Rose tints and road flints
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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In the little village Djenne, every footstep ignites a tiny powdery puff of bone-dry earth.
Little boys run, spangly-legged, chasing a mis-shapen football, laughing, shouting, small exploding clouds of heel dust stretching out into intermingling pitter-patter powder trails, criss-crossing over and around the ping-ponging plastic sphere.
The mosque of mosques casts a shadow-shifting red-brown backdrop.
Not a smooth, sheen, highly polished edifice, pouting with import as they do through the Middle East.
This building is rough, hewn. Mud-cast. Rounded at all sides. It is the epitome of Sahel architecture, of a region stretching from the Red Sea across Africa, in a thin swathe to the Atlantic, the transition zone between the Sahara Desert and the beginning of Africa's vast savannahs to its south.
It is the Djenne Grand Mosque. The edifice that helped fuel the desert architectural ideas of half a dozen Star Wars movies.
But this is no home to Jabba the Hutt, rather an iconic World Heritage construction, commonly known as the largest mud building in the world.
Thin pyramidic towers, squared and triangular, extrude up, above the perimeter walls, themselves bedecked with mini-turrets - all the internal walls are transfixed with tree trunks that jut out, often up to a metre, casting lines and lines of elegant shadow, hundreds of sun dials. Architecturally distinct, functionally supporting ladders needed each year for repairs after the rainy season.
Outside the palace of earth and calm, in the dusty paths, the luminescent reds of the last rays of the sun explode, refracting in the orbs of hovering dust balls, then retreat as the fine floating grains of earth succumb to gravity.
A flat horizon pushes shadows impossibly long. Traditional African cloth, bright and earthy blues, browns, whites, reds, yellows, in a never-ending pattern of patterns, repeated, repeated, are wrapped in loose folds around statuesque women.
A ramrod back, shoulders straight, head held high, neck elegantly tautened, having been taught at childhood to carry pails, goods and firewood stacked high on her crown.
The perfect posture lends a beguiling haughtiness to her casual village 'float' across the sand, not a walk by walk's name at all.
Her wrap catches the dying rays threading down thin, straight lanes, before she moves into the darkening shadow of the next building, a sultry, muted stroll in almost duotone before she crosses the next sunlit intersection, and radiates again.
Matisse, Monet and Cezanne eat your hearts out.
The sun retires, hurrying and scurrying the shadows to early meals and bed.
Closish to the equator, the twilight will not linger long.
Sit on a closed store step and watch greying life flitter by.
A man sits on a similar step 5m away. We notice, but do not take notice of each other, safe in our own cocoons.
A nattering begins. He is reading earnestly from a hand-hewn plank some 40cm x 20cm x 1cm.
He is reading aloud, to himself, beneath a dim exterior light in a street, a village, without street lights.
A tablet of scripture, the words, verses, are chanted in schooled fashion.
Another man sits alongside the chanter, and begins his own song from his own tablet. Soon half a dozen are huddled under the little shop light, swaying ever so slightly, muttering, mumbling, barely audibly, discordantly, with different words, different inflections and voice, yet in curiously comfortable tandem.
A different murmur slowly fills the broader air. Dozens of voices percolate through the still of the set sun, a still rarely found outside an African village. Dozens, audibly within a 50m radius, are reading scripture. Did the village hush for this moment?
Sotto voce, a capella, a dusty, drifting sonata is played out from the same grand, grand symphony, sometimes voices meeting, mostly not, but forming a unified hymn of contentment.
Twenty minutes, and the Koran choir recedes into the last gasps of grey-purple, harkening the darkness with a prayer to peace, with phrases I can only guess at, yet doubtless giving thanks for another day well lived, blessing all those fortunate enough to have heard, even listened, and probably for all those out of earshot as well.
Some discoveries are beyond measure.
Djenne, nearing the end of my Mali excursion is a flat, mud town, like so many of Mali's villages, but with a graceful sense of curves in all its thin paths. The buildings are all mud, hand made, hand patted, leaving rounded curves at the ends of family home walls.
The upper edges of the walls are rounded. Mud does not like sharp edges.
Gentle on the eye, rough to hand, chalky dry to foot, sweet to ear, a little town with a melody of its own.
Segou, a few hours down the road, is the river village to Mopti's river town. Mopti, the geographical and transport centre of Mali is a throughstop for flotillas of goods and peoples, as well as convoys of trucks.
Segou is a tributary of humanity, stretched long and slow along the flat Niger River banks.
There is nothing to see in Segou. It is an end-of-trip town.
Earlier, Timbuktu concert-goers had complained at its 'nothingness'. Rushing into the country on intercontinental flights, desperately seeking 'it', they first rode into ... a river village. Not for them, that rave-festive hungry mob.
Perhaps they felt differently on the way back, for a place to lean back, stretch the legs under a riverside tree and watch families bathing, reams of sheets and clothes washed and laid out, silently poled canoes sliding into and out of eyeshot.
Harsh African reality does raise its head out of the languidity. A curse of Africa.
