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Published: June 23rd 2017
Geo: 13.9054, -4.55589
As quiet as Bamako's streets had been in the middle of the night, they were an extreme of chaos at first light. The whole city was an almost cartoonish representation of every African city you see in the movies- roads shared by vehicles of all descriptions (some defying, by many years, the natural lifespan of any mechanical device), livestock, beasts of burden (including the human variety) , and vendors of all shapes and sizes- anything from a lonely soul selling a limited amount of fruit from a small basket to the more incomprehensible (who buys elaborate bed frames at the junction of busy roads?? And the selection was pretty good). There was some semblance of structure- which probably eliminates Bamako as the worst place to drive through (think anywhere in India)- but practicality definitely took precedence over legality.
Earlier in the day, Back-Alley Mohammed had closed the sale (Neera would have been proud) on his logistical services by suggesting that he could have us in Djenne in time for the towns famous market which was held on Mondays only (“4 hours in a special car with a couple from New Zealand” which didn't sound right but he was certain). We're
still not sure that this was our first re-exposure to African time, or simply the sign of the universal salesman who tells you whatever you want to hear, but some 8 hours later we were pulling up to the last ferry that would take us over to the island on which Djenne is located. The wheel of our Toyota did have to come off a couple of times but given the ingenuity of African roadside mechanics, there were no serious delays that would explain the time delta. We did see the remnants of the famous market coming back the other way but we were obviously not going to see it in its full glory. BAM didn't come with us- he was theoretically coordinating things from his command centre in an alley somewhere in Bamako- and with a substantial prepayment required we now had visions that the driver (who spoke less French than I do) would dump us on this island and sneak away under cover of darkness.
The driver picked up on our concerns (probably as we were writing down his tag numbers) and called BAM who immediately mobilized an English speaking guide (Toka) in Dejenne to reassure us that
there were no problems. No more mention was made of the New Zealand couple (I didn't really understand this fabrication but I think Malians believe that all Westerners come with huge anxieties about the country and by promising to pair you up with others of like mind, they will complete their sale), and BAM would fix missing the market by sending us back next Monday (which we knew wasn't going to happen). Part of the joy/frustration of Africa is dealing with whatever comes at you with patience.
We spent our night in Djenne in a mud room- not a big surprise since Djenne is a Unesco World Heritage-listed town and all buildings must be constructed of mud and remain true to its history. This might have been a small ‘bucket list' event since I don't think we've ever slept inside a mud room before. Every year, the locals have to repair and re-apply mud to most of the structures in town (apparently it's the dry season and not the wet season that wreaks havoc on the buildings). The owners of Le Campement must have missed repair day since the were some very ominous looking cracks in the walls and ceiling but
The Dejenne Mosque
The largest mud structure in the world.
having a shower (cold) in a mud bathroom is something of a must-do experience. The open air restaurant (can you call it a restaurant if they only serve one take-it-or-leave-it meal of Couscous which is made from millet- very different from what we're used to?) was part of the dried mud complex which was designed to blend with the nearby mosque.
The next morning we walked the labyrinth of alleys and pathways that make up this island town (each step taken with care since it was the end of the rainy season -think overflow- and there is no effective sewage system) Slipping and sliding notwithstanding, it was a fascinating tour of a town that continues to exist much as it has for hundreds of years. The highlight, of course, was the mud mosque- the largest mud built structure in the world. They were doing some repair work on it while we were there but you could still see the elegance of this building as it stood out from all those around it. Not only do the wood 'beams' jutting out of the mud add some visual interest, they serve as the scaffolding required when the mud is hauled up from the
riverbank for the annual reapplication.
Our guide Toka was a compelling story also. Born with polio, a visiting American family made arrangements to bring him to the U.S. for the surgery required if he was ever going to walk. He spent many months recuperating in the U.S. (including the requisite trip to Disney World) before returning to Mali where he has since lost touch with his American benefactors. He walks with a distinct limp but the surgery and his knowledge of English has allowed for a reasonable living showing visitors around Djenne- he graciously invited us into his home which was one of those perspective moments which at least temporarily, helps ground your own life.
Although our time here was brief, it was an amazing introduction to Mali and we're looking forward to more. On the downside, I was shocked by the number of individuals I saw who were afflicted with Polio, especially the young- I had heard that Polio was making something of an unwelcome comeback in parts of the world, but to see it firsthand was very disheartening.
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