Mali Malaise: Lost... & Found in Bamako, Obioma's Native Hurricane, Ohle, Fetish & the Art of Capturing ... & Stealing Images

Bamako, Solo

I bifurcated with Leadbelly & Cub in Ethiopia. They went "home" to Nairobi. I caught a plane from the neighboring gate to Bamako, Mali. Of course my seat was next to one of the fattest women I have ever seen. But I went into that already. Stepping off the plane in Mali was like stepping into a sauna. Most people didn't bother with immigration. Had to actively find someone in a uniform to stamp my passport. There was no place to change money. Tried to ask some people, but my French sucks. Handed some random guy one of my two $100 dollar bill & he disappeared into a makeshift tin kiosk. He returned & gave me some of whatever money it is they use here. Saw some guys hanging out by cars & asked which one was a taxi. One of them pointed to a beat-up Datsun. When we got chugging to maximum speed, he took off his shirt & smoked a cigarette. He blared some Ali Farka Touré on his cellphone, placed on the dashboard. It was the song where I always think Touré is saying, with passionate conviction,  "I'M A DRY CLEANING MAN!" In short, everything you might imagine upon arrival in Mali.

We drove over the Niger river. It was wide & low & lots of people were washing their clothes & cars in it. Way more people ride mopeds here than Kenya. With flip-flops & no helmets. There's no order to the traffic, no surprise. I think they drive on the "right" side, but I keep switching back & forth, so I'm forgetting which side is the other right. Checked in to the Hotel Tamana because Lonely Planet praises it. All the furniture was made of wicker. No mosquito net. The pillows were kept in cloth bags hanging near the bed. I can only imagine why. The drop ceiling was also made from slatted bamboo or wicker & after a few minutes I could hear rats or some large animals scurrying around in the crawl space. What's up with drop ceilings anyway? You got to figure it's hiding something. Maybe I should get "JUST SAY NO TO DROP CEILINGS" tattooed on my arm.

The last day in Ethiopia, Leadbelly & I both came down with Addis A-belly. Or more accurately, Mekelle Belly, since that's probably where we picked it up. This, after almost a year in Africa with nothing but solid poop. I thought it was a one-time squirt, but I think it was more like I willed my bodily functions to shut down in anticipation of a 5-hour flight trapped in a seat next to an Amazon woman. By the time I got to Bamako my stomach was cramped in knots. The cramps came in 8 minute waves. I thought about eating on the plane but it smelled way to fishy. Now I had to wait for dinner, through 22 more cramp intervals. I ordered a half-chicken with rice, but it seemed like all the meat was cut off the bones before they fried it. The popular beer here is Castel, which is as sweet as Coca-Cola. Speaking of which, I've seen cases & cases of "Américain Cola" here that is supposedly made in China, to rival Coke. That's the word on the street anyway, I can't find word of it on the internet. & there's billboards everywhere for China-Mali development projects, I guess they are in bed together. There were all these Chinese & Vietnamese staying at the hotel, looking like deer in headlights. & all these relentless touts loitering around like they want to be your friend, but of course in the end they want to take you to Dogon country or wherever or whatever, for a price. "Hello my friend, so how about that trip to Djenne?" they'd ask, as I was trying to gnaw some meat off a bone & grimacing from my cramps. Even showing them my empty wallet didn't get rid of them.

Evidently there's no ATMs in Bamako & the hotel didn't take credit cards, not to mention the annoying rats & touts, so I checked out, spending my last CFAs & started walking away from Hippodrome towards the center of town. Constant stream of mopeds & these things called sotramas that are like matatus but instead of seats facing forward the battered mini-vans are gutted & lined with benches along the sides so everyone is facing each other in a moving scrum & they take the door off & put a strap or chain that the sidekick conductor guy hangs on while he's yelling out to you to hop aboard. They are green & the taxis are all yellow Mercedes. Everything barely runs, water & oil spilling from the machines, sputtering & backfiring, they milk vehicles to the last drop here. Wandered some back dirt roads. Across railroad tracks. People don't bother you here or even look or stare. Not even the kids. Streets lined with bubbling open sewers rivaling Jakarta. Large white hornless goats with bad posture & watermeloned testicles. Other goats or sheep with twisted horns jutting sideways. Some of them fucking right there in the street. Old train tracks leading off. The sun glinting off everything. Vats of brown frying oil. Found another hotel, Rabelais, run by squat French ladies. That's where I am now. I didn't feel like venturing too far away from the toilet on my first day.

