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amako! The word evokes the exotic.
However, the gritty capital of Mali is
a harsher reality. It was a hard landing
to arrive here in the dark, dead of
night, complete with an assortment of
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 served 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 the resort’s shabby facilities, where service seems
to be somewhat of an unknown concept.
I have one day to explore this city. Although it’s not
exactly known as a tourist mecca, I’m 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. My avaricious taxi driver
apparently thinks I’m from the
IMF. He demands national debt-
size funding for the unmetered
journey. Market action takes
place not in this square, but in
crowded streets leading 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 from the diesel fumes
of jam-packed minibuses
playing chicken with pedestrians
navigating the chaotic streets
devoid of footpaths. People
shop and shout at stall vendors.
For many their stall is nothing
more than a plank of wood set
on concrete blocks with a few eggs and cans laid out.
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 with
six upside-down chickens attached. (Oddly, I also observe
many young wandering salesmen with multi-coloured
feather dusters.) Chickens scratch the ground around
some goats, while a lone donkey stares at me.
I become a little anxious with all this frenetic
activity among the filth. I can only breathe through
a handkerchief and become weary with the constant
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: birds’ feet, goats’ 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 spotlighting 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
hazardous dodgem car tracks.
Place de la Nation is a good
example of this. There are lovely
patches 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 even air-conditioned.
This suggests it’s for 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, which has an estimated population of
about 15 million.
It’s really hot now and I am on a mission. One café
in particular 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 inside are mostly foreigners. This oasis restores
both body and soul and I decide to linger a while longer.
Here I make a discovery that is repeatedly 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
I was shocked by the
mayhem at Bamako’s
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