taxi can be had for about CFA 1000-1500.
After that I go to visit Mme Touré, to give her the pictures
I had promised to deliver for my friend Anne. She is a very voluptuous
woman, a musicologue it says on her business card as I am about
to find out over the next weeks, Malians put great importance on the
possession of such cards it shows the world they are someone.
She shows me around in the Musée National. It is housed in two
low-rise buildings, and contains some remarkable masterpieces of African
art. Objects are beautifully displayed, with photographs lining the
walls, giving some backgrounds to the exhibited pieces. Part of the
exhibition focuses on domestic objects, including those used in forging
and weaving. Mali is renowned for its beautiful cloth, such as the Bogolans.
Another section displays religious objects from the various ethnic groups.
Among the highlights are antelope masks of the Bamana and the antique
and world-famous Dogon sculptures.
Although Bamako is certainly not a dangerous city, compared with other
large African cities, the incessant approaches by the totally unnecessary
guides and would be guides, as well as the souvenir sellers. Even
in the hotel grounds you are constantly hassled by men who want to guide
you through the Dogon country and the best way to get rid of them is
to claim you already have a guide, although you better have a real name,
because they will want to know with which guide you have linked your
faith. And then they will proceed to tell you he is no good and you
really should put your trust in them, because they are either mentioned
in the Lonely Planet or work together with a Belgian/French/Italian/Spanish
travel agency and are thus the best option available.
Monday 11 September
I take the Somatra bus from the bus station at Sogoniko, about 6 km.
down the Ségou road. I buy my ticket a the the Somatra ticket
office (CFA 2500) and I arrive in Ségou at about 13.00. In the
meantime I am stuck with the flu, so it is not great fun to sit in the
bus for several hours. Ségou is a large town about 230 km east
of Bamako, and it used to be the capital of a vast empire in the 18th
century. Later on it became an important French outpost during colonial
times and headquarters of the Office du Niger. The imposing, elaborate
colonial buildings and wide avenues give an idea of how a Franch West
African town must have looked. Closer to the centre, the houses are
made of rust-coloured banco. Although it normally is a sleepy town,
I arrive on a market day and it is very busy, especially around the
port and the banks of the Niger. Crowds mill about the harbour, pirogues
and pinasses come and go across the river. I first book myself into
the wonderful hotel lAuberge, run by a Lebanese family and excellent
value for money (CFA 12,000 for a room with fan). It has a nice and
peaceful garden and its biggest bonus is the immaculate swimming pool.
I make the most of this, as this is the only hotel within my budget
which has a swimming pool. Not only that, apart from Bamako, this might
well be the only hotel in the whole of Mali with a pool! The food served
in the restaurant is excellent.
Later in the afternoon I wander through the town towards the busy market
at the harbour where I sit on the quay and observe the hustle and bustle
of the crowds. Immediately I am surrounded by little kids who all want
to practise their best friends and want to know the three things that
everybody wants to know about a white person: how old I am, where I
am coming from, and what is my name. There is another one of course,
namely whether I am married and how many kids I have. In the meantime
the capitaines of the pirogues are busy loading people and their possessions
onto the boats. I am amazed when they manage to get several cows onto
one of the unsteady little boats. I sit there for an hour or so, and
after a while I am left to my own devices. It is great fun to just watch
what is going on and what to us westerners is exotic, but is daily life
for all these people. Of course I am still impressed by the colourful
dress the people are wearing.
The next day I hire one of the local street kids who pose as guides.
Although I am sure that I paid for too much, you need a guide to visit
Ségou-Koro or old Ségou and the Bozo fishermen camps on
the other side of the river from Ségou. We hire a taxi and after
a 15 minute drive we came to Ségou-Koro. Although you would not
say it now, this used to be the seat of a powerful kingdom. Now it is
a tiny village of about 3000 people with mud-brick and banco buildings,
lying gracefully and sleepily along the bank of the Niger. First we
go to pay our respects to the Chef de Village (and to pay him some money
as well for the privilege).
I luck out again, as it is market day and the little square is full
of women selling and buying . Children are running around, playing with
self fabricated toys. The village has several mosques, the most delicate
being the one of Ba Sounou Sacko, mother of king Coulibaby. Its little
streets are entirely picturesque, as are the red mud coloured houses.
In the streets you can see women pound the manioc with wooden pestles.
I give it a try, but it is not as easy as they make it seem to be. I
almost managed to upturn the "urn".
We walk through the little village for about an hour and a half, taking
in the sights and sounds and smells of a fairly typical small African
village, followed around by the children. Haruna, my guide, also let
me try some manioc, it tastes dry but not unpleasant.
