Saturday, November 3, 2007

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore!

As I am sitting on the terrace, ice coffee in hand, watching the cats play in the garden, some music in the background, pondering my life, it almost feels like I am in a very familiar place (New York, Berlin, Santa Fe, …), and not very much like I am in Bamako, Mali! But if I sit here long enough, I think about things that I have experienced in the last five months that have been decidedly un-familiar and that could have taken place only here, and never in New York …

Fridays we have Mutton for Lunch
Who needs a planner? I know it’s Friday when I hear sheep bleating in front of our gate. Our neighbors to the right are Tamashek (Tuareq), and they like their roast mutton! (Even Malé, the original carnivore, remarks about the Tamashek that they eat a lot meat. So you can just imagine…) Every Friday morning somebody tethers a frightened sheep to the tree in front of the house, where it bleats for a couple of hours. Around 10am or so the animal is silenced with a swift cut to its throat, and with remarkable speed is skinned, gutted, and chopped up to fit the cooking pots. I have learned to not leave the house during that time – I will just wait for an hour or so, rather than witness the procedure. Something about watching an animal bleed to death, still kicking its legs, so early in the morning … Later that day the neighbors to our left (regular old Bambara) start roasting the mutton’s head. (I know that they do when the stench of burning fur wafts into the house). Every once in a while the Tamashek send over an animal part as a gift (leg, shoulder, ribs…). (They probably feel sorry for Malé because his wife does not cook him a sheep every Friday.) As soon as they leave I re-gift the leg/shoulder/ribs to my neighbors on the left. I don’t have the utensils to cut something like that into smaller pieces, but they do. Later that day they send us a pot of whatever sauce/stew they cooked up. I’ll eat the sauce, and Malé eats the meat. All around it’s a perfect arrangement!

Bathroom Story #1
Shortly after we moved into this house both sink faucets in both bathrooms broke, after having leaked, dripped, and jammed for about a week. They broke because they were the cheapest possible faucets, entirely out of plastic with a thin coating of metal (or silver-colored substance anyway), made in China. (They cost $3 in the hardware store, so that gives you a reference.) We called the manager of the property, and he came over later that day. We urged him to replace the faucets with something that was of better quality so that they actually would last. (Maybe something top-of-the-line, like for $5!) The faucets that he had put in the next day were so poorly made that they must have been Chinese “rejects” from the 90’s, before they started exporting everything to Africa. They both broke two days later, hours apart. (It was actually quite impressive, the way they both broke in the same manner, just hours apart. Maybe I misjudged the manufacturer, and I was actually witnessing an ingenious example of engineered consumerism … ) We decided that it would save us a lot of grief to forgo getting the property manager involved, and instead just pay for the material of our choice. We splurged on two Italian faucets, and I am happy to report that they are still working nicely …

A Love Story (Malian Version)
Malé has a friend whom he calls “le grand ton-ton” (the big uncle). He is really nice, and for ten years he has been married to an equally nice woman. They are both health care providers and –although originally from Timbuktu- live here in Bamako. They have never conceived any children, which causes the couple and their families much distress. His family, especially, has been putting pressure on the Ton-Ton for years to take a second wife, something that his current wife does not want. Apparently they really love each other a lot, and up until now they had been able to keep his family at bay. Recently we had been to their house for dinner, and found out that after many months of unemployment the Ton-Ton just was hired to work for the state, providing health care services to employees of one of Mali’s gold mines. He was very happy about that, and prepared to report for work later that week. Unfortunately he would have to live there as well, since it is about 6 hours away, and would only be able to come home every couple of weeks.

Afterwards Malé told me that while he is happy that his friend found work, he is also worried about the Ton-Ton and his wife: once the Ton-Ton lives so far from his wife, he will surely succumb to the family’s pressure and let them select a second wife for him (one that is fertile!). He will agree to it because he, too, wants to have children, and he does not want to leave his current wife. His current wife will be heart-broken about the second wife, but she will not leave him. Instead she will try to be the better wife, and shower him with food and other tokens of affection. She loves him too much to leave him, Malé predicts, and even if she wanted to leave him she would hardly find the courage. A woman who has not conceived will not easily find another husband. Here, where marriage and procreation are a woman’s most important accomplishments, this woman will feel shamed and betrayed, and yet hold onto her husband and her marriage. (But what if he is the one who is infertile, I interject. Would she get to take a second husband? I just had to ask …)

I feel sad for my sister, and –again- I am filled with gratitude that my life is so different. I cannot imagine thinking or feeling that way, and having so little control over my life. (And if you are wondering: because Malé already has 4 kids he has fulfilled his quota, and I am off the hook!)

The BYOB Hospital
A while ago Malé’s nephew Hamédou ended up in Bamako’s biggest hospital with a really badly shattered leg. Luckily Malé’s sister-in-law works there, so thanks to her connections the boy’s leg was operated on and reset right away. Hamédou’s mother and aunt took turns staying there with him. We were lucky that Hamédou had a bed and that he had been treated, but aside from that it was a BYOB-type of hospital: the family had to feed him, wash him, dress him, change the bedding… Whoever was not staying in the hospital was at home cooking meals and washing clothes. The room contained about 6 beds, and most beds were shared among patients. Additional patients were lying on mats on the floor, as were family members and visitors. In one bed was a young man who had been in a motorcycle accident and broken his thigh bone. His leg was swollen, but so far it had not been set. Instead, the doctors had attached a cast on his foot, and a rope with a rock on it. I was not really sure what the purpose was: the weight was to pull at the leg and prevent something or do something. I admit that I am not a doctor, but surely the real objective was to set the bone and put it in a cast! One week, two weeks, and then three weeks went by, and the young man was just sitting on his edge of a bed he was sharing with a very old man. Several times Malé went looking for a doctor to advocate for this young man, and to find out why he had not been treated. He never found a doctor. (Meanwhile I wanted to write an exposé a là Geraldo Rivera, publishing all the scandalous and outrageous conditions at this hospital!) Finally one day after more than three weeks we arrived and he finally had a cast on. They had to re-break the bone to set it properly. Duh!

One time we arrived and found everybody in the court: patients and family members, with their beds, mats, cooking utensils, clothes, everything. It turned out that that day they were spraying the hospital rooms against mosquitoes, and so the rooms had to be vacated from early morning until 4pm that day. A couple of patients died while being moved. There were no stretchers or wheelchairs to move them, just family members to carry them.

One day a man arrived with his badly wounded friend. He and his friend were “vagabonds” (homeless? Alcoholics? mentally ill? Criminals? Hobos? The term could describe all of that…), and his friend’s leg was crushed by a moving train. He stayed with his friend in the hospital, and tried to get a doctor to see him, but to no avail. The entire time his friend was suffering and bleeding and begging for help. We were told that after four days the “vagabond” suffocated his injured friend with a piece of clothing and left the hospital. Now the police was looking for the man in all the known “vagabond” places. I was appalled, and had so many questions: did he kill his friend to end his suffering? Was the man really suffocated, or did he bleed to death and somebody concocted the story to shift the blame? Is the hospital being questioned about leaving somebody untreated for all that time? But the questions were really just rhetorical, I already knew some of the answers, and I would never get the others ...

[During this time a young French medical student was staying with us. He signed up to complete a 6 week internship at the other big public hospital, and he would come home every day depressed and angry and outraged and discouraged and disgusted at the conditions at the hospital, and the behaviors that he was witnessing. While he understood that part of the problem was a simple lack of funding and access to resources, he also identified other aspects of the problem that could not be explained by that. For instance, as we know, the simple act of washing ones hands between examining patients prevents infections and saves lives. He was assigned to senior staff and shadowed them every day for 8 hours, and he never saw them wash their hands. (Not before their shift, not during, not after.) All 12 patients that he was assigned to follow died within three weeks from –according to him- preventable and treatable causes. Even though there was not enough staff, he hardly was assigned any work and was bored for most of the day. He would see his colleagues take naps throughout the day, and was encouraged to do so as well. He barely was able to finish his assignment; he could not wait to get out of there. He felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems, and completely powerless to change anything.]

After 4 weeks Hamédou was finally released from the hospital. Once I saw his leg without a cast or bandage I realized that we were lucky that he was alive, and that he had not lost his leg. He has two huge Frankenstein-like scars, which run the entire length of his lower leg. Apparently the bone was shattered and protruding in several places. Who knows what would have been had his family not had the connections and the money to ensure his treatment….

After all this …
You read all of this and you wonder why I am staying here? You just heard about skinned sheep and dying patients and dripping faucets and you have to be curious about my life here … Well, I like it here: at night we eat on the roof top, and I hear the muezzin call for prayer, and I see shooting stars, and I have a mango tree in the yard, and the food tastes good, and I meet very nice people, and I love going out at night and listening and dancing to Malian music, and I love how the cow herds stop all the traffic when they cross the street, and how the Niger river is wide and untamed and has just three bridges, and I like how peaceful it is here, and I like how men will show their respect by placing their hand over their heart while greeting somebody, and I like learning things about the people and languages and cultures, and I like going to places and feeling like I have stepped inside a movie, except that the set is real and the people are no actors, and I like the possibilities and all the potential that I see everywhere I look, the transformation that is in the making, but most of all I am here because Malé is the most amazing man that I have ever met, and makes me so happy I could burst! And so I am here, shaping and making my new life with Male and his kids and my three cats, and a skinned sheep or two will not even break my stride….!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Dear Uncle in Timbuktu!

Dear Uncle in Timbuktu!
I apologize for just now finding the time to write to you … Malé and I have been very busy, but this weekend I finally had some quiet time, and wanted to take the opportunity to give you an update, and above all to thank you.

As you know, Malé arrived here in Bamako on the 11th of June. I knew he was on his way, and I was anxiously awaiting his arrival. I was literally standing by the window for hours, waiting to see his car turn onto the street. He had driven the 1000km almost without break, just stopping once for a catnap. When he finally arrived, I was taken aback by how tired he looked: the last two weeks had taken their toll. But soon all the anxiety and stress were replaced by relief and happiness: we were together again, and we would begin our new life together.

We discussed where we would live, and it became clear that for several reasons we would best stay in Bamako. Soon we started looking at houses and apartments to rent. I felt very savvy and professional, since I had been through that experience already, and was able to set the parameters from the get-go: well – no, running water – yes, real kitchen – yes, extra quarters for staff – no. We saw several rejects, and finally one house that needed some work, but had potential. But the owners were agreeable to my demands, and we made an appointment for the next day to sign the lease. Thinking that his wife was done shopping, Malé wanted to cancel our next and last appointment for that day. I wanted to keep that appointment, since you never know, and I was not done shopping until I was back on the A-train with my Century 21 bags in tow – so to speak.

