Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Motorbiking in Mali

I am sitting in a sweaty hut in suburban Bamako being assaulted by Celine Dion. What is it about the owl-faced old goat that makes her horrendous bleating so globally popular? Malian music is melodious and generally lovely yet the Queen of Wail marks the only contribution of Western musical culture to Africa. Tis sad indeed.

I have been in Mali for 10 days during which I believe the highest temperature in the world this year was registered, above 50°C in the shade. On a number of occasions, particularly on the long bus journey to and from Bamako to the distant Dogon Country I suspected the true temperature in my pants to be at least double that and it has been interesting to see the effect of heat on my stuff. Toothpaste and shower gel for example have just melted and using them in the evening has felt a bit like applying hot wax to both mouth and body.

Mali also suffers from endemic malaria and the first European to make it here, a most excellent Doctor from Peebles called Mungo Park, like everyone else who tried to explore West Africa until the mid 19th Century suffered horribly from tropical diseases before being hacked to pieces by angry Africans not far from where I am now on the River Niger.Fortunately unlike Mungo Park I came adequately prepared for the extreme heat. Unfortunately I left my deoderant on the plane (thinking it prudent to apply before disembarking in Mali). The next afternoon I left my sun cream beside the pool of the 5 star hotel I couldn't afford to stay in and the following evening I left my mosquito repellent in the restaurant where I had dinner. I managed to track down some fairly useless mozzie spray but due to the ethnic make up of the population sun cream is not much in demand. As any trip on public transport quickly makes obvious deoderant is not either. I have therefore stunk, burnt and itched.

The conference on EU – African Trade Relations which was the ostensible cause of my trip continued in an interesting though slightly pointless fashion. I discovered that the French trade unionist who helped organise the conference had already written the Final Declaration before our arrival. The prospect of French trade unionists teaching Africans anything about anything seems dangerous, unless it is how to protest loudly about everything and drive animals down major highways. There were at least many knowledgeable folk at the meeting who provided a range of ideas and perspectives missing from discussions in Brussels. After many weeks worrying about what the hell I was going to write about I at least now felt I had some sort of a plan for the report I am doing on this subject.

After a visit to a cotton factory (yes, the cotton is good, no the machinery is not. High energy and transport costs as well as prohibitive US subsidies continue to destroy millions of livelihoods across West Africa in an industry that could be competitive) and a bit of spiel inviting stakeholders to give me their views for my report – as usual no one wanted to talk to me so I had to corner people and make them – I decided I’d had enough of Bamako and it was time to journey unto the undiscovered lands in the direction of Timbuktu.It was perhaps unwise to try to identify too closely with Mungo Park and also Alexander Gordon Laing (another brave Scot who in 1825 became the first white man to reach Timbuktu) as they both died in Mali due to the heat, disease and hostile locals. While the first 2 are still present the third factor has changed completely. Despite being the fourth poorest country in the world not one child in Mali has asked me for money and on every bus journey someone has offered me some fruit and been happy to chat away without wanting anything from me apart from friendship. I went to the national stadium to watch a football match by myself and felt completely unthreatened discussing World Cup prospects with a large group of guys. The football was crap though.

Eventually I made it to the Dogon Country where I hoped to bump into some friendly tourists who would give me a ride round in their 4x4. This has always worked for me in the past (Ethiopia, Morocco, Lesotho) but sadly from a lift point of view off-season meant not one tourist. This made my experience more authentic but also meant a fair amount of waiting on the side of the road in overpowering heat. It is always unwise to try to travel quickly in Africa but as I had little time that was what I had to do and so eventually found myself on the back of a dirt-bike which belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend of mine with a guide who claimed to know the remote cliff villages of this most untouched part of the world extremely well.

At first the road was fine but soon descended into desert. Biking on sand is very difficult. It is more difficult when it is 45° and you have a 13 stone Englishman plus his 15kg rucksack on the back. After the second and quite nasty half fall (he managed to stop before the bike rolled completely from under us) Amadou informed me that it was easier to stay upright if we went faster. Amadou’s physics were sound but growing increasingly woozy in the heat I wasn’t sure my balance was up to much. The heat and total absence of shade or shelter made the decision for us and we continued unscathed to Indè, a village on the edge of the scrubby Sahel where villagers in more dangerous times had built huts high up into the side of a cliff that rises for no apparent reason from endless desert that stretches all the way to Lake Chad, wherever that is.These cliff villages are truly amazing as are the people from the villages. They ask tourists to make small donations to a village fund which builds roads, schools and medical facilities for villagers. In Ethiopia these stories were a cunning way of ripping off tourists but here you can see the new schools and questions about nicking the money are met with blank looks. The lack of exploitation despite the obvious arrival of tourists was most heartening and I played football enthusiastically with the local kids.