In the afternoon, we take a pirogue to the other side of the river,
to the Bozo fishermens camp. The Bozo and the Dogon peoples are
distantly related to each other, my guide told me. Actually, the Bozo
have been living in camps along the river since the 7th century, long
before Ségou was founded.
The village seems extremely poor to me, the market stalls are rickety
and half under water, the huts are made of straw and mud, and very small.
We encounter some men making a new pirogue, seemingly a work of endurance
and some women weaving fish-traps from pliable branches.
Life is lived outside here, open air kitchens, with big
iron kettles, little fires everywhere, women cooking, gutting the catch
of the day. Everywhere, as is the case in most of Africa, little children
are already practising to be adults, girls have babies strapped to their
backs (hopefully not yet theirs, since they seem so young). On the other
end of the village, a woman is sifting corn through a straw sieve.
By sunset we arrive back in Ségou proper, where I have dinner
with a Dutch couple in lAuberge, the ubiquitous capitaine with
rice and tomato-onion sauce. Peter and Ria are in Mali for just about
3 weeks and plan to do some of the same things as I have planned.I also
meet Hendrik, an aid worker from Twente, who
kindly offers me a lift to Sevare (near Mopti) the next day and tells
me about a good bed and breakfast place to stay there, run by a German
woman, Jutta Ratschinske.
Wednesday 13 September we leave around 7 AM in Hendrik's Landrover,
together with his Tuareg driver and his local aide and his mother, also
Tuaregs. Strange how it no longer seems so exotic now, after spending
4 hours in a car with aTuareg family. We arrive at about 11 pm and Hendrik
drops me off at Mankan te, the B&B. It is located across from the
Motel. It is an oasis in an otherwise fairly depressing town. Sevare
is about 12 kilometers from Mopti on the main Bamako-Gao road and altogether
preferable over Mopti itself, a dirty, unpleasant town where you get
hassled by guides wanting to take you to Dogon country constantly. Jutta
is a retired teacher and came to Mali about 7 years ago, and she liked
it so much, she gave up her house and job near Heidelberg and started
a restaurant for expats in Sévaré. This proved to be too
much of a pain, dealing with local authorities, corruption and unwilling
staff, so she then switched to a bed and breakfast, also patronised
mainly by expatriates, (price per night for a single is CFA 14,000,
double is CFA 16,000, very clean and nice rooms, communal bathroom).
(She is on the web too, so look her up!) Ed
The next day (14 Sept) I take a bache to Mopti itself. It does not immediately
strike me as attractive, but with over 40,000 inhabitants, it is a thriving
town. The Old Town lacks somewhat in atmosphere and the new town is
neither modern nor impressive, but rapidly expanding. Hustlers are legion
here, and you are better off taking a guide with you from Sévaré
in order to avoid the persistent little guides in Mopti itself.
Mopti is built on three islands connected by dykes, with ports and canals
and a big, confusing chaotic harbour. As I was there on a Thursday,
it was market day and I wandered around the market (near the harbour,
but also spread around the new town) for an hour or so, before plonking
myself down on a chair in Bar Bozo, which offers a great view over the
harbour and fish market activities going on all around its outdoor terrace
The harbour is the life of the town. Large wooden pinasses with canvas
covers and colour flags tie up regularly to unload passengers and cargo
while the smaller pirogues ferry people across the Niger river and from
island to island. I see piles of dried fish, bundles of firewood, and
baskets of spices and vegetables, as well as jewelry, beads, pieces
of beautiful cloths and boubous being sold.
Behind the fish market is a large open air factory of sorts where pinasses
are built in the traditional way and on the northern edge salt, brought
by camel caravans from the desert to Timbuktu and then over river to
Mopti, is being traded.
This is the place to look into the possibility of getting the passengers
boat to Timbuktu, but unfortunately the next one will not due for another
week or so, and after a closer look at the pinasse option, I reluctantly
decide it is not worth the trouble and gotowards the Old Town, dominated
by the Grande Mosquée. The town itself is made up of grey coloured
banco houses, along narrow streets, and can boast of another market,
where I meet an old woman, selling potency enhancing herbs. I also especially
enjoy the local Rue des Bouchers, with its flies-covered meat. It feels
like I have stepped into a time travel machine and ended up , bang,
in the middle ages: people empty the garbage out of windows, pigs and
goats are sniffing about the garbage heaps, children and adults alike
relieve themselves in the streets (it brings back "fond" memories
This is also the place to make arrangements for the Dogon country. In
the evening I run into Peter and Ria again, and we decide to negotiate
a price together as a group. I have also met two young Belgian girls
that day, so we would make up a group of 5 people. We still have to
decide on a guide though and phone Haruna, back in Ségou. I will
have to do most of the actual negotiating, as everybody elses
French is even more dismal than mine.
day I have to go back to Mopti to get registered by the police, a necessity
for getting permission to get to Bandiagara. It is corruption, short
and good, you fill out a form and you pay the nice policeman CFA 1000
for a stamp in your passport.