So we went and met this other man, who wanted to show us a house in a neighborhood called Faladié Sema. (We had been in this neighborhood for a first time in February, when we visited some friends. They told us that they liked living there because the neighborhood had one of very few gardens in Bamako. Later we dropped them off at the garden and the sight of its palm trees and flowers and rosebushes and lawn was so extraordinary that Malé and I talked about it for a long time afterward. Bamako to us until that point was about traffic jams and pollution and noise and garbage. I had mentioned to Malé that if we ever had to live in Bamako, I would only want to live there, by that garden.) So, when the car turned onto the street that lead to the garden, we exchanged cautiously optimistic glances, thinking that maybe we would be shown a house somewhere in the vicinity of it. When the car stopped at a house right in front of the garden, we looked at each other in disbelief. What are the chances …!

We entered the property, and found ourselves in a lovely little court, shaded by a huge mango tree and a flowering bougainvillea. Potted plants were everywhere: ferns, palms, aloes, and other exotic specimen. Some steps lead onto a tiled terrace and from there into the house. The house opened into a large living room, and to its left were two large bedrooms and a bathroom. In a room behind the living space was a large, European-style kitchen, with –YES!- built in cabinets, running water, electricity, and space to put the refrigerator. A staircase led to the second floor, where we found another huge living room with dining area, two more bedrooms (with A/C!) and another bathroom. Of the living room was a lovely balcony. The staircase continued and led up to the roof, which offered a nice view of the garden and the neighborhood and its many eucalyptus and palm trees. Behind the house was an annex building with another two rooms and a bathroom. A separate staircase led up to another roof with a laundry line. All in all it was exactly what we had hoped for, but never thought of finding. Malé negotiated the rent price, and after a while we agreed to sign the lease for 175,000 CFA a month – about $350.

Settling into Bamako also meant settling down with Male’s three older kids. He brought them back from Timbuktu the last time he was there on business, about 5 weeks ago. They are here to spend their summer vacation in Bamako. Moctar, 13, Hamsétou, 9, and Moustaphe the Bandit, 5 ½, have had many adventures so far: they have learned to swim, how to take care of two kittens, how to play on the computer, how to manage your allowance, how to clean your room German-style, eat Nutella for breakfast and Quark for dessert, make collages, complete word scrabbles, and read books at bedtime. We are discussing what will happen after the summer; I know that Malé would like them to stay with us in Bamako.

So, dear Uncle, life in Bamako has been good for us so far. This house has been such a gift: it is so peaceful and rejuvenating. Just last evening we were sitting on the terrace, and listened to the birds in the mango tree chirp, screech, and sing. But there are other perks to living here as well: I can eat Pizza, go to the movies, visit the French Cultural Center for a concert, hang out at a pool and eat ice cream. There are plenty of ex-pats and foreigners in the city, and I am afforded a certain degree of anonymity. There is a small supermarket in walking distance, where I can buy French butter, dishwashing detergent, toilet paper, and other essential supplies. It gets even better: we have DSL at the house so that I can be online or call friends with SKYPE whenever! In addition, I don’t have to worry about mean little boys wanting to hunt and eat my kittens, like I would have to in Timbuktu! No sand storms here, either. All in all, my life here in Bamako is probably a lot more comfortable and easier than it would have been in your town, Timbuktu.

So, I need to thank you after all. Thank you for being close-minded and prejudiced; thank you for fearing me and what I represent. Thank you for forcing Malé to choose between following your orders or following his heart. Thank you for facilitating what was probably the most romantic, most overt act of love and devotion and commitment displayed by two people. (The kind of stuff that we often see in the movies, and not often enough in real life.) Because of your desire to sabotage our relationship, we were afforded the opportunity to affirm our love with the support of our friends and family.

I am sorry that you could not change your position, but I understand. You have a lot to loose after all; you power and authority was challenged by Malé’s refusal to change his heart. If you had permitted him to be with me, all the young people that look up to him may have gotten some funny, subversive ideas of their own! And the next thing you know you will lost everything that you have: the ability to control by instilling fear. So I understand: you were fighting for your survival, the survival of your way, your world. But we were fighting for our world: one where people can make their own choices, one where belief is a private matter, one where love, communication, tolerance, acceptance, curiosity, and fun are more important than dogma and obedience.

So, if you are ever passing through, feel free to stop by and say “hi”. We would to chat, sip some tea with you on our terrace, and show you our world….

All the best,


Friday, June 22, 2007

How I Left NYC To Move To Timbuktu But Ended Up In Bamako Instead…

It’s Thursday evening, the 14th of June, and as I am sitting here, on the roof of the little hotel that I am staying in Bamako, I finally feel like the noose around my neck has loosened: Malé is in his car and on his way to me in Bamako. He should have crossed the Niger by now, and continued through the desert towards Douentza. He won’t get here until tomorrow evening, and I am not sure what he managed to get in the car (the kids? our clothes? household items?), but the most important fact is that he’ll be here tomorrow, inshallah, and then we finally can talk about everything that happened and what we will do next….

The Plan
When I returned to NYC towards the end of April, after having spent 4 months with Malé in Mali, my mission was clear: I was going to sell my apartment, the car, most of my things, and pack up the rest to be shipped to Mali. Things had gone reasonably well for me while I was in Mali, and things could not have gone better with Malé. Sure, there were ISSUES with life in Mali (see previous blog entries…!), but nothing unexpected, and nothing that I could not put up with for several months at a time. I knew what I needed in order to be happy: Malé; a westernized, beautifully furnished house; some pets (cats, that were not to be eaten by the little boys in Timbuktu, or dogs/turtles/birds if the cats were eaten); and enough money that every 5 months or so I could travel to a real city, or the ocean, or visit my friends and family. So off I went to NYC: it felt familiar and comfortable, but I did not have any great moments of sheer gratitude to be back. Sure, it felt great to see my friends, and each visit to the supermarket was a relief, but being there also confirmed my feeling that I was “done” there, and that it was time for me to move on. I slowly started to organize my departure, and almost every evening I spend doing fun things with my friends in the city. Soon things started to move a little faster: I found a buyer for the apartment, the car, and it looked like we had a serious offer on the house as well. I decided to have a public tag sale in the apartment, and to also use that as a farewell party. Then it was Memorial Day weekend, and while I did not have a flight yet, I was planning on leaving NYC early June, spend some days in Berlin, and then be in Mali mid-June. Now that all my possessions were either sold or packed up I could schedule a shipping company, and I did for the fifth of June. I found a flight for the following day. Everything seemed settled…

A Minor Obstacle …
Malé also had projects that he was working on in my absence. One concerned his house in Timbuktu: it would be upgraded and expanded, and as soon as he returned to Timbuktu the masons started their work. The other task was to pay a visit to his mother’s brother, the eldest male in his family. Tradition required that the eldest male is notified of mayor life events, and signs off on big decisions or plans. (Well, real tradition stipulates that the eldest male makes all the decisions, but Malé assured me that in this case the visit is a pro forma event to be polite and respectful, but it’s not like he really is requiring the uncle’s permission.) So the uncle was first paid a formal visit back in October when Malé returned from NYC. At that point we were more serious than ever about our future together, and I was planning on coming to Mali in November. Malé wanted to speak with the uncle before my arrival, and asked his older brother Papa to accompany him on this formal visit. Both Papa and Malé felt that this uncle was a difficult man (they both referred to him as fanatique – that should have tipped us off!), but they were confident that the uncle ultimately would give Malé his blessings. Had Malé not been a good son, a good Muslim, a good citizen for 40 years? He was an integral part of Timbuktu, and had fostered respectful and respected relationships with its elders, politicians, young people, merchants…He was banking on the fact that the uncle would give him some credit for everything he had done, and allow him to be with the woman that he loved.

The meeting with the uncle in October did not go well, despite several follow-up meetings. The uncle whipped out the Koran and pointed out all the reasons why Malé must not marry an infidel (=me). Malé was very disappointed and upset, but he and Papa felt that in a couple of months, after my stay, the uncle would have a change of heart, and they would re-visit him. Never once did Malé or Papa or anybody else suggest that if I were to convert, it might make it easier for the uncle to accept. My position on (any) religion was well known to Malé, and I felt that he truly accepted and respected it.

During my stay there I never met the uncle, and it was never suggested. But of course the uncle knew my every move as I was introduced throughout the town as Malé’s new wife: to the elders, the politicians, the businessmen… they all seemed genuinely friendly and embracing, and we were invited to dinners and functions. I was aware that everything I did was closely monitored and reported on, and I made sure I was on my best behavior. (No lewd parties, no dancing on tables, no running around naked, that sort of thing.) Malé’s mother was happy that her son was happy and that I did not “keep” him in NYC, and his brothers and sisters all were very relaxed and open around us. The uncle remained the only hurdle as far as family approval went, and Malé and Papa would tackle him sometime in late April/early May when Papa would be in Timbuktu on vacation.

The long-awaited second meeting with the uncle not only did not go well – it was much worse than the first meeting. This time the uncle had changed his tactics: he had over 5 months to come up with his strategy. No, not only can Malé not be with me, instead he must take his first wife back, the one he had divorced in 2003, before he and I met. No particular reason, but that’s what he had decided. Malé and Papa were thrown for a loop; they had not expected this situation. They –politely, of course- attempted to reason and argue with the uncle, but eventually left before things got too heated. When I spoke to Malé that night he was understandably upset. He understood that all this had nothing to do with his marriage to his first wife, but everything to do with sabotaging our relationship. If Malé had met and fallen in love with a woman from Timbuktu the uncle would never tell Malé to take his first wife back; instead he would give his blessings and look forward to eating some mutton at the wedding party. But, nevertheless, we know knew that the uncle was not going to be a small hurdle to overcome….

Things Are Getting Ugly
Papa and Malé went back to the uncle the next day, but his position had not changed, and this time Malé left quickly before loosing his temper. But the old goat was probably equally frustrated: as an elder he was not accustomed to giving the same directive more than once. He had a lot riding on the outcome of this conflict. Malé had gravely miscalculated the uncle’s reaction. It was precisely because Malé was well established and highly regarded that he would not be allowed to marry a white infidel (=me). God knows: if he would get away with this, all hell may break loose in Timbuktu. All his peers and the youngsters would feel encouraged to break with tradition! To prevent Malé from being with me would be to save Timbuktu from descent into modern, western debauchery. The uncle was determined to do so, and the next day he went to the Imam of the Grand Mosqué and enlisted him in this battle. The Imam and the uncle then went to Malé’s mother to tell her that she had to forbid Malé to be with me. They also left word that the Imam would like to speak with Malé. When I spoke to Malé later that day he did not want to speak with the Imam. But he realized that there was no way to avoid it, and that it would be better to see the Imam. Malé felt that he would be more reasonable than the uncle, and they always had a good relationship in the past. So Friday, after prayer, he approached the Imam, who was pleased to see him and gave him an appointment for the next morning at 8am. Since Papa was still in town he was going to go with him, and then leave for Bamako the next day.

