Kayes & Western Mali, Oct 31 - Nov 1, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

It turned out to be an easy and hassle-free border crossing into Mali at Diboli.  Shortly afterwards we found a campsite surrounded by Baobab trees in a characteristically Sahelian Landscape just before dusk. 
Mali is West Africa's largest country in area and one of Africa's rather few stable democratic governments, something that makes it a favorite of western countries and a large recipient of foreign aid.  It's still one of the world's poorest countries (fourth poorest by one measure), so democracy is not necessarily an economic panacea.  Perhaps democracy results in better governance less petty corruption, though, as demonstrated by few hassles or request for bribes at police checkpoints in Mali. 
The following morning we drove into Kayes, the main city in western Mali and allegedly one of the hottest cities in Africa.  Kayes is also described as a real dump in the guidebooks.  From my observations I'd buy the "hottest city" designation, but Kayes otherwise didn't strike me as a particularly unpleasant place.  The population in western Mali is supposedly mostly of the Malinke and Soninke tribes, but it was difficult to communicate with the people here, and I didn't find out much about them.  Several cook groups did their shopping at the crowded market, one filled with women all dressed in spectacularly bright colored dresses with matching head covers, all looking perfectly washed and pressed with neither a speck of dust showing on their outfits nor a bead of sweat in evidence on their skins. 
Meanwhile, there we were, walking through the market looking like pathetic refugees after not having bathed or shaved in several days.  The locals thinking to themselves and discussing with each other, "I don't get it - white people are supposed to be so sophisticated.  Why are they all in dirty clothes, smelly, and covered in dust?" 
The market was vibrant, and hassle free and the people quite friendly in a city that gets almost no tourists.  Being in the fourth poorest country in the world, I was surprised how few beggars there were in Mali outside of a few tourist spots and how little true destitution there was in this Muslim society where alms giving is such an important part of the religion. 
My job here was to find ice to keep drinks in the truck's cooler cold and to replenish our beer supplies.  I met an English speaker on the market square who tried to sell me some trinkets, and enlisted his help in finding beer.  He led me off through narrow alleyways and obstacle courses in the form of open sewers to the town's beer store behind the Christian church.  "What, 1,500 CFAs for a bottle of beer?  That's over $3.00.  Forget it!"  My English speaking buddy served as translator between me and the beer merchant but in the end he wouldn't negotiate much.  Failed mission! 
We stopped for lunch and a little sightseeing at Fort de Medine, part of a chain of defensive posts built by the French along the Senegal River in colonial times.  The fort was an interesting a picturesque historical sight perched picturesquely above the river and undergoing extensive restoration with foreign aid funds.  However, it was so excruciatingly hot I found it hard to find much pleasure in anything other than lounging on some rocks in the shade of a narrow gorge until it was time to be on our way. 
We drove a few hours east from Kayes on a well paved road, a route that even recent guidebooks describe as being a particularly atrocious trek that takes many days and many tires.  Although improvements to the road system, funded largely by foreign aid, undoubtedly are a boon to the country's economy and make for a more pleasant travel experience, I can't help but feel a loss in not experiencing that "Real Africa" feeling of roughing it to the max in thoroughly inhospitable terrain.  We found a campsite in a hilly area of open woodland and were immediately visited by a group of pastoralists of uncertain origin.  They didn't speak and English or French, but my best guess was that they were Fulani, members of West Africa's widely dispersed semi-nomadic tribe of cattle herders.  They were thrilled to have their pictures taken and then see their images in our digital cameras' display screens.

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