Mali Travelogue

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Mali trip

  • Submitted by: Arturo M. Hilado
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

I travelled in West Africa for something like three weeks. This was basically a tour of Mali, and I would say that three weeks is fine to take in the highlights of the country, though a month or more would allow you to get to more out-of-the-way places like Hombori (which from all accounts would have been well worth a visit) or a desert expedition out of Timbuktu. However, in my case, I had this irrational obsession to get at least a taste of Burkina Faso, and more specifically Bobo Dioulassou (I’d heard a lot of good comments about the place, and who knew when I’d be back in West Africa?), and slotted in five days there. Given the travel time involved, this effectively cut my time in Mali to just about two weeks.
Given that time frame, I was able to take in all the highlights – Timbuktu, the Dogon country, Djenne, Mopti, and Segou – only because I made use of a local tour operator, Mande Adventure Tours. I had been in email contact with them after I found their website on the Net. I had momentarily considered one of their packages – a 15-day tour of Mali covering everything (including Hombori!), very reasonably priced – but the offered dates did not jibe with my schedule and besides I had decided I wanted a degree of flexibility; also, I didn’t know how reliable they would be. I indicated that I might want to use their services to book hotels ahead and also my flight to Timbuktu. They met me at the airport and drove me into Bamako to the hotel of my choice, the Lac Debo; then they brought me to their office and we negotiated which of their services I wanted. I was initially interested only in booking a flight to Timbuktu and a 4-day Dogon country trek (as I wasn’t sure I would have the time to find a guide to negotiate with on my own); but these things have a way of luring you to the line of least resistance, and I ended up including Djenne and a pirogue river tour in Mopti in my arrangements. At the airport, the Mande Tours people had also latched on to a woman from California travelling by herself, and she ended up booking the bulk of her arrangements with them as well; we would find ourselves travelling together for about a week.
Would I recommend using the services of a tour operator like Mande Tours? Well, I have always preferred independent travel; and I have to say that, quite aside from the good and bad in my experience with Mande Tours in particular (which I’ll get to later), the portion of my travel AFTER my arrangements with them were over – in Burkina Faso and in Segou back in Mali – gave me the feeling of satisfaction that I always miss in even the best prebooked arrangements, in making my own way and meeting people on my own. That said, I must say that Mali is one place where I could really appreciate the advantages of arranging logistics through an operator. The logistics of transport around the country can be very trying and time-consuming; and often even someone travelling independently will end up having to negotiate private transport and other arrangements anyway at some points. Obviously some people would have more skill, stamina, and patience for this than others; and time is naturally a factor: having a month instead of two weeks at your disposal gives a lot more leeway to look around, find congenial travellers to share costs with, haggle, and compare offers. Comparing my costs with those of a Dutch couple I met in Sevare who were negotiating arrangements as they went along, I would say that doing it that way could bring down your costs by as much as a third or more. (Of course, if you absolutely refuse to engage ANY privately-arranged transport and would rather wait around for a couple of days for cheap public transport to turn up, this would REALLY cut costs – at the expense of time.) I would note that, when I told the Dutchman that theirs seemed the right way to do it, he expressed his doubts that the constant hassle of negotiation and not knowing if tentative plans would come off, were really worth it.
I have to admit that having the tour operator around to give me the information about the right bus to take, the departure times, the cancellation of a flight (without your having to find out upon arrival at the airport), as well as to provide my transfers to and from airports and bus stations, was a major easing of my time constraints. I should also say that such arrangements as I took with Mande Tours were very good – the guides and vehicle drivers were very well-informed, pleasantly disposed and articulate, and almost too eager to maximize the use of our time (there were moments when we’d have preferred to be left alone!). On my last day in Bamako, they went the extra mile in finding a way to get me on a fully-booked flight to Paris. At the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, when it came to PRICING, they would charge what they felt you would swallow, and you owed it to yourself to negotiate. This may simply have been due to the fact that, given the uncertainties of travel conditions in Mali, they were never quite sure of their own costs themselves and there was an element of improvisation in their quotes. My major beef with them was their handling of my Dogon arrangements, when my designated guide for my 4-day foot trek suddenly got sick and they pressured me to join instead a 3-day vehicle tour – which in fact turned out very well, and perhaps more enjoyable than the foot trek would have been, but that was not the point, to my mind.
