Detouring into Mali: Kayes and Bamako

Ups and downs. Wins and fails. Blacks.. and whites.

Today someone stole 5000cfa from me.

With an equivalent value of approximately $10 Canadian, this is at the same time both very little, and also quite a lot of money. But for me, mostly, it’s representative, and stirs up all kinds of debates in my head about life, travel, race, Africa, intent, etc.

I started writing this post a few days ago when I crossed the border; it was a day also full of major wins and epic fails. I’m going to get into that more later, but for now I want to elaborate on some of the more weighty things travelling about the territory of my mind….

Even at the worst of days, on this trip, the wins outweigh the fails, because in the end, I’m still here, and I know that I will be a stronger and more focused person when I leave. But, man do the sudden fluctuations from one to the other make me feel like a madwoman.

And I’ve got the same feeling today. It’s just ten bucks and yet I’m spiralling into this familiar state of resentment, disappointment, and self judgement. But then, thankfully, it transforms into more healthy forms of reflection (after I’ve finished crying, of course).

So what is the thought process? Well, it started out with the thought that it’s not the money, it’s the principle. But then I asked myself, what principle exactly, am I referring to? Stealing happens everywhere; it can’t just be the theft itself.

So am I disappointed that it’s here, in Mali, where I’ve actually been having a really great time? Now I have to accept that it’s just like the rest; with good people and bad?

But no, let’s be real here; I gave that illusion up yesterday in the market. The guys there were just as pushy as anywhere else, and it’s a big city, so it’s pretty normal, anywhere in the world.

So what is it, then? What is it that got me so upset when this guy stole my money? The best answer I can come up with today is that I’m frustrated with the way I’ve been treated based on the colour of my skin. Perhaps it’s a little ridiculous that I’m thinking about this now, so late in the game. Because obviously, what do I expect, travelling in Africa?

But it’s not that I haven’t realized it before, it’s just that it’s taken time for the novelty of it to wear off.

My friends can attest to the fact that I’ve not had the easiest time with guys on this trip; simply because I am a white woman travelling alone, I get a LOT of unsolicited attention. And so far, it’s been easy enough to laugh it off, or at least put it aside and not dwell too much on it in a really serious fashion.

But I think today it finally sunk in that it’s definitely racism.

**Before I continue, let me just note that I certainly don’t believe for a second that this is at all comparable to the much more serious and severe forms of racism and persecution that affect the lives of so many people on a daily basis. But now I have sufficient reason for more in-depth thoughts on the matter and will continue to explore them.**

So aside from the fact that I have always felt like I have some sort of obligation to be a representative while I’m here, like I am the Canadian ambassador of the day or something, and as such, am responsible for maintaining a positive image of Canadians (slash Caucasians/westerners/travellers in general), now I am also thinking about the source of this racism. Obviously, it’s natural to have this; anytime there is a racial minority, there is judgement and inequality. But in this scenario, I now wonder, how am I perceived? How far back does it go? Do we go all the way back to colonization; am I paying for the actions of my white ancestors? Or within this generation alone, am I seen as responsible for the too-much-but-never-enough aid industry, which cripples governments and fosters corruption? Or am I simply a rich white girl who had endless money to spend and somehow owes it to people?

The answers to these questions, I clearly do not know. It is perhaps a combination of all, or something different entirely.

So, I think that this is largely what was going through my mind when the guy rode off with my money in his hand. Other than, of course, did that really just happen?!

And as well, I’m further frustrated by the fact that I am careful. I am selective in who I engage with, and how. And I knew full well that this guy wasn’t honest; I expected all sorts of ploys to get me to buy things, or give him more money, but to plain up and take off with it? That was totally off my radar.

What it comes down to is that I honestly don’t want to be any more guarded than I already am; I feel like the more I am, the more it perpetuates and accentuates this whole racism business. If I’m expecting to be taken advantage of because of my colour, I then put myself in a position of me vs. them, which basically enrols me as an active participant in the game, too.

