The Sahara Motorcycle Diaries; On to Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa
Greetings from Bamako, Mali. Over the past week or so, I have travelled through Mali, the Sahel nation which was once the homeground of great inland trading empires of the Sahara Desert and the Niger River. Began the journey by flying to the fabled city of Timbuktu, crossed the Niger and the dry arid savannah to Mopti, another great river city, from where I entered the Dogon Country. I spent a few days learning about the fascinating world of the Dogon tribe, who live in villages located on a dramatic cliff side more than 300km long and continue to guard their unique cultural and religious heritage. I also visited the ancient city of Djenne and its renowned World Heritage mosque, moved on to Segou and then Bamako. In less than 24 hours, I would be flying to Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, and begin my journey in the Horn of Africa.
I began my journey in Mali by flying from Bamako to Timbuktu in the northeast of the country. First impressions of this legendary city were magical. Rolling sand dunes, Tuareg tribesmen in their flowing blue robes, timeless camels and Sahelian style mud brick mosques. This is the city we all heard of since young but knew next to nothing about. The other passengers on the plane, which included Canadians, Americans and French were equally excited.
Upon arrival, a half-Turaeg-Songhai guy named "Alibaba", obviously a member of the local tourist syndicate aka mafia with a name that sounded probably less trustworthy than he had intended, picked me up and sent me to Hotel Colomb on a motorcycle ride through desert wastes into town. Alibaba tried hard to sell his guide services. After I dumped my luggage, we walked next door to the tourist office where Alibaba showed me his photo on the tourist office's register of travel guides. In my presence, the official at the tourist office also concurred with Alibaba's assertion that new rules require tourists to walk around town with a guide, as too many tourists had upset locals by taking photos indiscriminately. With a guide, permission to take photos would be more readily granted. No choice but to agree to a half day guided tour for an outrageous sum of FCFA 10,000 (about US23), in a country where GDP per capita is less than US$1 a day.
Alibaba tried desperately to get me to do a "special" salt caravan sunset tour for CFA 50,000 (in contrast to the usual sunset tour which costs CFA 10,000) and a hippo river boat ride for CFA 250,000 (which got slashed down to CFA 60,000 when I protested about the price). This wasn't my first trip overseas and I opted for a simple usual sunset tour instead.
Timbuktu is one of Mali's most Islamic cities, and has long been a major centre of Islamic learning in the Sahara. Some women cover their faces like conservative Arabs, but many also wore traditional costumes with the most flamboyant colours in a loud display of their Africaness. In fact, most women do not cover their faces and many women breast-fed their babies in public.
Having gotten up at 4am that day to fly here, I was very tired. Unfortunately, I could not take a shower as the water supply in the hotel was suddenly cut. In fact, I was to discover that water supply in the whole city would only resume in the evening. I met a few upset French people who had just arrived at the hotel hoping for a good shower, after 3 days of canoeing on the River Niger.
Timbuktu, located in the Sahara, breathe and smell of sand. None of the roads were sealed and the whole place is dusty and sandy. A layer of sand settled all over me – face, nostrils, hair, clothing…all over! Timbuktu is also an intensely hot place. It's dry heat and so one doesn't perspire. Instead, one just gets dehydrated very rapidly. My throat got very dry within a short while. I walked around the city with a 1.5 liter bottle of mineral water, drinking it along the way. One bottle finished, then the second bottle gone as well. I don't even need to pee. All the water I drank just got evaporated with the dehydration. Water is not cheap here. A 1.5 liter bottle costs between CFA 1000 to 1500 relative to the CFA 250 to 500 in Bamako. Water is gold in the desert!
By the way, when the water came in the hotel, it was gloriously golden-brown. Should I used the expensive mineral water to brush my teeth?
