Akuna Matata

Trip Start Aug 29, 2008
Trip End ??? ??, 2009

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Happy Holidays to lovers and friends. I missed all you cats this Christmas and New Year so in order to keep homesickness from consuming me I went backpacking through the north of Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali for three weeks!!

SO much happened in the course of our adventures so I'll just write some of the highlights of our trip.........

Rachael, Marissa and I set off to check out Mole National Park before heading to the Burkina Border. I must preface this blog with a note on travel routes in West Africa. Nothing is ever straightforward. Especially in the north of Ghana that is denied the same investment in infrastructure as the South gets, there are few main roads and the few that exist are in very poor condition. That being said, the roads in Burkina and Mali (and I assume most of French West Africa) were in very good condition due to the nature of their colonization... Regardless, transport via bus and trotro is verrrry cheap so off we go!!

Mole was absolutely beautiful, we go on a walk through the park but only see traces of wildlife rather than the real thing. We DID see a baboon steal someone's wallet back at the main lodge though. That definitely made up for the lack of animals. Haha

In the afternoon we decided to head to Larabanga, the closest village to Mole to check it out and stay overnight at a cheaper guesthouse... we met some new friends from the village who offered to drive us into the village on their mopeds and they ended up showing us around, just seeing how life passes by in Larabanga.
Traveled from Larabanga --- Wa --- Hamile (Ghana-Burkina Faso Boarder)
Marissa and I got sick in Hamile but we were anxious to leave this town that was sooooo overpriced for nothing. It was a hellish ride from Hamile to Bobo Dioulasso but we survived!

After we recovered we checked out the Musee de la Musique and learned about all the traditional instruments and their purposes. All the instruments were pretty simple, made of materials from mother nature, and played together make the most incredible sound. Burkinabe music is so incredible. Malian music is very similar to it.. I loved how in Burkina and Mali traditional music was still very much prominent in the peoples music taste.. in Ghana there is a booming "highlife" music industry which is more hip hop/pop sound but I still think nothing can compare to the traditional sound.

Rachael and I got an even better insight into the Burkinabe sound when our friend Siaka took us to his father's village, Pani, just outside Pani. We happened to arrive on market day so everyone was out selling and buying and just generally socializing. So we joined in! Chilled with Siaka's grandmothers, brothers, and various other friends and relatives (well here everyone is pretty much family) for the afternoon.. If we moved anywhere a parade of children followed us. His father, who like many of Siaka's family members is a musician, was doing leatherworking and warmly welcomed us to his home for the evening. So off we went into the village and as his auntie was preparing dinner for the family we wandered around. We went to his senior brother's home where we were welcomed to eat maize 'To' and okro stew with them (a traditional meal and favourite of Siaka)... once again we were invited to eat dinner and have tea with Siaka's fathers family (even though we were completely stuffed). After the sun went down the Burkinabe violin, n'goni, and calabash (used for drumming) came out and Siaka and his fam jammed for hours under the most brilliant stars. We sat and listened in awe of this incredible talented family.. and then we busted a move showing our fave Ghanian moves (the kids thought obrunis doing African dance was hilarious) until it was time to head back (to check up on our sickly Marissa). I remember one point Rachael and I looked at each other with the same face of disbelief, both thinking "are we actually here?" That night was my favourite experience on the trip. Siaka and his family were so open and welcoming (and asked for nothing in return.) It was probably the most honest experience I had on the trip.

Bus to Segou. Beautiful city but SO expensive... we found out later that most of Mali is expensive. From Segou we hopped on a bus and were dropped of at an intersection in the middle of nowhere to find a bus to Djenne. The second bus was actually a pick up truck with benches packed with people and with luggage towering on top. I thought that at any second the truck would topple over but we made it!! The drive in was spectacular with the rice fields at the road side and the sun setting as we were ferried over to the mud city.

Djenne is one of the World Heritage sites. It is a city made entirely out of mud structures including the oldest mud-structure mosque (made in 97 AD). It was beautiful seeing the urban environment that existed centuries ago. Equally as staggering was the amount of obruni tourists. Marissa fittingly named it Adult Disneyland. This city (like many other parts of the country) has been completely overtaken by the tourism industry (NB: I am fully aware that I am a participant in this industry). While people have maintained their ways of life in places like Djenne and Pays Dogon, tourism seems to be a central livelihood for most of the population. Everyone is a guide, trying to persuade you to go here, go there, stay at their friend/uncle/brother's place for a cheap price. "Cadeaux" are expected after the simplest thing like putting a bag on the roof of a car. Prices themselves are never set.. in Ghana usually people will double the price but in Mali traders start bargaining at a price 8 or 10 times higher than the original price. By the time we left we were pretty jaded about Mali but in retrospect I have to wonder about the implications of the tourism industry invading peoples lives for over 60 years. That having foreigners constantly flow in and out of their living space to peer and prod at their lives, demanding for "authenticity", to learn and take their secrets, stories and histories only to present it to their friends and families as their adventure to the exotic.. I suppose this can only lead to the people demanding reciprocation. Of course the people would want to benefit from the alienation from their past, present and future. And what can westerners give? MONEY... there goes the capitalist cycle. I can't show them our way of life, trade with them our stories (do we have any or are we living stories created by marketers who determine our lives and lifestyle by telling us what we want to buy??), so I dash them a cadeaux of a couple of CFA, maybe throw in a cheesy Canadian flag pen, and a couple of sweets... but this is hardly an adequate and fair exchange. While I can go back to work and earn back that money I gave, I doubt the people of Djenne will ever be able to return to living uninterrupted lives.

