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.