When we last spoke I was about to leave Guinea Conakry and head on to Mali. Guinea Conakry had been one of my favourite countries in the region, but there was one thing I disliked – the constant attempts by soldiers to elicit a bribe. That said, I was quite proud of my record of resistance. I had survived, thanks to no amount of stubborn big-headedness, without paying a single penny. Unfortunately, that all changed at the border.
A soldier, who lurked behind a wooden table in a one-room hut, asked me to pay a ‘fee’ of 4000 Francs (about £1) for the exit stamp in my passport. I ignored that request, saying “No, that is not normal”. When the border guard continued to ask for money, I pretended not to understand what he was saying. I ignored that man, and chatted to another officer.
However, I had made friends on the journey with a chap called Edward, who explained to me what the border guard was asking. In doing so, he made it impossible for me to pretend not to understand. And when I said I only had 2000 Francs (about 50p), because it is illegal to leave the country with more 5000 Francs, Edward paid the rest of the bribe. There was nothing I could do but hand over what money I had.
On we went. With a real dual-carriage way, and real traffic-lights, it felt as if we had driven a hundred years into the future. Of course, such a perception is misleading; Mali is still one of the poorest ten countries in the world. But its transport was a real breath of fresh air. In Guinea we, we once squeezed fifteen people into a seven-seater car; with two in the driver seat, two in the passenger seat, four across the middle row, three in the back, two in the boot, infants on their mothers laps, and luggage on the roof. But in Mali they had real buses, with a seat for every passenger. They even have a train! The only downside were the pests who hung around Bamako’s bus station. On one occasion, when I refused help from one such pest, he chased after me. He threatened to kill me, and swung a leg at me too. I headed back to town, and he tried to follow me. He only left when the police intervened.
This, unfortunately, was by no means unusual in Mali. West Africa's best asset is its people, they’re by far the most friendly I have ever come across, but Mali lets the side down.
In most of West Africa, people (especially children), will shout out ‘Hello’ in one language or another. In Casamance, they shout out the word 'Toubab', which I assumed also meant ‘Hello’. Accordingly, I replied by saying ‘Toubab’ too. I felt pretty embarrassed when I found out that word actually means ‘White Man’. I’d been calling the little Africans white men! But those children were friendly and kind. They smiled profusely as they sang, 'toubaboo, toubaboo, toubaboo'!
However, in Mali, a white person is deemed to be nothing but a walking cash machine. The kids here shout out 'Toubab cadeau' - 'White man present’. And every time you leave a shared taxi a tout approaches. You end up becoming reserved.
All this, of course, is a real shame. Mali is an amazing country with so much to offer. Whilst I didn’t have time to make it to Timbuktu, I did spend a good few days in Bamako – the musical capital of the region. The highlight was a cultural extravaganza hosted in a stadium that was bathed in the shade of a tall cliff. The event started with a ‘hip hop band’ (a few people rapping to a tape), whose gig came to a sudden end when the president decided to make a speech. Everyone stood to attention. There was a reggae band and a guitar player too, but the main spectacle was the never-ending procession of troops, each colourfully attired, which culminated in a massive show of dance and drums.
I also made it to a town made out of mud, where the mosque is the biggest mud-built building in the world. And then I made it to Dogon Country…
Dogon Country is incredibly beautiful. Butterflies flutter around your head, and birds fill the sky, as you walk through fields full of millet. The millet itself is a staple used to make pancakes and millet beer; an ale-like drink that tastes like fruity mulled-wine – a real bargain at just 5p for 1.5 litres.
After descending the escarpment we walked through a new line of villages on the plains. Each village was full of mud hits, and each mud hut was fronted by an artistically carved wooden door. The home of one man, a hunter, was also decorated by the skulls of all the animals he’d killed! It was a truly freakish site to behold.
Above the villages was a wide cliff, full of abandoned caves. The pigmies who lived in the area many millennia before had carved them out. The Dogon had built their first villages on ledges in front of those caves, before moving down into the planes. From below, it was a magnificent scene. And from the caves itself, the view was enormous – stretching miles into Burkino Faso.
We kept on walking, giving bitter red nuts to the village elders in each village in return for their blessing. I slept on the floor each night, like a real African tribesman, and went to the ‘church’ on the third day.
The Dogon themselves have their own religion and beliefs. They believe that aliens from a planet near the three Sirius stars came to earth many centuries ago, and passed their wisdom on to the Dogon’s ancestors. When the Dogon pray, they do so to Sirius. More mysteriously, the Dogon knew that there were three Sirius stars, not just one, long before Western astrologers worked that out…
That did not stop foreign missionaries from forcing their own religions onto the Dogon people. Now, therefore, each village has three sections; Christian, Muslim and Dogon. But the Christian section does have a distinctively Dogon feel. Their churches, pews included, are all made out of mud. The constant singing has a distinctively African sound.
Having left Dogon Country, I had a week to make it back to Dakar. I whizzed through town after town, visiting markets, watching football matches, and chatting to the friendly locals. Then, in eastern Senegal, I met a big-headed sexed-up guy whose name I never established. That Brazilian (with a wife and child back home) had visited Mali, decided he didn't like it, and returned to Senegal straight away. He was a sex-tourist, who got girls into bed by telling them he’d marry them. He liked the £2 prostitutes, and only ever slept with black women because white women have no 'bums or breasts'. I gave him a wide-berth.
For me, I’d rather sit back, relax, and watch this crazy world from the side-lines. I think there’s something incredibly calming about watching other people work, be it a group of woman getting water from a well, or a group of men, half-submerged, washing clothes in a river. I was particularly interested in one elderly man in Djenne who fixed two broken sandals with staples he made himself out of scavenged metal wire. Watching him was almost entrancing. His hands were wizened by the work of centuries, and his pace was timeless. He only charged 3p.
But now my journey is coming to an end. From Tambacounda today, I will go to Dakar tomorrow, and then head back to England in the early hours of Monday. Travelling around West Africa was the maddest thing I've ever done. I’ve spent eleven weeks alone, without a plan, in the craziest of continents. And I’ve absolutely loved it!
WEST AFRICA BLOGS
Back in the summer of 2003, aged 21, I went travelling on my own for the first time. The emails which I sent home, edited versions of which appear here, were my debut efforts at real writing.
Looking back, my trip around West Africa was eventful to say the least. In these blogs you'll encounter rampaging prostitutes, charismatic scammers, debilitating illness, and petite crime. But shining through it all is a real sense of humanity. The warmness of the Africans, their friendly nature and welcoming personalities, struck me almost every single day. Hopefully they'll leave a similar impression on you too...