We left from Djenne to Pays Dogon, a part of Mali made up of hundreds of small villages that have maintained their traditional way of living (with the exception of the constant influx of tourists). It is also the original home of the Tellem people (more popularly known as Pigme) who were pushed out by the Dogon. What is particularly intriguing about the Tellem is their living space, cave-like structures found in the cliff escarpment. Anthropologists say that there were probably vines that allowed them to climb up and avoid fatal encounters with the wildlife. We spent three days trekking from one village to the next, occasionally going up the escarpment to check out Tellem settlements. While Dogon villages and the Tellem homes were very interesting and beautiful in their own right, most of our stories of this trip are about our very special guide, Dafou. Everyone told us to take our time finding a guide and to bargain like no other, and we followed the advice well... so we thought. He even wrote out a contract! But within an hour of our travels to get to Pays Dogon he broke the contract by inviting another obruni along... This actually worked out in our favour because the other tourist was an awesome new friend, Raja, from England whom we had MANY laughs with, especially laughs over Dafou and his antics. Dafou was not amused by our inquiries on Dogon astrology (central to Dogon spirituality). He would obviously make up information as he went along and would take us on 17 km walks that mysteriously only took an hour.. My favourite Dafou quote is "Life is good... when you are in life." Whaaaaat??? What does that even mean? Raja asked "So then life would be bad if you are not in life?" Dafou responded, "Precisely." Ahahaha, amazing.

We sadly parted ways with Raja before heading to Mopti. We were feeling tired of being tourists so we planned on chilling out for a couple of days in Mopti before heading to Bamako to ring in the new year in the capital. Buuuuut in Mopti we met some students from the University of Ghana who convinced us that Timbuktu (yes, it's a real place) was worth the hike getting up there, and helped us out by hooking us with a trusted guide and telling us the prices they paid (and the prices they should have paid), so no less than 24 hours later we found ourselves on a "pinasse" (aka a rice cargo boat) en route to "the middle of nowhere".

The boat ride itself was an adventure.. for two days and two nights we were on this cargo boat, sleeping, eating, chilling on top of rice sacs, with Malian and foreign passengers. Beautiful views. Absolutely peaceful.
My favourite part was the treacherous journey to the toilets that Redge and I decided was like being in a video game. First of all you had to seriously amp yourself up to begin the journey. First level was getting from your sleeping area to the back of the boat. You had to jump over the cooking pit, crawl over the rice sacs, small children, and sleeping bodies, squeeze between the extra cargo at the back to emerge into the back half of the boat. Level two, in the back pit sat the engines below whirring and spinning away, while you stand on a plank with the ultimate destination staring you in the face only 20 feet away the most difficult and life-threatening part of the path lays in between you and your goal. Walk the plank (literally a 2x4 that sat precariously over the open pit) to the edge of the boat, psyche yourself to shimmy along the edge of the boat (careful not to fall into the murky waters of the Niger river or fall into the engines) towards the very back where another plank sat. At this point you had to hop from the plank onto a wood pole, swing your legs over and jump to the bottom of the boat to do your business in a hole cut out of the bottom of the boat. Amazing.

Timbuktu -- the end of the world? the middle of nowhere?... Redge and I kept on asking eachother. "Where are we? "At the edge of the Sahara Desert?" "In Timbuktu?" "On a camel?" "Watching the sunset while chilling on a sand dune??" Our whole time there was so surreal. The city itself isn't to magical but you can tell that the people are proud to be residents of this mysterious city. We met some kids who were young aspiring hip hop artists (who Rachael was stoked to meet as an avid hip hop head.. as she sees it hip hop reaches out to anyone who is trying to survive the struggle, even kids in Timbuktu) who were not only really talented but were writing positive and conscious lyrics. Rachael shared with them her song about uranium mining in indigenous land. It was hilarious trying to understand each other with my broken Anglophone Quebecois French. They were generous with their time and open to hearing our thoughts and Rachaels song. Chilling with these kids was honest and real which was something we had been missing.

We happened to be in Timbuktu to ring in the new year!! Rachael and I, along with Sam, Sophie (French), Steph and Ken (American), our new friends from the boat, went to a bar across the street from the hotel and ended up sitting with the owner, Abu, a Tuareg (the nomadic people who live in the desert and conduct the trade across the Sahara Desert) who has lived all over the world. After the non-existant countdown, Abu, his friend Franc, Redge and I headed into the desert in his 4WD and sat under the desert stars on the sand and talked about roots. The desert was the perfect place to reflect on the happenings of 2008.
(I should mention how excited I was getting to talk to my girls on NYE09! Sloppiness aside, it was good to hear their voices)

The next night the six of us went on a sunset camel ride into the Sahara desert. It was absolutely incredible! Camels are hilarious, so goofy looking. My camel, Abizo, kept groaning, clearly he was unimpressed that he had been stuck with such an amateur. The sunset was spectacular. Again, the entire expedition was so surreal.
We had a rude awakening the next morning as we began our journey back to "civilization" crammed in the back of a sweaty, dusty, cramped 4WD.. I've decided that the hellish ride back is a rite of passage for anyone who dares enter Timbuktu.
Redge and I made our way down to Bamako where we had just enough money left to get the cheapest beer available and check out the most coveted music scene in all of Mali for our last hurrah of the trip.

FYI I've moved out of Accra and into my new hometown on the coast, Takoradi! I'm working for the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (the national human rights institution, Ombdsman, and agency for anti-corruption in the public sector).. I'm just at the observational stage right now. One of my co-workers has invited me to stay with her (thank goodness!) and I'm planning on using and abusing the beach as much as humanly possible!

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