The next morning I flâneured into town, down route de sotuba. I decided to not take photos. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but photos are a disservice to writers. A crutch. This way I have to describe what it is I saw. In no particular order: more big-balled goats & open sewers, guys shoveling the sewers barefoot, talking about it like they were philosophers. White horses with the tips of their tails dyed red. Festering gray water clogged with plastic bags & bottles basting in the muck, crusting into premature tar. Unidentified organics, pots brimming with meat, bones & all, pieces of matted fur, a jaw bone in one looking distinctly canine. The heat. The nuclear sun. Guys lifting flour sacks oozing with lard. Rusted out Citroens & Renaults. Engines being dismantled, oil spilt in the dirt. Sweaty backs. Saggy cleavage. Shopowners in the shade of trees, the pouring of black coffee back & forth from the pot to the tiny cup at arms length, not a drop spilled. A woman blowing wads of green phlegm from her nose. Doppler-shifted mopeds zooming by, honking sotramas, the drivers yelling in French, call to prayer blaring over tinny speakers. Goat shit trailing off, orderly stacks of fried catfish, fresh fruits, tits being sucked, spilt milk, the smell of it all, a man pulling his penis out & peeing on a wall, another man with axe raised over head stopping mid-swing to check out a braless girl. Colorful wraps, bottom lips puckered, haughtiness. Dried black blood on pavement. Boys pushing metal carts into your ankles, moped pinned under car & ensuing argument. Justice taking place then & there. Flour sacks & tins of spices, beans, maize, indigo powder. Derelict foosball tables in the middle of road, things decrepit beyond recognition, bags of charcoal, gray streets, charcoal gray, sewer gray, all bleached by the sun. Albinos, dwarves, lepers, abominable deformities, lumped together in a line in seemingly designated areas for begging. Pots of rancid boiling oil, fish heads lined to be fried. Red meat & flies. Donkey-pulled carts, sewing machine on the back of a bike, stacks of animal hides topped with cheetah fur. Stacks of baboon heads & mummified warthogs & piles of limp parrots, monkey fingers, flamingo beaks, cat paws, shriveled chameleons, severed hooves, femurs, etc.

The latter hack taxidermy was part of the "fetish market." The kind of thing you can't help but to look at, then feel disgusted at yourself for even looking. Things used for voodoo sorcery & spells, to protect yourself or to cause harm. "Medicine," they called it. You stick the animal heads under your bed to give you power or some such thing. People didn't pay me much mind for the most part except for the occasional persistent tout. Not the kind that shout out & give up easily. These guys will follow you around for fifteen minutes up & down busy streets, insisting they are just talking, before it's revealed they are from Dogon country or Timbuktu & know it well & will take you there, or they have a shop or are a musician, etc. They try to be strategic about it, but a hustle is a hustle. I guess the other thing about photography is that it's grasping, it is vanity & for what? If you are curious as to what Bamako looks like, then come here yourself. You're better off without a preconceived image in your head. When you try to "capture" the image it precludes you from being in the image, from being absorbed into the scene. Stopping to find yourself on a map also prohibits you from being truly there, in that moment. I wandered aimlessly, letting myself get lost. I wandered far, I think down near the Niger, the streets weren't marked so I couldn't say. There was a cemetery & kids jumping the fence to play in it's sanctuary. There were quieter tree-lined side streets with grazing goats & then you'd find yourself back in the thick of it. Just when I was about to have sensory overload, almost a feeling of panic of everything being so foreign & unfamiliar, the collage of sights & smells & sounds all bunching up onto itself, people bumping & pushing, enough chaos to induce you to rise out of your body to watch yourself in the scene, I recognized the twin minarets of the big mosque. Back through the market & down route de sotuba to my home away from home where I went straight to the pool & jumped in.

The Native Hurricane by Chigozie John Obioma

I vegged by the pool & read The Native Hurricane by the young Nigerian writer Chigozie John Obioma. It was okay. It's a hard act following the maturity & command of language & story in Ledgard's Giraffe, which I reviewed in the last post. Obioma is young, & it shows. But considering the book started as an assignment he received in secondary school in Markurdi, Nigeria, it's a pretty impressive feat. & it might be the kind of book you'd expect to be popular with teen readers except there's rather explicit sex & violence in it, the kind you'd expect from a juvenile. For example:

When she tried to tighten her legs, he had put his hand in her soft spot and clawed it with his long nails. When he raised his hands, pieces of her soft skin were on his fingers. She had groaned loudly and opened her legs. Now free, he had driven himself ferociously in and out of her for a long time. The dried blood and pieces of red flesh were still on his fingers when Onyenmuo caught sight of him; he was heading to the Ozala River to wash himself. At the sight of him, Onyenmuo felt a voice whisper to him that here was the object of his vengeance.