Unfortunately Papa’s ride left earlier than anticipated, and Malé had to go by himself. He did not expect to find what he did when he entered: the Imam, the uncle, and every other important old man from Timbuktu were sitting there, ready to barrage him with their words. Malé reiterated his position, and soon left when it became clear that this was not going to be a productive meeting. His head was pounding, he felt angry, betrayed, trapped and above all alone. All of his peers/friends/acquaintances had closed ranks behind the uncle. While they privately may have been supportive of Malé, not one of them dared to say so publicly, in opposition to the uncle and the others. They were afraid. Not so much of scorn, but of magic spells. I had asked Malé on several occasions if he believed in witchcraft, and he had said no, but told me that everybody else does. And that it was that fear that kept people in line, afraid to stand out, afraid to make unconventional decisions. Malé went to the outskirts of Timbuktu to sit on a dune and watch the sun going down in the desert that he loves, trying to clear his head.

The next day, Sunday, we spoke in the afternoon. I spend every minute in the apartment, finishing up the packing process. I had the movers come on Tuesday, and I was leaving for Berlin the day after. It was clear now that we could never live together in Timbuktu. Even if Malé was not afraid, at times he would be away for business, and I no longer felt safe being there. I was not afraid of witchcraft, but I was afraid of mobs, weapons, and religious zealots. Malé told me that his mother could not stop crying anymore: she was feeling an enormous amount of pressure to turn against her own son. We decided that the best thing to do for him was to leave Timbuktu right then. It would alleviate some pressure off the mother, and clearly they would not change their minds if he stayed. He agreed that he would leave right after seeing his mother. As we spoke he heard visitors arrive in the courtyard. He told me that he believed that it was the old men again, and that I should call him later.

Pulling Out All The Guns
I did not get through again until the next day. He sounded horrible. When he had stepped out the house into the courtyard he realized what their latest scheme was: there, amidst all the old men, was his first wife, the mother of his children, deposited in the court like a bag of millet, eyes downcast. The old men greeted Malé and told him that they were there to talk with him. He said that he would be right back, and he walked out of his courtyard and did not return that night. He sought refuge at a friend’s house. He said that he did not know what to do. He had not slept properly in days, he could not eat, he was crying when he was alone, he wanted to leave, he knew he had to leave, he was scared. I tried to calm him down as much as possible. He was sounding less and less like the Malé that I knew. I was the only one that he was able to talk to, and that only when the phones were working. I asked him not to go back to the house, but he later did. His courtyard and his house were full of people: the old men, old women, his first wife, his children. Everywhere he turned there were people whose agenda it was to coerce him into something he did not want.

When I spoke to him the next day, on Tuesday, I had the movers in the apartment while he was telling me that he was fearing for his life, that they would kill him, that he would be safe nowhere, which is why he was going to just disappear, and he wanted me to promise him that I would look up his children one day. He was going to give up everything: me, the kids, the house, his mother; he was just going to leave everything. As the movers were packing up my furniture I tried to calm him, get him to speak rationally, get him to just leave and meet me in Bamako. And if he did not want to meet me there, he could meet me in Dakar, Lomé, Conachry, Casablanca, anywhere. Those old men did not have any weapons, just words, and I assured him that if he just leave and meet me we would be able to figure things out. He just needed to sleep and rest and eat and be surrounded by rational people. It was so disturbing to hear the effects of the psychological terror campaign in his voice. And there was nothing I could do except to try to call him and talk to him.

Everything Up In The Air
The next day my plane was scheduled to leave for Berlin. I was despondent. All that Malé and I had worked towards for the last two years was being threatened by the turn of events. The house that we would live in, the business that we would develop, the life that we would create for ourselves – within a couple of days everything had turned impossible, no longer feasible, unmachbar. And worst of all, I no longer recognized Malé: he was no longer the confident, rational, solution-orientated man that I knew. In his stead was a man who seemed paralyzed with fear, who was unsure of his options. As if the sand of Timbuktu had gotten into his heart, his head, his blood. And I was far away, our communication hindered by constant problems with cell phone reception, by the sudden lack of privacy that he encountered after half (or most) of the town’s elders squatted in his courtyard and his house. But I had to leave New York anyway. There was no point staying there; I would fly to Berlin. I could see the concern in the eyes of my friends – it mirrored my own. The only concrete decision that I managed was to inform the shipping company to hold my possessions until I confirm or change their destination. If I had to, I could change it from Mali to Germany…

What an odd feeling to board a flight like that: I left what was my home for 23 years, having methodically given up everything that had settled and supported me there over half of my life –my apartment, my career, my friends-, and I headed towards a totally unknown situation. What was I going to do once I got to Berlin? How was I going to stay strong? How was I going to know what to do know? What will my parents’ reaction be? I sat on the plane and I cried. I cried until we landed in Iceland, and then I cried again until I got to Berlin.

Getting My Bearings In Berlin
Over lunch in my parents’ garden I told them about everything that happened these last couple of weeks in Timbuktu. I felt pretty sure that I still wanted to go to Bamako on Monday, but I had not yet said that. I was afraid that they would not support this decision. I was also looking for their advice. Their first reaction was one of empathy for Malé: they immediately understood the extent of his dilemma, and the existential crisis that he was experiencing. To say nothing of the psychological warfare that the uncle was waging! And their next reaction once and for all cemented my belief that I could not wish for more rational, supportive parents: Of course I would have to leave for Bamako on Monday! Even if Malé had not yet left Timbuktu. It was what I would have to do to demonstrate my commitment, my determination, and my faith in him and us. It would counteract the pressure that the uncle was applying. As long as I was in NYC or in Berlin, I would remain too remote, too abstract, too far. But once I was in Bamako it would force Malé to act: either choose to bow to his uncle’s reign, or choose a life with me instead. If he could not or would not come to Bamako, I could leave and return to Berlin and implement “Plan B”. But at least I would have done everything that I decided a long time ago I was willing to do in order to live with this man from the desert who -I was convinced- was The One. And if he could not or would not leave Timbuktu, then he was not The One after all. And other thoughts emerged and soothed my fears and despondence: it’s a good thing that all this is happening now. I was glad that we were finally playing with our cards on the table, the uncle, Malé and I. No longer contained by politeness, etiquette, wishful thinking, rules of hospitality: we now know what’s what! Before all my stuff gets trucked to Timbuktu, before I settle in, before we embark on all of our home improvement/business projects. Before the same issue creeps up on us, ingrains itself into our relationship, and slowly destroys us. Here it is, out in the open, for all to see, and it’s time to shit or get off the pot! I was smart enough to know that if Malé comes to Bamako it would not be the end of this issue, but at least it would give us a chance to deal with it.

And so empowered I spend a nice couple of days in Berlin with a few people, and I talked with them about life and love over drinks during fabulously long, warm summer nights. I also was able to talk to Malé more often, and he sounded increasingly more normal: calmer, more confident, more rational, no longer talking about being afraid of dying. But he urged me not to come on Monday. He needed more time there in Timbuktu, to negotiate with the uncle and the other people who were siding with him. He assured me that his decision to be with me had not changed at all, and that he understood that while we would not live in Timbuktu, we would be able to live somewhere else happily ever after. Every day he endured visits/interventions/meetings from men send by the uncle and the imam, who wanted to convince him to not be with me, and every day he reiterated his position, his right to choose his wife, his right to make his own decisions, and his love for me. But he did not want me to arrive in Bamako without him, and he was not yet able to leave Timbuktu. I insisted that I would arrive on Monday, and I told him that I would wait for him there. And so I left Berlin, and made my way to Bamako, not really knowing what would happen, but filled with love and faith and hope.

When I arrived in Bamako Malé was not there, but nevertheless I was expected. Malé and his brother Papa had made arrangements, and a friend who normally picks up important people was there to whisk me through passport control. A driver was waiting for me to take me to Mamadou’s small hotel, and Mamadou was waiting up for me and gave me the room that we normally occupy.

At first I was not sure what I would be doing here while I was waiting for Malé; after all I was not sure if his siblings here would still welcome me and embrace me the way they had before … I did want to see them, though, for several reasons: I wanted to assess their position, plus I wanted to have something to do, plus I wanted to get rid of the small gifts that I carried for them: Ballast abwerfen, just in case I had to turn around and hightail it out of Mali. I called the person in whose support I had the most confidence, his young niece Oumou, who had traveled with us in January. Her joy at my call reassured me, and she offered to meet me on Wednesday, her day off from work. I then called his brother Papa, who had done so much for us until now, to thank him for everything and all the times that he had tried to talk sense into the uncle. He, too, seemed happy to hear that I had safely arrived. (Of course he knew that already, since he had received reports from his two contacts who met me at the airport.) I met Oumou and Papa the next day, and they were as warm and loving as ever. When I found out that Malé’s nephew was in the hospital with a broken leg, I offered to go to the hospital with Oumou, knowing that Malé’s two sisters Marie and “La Veille” would be there. Papa assured me that they would welcome my visit. And they did, each giving me a long, loving hug. Malé’s sister-in-law Kora was there as well and she was very pleased to see me. Not wanting to be too forward I decided to not immediately bring up the family drama, but to wait and see if they would. Fairly quickly they had just one question: what did my parents say about all of this? When I told them about my parents’ reaction they were pleased. I apologized to them for causing their mother difficulties. Oumou was the only one more outspoken, and privately she told me that the family was very cross with the uncle, and they wish he would take a chill pill (or something Malian to that effect).

And so empowered by their words and gestures I continued to wait for Malé’s departure from Timbuktu. He initiated yet again a conversation with the uncle on Wednesday night, and he reiterated his decision to be with me. He emphasized that he does not wish to do anything bad or bring any harm to his family, and that he does not understand the uncle’s reaction. He told him that he will leave Timbuktu on Thursday to meet me in Bamako, and that he wishes to go in peace. The uncle did not reply except to say that he heard Malé’s words. And so Malé left this afternoon with his younger brother Tall, who coincidently was there for all the drama while visiting his mother. Like I said, I am not sure what Malé loaded in the car, but at this point it does not matter, as long as we can be together. We will figure everything else out then …

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Better Housekeeping, Bamako Edition

I am not Martha Stewart, by no means, but I have been known to derive pleasure from cleaning, cooking, and decorating when I am in New York. I like setting the table with my jadeite dishes, lighting all the candles, moving the flower arrangement a little to the left, just so that it’s perfect, and having friends over for dinner. I don’t have a huge repertoire of dishes, just a couple (and they all involve dairy, as we know), but they are pretty tasty, if I may say so myself, and usually get me rave reviews. But I don’t like working hard, I like working smart: even for those meals that include an appetizer and desert I have never spend more than 4 hours on preparing, and that includes shopping for the ingredients. When I plan on cooking I think about the potential labor involved, and I look for short cuts wherever possible, smart city girl that I am. For instance, when was the last time you scrubbed carrots clean? They sell them in a little plastic bag, all scrubbed and washed, don’t they? Shelling peas? Why, they sell them shelled and frozen! And so while I felt quite competent in the domestic arena when I am in New York, I now am in a new and very different environment and I could trade my skills in for a bag of peanut shells! They are completely worthless, and I am a total failure in the housekeeping department.
I will explain….