In the evening, Abdullah, brother of Alibaba, asked me, "You know what we do at night in Timbuktu? " "Study the Al Quran?" I replied. "No, it's time to jungle jungle girls. You interested?" The guides of Timbuktu provide more than tourist services. Timbuktu has been a caravan town for over a thousand years. The oldest profession in the world has always been found in trading towns, whether or not they are centres of Islamic learning.
Day two in Timbuktu was a slow, relaxing day. The only thing I organized was a camel ride to a Tuareg nomadic camp for the sunset. The Tuareg village was mediocre, to say the least. I have done enough camel rides for sunset in my life to be too excited. In Morocco, Egypt and India, if I hadn't missed any other. At the Tuareg camp, the very bored-looking family served me tea without much conversation, and lost all interest the moment I disclaimed any desire to buy their tacky handicrafts and art objects.
I had a conversation with my camel guide. He came from a village 200km to the north. During most days, he travelled with the caravans to the salt mine 800km to the north to bring salt to Timbuktu. It's a 15 day journey each way through the desert. The women in the village also made silver objects which were then sold in Timbuktu whenever the caravan comes to town. Many years ago, the Tuaregs were "wealthy". They had hundreds of camels and goats. But a great famine some years back plus the disastrous Tuareg rebellion against the Mali government practically destroyed their herds. Now they have to rely on the salt trade and handicraft, which does not bring much to the table.
From time to time, the caravans even go to Morocco, in particular, Merzouga, Zagora, Fes and Marrakesh (mention these places to any Tuareg here and their eyes would brighten up), through Mauritania and Morocco-occupied Western Sahara. I asked if they could enter Algeria. No, they couldn't.
I recalled my conversations with Tuaregs in Morocco in 1999. They lamented the establishment of modern borders which led to the decline of these trading routes which had existed for thousands of years. The Tuaregs, proud and fiercely independent, were once the masters of the Sahara. Now their lands were divided between the modern nation states of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria and Libya. An ancient lifestyle and livelihood disrupted. Tuaregs have become second class citizens in some of these lands, and often seen as uneducated wild, uncivilised men and ruthless bandits. They rebelled from time to time but were always crushed. The dream of a Tuareg state remains unfulfilled.
Went to the internet café and then had a hair cut nearby. A very, very short hair cut, like most Africans but longer than their real short botak cut. The barber wanted CFA 5000 (US$16) at first – maybe an European may agree to that. Haha…I laughed it off, and then it was 3000, then 2000. I said 1000 or I walked away. He relented. CFA 1000 (US$2.30) was probably still a few times what the locals pay, Mali being among 5 of the world's poorest countries and Timbuktu being a poor part of Mali, but is palatable for me. In Anyang, China where my ex-company was, a hair cut costs only RMB 3 (US$0.43).
The showers worked perfectly this day. Hurrah! Had a good shower after the hair cut. In Africa, one does not take things for granted. Even electricity is not guaranteed. Power was down half way through my internet session. Thank goodness I do all my work on my laptop in the hotel these days.
At 5am on day 3, a 4WD picked me up at my hotel in Timbuktu. I was the only foreigner on this vehicle with 12 passengers. I paid a bit more for a seat in the front, which was more comfortable than those behind. The seat also gave me a view from which photos could be taken. By 6am, we were at the bank of the Niger River. Here, a queue of vehicles had been formed, waiting for their turn to be taken across the river on a barge.
The Niger is one of the world's great rivers along which empires had risen and fallen, and where two hundred million people across Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria live along its banks. The sun rose across this dry, arid region, casting its rays onto the river and the sand dunes that line its northern shore, the faded savannah green on its southern shore and the many small islands that dot this wide river.
Fishing boats and cargo barges were already busy on the river by this point. Passenger canoes made their way in both directions, carrying tradesmen and commuters who wore the colourful traditional dress of the many ethnic groups who live around here – exotic names such as the Tuareg (lords of the Sahara), Bambara (the largest ethnic group and the ruling power of Mali), Fulani (nomadic former Islamic jihadis of the 18th and 19th century who converted most of the Niger Valley to Islam), Senoufo, Songhai (descendants of empire builders), Bozo (nomadic fishermen), Dogon (with their world-famous unique cultural heritage) and many more. The more pious Muslims among the crowd, who had just completed their first morning prayers, were sipping tea on their prayer mats, while the ever-present entrepreneurial African mamas were setting up stalls by the jetty side.
