Fiya island, Niger River, Mali, January 2007. Ibrahim nous fait faire le tour de son fief, en plein milieu du fleuve Niger. Un pur descendant du grand empire Songhai du 15e siècle, il fait la navette entre Gao où il a une maison et un magasin, et cette petite île où habitent ses trois femmes.

Ibrahim, a tall, young, yet imposing, man, with a pitch black face, and a glistening mauve boubou, of Bazin quality of course, noblesse oblige, a true descendant of the great Songhai empire of the 15th century. Timbuktu, Djenné, Gao were thriving under them – I could well see him fighting against the Bambaras in the great rebellion of the 1990s. Very little of these events trickled in the news, but, after initial truces in both Mali and Niger, things have flared up again. It’s a universal phenomenon, a minority – in this case, Tuaregs – is marginalized in both countries by the ruling tribes and most governments of the region except Libya, further they are decimated by desertification and the droughts of the 80s, so they want better integration and more autonomyA man of importance, with a store and a house in 160 km away Gao, and three wives on the small island of Fiya on the Niger River. He took us around his fief by pirogue, because a large part of the island was still under water. A boy came to fetch us, first, we were afraid the frail pirogue would overturn with the five of us, while the boy pushed with a pole Ibrahim had to scoop, then we got stuck in the myriad roots of the thick water vegetation, and had to continue on foot while the lightened pirogue made a big detour, the water was not deep, it felt like silt and I hoped we would not step on some thorn or the like, my companion told me later she had seen several water snakes, it was pretty, though, with lots of water-lilies, that visit cost us our pants as they became sticky and black, to keep the pirogues water-tight they brush over the wood with used motor oil…


Ber, Niger River, Mali, January 2007.

Quatre jours sur le fleuve Niger, dérivant dans des pinasses parfois privées parfois publiques, une expérience inoubliable. La famille du capitaine vient de nous approvisionner en légumes.

Four days on the Niger in a pinasse. We met a hippopotamus (Mali means hippopotamus in the Bambara language), I mean we spotted his open mouth before he dove into the water, but watched at leisure hundreds of kingfishers nesting on the small cliffs of sand. The great desert has reached the shore, eating ten percent of the river in the past thirty years. To try stop it, they have now planted eucalyptus and Doum palm trees – two species resistant to termites – at the cost of millions of Euros. Eating we did too, fish in tomato sauce made tastier from the water the cook took directly from the river with the same scoop he used for the boat whenever he thought we did not see him. “If we don’t eat at each opportunity, Africa will eat us”, kept repeating our host Michel, founder of a non-profit organization setting up vegetable gardens in Mali and Niger (headquartered on the small island of Fiya), and co-author of illustrated books on the culture of the region. He kept feeding us stories, some funny like his theory about the submissiveness of the Africans – Western babies are transported in carriages, pushed in the front row where they are exposed to all the risks of life, and stay with the mouth open, African babies instead are carried on the back of their mothers, passively shielded from the outside dangers, they don’t see anything.


Fiya island, Niger River, Mali, January 2007.

Ferrying from Fiya to Temera to catch the east-bound public pinasse to Bourem and Gao. In spite of a huge Caterpillar engine, it took us 7 hours to cover 65 km. Simple, every time anybody would lift his/her arm on any bank, any island, anywhere, the boat would veer and go get him/her, can’t miss a fare, many times we could not get close to the shore because of sand banks or water vegetation, so a pirogue had to bring the new passengers on, and it was so slow, often it was not just one person, and there were invariably lots of luggage, at one point they loaded over twenty new burlap bags, and each time we were pushed to the side and up, as the bags rose at the bottom of the boat, on top of it we had the eastern wind against us, covering us with spindrift. At Bourem the rivers turns south, and it was night and the wind abated completely, the boat did not make one stop, and we sped peacefully towards Gao, which lights we could see reverberating on the dark ceiling a couple of hours before arriving.


Djenné, Mali, January 2007. Rien ne vaut utiliser les transports publics pour sentir le pays … et faire des connaissances.

Traveling the local way. That same early morning we had waited at the Mopti pick-up station for a ride to Djenné. A woman had put the TV on, with blasting salsa music to wake up the drivers, some sleeping in their cars, some on the ground. Soon a West African soap opera came on, with two women hitting each other and falling on the floor, a noisy and hilarious crowd amassed in front of the TV. Towering over them all was a tall, portly old man with a long, embroidered pale grey boubou and a pale orange keffieh, ah, and a metal cane, well, all this paraphernalia showed he was a marabout, those wise men who have made it to Mecca and have a deeper knowledge of the Koran. Outside, two men were having a row about a car. I went across the dyke road, right by the swamp, facing the mosque and the old town. The sun was coming up in the haze of the ever-present harmattan, a peaceful, orange morning. A jeep with two Europeans zipped by, chauffeured by a Malian, it occurred to me money is the best way to ruin an experience, traveling the public way is a fantastic way to see real life and real people, not the tourist touts – and as a bonus to discover the real you – at the rhythm of a country, I mean real countries not decadent ones where public life has been minimized, and to think it costs you less to travel that way, it’s like I would pay to use a bike over a car whenever I could, or the stairs instead of the elevator, so much better for your health, man is crazy, but travel-wise, people don’t have time, the most precious loss of the modern man, and they are mostly interested in monuments and landscapes, and folklore, so, speed is of the essence. Waiting time included, it took us over three hours to cover the 120 km to Djenné, and, cramped with six Malians in a Peugeot station wagon, we enjoyed every minute of it.


Bamako, Mali, January 2007.  Notre famille d’accueil, hospitalière, amusante, laborieuse, pleine d’histoires, d’idées, de cadeaux.

Danaya and Esther made our 4-day stay in the Malian capital memorable. During the day we talked and ate. He was a malaria specialist M.D. and believed in village spirits, she was a trained nurse and loved to cook and dress. She made a lettuce, tomato, onion, egg, potato salad with vinaigrette, after two weeks in camel-Mauritania we craved for fresh vegetables, she washed the lettuce in chlorine, then thoroughly rinsed it. A few years ago she had gotten typhoid from eating raw vegetables in her family’s village, she stayed four months in bed because they thought she had malaria. Then she took us to the market see the fabrics, she was very good with dresses, showed us several of her collection, truly beautiful, with intricate fabrics, colors, and designs. The best one and most cherished by West Africans was the Bazin, a tough, shiny fabric worn on special occasions. When she saw on TV a dress worn by an actress she liked, she would look for the fabric and go to a tailor, Bamako tailors were also keenly following TV so they knew who wore what and could easily reproduce any model worn by any actress.At night she watched endlessly the same Bollywood movie on CD with her little sisters, it was an enchanted story and she proceeded to recount it for us at great detail. I was amazed at her memory till I realized she must have watched the thing at least a dozen times, as soon as she finished the second part, she started again from the beginning.

The last morning, Esther went inside her room, asked for my help, and took out of a suitcase stacked on her armoire a dark blue fabric with joyful red and yellow designs, then she hauled us to her tailor, we found him in a small room with two knitting machines. In just the remaining of the day, Mr. Suri and his assistant made a dress for my companion, and a shirt for me, out of this 3-meter long piece, very well done and sturdy. That was Esther’s childhood neighborhood where her parents still lived. She was going to miss us, we too, so difficult to keep friendships at a great distance.