Um, this monster or goblin just did this to his girlfriend... do we need to be told, or "feel a voice whisper," that he needs vengeance? I think not! Obioma does that annoying Princess Bride thing, where he tells the tale within the tale. So the kid (Obioma himself) spends the first few chapters trying to find this old cursed hermit who is in some sort of anguished exile over the knowledge of this story, in such pain, so we are told repeatedly, that he can't bear to get it off his chest. Okay, so he's building tension. But revealing the source of it's telling sets the tone of telling, rather than showing, which is fine if you're sitting around the campfire & want to hear a good story of evil gods & heroes fighting them against all odds.

But telling is what he does, he tells you what sentiments to feel with copious similes. For example, these two sentences end the book: "I noticed that it seemed as though time had healed the pain of the past & that Umuagu's history had become absorbed in the past. There came the deepingly piercing knowledge that those foreign things that lived in me were now dead." Ouch. Deepingly. It should be illegal to do such things to the English language. If I had the opportunity to browse the book, I probably wouldn't have bought it, but a few people had recommended it to me so I bought it blindly online. & I read it because it's one of a few books that I brought with me to Mali.

Culturally the book is interesting & I'd probably rather read this than a Harry Potter book, which I imagine are even worse. At least Obioma throws in cultural tidbits & myths & instills a thirst for palm wine & kola nuts, things that I have yet to try in the real world. The jist of the story (within the story), in case you're curious, is that there's this boy, Onyenmuo who goes through all these trials & tribulation to save his village of Unuozala from the evil god Ozala & all these murderous monsters. There's some interesting divergences & he blends in native folklore, like in this passage:

Ibekwe, if a lizard is accused of masturbation because it lies on the shadow of its own self, it is only because the accuser himself fails to see that the sun is behind the lizard's sin.

Speaking of lizards, there's these lizards here that are rather brave & will approach you like they want to climb on you. At least they did to me, kind of freaked me out. Anyway, this sentence was the only thing I took away from reading the novel, so maybe I fail to see that the sun is behind the lizard.

The Art of Stealing Images

Funny I should renounce photography yesterday, for today my camera was stolen. I was flâneuring on the north side of Bamako & Hippodrome, wandering through Missira, Medina Coura & by the stadium under the cliffs to the National Museum. I saw an exhibit of old Arabic texts, took some pictures actually, but figured I would save the rest, the textiles, for when Jess was here. I took some pictures of open sewer textures & graffiti, trying to find some semblance of beauty in all the jank. Wandered down Avenue de la Liberte (the most pleasant & wide street to walk in Bamako, if that's your thing). Now that I think about it, when I was walking I found a bunch of negatives. I picked some up & they were mostly group portraits of people in traditional dress. I like finding found photographs, developing found negatives even, but ended up dropping these ones back on the sidewalk. Ended up down in the bustling market area downtown. Some tout from Cameroon "befriended" me, said he was a musician, etc. Annoying, but harmless enough. I had my little camera in my hand, but we got to a hectic intersection (looking now, Rue Karamoko Diaby & Blvd du Peuple) & slipped it into my back pocket, instinctually putting my hand in my front pocket where I keep my wallet. I wasn't thinking really, which is how it usually happens. A car hit a moped in front of me, people were pushing & shoving, cars honking, vendors hawking, everything going every which way, the Cameroonian tout saying, "Kenya! Kilimanjaro, Serengeti. They have all the animals. In West Africa we kill all the animals." We ran across the street (like playing Frogger) & I saw something I wanted to take a photo of, reached into my pocket & my camera wasn't there any more. I turned around & froggered back across the street. The tout asked what happened & I said my camera was gone. Started asking around amidst the chaos, me in my broken French. He told me to follow him & we went up the street to some thuggish looking guys with knit caps & asked them. This was all in French so I couldn't really tell what was going on. And did I mention the heat? These thugs started arguing back, getting all defensive & hostile & they grabbed the Cameroonian guy & said "let's go" & we all went into this inner dark room of the marketplace, by now an entourage of a dozen or more thuggish street hustlers in soccer jerseys were all throwing accusations at each other. They pushed the Cameroonian guy into a room with barred windows & summonsed other people. Some older wiser men came around that seemed to be more in positions of control, the crimeless ring bosses. One of them wearing a red & blue Barcelona jersey spoke English so he was my main interface to all this. I tried to tell them to leave the Cameroonian guy alone, but they seemed to think it was him that stole it & that he was trying to lay blame on the others. Even though Cameroon did look kind of sketchy, he had been in front & to the right of me the whole time & the camera was in my back right pocket & when they searched him he didn't have it. Unless he was working in cahoots with someone else. They all yelled & argued & I tried to tell them the camera wasn't worth anything to anyone else (it's not), that I just wanted the photos & would give 5000 CFAs for it, no questions asked. The hustlers fanned out in all directions to find the camera & I was given a crocodile chief's chair to sit in & wait. I waited & talked to Barcelona & the others who were all genuinely pissed & embarrassed that this would happen on their turf. From my experience, thievery is just not something that happens in Muslim countries, it's taboo & just not cool. Since we were in the market, I looked at the cool masks & Dogon stuff, picking some things out to show Jess when she gets here. Came across the Fetish stalls again, this time I didn't even have the option to take a photo. Oh well, ce la vie.