The above considerations of course may apply as well when dealing with freelance guides or transport operators as you travel independently, when in fact you may have less recourse to professional standards if things don’t work out; so they are not necessarily an argument NOT to deal with tour operators. I would recommend, though, if you decide to use one, to have a couple of days in Bamako (or wherever) to do some comparison shopping – and let them know it! Also, when finally settling on a price, you should set down very definitely exactly what is covered by the price – and what your recourse is if some eventuality causes a major change in the plans.


Mali’s capital Bamako is not going to win any prizes as most attractive city in Africa. It is very dusty and had an overall impression of shabbiness. Arriving at the airport is in fact not really a hassle – immigration and customs people process arrivals pretty efficiently, though baggage claim took quite a while – and the drive from the airport to Bamako was pleasant; the landscape was greener than I expected, with fields of millet. (As I was met by Mande Tours, I cannot comment on the problems of finding transport into the city on your own. I understand that you pretty much have to use a taxi, which would cost at least $8.)
But entering Bamako in early evening, the air was so thick with dust and fumes that vehicles’ headlights looked like they were going through fog. This unfavorable impression was not helped by my choice of a hotel. I had chosen the Lac Debo as central and inexpensive on the basis of a favorable notice in my Bradt guidebook. (I didn’t have the LP West Africa, but the California woman I ended up travelling with, told me this hotel had been well-reviewed there too.) Well, I hate to have to say it as the people running it were so nice – but it was a dump. There was no running water the two nights I was there, and water was supplied a bucket – a SMALL bucket – at a time, and the room and corridors had a very dilapidated feel. (There WAS airconditioning when the city wasn’t subject to a power failure.) For CFA 15000 (about $20 at the exchange rate of the franc then), it just wasn’t good value.
I may as well comment at this point that, in my experience, Mali hotels, or at least budget hotels, are expensive for the quality they offer – especially compared to hotels of a similar price range in Southeast Asia or Latin America. On my return to Bamako at the end of my trip, I chose the Hotel Dakan, at the same price but farther away from the center. While better than the Lac Debo – it had running water and a pleasant central garden for open-air meals – the room still felt rundown. Outside Bamako, my hotels were better but still no prizewinners. By far the best of my Mali hotels was l’Auberge in Segou, but that was in a higher price bracket – toward $32.
However, first impressions notwithstanding, I found that a day or two in Bamako was worthwhile. It was pleasant strolling about, primarily because of the people, whom I found remarkably easygoing and good-natured. I had been braced for hassles and hustlers, but the atmosphere was far more relaxed than in, say, Nairobi or Fez. There is a lot of color in the streets, with almost all women, and a good number of men, in vivid long robes and headdresses; and the market is a “must” experience for the sheer color and variety and the bustle of activity. It sprawls all over the open-air streets of central Bamako, and you can easily get lost in the maze of lanes and stalls and products. (I missed the fetish market, just beyond the main market, but my friend from California told me it is memorably creepy.) This is pretty much the main attraction of Bamako. The National Museum is supposed to be good, but it was closed (though it wasn’t supposed to be) when I went there. Your first view of the river Niger, which you cross coming from the airport, is exciting, but the river is more beautiful at other places like Segou or the crossing to Timbuktu.
Bamako, when I was there, was relatively cool, especially compared to other places I visited, deeper into the dry Sahel area. The main problem in wandering about was the dust, as, apart from the main artery roads, the inner streets are all unpaved dirt roads. The food was all right if nothing remarkable; when in doubt, you can always order capitaine, the famous Niger fish (for that matter, this applies all over Mali). I mostly ate at my hotels’ restaurants.; for a splurge, I tried Le San Toro which was a beautiful place, and not that expensive (about $8). I never got to sample the nightlife, which I regret as Bamako is supposed to have excellent music. (A French guy I spoke to told me it can be difficult to find the right spots for good music unless you’re with a local.)
A word on language: It obviously makes a lot of difference if you speak French. I don’t and was able to get around on my own; but I did find a phrasebook essential as I found I had to make SOME effort at using basic French words or phrases to get by, particularly in asking directions on the street at random. While usually in most places with tourist traffic – hotels, bus stations – someone is bound to speak some English, this is not always so, and it makes it easier on yourself to have some standard French lines down pat. I was amazed at how essential French is in Mali (and this applies to Burkina Faso as well): our guide in Timbuktu, who was Tuareg, could speak half a dozen languages, but, when in Bamako, he has to speak French as he can’t speak Bambara, the language there!