My 4WD driver took the opportunity to negotiate with local traders and get the vehicle rooftop loaded with more cargo – a live billy goat now sat on the rooftop cramped in by the already numerous bags, suitcases, salt slabs from northern Mali and assorted merchandise. The vehicle's centre of gravity was further raised, to an extent where any sharp turn taken by it had the potential of tilting the vehicle over. Indeed, anyone on any typical long distance journey in Africa would have noticed the many wrecks of over laden vehicles that litter the continent's roads.
Huge oil tanking trucks from Nigeria drove off the arriving barge, followed by bush taxis and assorted motor bikes. Traders and 4WDs from Timbuktu like mine drove onto the barge and across the Niger. I am delighted to be here. One century and a half ago, the Niger valley had just been conquered by the Fulani nomads and their jihadist sultans were adamant that no infidels should ever enter their domains. A few explorers that wandered in were captured and killed mercilessly. The lack of information and Western presence in the region fuelled wild and impossibly fantastical tales about the legendary cities of Timbuktu, among others and their wealth, which by that time, had actually declined significantly, leaving behind mere crumbling ruins and decaying edifices. By the end of the 19th century, the French empire marched in, and brought this isolated region, for better or worse, into world civilization.
Over the other shore, it would be a hard drive across treacherous tracks on the plains, dusty sandy track in some areas and sticky mud in others. Another six hours before reaching the sealed road at Douentza, then three hours more before reaching Mopti. From Mopti, I got onto a bush taxi to Bandiagara, but not before dealing with one of those annoying tout aka self-appointed guide cum let-me-help-you-guy.
Bandiagara is the unofficial capital of the Dogon Country. I checked into Hotel de la Falaise, where I negotiated for a rather expensive tour of the Dogon Country with Habibou Tembely (aka Babe), a Dogon guide who speaks English. Not sure if I could have done better in other circumstances, but I was tired and worn out. A 4WD instead of a hard core trek would do me some good here.
The Dogons, who number more than a million, reside mainly in Mali's southeast border with Burkina Faso. Many of them are nominally Muslim and Christian, but are animist in many aspects of everyday life. What made them unique among West African ethnic groups are their distinctive cultural traditions, animist beliefs and cosmology, which are manifested through visual art forms, architecture and exuberant ritual dances, which have been carefully preserved and zealously guarded. As a result, they have been the subject of many anthropological studies, which makes them even better known to the rest of the world. This, combined with the spectacular cliffside known as the Bangiagara Escapement where many Dogon villages are located, made the Dogon Country a popular destination among travelers seeking for the unusual. It was also here that I had seen the most spectacular landscape and experienced the most unusual cultural offerings so far in my African travels.
Under the attacks of the Muslim jihadists, the Dogons moved to the remote treacherous cliff sides of the Bandiagara Escapement 500 years ago, where they built villages in harsh but more easily defended environments. Although they were eventually conquered by the Muslims two hundred years ago, their isolated locality has allowed them to continue practicing their traditional religion behind a superficial Islamic façade. With Babe, my guide, and Bish, my 4WD driver – both are Dogons – we drove through treacherous mountain tracks as well as shifty sand dunes of the desert to the south of the Cliffs, to explore many Dogon villages in this region. I paid FCFA 420,000 for 3.5 days of drive/walk through the Dogon Country and Mopti/Djenne region and a staged performance of ritualistic mask dances (which cost FCFA 85,000 pre-bargaining), which I felt was quite generous in off-season even accounting for the rise of gasoline prices. Maybe I was too tired the day I arrived from Timbuktu and was anxious to do a deal without too much bargaining.