The Kitchen. The kitchen here is the courtyard. Period. Then there is “le magasin”, which is a windowless room with a door. Like a pantry, it is used to store all the kitchen supplies: dry goods like rice, spices, grains, and some pots, pans, and platters. (Because eating here is done with hands off communal platters, there are usually no plates or silverware.) The women use a small charcoal burning stove, on which they place the cooking pot. They sit on small stools around the cooker while they wash and prepare vegetables, pound millet, mash onions, and so on. Other women come and sit for a while, chatting or listening to the radio. Part of the courtyard is a faucet and a “sink”: a large, enclosed area on the ground with a drain. It is here that the food, the dishes, the clothes, and the kids are washed, all with the same soap. Kitchen activities start early in the morning and continue throughout the day into the night.

[Editorial: Ok, that may sound all picturesque and back-to-our-roots-y to you, dear Reader, but I don’t know…. First of all, I don’t want to do everything on the ground. I like sitting on a chair at a table, or standing by a counter, and cutting my vegetables that way. On a chopping board. Sitting on those little low stools, bending over, cutting everything in your hand gets a little tiring - if you’re not used to it. Secondly, I like to have running water near by. You don’t realize how often you need water while preparing food until you have to walk across the court to get it.
Furthermore, cooking on charcoal stoves is very different from cooking on a gas or electric stove. Where is the little dial thingy that you need to turn it on or off, and increase or decrease the temperature? Then there is the whole business of the public display. I like having company while I cook, and I always regretted not having an eat-in kitchen, so that friends can sit and chat with me, or help in the process, but to cook in such an exposed manner is an altogether different story. Everybody is in your pots and pans, so to speak: all the neighbors, kids, visitors, workers, chickens, goats, sheep… The other interesting thing to me is that even what we would consider to be middle class families have their kitchen this way. The occasional stove that I have seen in “European-style” kitchens usually is used as a storage area. Even newly built houses do not have running water in “le magasin”.

Then there is the refrigerator issue. Since they are very expensive here, only really well-to-do people can afford one. Everybody else just does not keep perishables: there is never any left-over food (whatever is left-over goes to somebody hungry); whatever you need for the day you buy that day; nobody needs to store butter or milk or yoghurt the way I do; eggs are stored at room temperature; water is stored in a clay pot; soda drinks are expensive and –if need be, on rare occasions- can be bought chilled at the corner store. Those people that have a fridge do not put it in “le magasin” but place it in the living room. There it stands like a piece of furniture, like the status symbol that it is. Even if you wanted to, you could not put it into the kitchen room because there never is an electrical outlet in there.

Another thought on cooking with charcoal. Aside from the fact that it is just not as easy for me to use, there are some other things I am concerned about. Mali suffers from really serious deforestization, and what national and international projects they have here to plant trees cannot keep up with the rate at which people fell them. The wood is sold as fire wood, or turned into charcoal, which then is sold on the side of the road to women who need it to cook. The pollution produced by turning wood into charcoal, or by burning wood and charcoal also contributes to the already overly polluted air here. There are gas cookers available, and it’s cheaper and cleaner to cook with gas than with wood or charcoal, but I suspect that most people here lack the initial high expense of buying a gas tank. Other may have the resources but just never think about the environmental implications.]

Shopping. Shopping here is a daily event, and the stores and stands stay open until late at night. Fresh fruits and vegetables are sold at stands scattered throughout the city on the sides of the roads. Easily available here in Bamako are: lettuce, beets, potatoes, onions, garlic, yams, green bananas, okra, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, (bitter) melons, bananas, oranges. If you look a little harder: green peppers, mint, apples, avocados, pineapple. (There are huge mango trees everywhere with thousands of mangoes on them, but they are not ripe yet…Other items that should be available when in season: green beans, radishes, papaya, guava…) The rest is sold in little stores (“la boutique”). That’s where you can find canned goods and dry items. Everything that you would want is sold in minuscule quantities: a 25 gram bag of sugar, a tiny pouch with dried milk, a little plastic bag filled with cooking oil, etc. Of course it would be a lot cheaper to buy a kilo of sugar, but again: the family may not have a place to store it, or they may only have the small change to buy a small bag.

Each neighborhood has an accumulation of stores and stands, and that is called the market, “le marché”. It usually is packed tightly with people and merchandise, and as you wind your way through the maze you can also buy – in addition to fruits, vegetables, and dry goods - your (live) chickens, your meat (alive or dead), and all other kitchen equipment. Sheep usually are sold at a separate market. The sheep market. Ditto for cows.

[Editorial: If you are like me you have never really thought about supermarkets, and what they really are. Being here has made me worship them, and the way they have facilitated the life of women! Here I have to go from stand to stand, from store to store, looking for items that I may or may not find. Each store has one or two brands of one item, but only that particular day. Or each store has all the same merchandise as the next one. All the items are behind the counter, so you can never pick up anything, read the label, that sort of thing. Nothing is priced, so the store keeper has to tell you the prices. The stands selling the vegetables and fruits are all selling the same merchandise for the same price, all next to each other, so you have nothing to base your choice on. And then there is the customer service piece: missing all together. (I admit that after 22 years in the U.S. I have been spoiled by the American standards of customer service, and even shopping in Europe easily disappoints.) The vendors rarely greet you, nor do they offer a smile or a “thank you”. Take the supermarket, on the other hand: aisle after aisle of merchandise that is priced, that you can pick up and compare. You can choose your favorite from multiple brands, and everything that you may need is all there under one roof: paper goods, cleaning supplies, meat, dairy products (notice that I did not mention dairy items in the section on the market…), beverages, dry foods etc. Because everything is so easy and self-explanatory you don’t really need to interact with employees until you check out, and you usually can get a greeting out of them, even here. The supermarket is clean, quick, convenient, and for those of us who do not like going to “le marché” or “la boutique” every day (or do not have the time), it is goddess-send. There are exactly 3 supermarkets here in Bamako, none close by to where we are staying, and none in Timbuktu. So, please, next time that you are in a supermarket like it’s no big thing, pause and give thanks. You would really miss it if it was gone….]

[Another curious observation about shopping and gender: I have never seen a man food shopping at the markets. The supermarket aisles, however, are teeming with African men who do their food shopping. I wonder: have they lived abroad and have learned to help out their wives by shopping? They don’t shop at the markets here because they, too, find it time consuming and difficult? I would love to interview them about this issue….]

Salt & Pepper. I had already been here for over two months and I had not yet cooked, even though I have the time while Malé is running all over town. I just could not get myself to cook with charcoal, on the floor, in the courtyard, etc. Malé, infinitely patient, let me be, and we ate with family and friends and in restaurants. I finally identified the bare minimum of equipment that I needed to even think about cooking: a refrigerator, a gas cooker, and some plates and knifes and forks. And chairs to sit on. So when we moved into this apartment here he went and got me what I wanted. I also had access to a supermarket which was next to the hotel where I would occasionally spend time. Shopping there put me in the mood to cook, and I bought everything that I needed to make Spaghetti Bolognaise, my grand début. (Especially after I found crème fraîche, an important ingredient in the Spiller’s Spaghetti Bolognaise!) But I forgot to buy salt and pepper. Later that day we ate dinner with Malé’s friend Bokum, and I asked his wife Sétou if she had some salt and pepper for me. Sure she did. Did I want to grind it, or should she do it for me? Well, that never occurred to me. Grind it with a grind stone??? (She was not talking about a salt and pepper mill!) No, I did not want to particularly grind it myself. So she had somebody grind away, and later I received a container of freshly pulverized pepper and salt. (Except that the salt was pure MSG crystals, more about that below.) I did not say anything and gratefully took the containers. I knew that the next day we would be at Malé’s sister “La Veille” (=the old one, more about that in another blog), and I would ask her for salt. Sure, she had salt, and happily offered me a rock of salt the size of an orange. Even if I had a salt mill I would have to break up that baby to make it fit. I humbly asked her if she could grind it for me, and she did, with her grind stone.

[Editorial: The point here is that acquiring even something basic and ordinary as salt and pepper has unexpected nuances and challenges that I am completely unprepared for. It just makes me realize how easy everything has been made for us, the consumers, and how spoiled we are. (And how much I like being spoiled…) The next time that I was in the supermarket I looked for salt and pepper: yes! They have salt grains in a nice little container, and it’s even iodized. (Betcha you don’t know about goiters and why we don’t have them anymore…) They also have ground pepper.]

The meals. The meals here are enormous, and are served seemingly round-the-clock. The African women that I have spend time with cook from morning until night. Most women have maids (“la bonne”), and several at that. So there may be two to four maids plus the housewife in the courtyard preparing meals. The meals usually involve rice and meat with sauce, or French fries and meat with sauce, or couscous or tôt with meat with sauce. Occasionally fish with sauce and rice/couscous/French fries, and sometimes a salad with potatoes, beet, eggs, cucumber, tomatoes, etc. Even breakfast involves meat with sauce and bread, to soak up the sauce, or occasionally a sweetened type of flour soup with grains. Often several types of sauce are prepared for each meal.

Meals are served in groups: usually children together, the women eat together as they cook, and the men are served whenever they show up. The women never really know when somebody will show up to eat, so they are always prepared. The more affluent ones have lots of thermo dishes, where the rice and the sauce are kept warm. And they also never know how many people will show up. That’s why the pots are always filled to the brim.

[Editorial: Dear Reader, do I really have to comment on this? I am not sure what I will be doing here day-to-day, but I will not prepare endless meals every day for random people that will show up whenever and want to eat. Also, when and if I do cook, I will want to eat with my husband, not before or after him. So I guess our household will be a little different, and we can always visit Malé’s friends and family for a little more authentic Malian experience.]