I didn’t really expect much from Timbuktu (I only included it in my itinerary because, well, how can you not want to say “I’ve been to Timbuktu” ?) and only allotted one overnight there, as most tour itineraries do. And in fact, with a good guide or a good guidebook, you can pretty much see all there is to see in one day – mainly the fascinating mudbrick Sudanese architecture, especially the mosques and the studded doors. But I was surprised how much I liked the place, and if I were to do it again, I’d allow one extra day to just take it easy after seeing the sights, wander about and enjoy the edge-of-desert ambience, perhaps take a longer excursion into the desert. We went out to the dunes toward sunset and that was a lovely moment in the trip, but we were really just on the outskirts of the town. (We didn’t feel like a touristy camel ride!) Another nice experience was walking the sandy streets at night to a Tuareg family compound where we had been invited to see the crafts, tourist stuff, that the family makes (needless to say, we ended spending money!). As our acquaintance wasn’t home yet, the family – none of whom spoke English other than he – sat us down on rugs in the open-air courtyard where they slept out of doors, and made tea in the elaborately ceremonial manner that was a joy to watch.
The problem with Timbuktu is getting there. I was booked to fly on Air Mali from Bamako to Timbuktu, and from Timbuktu to Mopti - or, rather, Sevare nearby where I had decided to base myself - where I was to pick up my Dogon trek arrangements. The day before my flight, it was cancelled as apparently the plane had been requisitioned by the government. (This is apparently a regular occurrence; on my return to Bamako, I met a South African journalist team who had counted on flying to Timbuktu but found the scheduled flight cancelled.) Mande Tours suggested that I and the similarly stranded Californian share a 4WD vehicle. To my shock, this turned out more expensive than the flight! (I had to do some serious brinkmanship haggling over this, with some success.) We decided to do it as the only option at that point short of overhauling all our onward plans or cancelling out on Timbuktu, neither of which was palatable. The arrangements involved taking an 8 ½ -hour bus ride from Bamako to Sevare, overnighting there, and getting picked up by the Land Cruiser at 5:30 the next morning for the drive to Timbuktu. The bus ride was not uncomfortable – West African buses, and even minibuses, are no “chicken buses” a la Guatemala – but tedious, something I would get used to over the next three weeks in both Mali and Burkina: distances are long and the landscape tends to be monotonously flat and scrubby.
It took us about 7 ½ hours in the 4WD to get from Sevare to the bank of the Niger where we had to transfer to a pinasse for a some half-hour ride on the river, landing at Korioume; here another 4WD was waiting to take us the rest of the way into Timbuktu. (We were told that later in the dry season, it was possible for 4WDs to ford the river and go all the way to Timbuktu.) It was, if nothing else, a memorable trip. Our driver was excellent, an unflappably cheerful Songhai who however spoke only French; fortunately, a Tuareg friend of his hitched a ride to Timbuktu, who spoke English and was invaluable in helping us communicate with locals along the way, particularly in negotiating photos. The first couple of hours, in the cool early morning and along the paved main highway toward Gao, was pleasant and the views of the Sahel interesting. Then we turned off onto the road to Timbuktu, and it was 5 hours of some of the worst roads (or lack of them) that I have experienced; sometimes the “road” would be so rutted or deep in soft sand that our driver would veer off to detour through the brush. We were pretty much thrown about in the back of the vehicle, and when we crossed paths with other 4WDs crammed with up to 8 people, I began to think the cost of our arrangements well-spent! Our travel to Timbuktu was further held up when, fording a supposedly shallow channel of the river to the pinasse-ferry point, our vehicle bogged down in the middle of the channel, and neither the combined efforts of a dozen men nor that of another 4WD could haul it out; it was beginning to look grim until a monster of an overland truck lumbered up and easily pulled it out.
