If losing your baggage is on your travel to-do list, please refrain from doing so in West Africa. In almost all situations it isn’t your fault, unless of course you feel your camera and the various lenses are more important than an extra set of clothes that you could have packed in your carry-on luggage. So there I was in the market in Bamako, haggling for underwear from a wicker basket with my translator Sekou Camara waxing eloquence in native Bambara. At that point, I failed to comprehend who was more hassled; me, who had never worn anything that was covered in a four inch layer of dirt or Sekou, who probably never ever bought lingerie for any of his three wives. After taking care of that awkward detail, we proceeded to buy the rest of the ‘outerwear’. Sekou, who had an idea what I would care to wear, took me to a section of the market loosely known as ‘Dead Toubab’s Closet’. Toubab meaning ‘White Man’. These clothes are donated by the west and are sold in the streets as 'dead white-man’s clothes' because Malians are convinced that nobody in their right mind would discard their clothes unless they are in the grave. One of the many eye-openers I would witness in the world’s fourth poorest country.
So from a huge pile of T-shirts ranging from second-hand Tommy Hilfiger to Levis, I chose a green T-shirt that said, ‘MARDI GRAS PUB CRAWL’. It came with some gentleman’s body odor (is all, I hope) as an add-on bonus. I found a fabric for a native skirt, which was basically a colorful wrap-around that was to be tied around the waist. After a day of frolicking around in my skirt all over Mali, I was politely reminded that the slit should be on the left to signify a lady of decent standings. ‘I am sorry, where I come from, we don’t wear skirts.’ I tried.
We boarded the Bani bus to Segou on this 100 some degree afternoon (It gets hotter in May). Just before embarking on this four hour journey, Sekou asked me to buy myself a hand fan. ‘I have a book to keep myself busy,’ I assured him. I wish I had listened to him and bought two. Now this bus was supposed to be Belgian import and the Belgians didn’t design it for Malian conditions. The A/C had stopped working eons ago (to save on diesel) and the windows were sealed shut (for A/C efficiency of course). To make sure the passengers didn’t die of suffocation, the officials had punctured a few holes on the roof of the vehicle for inadequate ventilation. The whole scene reminded me of a frog in a bottle. Very soon, I started to feel dizzy and very uncomfortable. If not for the umpteen stops the bus made (for checkpoints, prayer sessions, food breaks, toilet breaks, god-knows-what-else-thanks-to-language-barrier), I would have definitely perished in this very unglamorous way.
Outside the bus, poverty was in open display everywhere and even in the capital city of Bamako, infrastructure is limited to the main roads and a few brick and mortar structures that are used as government buildings, hotels, shops and restaurants. Most of the buildings were made entirely of mud and held together by sticks and tin roofs. Garbage was being burned in every conceivable open space and many plastic covers survived the cremation process. Some kids rummaged the vast fields of garbage for treasures such as a used plastic bottle. What they needed was a good waste management program. Fortunately for Mali, the population was under control and they didn’t produce much trash as the reused almost everything. The scenery was really nothing much to gloat about…just vast stretches of brown and some dirty green (occasional baobab and acacia trees). Every check-point greeted us with a surge of hands of young women thrusting grocery on our faces. You could buy anything from a choice of water-pouches, boiled eggs, carrots, meat, cakes, peanuts, juice, apples, bananas etc.
This was my second trip to Mali on this Engineers Without Borders Project and the tragedy of the most friendliest country hits me each time. More to come..