The first thing I noticed about Bamako is that it is green. As the plane descended to the airport I saw expanses of green trees and fields. After the desert region of Dakar, it was incomprehensible. I hadn’t thought about the geography and didn’t realize that I would be descending south, out of the Sahel, and into a verdant zone.
As the plane was going on to Nairobi, the first person I met in Bamako was a border agent checking to make sure de-planing passengers were ticketed to Bamako. I couldn’t find my boarding card. As I was searching he said, “C’est bien Bamako?” (You’re sure it’s Bamako?) and to my response “C’est bien Bamako” he smiled broadly and waved me on with a “Bienvenue à Bamako”. My flight had arrived early, my baggage was already on the carousel when I got there, and after passing through customs in 30 seconds and I was shortly reunited with Pusso and with my daughter, Sarah. Bamako could not have started better.
The second thing I noticed about Bamako was motorcycles. There are motorcycles everywhere and they seem to be going in every direction at once and have the uncanny property of coming out of nowhere right at you every time you try to cross the road.
The iNERDE team is all staying together in the home of iNERDE founder, Pusso. I met Aïseta Baradji, iNERDE Director of Curriculum Development based in Spain, England, and France, all at the same time, it seems, in the flesh for the first time after talking together for a year in iNERDE virtual meetings. Momo, who is based in Bamako, joined us at Pusso’s house and, with my daughter, Sarah, we had the entire in-country team in place.
Pusso’s house was all of I saw of Bamako for the rest of the evening and all the next day, Saturday. We spent most of the weekend going over the planning for the camps in Mali and in Senegal and in last minute preparations. That would be a theme often to repeat itself, our days of work in the Colonie de Vacances are usually followed by evenings of work in Pusso’s house. It also happened to rain most of Saturday, the house shaking often from loud, reverberating explosions of thunder. It became quickly clear to me why Bamako is so green. By Sunday morning the rain had stopped and it was already hot in the morning, with a blazing sun. Sarah wanted to do something touristic in Bamako, for the first time since she began her stay here, so we decided to take a taxi to the National Museum. Our plan raised some consternation in our hosts; many streets here are poorly marked or not marked at all, the city is quite spread out, and is generally just challenging to get around. Taxis don’t have meters and the price of every ride has to be negotiated. That’s difficult when one has no idea of how far one is going and what the right price would be. Price negotiations also involve some amount of haggling, you need to know how the game is played. We claimed to be unfazed by the challenges … I actually was a little “fazed” but tried not show it. My daughter has been in Bamako three weeks already and appeared to be ready if not eager for the adventure … though perhaps she was merely putting on a good front, as I was. Nonetheless, with either real or feigned courage we were off for the center of the city.
As in Dakar, there are taxis everywhere and it never takes more than 30 seconds to flag one down. I had observed Momo negotiating the price with taxi drivers many times and I tried to imitate his style. I leaned on door on the passenger side, started the conversation with usual “Ca va?” (How’s it going?”) and proposed the price I was told to pay for the ride into the city center. The driver probably didn’t understand my French, seemed slightly offended, and drove off. Sarah said I made the mistake of proposing a price instead of letting the driver propose the price first and than negotiating him down. I assured her that my method was the authentic African way. As we were debating strategy another taxi stopped. Sarah asked him how it would much it would be to go to the National Museum, he proposed a price that was high, Sarah proposed the correct price, and it was “Ca va” (in this context, “ok”) and we were on our way, Sarah, anything but modestly, basked in her triumph.
Bamako is a river city, lying along the Niger. We are staying in the outlying district of Faladié and it is several miles from there until one crosses the Niger, catching the first glimpses of the city center just before the river. Once across the bridge one enters a central district with the Grande Marché (Great Market), and, a bit further along, the Rue de la Liberté (Street of Liberty) with its government ministries, the National Museum, the major park of the city, and the zoo. Still adjusting to the green lushness of Bamako, I was stunned by the beauty of park and the well-tended grounds of the National Museum. Past the park one sees a dramatic backdrop of cliffs rising steeply over the city, also brillantly green.
The National Musuem is small, but charming, with an interesting collection, and artfully arranged to high professional standards (exhibit descriptions, though, are only in French). The exhibition on textiles, a craft for which Mali has been esteemed for centuries throughout Africa, was fascinating. A guide, observing us studying one exhibit illustrating a technique for creating patterns, asked us if we had grasped the organization of the exhibit and its underlying concept. I claimed that I had but he somehow accurately sensed that I hadn’t at all and proceeded to explain it to me anyway. It showed how bolts of fabric were bunched and knotted, died, and then unknotted and unbunched to produce cloth with ring-shaped patterns where the dye had not colored the fabric (similar principle to tie-die). He proceeded to take us around the entire textile exhibit, proving to have an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Malian textile craft as well as Malian history and culture.
As we left the museum we were invited to sign the guest register and to make a donation for providing services to children with AIDS, which we happily did. We thanked the musuem staff, exchanging cordial goodbyes. All in all, it was a remarkable experience.
Sarah wanted to venture into the Grande Marché. Given my previous experience in Dakar, I knew that going to the market is a bit of ordeal but Sarah assured me that it would be just quick look. Being the day after the end of Ramadan celebrations, customers were thin and we soon attracted a small troupe of merchants following us down the road offering various wares while proclaiming, ceaselessly, the superiority of their goods. Sarah did buy two attractive calabashes (gourds hollowed out to form bowls with carved motifs on the exterior) at the correct price. She asked the merchant the price, he proposed a price three times the going rate, Sarah replied by stating that her aunt had told her the price was only 2000 (African) francs. The merchant, recognizing that Sarah was not wet behind the ears in her knowledge of Mali, ceded at 2 calabashes for 4000. Our short excursion to the market had drained us and, still tailed by our merchant troupe, we hailed down a taxi. Sarah negotiated the correct price, we jumped in, and as we prepared to go, one of the merchants, in desperation, halved his price for an African child’s outfit. Sarah agreed, exchanged outfit for money through the window as I asked the driver the French equivalent to “Hit it, James”. We drove off with the merchants still shouting their offers at our departing taxi.
The thing that I learn every day here, whether from the Colonie de Vacances students, our teaching staff, taxi drivers, musuem guides, or simple merchants, is that I have a great deal to learn. Africa, and iNERDE, have opened new horizons and profoundly … deepened … my understanding of social relations and culture. I feel as though I could write for a hundred years and not fully describe what I have learned in a single weekend. Bamako is an African city, challenged and challenging, complex, beautiful, green as in the green that symbolizes the awakening of spring.