On Saturday (Sept 16), Peter, Ria and me succeed in getting a decent
price quoted for a hired car and driver to take us to Songho, a big
Dogon village, about 45 kilometers away from Mopti along a non-existing
road. The night before, a tremendous thunderstorm hit the area and most
of the road is washed away. Even so, or lunatic driver manages to get
us there in record time.
Songho is spectacularly situated on the plateau, some distance from
the falaise, between two craggy rock formations. It is a fairly big
village, with a population of ± 5000. Although it is a muslim
village, the villagers keep their animist past very much alive, as testified
by the freshness of the cave paintings at the village circumcision site,
normally forbidden for women, but European women are considered some
kind of honorary males, so we are allowed to climb to the ledge a hundred
meters up from the village itself. A circumcision ceremony takes place
about every three years and the village guide explains the use of traditional
instruments, where the boys sit and the painted targets which are the
winning post for the race which takes place after the ceremony. The
newly circumcised boys have to complete a 3 kilometer parcours and the
winner get a sack of manioc and the girl of his choice as wife.
We sit on the ledge for quite some time, absorbing the sounds from the
village below. The pestles hitting the manioc, bleating animals, crying
children, the hum of voices reach our ears. It is a very peaceful and
intimate moment up there on the rock. I am very impressed by the atmosphere
and the quietness of it all, without any of the sounds we are so used
to hearing in Europe. Again I feel like I have been catapulted back
into time, to a place hundreds of years ago. Magical! The next day our
little group under guidance of Haruna (CFA 15,000 per person per day)
go for a six day trip to the Pays Dogon. We first have to pass another
post where money is to be paid for the privilege of visiting this wonderfully
preserved area, well worth the visit to Mali in itself. Then we continue
on to Bandiagara to get some more rations for underway , mainly cookies.
The driver is having a hard time on the still very slippery road, full
of holes filled with water. Actually , it is more of a dirt track from
Mopti to Bandiagara and it will get even worse to get to Dourou, the
starting point of our trekking on the edge of the escarpment. This is
where we also meet our other guide/porter, a very funny man, Adama or
Martin, as he prefers to be called. He is a christian, and carries a
childrens illustrated bible with him the whole time. He seems
to miss some essential brain cells, but he is hilariously funny and
always in a good mood, giggling away during the hike. Every time you
tell him something, his answer is "cest pas vrai", or
"eeeeeehe, or " mais non". He calls one of the younger
girls of our group Oumou Sangaré and keeps poking fun at her,
because she has stomach problems. He keeps telling us that "Oumou,
cest toujours malade, cest toujours comme ça"
and then he pathetically folds his arms across his chest. He also has
a lisp, and as most Dogon, pronounces the "f" as a "p".
As we have one smoker in the group, he keeps trying to get her to stop
(ça pume, ça pume trop").
In Dourou, we unpack the backpacks and the other gear and make our way
to the Campement for a late lunch of freshly butchered chicken with
spaghetti. I know it was fresh, because they wrung its neck in front
of our eyes. We are definitely not used to living this close to nature
anymore, as everybody shudders and feels suddenly less hungry.
Afterwards we commence the hike, first along the escarpment for a bit,
looking around Dourou. We stop at one of the togu-nas, which are
shelters and meeting places for the older men, where tjey can discuss
village affairs or simply lounge, smoke, tell jokes and take naps (which
they seem to do the most actually). The shelters are built with a low
roof, so that the men must remain seated, and also to prevent discussions
from erupting into arguments or fights, topped with thick layers of
dried manioc stalks. The wooden posts supporting the roofs are often
carved with figures of Dogon ancestors. Women are not allowed in the
Togu-nas. Their closest equivalent are the special houses where
they have to stay during menstruation, as this is considered to be an
After visiting Dourou, we go down the escalier towards the valley, a
very steep stairway carved into the rocks by centuries of people descending
or ascending the plateau. By sundown we reach our first Dogon village,
Nombori, but first we will have to cross one of many rivers to come.
I am glad I am only wearing my sandals, because it is quick to take
them off, although when the terrain is rocky, they do not really give
enough support. Nombori is a fairly traditional Dogon village, laid
out in the same way as other Dogon villages, perched against the Falaises,
with Tellem houses above the village. The Tellem inhabited the escarpment
before the Dogon, their origins are not clear but they are believed
to have been a small and red skinned people. Although the vertical cliff
is several hundred meters high, they managed to build their dwellings
in the most accessible places.
