Africa, Asia and Europe - Mali - Bamako to Timbuktu

Africa, Asia and Europe - Mali - Bamako to Timbuktu

Date sent: Fri, 26 Jul 96 17:28 EAT
From: (jimbo)
Subject: Kgram 41

Klimagram 41: Urban adventures in Mali

Since the Spousal Unit and I usually travel independently and spurn any facility willing to accept a reservation, we rely heavily on guide books, particularly those aimed at budget travelers who need lots of practical information. So I thought I would compare descriptions of several cities and towns in Mali offered by the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides for West Africa with my own admittedly biased observations.

Bamako - the capital of Mali

Lonely Planet: " The city centre is like one big market, still small enough to cover on foot, with metal workers bashing out pots and pans, music blasting in shop doorways, and traders selling everything under the sun. The streets are full of cars and people, and it seems like everybody and their aunt has a motorbike. Bamako can provide hours of entertainment even if you can't speak the language or don't like shopping. Bamako has buzz!"

Rough Guide: " Although Bamako has grown quickly since independence, evidence of modernization is only slowly penetrating the dusty city centre. Here, the mix of day-long crowds, hostile traffic and sludge-filled sewers add up to an oppressive combination for visitors just in from the brousse, although arrivals from Dakar welcome Bamako's less aggressive hustlers - debilitated no doubt, by the perrenial heat. At dusk the dust settles down like a pink fog as the centre expels its torrid activity into the suburbs where the conspicuous aid community reposes in air-conditioned comfort.

JimBo: Reality is somewhere between these two descriptions. Since the Grande Marche burned down several years ago, the sidewalks and streets are crowded with displaced vendors and shoppers. This makes orientation difficult as one market-thronged street looks very much like another. The Unit and I got lost several times. Since we are on a group tour and constantly on the move, we have gotten lazy about studying maps and memorizing land marks. However, after a couple of days, we got our act together in Bamako and rather enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the locals. All that was needed was a central focal point. For Bamako this was the La Phoenicia Restaurant, home of the massive King burger, proclaimed by Chris, our forever hungry Australian, as " (blank) awesome". The waiters were also willing to bring multiple bottles of soda to you at the same time. The city was beastly hot.

The truck arrived in Bamako after a couple long days on dusty roads. The campground at the edge of town was a godsend: a cell block of eight showers, a small swimming pool and a bar with cold beverages. Anything cold or cool in Mali is precious. There were even private rooms available either by the day or the hour. With a wedding anniversary imminent I booked a room with a big king size bed. Despite a few mosquitoes, an ineffectual fan, and no light in the bathroom, it was a real treat after a month in a tent.

The big day arrived and the entire group descended on a pizza parlor across the street from the US Embassy. It is traditional to celebrate birthdays with a party. Mine coincides with my wedding anniversary - the result of one too many Yak cigarettes in Kathmandu eight years ago.

After a blazing hot day staggering around the city, the group was rather listless, each person lost in private contemplation of the hot, humid days ahead. However, the tear jerking appearance of beer in frosty cold glass mugs revived spirits.

Back in camp everyone's expectation of a long night's sleep was dashed when a live band began to play on the campground patio. The band performed at a very high volume to a well-dressed audience of locals until 5 A.M. The patio was right below my room.

Last Christmas the unit and I received some fancy chocolate bars to take on this trip. We decided to save them for a special occasion. As the truck crossed the Sahara, I checked the state of the chocolate bars frequently. I even examined them the day we arrived in Bamako. But alas, on the night of nights, only one day later, the Unit and I found our treasur e reduced to liquid form! (Not all was lost - the clever unit persuaded the bartender to put them in the beer cooler where they eventually hardened in various amorphous shapes)


Lonely Planet : "Today, with over 40,000 inhabitants, Mopti ... is a very active place, with a large market, a beautiful mosque and the most vibrant port on the Niger River."

"Mopti is the center of Mali's tourist industry, and your visit can be ruined by local youths continually pestering you offering their services as guides or trying to sell you post cards and souvenirs. Just ignore them completely."

Rough Guide : "Mopti isn't immediately gripping. Its old town lacks aesthetic harmony, the new town is neither modern nor impressive, and the hustlers are legion.. However, the more time you spend wandering through Mopti - built on three islands connected by dykes, at the confluence of the Bani and the Niger rivers - the more the place grows on you, and the canals, busy with the traffic of wooden pinasses and smaller canoe-like pirogues, begins to work their magic."

