Segou, Mali, West Africa
The Niger flowed as the scorching winter sun bounced its piercing rays all over the dusty, rust-colored streets that lined Segou, Mali. As we walked past, my girlfriend poignantly stared towards the lower banks to our left. There were three strong men bathing in the dark water, naked as the day they were born. I tried walking without staring, but it was quite fascinating all the images that bombard your mind when faced with such a different world. This land, where even the sunlight burns eternally – over the fields, the streams, and the streets, I had never really felt it before. We were truly in an unknown land – a swarthy, dry country; one of many on the Dark Continent.
Even though I was from Whiteville, USA and had spent many years traveling and living abroad, I never felt so utterly white. I never felt so out of place. I was the different one in the crowd, with surferesque hair whom every vendor would notice and call into their marketplace. At least this time we both were the ‘different ones’. My girlfriend, even with her dark complexion that allowed her to fit in practically anywhere, from India to Brazil to Morocco, wasn’t one of the gang. We both felt the same way.
Robert Pelton, the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, in his later book entitled Come Back Alive, mentions Mali. He doesn’t say that it’s overly parlous, but he does offer some helpful advice. He says that no matter what, change your money before you leave the capital city, Bamako, as you will find no one outside of it willing to wheel and deal for foreign currency. He describes being in Timbuktu, Mali, finding no one to exchange money. We didn’t exactly take his advice to heart!
It was really easy on the begrimed streets of Bamako, the capital city of Mali. You say you have some American dough, they take you to one of their ‘associates’ on the street, you trade-making sure you pull out your calculator before they do, and you go from there. You give them American dough, they give you CFA (West African Franks). In the banks, they’ll give you half the rate you’ll find on the rabbled back alleys.
We didn’t have Euros. I had a clean, crisp Ben Franklin. We decided to stay in one promising establishment on a dreggy street corner. It was called Hotel Djoliba. Djoliba means the river in Bambara, one of many tongues spoken here.
The hotel itself was painted a dark red that contrasted heavily with the other buildings. The German owners told us that we could sleep upstairs for the equivalent of ten bucks. We took a quick gander. Gray lizards ran about on the glazed red cinder-block that aligned the open-aired tin roof area with balcony. It would be perfect. We left our back-packs underneath a gigantic mosquito net on two beds we had pushed together.
Out we went into the streets. I tried to ask a few ‘vendors’ along the way if they knew of anyone who would trade my 100 bill from Uncle Sam’s piggy bank. They outright refused.
A taxi took us to a bank that had a billboard showing a hand giving thumbs-up. It read, “Comme-ça!” which is supposed to mean that it is A-OK. Once inside, I slipped the hundred underneath the glass and gave my best smile. He said, “ça n’est pas bon, monsieur!” I looked at him. He closed a small blind. As we left the bank, I bolstered in a mix of French and English, what I like to call Frenglish, looking back over my shoulder, “This Bank, comme-ça!, comme-ça!” waving my right hand all around as we exited, giving a thumbs-down back to the billboard.
Back at the hotel, the German owner told us to told me to try a nearby Lebanese owned hotel. My girlfriend said she was going to rest upstairs. I was going to be on my own. I walked out into the sordid street.
Outside the Lebanese hotel, a number of African vendors stepped out from underneath their old blue and yellow grain sack canopies. Underneath them they sold everything from watermelon to shoe polish and plastic trinkets. One said, ‘Come ‘ere. we have good price’. I tried to ignore him. Another one said, ‘where is r pritty sister?’ That caught me by surprise.
As I walked inside the Lebanese Bar/Hotel, I gave a shooing motion with my hand to the Malian folks who started gathering in number in their approach. I didn’t know they’d be waiting for me outside.
Inside the bar/hotel, there were three two French men sitting on bar stools. The two Lebanese brothers stood behind the bar. It looked nothing like Africa inside. One brother shined the glasses, while one was counting bright CFA notes with a calculator. They were all talking and laughing. They turned to look at me. One of the French men was young, with thick brown hair that hung down to his shoulders. The other was an older, grayish man with a solid beer belly. He looked like he’d been sitting in that same bar, in that same position, forgetting that the French colonizers left decades ago.
They asked me, ‘Qu’est-ce que il y a?’ I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t speak a lot of French…yet.’ They looked at me stupefied. I tried, ‘jay beeswan d’argant si voo play’. The two French men said something together and laughed.
The two Lebanese brothers joined in with a synchronized chortle. One with a red silk shirt said, ‘Look. We can not rilly hilp. Yoo got cart? I make for you change. I giv fiftee worth dollar Frank. Giv me hundrid dollar on cart.’ I said, ‘Are you joking?! That’s crazy!’ He raised his hands and began talking in French again to his brother. I walked outside.
I was tired, hungry, broke, and if I went home empty-handed my girlfriend and I wouldn’t be able to get back to Bamako. We wouldn’t be able to leave this country!
As I walked off the steps, I looked out in front of me. There was a circle of 17 or 20 men gathered around. One stalwart fellow in the middle said, ‘You make me mad. You told me bad language with your arm.’ He pointed to me.
I said in slow English as my heart raced, making sure that I pronounced my words carefully to ensure his understanding, ‘See,’ I started, ‘My wife (although she wasn’t, but I thought it would seem more respectable) is in the hotel, as I pointed in that direction. ‘She is hungry and I have no money.’ He watched me intently, ‘She needs to eat. No one wants American money. I made no bad language with my arm,’ as I shook my head, ‘I am sorry. I need to go to my hotel. I am going home.’ I hoped that he understood my explanation. I hoped to see some empathy in his face.
He looked around. He folded his arms and pointed at me. ‘My mum go to America. She likes America. She travels and needs American money. My brother has shop. He will take your American money. Get on Moto.’ He pointed to a blue, rusted Peugeot motor scooter with his robust arm. The crowd returned to their threadbare canopies. We got on the scooter and he said that he needed money for gas. I agreed to give him money after the exchange.
Once I returned to the German hotel, I found her looking over the balcony, the setting sun outlining her silouette. To one side we could view the squalid streets where adipose women were frying balls of millet. They sold one or two batches to the random passerby. To the opposite side, we could peer into the walled-in area of the hotel’s courtyard, where tables lined with crisp white linen were set for dinner. Equally radiant travelers jabbered and sipped a Coke or an imported beer. I handed her the money that I’d finally exchanged. We were both thankful to have it. She put half in her pocket and half in her waist pouch.
The sun was going down over the river that winded through the town. From our view, we could even see trees huddling together on the other side. We were hungry and looked again to the walled-in piece of paradise, thinking of the meal that we could buy here.
We descended the stairs. We went through the doors and stepped out into the dust-blown street. We’d buy fried millet balls and walk once more along Mali’s main artery, forgetting our meal in the hotel and our money exchanging mis-adventure. We’d pay one last tribute to this strange and beautiful land, and to a river that so many depend upon as a source of life. They call it their Djoliba.
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