We make our beds on the flat roofs of two of the houses, next to the
mosque and sit down in the communal area for supper, consisting of spaghetti
and tomato sauce. We are the attraction of the evening for the local
kids, who keep singing songs and telling us about their school and life.
The older kids speak fairly good French.
When the night falls, we climb the "ladder" to our sleeping
area. It is beautiful, sleeping outside under the stars, with only the
village sounds to keep you company. No 21st century sounds, just goats,
chickens, the soft chatter of the people in nearby houses, a bit of
We wake early, thanks to the village roosters and I sit up on the roof,
and watch the women pass by in the half dark, with their pails, going
down the uneven steps down to the river to gather water for breakfast.
We have a typical Dogon breakfast, with fried doughnut balls and coffee,
some milk and marmalade and then Haruna takes us around the village.
We visit the Hogons house, who guards the villages sacred
bones and relics, the Maison des règles where women have to stay
during their menstruation period, the Tellem houses, the Case à
Palabres or Toguna. We sneak our way through the little steep "streets",
jumping sometimes from stone to stone, until we reach the Tellem houses
where we are rewarded with a fantastic view over the early morning valley.
The village is by now awake and people are going about their daily chores
and rituals. I find it all very impressive, so isolated, so poor, but
yet so beautiful.
After that it is time to start our trek towards Tirelli, about 10 kilometers
away. Although hiking in the Dogon valley is not physically demanding,
you have to be careful to leave early, in order to reach your destination
before the heat becomes too much for our pale western skin. You walk
over the valley floor, in between the fields of the Dogon. People pass
us continuously, and we use our few Dogon words that the village kids
have taught us the previous evening to greet them "Ahgahpoh".
People are very friendly and have a whole ritual and lengthy greeting
with the guides. It is all mumbled in a hurry, but apparently it has
to be done in order to be polite.
Because we are walking at the end of the wet season, the landscape is
uncharacteristically green and all the rivers are full. I end up walking
barefooted through the sand, instead of having to take of my sandals
every 30 meters or so. We reach the our destination around noon, climb
from the bottom of the valley back up to the campement and take a siesta.
Later in the afternoon we visit Tirelli. it, and all the other villages
we have passed, are simply too beautiful for words: the way they are
perched against the cliffs, the quiet and peacefulness, the gracious
way the women walk up and down the paths, the playing children,
In the evening it is time for the bucket shower in the bathroom hut.
Haruna has arranged dancing for us, even though I would rather he had
not done that. Dogon dances are very monotonous, even more so than the
Maasai dances in Kenya. People stand around in a circle and one woman
or man gets in the middle and performs, while the other ones clap. They
seem to have an excellent time though.
The next day we get up at around 6.30 Am, the sun is already burning.
It is a very hot and difficult day, and I am glad to finally arrive
in Banani, after having passed through the beautifully located village
The Dogon valley alone is worth a visit to Mali, that certainly can
be the conclusion in the last village of the valley. We spend a day
there and the next day we climb back up to the escarpment to the village
of Haruna, Sangha.
We decide to spend the night in Hotel Campement (CFA 7500 for a big
room, all rooms surround a pleasant courtyard, and it is on the edge
of the village).
We eat in the compound with Harunas family: one of his fathers
wives is preparing dinner for us in a partitioned off part of the courtyard,
while about 20 village kids sit in the dark, staring at those strange
white folk. I cant help wonder who is watching whom.
In the meantime Haruna and one of his friends are dismembering an animal
they caught during the afternoon, a very gruesome sight for us. The
sounds of ripping flesh and bones are fairly disgusting, and I really
dont want to have to watch this.
Dinner is the usual spaghetti with tomato-onion sauce, with a few bottles
of beer to celebrate the end of our stay in Dogonland. By now the courtyard
is full of cousins, uncles and aunts of our guide. Is this what they
normally do, visit each other, admire the babies, eat and drink together,
discussing village politics or gossiping? It must be, there is no electricity
in most of the village and most people are not able to read or write.
Certainly the girls do not get much formal education, as their function
in life is to become a good wife to some guy.
The next day is spent wandering through the village, buying some souvenirs,
and relaxing in the courtyard of the hotel. In the evening, there is
a big festival and party in the village, we go and have a look, but
not much seems to be happening. I guess it only starts going from midnight
onwards, at least when I look at Harunas face the next morning.