Cleaning. The Malian women clean a lot. All they long you can see women and girls sweeping, washing, and scrubbing. All the laundry is washed by hand, of course, and my clothes have never been cleaner than since they have been washed here. They wash the laundry in the river, or in tubs in the courtyard, or in tubs on the street. (The only thing that everybody has to wash by him- or herself is the underwear. It must be done in secret because it is considered very private.) The house, the courtyard, the area in front of the house: everything gets swept at least once a day, usually more. All the surfaces that can be mopped will be, also once a day. All the big platters and pots that were used for cooking and eating get washed in the “sink” in the courtyard, and it’s not unusual to see piles of them come up to the waist. Even the cars get washed all the time!

[Editorial: I used to really like cleaning. I will self-disclose now: I would dust everything once a week, vacuum once a week, clean the bathroom once week, mop once a month, wash my windows once every two months, clean the fridge, the stove, wipe down the door frames, the floor boards, etc. It felt very therapeutic and satisfying, and afterwards I would relax on my sofa and feast my eyes on how nice and clean and tidy everything looked, and how good it smelled. (I am not kidding you: this is the truth.) And my apartment would stay good-looking for about a week, until it was time to vacuum again.

Let’s start with the dust here: there is a lot of it here. Partially because most roads are not tarred (even here in Bamako), partially because of the air pollution, partially because of the lack of vegetation, partially because of all the construction, partially because it’s the dry season – even if you sweep twice or three times a day it’s as if you have not swept in a week! If I sit down here to feast my eyes and blink it’s like I never even swept! Well, that right there takes the fun out of it for me. I can’t imagine any vacuum cleaner motor being able to survive this type of dust, so that’s no solution either.

Furthermore, about the laundry issue: even if I wanted to wash our clothes by hand (let’s say for the sake of exercise), they would never be as clean. In addition, Malé likes to wear white shirts and light colored pants – try getting them clean! I have no problem washing our underwear (in secret), and I will wash some of my shirts and skirts, but I admit that I will continue to give our laundry away to be washed. There just is no way that I will wash jeans and sheets and towels and white shirts… All in all, it’s going to be challenging to re-create my cleaning pleasures that I enjoyed in NYC here in Mali… ]

Their dirty, little secret. My suspicions arose when I noticed that Mali is littered with billboards advertising MAGGI. I know MAGGI products from Germany, where we buy their bouillon cubes to make soup. Since I had never seen anybody eat soup here I was wondering why Malians would be interested in MAGGI cubes. The second give-away was the fact that all the sauces here taste very good, and very similar. I wasn’t sure what spices they were using, but no matter at which dusty, dingy road side shack, or at whose house we were eating, the sauces were all similarly good. Very good in fact. Too good… Then there was the day that I was poking around at the market and I saw lots of bags with big white crystals being sold. Kind of like what you would see in a New Age store, you know the quartz crystals that you use to cleanse yourself or whatever? Except that we were definitely not in a New Age store, so they were not quartz crystals. I asked the vendor, and he told me it was salt. A closer inspection of the label confirmed my suspicions: MSG. I realized then that women here grind up and use pure MSG as “salt” in their sauces, and their salad dressings. Or they use MAGGI cubes, which is also MSG with some other spices. And mostly they use both! That is why Sétou gave me ground up MSG when I asked for salt. That explains the sauces and their similar taste. It’s a little hard to avoid eating meals prepared with MSG, but at least I don’t have to use it myself.

Well, dear Reader, as you see there are some challenges ahead for me…Stay tuned for more wild tales about my stay here in Mali!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Everything that I know about Real Estate I learned from the New York Times

I have lived in New York City for 22 years, and by definition that makes me real estate-savvy. It happens by osmosis. We live, eat, read, talk and drink real estate there. Even if you don’t give a rat’s ass about real estate, you know a thing or two about it. You must, since everybody else does, and you don’t want to appear like a social misfit.

So plunging into the real estate market here in Bamako was not scary or intimidating. Until I realized that I was in completely unfamiliar territory. (I blame the New York Times: they had never, ever featured the Malian real estate market, and, after all, that is where I got all my info on real estate!)

It started when I realized that – like everything else here- we will rely on personal connections. Yes, apparently real estate agents exits, but I guess only complete losers go to them. We started by visiting one of Malé’s acquaintances, Alfa, also from Timbuktu. Alfa was wearing a suit and was having one of those mid-morning meat snacks (at 10am or so), that the Timbuktians like to have. When he finished, we met up with another Timbuktian, just so that the car would fill up nicely. Then we stopped at a shack and were joined by another man. This one stood out, because he was not from Timbuktu. I gathered that he was the one that would actually show us the apartments. Until we stopped again and gathered up another man at a street corner. This one was the guardian, who had the key to the first apartment. Or so we thought: when we finally got to the apartment, he ran down the street to retrieve the key from somebody else!

Eventually we all entered the first place: Malé, myself, Alfa, the other friend from Timbuktu, the shack man, the guardian, and the man who had the key. The place was actually like a small free-standing house, surrounded by a wall. It was build around a court yard. The main building was a living room and three bedrooms and a bathroom, and then there were another three rooms off the courtyard. Those, I was told, are used to board maids, relatives, friends, or just to store stuff. The kitchen was just an empty room without water, window, or outlets. (This is how the kitchens are here, I learned. Just a big storage space. Which is fine, if you don’t plan on having a fridge, a stove, running water, etc.) Now, because I am an astute observer (and real estate-savvy, as I said) I noticed something right away: the place was a dump, as we in the real estate business say in New York. Plain and simple. Especially if you consider that we were looking at above-average price points, so to speak. So, not to offend anybody or anything, I very casually asked if the owner was going to do any work here on this place. Oh, yes: once he gets the three months security deposit, he will do this, that, and the other. Interesting.

We went to the next place, which had a similar layout as the first. Here I noticed two things: there was a well in the court yard, and also, the house had not been completely constructed yet! (Which I could tell by the missing windows and doors, and all the building material that was lying around.) This house, too, had three storage/staff rooms, but here there clearly were people living in them. There was a bed under a mosquito net, and a full clothes line, and a woman cooking food, and some children playing. I know that I was asking a lot of dumb questions that day, but I just had to know: who are the people that are living here? The construction workers and their families, I was told. Once the owner gets the three months security deposit (industry standard here, you see), he can complete the construction work and the happy tenant can move in, in a month or two or three. Depending, you understand.

Well, I was so baffled that I forgot to inquire about the well. But luckily, the next house also had one, and I got a chance to inquire. Malé, infinitely patient with all my questions, explained to me that most houses here have a well in the court yard. Yes, dear Reader, you just have to ask yourself why the Manhattan real estate market has not come up with that! You see, the well water can be used for cleaning and washing, and it is free! The water that comes out of the tap has been treated and therefore costs money. It is used for drinking and cooking. It is a brilliant concept, except for the small detail of having to actually haul up the water via a bucket or a goat skin or something. Well, can you picture me already at the well, hauling up buckets of water? Exactly…!

The five or so men looked at me expectantly. They had shown me some of the finest properties, and were sure that I was pleased. I patiently explained to them, without wanting to offend anybody, that the houses were so big, and that it really was just Malé and I who would be living there. We really did not need 3 or so extra outside rooms for staff and in-laws, and the well…. Well, I could do without one. Can they show me something smaller? They nodded, but not very sincerely. Even though I believe they understood my French, they didn’t really understand ME. But, off we went. We dropped of the key guy, the guardian, and the guy from the shack guy, and we went to a different neighborhood.

In the vicinity of the next property we picked up a new shack guy. I understood now that this was a “steerer” of sorts: not to drugs, but to real estate. He steered us to a three story building just south of the river: a high rise of sorts. There we looked for a different guardian, and he went to get the key guy. Then all 7 of us walked up three fights of stairs. All of the men were commenting on this impossibly strenuous exercise, and that was probably the reason that the apartment was still available. The apartment was much smaller: just two bedrooms, but it had a real kitchen (with running water and a sink, an electric outlet, and –gasp!- the first built-in cabinets that I had seen in two months!). It also had three balconies and three exposures. You could clearly see the river, and the thriving sheep market that was just down the street. But the best feature: it had a super market on street level! I could actually just go downstairs, go into ONE store, and buy everything that my little heart desired!!!! But the apartment also was much more expensive than we wanted ($250), and it, too, was a little run-down, to say it politely. Again: I was assured that once the owner got his money, he would clean and paint and repair. I was very much in love with the fact that the bedrooms had shelves (also a first), but I was holding out. The five men looked at each other and looked at Malé, sympathizing with him on his difficult wife, and we all climbed down the stairs together, the men wondering about why anybody in their right mind would want to do that everyday.

That time we dropped off everybody, and Malé and I continued together. We now went to meet his other friend, Bokum, from Timbuktu. He had just finished eating a little meat. The next couple of steps were familiar to me already: go to the shack at the corner, pick up the steerer; go to the neighborhood, meet the guardian and the key guy. This time we were north of the city, in a newly developed neighborhood, where palatial villas stand side by side with shacks. The apartment was one of two apartments surrounding a court yard. It was newly build, so it was not (really) dirty, and the things were all in working order (more or less): the windows and doors opened and closed, the light switches were still there, and the electrical outlets were inside the wall, not dangling to the ground. The other apartment was occupied by the owner, a woman. There was a guardian who was there 24/7, and there was room for the car. No, there is no super market, and it is a little in the ‘burbs, so to speak. But it is clean(ish) and quiet. She was asking for $140, and once we would give her the three months security deposit, she would plant some bushes, and finish painting, and finish the roof. And, you guessed it: there is a well! How could I resist…. We sealed the deal with a hand shake, and moved our belongings in yesterday.

I will post a picture of me hauling up water from the well shortly….

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tales from the Edge of the World: The Yoghurt

I admit I have a problem with dairy products: I cannot get enough of them. And don’t give me any low fat, no fat, reduced fat, skim-milk products, either: I have been known to add Half & Half to friends’ skim milk to make it more palatable to me. I crave rich, creamy, fatty dairy products like other people crave chocolate or coffee. I must have it, and preferably several times a day. So, when I first visited Mali, I was reassured to find out that they are one of the largest livestock producers in Africa. Where there is live stock, there are cows, and where there are cows, there is milk, and where there is milk, there is yoghurt/cream/cheese/quark/sour cream/crème fraîche…. So even if there are other quality of life issues that I must contend with in Mali: I will get my dairy fix and all is well….