Reunited, Bamako por Deux

Jess arrived yesterday from Nairobi. We went to San Toro for dinner & it was pretty good. No alcohol, but they have juices there & other places from tamarind, baobab & ginger that are amazing. Haven't tried the hibiscus stuff yet, but I'm sure that is too. The kora player came on as we were leaving (things get going late here) so we hung around for a song. Amazing instrument, it's one of the few I can think, stringed instruments anyway, that you face while playing. One of those instruments that anything you play on it sounds good.

Today we went out, went back to the market to buy some things. This time I had Jess's camera so I took some pictures. I saw the market hustlers & no word about my camera. Not that I care, it was a shitty little thing anyway. We bought a few masks, a dogon door, a textile & some sandals for Jess, some of which are shown below. Then we walked up to the musuee national, this time I paid to go in & we saw the whole thing. Malian art is definitely unique & interesting. I'm sure I'll have more to say on that as we travel around Mali.

We can back & hung out by the pool drinking G&Ts & Guinness on ice. There were all these annoying Peace Corpse kids & they were all fat & being stupid Américaines, beached white whales. In contrast, there were some French girls hanging out smoking cigarettes & being French & they were all skinny & tan, though they probably don't exercise either. That fucking French paradox thing is all about the mouths being too busy yacking & smoking to put any food in it. And there's the Malians, the guys who are typically skinny & fit, & the women, well, I can't always say as much. Sometimes you can call it bodacious, but other times it's beyond that. On this note, we are going to eat some creamy French food at Le Campagnard & then hopefully catch some live music.

Ohle Abominalies & Not Even Half of a Yellow Sun

We ended up on the outskirts of town at some place called Le Savana, which had a good band I didn't catch the name of, a guitar-driven bluesy-Afro-pop band in the Touré spirit. Touré is a legend in these parts (R.I.P.), as is Toumani Diabaté, who is unfortunately on tour overseas, otherwise he supposedly plays around Bamako every weekend.

Now we're just chilling by the pool. The other day I started to read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was kind of into the first chapter. But by page 36, I was cringing some when I'd read lines like, "... and later, she would tell him that there had been a crackling magic in the air and he would tell her that his desire at that moment was so intense that his groin ached." I tried to keep reading but it had too much of that Oprah book of the month Stella Got Her Groove Back reek to it. Maybe once the Biafran wars kicked in things would get more interesting, as advertised, but I didn't have the stomach to wade through all the romantic & pompous pretense.

I've also been re-reading, editing, two novellas that David Ohle sent me that are quite fantastique. But you'll have to wait to read those, no sense in me relating any of it to you. For now I leave you with these photos from a borrowed camera.

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typical street scene in downtown Bamako

Bamako street


open sewer (yes, all those little dots are flies)

open sewer


vodun fetish market stall (yes, those are monkey paws)

Fetish market


Bamako graphiti

bamako graffit




sotrama art



ancient arabic texts

ancient texts




textile (we bought this one)

mali textile


dogon door we purchased

Dogon door


view from hotel roof

view from roof


fake stairs


goats hanging out in shade, kid with wheelbarrow







(c) 2009 Derek White