And yet I have to say that I enjoyed the experience. The very challenge of the country we went through made the ride interesting, and it varied from a scenic escarpment through wasteland and forest to grassy savannah. And where we passed human scenery, the wild and isolated setting often lent it an all-the-more exotic, almost mythic, flavor: camel riders in robes and turbans, herders driving their goats to a well, a thatched village at the foot of the escarpment. Halfway through the drive, we stopped at a Fulani village called (I think) Bambara Maude and our stop there was for me a highlight of my Mali trip – a completely untouristy village on the bank of a small lake with the villagers in their colorful garb unselfconsciously going about their daily tasks, drawing water from the well, washing clothes at lakeside, minding the children. The next afternoon on our drive back, we passed the same village in the middle of its Sunday market, and this was a wonderful scene – herdsmen in blue cloaks and pointed hats with their cattle, the women vendors a riot of color: to me it was more memorable than the Djenne Monday market! Finally, the pinasse ride on the Niger caused me to fall in love with the river, and it is now my biggest regret that I did not allot the necessary time to travel between Mopti and Timbuktu by river.
From my comments on both Timbuktu itself and our travel there and back, it should be obvious that I think it a destination well worth the time and trouble – and in fact more time than I had given it. A couple of final points about my stay there: The Bouctou Hotel where we stayed was quite nice – CFA 12,000 ($16) for a room with shared toilet/shower - with a separate terrace overlooking the town where drinks or meals are pleasant, though touts hover about (but are nowhere as aggravating as in East or North Africa). The markets in Timbuktu were the least attractive I visited in West Africa. Dining at one of the spots around them (we ate at Poulet d’Or) is guaranteed to treat you to the taste and texture of sand in your meal. Our guide in Timbuktu, incidentally, Mohamed Hamzata, was excellent, very articulate not only about the tourist sights, but his opinions about his town and country.


My visit to Djenne, squeezed in between Timbuktu and the Dogon country, suffered by comparison with these two highlights of the trip. It was also prejudiced by the effect on my schedule of the flight cancellation. I had been supposed to spend a night in Djenne, allowing two days to get to know it. But because getting to Timbuktu and back by road entailed the loss of two days, my Djenne visit had to be limited to a daytrip for the Monday market. This was on a Mande Tours arrangement shared with other people in my Sevare hotel, which was convenient, and probably a necessity for a daytrip. Our guide, who would also be with us on the Dogon trip, was extremely knowledgeable about everything from Malian music (he played an unending series of “griot” music tapes) to the history of every town we passed; he talked until our eyes began to glaze over!
The ride to Djenne was interesting, passing photogenic Bobo village clusters with their distinctive Sudanese mosques, and the process of jockeying for place on the ferry across the Bani river was lively and colorful. Djenne undoubtedly deserves to be a highlight of Mali: its mosque is by far the most impressive and beautiful structure you will see in Mali, and the color and teeming activity of the Monday market right under its walls are dramatic. (We were able to climb up to a rooftop where the views of the market below were superb.) But it was extremely HOT when we were there (hotter than in Timbuktu!) and a foot tour of the old town left us feeling wilted and drained. I imagine having an overnight there would have allowed us to enjoy the town in cooler hours; the Campement, where we took refuge for coolness and cold drinks, seemed a very nice place to stay and I regretted missing out on that. I also have to say that I found the inner streets of Djenne dismayingly dirty, more so than other Mali towns like Segou or Timbuktu. Also, the great experience of the village Sunday market just the previous day, necessarily reduced the impact on me of the famous Djenne market.


I had mentioned earlier my unhappiness over Mande Tours suddenly shifting me from the 4-day foot trek I had originally signed on for, to joining a 3-day vehicle tour after the guide contracted for me (and who had already been introduced to me) got sick. This was relayed to me an hour before the vehicle tour was to start (my own trek had been scheduled to start the following day). I considered cancelling out, getting a refund, and looking for other arrangements on my own. But it all seemed too much hassle, and as my main objective was to see the Dogon country rather than have a trek per se, I reluctantly opted to agree. In actual fact, it worked out well enough. The tour covered pretty much the same route as the foot trek; what was left out was one night in the village of Kani Kombole. (Mande Tours tried to compensate by paying for one night’s stay and meals in Sevare after the tour.) There were three others on the tour – the California woman, who had been with me in Timbuktu and was now a good friend, and two Japanese boys who’d been on the Djenne tour as well, nice kids though their English was very limited; and we had the same very competent guide as in Djenne, Dicko Hahaboun. It was very congenial company which I suppose I might have missed on a solo foot trek. And of course travelling by vehicle was comfortable; though evenings were cool, by midmorning it was very hot, and the Dutch couple I’d spoken with, had told me of difficulty in coping with the heat while trekking. (Apparently, their guide had been recalcitrant about starting early on their treks.) So, while the cavalier way this was handled still rankles, I guess I should look back on its positive side.