My optimistic outlook began to be somewhat challenged in Bamako. Shortly after my first arrival in 2005, I noticed huge billboards everywhere announcing “Mali Lait” and its various products, especially their yoghurts! Good stuff, I was thinking, and I started to look for a store to buy some. Problem is that I cannot really tell which store sells what: the sign over the store is usually not a good indicator of whether or not they sell yoghurt. You have to enter the store and look for a refrigerator. Or a freezer that only works enough to be used as a refrigerator. Which you don’t know until you open it, or ask. So you start asking the merchants for yoghurt. Considering that there are all these “Mali Lait” billboards along the roads, I had to wonder why the merchants look at you like you have two heads, or like they never heard of yoghurt. (It also makes you wonder about the effectiveness of the other most common billboard, besides “Mali Lait”: the one where they warn about the dangers of AIDS and HIV infection. I sure hope that that public awareness campaign is more successful than the yoghurt one…) Ok, so wandering from store to store was not a very successful strategy. I resorted to another one: asking people where I was staying if they can find me some yoghurt. Success: this way I eventually was introduced in Bamako to the famous “Mali Lait” yoghurt, and it satisfied all my German expectations of a good dairy product: it came in a little cup, and it was creamy and cool and full of milk fat!

I was a happy camper, until I moved on to Mopti, where I had to begin my search all over again. This time I was staying with PeaceCorps Baba, who considered my desire very dubious, and only relented after numerous requests. I am not sure if he just thought it unnatural to want to eat yoghurt, or if he doubted my ability to digest Malian yoghurt, but eventually he introduced me to a new product: “Mali Lait” yoghurt in a little plastic baggy. Oh, it is like drinkable yoghurt, and you can bite a little hole in the corner and you can suck it out of its baggy, and it, too, is delicious and passed the German quality inspection with flying colors. (When I became very violently ill after a couple of days with a random intestinal bug, PeaceCorps Baba swore up and down that it was the yoghurt, that I never should have eaten in the first place. He sat in his living room and told all of his family, his entourage and all of the visitors that day of my illness and what caused it, and they all sat around and shook their head at the risk taking behavior of this foolish German woman.) But it was too late: I was hooked! I had tasted Malian yoghurt, I knew that it existed, and I would no longer take “no” as an answer….

So this time around Bamako posed no challenge. I knew what I wanted, and –granted, I had to ask for it a couple of times – I eventually had my yoghurt every morning, with a banana and some delicious dark Malian honey. Life was good. Until I got to Timbuktu. There, to my horror, I was told by the one merchant in town who deals with French butter (another holy grail of dairy products in my book, and usually where you can find one you can find the other…), that there IS NO YOGHURT IN TIMBUKTU. Well, just shatter my world, why don’t you! Did the man really understand the impact that his words had on me? I think not. I couldn’t believe it! This would seriously impact the quality of my life there in Timbuktu. It is much harder to face sand storms, scorpions, outhouses, and endless meals of mutton meat without any yoghurt in sight. Soon I resorted to a new strategy: I would make my desire for yoghurt part of my social palaver with people: everybody who I spoke with for more than 2 minutes (the standard length of social greeting) had to endure my questions about yoghurt. No, they all shook their heads: there really is no yoghurt here in Timbuktu. Boy, it was going to be hard living here. In January my friends all came and left after a couple of weeks, and they, too, had to endure my constant whining about the lack of dairy products in this town.

And then, one day when it was just me and Malé and his friend Mohammed, and I started yet again about the yoghurt, Mohammed said: Oh, there is a woman just down the street. She makes and sells yoghurt, and he will get me some tomorrow morning. Just like that. The same Malé and the same Mohammed who had been listening to my yoghurt cravings for over a month now. Why, I asked them, have they not told me about that before? They evasively stammered something about, oh, they did not think that I was talking about THAT kind of yoghurt. What kind? The delicious, cool, white, creamy, rich kind that Mohammed brought for me the next morning? Yup, that’s the one that I was looking for. And so, every morning after that, Mohammed brought me two little baggies of homemade yoghurt, and I couldn’t have been happier! I ate it with Mango, with bananas, with honey, and I ate it even when I had yet another mysterious intestinal episode. The only time I did not eat it was when the woman’s daughter got married and she did not make any. I was a little shaken up, but I understood. Sort of.

Now that we have resolved the yoghurt issue, I can move on to the cheese issue. No, they all say, there is no cheese to be had here. But then one day Malé told me that the Tamashek make cheese, sometimes, somewhere, somehow, but he cannot imagine that I really want to eat THAT kind of cheese. Well, there is just one way to find out, and I will, next time I am in Timbuktu….

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Some more pictures needed....

I have not figured out how to label the pictures that I add, so here some explanations to the pictures from the previous post:

1.Ava and the donkey ride

2. Male's daughter Hamsetou, Mirja's daughter Ava, and the rooster Daphne

3. Visit with Bebe's mother, the Tamashek Artisan

4. The rocks by Douentza, between Timkuktu and Mopti

5. Tellem village in Dogon Country

And then these pictures here:

1. Male on the ox cart

2.Male and Haike climbing up the cliff

3.Male, our chief, and the village chief, Dogon dance

4.Male, Ava, and Rana looking for Hippos

5.Male's daughter Hamsetou and his son Moustaphe (the carbon copy of his dad)

Traveling with Friends, Family, and a Rooster named Daphne

December 28th, 2006, Bamako
Mirja and her two girls, Rana (9) and Ava (5), arrive from Berlin today, and I am so relieved that we finally got the car and can actually pick them up ourselves!

[It wasn’t until yesterday at 5pm that the final signature was placed on the final document by the final very important administrator after three weeks of running a bureaucratic obstacle course. Luckily I did not actually have to do anything to make it happen – it was aggravating enough, though, to have Malé tell me about all the different challenges that he encountered everyday. My only other reference to a system that requires a person to spend eight hours a day in an office, day after day, waiting and praying –literally, 5 times a day- that an employee will eventually do what they are hired to do, and that at the same time is designed to dissuade the person from utilizing the system in the first place, is the welfare system in NYC. Let’s just say that the tales Malé told make applying for welfare look like a walk in the park! Especially considering that things were this slow with bribery…!]

When we get to the airport, we have to actually park the car in a parking lot with electronically time-stamped tickets and gates that open and close automatically! They must have just bought and installed that system, and I will have to come back in a couple of months to see if it still works… The plane lands as scheduled, the luggage is all there, and we pile into the car. I am so perplexed at the sophisticated parking lot (and Malé has never parked in such a lot), that it takes us a minute to figure out where to pay for the ticket, but when we finally do, we can leave and head towards town. At the hotel, we eat a delicious dinner salad on the roof underneath the stars before we all go to bed.

December 29th, 2006, Bamako – Ségou
I neglected to mention to Mirja that right next to our hotel is a brand new Mosque with a kick-ass, blow-your-turban-of-your-head loudspeaker system that will blast us all out of bed at about 4am. It’s so loud that apparently even some Muslim neighbors are not enchanted. But nobody really says anything, and it’s not like I can call 311 to complain about noise pollution, like I would in NYC… But luckily Mirja and the kids sleep right through it. We have breakfast together, and then we spend some time walking around the neighborhood. Mirja and the kids have never been to West Africa, and they want to get a taste of it. There is no need, however, to go into the center of Bamako for that: the little neighborhood where we are staying will offer plenty of “taste”: the streets are teeming with cars, donkeys, mopeds, little children and pedestrians, the vendors are selling everything from beauty products to produce to paper goods, live sheep or poultry. The absolute show stopper for everybody, however, is Rana and Ava. White people are odd-looking and interesting enough here, but little white people, and blond and cute to boot, are just absolutely amazing! People stare at them, follow us, and want to touch them, but it’s all very friendly and manageable. We buy some things for our trip, such as chips and cookies, and then we buy some sparklers (Wunderkerzen) and other dubious looking Chinese fireworks. It is, after all, New Year’s in two days, and we are planning on lighting up the town of Timbuktu! But other things that we are looking for we cannot find: we would like some nuts and some coconut and some fruit. I am exhausted and I take my visitor’s to Mamadou’s little hotel around the corner, and then I do what Malé would do: I tell Mamadou what we want, and he sends random kids on the errand! Ten minutes random kids converge back to the place, and deliver the wanted goods. In the meantime Mirja and the kids and I recuperate from our strenuous shopping exercise on the sofa.

After lunch we finally leave town to head towards Timbuktu. I am not sad to leave Bamako behind, but I already know that I will miss the WiFi connection and the Hotel Kempinski….

We make good time, but because we left so late, we only make it as far as Ségou, about three hours away (230km). For different reasons it’s really not a good idea to drive after darkness, and by 6:30pm or so it is pitch black. We arrive at Ségou at around 7:30pm, and we stay in a very nice little hotel there, L’Esplanade. Yes, we are heading for the desert, but the kids brought their bathing suit, and we go for a little swim after dinner.

December 30th, 2006, Ségou - Timbuktu
We take off very early in the morning since we have about 800km until our destination. We drive for a couple of hours until we get to San, where we stop to have breakfast. Even though it’s the big Tabaski fest today, the restaurant is open and we have café and baguette with butter and confiture – the breakfast staple here for foreigners. (Malians would want to eat meat, of course). We continue, breeze through Mopti, and our next stop is Douentza. We eat something, and then we buckle down for the real adventure: it is there that we leave the relative comforts of the asphalt road behind, and veer north, towards Timbuktu, on a road that the locals call “les escaliers” – the stairs. We have to drive 190km on that road, which takes about 3-4 hours, depending on the shape of the vehicle and the driver. At the end of that road it is a miracle if the car is still in one piece, and if the passengers have not thrown up! We survive the road, and we arrive at the board of the Niger River. The ferry is there, and we make the crossing. After that it still takes about 20 minutes, and we are finally there! Malé’s neighbors have prepared the house for us with incense, and we eat a delicious meal that his mother has cooked for us.

December 31st, 2006, Timbuktu
Today is really the official day for Tabaski. The Malian government had decided that the people should celebrate it on the 30th (so that it doesn’t interfere with New Year’s?), and some people did, but others are celebrating today. Since we can’t really distinguish one party from the next, it doesn’t really matter. (I am just glad that the sheep for Malé’s family have already been slaughtered, and we are not confronted with any remnants, either.) So we just dress up nicely, and sit around, make nice, and receive visitors. The kids get to acquaint themselves with Malé’s children: Moctar, 12, Hamsétou, 9, and Moutaphe, 5 (and the spitting image of is dad). Mirja brought coloring books and crayons for the kids, and they are a total hit! Soon there is a kid everywhere you look, furiously coloring away, and also several big teenagers and adults join in. At this rate the books will be fully colored in about one day…

The other highlight of the day is when Ava gets her promised donkey ride. At this point Malé has established the motto for the next couple of weeks:
Whatever Ava Wants, Ava Gets.
Ava wants to ride on a donkey, so Ava will get a tour of the neighborhood on a donkey. Luckily Malé’s neighbor has three, which he really uses to collect the garbage from the neighbors. But, lickety split, the garbage donkey is changed into a special donkey for Ava, and tours the neighborhood with her. We accompany her, of course, and at every corner we accumulate more and more kids who follow us. At some point there must have been about 30 or so. (They probably still talk about that afternoon…) None of this fazes Ava one bit; she just focuses on her donkey and enjoys the ride.

