Thursday, January 01, 2009

Gently Down The Stream

If the Niger river is the main artery of Mali, then the region north of Mopti is its beating heart. Here, the already docie river slows down even more and splits into several branches and large connected lakes forming a giant inland delta the size of Belgium (or one and a half times the size of Wales). It provides the country with most of its fish, one of the mainstays of the Malian diet, and is also a source of a lot of the country's agricultural produce as the annual floods make the land very fertile.

The pirogues and pinasses (pinasses are just large pirogues) are the only type of vessel to be found on the waters of the Niger and they all have the same basic shape: long, low and narrow. Our cargo pinasse was no exception. It was easily 40m long from prow to stern, but only 4m wide at the middle, and the hull had a clearance above the water level of no more than 15cm. Normally that didn't pose a problem as the waters of the Niger are very placid, but on a few occasions the wind picked up causing small waves and a light soaking for us passengers. When designing these pinasses the boat builders seem to have neglected some basic human needs and functions. When answering the larger, more solid, call of nature the unlucky passenger has to hoist themselves up onto the roof (not a particularly easy task at the best of times) and walk to the back of the boat where a plank of wood above a hole above the water serves as a toilet. Luckily for me I only ever needed number ones and could just do my business out of the side of the boat. Another one of those situations where I was grateful for my male anatomy.

There was not much to do on the boat and so the African Indolence quickly took over. Apart from generally just lazing on my bed of 50kg sacks of rice I would watch the countryside go by: mainly trees and rushes interspersed by the odd, wretched village. From my low vantage point the two, vast swathes of monotonous sky and water were kept apart by the narrowest sliver of land. Sometimes the lakes were so large that I couldn't see land in any direction. Otherwise I would chat with my fellow passengers who were a pleasant bunch and always good-humoured. All this to the never-ending strains of an ageing ghettoblaster with tinny speakers and a DJ with an old collection of cassettes that centred around West African hip-hop and Bollywood soundtracks, a match truly made in hell (and when I say never-ending I really mean it, even all through the night). Failing that I always had my book: the Travels of Mungo Park. In 1796 Mungo became the first white person to see the Niger with his own eyes and return to tell the tale. In those days it was a nythical river that Europeans had heard about but had trouble figuring out, and it's not difficult to understand why. It rises in the Guinean Highlands, only 240km from the sea, and then proceeds to flow eastwards and northwards away from the sea for over 1000km, by which time it reaches Timbuktu. At this point the river realises that it's in the desert, which is no place for any self-respecting river, and makes an about turn and heads for the sea where it belongs.

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