A mountain of firewood is stacked along the river bank, offloaded from a steady stream of craft of differing sizes.
There is no firewood nearby. It has to be brought in. Miles and miles up and down this river, large stacks lie on banks in front of little villages, while the long boats chug by, axes raised on high.
How long has it been too far for the children of the families to go themselves and search for fuel?
An early 1990s Mercedes Benz drives up to the stack. An expensive, shined brown shoe steps out, followed by an expensive lilac and white robe adorning a well-built gent sporting pricey sunglasses.
He opens his trunk, and a firewood attendant piles it full of logs.
He has not popped down to the local store to set himself up for a barbecue.
"I live on the edge of town. There is no power. This is for supper, and morning coffee."
The firewood will run out, no matter how many Mercedes Benzes people drive, a make of mobile ubiquitous to Mali.
No matter where you go, you are forced to suffer the 'call of the Dogon', a portion of country imbued with unique animism, spiritual past, jagged cliff landscape, and wood sculpture perhaps equalled, though bested by none.
The 'I want to be your guide' song proliferates in Mali, and is sung none so strong as for this small area in the east.
Most visitors buy in, pay up, and go for their 3-5 day hike.
But by the time my potential time comes about, I am so full of offers, that my perversity rears its little head, a stubbornness borne of repetitive request syndrome.
I had been hit on so many times, maybe 100, "to go", that I just 'do a Nancy' and "say no".
"But monsieur, le sunsets, le montaine ..."
Jaja. No, no. Dogon, doggone it, begone.
Reports sing its praises for sunsets and cliffs. And also reveal paths overrun with traipsing prattlers ... and repetitive village and cliff-top syndrome.
I guess I missed a fine sunset.
Most of the best pieces of sculpture have long since found private homes and museum shelves abroad ... as Bamako's National Museum demonstrates.
The bush taxis that run between these towns, departing when full, more regularly than buses, carry an uncomfortable amusement of their own.
Mostly Renault station wagons. Ten passengers inside with bags at rear and atop.
Visibly the chassis seems to buckle. Two in the front passenger seat, then four and four in seats bucketed for three and three.
Locked not hip to hip, rather hip to thigh to hip to thigh, the unlucky one lands up sitting in the thin metal strut beneath the least cushioned part of the seat. Moving an inch sideways means all move an inch sideways.
Balancing on the metal strut, on one's coccyx, over the lumpy bumpy roads is a spine-tingling exercise.
Two surfer acquaintances, a South African in Hong Kong and an Australian in Indonesia have both suffered broken coccyxes. The story goes one, mildly cupped, slipped on a piece of soap in a kitchen (the number of cups is in dispute) while the other got himself dumped ungraciously on a coral reef.
Both, however, attest that the result is one of excruciating pain and immobility, not helpful in my current trade.
Bamako, the capital of Mali, wakes to a low filtered sun, similar to the one that sets over Djenne. The western side of the city is low-slung, one or two storeyed at most.
The sun dapples through the trees, picking out people stumbling from their front doors, on to the pavements, splashing their faces, stretching, bending to light little braziers to kick-start their day with a shot of caffeine.
Bags and bags of charcoal replace firewood. Strategic street corners are stacked with the sacks that chimney-sweep types with sooty face masks break down into smaller packets to fire up the little family cookers.
Bamako brings with it a personal brood of its own.
I have been dancing with the devil, and had my tail burnt.
Pondering long and hard, for years, about the impending malaria zone in Africa, I opted for my tried and trusted approach (or at least survived approach) of 'take a bit of care, and opt for the cure' - having already walked the 'bad air' path more times than the fingers on my hands.
The theory is simple.
The female Anopheles mosquito sucks a bit of blood out of somebody with malaria. Then she pops along to you, inserts her proboscis to do the same, and her anti-coagulant saliva helps a malaria parasite or two slip into your system.
Between 10 days and two weeks later, bad things begin to happen.
So it was pack the pocket with the necessary pills, and gung ho, cowboy, let's see if you can handle another dose.
Varieties of the body wrencher from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Horn Island (Northern Australia) have all taken residence.
A Hong Kong hospital laboratory technician thanked me profusely for bringing him his first 'falciparium' sample, a particularly nasty little bugger, the week that old standby, Fansidar, didn't pull off its curative trick.
The curveball in the malaria game is the drug resistant areas around the world. Changing resistance to different drugs all the time.
The final gasp real anti-malarial, artenusate, has already experienced resistance in Cambodia.
But I don't feel like taking prophylaxis for six months, it is the dry season, my chances are marginally better, so let's get on the bronco.
But it is a dangerous strategy - around 1,000,000 die from malaria each year, most in sub-Saharan Africa! Globally only diarrhoea kills more, over 2,000,000, mostly children.
A bit over two weeks after the three-day trip up the river to Timbuktu, the tongue starts going a bit numb, the lips get a metallic tinge: what did I eat, what did I kiss? Toothpaste doesn't help.