Actually, the Dogon tour was the best part of my Mali trip, and I would do it again, though on a different village circuit. It was a fascinating experience of a whole distinctive culture – it is quite important to be sure you have a good, knowledgeable guide to fully appreciate the social picture and historical background of the villages. The initial 1 ½ -hour drive from Sevare to Bandiagara was on a graded but very dusty road and was (again) fairly monotonous; but from Bandiagara on (where we stopped for supplies), it was increasingly interesting, with views of Dogon daily life in their fields. (Transport to and from Dogon country is another instance where public transport is theoretically an option, but you may well feel the expense of private-hire 4WD is worth the convenience and reliability of schedule.) Our first stop, and first Dogon village, was the very picturesque Djiguibombo which was still on the plateau. After this, we had our first spectacular views of the dramatic drop-off from the escarpment to the panorama of the plains far below. I hasn’t known that you can actually access the villagers on the plains by road (I had assumed a foot trek was required), quite a scenic drive. We bypassed Kani Kombole and went straight on to the village of Teli, spending the day and night there. The next day we moved on to the village of Ende where we had our second night, making our way back to to Sevare on the third day.
Both villages now lie on the plain, but up on the cliff-face looming above are the houses and granaries of their original locations, dramatically wedged in the rock and still in use by the villagers for storage and ceremonial functions; even higher, and more ancient, than the old Dogon structures are the remains of the homes of the Tellem people who had preceded them. Basically, we used the mornings and late afternoons (after 4 pm) to hike up the cliff to explore the old multilevelled clusters and enjoy the panoramic views of the villages below and the plains sweeping to the horizon; or else wandering the villages themselves, observing the activities, the crafts, and the local architecture (the “togunas”, or meeting centers, were especially striking with their sculptured posts). The hours from noon to about 4 pm were the hottest, and we mainly spent them, after lunch, sprawled on wonderfully relaxing wooden lounges in the shade of the village campements, dozing or reading. Evenings were cool – and dark, as the villages have no electric power and light was by kerosene lamps. (Interestingly, though, Teli has a motor-powered refrigerator, which allowed us the bliss of really cold soft drinks!) Bath and toilet facilities were basic – enclosed but unroofed cubicles – but clean; the buckets of water provided were fabulously refreshing after the hot day. Dinners, cooked by the village, were good – in Ende, we had a great couscous meal! (Lunches and breakfasts were simpler, usually from our own supplies.) Rooms were available around the campement yard, but we always opted to sleep up on the roofs; this was a wonderful experience, the night alive with an orchestra of animal noises (some really weird!), and waking up to the sights and sounds of the villages stirring to their early morning activities, was always a magical moment.
Ende had the more interesting cliff-village, where we could observe the system of hauling corpses up to the burial niches high on the cliff-face, and visited the dwelling-place of the Hogan, the chosen elder who was to be incommunicado for the rest of his life. (The site is said to be normally off-limits, but we were able to visit it as a new hogan hadn’t been chosen yet, and it was occupied by a caretaker – who looked old enough to be a hogan candidate!) The views from the Ende cliff were also the best. But I liked staying in the Teli village best. The atmosphere here was genuinely friendly, the campement spacious and restful, and the crafts were beautiful; their storeroom of carvings, especially the scaled down models of their doors with all the cosmological symbolisms, was guaranteed to make any art fancier run wild. (And of course the actual doors around the village could use up half a roll of film!) In Ende, the craft of choice was cloth making, which was less to my taste. The roof sleeping facilities in Teli, too, were nicer; that night, with a full moon sailing across the sky, is a unforgettable memory. I was the only one in the group who’d brought a light sleeping bag, and I found it ideal in Teli. In Ende, the night was so cold that all of us, sleeping bag or not, were practically freezing. A last consideration: we had Teli practically to ourselves, while Ende was swarming with tourists (well, relatively speaking).
