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Jansen takes the 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 the television.

I 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 Senegal’s 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.

The idea 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 at all.

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 climate.

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 don’t 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 Africa.

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 with them.

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 7 AM.
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 knows?
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 water.

photos© Monique Jansen

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…nothing. 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 people’s plots of produce, after all Mali’s 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 world’s poorest countries, it also has the world’s second highest infant mortality rate (164 per 1000 births).

Mali’s 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 Mali’s 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 ignore.
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 that’s 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 d’Ivoire, 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 Mali’s main administrative centre. It also has the dubious honor of being West Africa’s 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 d’Acceuil 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 don’t 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 Keita’s 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 baby’s 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 l’amitié, 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 l’Auberge, 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 fishermen’s 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 l’Auberge, 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 restaurant.

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 passenger’s 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 of India).
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 else’s French is even more dismal than mine.

The next 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 children’s 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 "c’est 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, c’est toujours malade, c’est 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-na’s, 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-na’s. Their closest equivalent are the special houses where they have to stay during menstruation, as this is considered to be an unclean time.

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 music.
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 Hogon’s house, who guards the village’s 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 of Irelli.
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 Haruna’s family: one of his father’s 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 Haruna’s 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 and Adama.
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.

Djenné sits 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 d’être 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 agreeable restaurant.
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 don’t 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 Chef’s 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 l’Auberge, 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 least.

We arrive, fairly exhausted, around midnight, back at l’Auberge. 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. Burkina Faso

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 l’Auberge, 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 d’Ivoire. 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 and Techiman.

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 Baboo’s excellent fried rice dishes (opposite Hotel de Kingsway)
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 don’t 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 chief’s 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 Ghana’s 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 day’s 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, under Community, User Pages, and then "Moniquetje".

© Monique Jansen 2002

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See also

North Vietnam with Monique

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