Wednesday, December 27, 2006


December 14, 2006
I have been in Bamako for 6 days now. Things are taking a little longer than expected (that’s a shocker), and I am not sure when we will set off towards Timbuctou. I am anxious to leave, though. I still feel suspended between two worlds….

I wake up in the mornings to the sounds of gritty, dusty, and congested Bamako. The women in the courtyard are pounding, sweeping, and chatting, and I can smell the smoke of the cooking fire. I can hear the children talking as they start their day, and the roosters crowing. The small hotel we are staying in is affiliated with an orphanage, and the kids are always back and forth between our courtyard and theirs, along with other neighborhood children. The sun comes up around 6:30 or so, and depending on the day the sky is either bright blue or hazy with yellowish dust. I wash with a handheld shower: the water is cold, and I squat in the tub while I soap myself. Since it is not really hot right now, the cold shower is not something that I look forward to. Only when I want to wash my hair do I request some hot water, and engage in an interesting procedure with the shower, a bucket, and a cup.

Breakfast is served in the courtyard under a tarp. We have coffee (Jacob’s Krőnung!), and some Baguette with butter and jam. (I realized the first time I was here that they also have really good yoghurts here in Mali, locally produced, and since then I always try to get some for breakfast. It’s usually a big production and causes a fuss; I am not sure why, since they sell it in all the little stores. I have never seen anybody else eat it, and I have never been offered any. Could I be the only one? But since it must appease my enormous appetite for dairy products, I go along with the fuss every morning, and I just wait patiently until I get it!) I take all my vitamins and supplements (Grapefruit seed extract, Kelp, a probiotic system [if you have to ask…], multi-vitamins, calcium … the Malians who watch me probably feel sorry for this white woman who is so sickly…). We chat a bit with a French couple who is staying here and has just adopted a tiny Malian baby, and any other random people under the tarp. The courtyard is bustling with activities already: the women are washing dishes, clothes, food ….I am in awe when I watch them, and I feel guilty for just sitting there, but at the same time I am so grateful for my life and my options.

Malé and I discuss the plans for the day, while his phone is already ringing off the hook (that expression doesn’t really work anymore, does it?). He makes appointments with people who have a car to sell. We get ourselves ready, and we walk a block or so on a sandy road until we get to the main road, where the traffic is just roaring by. Roaring, or more often stuttering, clanking, banging … depends on the condition of the vehicle. Many of them are just held together by some string and a prayer. He flags down a cab and negotiates the price. Just my presence can triple the price, but eventually he finds a cab that agrees to his price. (When I was visiting Karen in Moscow, she made me hide behind a phone booth for the same reason while she was negotiating with the cab drivers. Parallel pricing systems exist in all sorts of places…) To get to the center of town we have to cross one of the two bridges that traverse the Niger river. There are “The Old Bridge” and “The New Bridge”. The one we are taking has two lanes, and also a path for pedestrians and/or Mopeds. It’s morning rush hour, and everybody and their mother/baby/goat/chicken/firewood/cooking pots is heading into town. The river underneath is broad and lazy, its river banks unrestrained. Some men are fishing, some are washing, and the water is twinkling in the sun. Right behind “The Old Bridge” to the left is the Kempinski Hotel where Malé has been dropping me off these last couple of days. There, in its air conditioned confines, with view of the river and the bridge, I have been working and writing and reading. Tough life I have here. Malé’s brother, Papa Amadou Dioum, is the manager here and sends me food and drinks. I am most endeared with the new WiFi system – why, surfing the internet is as fast as in NYC here! It’s very pricey ($8 for one hour), but I gladly pay it.

Later in the day Malé meets me here and we leave to eat something or visit with somebody. His sister lives here, and she wants us to come and eat with her frequently. Everybody calls her “La Veille”, and Malé insists that this is not impolite in the least, and that I should call her that, too. It seems that when somebody was named in honor of a grandmother/elder/uncle/aunt, they are called “Le Vieux” or “La Veille” from childhood on. Malé’s son Moustaphe was named after Malé’s father, and that’s why he, too, is called “Le Vieux”, even though he is only 5 years old. Just one of those small, confusing details of life here….

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Weekend Getaway

December 18, 2006

After being here in Bamako for one week already Malé and I decided that we needed to get away for the weekend. Not too far, relatively easy to travel to, somewhere nice, relaxing, by the water, a little bit more quiet and refined, less polluted and manic … At first we were going to check out Sikasso, south of Bamako. When I realized, though, that it is not situated on the river, I opted for Ségou instead. Malé and I had been there last year September, and we both really liked it.

We headed to the bus station not too far from where our little hotel is and bought our tickets (6000 CFA, one-way, for two; about $12). Imagine my surprise when the 14:00 bus actually departed at 13:58! I couldn’t believe it, and I was full of praise for Malian public transportation systems! Then the bus pulled into a gas station, to fill up. Then the bus pulled into the check-out/check point/control station. There all commercial vehicles have to submit papers or so in order to negotiate (!) their fee for departing Bamako. When we finally got on the road it was almost 16:00, and I retracted most of my praise. Other than that it was an uneventful 3.5 hour trip, just really hot and dusty and noisy. I think the bus was an old “Ost-Bus”: old, faded German signs were indicating the exits: Ausstieg Hinten! Okay, when we finally got to “aussteigen hinten” my cute off-white outfit was more off than white, and I was hot, thirsty, and hungry. We took a taxi to the Hotel L’Esplanade.