One disappointment on my Dogon visit was our failure to witness a mask dance. (The Dutch couple had been lucky to catch one.) Performances for tourists are sometimes on offer, and in Ende we were offered the opportunity. However, the proposed price was steep (CFA100,000) and the group opted against it. One welcome feature of the Dogon villages was the low incidence of children begging for “cadeaux” (gifts), a regular occurrence elsewhere in Mali wherever tourists stop; apparently, the village elders, especially in Teli, actively discourage this. All in all, the Dogon culture and worldview are so unique and self-contained that it was a real gratification to have experienced it, even to so limited an extent. (We particularly appreciated our guide and the wealth of detail he made available.) I wonder how long this will remain intact as apparently Islam, and to a lesser extent Christianity, are making inroads: there was a prominent mosque in Teli, and a Catholic chapel in Djiguibombo.


I had opted to base myself in Sevare taking the advice of my guidebook about the relative lack of tourist hassles there compared to Mopti, the wider choice of hotels, and the relative accessibility anyway of Mopti and its tourist attractions (only some 15 minutes drive away); and it seems most travellers do the same. My first impression of Sevare was very nondescript, and actually there’s no real attraction to the town. But my hotel, Djiguiya, was pleasant (especially after Lac Debo in Bamako) with a beautiful lush garden where we took our meals; and the food was very good, though it could take up to an hour to come after ordering! The brochettes were excellent and a special Malian fonio dinner they served up to all the guests was probably my best Mali meal. The young people on the staff were warm and likeable. (The hotel, though, showed telltale signs of typically low quality of upkeep. Though it is a new hotel – the second storey was still unfinished – and the rooms felt new, the bathroom fixtures were already wobbly; and there were spells of power failure which would affect some rooms and not others!) It made for a nice “home base” when we returned from Timbuktu, Djenne, or the Dogon tour. Also, on a free day, when I strolled about the town, though there wasn’t anything to see, the people on the street and in the shops were very friendly.
However, I am of two minds whether I should have spent at least a day or two based in Mopti. On my first foray into Mopti, I found it so crowded, chaotic, and brusque (it was the hot noon hour, and I had to find the right bus station to buy a ticket to Burkina Faso), that I felt thankful I had chosen to stay in Sevare. But on a more extensive tour of the town, in the company of my California friend and the same Mande Tours guide as on the Dogon tour, I found the attractions of the town so varied and fascinating that I felt otherwise. (I had only signed on with Mande Tours for a pirogue tour, but got a full Mopti tour, on the other hand, the pirogue ride was less extensive than I’d expected!) The contrasts between the gracious treelined French-colonial section, the traditional ambience of the old town around the impressive mosque, and the hurly-burly of the market along the banks of the river, made Mopti seem so vital and multi-dimensional. After the overload of impressions, the pirogue ride on the Bani river was idyllic, though I was disappointed we did not get to the confluence with the Niger (though this was visible in the distance). It was tempting to consider a night or two in the upscale (about $40) riverside Kanaga Hotel to wander Mopti at leisure (and perhaps negotiate passage to Timbuktu by the Niger river). I also did not experience the hustling all the guidebooks warn about, but perhaps this was because we were with a guide.


Should I have done my sidetrip to Burkina Faso? I guess the question is moot since I did do it. As I had mentioned, I had an obsession with Bobo Dioulassou, so it’s probably just as well that I did it, or missing out on it would have gnawed at me afterward; and I did enjoy my stay both there and in Ouagadougou a good deal. However, for someone who does not have this specific motivation and , like me, has only three weeks, using the extra 5-6 days to avail of more leisure and flexibility for Mali would be the saner option. On the other hand, if someone had a month or more, Burkina Faso would be an ideal complement to Mali: transport from one country to the other is readily available (as long as you don’t mind long bus rides!), and the mixture of similarities and differences is interesting. I would not rank Burkina a “must” as a travel destination in terms of attractions (as I would Mali), but after the rigors of travelling Mali and making it to all its attractions (frankly, I think most travellers would at SOME point find Mali travel rigorous), it can be a welcome change to move into a country which is similar enough - in language, culture, and landscape - not to need much readjustment, but can be experienced at a more casual pace, largely because it not – yet – as much a tourist “must”: I saw far fewer tourists there than in Mali. (Interestingly, in contrast to Mali, and most other places I’ve travelled to, where my Asian looks bring remarks of “Japonais?”, in Burkina it was always “Chinois?”, an indication that Japanese tourists still have to penetrate the country!)
