Spot of bother – our misadventures in Mali

Posted: November 17, 2009 at 8:17 pm

Monday 16th 2009

I tell you, if I were superstitious, I’d say today is not our lucky day.

We are all ready to head home. It has been a wonderful yet exhausting two weeks. Productive, energising, relevant are just a few understatements that come to mind, now to feed them into the focus.

It is early on Monday morning and as our two taxis turn off the road into the motor park, several touts mill around us aggressively. It is like stepping into a zone. They commandeer your car, leaning into the open windows. They attach themselves forcibly to you, they won’t let go, no matter what you say. The energy changes around us and from that moment, we have hard faces with cold eyes and dry lips bellowing rudeness at us in foreign languages and harsh voices.

Once they have captured us and our luggage, and brought us into their office, we are little more than prisoners of war and the hostility is unmistakeable. There is juju hanging over the doorway, and the ambience is shoddy and sinister. Lucy is told that as a woman, she has to get off the seat by the desk. Even though she graciously obliges, after that, whenever she gets on the phone the meanie turns the volume on his tinny radio right up. He sits there on his male throne, dozing for most of the morning. The room is full of dust and rubbish, with wires hanging out of the wall and random objects hanging on wall fixtures. There are maps stuck to the wall and price lists for the various destinations stencilled on the walls. There is also a lot of random graffiti, names and phone numbers scribbled on the dirty paint.

It is when he tells her she can not stand in the doorway that I give him a piece of my mind and the sharp side of my tongue. Afterall, we had paid on Saturday night for a Monday morning bus and having today at first been told it was leaving at 4pm, sometime later we have been told it would definitely leave before 9pm. A shouting match ensues during which we express our indignance loudly and vocally and in Franglais. The air is heavy, you could cut the tension with a knife. We are told we are not in our country and this is how it’s done in Mali. Threats are made to break our cameras and to call the police. We are not impressed. We too would like to speak to the police and they soon abandon the idea.

They now try to make us relocate to what Uche has dubbed the holding cell, a room behind the office where other prospective passengers wait uncomfortably and uncomplainingly. We stand our ground, we will only move ourselves and our luggage once a bus is produced. Two young Igbo men on their way from Senegal join our chorus for justice. They had been told the morning before that they would leave at 4pm the afternoon before and had had to sleep at the motor park the night before as they waited for a bus to finally leave.

I am all for quitting while we are ahead. If these people are treating us like this now, how much more when they have us at their mercy for the entire duration of a journey that at best, will last for three days, but on many an occasion, has been known to last longer? Emeka and the others struggle to keep the group together. I call Simone, our landlady at the Bed & Breakfast to book the room I have just checked out of. I am heading back to her beautiful oasis. But Team IB09 stop me. The bus will soon leave, they reckon. Charles has a drink of ataya, a traditional mixture of green tea and peppermint poured into shot glasses from a height. Then the men go off to look for food and luckily for them, come back with greens because I am really no longer in an agreeable mood and chlorophyll never fails to lift one’s mood. Lucy and I have the orange hawker come into the cramped space with her bowls and peel us a dozen oranges.

Eventually, we are called to the bus and as we pile in, the tension rises as if we are prospecting for plots of land, not seats on a coach. We get out to complain yet again. Surely having paid on Saturday, and being a group, we should have first dips on seats. We are all herded out again, and given little benches to place in the limited shade we now also have to fight for. With our benches, we pursue the shadows as they duck away from us during our long wait. It feels like the Sweeper is sweeping us away along with the litter when she sweeps the dust and garbage right in our direction before Crazy Rude Man comes again and starts acting up and flinging his arms around to make us flinch just to exert his power over us by making us move the bench to an impossible spot.

Finally we are told that the manifest will now be called and so everybody rushes to the front door of the bus because the back door is locked. Men are pushing women aside shamelessly until the man with the manifesto asks the women to the front. He then proceeds one by one, to remove bags and clothing and foodstuffs that had been left to colonize the seats. After an eternity of calling out every item and reuniting it with its owner, the bus magically fills with lots of thuggish-looking types and there is lots of shouting in foreign languages again. We stand jostled up against each other holding all out luggage in our hands, supposedly ready to beat everyone else to all the best seats once they say we can board.

We stand there in the heat, body to body, for near on an hour, then at last we board the bus which feels like a sauna inside, and we sit there for going on another hour until we finally leave. They have balanced 15cm-wide planks of wood between the aisle seats and have seated another two passengers on each of them. We are like sardines in a tin, and it occurs to me that this was a mild insight into the way Transatlantic slaves must have felt. We are suffering just a fraction of the indignity, discomfort and anguish, but even this is enough to fill us with despair.