He must have been drinking too much of the home brew Dogon beer. I try
it as well, and although it has a slight honey flavour, it mainly makes
me think of the South African sorghum beer, which tasted more like vomit
than beer. Although this beer is just a bit more palatable, I do not
want to finish a whole gourd of it, despite protestations of Haruna
22 September we take the car back to Sévaré, but first
we stroll once more through Sangha and pass the public place where some
ritual slaughter has taken place the previous night, at least judging
from the blood and gore that is spread all over this place near the
Toguna. The road from Sangha, via Bandiagara to Mopti and Sévaré
is bad and dusty and when we arrive at Ma Kante, we are all in need
of a shower and something icecold to drink.
We meet up again that evening in Bar Horizon for dinner. The place is
run by a European, the food is excellent and the music takes care of
the ambiance. Later on at night, the bar turns into a fullscale dancing,
with glitter lights and all, but I am too tired to stay up late.
The next day, Peter, Ria and me share a car to take us to Djenné.
Although the distance is not so great, it still takes us the better
part of the day, due to the appalling condition of the car, bad roads
and lots of bachées going very slowly.
on an island in the RIver Bani about 130 kilometers southwest of Mopti
and 30 kilometer of the main road. Even before reaching it, we pass
small villages with very impressive mud mosques. Before arriving, we
have to take a small ferry across the river.
Djenné is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and picturesque
towns in West Africa and certainly the most beautiful town that I saw
in Mali. It is also one of the oldest towns in Mali and little has changed
since its heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries when it was a centre
for the trans-Saharan trade.
Today, most of the houses and the world famous mosque are skilfully
built with mud bricks and rendered in traditional Sahel style. Although
its main raison dêtre now is the Monday market, we arrive
on Saturday, so we will have to find something to do tomorrow.
We check into the Hotel Campement (CFA 8500 for a single room with fan,
dinner for about CFA 3000 and breakfast for CFA 1000) and go for a walk
around town. I am truly impressed, beautiful commercial houses remain,
and although the streets have open sewers, it is not too filthy. We
hear boys reciting verses from the Koran in one of the multiple Koran
schools that dot the town. Djenné has a large number of marabouts
who open schools for boys and teach them the Koran. We also see them
sitting on corners of streets and they are not having their best moment
when they stop paying attention to their master and stare at us. The
whip is never far off.
At night we go for dinner Chez Baba. Although the menu boasts a variety
of dishes, hardly anything is available and I do not find it a very
On Sunday we get up early to walk the 4-5 kilometers to Senissa¸
a Peul village in the vicinity of Djenné. Although the route
is not marked, we follow other people along dirt tracks in the parched
earth. We encounter various young Peul women with the famous golden
earrings, carrying buckets, tubs and other household items. I wonder
where they come from and what they are going to do in Djenné.
Presumably many people already arrive for the market the next day. The
day is a scorcher, it is really really too hot, but we want to do something.
We arrive at the pool surrounding the village and negotiate with local
youth to ferry us across with their pirogues. On the other side we are
met by the Chef de Village, Hamadi Cisse, a very friendly and gentle
man, who insists on showing us his village and its inhabitants. Although
Senissa is very small, the village can boast of two beautiful mosques
and an abundance of artisans working along the small streets lined with
single storey mud homes.
We are introduced do one of the Peul women, proud owner of a pair of
golden earrings and get a drink there. By now I dont really care
anymore where the water I drink comes from, as I feel parched, and I
happily accept the water from one of the cisterns. I figure have been
drinking well water anyway, and have not yet been plagued with intestinal
trouble so I might as well try this. I feel rather courageous and the
Chef seems to appreciate my efforts.
For lunch we are invited back to the Chefs courtyard, where one
of his wives has prepared us something undescribable in a plastic container:
it seems like greyish rice with lumpy little fish and of course we have
to eat with our hands out of the communal plastic bowl. I am actually
glad I do not know what it was, but it tastes only moderately horrible.
We sit under the tree in the shade for a few more hours, chatting with
Hamadi for a while about the village, the many Dutch anthropologists
who have stayed here and in Djenné and the upcoming market day.
Around 14.30 we start back towards Djenné. Not a very smart move
as the sun is now at its hottest and we walk in the Sahel, which true
to its name, is hellishly hot. Of course I manage to get a terrible
sunburn, with blisters covering my neck and shoulders, despite wearing
a hat against the sun. So much for taking (some) precautions.
Despite the pain, this was one of the most wonderful days so far, because
so few people make the effort to visit the little visit, and people
are genuinely friendly and interested to meet strangers. It was an extraordinary
day and I will cherish it forever in my memories.