After dinner we are so pooped from our exhausting day (receiving visitors, walking around with a donkey), that we decide to take a disco nap before heading out for a big New Year’s celebration. Well, let this be a warning to you: disco naps only work until you are 30 or so; after that you never get up once you lay down! And so it was that we all slept through what we are told was a big event in party town Timbuktu…!

January 1st, 2007, Timbuktu
Today is another holiday, of course. The kids play in and around the house, and we receive visitors. A little later in the day it is up to us to visit Malé’s mother. She lives in a house right in the old part of town, and her rooms are filled with beautiful, pristine sand from the desert, that gets meticulously sieved and raked every day. For visitors she places mats and mattresses on the sand, and we recline while the kids draw in the sand. She always cooks several meals for different families and visitors throughout the day in her courtyard kitchen, where the chickens hang out. They actually like to nestle against her feet underneath her chair while she supervises the helpers that work for her. Her meals taste great, and there is always a bit of sand in the sauce…. Ava mentions that she would like a chick, and (Whatever Ava Wants, Ava Gets) soon Malé has a chick delivered to the house. Ava is delighted, and tells us that the chick’s name is Daphne. We welcome Daphne into our travel group…

Later we take the kids to a bar/restaurant for a beverage. We toast the New Year with Fanta and Coke, and then decide to really let loose… Up on Malé’s roof we give each kid one sparkler and one dubious Chinese fire cracker to light! They sparkle and crackle and smoke and blow up, and the kids squeal with delight! We applaud and cheer, and everybody agrees that this was one of the best New Year’s celebrations ever!!!

January 2nd – 3rd, 2007, Timbuktu
We spend the next days exploring Timbuktu, visiting the mosques and the markets. Of course we also have to visit our guide’s family, where we drink some tea and look at the handcrafted leather bags and pillows that his mother does. She is the president of the Tamashek (Tuareq) women’s association of artisans (or so), and she proudly shows us photos of her travels to the United States and Europe. Mirja wants to buy some souvenirs for the kids, and she gets a quick training in price negotiation: it takes forever, you always end up paying too much, and you buy things that you did not really want.

January 4th, 2007, Timbuktu – Sevaré/Mopti
We leave town very early. (We = Mirja and her kids, Malé’s son Moustaphe and his daughter Hamsétou.) The trip on the “stairs” is uneventful, once we got used to the pipi-poop-vomit breaks that we have to make every 30 minutes or so to accommodate the kids. The second stretch, on the asphalt road to Mopti, is much better, and we get to the hotel in Sevaré in the afternoon. Here we meet the rest of our group: Peter and Fiona (NYC), Kady (Berlin), Oumou (Malé’s niece from Bamako), Naf (Malé’s friend from Timbuktu), and Mary (Baltimore). They took the bus this morning from Bamako after having arrived from Morocco (Peter and Fiona) and the U.S. (Mary) the previous day. We all shower and change, and have a delicious dinner before we go to bed.

January 5th, 2007, Sevaré – Bandiagara – Dogon Country
“On everybody’s list of the top 10 places in West Africa is the homeland of the fascinating Dogon people, the huge Falaise de Bandiagara that extends some 150km through the Sahel to the east of Mopti. The landscape is stunning, and the Dogon people are noted for their complex and elaborate culture, art forms and unique houses and graneries – some clinging to the bare rock face of the escarpment. (…) Before the Dogon reached the escarpment, it was inhabited by the Tellem people. The origins of the Tellem are unclear – Dogon tradition describes them as small and red skinned – and none remain today. The vertical cliff is several hundred meters high, yet the Tellem managed to build dwellings and stores in the most inaccessible places. Most cannot be reached today, and the Dogon believe the Tellem could fly, or used magic powers to reach them. Another theory suggests that the weather climate of the previous millennium allowed vines and creepers to cover the cliff, providing natural ladders for the early inhabitants. The Tellem also used the caves to bury their dead, and many are still full of ancient bones. (…) The best way to see the Dogon Country is on foot. (…) Ancient tracks link village with village and the plateau with the plain. In places, carefully laid stones create a staircase up a fissure in the cliff face, while elsewhere ladders provide a route over a chasm or up to a higher ledge.” (Lonely Planet West Africa, 2002)

Well, Dogon Country, here we come! We rented a mini bus (old school bus), we have a guide, porters, water, made arrangements for an ox cart, and we are ready to go! The bus drops us of on top of the plateau, close to the cliff’s edge. We each carry some water and a small bag, but the porters take the majority of equipment and advance us. Peter and Fiona, however, are experienced trekkers and hikers, and they like to carry their own stuff. We soon reach the edge of the cliff, and we get a good view of the valley below. The air is a little hazy, but we nevertheless get a sense of the vastness below: a dry, rocky landscape, dotted with some vegetation and huge Baobab trees. Very quickly the meandering path turns into a steep decline, over and under huge rocks. We spend about an hour climbing down, and then we have reached the valley. We walk across some farmland, and soon we have reached our first destination: a stop for beverages. Malé, because he clearly is the big cheese among us, gets a (free, of course) foot massage: apparently a common occurrence since he does not bat an eye.

Soon we take off again, but now the entire luggage and all the children are loaded onto an ox cart. We don’t really look at the ox too closely, and it is only when the beast takes of at about 20 km/hour that Kady remarked how it had a crazed look in its eyes. But it’s too late now, and we just see a cloud of dust as the ox thunders towards the next village – we hope! The rest of us follow the dust cloud. It is a peaceful and quiet walk, and occasionally we pass villagers on ox or donkey carts or mopeds or on foot. The many huge Baobabs that we pass are impressive: the Baobab is a bizarre, monstrous, outer-worldly looking tree, and it makes sense that “Little Prince” felt that it threatened his planet. Its fruit look like “Leberwurst” and not very appetizing, but people here make a delicious juice from it. The tree’s bark is stripped and turned into straw-like strands that are dyed and used to make skirts and fringes for the traditional Dogon masks. As a result some of the trunks look oddly pruned and carved.

We soon get to the next village, and we find our encampment by asking the villagers if they have seen a crazed ox pulling two white and two black children and a bunch of luggage. The kids are there, and so is the luggage, so all is well as we rest and wait for lunch to be served. We may be in the middle of nowhere, but the beverages are ice cold, and the chicken in onion sauce with rice is delicious! After resting a bit (hey, that’s right! Here we rest before meals and after meals!), we continue. We have 4 kilometers to walk before we reach our encampment for the night, and this time we get two ox carts. But the crazed ox is not one of them, and I wonder what he was demoted to … All the bags and kids are loaded on one, and we sit on the other. The kids complain that their ride is much too slow now, and why can’t they thunder down the path as they did before….

We get to the next encampment just before sunset. (Sunset is always more or less at 6pm, and sunrise at 6am. It’s a strangely orderly and symmetric occurrence in a country where rarely anything else is that way…) It’s a beautiful encampment with multiple buildings arranged in a circle. There are beautifully painted little guest rooms, but we choose to sleep on the roof instead. Dinner is served underneath the stars, and then we retreat to our roof. I remember thinking that since we are sleeping directly underneath a Baobab tree, one of those big “Leberwurst” look-alikes better not fall on my head in the night….! But the only remarkable activities that night are the huge bats that pass overhead as they hunt their dinner.

January 6th, 2007, Dogon Country
The next day starts with a delicious breakfast of freshly fried “donuts” (“beignets” = “Schmalzgebackenes”) that we can dip in honey – and Nutella! (We have realized that Ava and Rana need Nutella for their imminent survival, and so we never leave the house without it, so to speak.) We visit the beautifully constructed museum of the village. I realize that the building’s impeccable 90 degree angles and precisely constructed interior is the result of a German project: it resonates deeply in me, and I get a little homesick. I like 90 degree angles…

We leave the village by taking an ox cart. We travel along the valley and marvel at the cliffs above us. In particular at a mesa-like tower, that sits on an impossibly narrow base. It probably will stand like that another couple of thousand years, but it looks like it will tumble any minute. Later the ox cart drops us of at the foot of the cliff. There are several porters who will take most of the bags, and also will carry the kids if they get tired. We now have to climb up the same cliff that we descended before. The path is steep but manageable. It looks so well constructed and maintained… I know that it’s not the Malian National Park Department that created it, but the villagers themselves. We must be experiencing Saturday rush hour, because we encounter many villagers that bound up and down the stone “staircases” (barefoot or in flip-flops), carrying water and vegetables and other goods on their heads. We also encounter the village chief, an experienced hunter who carries a homemade gun and an array of fetishes and amulets around his neck, including several crucifixes.

Just when I am really tired and out of breath, we reach a plateau at mid-level. It is the village’s garden, and it is out of this world! It is completely surrounded by cliffs, and yet it is lush and fertile, the soil is deep black, the onion fields are pungent, the tomatoes are red, and there is a meandering river that runs through the fields. It is so completely unexpected, and it is absolutely beautiful. I feel like I am in a movie: it is visually arresting.

We climb some more, and we finally reach the top of the cliff, and the village where we will spend the rest of the day and the night. It, too, is visually stunning: its little stone houses, its granaries, and two outhouses that are perched at the absolute edge of the cliff. After lunch we get a tour of the village. Like many Dogon villages it has three neighborhoods: a Muslim one with a mosque, a Christian one with a church, and one for the Animists. Some of us wanted to taste the locally produced millet beer that the Dogon are famous for, and we get a bottle delivered. The German beer drinkers are not horribly impressed, but they are polite and drink it anyway. We rest until dinner is served, and this time we sleep in the little guest rooms because it is much cooler up on the cliff than in the valley. A group of English travelers is not so lucky: they arrive just as it gets dark, and there are no rooms for them anymore … we are very pleased with our guide, who made all the necessary arrangements throughout the trip.

January 7th, 2007, Dogon Country – Djenné - Sevaré
The next morning we walk a little bit until we get to the village’s dance area. We each have contributed about $6 the evening before so that we can see a dance performance. The dancers wanted the money the night before so that they can buy some millet beer and drink it before the dance. At around 8am they don their masks and costumes that are kept in a secret place, so that nobody sees them change. Soon the first dancers and the musicians emerge, and we are treated to a wonderful performance that is rich in symbolism and history, of which we understand nothing. Two dancers who have their feet tied onto stilts join the others, and eventually the dance concludes with the chief thanking us and wishing us well for the rest of our journey. It is almost 9am, and the dancers rush back to their secret place to change out of their masks, just in time for worship. It is Sunday, after all, and the little church is already toiling its bell….