A guide is necessary for any visit to the Dogon region, as the Dogon belief system is full of taboos not easily understood by outsiders and they vary from village to village, which complicates matters. There are also many sacred sites some of which may not be visited by outsiders. A guide also ensures that the visitor pays local visitor taxes for individual villages, which allows one to take photos and provides incentives for the Dogons to preserve their cultural traditions. Without tourism, many Dogons would have drifted to the cities and their culture disappeared like many other indigenous cultures round the world.
We probably have visited or passed through a dozen Dogon villages, many of which had traditional granaries and houses with rather unusual tulip-like rooftops that can even be described as cute. The Bandiagara Escapement rises gradually from the Niger Valley and then collapses suddenly and vertically into the desert dunes along the border between Mali and Burkina Faso. Driving here was most challenging, even for my experienced 4WD driver, although he did not admit it. Occasionally, he was a bit lost and had to ask shepherds the way. The shifting sand dunes were constantly covering jeep tracks of earlier passing vehicles and sometimes he just got lost. The important thing is not to wander off to the wild desert but keep within sight of the cliffs of the Escarpment.
Ancient looking sacred baobab trees stood in many of these villages, some of which are located at the bottom of the dramatic cliffs. In many locations, houses, some of which long abandoned by the region's previous inhabitants known as the Tellums, hang precariously on the sides of the cliff. The villages of Teli and Ireli are classic examples of how traditional architecture and natural landscape blend to form a backdrop that is most breathtaking.
I have long read about the Dogon ritualistic masked dances which are staged during religious festivals and funeral rites for highly respectable village elders. Although artistic masks are produced in huge quantities by the Dogons these days for sale to the tourist and art markets, ritual masks are not taken lightly by them. In fact, Dogons believe that spirits and ancestors reside in the ritual masks kept in caves located on the cliffs high above their villages. Any performance of ritualistic dances not undertaken for the purpose of rituals and religious festivals must be carefully treated to prevent offending the many taboos associated with the rituals, as well as the ancestors and spirits residing in these masks.
A few Dogon villages in the region do perform dances for tourists but appropriate sacrifices must be made before the dances and consent from the spiritual world sought. The justification to perform the dances for such purpose is inevitably economic but it is a decision the community take in conjunction with higher spiritual powers.
I have long wanted to watch a Dogon mask dance but no festival was forthcoming. I put forward my request through my guide and a performance was arranged for a princely sum of FCFA 85,000 (before total package discount / the raw price is about Euro 129). I reckoned this is the amount one pays for a good musical performance that comes to Singapore from time to time, or a seat in a classical concert. Over thirty people performed for me, not just for this ritual mask dance but a "women's celebratory dance" was also thrown in for good measure. You wouldn't get that for Euro 129 for a musical or concert. Half the whole village turned out, especially the women and uninitiated children, who are forbidden to see the real ritual dances. A young French tourist present also asked if he could watch despite not having paid for the performance. I was okay with it and the villagers asked him to pay a token FCFA 7,000 (11 euros) to buy millet beer for the villagers.
Ritual sacrifice and preparation took place in sacred ground behind the village and I was not permitted to watch it. I was ushered to the performance grounds located on a high part of the village, with soaring cliffs above us and a spectacular view of the Bandiagara Escarpment. The hogon, or spiritual leader of Nomburi village, an elderly man of undetermined age, turned up and stood beside the drumsmen. The drum beat and the mask dancers stormed into the venue. Unfortunately, everyone was so caught up with the performance that very little was explained to me. With the loud music and drum beats, I also had difficulty understand the highly French-accented English of my guide, plus his frequent slide into French per se, which I do not understand.
