Bamako


Subject: BIG BAD BAMAKO
Date: Saturday 20th November 1999

I am reclining in air-conditioned luxury at the ‘Spider’ cafe in Bamako, as usual completely amazed that I arrived in one piece, and with all my luggage intact!

The train journey was in equal parts incredible and horrific. All the CFAs I lavished on an air-conditioned cabin were for nought, as it broke down in the first hour, not entirely welcomed in a 21/2 times 2 metres cabin with three other people and one yelling baby. I was very WW2 in style however, and when the breeze blew in from the open window it was bearable at times! What made up for it though were the people.

After all the talk of theft on the train I was a trifle worried, but there was a nice geography teacher and his wife who watched over all our stuff like bulldogs, and they even insisted I eat fried chicken with them for lunch! The teacher read me some of his poetry (alas in French), something about the “beauty of negresses”, and the strength and power of African music. It was a shame Mum wasn’t there to translate, however for those who get Malian news on Cable, he is doing a recital on TV in a couple of weeks! The other woman had a little girl about the same age as Lucy, who spent the whole time yelling, but not in displeasure, like all African babies she was very happy. The baby even did the same pointing-finger thing that Lucy does, so I was very taken!

The first evening I spent talking to an American political scientist, who taught me a few things about astronomy out of the open window, and I even saw a shooting star, most spectacular against the backdrop of baobab trees. Although he was expecting a meteor shower, and was a tad disappointed!

The rest of the evening I lay on the bed and sweated. Customs was at 6:00am, a confusing affair involving having your passport taken at midnight, stumbling around in the dark, finding immigration, and having about three guys yelling out the names surrounded by dozens, waiting to get their passports back! I realised after a moment of panic that us ‘toubabs’ (white folk) had our own officer, and could breathe a sigh of relief!

That afternoon I talked to a group of four Peace Corps volunteers (surprise, surprise) working in Senegal, but on holiday. I was relieved at this, as we were headed for the same place in Bamako, and as the train was due to arrive at 2:30 am rather than 3:30 pm that arvo, I was glad not to arrive there alone. Imagine my surprise when I stuck my head out the window, to see my friend Q waving frantically on the station! And the train was only 12 hours late!! So we shoved our way past the inevitable gaggle of taxi drivers, Q merrily bargaining with them in Bamabara, with us following patiently like a gaggle of geese. And after 42 hours on the train, I was not at my freshest. So the point is, it was a great welcome!

The Peace Corps headquarters is large and comfortable, with a communal living area with magazines, tape player and so on. And the bathroom situation is probably the best I’ve had in Africa – and the people are friendly too! I’ve probably said it before, but strolling around Bamako, I feel as if I am TRULY in Africa. The streets are rough red dirt, and the grand marche is completely mad, with vendors selling anything under the sun – from plastic kettles to huge piles of dried fish, alive with flies. Q also took me about the artisans’ market, where you can actually see them making jewellery, cloth, beautiful ebony statues, wooden chairs and lots more. I’m not ready for any bargaining yet, but I want to buy some cloth for a new skirt, believe me I look like a total shabster, and feel like something new goddammit! And it is beaut to have someone taking me around. X

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