We soon leave the village, and climb the last couple of meters to the top of the cliff, where our minibus waits for us. We drive about 2 hours until we reach our hotel in Sevaré. This is a welcome opportunity to shower and change our clothes that we have been wearing for the last couple of days. When we are all shiny and clean, we get back into the minibus to visit Djenné. (All, except Fiona, who is not feeling well and decides that she cannot stomach another almost 2 hour drive until Djenné.)

Djenné sits on an island in the Bani River (a tributary to the Niger River), and to reach it we take a ferry. It is a beautiful and old city, and the architecture is almost all traditional Sudanese-style mud constructions. There is also a complicated thing about the pillars and columns that indicate how many wives and how many children the patriarch has, but I forgot the details. The most famous structure, of course, is the huge mud mosque, that sits imposing at the center of town. Unfortunately we will not experience the market, which takes place on Mondays and is supposed to be the most interesting and biggest of all Malian markets. We leave after just a short visit, and drive back to Sevaré, where we will spend the night before heading to Timbuktu in the morning.

January 8th, 2007, Sevaré – Timbuktu
We cannot travel to Timbuktu in the minibus, that’s for sure, and we have rented a
second car with driver. We split up the group: Mirja, all of the kids, Oumou and myself travel with Malé, and the others are in the rented car. The owner of the second car had insisted – to no avail- to get the whole rental fee in advance and we soon understand why: there seems to be something wrong with the car. The car emits huge black clouds, and the driver has to stop every once in a while to add oil. He also is driving only about 80km/hour, and that’s on the asphalt road. We are under time pressure, since the last ferry sets across the river to Timbuktu at 6pm. It only gets worse once we get to the “stairs”: the other car cannot keep up with us. But since we have to kids in the car, we have to stop every 20-30 minutes for pipi-poop-vomit breaks, and at those points the other car catches up with us. Until the time that it doesn’t…. We wait and wait, but the other car is nowhere to be seen, heard, or smelled. Malé turns around, and we soon see it at the side of the road. Now it does not drive at all anymore. Oh, our friends are glad to see us. At first the plan is to for us to turn around and get the mechanic from the last town. But after a couple of meters I suggest to Malé that we just pile the entire luggage and all the passengers into our car, leave the driver with the stalled car, and continue towards Timbuktu. Once we reach the ferry Malé can call the car’s owner and send help to the driver. We turn back around, and manage to squeeze 9 adults, 4 children, and the entire luggage into our car, African-style. We probably could have fit the other driver as well, but he has to stay with the car.

We reach the ferry point at around 7pm. I am mentally prepared to spend the night on the ground, beside the car, as Mary and I did in 2005. But that time I was not traveling with Malé, who can just make things happen: he calls the ferry’s owner, and soon we hear the lumbering motor of the ferry, arriving to pick us up and deliver us to Timbuktu!

January 9th – 10th, 2007, Timbuktu
We spend the next couple of days in Timbuktu at Malé’s house. We eat, we nap, we go shopping, we tour the town, we play with Daphne, the rooster, and we receive visitors. It's exhausting.

January 11th, 2007, Timbuktu - Essekane
Unfortunately Peter and Fiona cannot come with us to the desert festival at Essekane. Their flight leaves Bamako early in the morning on the 15th… it’s difficult enough to get out of Timbuktu, but because of the festival all available cars are heading towards Essekane, not back towards Mopti. The best chance seems to be a flight, but all the seats are already booked. All of the sudden there is word that another –unscheduled- flight will leave Timbuktu today. Malé hustles Peter and Fiona towards the airport. Yes, it seems that they will leave on this flight: tickets are bought, the luggage is loaded, the passengers board….All of the sudden the pilot announces that he will not take any passengers, and everybody is to leave the plane. Malé returns to the house with Peter and Fiona, who now are not sure how they will leave. As we are standing around, scratching our heads, Malé receives a call from the airport: it seems that a Minister has intervened on behalf of two sick passengers who were to be evacuated with that flight, and has ordered to pilot to take the passengers to Bamako. Our friends jump back into the car and race to the airport. Only when Malé finally returns by himself, after having seen the plane take off, do we have –somewhat- reason to believe that they are en route to Bamako… well, at least we know they are heading somewhere.

The rest of us pile into the car to begin the 3 hour drive to Essekane. Malé claims that we are driving on a road, but it doesn’t resemble any road that I know: we are just driving up and down the sand dunes. This time we only have two kids with us, so the pipi-poop-vomit breaks are reduced by half, but I worry about Daphne, the rooster, who is traveling in a carton: do chicken get motion sickness? We get to the gate that marks the entrance to the festival just after darkness, and after some hard-core negotiating about the entrance fee we finally enter the ground. Like I said, it is dark already, the grounds are huge, and we don’t know where Malé’s friend Yahia has his encampment. Malé drives up and down the sand dunes, looking for his tent. Because you risk sinking into the sand when you diminish your speed or stop altogether, the search is done at great speed, all the while people and camels and other cars are milling around us. At times it takes a literal leap by a pedestrian to get out of our way! Eventually, though, we find Yahia’s tent. We are offered to pitch our tent next to the cars, between some dunes, but that doesn’t appeal to me at all! I would rather pitch the tent on top of the dune, where we have a great view of the grounds…. (During the night, when the wind and the sand was battering our tent, and I couldn’t sleep a wink, I realized that there was a reason why nobody else had their tent on top of the dune….)

January 12th, 2007, Essekane
The next morning the sand storm has not subsided. I barely dare to stick my head out of the tent, but when I do I realize the reason for why the tent’s ground felt so lopsided: yes, it’s true that dunes wander, and this one wandered away from underneath our ass during the night! The tent is now sitting at the edge of the dune, and there is about a meter drop underneath the tent. We quickly pack up everything and relocate: right there, next to the parked cars, just like what was suggested to me last night. Oh, well.

We spend the day eating and resting and wandering around, looking at the Tamashek and their camels and their dances, while they look at us (especially at Ava and her pet rooster!). At night is the concert, but Malé and I are so tired from not sleeping the night before that we do not attend.

January 13th, 2007, Essekane
Today is my birthday, and Malé surprises me with a beautiful necklace that I had seen a week earlier. (I see jewelry here all day long, but I rarely see something that I would want to wear, so this necklace really stuck out. He was not with me when I saw it, but I mentioned it to him. I was hoping that he would find it for me, but how? The man who showed it to me was a random Tamashek, who only had this one piece that a woman had asked him to try and sell in town. I did not know the man’s name, or anything about him. Well, here it was: somehow Malé had managed to track down the man and the necklace… I was very surprised and very happy!) Later that day Mirja treats me to a camel ride, and when we all take a break and sit on the dunes, sipping tea, my friends sing “Happy Birthday”! And it continues: all day long I receive well wishes and little presents. It is a very good birthday, I think.

In the evening we sit in front of the stage, waiting for the concert to begin. It is very chilly tonight, and to warm us up we walk around a bit. I enter my first disco in a tent, where we dance a bit on the (sand) dance floor. We then return to the stage area, and I stay until 1:30am or so, when I am just too cold to stay. Malé stays with Mary and Naf to watch it until 3am.

January 14th, 2007, Essekane – Timbuktu
As soon as the concert is over (4am or so), the trucks are loaded and the tents taken down, making it almost impossible to sleep. We finally get up around 6am, and pack up ourselves. By 8am we are on the road (so to speak), heading back towards Timbuktu.

January 15th - 16th , 2007, Timbuktu
We spend some more time exploring Timbuktu. Because we would like to see some Hippos, we decide to rent a Pirogues for an afternoon. The boat is comfortable covered in fresh straw mats, and we have enough room to each stretch out on a bench, while we watch the banks of the river go by. As usual, we generate a lot of excitement when we are spotted, and there is a lot of waving and greeting. But as hard as we look, after 4 hours we still have not spotted any hippos….

January 17th, 2007, Timbuktu – Sevaré
It is time for Mirja and the kids to head towards Bamako, accompanied by Oumou, and we will drive them to Sevaré, where they can continue their journey via bus. Kady and Mary will spend two days with Malé and myself in Teriya Bugu, where I hope that Malé will recover from hosting all of my friends these last three weeks.

January 18th, 2007, Sevaré – Teriya Bugu
Malé had purchased the bus tickets the night before, and he has made arrangements with the driver of the 7am bus to pick up Mirja and the kids right in front of our hotel. This way we can all comfortably take our breakfast together one last time. At exactly 7am two men arrive on mopeds, alert us to the fact that the bus is arriving any minute, and get the passengers and their luggage ready. The bus arrives at exactly 7:05, opens its doors, the bags are loaded underneath, and Oumou, Mirja and the kids just choose their seats. I am amazed at the punctuality and efficiency of the bus company!

We continue our journey, and drive about three hours south until we reach Teriya Bugu. It is a formerly privately owned huge piece of property, which was planted and cultivated by a French missionary. He also established an agricultural cooperative with the neighboring village, and today it is managed by the village and the descendants of the French man. It is located right on the Bani River, and its huge eucalyptus trees are hosts to several bird colonies. There are also monkeys and crocodiles (in cages), a flock of peacocks, ducks, and a camel. There are many buildings that used to just house the French man’s friends and families; today you can rent the rooms to stay there. There are two swimming pools, a little “bar”, and a restaurant. It is amazingly peaceful, and once the birds quiet at night, you just hear the “woosh” of the bats that pass overhead….

January 19th, 2007, Teriya Bugu
We came here to be lazy, and we are: Malé sleeps late, I read by the pool. Kady takes pictures, and Mary relaxes on a swing. Our activities are just interrupted by meals, and occasional dips in the pool. Life is good.

January 20th, 2007, Teriya Bugu – Sevaré
We take full advantage of our last day here: more sleeping, swimming, reading. We leave this lovely place after lunch to drive back to Sevaré. Mary and Kady will take the bus there to head to Ségou and then Bamako, and we will return to Timbuktu.

January 21st, 2007, Sevaré – Timbuktu
We put Kady on the bus towards Ségou, while Mary still wants to shop for her store in Sevaré. The road to Timbuktu is uneventful until we take the ferry. There, just about 50 meters from the boat, are three huge hippos, just lounging in the water! I am very pleased, but I am so sorry that Mirja and the girls are not here for this event! We arrive in Timbuktu, and now it’s just the two of us, and the house seems large and empty without all of our guests. But it gives me the chance to experience Timbuktu from a different perspective…..
Stay posted.....