Nevertheless, the group included the renowned prostate snake mask which is more than 10 meters tall and the characteristic kanega (or Dogon cross) mask, both of which signifies spiritual knowledge and magical power of the ancestors and spirit, and included symbols of the Dogon creation legend and how their ancestors landed up in what is today the Dogon Country. The performance ended with everyone kneeling down for prayer and blessing by the hogon, in what was obviously a ceremony of great spiritual significance although performed and paid for by a tourist. The hogon thanked me profusely for the sponsorship of the performance and said the money paid would be put to good use by the community.
We did a day trip to Mopti, an important and colourful river town on the Niger, and Djenne, a town in the Niger Inland Delta famous for its mosque, which is the world's largest mud building and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Djenne is located on an island in the delta, separated from the shore by a stretch of the 700km long Bani river not more than 40 meters wide this time of the year. The tarred road stops by the riverside. To get to the island, cars and passenger need to get onto a slow barge. The whole process takes more time than the distance justifies and one is immediately mobbed by souvenir vendors on the barge. I don't understand why a bridge can't be built here, which would resolve the problems of Djenne's inhabitants and the many tourists that come to Djenne, one of Mali's top tourist attractions. In fact, there are so many places in Mali (e.g. Timbuktu) and Africa in general where a bridge should exist but doesn't. The tiny country of Guinee-Bissau, for instance, has to rely on unreliable and unsafe barges to cross a river that separates it from its most important neighbour, Senegal. I wonder what African governments do for their countries!
If I had previously complained about Shibam in Yemen being a very dirty World Heritage City, then Djenne is many times worse. The city, like Bamako (Mali's capital), does not seem to have a sewerage system. Almost all of the narrow alleys between Djenne's (what is supposed to be) charming mediaeval mud brick houses have stinking, dirty stream of darkish open sewerage flowing through. All the refuse and waste water (and fasces as well, I presume, though denied by the guide) from individual houses flow openly right onto the streets, forming streams that carry all the disgusting smelly stuff down the streets. People seemed to be completely oblivious of all that, and carrying out daily activity as though they live in the nicest town on Earth.
I walked around the market streets. Butchers cutting chunks of meat, with dark clouds of flies over the meat. Children playing in heaps of rubbish, covered with flies, mud, dirt and saliva. Baby sucking brown nipple of the mother's round firm breast - more flies landing on his eyes and yes, a fly on the baby's lips partaking in the droplet of the mother's milk that remains on his lips. Flies and black plastic bags everywhere. People spitting on the streets. Djenne is a dirty place! What a disgrace!
The Mosque of Djenne was once opened to tourists. Some years ago, it was closed to non-Muslims when a European director was found filming a skimpily dressed model in the mosque. We were approached by an acquaintance of Babe who is a mosque official. He said I could go into the mosque if I pay him FCFA 20,000. I declined the offer. Why should I pay FCFA 20,000 (30 euros) to see a mosque? Simply too expensive. World Heritage Sites elsewhere don't charge that much. This also once again marked the problem of corruption in Africa. They should allow tourists to enter but charge a high but more reasonable entrance fee of, say, FCFA 5000, which is probably okay for a WHS. This would get quite a number of visitors and generate income for the community. (Rules on modesty should be enforced with fines). Instead, individual officials benefit from the very small group of visitors willing to pay ridiculous sums of money.
We were stopped by police while driving back to Bandiagara from Mopti, and had to be escorted to the local police station. Babe and Bish went inside while I waited in our 4WD. They returned after 20 minutes. Bish sat silently while Babe raged, "They corrupt police, corrupt police!" So, the police saw the walking ATM that was me in the vehicle, and rounded us up to check all of the vehicles' papers. Everything was in order, and then they complained that Bish and I (all in front seats) did not had our seatbelts on. But nobody outside Bamako, or at least vehicles driven by locals, ever had their seatbelts on. (I have always adopted the policy of following the driver wherever I go, as some drivers feel insulted if I put on the seatbelt, as it could imply I have doubts on their driving ability). In fact, just as Babe explained to me, an off-uniform police officer drove out of the station without seatbelts.