After swimming in the pool, and eating a nice dinner, we took a walk around the neighborhood. The hotel is just yards from the river, and we could see a couple of lights on the water, indicating that there were still fishermen at work. Other than that the night was quiet. What strikes me is just how dark the night is here. Without moonlight you can barely see anything. A random lamp here or there may illuminate its immediate surroundings, but other than that even the cars and mopeds often have no headlights. Walking through the neighborhood we encounter other shadowy figures, walking towards us or passing us. A casual greeting indicates that we sense each other more than see each other. It does not create a feeling of danger, just a very unfamiliar experience for the senses.

The next day I spend time at the pool, while Malé caught up with some friends, and also made some purchases for the Spillers. He is Muslim, but he wants to acknowledge X-mas for my benefit and theirs. (Out of solidarity, he says.) Before he met me he never did any shopping: all necessary purchases were delegated off to lower-ranking people. Three months with me in NYC convinced him that shopping is an honorable and fulfilling activity, and I was glad to see him come back from his excursion with small gifts that we can mail to Berlin.

Later that afternoon we were met by a fellow Timbuctien, Amadou. Amadou is in charge of a pirogue, a long, wooden boat, and he took us onto the grand and beautiful river Niger for a little spin, so to speak. I love the pirogues, especially when we have the whole boat to ourselves! The benches were covered with pillows and long enough to stretch out on, and the floor and the sides of the boat were covered in fresh, clean straw mats. The boat rocks gently while we closely passed by settlements and villages. The water’s edge was a flurry of activities: fishermen throwing out and retrieving their nets, women washing clothes, themselves, and their children. I also saw for the first time children and young men washing their sheep. The sheep were getting a full-body massage and shampoo treatment! Malé explained to me that the sheep regularly get washed, but especially before they get slaughtered. He said that it’s very important that the sheep is clean and healthy and good-looking before it is eaten. The Tabaski festival will be here soon, and every family head is expected to sacrifice at least one mutton, and so there probably is even more attention paid to the beautification of the sheep than usual. When the children and women spotted me in the pirogues, they were beside themselves with excitement: “A Toubab! Look, look! There is a Toubab in the boat!” Malé translated their Bambara for me. They were waving and screaming with delight. I waved back and I felt like a celebrity. (Madonna in Malawi?) At some point Amadou turned off the boat’s motor, and we just drifted lazily and ate water melon while the sun went down.

The next day we had breakfast by the river’s bank. I went to the pool, while Malé caught up with his prayers and his phone calls. He ran into an engineer that he had worked with in the past, who was in Segou visiting his family with his two daughters, Mima and Hamina, 3 and 4. When he heard that we came by bus he offered us a ride back with him. It was a lot faster and more comfortable than the bus, that’s for sure, and I drew pictures and played with the girls in the back of the Mercedes. Hamina told me that I had a really big nose. They spoke some French, and they taught me some Bambara, and I taught them some English, and if you ever encounter some cute little Malian girls that exclaim “OH MY GAWD!!!” in a broad New Yorker accent, with a touch of a German accent in it, you have met Mima and Hamina.

X-mas Greetings

December 27, 2006

Dear Friends -
X-mas greetings from Bamako! And because we are sending you these greetings from Africa they are a day or two late … !

Mali may be a Muslim country, but you would have never guessed it, what with the celebrating and partying and fireworks that went on here. I saw two guys in complete Santa costumes, there was a special x-mas event at the football stadium for the kids, and Male’s nieces and nephews showed us the presents that they received in Kindergarten. The stores and offices were closed on Monday, of course, and the city was filled with families, dressed in their finest, visiting family and friends. The Kempinski Hotel has put up a nice tree in the lobby which is decorated with traditional wooden spoons, painted golden (see photo!). Not sure what the cultural significance is here. Joyeux Noel et Bon Appetit?! Last night I watched TV, and they showed 30 minutes worth of coverage of x-mas celebrations throughout Mali. Enough to compete with American standards of fluffy holiday coverage. The Malians cannot understand at all that I find all this surprising – they tell me that, of course, they celebrate Jesus’ birth out of solidarity with the Christians.

In addition to all that, the city has been teeming with activities in preparation for the next big party: Tabaski. It will take place on the 30th. It really should be celebrated on the 31st, but that way it would interfere with New Year’s celebrations, and so it was decided to commemorate it on Saturday. Every evening the markets are filled with people shopping for the big day; the tailors are working overtime, since everybody is ordering a new outfit for the occasion. There are herds of muttons everywhere. Apparently there are still enough people who will buy one before Saturday, even though it seems that everybody already has a mutton tied to their front gate. The buses and bush taxis have muttons tied to the roof, and it is not uncommon to see somebody on a motorcycle with a beast slung across the seat in front of him. Occasionally a mutton falls of the bus or the taxi, and all traffic stops while the owners or drivers retrieve the valuable possession. (They cost about $80-100, but the price goes up daily now as the day approaches.) Each head of family who can afford it is expected to slaughter at least one sheep for his family, but preferably 2 or so to feed the neighbors and those who cannot afford it. So all these animals will be slaughtered on Saturday, after prayer. Let’s just say the blood will be squirting in the streets … I plan on hiding indoors somewhere, and I will come out again when the blood has dried, and the only remnants are the hoofs and the heads!

And who knows where I will be on Saturday. We are still stuck in Bamako, but hope to leave here on Friday in the morning, with Mirja and her two daughters. That would put us in Timbuktu on the 30th in the afternoon. But who knows. Making plans and having a schedule is a futile activity here. It’s best to have none.