The next day Adamou and I ambitiously attempted a 20kms round trip on foot along the desert floor, up the cliff to a village on the plateau above, before walking back to Indè, the motorbike, and a 3 hour ride back to where the next day I hoped to find transport back to ‘civilisation’. We set off in good spirits at 6am carrying nothing but water, bread and enough clothes to protect me from the sun, due to the continued lack of sun cream. All went well, and atop the cliff I found a bored Malian teacher playing scrabble by himself with a large French dictionary. No one else in the village could read and I suspected Begnimatu had not been Kassoum’s first choice as a teaching post. Having never played Scrabble in French before I took a good 20 minutes to produce ‘lac’ while Kasssoum produced ‘fumeur’ and other words of great length effortlessly. I did manage to get a triple word score with ‘herb’ which partially salvaged my honour.Until now all had been well but it was the walk back that ruined me. Mali’s soil is mostly iron making it a most effective oven in combination with thick dust clouds that prevent the sun’s rays from escaping in the hot season. The heat encloses you from above and below cooking anyone foolish enough to move during the day. Encouraged by Amadou I felt that although walking through the afternoon was tough if Mungo and Alexander could walk round here for years being assaulted by bandits and without anti-malarials, food or much water I could surely manage an afternoon.I was wrong. Arriving back at the bike I wanted to collapse but we had promised to return the bike to the friend, of a friend, of my friend who needed it the next morning so set off. I didn’t feel too bad until we started the half falling off thing on the bike. Then I really wanted to stop but it was too late and we headed on.

Arriving back in Djiggiboomboom I revived slightly and attempted half of a tuna sandwich. I woke 2 hours later for an extended, all night session of shouting down the porcelain telephone. Next moring, still unable to keep water or anything else down, and in a village that lacked any sort of medical service or proper road I realised my only contact with the outside world was my mobile which had reception though the village had no electricity. Brave, world-weary African Explorer that I am I phoned my mum. Armed with her expert advice (and Aunt Sally’s urging to apply wet flannels to my ankles and eat ginger – the former proved easier to do than the latter and was most effective) I set off for the long journey back to Bamako and my plane home. 4 Immodium guaranteed safety in that regard during the trip but it was most inopportune that the only bus left at 1pm and i had full body shakes. However, with the bus going along the breeze, though hotter than a dragon’s arse, kept me going. The 2 hour stop in a petrol station at 3 was thus the real low point as it was still far too hot, there was no breeze and the smell of petrol was over-powering.

Eventually we continued and through slight delerium and revelling in my body melting gently into the disturbingly absorbant seat we continued, stopping every 30 minutes for police checkpoints (identification svp etc), loading on and off of goats, chickens, sacks, barrels of what appeared to be petrol (surely not a good thing to keep on the roof of a bus travelling through the desert?) until eventually arriving in Bamako at 5am, a mere 16 hours after we had set off from a village about 500kms from where we’d started.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Burkina’s for Barack: Obamania in Ouagadougou

Burkina’s for Barack: Obamania in Ouagadougou

“If Obama wins America truly is the country where dreams can come true. He will be the world’s president”. Issaka – known to his friends as ‘le delegate’ is playing the guitar outside Ouagadougou’s only 10 pin bowling alley. His friends playing cards are equally enthusiastic “I like him because he is intelligent and he’s an African, like me”, said one wearing an Obama T-shirt with “Hope” written above a heroic profile of the man every Burkinabé (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burkina_Faso) I’ve spoken to wants to win today’s election.

On the radio in all the knackered taxis I’ve taken since arriving in Burkina Faso last week news reports have followed closely the final days of Obama’s frenetic campaigning. Thousands of miles from swing states the prospect of President Barack excites people. The excitement is tempered by recognition that in one of the world’s poorest countries, landlocked in the Sahelian interior of West Africa south of the ever-expanding Saharan desert, an Obama Presidency is unlikely to make much difference. “I like him but if he wins I don’t think he will change things here”, said Maiga, as we sat four across squished in the backseat of a twenty year old Renault taxi with a top speed of 20 miles an hour.

Sub-prime mortgages have had little impact on Burkina Faso – chronic poverty, unemployment and high food prices are far more pressing. “We want liberty to enjoy our lives as free men under the stars”, says ‘le delegate’. I played “the times they are a’changin’” badly on his guitar but none of them had heard it. Bob Marley was our only shared musical hero. Everyone sang along when I played the chorus of “Redemption Songs”.

The bowling alley is run by a Frenchman and the Burkinabé, according to Issaka “don’t like bowling: it is Babylon”. On the night that Senator Obama declared “we are one day from changing history” Issaka and his friends dance outside the bowling alley, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and playing traditional warabé tunes on an old acoustic guitar, the repeated chorus is “au revoir mes amis, demain sera meilleur, nous dancer, et fait ooh la la”.