And so they wanted FCFA 20,000, which was raised to FCFA 30,000 plus a warning to arrest Babe if he argued further. Then it was negotiated down to FCFA 20,000 again. The driver said he had no money and so Babe came to me. I thrust FCFA 5,000 into Babe's palms, "See if they could do with less. I would have put on the seatbelt if the driver did. And I am not a bottomless cash machine." Babe returned to say he put up FCFA 5,000 of his own money and the officers let us off with total of CFCA 10,000.
"I hate them. I have nothing left after four days of work! Bloody corrupt officers. Everybody is so poor in this country because of these corrupt people. This is Africa. African politics is bad bad bad. The politicians are corrupt and so police and army are corrupt. It's hopeless! Hopeless!" Babe raged nonstop on the journey back.
Babe is an impatient (and sometimes angry) young man with great plans. His brother, who met and dated an American woman while working as a trekking guide, bought a piece of land and helped finance the building of a hotel, most appropriately named Hotel Baobab after the many such trees that litter the Dogon landscape. The building was completed but the fittings were done half way when his brother died suddenly three years ago. Funds dried up and everything has since been in a limbo. Babe seeks desperately for funding, to the tune of FCFA 10 million (Euros 15,000), to no avail.
I did not know why but somehow he had the idea I could be a serious investor, as I had not even discussed anything with him vaguely linked to the world of finance and my work. I wondered if it was due to the readiness I accepted the tour deal with minimal bargaining. That aside, well awake as I am now, the basic rule of private equity type financing is always know what you are investing in, which can be made even more difficult if one needs to change multiple flights and airlines to get here, as well as apply for a visa of a country which does not even has an embassy in one's home country.
He brought me to see what had been built so far, and also to meet his parents and uncles, all anxious to find a savior to this long delayed project. They spoke about the sacrifices the family had put in and their hopes for the project. Babe's enthusiasm is commendable, even a little infectious, although I am not entirely certain he is totally conversant in concepts of budgeting and cashflow forecast. So, those of you out there familiar with Francophone legal systems and operating in Africa, and have a healthy appetite for investing in exotic markets with imperfect legal infrastructure, do consider a B&B hotel project in Bandiagara, Mali.
Bandiagara is a quiet town at night. I spent one evening watching Ivorian MTV with Babe and his friends. The Ivorians (i.e., people of Cote d'Ivoire) really know how to dance. They swaggered their buttocks and thrust their hips in the most suggestive manner, and yet conveyed a unique combination of Elvis's eternal dance moves, modern hip-hop, Bollywood musicals and timeless African traditional tribal dances. Yes, women with big buttocks in skin-tight jeans – that's the hot favourite in West Africa! I even watched a BBC report about how Ivorian women would go for injections and plastic surgery to expand their buttocks. Yeah, talk about breast and penis enlargement.
More evocative were the recent political MTVs of Alpha Blondy, the Bob Marley of Africa and world superstar of Afro-reggae. Alpha Blondy has always sung against the powerful, corrupt and general state brutality that has marked much of African politics. "Brigadier Sabari" and "Les Voleurs de la République" (Thieves of the Republic) are pieces that have upset political authorities in Cote d'Ivoire. In recent years, angered by the civil war raging across his country and the constant French political and military interference, his recent piece, Armee Francaise, criticized the French presence in Africa long after the end of colonialism with glory images of the brutality of war: severed heads, bodies flattened and smashed up by French tanks, children with heads blown up by French bullets, etc. Babe clenched his fist as he explained all that to me. "The French, messed up African politics. They must leave, they must leave!" he said.
Without the French, many African governments would collapse overnight. Both good and bad ones.
Before I set off for Segou 9 hours driving time away, Babe brought me to Songho, a Dogon village about 15km from Bandiagara. This village is located between three spectacular huge rock-hills on the arid plains to the west of Bandiagara. Located on one of the hill are sacred caves where young Dogons from all over the Dogon Country gathered every two years for a month long circumcism camp. After they were circumcised, they would stay in the caves for 20 days to a month during which secrets of manhood and the Dogon religion would be learned.