Admittedly, I didn’t get beyond the major cities to see Burkina’s more “exotic” attractions, like the Gorom Gorom market or the Banfora area’s natural attractions. (My impression though from others who’d been there, was that these attractions were of a lower key than those in Mali.) My original plan was to just visit Bobo Dioulassou for a few days and try to make a sidetrip to Banfora. However, for rather complicated reasons having to do with my reentry visa to Mali, I decided to go to Ouagadougou instead. So essentially my Burkina stay was a city experience, with a very different accent from that in Mali. I stayed in nicer (and relatively more expensive) hotels, dined on excellent French meals, indulged in nights out with terrific African music, attended church services in Bobo (the service in the Catholic cathedral was eyeopening for the packed African congregation, after the almost-totally Muslim character of Mali), and watched a massive political demonstration in Ouaga. I had the impression of a more cosmopolitan atmosphere in Burkina; Ouaga looked more like a “real” capital than Bamako, and its market, while teeming and colorful , was not open-air like those in Bamako and other Mali towns (and in Bobo), but housed in a permanent, sprawling structure like a Middle Eastern bazaar. Travel by bus between the two towns was much like in Mali – not uncomfortable (there are airconditioned minibuses if you want to opt for them), but long (about 5 hours) and ultimately tedious. The Bobo villages we passed were my limited view of Burkinabe rural life, and they were so attractive that I really wished I’d had a chance to visit one of them: essentially similar to Bobo villages in Mali, they were also subtly different (the shape of the granaries was circular rather than trapezoidal) and looked photogenically like little medieval walled towns.
My day and a half in Ouaga were enjoyable enough. I stayed in Central Hotel (CFA22,000, about $30) which was very central, clean if rather antiseptic and soulless (it was the only hotel room in the trip where I had NO mosquito problem!), and professionally run. I prowled the market, dined at the nun-operated French restaurant L’Eau Vive on very good food in a garden setting, and listened to two excellent bands at the very nice Zaka club-bar-restaurant-craft center (it also served good inexpensive lunches with local specialties).
But I liked Bobo a lot more – a very laid-back place where I could spend half a day just strolling its shady easygoing streets. I stayed at l’Auberge, my most expensive hotel (about $35) on the basis of high recommendations from both the Mande Tours people and my travelling companion from California. It was lovely, with rooms (equipped with mosquito nets) overlooking a tree-shaded swimming pool and al fresco dining area where one could sit all afternoon. The food was super, among my best French meals ever (not too expensive – about $6 with a drink), and service was gracious. One of the staff took me for a terrific night out at Bambou (walking distance from the hotel), a less sophisticated setting than Zaka in Ouaga and the band was less polished – but much more dynamic in drumming showmanship, that had the audience cheering and some breaking into dance. For tourist attractions, there was an impressive grand mosque in the Sudanese style, a small “old village” with a lot of the traditional animist culture (it’s best to take on one of the youths who offer guide services for CFA100, though they only speak French), and an open-air market (though by then I was rather “marche”-d out!).
I must remark on the travel between Mali and Burkina. My overnight trip from Sevare to Bobo has got to be one of my most gruelling bus rides in my travels, taking about 13 ½ hours. In the first place, the bus – or minibus, actually – whose Mopti office had promised to pass for me at my Sevare hotel sometime between 5 and 6 pm, came at 7:30! (I was just on the point of contracting a hotel room for another night!) It packed the passengers wall-to-wall four abreast (fortunately, they seated me in the front row though I was the last to be boarded - I suspect in deference to my being a tourist!). I was the only non-African on the minibus, and those around didn’t speak any English; it was only at one of the later stops that I found someone, a Nigerian, I could speak English with. The most tedious thing about the trip was the exasperating number of stops – for a rest or a bite, to allow Muslim passengers to kneel in prayer toward Mecca, to negotiate with the repeated police roadblocks in both Mali and Burkina (apparently, the bus driver shelled out bribes at each checkpoint in the hope that the police would not decide to call for a random baggage inspection – which worked most of the time, but not always, in which case we were in for another delay). Then, of course, there was the border, where, in the middle of the night, we stumbled out to blearily queue at Mali immigration, then Burkina immigration and, separately, quarantine, and (strangely, 26 km farther down) Burkina customs, when all baggage had to be taken down, opened for a cursory inspection, then reloaded. (I must say that all along the line the officials were quite nice – to me at least.) I think we first got to the Mali post about 3 am, and had our Burkina customs check at 6 am! On my trip from Bobo back to Mali, this went in reverse, with our most aggravating final stop at Mali customs. (The bus was bigger, but this also meant more baggage to inspect!) Thankfully, in this case my ride to Segou was only some 8 hours. One learns the virtue of patience on West African bus trips!