Monday 25 September: today is market day in Djenné: the market
here is incredibly lively and large, and the place is packed with thousands
of traders and customers who come by foot, oxen and horse carts from
miles around, sometimes travelling for several days. It is an amusing
sight to see how many women fit on puny little carts, perched precariously
on top of their goods. The sheer range of goods bought and sold here
is amazing, but there is little in the way of souvenirs for tourists,
which also makes it more attractive to visit, in my opinion.
The sights, sounds and smells, complete with the awesome backdrop of
the mosque make this one of the highlights of any visit to Mali. I manage
to get rid of one of the persistent guides in order to walk around by
myself and take it all in. Incredible, I have never seen anything like
it before, it is such a spectacle that takes place in front of your
eyes, you have to see it in order to believe it. After a good hour I
have had enough and return to the Campement.
We have arranged with Haruna to take a horse and cart through the bush
to the Niger river, a village called Massina, but this turned out to
be a disaster. First of all we left far too late in the day, secondly
the cart and the horse looked positively ancient and to top it all off,
it quickly becomes clear that our so-called guide does not know his
way around this area in the delta at all. The poor horse can not pull
5 people + luggage through all the pools and streams we had to cross
and we end up very far off the beaten track in some mosquito infested
village in the middle of nowhere. I know it must be somewhere between
the Bani and Niger rivers, but where exactly remains a mystery to me.
We spend the night in the nameless village, a terrible night where we
are pestered either by mosquitoes inside or have to vacate the roof
because of a fantastic thunderstorm, with claps of thunder and frightening
displays of lightning illuminating the sky and the contours of the village
mosque. Wherever we try to lay our heads, there certainly is no peace
for us during that night that seems to last forever. Besides that, I
think we are sort of lost, we certainly have not reached Massina and
are nowhere near any river with our poor winded old horse.
The next day many promises about pinasses are made and we mount the
charette again, but after only 1+2 hours it becomes abundantly clear
that we are absolutely, positively never going to reach our intended
goal. We finally end up in a larger village on market day, where we
force Haruna to start negotiations for a truck or other vehicle to take
us back to Ségou, especially seeing as Peter has developed a
very high fever and we are worried it might be malaria.
After extremely lengthy and unhurried negotiations, we finally find
a truck willing to take us to another village. However, the driver still
has to see someone in the market and we have to wait another three hours.
By now I am pretty much fed up with the African way of organisation,
but there was not much to be done about it now. We are well and truly
stuck in the middle of nowhere and dependent on our stupid guide to
get us out of there.
The truck finally leaves and for the next 5 hours we sit in the back
of the truck, in the scorching sun, rattled to the bones on the piste.
I do not know how the driver knows where to go, there is no road, just
sahel and bushes and the occasional village. The truck also picked up
other passengers on the market, all laden with shopping and a total
of about 50 chickens. Although it is funny looking backwards now, it
was not so amusing at the time. There is a reason why that delta region
is not mentioned in any of the guides. Although beautiful, dotted with
village and one mud mosque after another, it is rather inaccessible
to all but the hardiest of travellers and Malians.
We finally arrive in another dusty village, and of course, although
I am no longer surprised, the promised abundance of buses towards Ségou
is not to be found anywhere. Our guide (Haruna, near hotel lAuberge,
Ségou, do not take him) does not seem to care whether we come
or go and we sit under a little shelter, drinking water from the local
well , which turned out to be not so beneficial to my stomach later
on. Our benches are opposite the local butcher and freshly slaughered
goats or sheep (who can tell with the skin of?) are being deposited
on the counter in order to be cut into pieces and barbecued. The skin
is then put on the road (there was not traffic anyway, least of all
buses OUT of there), for salting.
After about 4 hours of local inertia and incredible patience from my
side, I think, I finally really let it rip and tell our guide in no
mistaken terms the new rules. He slouchs off in order to find a minibus
to take us back to civilisation, a very expensive joke, but I have had
enough of the countryside and for a little while, Mali and West Africa
in general. How can people be so sluggish, idle and indolent. Especially
the men just sit around, waiting for Allah knows what to happen, without
a care in the world. I thought to myself "no wonder this place
still looks exactly like when René Caillie visited it in the
early 19th century or even when Munro Park traced the origins of the
Niger around 1800". Aaargh! Not a good couple of days, to say the
We arrive, fairly exhausted, around midnight, back at lAuberge.
This is more or less the end of my visit to Mali and on 28th September
I take the bus to Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso and then down to Ghana.
After 2.5 hours
delay because the bus is broken down, I step on the Somatra bus towards
the next country (CFA 6500 from Ségou to Bobo). As always the
bus is overflowing with luggage. The guilty party appears my seat mate,
a islamic bookseller who has been to Mali to purchase boxes and boxes
of religious texts. Around 17.15 we arrive at the border, first the
Malian police and then the police and border control from Burkina Faso.