After the "camp" was completed, the youths and their family would gather for a grand celebration during which, apart from the usual dances and cultural performances, each of the newly initiated youth would draw using natural reddish-brown, black and white ink their family symbols onto a wall at the entrance of the sacred caves. I found these murals amazingly refreshing and beautiful, with that "dream"-like aura of the art of the Aboriginal People of Australia.
Special calabash musical instruments would also be played but these must be put aside after the celebrations. If these instruments are played after the circumcism ceremonies, they have the potential of causing miscarriages and other ailments to those who hear the sound created.
Races would be held as part of the celebrations. The champion would get bulls, which are symbol of wealth for the Dogon people. The runners up would marry the girl of his choice while the third winner would get some cash. I suspect that some might actually prefer being the runners up or the third winner than to be champion.
After visiting Songho, we rode back to Bandiagara on Babe's motorbike. Warm breeze beat our faces refreshingly, relentlessly and hard; Pockfaced peaks studded from the savannah plains beyond; Fulani nomads in conical hats, school children in blue uniforms and African mamas on their way to the market waving at us; I felt free, and really enjoyed that sweet taste of being far, far away. In fact, apart from the internet, I am totally uncontactable by mobile – my pathetic provider could only roam on a satellite phone, which thank goodness I hadn't brought any along. It's hardly a doubt whether I should had stayed in my previous position shuffling papers to and fro Singapore and that hamlet on the freezing plains of northern China.
It all felt very Motorcycle-Diaries Che Guevara style, that is, until one gets hit by a stream of harmattan, a wind common in the Sahel region. It brings reddish-brown dust and dirt in a whirlwind that surrounds one and coats one in an unpleasant layer of sand and dirt. The sand and dirt are also deposited in one's ears, nose and lips, such that one feels as though eating a salad of sand during one's next meal, even after what one believes could have been a thorough shower. In short, Africa can be pleasant at times, until one gets hit suddenly by something less than pleasant, for instance, falling bird shit.
Babe sent me off to the bus station. He wanted to pass me a juju – that is an African talisman that is worn, which can be used equally for protection, good luck and black magic as well. For good luck, he says, but a lingering suspicion in me pointed to the project-in-progress. It has always been my policy not to dabble in anything vaguely occult that I am not familiar with. Maybe I have watched too many sequels of the Omen or Thai horror movies, and so I declined his kind offer.
Off I went to Segou on an old bus long retired from service on Malaysian roads but still painted with Malaysian flags inside. I stayed one night in this graceful tree-lined town along the Niger, where herons and kingfishers thrive in abundance. But internet withdrawal syndrome overcame me – internet down that day across town – and so I returned to Bamako one day ahead. Bamako with its nice hotels with pools and free WIFI. Bamako with its huge armies of street vendors who would find every reason to sell you China-made snake-and-ladder board games and second hand Indonesian T-shirts with former President Habibie's faded photo at 10pm on the city streets.
The bus broke down in the desert and passengers exclaimed, "It's Africa!"
The corrupt customs officers demanded for a bribe. Shaking his head, a traveler said, "It's Africa!"
The food hasn't arrived one hour after placing an order. The restaurant patron said, "It's African time."
When Europeans say "It's Europe," they meant quality work and punctuality.
When Asians say, "It's Asia," they imply diligence, discipline and duty to family and nation.
When will "It's Africa" mean something positive to its inhabitants?
The timelessness of Africa is often manifested by the image of women pounding millet. This eternal image of Africa is often held up as the symbol of industriousness of its inhabitants, but it also symbolizes the continent's backwardness and inability to harness even basic animal power, let alone modern technology.
Tomorrow, I would head for Ethiopia. Farewell to West Africa. The Horn of Africa is going to be exciting. Hold on tight, guys!
Bamako, Mali, West Africa