"Mopti's heavy tourist influx has also resulted in another headache - that of pestering kids who try to earn a living guiding people though town. Mopti is straightforward enough not to need that kind of assistance, but you need to be firm with the persistent and sometimes aggressive candidates : having made your views clear, they won't usually waste their time with you."

JimBo : Let me tell you what's waiting for you in Mopti ! We were constantly hassled by obnoxious young men posing as "guides". They surrounded us as soon as we alighted from the truck. When we firmly declined their services, these guys became rude and extremely foul-mouthed. They demanded that we hire them, denounced our presence in Mopti when we didn't, obstructed our photography and tried to prevent us from entering the Old Town. It was impossible to go into a shop without their interference. We got tired of their aggressive, threatening, belligerent behavior - punching our shoulders and shouting obscenities - and retired to a restaurant. Even there one of the boys would periodically come in to keep tabs on us.

Eventually we returned to the streets in the company of our trip leader, Dave. But even Mr. Cool got fed up with "flock you, man" responses to his attempts at conciliation and complained to the police. This gave us a couple of hours of relative peace but as the truck drove away I will never forget the sight of our nemeses loitering in the main square, laughing and giving us the finger.

[Wait a minute, JimBo! This is the voice of Authenticity, Sensibility and Sanity speaking. Good jobs, or any jobs, are scarce for Africa's burgeoning supply of unskilled young men. Often ditto for educated ones as well. Guiding tourists may be the only way for these people to earn some money. Their situation is comparable to that of the proverbial used car salesman who never gets any respect.

You never gave the boys in Mopti a chance to save face. They may not like their career path any more than you but they still deserve to be treated decently. Hanging up on them like you would an unwanted telephone solicitation just triggers a chain reaction of negativity. For example, in Nairobi, we are frequently approached by hustlers pushing low cost safaris. If you talk to them a bit and show a little consideration for their spiel before rejecting it, everyone walks away with their dignity intact. It is easy to keep a plausible excuse handy like " I'm receiving medical treatment for gonorrhea and can't leave town".]

That may be true, but I have used and not used touts and guides in local circumstances all over the world. Never have I encountered such hostility as I saw in Mopti. Until the authorities clean up this situation, I strongly recommend giving Mopti a bye. Go to Djenne instead.


Lonely Planet : "... Djenne is unquestionably one of the most interesting and picturesque towns in West Africa. Little has changed here for centuries: almost all the houses are made of mud with thatched roofs, making for an aesthetically pleasing town that blends in with the environment."

"The elegant mosque in Djenne, built in 1905, is renowned as a classic example of Sudanese mud architecture; photographs of it are shown in exhibits worldwide. It's design is based on that of the previous mosque, dating from the 11th century..."

"Guides are not essential in Djenne but you'll be pestered all day by local youths offering their services, so hiring one will keep the others at bay. You'll also see lot more than you would on your own. Your guide will be able to take you onto the roof of a private house to get a view of the town, ask permission from the locals to take photos, and show you where the various artisans |such as goldsmiths, wood carvers and mud-cloth artists) work."

Rough guide : "Djenne is unquestionably the most beautiful town in the Sahel and, despite the incessant attention of unnecessary "guides", a superb place to visit. On an island for most of the year, the buildings are shaped in the smooth lines of the Sudanic style, moulded from the gray clay of the surrounding flood plains. In the main square, the famous Grande Mosque dominates the townscape ... In Djenne you can easily imagine what life in the Sahel must have been like a century or more ago."

JimBo : Hey, the Drago people are not stupid! After the debacle in Mopti, we hired a guide straightaway. He and the town delivered as promised in both of the descriptions above. This town is a living time capsule - I hope you like it as much as I did.


This legendary city was, for many centuries, so hard to reach that the phrase "going to Timbuktu" is synonymous with traveling to the ends of the earth. Even today, it is difficult to get there by road because of ongoing conflict between government forces and Tuareg refugees displaced by the deterioration of their traditional grazing lands.

Timbuktu was not on the Dragoman itinerary but our fearless leader said if we could get ahead of schedule, they would attempt a side trip to this mysterious city. Unfortunately that option went out the window when the truck's gearbox died in the Sahara. C'est la vie! Who wanted to see another sun-baked town half-buried in the sand anyway? As Bob Geldof said (according to the Rough Guide) after looking around Timbuktu "Is that it?"

Copyright (c) Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

This Klimagram uploaded from the African Regional center for Computing in Kenya, Nairobi

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