We leave the border after all bags have been taken off the bus, opened
and checked by the douane. At around 21.30 I arrive in Bobo Dioulasso
where I check into hotel Soba (CFA 11,000 for a single with fan). I
pick this hotel because of its proximity to Hotel lAuberge, a
place where expats hang out and where I hope to get a lift to Ouagadougou.
After the interior of Mali, Bobo seems very modern, a bustling city
with traffic lights (!), real roads, a variety of shops and surprisingly
few people to hassle you . It is a relief to be here and although I
know that the country is even poorer than Mali, it looks a lot more
dynamic and modern. That can have something to do with the fact that
Bobo is the economical capital of Burkina. It has about 350,000 inhabitants,
but it remains small enough to walk almost everywhere and has several
busy markets to visit and the Grande Mosquée, built in 1893 and
built in the Sahel style mud architecture.
I eat a delicious steak in the hotel restaurant with green beans and
baked potatoes, and after a month of a diet of tomato sauce, rice and
the occasional capitaine from the Niger, it tastes like never before.
Of course Burkina is renowned for its excellent beef.
The next day I wander through the Grand Marché, which is pleasantly
hassle free and I end up buying some printed cloth . While I am trying
to decide, the women positively mob me with their wares, and I have
to select one woman to do business with, otherwise I am sure I will
go insane in no time.
I meet a British guy for lunch, Chris, who is a secretary of the British
embassy in Cote dIvoire. We have a nice chat and he gives me the
name of the honorary British consul in Ouagadougou. The food in restaurant
Teria is delicious, with stuffed avocado.
The next day I start out early in the hope to get a lift to Ouagadougou
and it works, a German aid worker takes me along in his four-weel drive
and in a mater of no time, we arrive in the capital. The German tells
me the average yearly income in Burkina is ± CFA 80,000 per year
and that the main pillars of the economy are agriculture, cotton and
cattle-breeding. From the number of foreign aid workers, I would say
that Burkina is also almost totally dependent on foreign aid, obviously
there are many programmes in cities and in the countryside. Does it
benefit the average Burkinabe? That remains to be seen, in my opinion,
it certainly does not look like they are going to climb out of the debt
pit any time soon.
Ouaga looks surprisingly new and modern. Sankara, president of Burkina
Faso from 1983-187 when he was killed in a coup, razed a lot of old
buildings in the centre of town, and new edifices were put up.
I stay in the Hotel Belle Vue (CFA 15,300 for a room with A/C, very
centrally located, you can walk to most places in the centre) and book
my bus to Kumasi with the Ghanian STC (CFA 8000).On 4 October we leave
the capital on route to Ghana. It will be another long day of travel,
15 hours by bus to Kumasi, via Pô, Bolgatanga, Tamale, Kintampo
The buses from the Ghanaian STC are definitely more luxurious as the Malian
buses. It also seems a lot more organised, you have to buy your ticket
in advance in order to get a reserved seat and departure is prompt.
In the bus there is a discussion going on between a Ghanaian missionary
couple and the Burkinabe about respective corruption and police posts.
In Burkina, as in Mali, police posts are a way for the police to make
extra money and the Ghanaians claim that once we cross the border, corruption
will be a thing of the past, Ghana is much more western and modern than
the French speaking West African countries.
Not that you would notice this at the border, again all the luggage has
to be taken off the bus, and checked by the customs officers, but it is
true, I do not have to pay and neither does anyone else. It is also a
relief to be able to speak English again.
Ghana seems a deeply religious country, with churches of the strangest
denomination (12 Apostles of Christ Church, Adventists, Jehovah, Pentecost,
evangelists, presbyterians, baptists, and methodists and so on) and I
am soon to find out that the many Americans in the country are either
missionaries or Peace Corps volunteers.
When we arrive at 23.00 in Kumasi and I take a taxi to the Catering Guest
House. (c. 76,000 per night) Although it is fairly centrally located,
the next time I would stay in the Hotel de Kingsway, which is right in
the middle of all the hustle and bustle.
Kumasi has about 1 million inhabitants, but has not lost the feeling of
a much smaller town. There is a variety of restaurants, of which I can
recommend Vic Baboos excellent fried rice dishes (opposite Hotel
The next day I organise a taxi to take me to some craft villages north
east of Kumasi. Pankrono is a pottery centre, Ahwiaa is famous for its
woodcarvings, but my goal is Bonwire, specialised in weaving kente cloth.
It is remarkable how western the villages look; no more straw huts but
proper one and two story houses, painted in bright colours, with roofs
of corrugated iron.
