Friday, December 26, 2008

It Makes The World Go Around

I didn't last long in Bamako. On the flight from Casablanca I was disconcerted by the number of people coughing profusely. Half a day in Bamako made it crystal clear, unlike the air, which is laden with the noxious fumes of hundreds of thousands of 2-stroke scooters and old, decrepit cars and vans. The city is expanding at breakneck speed and I think it's finding it hard to cope - of the roads that aren't paved (most of them) they're half made of dirt whilst the other half is flattened plastic bottles. It is not a particularly historic town and my main place of interest was the sprawling market, which mostly consisted of motorbike repair shops, ancient electrical goods stores, tatty stationers and the ubiquitous mobile phone shops selling the very latest models. Not really what I was looking for. Instead I wanted a watch repair shop to get a new strap for my trusty, dirt-cheap Casio that I bought on the first day of my last trip. Unfortunately time is not a very important thing for Malians - very few of them wear watches, and if they do then 'bling' is always an important factor - and so I wandered the back streets in vain.

From Bamako I headed east to Segou, on the banks of the mighty Niger river, the lifeblood of Mali, which winds 1700km through the country on its way to the Atlantic. At this point it is over 500m wide and the last bridge in the country was back in Bamako. The landscape that you pass on the road is quite uniform: flat, red earth covered in dry, impenetrable scrub. Every now and again a dirt track emerges from between the bushes and leads to god-knows-where. The villages are made up of boxy, cinderblock houses with rudimentary, wooden lean-tos serving as little boutiques selling all sorts of things no-one really needs. Segou, or at least the village of Segou-Koro, some 15km distant, used to be the capital of the Malian Bambara empire that ruled the area for 150 years some 300 years ago.

And whilst you can get lost in the smog of Bamako, there's nothing here in Segou to hide the unsuspecting toubab (generic term for white person) from the touts. Here the tactic isn't so much the suffocation that one may find in parts of southeast Asia and India, but instead a subtle guilt trip. For example yesterday I was asking around about bicycle and scooter hire prices because I wanted to see the fabled Segou-Koro (despite it being on the main road to Bamako thre is no public transport) but finally decided this morning to try it out on foot (I will explain the reasons below) and see what would happen. After a few shared scooter rides, a hitch on the back of a donkey cart, and quite a lot of walking, I finally arrived and was given the grand tour. A couple of hours later one of the people from my hostel arrives on his scooter saying that he was worried about me (despite me telling the hostel that I was walking). All very touching, I agree, but when I said thank you and I was OK and wanted to spend a little more time by the river he replied that he was off, oh, and could I give him 1000 CFA (about 1.5 euros) for the effort and petrol. Now maybe it's a cultural thing and it would have been good to give him something, but the cost of the petrol would have been far less than that and I had talked with him at great length the day before and mentioned several times that I was travelling on a budget. But let that, and the Bamako cough, not let you think that I'm not enjoying myself. The Malians are generally a very open and smiling people with whom it is easy to just sit down and have a chat, even if you are complete strangers (fat chance of that happening on the Northern Line). Last night I started talking to a local at a small, out-of-the-way restaurant. Mohammed is a driver for 2 doctors (1 a toubab) and spent 4 years working in France doing odd jobs here and there. He came back to Mali when his brother died and he had to look after his mother (who, incidentally, didn't want to move to France, despite having the possibility - which just goes to show that they're not all beating on our doors). We talked about the politics of the region, cultural issues, his time in Europe, his current job (where, just so that we get an idea of local means, earns a little over 50 euros for a 66 hours week).

My second gripe, if gripe it is - I think it's more of an observation - is that Mali is very expensive. The country produces very little and high import taxes make goods very pricey. I was looking for some Strepsils for my cough, but when I saw the price tag weighing in at 5950 CFA (9 euros - or two thirds of my daily budget) I thought I'd rather grin and bear it (I have, in the meantime, found something cheaper). Even simple services are dear, especially considering the quality. I had initially decided to hire a bike to cycle to Segou-Koro, accepting the fact that I would have to pay 6 euros for the privilege (more than I've paid for a bike than anywhere else), but quickly changed my mind when I saw the bikes: rusty chains, gear cables trailing on the ground, wobbly saddles and brakes that didn't even work. And that really shouldn't be, as maintaining a bike is quick, simple and cheap - the culture of striving to provide a high quality of service seems to be lacking. Currently I'm sleeping on the roof of the hostel, which is effectively a construction site, with only a mattress provided, and paying 2500 CFA (almost 4 euros for the priviledge). And quite frankly I'm surprised I got it so low. Sure, I can actually afford this - I'm nowhere near the poor backpacker I was a few years back, however I can see how this can form a vicious circle: such high prices stifle spending and the flow of money, which in turn acts as a break on government revenue and overall improvement in living standards. Where the answer is I don't know, but I don't think it's the solution. Anyway, that's enough about money, it's not a polite topic of conversation so I will stop right there.

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