But.. I do think I’m a bit too quick to judge myself, and need to remember that just because I have my guard up, it’s not because I’m being racist. It’s because I understand human nature, and I would be careful at home too, but here I just happen to be the one white girl in the crowd.

*deep breath*

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, here’s a little bit about my journey from Tambacounda to Bamako! 🙂

The day I made the crossing into Mali didn’t start off on a good note; there was a creepy guy working at the hostel in tamba, who kept coming in throughout the night to wake me up “to talk”, who really didn’t understand the concept of personal boundaries or the meaning of “no” (another instance of this targeted attention). After a few encounters, I think I was finally able to convey the idea that I was not interested, but even still, I wasn’t really resting after that! And I had really needed some rest; back-to-back days of long, hot rides, with a relentless migraine, and a lot left to be desired in terms of accommodation, had left me running on an empty tank.

I got up early to get the sept-place directly to Kayes, in Mali. But I was either misinformed about its presence, or I had misunderstood the people that told me I could get one. Either way, it was not to be found. Fail.

Despite being the second person to purchase a seat, the car filled surprisingly fast. By the time I finished breakfast, we had 6/7 people! Win! Also bought some water and peanuts for the tomato-can kids* there, which I usually don’t do, but which gave me a bit of that random-act-of-kindness perk. They seemed to me to be particularly sweet, so I played with them a bit and regained a small sense of humanity.

The ride went smoothly, and we arrived at Kidira before noon. I was actually feeling pretty good at this point, as I quickly passed through the Senegalese immigration and hopped on a moto-taxi with ease (despite my gigantic backpack) to make the short trip to the actual border. But that’s where things started to go downhill again.

First, I met a guy from The Gambia, so it was nice that he spoke English, but I could tell he was using that to his advantage. The information he was giving me changed constantly, and had a lot of holes in it: “if you take a bus or a sept-place, you have to pay at each checkpoint, but if you take this private taxi here, you won’t have to pay, and I’ll make sure you get the African price, not the white one!”

Now this kind of line of talking doesn’t get very far with me. Because since I always have the proper visa, I have never had to bribe a single person. So whatever method he was suggesting, definitely didn’t sound very legit. And possibly going visa-less is an option, subject to bribes here and there, but that’s not really my style. Of course you can’t blame him for trying, but I wasn’t really interested in his advice. So I decided to go forth on my own to figure out how things worked.

And failed miserably.

The problem I was having was that in most multiple-car border situations, whether the first or the last car is the one to take you across, you generally find this car in an actual town, which is closest to the border. In this case, I think you are meant to get off the mototaxi, and find your next mode of transportation right there, essentially on the border, before you cross. At this point, you will not have reached the Malian side of the border, and if you are like me, you’ll be worried that you need to get the visa still, and feel like you shouldn’t get in a car until you’ve done so, but don’t worry; just like all the rest of the West African borders, errybody gets out and errrrybody waits, no matter how long it takes the dudes in the office to process yer shit. And it doesn’t matter that you only just got into the car 100m before.

What I ended up doing was walking to the customs office for Mali, getting the visa, and trying to figure out how the heck I was gonna get to Kayes. There certainly weren’t clearer options at this point, and everybody seemed to be suggesting that I just wait. But, wait for what? The bus, which is packed and hot and takes twice as long as a car? Or wait for a car, which may or may not come along? I also didn’t want to walk back and encounter that Gambian guy again, because I really didn’t have the energy to filter through his bullshit.

Definitely felt 100% defeated at this point, but I decided, at the request of another lady who had been in the original sept place with me, to wait it out. But again, not until after I finished crying.

But then at least 2 hours passed and the lady I was waiting with still wasn’t going anywhere. And I had no idea what we were waiting for.

On the side of the win, there were two small girls who found me utterly hilarious. All I had to do was look at them, and they would burst into peals of laughter. And there’s nothing like hearing children laugh to put a smile on your face.