It is an asymptomatic disease. Roughly flu-like to begin with. With a graph from hell. Three days of worsening flu. If not dealt with by then, or soon after, big, big trouble arrives. In a non-lethal worst-case scenario, you eventually feel like you have been beaten all over the body, inside and out, very, very gently with a baseball bat, over and over and over and over ... for a very long time.
Spaciness sneaks into my brain. A nice dizziness. No sweats, no chills. Just a distraction, an old memory. Sit up and take notice.
Deliriums between sleep patches are entertaining, but carry a warning. Something is going wrong, or is it the trippy pastisse?
The next day, floating down the road, and the sweat bursts, like walking through Victoria Falls mist.
Okay, buddy, let's get serious.
But tomorrow there is a bastard of a 24-hour flight to Addis Ababa, with a 15 hour layover in Nairobi's notoriously un-airconditioned airport nigh on the equator.
Not good for this matter.
Take a dose of the cure, and tuck in a few antibiotics on the side that help the process.
Let's change flight. Get money.
The only bank with an ATM in town is not working.
Is my bank, HSBC, playing it's 'security' tricks again by blocking access to my account from a strange country?
Float down to find a 'cabinet telephonique'. Enter the uncomfortably warm box, and feel overcome by nausea.
I'd forgotten that the antibiotic's "plastic capsules" make me nauseous on an empty stomach.
Stumble out, sit on a dusty pavement wall, and watch my stomach contents soak into the sand, spattering on to my sandals.
Half an hour, I sit, broken. Pathetic. The shopkeeper comes out and shoes me off.
I slink away, huddle down behind a barrow topped with $1 sunglasses, and dribble empty.
Yep, who said life on the road was all roses and fried egg sandwiches.
Suck deep on fresh air, deeeeeep. And recover. At least enough to get home, sweat drenched, stenched. Mission a failure. And more importantly, I have lost hours of medicine, as doubtless had lost most of the medication.
But ride your luck and find an angel.
A Scottish-isle-faced Mancunian, transplanted to France, whom I have dearly befriended over Mali's adventure, walks through the hostel gates, in from her own Dogon adventure.
She whips out her phone, I charge it up, phone Hong Kong, organise the cash machine, change the ticket, take another set of pills, German produced Artesunate and Fansidar. She pats my brow.
I owe the Madame of Le Bussiere a big hug of thanks. She gets it.
The flight change overstays the visa by a day. It takes 3 days to extend. Impossible.
"Please Mr Customs man ...? "
Don't expect to walk down a long road without at least stumbling over a few pebbles.
But it could be worse. Far worse.
I could be a Mali woman. Eighty five percent suffer some form of genital mutilation.
Welcome to the world of FGM (female genital mutilation), anywhere from a male-like circumsicive snip, to a major gouge of organ and flaps, and then the piece de resistance - infibulation, when it is all sewn up to allow only a meagre trickle of fluid.
And you think I've got problems.
Central, western and north-eastern Africa is rife with the practice, as is some of the Middle East and a scattering of other small zones. It comes under the auspices of tradition, womanhood, religion, health ...
You name it, the practitioners have a reason.
Watch the women walk, then remember, and wince.
I receive an email from a female Dogon trekker, who once made a BBC documentary on the subject, and who had offered me a lot of insights into the matter.
"I saved the circumcision conversation (with the young guide) for the last day and had a little chuckle to myself when I saw how shocked he was that we don't practice circumcision in the West.
'But why don't you practice female circumcision?' he asked me with a look of total disbelief on his face,
'The question, my dear fellow, is not why we don't, but why you people do...'
I replied and left him pondering for quite a while before subjecting him to a very lengthy explanation of why 'we' consider it to be mutilation, the health implications, the lack of sexual pleasure for women and the fact that in the majority of countries female circumcision is an imprisonable offence."
Cultural fences, gates, hurdles, misunderstandings, history ... a hell of a place to disentangle.
Bamako vents itself on more tourists.
Two Spanish woman are dropped off 100m from the guesthouse, on a dark, one-way road which the taxi driver will not navigate at 1am. 20m from home a car pulls up, three military men get out, demand ID, and try and force the women into the car. A tug of war ensues. The passports, they say, are in the hostel. The men use this as an excuse to manhandle the duo. One slips away, running to the locked gate.
A passerby flits through the shadows; the men throw the Spanish ID cards on the ground and drive off.
A na´ve American boy, in Mali to build a school for a village that didn't know it was getting a school, probably didn't want one, or it would have built one itself, and who couldn't resolve the ensuing internal combustion of who was going to profit from the school, stands at a street corner to take a photograph of the sunset.
A passing motorcyclist sees the amateur flash, U-turns, calls out that the 'boy' has broken a fairly serious, informal Mali rule of taking of picture of a person without permission.
"Give me the camera."
Boy jumps, fight ensues, boy breaks free, dashes to hostel. Enraged man shakes the gates, rattles and roars. Bystanders roar with him.
Police are called. The man loses face, and is found to be a bounder and potential thief.
It's not all bad, 99% is amazing. Anybody care to come and join me for a holiday?