The West African passengers must have a lot of practice, as it was amazing how good-natured they remain all the time. Though communication with me was necessarily very limited, they were unfailingly nice to me – not aggressively friendly (like my experience in Iran), but helpful whenever they can be, as helping me stow my pack in a convenient spot even if it cramped their leg room. Whenever a passenger speaks English, he makes a point of talking to me. Often, this was not a Malian or Burkinabe, but a Togolese, a Nigerian, a Ghanaian, a Senegalese: my long bus rides during this trip brought home to me how much of a unit West Africa really is, people from the different countries (despite the differences in language between French- and English-speaking countries) moving among themselves a lot.


Coming back into Mali, I had one last stop (not counting my remaining time on my return to Bamako): Segou. I had almost crossed this off my list; I had felt that after Timbuktu, Djenne, and the Dogon villages, Segou might come as an anticlimax (the Dutch couple, too, had told me they hadn’t liked it much), and I had thought of spending my last days in Bamako. But the office of the bus I was taking out of Bobo told me that the bus was expected to get into Bamako at 2 am, and there was no way I was going to do that! So when he told me that it would get to Segou about 9 pm, I made an impromptu decision to stop there after all. In fact, we got into Segou toward 11 pm (I wonder what time they got to Bamako!), and the town looked dark and shut down, and I wondered how I would find my way to a hotel. But as soon as I asked directions from a group of teenaged youths on the street, they all accompanied me all the way to the l’Auberge hotel, a good way off through dark and half-torn up streets, trying to chat with me in French.
Stopping at Segou was one of my best decisions. I stayed there less than two days, and there was nothing like the highs of the Dogon tour or of Timbuktu. But I loved the atmosphere of the place – the broad and beautiful Niger river flowing alongside the town, the interesting activity along the riverbank (pirogues coming and going, people washing clothes or bathing, vendors selling fetish charms, a small pottery market), the striking colonial-era mansions where the French incorporated Sudanese architectural styles and motiffs. (The easygoing atmosphere along the river was such a contrast to the intense activity in Mopti.) I stayed at the l’Auberge, apparently not related to the Bobo l’Auberge though it seems both are Lebanese-owned. It was my best hotel in Mali. It was more expensive than I’ d expected (about $32), though I think there were cheaper fan-cooled rooms (I took an air-con room), but worth it. The rooms are actually in a compound a distance away from the bar-restaurant-office; the rooms, though simple, were the nicest I had in Mali, but it was the restaurant that was outstanding, with a lively indoor bar (presided over by friendly and gregarious Lebanese brothers) and a very pleasant garden patio; behind some bushes was a swimming pool, which, when I had a dip, I had all to myself.
One of the best things about my Segou stay was the excursion to the original town that was the capital of the Bambara empire 200 years ago, now just a village, Segoukoro. (This was the location of the wonderful novel by Maryse Conde, “Segou”, which, when I read it, was one of my motivations for planning a trip to Mali. I believe it’s must reading for anyone coming to Mali.) It would have been ideal to go by pirogue on the river, but the locally-based operator Balanzan Tours was charging CFA22,000 per person (WITHOUT guide or village “visiting tax”) and besides they required a minimum of four persons. But they offered an alternative of getting there by motorcycle for CFA17,500, all in (the motorcycle driver doubled as guide), which I took. It was a great excursion; the mosques and tombs of the Bambara kings were interesting, but best was the village itself with its mudbrick houses, its winding lanes, its riverbank activity, and its friendly people: as an authentic Bambara village, this in a way represented the heartland of Mali. (The motorcycle ride was also pretty exciting!)

And as a fitting end to my Mali trip, I watched an absolutely beautiful sunset on the Niger from the pier of Segou. I was the only tourist there, among the locals also enjoying the end of the day, but no one bothered me (and my photo-taking); on the river and along the banks, the life of the town were the background as the sun sank into the river. Even more than the highpoints of Dogon and Timbuktu, that was the moment when I hoped I would be able to return to Mali and West Africa.

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