But after 2.5 hours at this freaking border, I’d had enough. So finally I just went and talked to a guy in a Toyota hilux – a standard issue work truck – which was waiting for the go-ahead from the guard. Within minutes, I was invited to ride with them, but apparently, that other lady was comin’ with me. Because of this, I then had even less of an idea what we were waiting for all that time. But off we went – my first time quasi hitchhiking! And it was nice.


Not too long after, the guys dropped me off in Kayes. I walked over to a group of guys hanging around with the guard at a bank and asked if they knew where a cheap hotel was. After a bit of deliberation, one guy motioned for me to get on his moto, as he was going to take me there himself. Which he did, without asking for money or my phone number! Again, win.

The first one we went to was a bit out of my price range, but the second was great. Certainly nothing fancy, but clean enough for me, and a reasonable price. We were on a winning streak! I bought him a coke and off he went.

I actually managed to maintain this for the rest of the night: it seems my mood can often be directly correlated to the amount of money I have spent/saved in a day (and also how easy it is to find cheap food). As well, Kayes was a really nice town. Everyone was really friendly, and the only harassment I received was by one guy with gold teeth, who persistently followed me around, but I easily befriended a group of teenagers who helped me to ditch him.

I walked down past the market to the river, where there is a dam/bridge/thing that is only a foot or so above the water level. This is where people come to swim, wash their motobikes, and generally just hang around! It was really nice to see all these people relaxing and having a good time!

Eventually I made my way back to the hotel, and chatted with some guys, who also happened to be going to Bamako the following day (in another Toyota hilux). I was invited to join them too, which would end up saving me another $25 or so, and keep me from enduring yet another hot, 10 hour sept-place ride.

The ride itself was largely uneventful (if you don’t consider marriage proposals eventful, which I no longer do), but the scenery was quite pretty. Lots of baobabs, ancient river beds, and many little hills, for a change. I felt like I was back in the desert, but I think it’s technically still sub-Saharan. I kept expecting to see camels, but so far, only cows. At least there are big enough trees here so I won’t confuse them for giraffes, if there are any! (This actually happened many times in Mauritania – the trees are so small and the camels so big, that from a distance they look like they could be giraffes! Desert mirages…)

After a lot of driving around, we finally found the purported “travellers paradise” (which it basically is), The Sleeping Camel. I now have a completely transparent tent in the middle of the everything, but it’s the coolest place to sleep at night (an absolute gift in Bamako in April, when it’s still 35 degrees at night), and probably some of the cheapest accommodation in the city.

It’s been a couple necessary days of rest; the only thing I’ve accomplished is to get my Burkina Faso visa, which in itself was nice and easy (other than the part where the guy stole my money on the way back from the embassy). But the two are completely unrelated.

I also met a lovely Italian photographer, who is here working on this project, and who has been very nice to hang out with. He’s also got one of these fabulous mesh tents, so I get to listen to him grumble at the 5am sweeping of the grounds, which makes me laugh.

Bamako has been nice, though I honestly haven’t seen too much of it. It’s been too hot, and I’ve been too tired. But now I must do some research about where I should go to next, as I’m itching to get moving again.

I can only imagine what it will feel like when I finally return home, but that’s still 7 months away…

*note: if you didnt follow the link with the tomato-can kids, the short story is that there are hoards of children roaming the streets of West Africa, begging for money and food. I, myself, didn’t even know the full story, but have suspected that there was definitely something fishy about the whole thing. It reminded me of what you hear about the begging industry in India, and it turns out, it’s probably not so far off. The children are supposedly enrolled in a Koranic school, but live in extremely poor conditions, and are made to beg most of the day for the profit of their teachers. Definitely something I am interested in knowing more about, but difficult to find information first hand, given the language barrier.

whizzing past all the commercial trucks to the Malian border

The bridge connecting the two sides of Kayes

The bridge/dam/thing in Kayes

This awesome lady requested that I take her picture, as a gift to me!

The market in Kayes

Sunset in Kayes

Boababs on the way to Bamako

The river in Bamako

One of the bridges in Bamako. There are two, basically side-by-side; reminds me of the Granville/burrard at home!

Near the grande marche downtown Bamako

My totally private room in Bamako!

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