Escape to Mali – Africa

I arrived at the Bamako airport, Thursday morning around 4:00 a.m. I found a taxi to my accommodation, situated several miles outside of Bamako. After a short nap, I found a couple “guides” to take me into the city. I visited two museums, the market, a viewpoint overlooking all of Bamako.

The city is overcrowded, noisy and congested with traffic. One of the guides is a guide for Dogon country (Pays Dogon), an extraordinary trail of villages running alongside the Bandiagaras cliffs in western Mali. The Dogon people arrived in the area around the 11th century; they found a significant tribe of pigmy people, the Tellum, who were living high in the cliffs. I am not sure how long the Tellum lived in the cliffs; however, the presence of the Dogon eventually drove them away.

As you hike along the Dogon trail, you can see the old Tellum “dwellings”; places carved in the high cliffs now used as burial places. No one knows where the Tellum went after leaving the area. Looking at their dwellings, it is difficult to comprehend how they lived there. Rumor is they flew up to their homes. I signed for a 5-day, 4-night Dogon trek with Sory Ibrahim, a Dogon from Bandiagaras. With several days to spare, I took off for other places in Mali. I was relieved to leave Bamako. After only one day of being yelled at in the crowded downtown area by men who were engaging in midday prayer, I wondered at the usefulness of stopping for prayer several times a day, if it does not make you a better or kinder person.

Segue in Ségue
I headed for Ségue, a small town on the way to Mopti (where I was to eventually meet up with my guide and perhaps, others who would join us). Ségue was everything that Bamako was not – quiet, lovely, peaceful, charming. Located on the banks of the Niger, Ségue is a quaint but touristy area, where you can watch decorative fabric being made with mud and natural dyes. I wandered around a bit, getting lost as I am so wont to do even in tiny towns. I met a wonderful woman, Claudia, while at one of the textile places. Claudia is an accomplished artist from Germany, who currently lives in Tunis and travels extensively (all authentically on local transport) painting small pictures, which she later translates to larger pieces to be sold out of a German gallery. I stayed the night in a charming little inn and took off for the bus station in the morning to make my way to Djenne.

I was delighted to see Claudia sitting on a bench at the station, also waiting for transport to Djenne. Getting around in Mali is challenging without French. Claudia is fluent in French, as well as several other languages. She has traveled quite a bit in Morocco. When she learned I was going there next, she was more than happy to give me some suggestions. After seven hours on the bus, we arrived at the crossroads to Djenne, where we would try to pick up a local “bush taxi” to town. We were the only two there at this point. After paying the driver and loading our bags, we were informed that we might have to wait for hours for the taxi to fill. For what was the first of many subsequent times, we were told that the taxi, an old truck with side rails, would leave immediately, if we paid the fares for all the empty seats. Otherwise, we might have to wait til midnight.

Fortunately a Frenchman, who I gathered was working on the development of the new Djenne dam, and his driver pulled up and offered us a lift. We gladly accepted even though we were to forfeit the money we already paid the taxi driver. The final leg of the journey took us across a small waterway on the ferry and into the town of Djenne; a town made up of exotic and elaborate mud dwellings, not the least of which was a magnificent mud mosque, allegedly the largest of its kind in the world.

I found a room at Chez Baba, a dirty hostelry, with shared toilets and rooms with several cots. The walls looked like they bled dirt, but the food was supposed to be the best in town and the place a popular low budget option. Baba is gruff, even at his most pleasant. He took a liking to this non-French speaking American woman.

I came into Djenne in time for the famous Monday market. Claudia and I parted company; she headed for her inn. On Monday morning I ran into a couple from Holland whom I had met in Bamako. We spent the day together. In mid afternoon, they left for Mopti. I stayed another night at Chez Baba where Claudia and I had dinner and talked about my trip to Morocco.

The next night I stayed at the Catholic mission in what I thought was Mopti. I was expecting to meet up with Sory and a Japanese couple he was escorting to Dogon country. Sory had not arrived yet because I had only made it to the Catholic mission in Sevare, 15 kilometeres east of Mopti. We were six. We did not share a common language; we needed none. It was a fabulous trip.

Dogon is extraordinary. The villages have been described as “hobbit-like” and the Tellum cliff dwellings that occur concurrent with the villages are sheer marvels. We bonded strongly; parting was difficult.

Mali travel is not without its transport difficulties. Large bus companies are excellent, although rarely on time, but the smaller modes of transport are a racket run by a syndicate of dishonest men out to take tourists for everything they can. My flight was due out at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. After staying in Djenne Sunday night to attend Monday market, I did not arrive at the airport until 2:30 a.m. I used one of the bush taxis; the driver ran after me saying I owed him more money (I had already paid five times what the other passengers paid to be sure they would take me to the airport. I had no money left). After some involvement with the police and a kind man from Royal Air Maroc, I boarded my plane for Morocco.

You can read more of Alyson Peel’s travels through Morocco, Egypt, India and Malawi at her blog.

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