by Tim Dawe
Bamako! The word evokes the exotic. Bamako, the gritty capital of Mali, is a harsher reality. It was a hard landing to get here in the dark, dead of night with assorted scary setbacks.
The first day dawns fresh and sunny as I emerge from the lush gardens of Mandé Hotel on the banks of the Niger River. Breakfast is literally over the expansive river on a wooden deck, now used as a shortcut by two fishermen in a traditional pirogue. It’s an uplifting start to the day, despite shabby facilities at this “resort” and service being an unknown concept.
I have one day in this city, not known as a tourist Mecca, and am armed with a guide book and an advertising sheet that includes a map. What could possibly go wrong? As it happens…very little.
The first intended stop is Grande Marché. What should be a large marketplace is a car park today. My avaricious taxi driver must think I am from the IMF. He wants national debt-size funding for the unmetered journey. Market action takes place, not in this square, but in crowded streets off it. And what action it is.
There is a bite in the sun now as I peer down dark alleyways choked with people. I am also choking with the diesel fumes of jam-packed minibuses playing chicken with pedestrians-without-footpaths navigating this chaos. People shop and shout at stall vendors. For many their stall is just a plank of wood on concrete blocks with a few eggs and cans on it. A flamboyantly attired Touareg sits proudly under his sign: Boutique M. Konaté. Elsewhere vendors simply carry their merchandise. I see a man dangling a rope and attached, six upside-down chickens. (Inexplicably, I see many young wandering salesmen with multi-coloured feather dusters.) Chickens scratch the ground around some goats. A donkey looks at me.
I become a little anxious with this frenetic activity and the filth. I can only breathe through a handkerchief and become weary looking down to avoid excrement, up, to avoid obstacles, and sideways to avoid shoving crowds. I make a beeline down the appropriately named Boulevard du Peuple to my guidebook goal, the fetish market.
There is a slight respite here; it is interesting but it’s dark and stuffy. Gri-gri (black magic) is still used for traditional medicine. This is a market not a museum. There seems to be a demand for body parts: bird’s feet, goat’s ears and shrunken monkey heads. And there are all manner of bottles of lotions and jars of powdered substances. This eclectic collection is fascinating, but for a westerner used to spot lighting on spotless museum display cabinets, these dusty objects in this dank place are uninviting.
I need some money (West African CFAs). I feel the need to eat soon and, more urgently, to drink. I set my course for the ATM at Av.de l’Indépendence. The cityscape of Bamako is not high profile yet there is an extraordinary building on the river bank near the bridge that must be 20 storeys. The traditionally inspired BCEAO tower is the profligate statement of the central bank – and it’s just the branch office for the West African central bank. There are a few high-rise buildings, mostly the “influence aid” largesse of the Soviet Union, but generally buildings are one- or two-storeys. The city is laid out in French colonial style where boulevards meet roundabouts that are now, like Place de la Nation, hazardous dodgem car tracks. There are lovely splodges of shady green here and there, such as outside the Museum of Bamako, but many well-designed open spaces such as Place de la Liberté are walled-in, no go zones.
The ATM is extraordinary. It is a clean, modern booth outside Banque de Développement du Mali and is…air-conditioned. This suggests it’s foreigner-use only. Malians have no need of it. For a city of more than 1.5 million, it’s Bamako’s only ATM. And it’s the only ATM in the entire country, population “about” 15 million.
It’s really hot now and I am on a mission. A café has been highly recommended: Pâtisserie le Royaume des Gourmands in Av. Modibo Keita. It’s blissfully air-conditioned – almost cold. Elegant tables and chairs and cabinets of cakes, pastries and bread à la française barely fill the spacious room. Of course the few customers are mostly foreigners. This oasis restores both body and soul. I linger. Here I make a discovery that is demonstrated again and again. This café is owned by a Lebanese. He and his compatriots left strife-torn Lebanon in the 1960s to become the merchant class of not just Mali but most of West Africa. They have survived and prospered, some into large-scale manufacturing, because of their much-needed service and business acumen.
I brave the heat to walk to l’Amitie, a Laico hotel so upmarket it’s not mentioned in my guidebook. I lounge in the cool lobby and watch the comings and goings. While I was shocked with the mayhem at Bamako’s markets, I am conflicted with this scene. There are scores of suited westerners wheeling in and out, some laughing over drinks in lobby meetings with well-fed Africans. This usual scene should not raise an eyebrow anywhere else until one reasonably surmises they are international aid agency personnel (the biggest industry in town) living high on the hog, well away from the begging children in dusty rags outside: “cadeau?”
I complete my day with visits to two museums: the charming Bamako and the surprisingly sophisticated National, havens from the bustle both. The Bamako museum in size, content and presentation is similar to any Australian country town museum. It explains the history from a river trading settlement to French colonial outpost and finally, capital of the fourth poorest nation on earth. My eye settles on one exhibit that says it all: a large, cut slab of salt, hewn from a Saharan salt cave thousands of kilometres away and carried to market here by camel, pinasse and man.
The purpose-built National Museum takes an hour (including lunch) and would not be out of place in any Australian city. Professionally curated exhibits show the art and artefacts of the local Bozo people, traditionally fishermen and traders. I am drawn to some of the knick-knacks made from bent wire and aluminium cans and so on. These are really well-made souvenirs from professional craftsmen and would cost the unwitting tourist ten or twenty times those traded at street stalls. Yet still well worth it.
I return to my hotel for one of many daily showers, a good meal and a soft bed, aware what a privilege that is. And dimly aware what others here are enduring. I am getting a little used to this country and looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure tour – all the way to Timbuktu.