Although Ghana is English speaking, the English is strongly accented and
I often have difficulties understanding the people. Ghanaians really go
for impressive names for their businesses and schools, even if the words
dont make any sense at all. Every school is therefore an "international"
school. You can still see it was a British colony, kids in uniforms, meat
pies, BBC on the TV and so on.
On Saturday (7 Oct) I go to the National Cultural Centre, which houses
a small museum of Ashanti history, a library and several crafts workshops.
While waiting for the doors to open, I run into two little girls Mavis
and Priscilla, about 8 and 11 years old respectively. They say they are
studying in the library, but after seeing me, decide to come for a chat.
They are very funny, especially the little one, who keeps touching my
arm and my hair. She obviously cannot believe these funny white people
with their strange hair. I buy them both a soft drink while they entertain
me with school stories.
I also visit the Prempeh II Jubilee Museum in the grounds of the National
Cultural Centre. it is constructed to resemble an Ashanti chiefs
house, and has a courtyard in front and walls adorned with traditional
carved symbols. Only guided tours are possible and I end up in a group
with some African-American missionaries, looking for their roots in Africa
(I think). There are quite a number of African-Americans in Ghana, visiting
the historical forts along the coast and Kumasi in the centre. I guess
they all rather hope to be the descendants of an African king.
On 8 October I make my way down to Accra. Since it is a Sunday there are
lots and lots of people in their Sunday best on their way to one of the
innumerable churches. The road just South of Kumasi passes through beautiful
countryside. It is green, wooded, and hilly, no more huts but little houses
in villages and small towns.
In Accra I stay in the Taj Guest House, in Osu district ($40 per night).
Its location is excellent, close to a wide variety of restaurants and
an good café to read a book or have a real cup of coffee, the Nuku
Café and Art Gallery. It is run by a Ghanaian photographer and
his Australian wife.
On 10 October I go to Elmina to visit the fort and fishing village there,
as well as S. Jago Castle and Cape Coast Castle. It is a 3-4 hour drive
over a pretty bad road. I book myself for a bit of well-deserved luxury
at the end of the trip into the Elmina Beach Resort ($ 70 per night, with
view of the ocean and Elmina Castle and excellent seafood!). The next
few days I take it easy, visiting the castles in the area, which are well
preserved and very impressive. Most of these forts or castles were
built in the 17th century, when Danes, British, Portuguese, Germans, French,
Swedes and Dutch were vying for commercial dominance of the Gold Coast
and the Gulf of Guinea. The castles changed hands continuously. By the
end of the 18th century, there were 37 such fortifications along Ghanas
coastline. Now you can visit 15 of them along a 250 kilometer stretch
of almost continuous beach.
The coast East of Accra is a relaxing place with these forts, fishing
villages and beaches, and a unique Naional Park, Kakum National Park.
The following day I take a taxi to take me to the park, about 30 kilometer
north of Elmina. it is a mixture of rainforest and semi- deciduous forest
that has been developed for eco-tourism. The highlight of the park unmistakenly
is the 350 meter long cable and rope canopy walkway, with viewing stations
linked by eight narrow suspension bridges along which you bounce from
one to the other., 30 meters above the forest floor. Apparently it is
unique in Africa and one of only four in the entire world.
I spent several days visiting the forts in the vicinity of Elmina, and
I am very impressed with the preservation and restoration that has undoubtedly
taken place. Elmina is a town of about 20,000 people, who live from fishing,
fish processing, salt production and increasingly tourism. protected on
the south by the Atlantic, with a natural lagoon to the south-west and
, to the east, a calm beach where large ships can land, it is a natural
haven. The crowded Mbopen port on the lagoon side is an animated sight,
particularly when the days fishing catch is unloaded in the afternoon.
In Cape Coast, the castle is in the centre of the university town, overlooking
the sea. It also has a fantastic little museum, developed in co-operation
with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
Although you can take a guide for the castles and forts, it is not really
necessary, and I enjoyed very much just wandering around, from top rooms
to the slave dungeons. It certainly brings home a harsh truth about the
past and should not be missed by anyone visiting Ghana.
After a couple of relaxing days I return to Accra in order to take my
flight on 22 October via Zurich back to Brussels. I have bought so many
souvenirs and cloth that my luggage is seriously overweight, but it all
gets taken care of African style by one of the cleaners in the building.
As we take off, I think I can look back on this trip with satisfaction.
I have done what I set out to do, have seen what I wanted to see and I
am many experiences richer. Pictures of my trip can be found at www.webshots.com,
under Community, User Pages, and then "Moniquetje".
© Monique Jansen
(her first piece for Hacktreks)
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