The feeling of temporary elation when we finally drive off is short-lived. At the next stop, just minutes away, we watch with weary eyes and wonder just how many dozens of men it takes to fuel a coach. So much milling around and confusion, and we spot somebody lighting a cigarette, right over the jerry-cans being filled. We begin to knock frantically on the windows but the young man looks at us nonchalantly with disdain and passes it on to another, even closer to the pump. Our knocking and shouting from inside our trap escalates before the cigarette is removed from the scene. The fuelling is done and finally we move again.

Relief once again washes over our exhausted bodies and fatigued spirits. Once again, it is short-lived. We have moved no more than twenty metres and are now parked in front of the public toilets, as is manifest in the odours that waft into the bus. Another near hour on that spot, and even those whose need for the toilet might have been induced by the stench, are not getting off the bus to use the ‘facilities’.

We do move in the end and the drive through Bamako and onto a dual carriageway on the outskirts would seem to indicate that we really had this time finally set off on our journey. We check our watches, it is two minutes to nine. The guy had been right. The bus had left before nine, just like he’d said. When the bus suddenly pulls over yet again, we are wondering if it is to fasten luggage properly, or check a wheel or something that might have been noticed in the nick of time before we have left town. We are but mere spectators as the crew – the driver, the guy in the t-shirt with the capsule on it, and all the rest of these guys – get off to buy drugs, which they begin to smoke even as we watch from inside our prison, as we roast in the overcrowded bus. Emeka has had enough and gets out to enquire what the reason is for this zillionth stop.

Out of nowhere, a scuffle ensues and before you can say Babangida, a full fledged fight has broken out, in which the junkies are baying for Emeka’s blood. There is total confusion. Emeka is holding his own, but none of us is about to allow anybody harm one of our team mates and we are all right in there – yes, in the very middle of the fight – trying to deter the mob of drugged-up motor park gangsters from injuring Emeka. It has now become a Nigeria-Mali thing and the thugs are threatening that somebody will die today and that there is no way they are taking us on this journey. Music to my ears. Emeka’s T-shirt and vest have been shredded, ripped off his body during the fight but our luggage is tied to the roof of the bus, so he will have to continue to show off his gorgeous black torso.

We all get back in the bus and after a while realise that it is actually headed back for the motorpark, where it parks outside the ticket office and a renewed fight breaks out. Not only are we outnumbered and trapped in the bus, but this is the motorpark and these guys are all on drugs. One of them gets onto the bus brandishing a knife and baying for the Rasta’s (Emeka’s) blood. There are scuffles, hoarse shouting matches, much threatening and a lot of gesticulation, before the owner of the bus, who had ordered it back to the motorpark because his accounts were not balanced (though we did not know this at the time) begins peace-making, because we are asking for our money back and there are seven of us. Everyone else Team IB09 allows him to placate them, but I have decided I’m disembarking. I ask Lucy to look after my suitcase , which is tied to the roof of the bus, and I call a taxi, gather my hand luggage and leave for the Bed and Breakfast. No toothbrush, no fresh clothes, but I couldn’t care less.

An hour after I arrive back at the bed and breakfast, Lucy calls to say she is coming to join me. The bus had been unloaded and a ‘new’ bus had been brought to do the journey instead. Lucy and Uche had taken one look at the old American school bus and decided that they too had had enough. Modu, our landlord, a Senegalese Sufi goes to pick them up.They soon arrive and we sit around in the beautiful grounds of the Bed & Breakfast and recount our experiences, joined by our fellow guests, Andrea and Sophie from Berlin, and none other than Akinbode Akinbiyi. The rest of the guys had decided to leave by whatever means of transport was available. Dan, a lovely caring young member of our team had lost his mother just before we had left for Bamako. He had spent the days before our departure from Nigeria arranging her funeral, and was rushing back to make it. He could not afford to stay on. And the others went with him out of solidarity.

But after many more trials and tribulations, even Dan and his group trooped into the Bed & Breakfast in the small hours. Uche, Lucy and I were already asleep, but I got up to welcome them, just as Modu, our landlord brought out a huge tray of spaghetti Bolognese and four forks. I cannot describe to you the looks on their faces or the exclamations of sheer joy from my four battle-weary teammates. Surely we must have exhausted our lifetime supply of bad luck today.

As I said before, if I were superstitious, I’d think that today has not been a lucky day. But because I’m not superstitious, I am certain it was a really lucky day. There’s nothing like real-life action to make you feel alive. Nothing like seeing the grass on the other side to remind just how lush and green-white-green your own grass actually is. Today I am extra-specially proudly Nigerian. Tomorrow is another day.
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